Man sitting on mountain cliff in solitude

Excerpt from Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love, a book that offers valuable guidance on the big issues in life. 

You should spend time alone. I don’t just mean minutes and hours, but days and, if the opportunity presents itself, weeks. Time spent alone returns to you a hundredfold, because it is the proving ground of the spirit. You quickly find out if you are at peace with yourself or if the meaning of your life is found only in the superficial affairs of the day. And if it is in the superficial affairs of the day, the time spent alone will throw you back upon yourself in a way that will make you grow in wisdom and inner strength.

This is no small discovery. We can easily fill our days with activity. We buy, we sell, we move from place to place. There is always more to be done; there is always a way to keep from staring into the still pool where life is beyond the chatter of the small affairs of the mind. If we’re not careful, we begin to mistake this activity for meaning. We turn our lives into a series of tasks that can occupy all the hours of the clock and still leave us breathless with our sense of work left undone.

And always there is work undone. We will die with work undone. There’s no sense in trying to defeat the labours of life. They are endless. Better that you should accept the rhythms of life and know that there are times when you need to stop to draw a breath, no matter how great the labours are before you.

Though this may sound mystical and abstract, the universe has an eternal hum that runs beyond our individual birth and death. It’s a hum that’s hard to hear through the louder and closer noise of our daily lives. It’s the unity that transcends us all and, as much as possible, reconciles us to the reality and inevitability of our deaths. It makes us part of something larger.

This knowledge can only be experienced fully in the vast intimacy of solitude. For many people, solitude is just a poet’s word for being alone. But being alone, in itself, is nothing. It can be a breeding ground of loneliness as easily as a breeding ground of solitude. Solitude is a condition of peace that stands in direct opposition to loneliness.

Loneliness is like sitting in an empty room and being aware of the space around you. It’s a condition of separateness. Solitude is becoming one with the space around you. It is a condition of union. Loneliness is small, solitude is large. Loneliness closes in around you; solitude expands toward the infinite. Loneliness has its roots in words, in an internal conversation that nobody answers; solitude has its roots in the great silence of eternity.

Most people fear being alone because they understand only loneliness. They feel that unless the world presents them with a mirror in the form of another person responding to them, they are close to annihilation. Without their own reflection they become afraid, even frantic. The world is comfortable to them only as long as they are the centre of their understanding. When they are alone, nothing ratifies their existence because no one responds to them.

Solitude is about being at peace with the fabric of existence. It’s about getting the “I” out of the centre of your thoughts so that other parts of life can be experienced in their fullness. All this takes place in the still, clear space where we cease to think in words and our hopes and memories cease to define the limits of our thoughts. Some people are closer to this space than others. Some have already found it through hours of reverie in their childhood.

Others have discovered it through enforced loneliness that somehow burst forth into a sunshine of understanding. Others have spent their lives in frantic activity and have never even known it exists. But we can all reach it. We just need to carve for ourselves that space in time when no one can get to us and no one can take us out of the largeness of our reverie. As you become older, surrounded by family and responsibility, this becomes harder and harder, if not impossible. But as a young person, you need only to claim that time as important for itself and go off to the places
where the emptiness echoes and the silence sings.

Though these places can be found anywhere, nature is the clearest bringer of solitude. Even in the company of others, nature’s greatness can overwhelm the insignificant chatter by which we measure most of our days. If you have the wisdom and courage to go to nature alone, the larger rhythms, the eternal hum, will make itself known all the sooner. And when you have found it, it will always be there for you, wherever you find yourself. The peace without becomes a peace within, and you can return to it as you need it, because you know where to find it in your heart.

For most of us the search involves a grinding of the gears as we slow from hurried to quiet to still to peaceful. We have to pass through a period of loneliness where minutes hang like weights in front of us and we bang frantically against the edges of our thoughts. But it is worth the struggle. Slowly, inexorably, we emerge into the ultimate quiet of solitude. It is like stepping forth into a multi-hued garden of flowers and scents. We’re miles from the sharp edges and harsh scratchings of daily affairs. Our lives breathe anew. We’re in a place where we are beyond thoughts—where we hear each sound and feel each heartbeat; where we are present to each change of sunlight on the Earth around us, and we live in the awareness of the ongoing presence of life.

In this awareness the whole world changes around us. A tree ceases to be an object and becomes a living thing. We can smell its richness, hear its rustlings, sense its rhythms as it carries on its endless dance with the wind. Silence becomes a symphony. Time changes from a series of moments strung together to a seamless motion riding on the rhythms of the stars. Loneliness is banished, solitude is in full flower, and we are one with the pulse of life and the flow of time.

This awareness is priceless for the peace it can give. But it’s also the key to true loving in our relationships. When we have a part of ourselves that is firm, confident and alone, we don’t need another person to fill us. We know that we have private spaces full of goodness and self-worth, and we grant those we love the same. We do not try to pry into every corner of their lives or to fill the emptiness inside us with their presence.

People who don’t know solitude never understand this. They are obsessed with the loneliness in their lives. They make unrealistic demands on those they love because they look to them to fill this loneliness. In the name of love they smother those around them with their needs and expectations. They demand total absorption as part of a relationship, and they fear the freedom of those to whom they try to give their love.

In fact, what they want is for the people they love to conform to the shape of their own emptiness. The spaces in their lives, which should be rich, private sanctuaries, are really nothing more than vast longings waiting to be filled. The love they give becomes a bondage, and they never understand that their intentions, which are so pure, are sucking the life out of those for whom they care most. To be truly happy in life, you must learn the lesson of solitude. It’s not hard to learn. You must only learn to be still. You must resist the restlessness and the chatter and the clutter until you can break free into the space where time has no measure and longing ceases to exist. Be patient. Be accepting. Solitude is a place you reach, not a decision you make.

As always, look at the world around you. The mountain is not restless in its aloneness. The hawk tracing circles in the sky is not longing for union with the sun. They exist in the peace of an eternal present, and that is the peace that one finds only in solitude.

Find this place in yourself. Go to the places where solitude reigns. Drink in the lessons of the great silences, and you will never know another moment of loneliness in your life.

A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Kent Nerburn is the author of thirteen books on spirituality and Native American themes, including Simple TruthsNeither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce (featured on the History Channel). He lives in Minnesota and his website is www.kentnerburn.com.

This article was excerpted from the 20th Anniversary Edition of Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love. © 2014 New World Library.

image: asafantman (Creative Commons BY)

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