“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
-Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception)
Humans are social animals. Most of us love being around others, interacting, communicating, and sharing experiences with those that matter to us. Some of our best memories are usually experiences shared with other people. If you were to think back about your fondest memory from, let’s say high school, it is highly likely that the memory involves at least one more person. Moreover, being around people that we choose to do so also generally helps us garner a feeling of safety and amicability. However, when not surrounded by other people, one finds themselves in solitude. The intriguing thing about solitude is that experiences of solitude range from being absolutely terrifying to completely blissful. This may partially be explained by the internal and external conditions at hand, i.e. the objective surroundings, and one’s subjective experience.
Let us picture a scenario where you’re hosting a housewarming party at your new house. You just moved into this house only a week ago and thought it would be a great way to celebrate the moving-in. People start to pour in, glasses clink, the sounds of laughter trail across the living room, conversations are rampant, and one of your co-workers is also on their way of getting unnecessarily tipsy. Eventually, when everything is said and done and the night starts to come to a close, your friends start leaving and soon, you’re by yourself. As you notice the peculiar contrast between the hustle and bustle that had just been around you half an hour ago and the sound of silence now permeating your existence, you start to notice a slight uneasiness. Once again, it is just you in the house, and you may start to observe your worries and deadlines popping up in your head. However, there is popcorn on the floor, the wine glasses sit still on the ledge of the window begging to be cleaned, the floor needs to be mopped, and the dishes need to be placed in the dishwasher. Thus, to keep order in your mind, you can still engage in a plethora of goals before you finally decide to call it a day.
From what we have learnt so far, with goals glaring and you equipped with the knowledge and experience of entering a flow state, the path of enjoyment and engagement as opposed to an entropic state of mind where the desire to be around people surfaces over and over again until you eventually exhaust yourself and go to bed, is dependent on what route one decides to take. Let’s say that you would rather clean the remnants of the housewarming the next day, an eye tweaked to be aware of perceived challenges and goals never fails to find a way to be engaged, if one was motivated enough to do it.
As social animals, we eventually do seek out company, be it in-person (direct) or as the contemporary world now also allows, online (indirect). It is also known that it is harder to keep order in the mind form within, compared to ordering via the environment. When we are surrounded by people, there are demands placed on our attention and the environment aids the direction of our attention. However, in solitude, the demands of attention from the environment tend to wane away unless one was to actively seek out to engage in a particular task, which gives rise to entropy in the mind. This is also why watching the television has been one of the most favorable pastimes since its invention, as it acts as a source of stimuli that directs one’s attention, while not being too challenging of an activity.
One may now also have an answer to the question hiding in plain sight in the 21st century, i.e. why are people addicted to their smartphones? Smartphones tend to facilitate communication with people as well impose a demand on attention. As attention is now structured and information ordered, one manages to keep entropy away from the mind. However, passive leisure activities only help us be at ease and maintain order in the mind and do not contribute to our development or complexity in any way, shape, or form.
The good news here is that solitude can be tamed by structuring space and time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and one does not necessarily have to do the best they can to avoid it at all costs. One can personalize their surroundings with different areas of one’s home dedicated to a particular task. Just like the kitchen is for cooking, the corner by the window in your room could be one meant for reading. Similarly, the lone couch in the backyard could be one where you generally pen down your thoughts or fill out your journal, and the front garden where you tend to plants every third day. As you find yourself in these environments, demands on attention are placed that beckon you to carry out these tasks, in turn ordering the contents of your mind as you start to engage in a task and gradually slip into a flow state.
Even more than structuring physical space helps structuring time. Popular culture may impose a negative connotation on a ‘routine’ and describe it as boring and lacking life and spontaneity, structuring your day in a balanced way that has room for work, leisure, as well as self-maintenance is one of the golden ways of always having goals at hand, and fostering order and balance in the mind. Ofcourse, it would not really be fun and games if one was to stick to the clock by the minute and get frustrated if ‘everything did not go according to plan’, however allowing oneself with appropriate margins and having order in one’s routine can really help one improve the quality of one’s lives.
What you have to do!
As we’ve now reached Week #7, we hope that you have found your way of being engaged in your chosen activity and continue to develop your skills as increase your level of challenge. For this week’s journal entry, we ask you to pen down your thoughts when you find yourself in solitude. Once done, you may also want to note down the number of tasks and goals at hand that you can possibly engage in. Ask yourself how it would feel if you were to be engaged in something slightly challenging as opposed to scrolling down the Facebook feed. If you do try doing this, note down how it made you feel after you were done with the task at hand.
Awareness Game of the Week
This week’s awareness game is called Looking Out Through Other People’s Eyes (O’Connor, 2016).
Walk around the streets of your city. Start by imaging yourself looking outwards from behind your eyes. Get a sense of what it’s like to be “me looking at them”. Then randomly select a person and imagine looking out through his or her eyes. Imagine what it’s like to be that person’s mind looking out at the world. Imagine just for now even if you don’t believe it to be true, that what’s looking out their eyes is identical to what’s looking out your eyes. Imagine that what’s looking out their eyes is not only identical but exactly the same thing as what’s looking out your eyes.
May the Flow be with you!
Keywords: solitude, other people, self, tasks, goals, engage, enjoyment, awareness, inevitable
Ajit Mann is a Master’s Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.