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Reflections on the Difference Between Loneliness & Solitude




by Kent Nerburn

You should spend time alone. Not just 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. If it is in the superficial affairs of the day, time spent alone will throw you back upon yourself in a way that will make you grow in wisdom and inner strength.

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, always a way to keep from staring into the still pool where life is more than the chatter of the small affairs of the mind.

If we are 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. The labors of life 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 labors are before you.

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 source of solitude.

Solitude is a condition of peace that stands indirect opposition to loneliness. Loneliness is like sitting in an empty room and being aware of the space around you. It is 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. Their understanding begins at the self, and they are comfortable only as long as they are at the center of their understanding. Solitude is about getting the “I” out of the center of our thoughts so that other parts of life can be experienced in their fullness. It is about abandoning the self as the focus of understanding, and giving ourselves over to the great flowing fabric of the universe.

Though this may sound mystical and abstract, the universe has an eternal hum that runs beyond our individual birth and death. It is a hum that is hard to hear through the louder and closer noise of our daily lives. It is 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. In solitude alone do we become part of this great eternal sound.

Nature is the clearest source of solitude. The greatness of nature can overwhelm the insignificant chatter by which we measure most of our days. If you have the wisdom and the courage to go to nature alone, the larger rhythms, the eternal hum, will make itself known all the sooner. When you have found it, it will always be there for you. The peace without will become the peace within, and you will be able to return to it in your heart wherever you find yourself.

For most of us, the search involves a grinding of the gears as we slow from hurried to quiet to still to peaceful. But it is worth the struggle.

Slowly, inexorably, we emerge into the ultimate quiet of solitude. We are 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. 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. In solitude silence becomes a symphony. Time changes from a series of moments strung together into 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.

The awareness we experience in solitude is priceless for the peace it can give. It is 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 the same to those we love. We do not try to pry into every corner of their lives or to fill the emptiness inside ourselves with their presence.

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 perfect peace of an eternal present, and that is the peace that one finds only in solitude. Find this peace in yourself, and you will never know another moment of loneliness in your life.


Excerpted from Simple Truths: Clear & Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues in Life by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2005 by Kent Nerburn. All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.972.6657, ext. 52 or click here.

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