Everyday Epiphanies: ‘How To Be Alone’ by Sara Maitland

Ever since I was a child, I’ve believed that inspiration is everywhere. When a new thought comes into view — if it makes you think differently about the world, or about yourself — it is magical and spiritual, regardless of what awoke it.

In this blog series, it’s my pleasure to share with you moments of inspiration from all sorts of origins: books, music, film, art… anywhere! A week or so ago, whilst browsing one of my favourite London book stores, I was drawn to an edition of ‘How To Be Alone’ by Sara Maitland, part of The School of Life series. Since then, I’ve hardly put it down…

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Epiphany: “Because solitude is an achievement”

How do you feel about spending time alone? Like a great many things in life, each person has their unique relationship with solitude, depending on their personality type, upbringing and, possibly, life-stage.

As recently as 18 months ago, the idea of a day without plans to see another person would have sent me into a cold sweat. I was a fiercely social character, who heavily relied on external stimuli for entertainment. As such, I would never have thought of spending time alone as a good thing, more something to be feared.

These days — having challenged myself to a year of solo travel — I am more appreciative of my own company and time spent alone. Still, I’m not sure I’d consider it achievement, but a welcome change in a busy, social life.

Maitland’s final paragraph, before her book’s conclusion, quotes fellow author Alice Koller:“Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement”.

I love this idea of being “luxuriously immersed” in actions and thoughts of my own; framing solitude as an indulgent opportunity rather than a ramification of a lack of social plans. ‘Luxurious’ also seems a fitting adjective, because for some people the chance to be alone is a rare one (if you’re a parent, for example).

Photo by Jakub Dziubak

Photo by Jakub Dziubak

If you’re already sold on the benefits of solitude, I’m probably preaching to the choir. Yet for those of you who are still to experience the joy of spending time in your own company — and I’d be willing to bet that’s quite a few of you — one of the first things you’ll need to do is ditch the fear.

Epiphany: We’ve been sent some very mixed messages about being alone

How many times have you, or a friend, proclaimed “I’m going to die alone!”upon the end of a romantic relationship? Our society places a lot of importance on finding a partner, if it didn’t Tinder wouldn’t have 1.5 million paid subscribers.

But according to Maitland,“For two millennia, at least, we have been trying to live with two radically contrasting and opposed models of what the good life would or should be”. On one hand, there’s the well-promoted ideal of finding your other half or soul mate, we collect followers on social media and place outgoing, extroverted people in positions of power. On the other, “most people would still rather be described as sensitive, spiritual, reflective, having rich inner lives and being good listeners, than the more extroverted opposites… we still admire the life of the intellectual over that of the salesman… of the solo adventurer over the package tourist… that Great Art can only be produced by solitary geniuses”.

It’s hardly surprising that our own relationships with solitude might be so muddled.

Epiphany: We really need to watch our words

‘How To Be Alone’ made me realise how greatly our perception of aloneness is impacted by the language we use to describe it. Consider this: if we describe someone as a ‘lone wolf’, a ‘loner’ or a hermit, or use the term ‘anti-social’, these phrases are all loaded with negative judgement. There’s very little language available to us that affords positive connotations to the idea of solitude, which builds aloneness up to be a thing to fear.

In fact, some of the words we use in modern English — namely ‘lone’ and ‘spinster’ — were once positives: a ‘lone ranger’ was a hero, a ‘spinster’ a successful women who was self sufficient and could enter into marriage with whomever she chose, as she didn’t need to marry for money. It’s worrying that these once heralded titles have been hacked in modern days and given a negative spin. There are very few solitary roles left to aspire to.

So what can we do about this? We need to watch our words when we talk to ourselves and others. Avoid labelling people with your judgements. If a friend wants to spend an evening on their own, instead of down the pub, it doesn’t necessarily make them anti-social. If your partner desires an afternoon of seclusion, it’s probably not because they love you any less. In fact, there’s a great argument for solitude being an enabler of love in all relationships. Maitland explains, “The joy of long periods of solitude has also increased my joy in non-solitude: I love my children, my friends, my colleagues as much as ever, and I attend to them better when I am with them — and enjoy them even more. But, above all, I like me better. I think there is more of me to like…”

Epiphany: It’s easy to introduce “low doses” of solitude to everyday life

Of course, you needn’t take the dramatic approach I did to experiment with solitude (although if you’re considering a solo trip, I highly recommend it!). ‘How To Be Alone’ offers a number of low-key ways to spend more time in your own company.

  • Take a bath, rather than a shower: it’s longer, quieter and you’ll be more aware of your solitude and how it makes you feel

  • Go for a walk or run somewhere secluded

  • Turn off your radio when you’re driving

  • Lose yourself in a task that requires no thought (such as a few rounds of Sun Salutations)

The benefits listed by Maitland are certainly tempting: greater creativity, connection with and understanding of self, awareness of natural beauty, to name just a few. If you’re in any way drawn in by the idea of ‘How To Be Alone’, I’d highly recommend you give it a read — there are so many insights in its pages, it’s impossible for me to share them all.

Speaking as someone who’s only beginning to appreciate solitude, I feel really inspired by Maitland’s words. How about you?

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Having travelled to fifty countries across the world, Lauren is hooked on culture, environmentalism and the power of people working together. In her spare time she loves reading, cooking and crafting; she’s hoping to launch a jewellery collection soon. Find her on Instagram

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