Solitude, Community,
and Inner Peace

Ruth Fishel


When I was in grade school I loved to ride my bike to a beautiful estate a few miles from my home where I spent wonderful hours in solitude. I always brought a snack, a pen, a notebook, and a favorite book with me. I headed straight for my favorite place, a large pond filled with goldfish. A massive tree flourished beside the pond with a flat branch, wide enough for me to sit on, extending about ten feet out over the water. I sat there for hours reading or writing poetry, totally absorbed, completely content with my time alone. At other times, I climbed up to the flat roof of our apartment house where I spent hours happily painting pictures of nearby rooftops nestled among the tops of the trees.

Something deep within me guided me to these places. I never questioned whether I should be going there. I just knew it was where I belonged. I followed some inner guidance I did not understand at the time. I simply knew that was what I needed and wanted to do.

I remember that, at some point, my mother became concerned with the long hours I spent alone. She was worried that there was something wrong with me and wanted me to spend more time with other children. She thought I was unhappy. But I knew there was nothing wrong with me. I was following a natural rhythm of solitude and community, moving back and forth in a way that came very naturally to me.

This became one of the many sources of confusion I had to resolve later in my adult life; the conflict between doing what comes naturally and feeds my soul versus the "shoulds" I had been taught by family and society. To resolve it, I needed to find time for solitude in my life. As Sarah Ban Breathnach writes, "Solitude is as necessary for our creative spirits to develop and flourish as are sleep and food for our bodies to survive."

Inner peace cannot magically appear when we are consumed with our daily activities, no matter how much we will it to be so. At some point we must make the decision to excuse ourselves from everyday life, walk away, close the door on noise and responsibilities, and spend some quiet time alone. In solitude we can find our authentic self, our true nature, our connection to each other and to God. We can discover where we belong in the universe and find our own true purpose. In solitude we can reach a place deep within where we can find peace.

We seek solitude in countless ways and places. It's not limited to whether we are active or still. Its meaning, too, varies from individual to individual, and what it means to us can change from day to day, depending on what is going on in our lives at any given time. What worked for us earlier last week might not bring us satisfaction this week. And what didn't seem fulfilling yesterday might be just what we need today.

The inner peace of solitude can be found while quietly stitching our family history on a tapestry, meditating in an ashram on a mountaintop, soaking in a tub, journaling, gardening, walking, writing, painting, reading, swimming, eating, hiking, going on a retreat with others or alone, or creating a personal retreat at home.

Solitude can be whatever you want it to be, for any purpose or no purpose at all. It can be a time for growing, learning, seeing, relaxing, accomplishing, contemplating, problem solving, meditating, praying, finding peace of mind, or just plain having fun!

We can be surprised at times like these to find that while we weren't looking for anything, an inner voice nudges us to get our attention. It might speak to us in a whisper so faint we have to hold our breath to hear it or in a shout that really gets our attention. We will know when it happens. It might be something unfinished from the past. Perhaps it is time for a change that we have not yet been ready to make. Whatever comes up for us is where we are at that moment. Whatever comes up is ready for us to look at.

In the quiet of solitude we listen to the smiles as well as the tears in our hearts and become more and more familiar with the totality of our being. We can observe that we are prisoners to our own habits, fears, and conditioning. We see what has been holding us back and we can pray for the grace to be released from it.

There certainly will be some periods in our lives when we choose not to seek solitude because we feel we are alone too much. Others among us who seek the peace, comfort, and connection that solitude can bring to a busy and sometimes overwhelming world believe we can't have enough solitude.

Our job might keep us isolated and alone. Perhaps we work by ourselves or in a one-person office or work for ourselves at home. Sometimes we might come home to an empty house or live alone. We might become "hooked" on the Internet and spend hours alone at our computer, only to fall into bed alone and go to work the next morning still alone.

Some people have a great fear of solitude. Painful memories can rise to the surface. Thoughts of old resentments, loss, abandonment, and disappointments can fill the empty space. Old traumas, abuse, and negative experiences might feel too painful to be relived. There is also fear that we won't be able to handle the emptiness or that we'll be bored without our comfortable activities. Paul Tillich said that language has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone, and the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.

There are numerous obstacles that often keep us from taking this precious time for ourselves. Finding new ways to go beyond these obstacles, we can see how solitude can help us to heal, better know and understand ourselves, open our hearts to expand the love we have for ourselves, and deepen our connection with our spiritual selves, God, or any power, Spirit, or Supreme Being in which we believe.

"If you want the kernel you must break the shell," notes Meister Eikart. The shell can be all the walls we keep up to avoid knowing ourselves. It can be everything on our "to do" list, all our busyness, our co-dependence, our perfectionism, our sense of self-importance, our indispensable sense that we are the only ones who can get the job done right. We are the kernel, the prize. Our lives are so special; each and every one of us is special. We deserve this time for ourselves to get to know ourselves and to be our own best friend.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh warns us that all our busyness and demands in our lives lead to fragmentation. She writes that the life of multiplicity does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.

How do we take time if we don't think we deserve time? How do we take time if we don't put ourselves first? How do we let ourselves grow when we don't value the needs of our souls?

We do it by first making a decision, whether we believe we deserve to take time for ourselves or not. Simply by making this decision, we actually begin to change a negative thought in our subconscious. We begin to remove a barrier that has held us back from our authentic selves. This decision gives us personal power. We are choosing to take charge of our lives.

We say "Yes!" to ourselves and follow through with action. We form a firm and clear intention. We do it a step at a time, a minute at a time, a day at a time.

There are times when days get so full that it might seem too hard to squeeze in even ten minutes alone. Three- to five-minute mini-breaks can change the mood of our day and turn what might have been a pressure keg experience into a more bearable one.

Mindfulness, simply being fully present with whatever is going on in the moment, can be a wonderful solitude break. Bringing our awareness to whatever we are doing in the present moment can get to be a wonderful habit. That's when, as author Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, we have peace within us at all times.

Surprisingly, solitude can also be found while being with someone else. Finding activities such as walking, reading, or painting that we can do with others while maintaining our own sense of solitude is a wonderful gift for everyone. We can feel close and at the same time separate, some part of us knowing we are sharing a special experience together, and yet at another level not even aware that anyone else exists.

Take time to discover and explore the joys of solitude, the precious, delicious experience of choosing to spend time with yourselves for a specific reason, or for no reason at all. In this world overflowing with too much to do and too little time in which to do it, you can discover ways to find the time, to take the time, and to value yourselves enough to know that you deserve the time for this precious gift.

Ruth Fishel, is a therapist, retreat and workshop leader, and author of several books, including "Precious Solitude," "The Journey Within, A Spiritual Path to Recovery," a pioneer book on meditation, spirituality, and recovery, and the best-selling "Time for Joy." She also teaches "Stop! Do You Know You're Breathing?" a program she developed for teachers and health care workers. She now co-directs Spirithaven, Inc., which she co-founded in 1989.