As a tween I was enthralled with the book My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George. The idea of living in the woods by myself seemed romantic and adventuresome. Not having to account for my actions was appealing. Living off the land and communing with nature was something I could connect with, at least in my fantasy world.
Sam Gribley, the young boy who basically runs away from his home in New York City to the Catskill Mountains to live on his own, sometimes yearned for companionship even while simply trying to prepare for and survive the winter. As the story unfolds, though, it’s clear that his times of solitude have contributed to deeper thinking and to his personal growth. They’ve also made him appreciate others more.
My practice of alonetime is inextricably connected to examining and evaluating my thinking too. The positive side effect is that this deeper thinking also promotes better health.
For example, last winter I began to experience flu symptoms. It was a busy time and the last thing I felt I could do was take time alone to pray about it. But I took an inventory of my thoughts. I examined them to see if they were reflecting a Divine nature instead of being negative and self-centered. I made a course correction and focused my thinking on the good in my life and the good in others! I thought about how much I appreciated other people and worked to express that gratitude. Within one day all the symptoms were gone.
This isn’t getting rid of all thoughts or focusing on my human mind as practiced in some forms of yoga and meditation. Rather, it’s a communion with and affirmation of Spiritual connectedness, goodness and completeness. It’s a form of prayer. And in this sense I’m truly not alone but connected more firmly to God. It’s a process that doesn’t remove me from this world of activity but helps me be an active participant.
I find this Biblical text especially helpful to guide my alonetime prayers:
“… whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
Others have found that aloneness is good too. Former director of NYU Steinhardt Department of Applied Psychology, Esther Buchholz tells us from her extensive writing and research on the human conditions of attachment and aloneness:
“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives.”
Still, some people find the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts a frightening proposition. So much so that they would rather suffer some form of physical pain than be alone, as Timothy Wilson, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, found in his recent research.
What would make the difference for any one of us between a frightening versus a health-giving experience? I’ve found that it’s whether we entertain thoughts that make us feel isolated and lonely or cosmically connected to something larger than ourselves.