Isolation vs. Solitude

Did you hear the news story a few weeks back, the one about the dangers of being isolated and alone as you age. It’s terrible what can happen to you. It is a genuine health risk. Great Britain has begun a campaign to end loneliness. Social isolation is as bad as obesity or smoking. It will shorten your life span, reduce your mobility. One in five Canadians over the age of 65 reports feeling lonely and 25% of Canadians over the age of 85 say that they feel alone some or even a lot of the time. Social isolation sneaks up on a person. Your children move away and aren’t in touch as often as you would like. Your spouse dies and everything changes. It takes a big effort to reengage the world. It’s good that we’re getting more aware of this. It’s good that there’s the Senior’s Drop in Centre and Senior’s Supports and Sunshine Coach all of which help keep people connected.

On the spiritual side there’s a notion that might be helpful. Spiritual people talk about the difference between isolation and solitude. Isolation is the terrible loneliness described above but solitude is something else. Solitude is that beautiful peace that comes from being comfortable in your own skin. Solitude is when you enjoy moments of quiet reflection, when you can hear your self breathe. Solitude is a spiritual discipline that takes practice. As we all know we live in an age of constant input and stimulation. We always have a screen at hand feeding us news from around the world. We do not get to practice being alone with our thoughts.

Now I thought I was pretty good at solitude but I have friends who recently went on a ten day silent retreat and I’ve got to admit that I found that intimidating. Ten days alone with one’s thoughts takes a lot of spiritual discipline. If you are not used to this sort of thing, do not start with ten days. Start with ten minutes. Sit in a chair and practice being with yourself. Build up from there. If you have never done this it will be hard at first. You will be tempted to check your emails, check Facebook; fill the silence with some outside noise. But gradually it gets easier and more and more rewarding to shut out distractions and simply be.

Isolation is a terrible thing. We need to keep connected. But we also need to develop the spiritual discipline of solitude; that joyful, quiet centre of being.