Last night I woke at three in the morning.
When you live on your own, 3 a.m. is about alone as alone gets.
So I lay there – alone.
Staring into the darkness, the ‘lonely’ dog sat at the end of my bed. Would I feed it until it lay full and satisfied; would I succumb?
I knew that if it joined me, the weight of it would be suffocating. I knew it would be dark. As I contemplated this emotional defeat, a thought slipped into my head.
‘I am so lucky to be alone’. The thought made the bed warmer. My eyes adjusted to the dark.
A memory surfaced, just as memories tend to when it’s 3 a.m. and the subconscious is in that slippery state between the past and the present.
I remembered a conversation with a Balinese woman whom I had once befriended.
The Balinese live in beautiful family compounds, or Karangs, where several generations live together. At the entrance to every compound is a painted number stating how many live within and it’s not uncommon to see sixty and higher.
I had thought how wonderful it would be to live with so many people and to have their support and love and I had asked her what it was like.
‘To tell you the truth, I just want some time to myself.’
I thought about her and I thought about what a privilege it was to have this sacred early hour to myself.
‘I am so lucky to be alone,’ I repeated.
Perhaps I was beginning to spin a thread between loneliness and solitude.
Solitude. Now there’s a word.
Solitude brings silence. Buddha says that when a person knows the solitude of silence and feels the joy of quietness, they are free from fear.
However Western culture suggests that we should be afraid of being alone. Very afraid.
When Tom Hanks’ character Chuck, was ‘Cast Away’ on a deserted island, rather than being ‘free from fear’ he was consumed with it.
So much so that he painted a washed up volleyball with a face, called it Wilson and conversed with it in a desperate attempt to deny his solitude.
I understand the need for connection and I’m not suggesting that a life without connection is richer than one with it (preferably not with a volleyball).
What I am saying however, is that when we are confronted with ‘aloneness’ perhaps we could befriend it? Perhaps that dark space isn’t so menacing after all? Perhaps it’s delicious? Decadent? Divine?
Many thought that Jessica Watson, in 2010 the youngest person to sail solo around the world, would have felt lonely.
But far from painting sporting equipment with eyes and a nose… Jessica felt happy.
About a month into her journey she told the Sydney Morning Herald:
“I might be about as physically alone as you can get, but I’m not depressed about it at all. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”
There’s a reason people go to the mountains, hike and sail solo. It’s because they’re not only conquering the task, they’re conquering themselves.
Solitude gives us the opportunity to look inward. It gives us space to be quiet, both from the noise of conversations with others and that of our own ‘monkey minds’.
Dr Ramesh Manocha, head of the Meditation Research Programme at the University of Sydney and the man who introduced me to meditation, giggled uproariously when lecturing on the difference between the Western and Eastern definition of this ancient art.
The Oxford Dictionary says that to meditate is to ‘think deeply about something’.
Dr Manocha, however, suggests that in actual fact meditation is the complete ‘absence’ of thought.
You may or may not call it meditation, but I bet you have experienced that moment of solitude when you are quiet and then you suddenly ‘switched back’, realising that if only for a moment, you had complete ‘absence of thought.’
It’s during these moments that I feel most connected to nature, because with the quieting of my mind, the sounds of the natural world rush in.
I wonder if that’s how Robinson Crusoe felt when he awoke at 3 a.m. alone on his island with nothing but the sound of monkeys and falling coconuts?
Was he indulging in the decadent dark, defeating his inner demons or did he conclude, as Defoe wrote in his novel of the same name:
“…that it was possible… to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition that it was possible (to) ever have been in any other particular state in the world.”
I hope so.