Me, myself and I: The joy of being alone
Moving to a remote Co Wicklow cottage taught me how to be happy in my own company
When was the last time you enjoyed your own company? In today’s Fomo culture, where we all fear missing out, busyness is worn as a badge of honour, and an overbooked social calendar is seen as a sign of success, quality time alone has become something of a rarity.
However, for a generation that has never been more connected, we have also never been lonelier. Loneliness, and the psychological and physical problems associated with it, are steadily on the rise, especially among older people. Trinity College’s Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing report found some 37 per cent of people aged 50 and over reported feeling lonely often or some of the time. That number rises to 45 per cent among people aged 75 and older. A German study, conducted in 2016 by Prof Maike Luhmann, showed that loneliness, which in the past was associated with the elderly, is now a cross-generational issue; peaking at the age of 30 and again at 60.
While the problems of social isolation in rural Ireland and loneliness among the sick and elderly are not to be dismissed, for a large proportion of the rest us, our overstimulated, constantly connected world means we have we have forgotten how to be alone, and, as a result, are missing out on the joy that spending time in one’s own company can bring.
Dr Damien Lowry, senior counselling psychologist at the Mater hospital in Dublin, and a chartered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says periods of being alone, when balanced with social contact and interaction, can be beneficial for our health.
If we don’t step back and allow the mind to quieten, we don’t get to hear its messages, as we are simply caught up in the humdrum of the noise it contains.
“There is the need for the busyness of life to have a counterweight,” he explains. “If we don’t step back and allow the mind to quieten, we don’t get to hear its messages, as we are simply caught up in the humdrum of the noise it contains. Frequent, time-limited bouts of alone time are typically enjoyable for us, especially when we are practiced at it, and it’s a practice that tends to be associated with healthier physical and mental health outcomes too.”
My own experience of embracing time alone began three years ago, when my husband and I, keen to try out a new lifestyle in a rural setting, moved from Dublin to a remote cottage in Co Wicklow, surrounded by nothing but a vast expanse of fields, with not a human in sight.
While it was idyllic, as a lifelong urbanite it was also the most remote location I had ever lived in, and there were days when the solitude felt daunting.
We had moved from suburban Dublin, surrounded by schools, families, and general urban chaos, to a place where the rhythms of human life were non-existent. Back-to-school September traffic was replaced by quiet country roads lined with blackberries and birdsong, coconut-scented gorse replaced the smell of neighbours’ barbecues in the summer, and a bitter wind whipped against our cottage most days, carrying with it the cries of sheep grazing in nearby fields.
While it was idyllic, as a lifelong urbanite it was also the most remote location I had ever lived in, and there were days when the solitude felt daunting. I was working as a freelance writer at the time and my husband worked in Dublin. This meant that I spent many long days alone, with just my dog for company, and when we first moved in, we had no internet; a situation that particularly horrified my youngest 20-something sister, for whom the thought of even a day without WiFi is enough to bring on a cold sweat.
However, I soon learned to enjoy the peace and freedom that can be found in solitude, and my experience there taught me that there is a certain sense self-confidence and self-empowerment to be gained from knowing that you can comfortably spend time in your own company.
As I experienced, time alone is not always easy, especially in the beginning, where, as with any new relationship, there is a period of adjustment and familiarisation to be worked through. It is often when learning to meditate, which is one commonly practiced form of aloneness, that people discover how difficult it can be.
Spiritual traditions have long regarded solitude as the ideal circumstance for fostering greater self-acceptance and experiencing personal growth. The Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment after spending seven weeks, seated alone under the Bodhi Tree, in deep meditation and self-reflection.
One of India’s most ancient forms of meditation, Vipassana, involves entering into periods (typically 10 days) of solitude and silence, without any communication with others or the outside world. The idea behind this extreme isolation is that stripped of the distractions of human relationships and the material world, students are allowed to reflect inwards, through meditation, and observation of the breath and bodily sensations.
The process of introspective meditation isn’t easy, you have to be ready and work hard. The focus is inside oneself and not on outside distractions.
Ian Hetherington, of Vipassana Ireland, says that, while adjusting to being alone in silence can be a new and uncomfortable experience for many, it can help us to reconnect with ourselves on a deeper level.
“The process of introspective meditation isn’t easy, you have to be ready and work hard. The focus is inside oneself and not on outside distractions. Students on our retreats try to work as if alone. Some report that adjusting to the silence is difficult at first and that they initially feel conditioned to somehow communicate over meals,” he says.
“Stepping back from the world of stimulation outside can help us to ground ourselves, pull ourselves together, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and reconnect ourselves with nature. With Vipassana, one understands that each individual is ultimately alone in life, but a strong mind and good friends support us on the journey. We are alone but not lonely, instead, we are confident in oneself, with a positive sense of direction. Cultivating a regular meditation practice is like taking a shower inside; it can clean and refresh the mind.”
It is certainly not necessary to move to the wilderness or cut ourselves off from society in order to learn how to be alone. Indeed, Dr Lowry states that periods of solitude and self-reflection can be incorporated into our day-to-day lives in a variety of different ways.
“Alone time can take many forms, such as sitting in a garden, reading a book, going for a walk, drawing or painting, doing a physical workout, praying, writing a journal entry, or simply taking time out to reflect on what is potentially in need of attention. Personally, I like to get out into the garden and chop wood. It gives me a singular focus but also allows my mind to wander and, at times, gravitate towards issues that warrant my attention in life. Consider intervals of alone time to be similar to intervals of exercise; neither is good to overdo, and both lead to positive life outcomes, if done in regular small doses.”
My husband and I have since moved back to a community setting but solitude continues to be an important part of my life. I love going for regular walks in the woods near our house and I start every day with some journaling and meditation. I find that there is something very freeing about being by myself; with no expectation or pressure to be in a certain mood, behave a certain way, or say the right thing - I can simply do and be as I please.
If we can improve our relationship with ourselves, by engaging in periods of self-reflection and giving ourselves quality time out from the demands of life, then, surely, this will enhance our relationships with those around us. As American psychiatrist and author M Scott Peck, wrote: “Not only do self-love and the love of others go hand in hand, but ultimately, they are indistinguishable.”
Ideas for spending time alone:
- Treat yourself to a coffee or meal out in your favourite coffee shop or restaurant. Focus on your surroundings and what are you consuming.
- Cook for yourself, taking time to savour the process of cooking and eating.
- Take yourself to the cinema or the theatre (matinée showings are a good if you are intimidated by the thought of going at night, as they are typically quieter).
- Visit an art gallery or museum.
- Go for a walk, not a walk intended for exercise but one for leisure, in a place that you love, without listening to music. Notice the sounds and sights around you.
- If your work involves being around people all day, get up a half an hour earlier in the morning and do something for you, such as yoga, a walk, or journaling.
- Try some screen-free time in the evening; run yourself a bath or read a book.
- Take some time for stillness every day with some form of meditation; it can be as simple as watching your breath coming and going for a few minutes.
- For the more adventurous, why not plan a trip away by yourself and go to a place you have always wanted to visit.