Human societies throughout history and all over the world have organized themselves around living with others. Yet in the last 15 years, there has been an 80% global increase in people living alone. We’re wealthier than our ancestors and the cultures we live in value individualism and independence – we have the freedom to house ourselves in smaller family units or without a family at all. 34% of UK households now have just one person living in them. So is the modern individual more familiar with solitude than ever before?
In his new book, Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View, Sarvananda explores the themes of solitude and loneliness and how a Buddhist might deal with these emotions. He suggests that, despite the statistics, we still ‘very skillfully, and often unconsciously, organize our lives in such a way as to avoid loneliness.’ Although increasing numbers of us live alone, we are also continuously coming up with new strategies to distract ourselves from our solitude.
The technological advances of modern society allow us to communicate with others even when we’re physically isolated from them – I may be sitting on my own in my flat, but thanks to instant messaging and social networking sites I can still feel connected with my friends and family (and perhaps also a large number of people that I have never met). Our hundreds of facebook friends and Twitter followers ensure that we’re never lonely, even if we’re alone.
Yet Sarvananda suggests that facing up to our essential aloneness is ‘where the spiritual life begins.’ ‘Buddhism challenges us to train ourselves to be more and more at ease in our own company,’ he writes, ‘to try and be with ourselves without distraction.’ This means confronting our habitual and repetitive responses to solitude which rely on the approval and reassurance of others. ‘Distrusting our capacity to alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,’ Sarvananda argues. ‘We become addicted to other people.’
Solitude and Loneliness is based around the premise that time spent in solitude can be of huge benefit on the Buddhist path, whether that means switching off our TVs, computers and mobile phones for an hour or two each day, or going on a week-long solitary retreat. ‘The Buddha taught that we must cease to yearn for happiness outside ourselves and begin to trust the potential for nirvana that lies within us,’ Sarvananda writes. ‘The journey from samsara to nirvana involves a passionate and deepening desire for a certain kind of self-sufficiency.’
Paradoxically, however, it is in facing up to our aloneness that we come to recognize how essentially connected to others we truly are. ‘Although we are essentially alone, we are also essentially related,’ Sarvananda explains. ‘As Buddhists, we are practising in a context: with others and for others. The way out of loneliness or isolation, then, is to love more deeply. It is in going beyond the ego that we also go beyond loneliness and isolation.’
Although our modern societies may value solitude as a living arrangement, it therefore seems that a deeper kind of solitude – a still silence and spaciousness – is still undervalued. In Sarvananda’s words, ‘Solitude needs more championing.’