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Embrace solitude - the best way to move forward is to retreat


We sometimes need a complete system reboot

We sometimes need a complete system reboot

We sometimes need a complete system reboot

I'll never forget Christmas 2011, despite not being able to remember very much of it.

Snippets of it come back to me now and again in a hazy, boozy fog but the overall feeling - the ferocious intensity of that month in 2011 - will forever be seared in my memory.

Christmas took me for a ride that year and all I could do was fasten my seatbelt and fill up the fuel tank. It was my first brush with this thing they call festive madness and it was excess all areas.

I spent more than I could afford; I drank more than I could handle and, in that great Christmas tradition of socialising with people you couldn't care less about for the other 11 months of the year, I went for drinks with nearly everyone in my phonebook.

And then momentum gained momentum and I did it all over again the next day.

I couldn't even muster the energy to get out of bed on St. Stephen's Day. The adrenaline/oxytocin/alcohol cocktail had worn off leaving me borderline catatonic. Instead I stared at the ceiling for three days and wondered if I had officially gone dotty. At least it gave me time to reflect... and repent. I renounced shopping on Christmas Eve and drinking on Christmas morning and made all sorts of plans for a life lived at a less frenetic pace. Upon reflection, I also realised that I needed to... reflect.

Those 25 days in December became a blur because I didn't balance the revelry with reflection and the social whirl with solitude. That period was like a never-ending sentence because I didn't punctuate it with a few little pockets of alone time.

We need to process. We need to consolidate. We sometimes need a complete system reboot. And we can only do this on our own, ideally while staring at a sky or a ceiling (just not for three days).

We are invariably alone when we make plans, set goals and learn lessons. In the words of mystic poet, Rumi: "A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you".

It is only in solitude that we can join the dots, read the subtext and receive the wisdom. We need to retreat into our hinterland to access what Einstein called the "intuitive mind" - epiphanies don't come over bottles of wine.

Epiphanies don't necessarily come over Tibetan singing bowls either. People are waking up to the power of meditation but it's important to distinguish it from self-reflection.

While they are not mutually exclusive, the former explores the subconscious mind while the latter reconciles the conscious mind.

They both bring a profound sense of clarity, and continued practice in one discipline will eventually reveal the path towards the other, but self-reflection is more like a little check in with yourself. It's time out from the chatter and hum. It is an opportunity for introspection, a time to ask 'What can I learn from this experience?' or 'How can I approach this situation differently tomorrow?'

It is the space in which we contemplate the big questions: 'What would I do if I had all the money and time I needed?' 'When am I truly content?' 'Who do I need to forgive?'

The answers can only be found in solitude. To quote Dr M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled , "The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual, the solitary journey to peaks that can be climbed only alone".

And you will be rewarded for going it alone. All the great visionaries and artists recognise solitude as a creative catalyst, from Pablo Picasso - "Without great solitude no serious work is possible" - to Nikola Tesla - "Be alone - that is the secret of invention. Be alone, that is when ideas are born".

The legends go that Isaac Newton was sitting alone under a tree when the apple dropped, while Arichmedes was reposing in the bath when he had his "Eureka!" moment. Could idleness be considered a virtue? One to reflect upon...

And still we ritually avoid introspection. A recent study led by the University of Virginia, and published in the journal Science, suggests that most will choose to do something - anything - rather than nothing.

Participants were asked to be alone with their thoughts, in time intervals ranging from six to 15 minutes. Almost half of the group opted to give themselves a mild electrical shock rather than be left alone. "What is striking," wrote the investigators, "is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid".

We are conditioned to keep busy and reach for our earphones/iPhone/remote control the minute we get a moment to ourselves. Perish the thought that we'd be alone with the person we should know best.

My resolution in January 2012 was to stop reaching for the earphones. These days I don't open a magazine the moment I'm ensconced on an airplane.

I don't scroll aimlessly through my phone when I'm in the back of a taxi. I turn off the radio before I step into the shower.

I recognise and utilise the windows I have for quiet contemplation and I spend a lot more time gazing at the ceiling.

In a good way.

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