At the beginning of this year, I took a road trip through certain parts of the country. For twelve days I travelled through the Little Karoo to Oudsthoorn and De Rust, and then explored the Garden Route stopping at Nature’s Valley, the Wilderness, Great Brak and Gordon’s Bay before heading home. I have always wanted to do this: just get into my car and drive with a few planned stopovers but enough flexibility to go where the road takes me. I stayed at backpacker lodges, which were normally brimming with interesting people from far-off countries. I never felt alone; there were always new people to meet and friends to make. However, every now and then I would be asked incredulously: “Are you travelling all on your own?” Some would react with “Wow, that’s brave – I wish I could do that,” or “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” Is this reaction concern about the safety of women travelling alone or have we forgotten how simply to be on our own and perfectly okay with that?

Recently I was interested to hear from a fellow book club member that he is too afraid to be just with himself, because he then experiences a hulk-like creature rising up inside of him – too dark and too daunting to control. I think I know what he means.

Two years ago I booked myself into a Zen Buddhist retreat somewhere in an obscure part of KwaZulu-Natal. For nineteen days I had to relearn the art of doing nothing and just being with myself. There wasn’t much to do there. I could eat, do yoga, meditate, read, go for a walk in the 125 hectare grounds (which soon weren’t very big), play with the cats, sleep . . . That’s it. It nearly drove me crazy. When there is nothing to do, nothing to fill the time, we have to come face to face with ourselves. And what we find there we may not like.

How often do we actually give ourselves time to face ourselves by taking a good look at what’s there? Instead we pass ourselves by, ignoring our true thoughts and feelings. No wonder then that when we stop to take a peek, we find a brewing pot of neglected desires, disturbing wants, dark thoughts . . .

And we become strange to ourselves, so much so that we have to ask: “Is this really me?” Being able to be alone is vital to our own well being and sanity.

During my retreat I learnt that there is a great difference between utter loneliness to the point of isolation and solitude or simply being alone. Lynda Gratton, in her book The Shift, writes about the challenges we will face if we do not adapt our work lives to the changing world around us. She tells how easy it is to have a conference call from the comfort of our homes with a person halfway around the world. Thanks to technology, some people find no real reason to go to an office anymore. Others may still migrate to cities for work, and leave their friends and family behind. They often find it quite difficult to make friends in a new, strange city. Furthermore we tend not to make time to invest in anything besides our work relationships. Thus days and weeks may go by without our having any real connectedness with another person. After a while we may feel like Fool’s Garden: “I’m sitting here in the boring room, it’s just another rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m wasting my time I got nothing to do, I’m hanging around I’m waiting for you but nothing ever happens and I wonder . . . Isolation is not good for me, Isolation I don’t want to sit on the lemon tree.”

When we feel isolated it seems as if we don’t have a choice. Our isolation stems from the hopelessness of an apparent lack of options.

We feel powerless. We would like to be more sociable, but face challenges – a demanding work life, an introverted or shy personality or lack of finances – that prohibit us from forming meaningful relationships. This drains us of our life force. On the other hand, solitude is freedom. It is empowering. Even though I enjoy the company of other people, I choose to enjoy my own company first. This “me-time” also reminds me that I do not need anything from other people. I know that as soon as I try to gain acceptance, happiness, respect or love from a source outside myself, I set myself up for failure.

It is much better to know I have everything I need within myself already, and that I need times of solitude to tap into my own source and first minister to myself. After that I can happily and healthily give and share with others.

Sherry Turkle explains this well in her TED talk “Connected, but alone” (Watch it here). She says that the more we feel alone the more we want to reach for our devices and get connected. We think the more we connect the less lonely we will feel. Yet actually the opposite is true. In fact, the constant quest for connection causes us to become more and more isolated:

“You end up isolated if you do not cultivate the capacity for solitude,” she says. “The ability to separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself, so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel more alive. When this happens we are not able to appreciate who they are. We are using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”

This separates us from people instead of connecting us with them. No one likes feeling that they are being used. Solitude actually helps us to be a better lovers, parents, friends or employees.

How do you make room for solitude in your own life?

Create a quiet space for yourself at your house or work place, a space where you enjoy tea or a book by yourself or you just make time to do some journaling.

Practise changing the thought that “being alone is a problem” to “being alone is a gift I give to myself”.

Even if you are in a relationship or live with other people, make provision for time you spend with yourself alone.

Take yourself out to a good meal on your own, or, if that is too daunting, start small and go to a movie by yourself. Whatever you do, give your cellphone a break. Rather just pay attention to the small details around you.

If you want to go to the next weekend market and no one is available to go with you, go anyway and strike up a conversation with a person in an interesting T-shirt!

Practise going on solo trips. Of course, always take care and do what feels safe to you. Consider perhaps for your next trip going on your own and exploring the country by yourself for a change.

[Main image: royalty free stock photo from 123RF/ Aliaksei Lasevich]