“The average adult spends about one-third of his or her waking time alone, yet we know very little about this huge slice of our lives, except that we heartily dislike it.
Most people feel a nearly intolerable sense of emptiness when they are alone, especially with nothing specific to do...Almost every activity is more enjoyable with another person around, and less so when one does it alone... But the most depressing condition is not that of working or watching TV alone; the worst moods are reported when one is alone and there is nothing that needs to be done.
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic--resulting in the state of psychic entropy.
With nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from elbowing their way to center stage. . . . Worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family, and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is ready to relax, zap! The potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over. It is for this reason that television proves such a boon to so many people. . . .at least the flickering screen brings a certain amount of order to consciousness. … Of course, avoiding depression this way is rather spendthrift, because one expends a great deal of attention without having much to show for it afterward. More drastic ways of coping with the dread of solitude include the regular use of drugs, or the recourse to obsessive practices, which may range from cleaning the house incessantly to compulsive sexual behavior. While under the influence of chemicals, the self is relieved from the responsibility of directing its psychic energy; we can sit back and watch the patterns of thought that the drug is providing for--whatever happens, it’s out of our hands. And like television, the drug keeps the mind from having to face depressing thoughts. While alcohol and other drugs are capable of producing optimal experiences, they are usually at a very low level of complexity. Unless consumed in highly skilled ritual contexts, as is practiced in many traditional societies, what drugs in fact do is reduce our perception of both what can be accomplished and what we as individuals are able to accomplish, until the two are in balance. This is a pleasant state of affairs, but it is only a misleading simulation of that enjoyment that comes from increasing opportunities for actions and the abilities to act. . . . The danger is that in becoming dependent on chemicals for patterning the mind, he risks losing the ability to control it by himself.- (168-170)
“The same argument that holds for what might at first sight seem the opposite of pleasure:masochistic behavior, risk taking, gambling. These ways that people find to hurt of frighten themselves do not require a great deal of skill, but they do help one to achieve the sensation of direct experience. Even pain is better than the chaos that seeps into an unfocused mind. Hurting oneself, whether physically or emotionally, ensures that attention can be focused on something that, although painful, is at least controllable -- since we are the ones causing it.” (170-171)
“The ultimate test for the ability to control the quality of experience is what a person does in solitude, with no external demands to give structure to attention. … To fill free time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs. Although both strategies might be seen as different ways of coping with the same threat of chaos, as defenses against ontological anxiety, the former leads to growth, while the latter merely serves to keep the mind from unraveling. A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life. Learning to use time alone, instead of escaping from it, is especially important in our early years.” (171)
“Adolescents who never learn to control their consciousness grow up to be adults without a ‘discipline.’ They lack the complex skills that will help them survive in a competitive, information-intensive environment. And what is even more important, they never learn how to enjoy living. They do not acquire the habit of finding challenges that bring out hidden potentials for growth.
But the teenage years are not the only time when it is crucial to learn how to exploit the opportunities of solitude. Unfortunately, too many adults feel that once they have hit twenty or thirty--or certainly forty--they are entitled to relax in whatever habitual grooves they have established. They have paid their dues they have learned the tricks it takes to survive, and from now on they can proceed on cruise control. Equipped with the bare minimum of inner discipline, such people inevitably accumulate entropy with each passing year. Career disappointments, the failure of physical health, the usual slings and arrows of fate build up a mass of negative information that increasingly threatens their peace of mind. How does one keep these problems away? If a person does not know how to control attention in solitude, he will inevitably turn to the easy external solutions: drugs, entertainment, excitement--whatever dulls or distracts the mind.” (172) “The way to grow while enjoying life is to create a higher form of order out of the entropy that is an inevitable condition of living. This means taking each new challenge not as something to be repressed or avoided, but as an opportunity for learning and for improving skills. When physical vigor fails with age, for example, it means that one will be ready to turn one’s energies from the mastery of the external world to a deeper exploration of inner reality. … But it is difficult to accomplish this unless one has earlier acquired the habit of using solitude to good advantage. It is best to develop this habit early, but it is never too late to do so. In the previous chapters we have reviewed some of the ways the body and the mind can make flow happen. When a person is able to call upon such activities at will, regardless of what is happening externally, then one has learned how to shape the quality of life.” (172-173)
Of course every rule has its exceptions, and even though most people dread solitude, there are some individuals who live alone by choice. The individuals that choose this willingly and thrive, do it by structuring their space and, most importantly, their time. “One can survive solitude, but only if one finds way of ordering attention that will prevent entropy from destructuring the mind.” (174)
“[But] is coping with loneliness by letting unnecessary yet demanding rituals give shape to the mind any different from taking drugs or watching TV constantly? … Yet how one copes with solitude makes all the difference. If being alone is seen as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached in the company of others, then instead of feeling lonely, a person will enjoy solitude and might be able to learn new skills in the process. On the other hand, if solitude is seen as a condition to be avoided at all costs instead of as a challenge, the person will panic and resort to distractions that cannot lead to higher levels of complexity. Breeding furry dogs and racing sleds through arctic forests might seem like a rather primitive endeavor, compared to the glamorous antics of playboys or cocaine users. Yet in terms of psychic organization the former is infinitely more complex than the latter. Lifestyles built on pleasure survive only in symbiosis with complex cultures based on hard work and enjoyment. But when the culture is no longer able or willing to support unproductive hedonists, those addicted to pleasure, lacking skills and discipline and therefore unable to fend for themselves, find themselves lost and helpless. … A person can master flow activities in almost any environment… Unless a person learns to enjoy it, much of life will be spent desperately trying to avoid its ill effects.” (175)
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