In Chapter 1 of his book “Waking Up”, Sam Harris recounts his experience of a ritual called “the solo”. This ritual marked the end of a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the Colorado mountains.
It was his first time in solitude, but instead of gaining any profound insight, he felt loneliness, boredom and a craving for cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes.
Many of us can relate to spending hardly any time alone. It is viewed as a disease, especially when combined with doing nothing. It is interesting to note that even in the worst prisons on earth, solitary confinement is a punishment. People would rather spend time with murders, rapists, and gang members than be alone for extended periods of time.
I’m writing this from the remote north side of Bali, Indonesia. Few tourists come here; they prefer the south, with its modern conveniences, restaurants and nightlife. I’m also reading “Solitude: A Return To The Self” by Anthony Storr, published in 1998. It’s a reflection on the creative individual’s need for solitude.
And so the thoughts on solitude came to mind.
One paragraph stands out to me in Storr’s book:
The capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with coming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses.
Is this really true? Does it mean that the only things sixteen-year-old Sam Harris yearned for were entertainment, company and junk food? Is that all we want, or is Anthony Storr suggesting something more profound? Why do we try so hard not to be alone with our thoughts? What are we afraid of?
Lately, I’ve been pondering a lot. I believe the answer is that life offers plenty of chances for anxiety if you take the time to reflect. Fortunately, I have been using negative visualization for more than ten years. This helps me to consider potential worst-case scenarios without succumbing to panic or anxiety.
I view this as a mental simulation. It helps me to prevent bad events, lessen their psychological impact when they occur, and appreciate my present circumstances.
Anxiety and even existential dread can easily set in for those who lack practice and have never thought about the benefits of considering negative life situations.
We do everything for nothing. Death will come for us and everyone we know. We will be forgotten, and it will be like we never existed. This is the hard truth of life.
It is perhaps one of the only certainties.
I can’t remember who said it, but someone said that any idiot could make things pointless by extending the timeline far enough. If you measure meaning in the span of billions of years, then the result of your job application, the impression you make on that first date, or even brushing your teeth become completely pointless — so why even try?
Well, because if we measure meaning in a more granular timeline, the differences do become significant. There are habits and approaches, and actions that give you a significantly greater chance to live a life well lived instead of a complete bloody mess. But even if you do everything right, you could still be hit by a bus tomorrow.
Life is a game. No wonder many people don’t want to think about it and don’t like being alone.
Sam continues with this rather amusing paragraph:
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery —for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
But not everyone had this same experience, which made him ask the question:
How could someone’s happiness increase when all the material sources of pleasure and distraction had been removed?
It is evident that the external environment is not as significant as what happens internally. What we do with our resources is what counts.
Our minds are all we have. Billions of neurons and synapses, with electrical current flowing through them, somehow give rise to the feeling of “I” and the experience of being alive. This is the hard problem of consciousness, and no one has been able to solve it. Perhaps they never will. How does information processing create an identity from a collection of atoms?
Our body serves our mind. The organs help us move, find, and consume energy. Around 20% of this energy goes to the brain, even though it only makes up a small percentage of our body weight.
Our nervous system sends feedback to the brain about the external world. We create a GUI of the world that helps us survive.
And so everything good — and bad — happens because it happens in our mind. Sex and rape involve the same mechanics, but the psychological impact is vastly different. You experience pleasure and deepen your bond with your partner during the former. However, the latter can cause long-term psychological damage and even lead to suicide.
Everything that we seek, we seek because we want to change the contents of our consciousness. Many countries face significant problems with alcoholism, and this is not surprising. Alcohol is a fantastic choice of drug if you want to alter your consciousness. You will loosen up, forget your worries, become more confident, and so on.
We set goals and take action with the intention of creating a future where we can finally rest and appreciate the present.
Ironically, we sacrifice the now to search for a way to return to the now.
Many spend their entire lives chasing wealth and status, believing that their lives will become easy once they achieve a certain level of wealth. However, this is not the reality. As wealth increases, so do expenses and expectations, creating a never-ending pursuit.
Edward Gibbons said something that I think is very wise concerning wealth. It went along the lines of: I am a rich man. My income is above my expenses, and my expenses are above my wants.
So he could reframe wealth based not only on how much money he made but on how much or little he felt he needed.
This hints that there is another way to play the game of life. It doesn’t mean that goals are meaningless or that we should not strive to change the world around us (or, more modestly, ourselves).
It means a focus on the present moment. The way we pay attention to each moment of our lives largely determines the quality of our lives.
So while goals can be good, the daily habits required to reach those goals are more important. Because it is in the daily striving where the experience of the goal is found, it is dangerous to put all happiness at the end of the journey and to hate the journey itself.
Goals should be used as general signposts, like the North Star that sailors use for navigation. Get lost in striving for the goal and savour the small, incremental improvements.
Spending time alone helps people become more aware of their thoughts and how they affect their well-being.
Nothing may appear to be different on the outside, but the transformation can be immense internally.