In Search of Solitude

Last fall, I had the opportunity to travel through New Jersey in late October, just as the autumn foliage was reaching its maximum vibrance.  I was only there for a day, but I wasn’t going to miss the Northeastern fall: it’s one of my favorite things.

So, I went on a hike with my in-laws, in a wooded area near the Hackensack river.  It was great. The next day, I had a few hours to kill before driving to the airport to catch my flight to New Orleans.  Guess what I did?  I left early, to take another autumn hike in the Englewood Bird Sanctuary.  This time, alone.

A few of my relatives thought it was strange that I would go for a hike all by my lonesome.  They chalked it up to my obsessive love for fall foliage.  But the truth is, I like hiking alone.  Walking through nature in solitude is a completely different experience than when hiking with family or friends.

The great Hasidic thinker, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a big believer in “Hitbodedut” (self-seclusion), referring to silent meditation, best performed in forests or fields.  According to Rebbe Nachman, all of the great leaders of the Jewish people practiced this self-seclusion, from Abraham to King David.

Why is seclusion an important part of being good Jew?  For Rebbe Nachman, the main reason to seek out silence was to converse with the Creator.  But he also wrote that Hitbodedut offered an opportunity for self-reflection, to examine personal motivations and seek a proper path for the future.

Rebbe Nachman is in good company with modern science and psychology.  Nowadays, some of us grow up equating solitude with loneliness, a negative feeling.  But science says that planned solitude is actually a positive thing.  Studies have shown that spending time alone boosts creativity. This should come as no surprise to those who’ve read the works of Henry David Thoreau, who spent months living alone in a cabin while working on Walden.

Solitude can also make us more productive people.  Spending time alone with our thoughts is key to identifying and executing our goals.  Quiet time is a necessary step towards achieving our maximum potential, in all areas of life.

In these days of Corona lockdowns, some of us may have lots of time alone.  But to those of us with kids at home, it’s a 24/7 circus dance, with no Hitbodedut in sight.  Still, carving out even a little bit of alone time will increase your mental clarity and improve your ability to function.  Go for a 10-minute walk all by yourself and reap the many benefits of spending time in solitude and self-reflection.


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