In this time of enforced lockdown, solitude is eluding me. I’ve begun to wonder how long I’ve neglected my own thoughts in favour of external voices. How they are so easily interrupted and discarded.
Late last year, I found myself collapsed on the sofa after I put the kids to sleep. Daylight savings had begun, and from that perspective, I discovered all I could see through our ceiling-high windows was the sky and the gently swaying treetops. As I lay there, my arm settled across my chest, my heart beating frantically beneath it. The contrast between the stillness I was experiencing outwardly, and what was going on inside of me was troubling. I continued to stare out the window as the pinky blue sky disappeared into night, and my heart settled. The next morning I reached for my phone, only to realise I’d never made my usual check of messages and emails before I went to bed. Never even picked it up.
I gave a name to this time spent staring out the window - ‘doing nothing’.
The next time I did nothing, all I felt was angst. It didn’t happen naturally. My mind was at war with itself. Staring out the window didn’t calm me. I wanted my phone. A book. Anything to not be alone with my thoughts. How could sitting with myself make me so uncomfortable? I picked at my fingernails and twisted my hair. Toward the end, I made an uneasy peace with myself. Again I found afterwards I had no desire to pick up my phone, to connect with the outside world.
On reflection, it was not chance that I flopped down to ‘do nothing’ that first night. Earlier in the year, on a rare day alone and free of toddlers, I found myself in the Avenue Bookstore on Swan Street. As someone who has often questioned my time spent online, its value and what control I have over it, Digital Minimalism - On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport was an easy buy. Just this week I found a notebook from 2015 where I detailed implementing a ‘no phone in the bedroom rule', only to find myself in bed scrolling Instagram after forgetting to place my phone in the designated place. I’m sure I’m not alone in this scenario.
My takeaway on the first read of Digital Minimalism revolved around how every time I clicked, people were getting paid, and that Silicon Valley was using psychology to ensure I clicked as often as possible. There was a subtle shift in the weight I felt from my inability to disconnect. Maybe I wasn’t as weak as I thought. But it was my second reading that led me to my exploration of solitude, highlighting our basic need to spend time alone and how current technology was preventing this now more than ever before.
In Chapter 4 ‘Spend Time Alone’ Cal references solitude as:
”a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about this line and the desperate pull I felt to grab a book or my phone, during my attempts to ‘do nothing’. Was I reaching for those external voices to drown out my own? Possibly. Allowing our thoughts to run their full course can bring about uncomfortable realisations, like the night it became apparent that though I’d been looking after my kids all day I had not played with them until 4pm when we walked to the park. I’d prepped food, cleaned, done the washing. I’d chatted with friends and family. No doubt I’d checked in on my email and the news. Multiple times. But at the park I pushed wiggly bodies on the swings and helped chubby legs climb the spider web. We played shark on the pirate ship (I was the shark) and spun around in the red apple. Just them and me at the park. Their squeals of delight and my full attention. Something Cal writes about is the 'insight and emotional balance that comes from unhurried self reflection'. On this occasion, being alone with my thoughts had reconnected me to what was happening right in front of me.
Back before this time of connectivity, I got my solitude when I walked. As a sullen teenager, I would stomp across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In my twenties, I raced on foot from home, to work, to the pub and repeat in Sydney’s Inner East. And though moving to L.A. prompted me to finally get a driver’s license, I continued to walk exploring the city’s secret staircases.
These days it feels harder to get out for a walk alone. When I do get out, I’ve started to leave my phone at home. You could call it an experiment. No podcasts. No photos of the sun setting over the bay, Melbourne’s skyline floating in the background. No checking for new messages. Because I’m starting to realise my thoughts are a valuable commodity. They’re mine, and I want to have them uninterrupted, to protect them, to reflect and allow myself to make connections and realisations that may otherwise go by the wayside.
How often do you find yourself truly alone with your thoughts?