Tuesday, 7 April 2020

From Loneliness to Solitude

The experience of 'social distancing' has brought the question of 'loneliness' to the fore for many of us.

Loneliness is a difficult experience, a negative state that enters everyone’s life at some point. You may have felt it as a child when other kids laughed at you because you were ‘different’, or as a teenager when you were the last one chosen for the team or not invited to the party, when your children left home or when you found yourself living alone for the first time. 

You may be feeling it now – a strange inner gnawing; mental and emotional hunger; boredom, ‘suffocation’, restlessness. We try to avoid this painful void by staying busy, ‘connected’, and distracted, but is this a life-giving strategy? What if we were to embrace it?

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch contemplative and spiritual teacher wrote:

‘Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude ... To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude’. 

So, what’s the difference between loneliness and solitude? If I think about this in my own experience, it seems to me that the dynamic of loneliness is resistance (something is wrong here), whereas the dynamic of solitude is acceptance. Importantly, ‘acceptance’ isn’t just resignation, putting up with it. It’s a more active embracing or befriending of my aloneness. It’s a choice and a practice which involves the courage to be fully ‘with’ what is. When I stop resisting my situation, I become present to what is here, given – the play of light and shadow in the leaves outside the window… the song of a bird… the comforting stillness of the chair in the room… the steam rising from my cup of tea…

Paradoxically, solitude is where we discover we are not alone. ‘I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude’, Henry David Thoreau wrote. And somehow, the more I embrace my solitude, the more I experience myself as belonging to 'the family of things' (Mary Oliver), the more available I am for real relationship and intimacy.The movement from loneliness to solitude leads ‘to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response’, Nouwen wrote.

So how do we practise this radical embrace of aloneness? For myself, I've discovered that a beginning is to notice the form of my resistance. When we're feeling lonely, is there a story we tell ourselves?  – ‘It shouldn’t be like this… if only I had a partner, or my children lived closer, or my friends weren’t so caught up, or I wasn’t so physically limited…

These things can be genuine sorrows, and being alone can be difficult. But our tradition teaches that our wounds are also the site of our transformation – the crack where the light gets in (to quote Leonard Cohen). Resisting our loneliness or seeing it as a problem to be solved, inflames the wound. Giving up the story that makes it seem as if something is wrong, leaning into the pain rather than pushing it away – these are the inner acts that allow grace to work. Let it be… be with it, and it will transform. 

With grateful thanks to Neil for his co-authoring of this post! Interested in your thoughts and experience, and how the dynamic of loneliness and solitude is playing out for you in these days of COVID-19!



  1. Your concept of loneliness as resistance and solitude as acceptance resonates with me.

  2. I have a card in my room that a friend gave me once with a quote from John Milton: "Solitude is sometimes best society." It's from Paradise Lost which I think is kind of neat as, looking at in a shorthand kind of way, it might be said that we lose the state of paradise when we abandon ourselves. I have been understanding only recently that it is the sense that this moment is not good enough, or should be other than it is, that is the act of self-abandonment. And in the context of your post, Sarah, it may be that loneliness is not actually a problem with being alone but more about the act of wanting something other than we have at this or any moment. After all, I have sometimes felt very alone even in company. Slowing down, coming back into the body, paying attention to those multifarious elements of which every moment is constituted - this is being with rather than resisting. And in that being with, even the sadness of being genuinely alone, if that is what is happening at the time, can be met with appreciation for the fullness of its truth and without judgment. And then, as you say, it gives it the embrace that allows it to transform into whatever is next.