Solitude and being alone

Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude. Loneliness is inner emptiness, whereas solitude is inner plenty. It is a journey through personal maturity to communion with God. Solitude exists in a tension of benefits & risks and is an elusive practice often misunderstood and often missed.

-- "The hour is coming when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone.
-- Yet I am not alone for the Father is with me." Matthew 16v32, ESV

The fear of being alone petrifies people. We make plans to be with people we don't like rather than spend a Saturday night alone. Piped music and iPods keep our ears filled with noise lest we have to be without own thoughts. An old woman sits in a nursing home, lonely and wanting to go 'home'.

Naturalistic studies tell us that we spend 29% of our time alone. 31% of us want more time alone and only 6% want less. There are benefits to community and being with others and "it is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2v18), yet how we use corporate time is often clearly reflected in out attitude to being alone: do we crave company and hence misuse it when we find it, do we desperately seek approval and so abuse the attention of well-meaning others?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book 'The Life Together' entitles sequential chapters 'The day together' and 'the day alone', writing "let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair."

Both are essential for personal and spiritual success and a tension must be found between the two, but is elusive to many. Since much has been written on the church, relationships and community, this essay examines solitude in the hope that it may open a new door for some. It also brings insights from psychiatry and psychoanalytical theory.

The history of solitude

Despite our seeming inability to manage it in the 21st Century, spending time alone has been a key feature of every major culture in history, especially among leaders. Solitude by leaders impacts whole social movements and societies. The list of those who sought solitude reads like a who's who if history: Moses, Jesus, The Buddha, Ghandi for a start.

There are many examples of Jesus seeking solitude in the Gospels (Matthew 4v1-4; 14v13,23; 17v1-9; 26v36-40; Mark 1v35; 6v31; Luke 5v16; 6v12). Sometimes it seems he just had to get away from the crowds, but at other times it was expressly to hear the voice and commission of God, perhaps most graphically seen in the Transfiguration. He also demonstrated his inner strength and reliance of God using times of solitude, perhaps most clearly here in the Garden of Gethsemane during his Passion.


History also weaves a close link between solitude and the practices of fasting and silence. Fasting calls is to leave behind the 'old wine' of rules and regulations and abstinence to discover the 'new wine' of feasting with God (Matthew 9v14-17). It stops us 'medicating' cravings of hunger and emotions with quick fixes and turns our hope towards the true 'bread of life' who alone can satisfy our hunger (John 6v33-35).

Silence is painful, as we all know from times when we have filled it with pointless noise. Yet how we deal with silence is seen in psychoanalytical theory as a key measure of maturity. It demonstrates strength of relationship between two people where there is no need to talk, no fear of abandonment or criticism and no longing for more - they simply 'are', for silence is intimately related to trust. Similarly there are many verses in the Bible about how we use the tongue. It is a spiritual thermometer: do we use it like a fire (James 3v6ff) to inflame situations to our advantage, or does it become a sign of our inner wisdom (v14) as we refrain from jealousy and selfish ambition (v15). Only when we have learnt to be truly silent can we speak the word that is needed when it is needed, and this is dependant on our capacity to be an independent thinker in a crowd.

'Lonely' or 'Alone'?

These two words are often used to describe solitude. Their frequent lack of definition is perhaps a major reason why many seek solitude and the fruits it brings, yet so few find it.

Essentially, loneliness is negative state of mind and a sign of immaturity; being alone is a positive state of mind - and a mark of maturity (like silence). Neither relates primarily to the number of people around you. It is possible to be lonely in a crowd, fearful of being ignored and displaying attention and approval-seeking behaviour as a result. It is likewise possible to be alone in a busy place, content with who you are and what you are doing.

From this you can also see that people get crowd and community mixed up as well. A crowd is merely a collection of people in one place - it says nothing about their purpose or inter-relationships. A community can be very small and speaks of people united around a reason for being or a joint aim, even if that aim is only to care for each other.

Depths of solitude

The first goal of solitude is to be comfortable with yourself. This is essential before any consideration of communion with God can occur. Some would argue that we cannot be happy with ourselves until after we have found out who we are in God and that I am putting the cart before the horse and it is true that there is a tension here. However, it is my experience that the barrier most people have to this level of solitude is not that they don't know who they are in God (they do, they have read their Bibles and heard their sermons and know their facts); it is rather that they are uncomfortable with themselves and others, and this is the main thing stopping them finding or hearing God - so this is where the work must be.

So, how do we develop the ability to be alone with ourselves? Winnicott describes this as a journey through two-, three- and one-body states. When we are born, we are in a two-body state, totally dependant on our mother (or another) for warmth, food and comfort. Remove the mother and the baby seems to literally fragment. That is the reason behind the piercing cries and led him to observe that 'there is no such thing as a baby' - only the diad with the mother. The three-body is the next state as the father (or another) tries to get in on the act by demanding some of the mothers attention and time. This causes the famous 'oedipal complex' when the child wants to be rid of the father and have the mother all to itself, but maturity will only be achieved when it realises it can't and the 'complex' is resolved. The next stage is the one-body state, when the child is at peace with itself as itself and can allow the father and mother to be getting on with whatever they want. This is the start of maturity.

The child can also be 'lent' security by the mother - most obviously through a so-called 'transitional object' that the child carries with it like a comforter or blanket, which allows a child to demonstrate more independence and maturity that is actually there. Lose the blanket and the child's ability (or not) to function alone will be revealed!!! What has happened here is that the child has first projected onto the transitional object before it has truly internalised it into their inner space. But, with development, an image of the caring mother can be fully internalised that they can carry with them even when the mother is not there.

The warmth generated by these internalised objects forms the basis of maturity. The objects can be more than just mother or father. They can be a community like a family or a church, non-concrete objects like sporting success or academic rigour. The key thing is that when the chips are down, the basic attitude of the person concerned is that the world is benign, they do not need to be afraid and they have warmth within them. It is also true to say that some people's relationship with God functions at this level, where He has become no more that an internalised whatever-you-want-him-to-be who will keep you safe, tuck you up in bed at night and watch out for people who try to harm you. [Note: I'm not saying God is not like this, but I do not think He is so tame or so small!].

Psychotherapy also takes us one stage deeper, when people glimpse for a moment the solitude that goes beyond what they had imagined. Abraham Maslow called these moments of 'self-actualisation', when we gain brief insight into the full depth of our potential and ability - and gain security in solitude as a result. Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code, tells of a Masonic sex-ritual where the moment of orgasm seems to have a similar role: the celebrant is 'one' with the universe and the event. The experience is cosmic and ecstatic in its quality, but it is as deep as humans can go alone

Spirituality, however, adds another level, by saying that we are never truly alone - as illustrated by the Bible verse at the top of this article. People of faith can follow the two/three/one-body journey to remove themselves from the bondage of the opinion and influence of others, but the goal is not humanist independence or self-actualisation, but rather a communion with the 'One' who cannot be heard at a lower level. The fact that God is Spirit and hence everywhere means that unlike Winnicott, I do not need to be content with merely an internalised but inanimate mother/warmth, but can carry with me a direct link to my fully-living Saviour and Lord. I can be by myself but never alone.

A banal analogy can be seen in how computers connect to the internet. The most basic is a direct cable: most likely to work, but always tied to the socket. Next up is infra-red or blue-tooth - allowing me more range but still pretty dependant. Better still is wireless: up to fifty metres on a good day with no walls in the way! However, we all pursue the holy grail of connection by satellite - this works anywhere on the planet. If only it weren't so expensive and the bandwidth so small the analogy would be complete! The mature believer has discovered the reality of Ephesians 4v18-21: that the 'eyes of our heart' have a continuous connection to the hope, the riches and the power of God. They are 'always on'.

The benefits

Why is solitude so craved? Maybe because loneliness and busyness are so common. The Amazon website lists over 500 titles relating to solitude and loneliness. A major benefit of pursuing solitude is that it enables us to rise above loneliness and busyness in ways that are not just escapism or avoidance. But this cannot be the whole story.

History tells us that men have sought solitude for the objectivity it provides. Once you have got over the irrational fears of the first few days, there comes an ability to see things as they really are. Time alone also brings creativity - a friend of mine who writes songs has to make space in his diary to be apart from the noise; many famous writers have had a cabin in the woods - Rudyard Kipling wrote the Jungle Books in his.

For the Christian, a major reason for being alone is to hear the voice of God. TS Elliott writes, "Where shall all the world be found, where shall all the world resound? Not here, there is not enough silence." Foster writes, "the less mesmerised we are by human voices, the more we are able to hear the Divine Voice." It is not surprising that God often called his followers into the wilderness or up mountains to hear his voice, for he does not shout. He speaks in the 'still small voice of calm' that Elijah could only hear after withdrawing from the events of Carmel (1Kings 19v12). He speaks his Ten Commandments on the heights of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19v20). He broadcasts using a higher frequency that we will miss if we spend all our lives in the lower ranges.

Solitude also brings healing for the believer. There is a key place for the Healing Community of the church, where (in an ideal world) we can learn that God had a higher plan for relationships than many have experienced. However, especially for those who are so broken by human hurts that they can currently trust no-one, solitude with God offers the only place where they can meet Him, taste Him and see that the Lord is good (Psalm34v8).

Lastly, solitude and silence bring a benefit for God - He can speak to us without the distraction of the world and the prattle of our own minds. If we are not in charge, maybe He can be. If we are not speaking, maybe His voice can be heard.

The risks

Anything that is powerful enough to do good is also powerful enough to do harm. The goal of solitude (which is intimacy with God) will never harm, for God is working all things for good for those who love Him (Romans 8v28), but the pursuit and the techniques are not so benign. Spiritual Disciplines bring freedom, but they are not the goal. If they become they goal, then they become a law and the freedom is lost.

Spending time alone is never easy and if people are not ready then the consequences can be severe. I have spoken already how we can borrow 'lent' security from a mother or a church, but if that is not present or not sufficiently internalised, if a two-body-state person tries to jump to one-body without passing through three-bodies and the resolution of the oedipal complex, then fragmentation will occur.

If lucky, this will merely result in the period of solitude just being ineffective. It will be filled with boredom, chat or maybe the iPod that was taken along 'just in case'. I will write more about what is called 'the sacrifice of fools' later. More worryingly, the person may develop a narcissistic or megalomanic defence and fill the void with thoughts of self-importance and self-infatuation. Periods of unhappy loneliness which will fuel the cycle and, if the person alternatives between loneliness and narcissism, then this is most worrying of all and is a sign of a deeper immaturity, of a borderline existence which could tip either way. It looks like the pursuit of solitude, but is actually bondage to a law.

There are some people for whom excessive use of solitude may actually be a precipitant to depression. Our bodies are like sieves in that the happiness we contain slowly leaks away unless we do something to make more - and social interaction is a chief way to do this. Depression is particularly likely if, 1) there is as history of depression in the person or family as this will make that path easier to chose next time, 2) the solitude is imposed and not chosen [for example in a nursing home or after a divorce], 3) the solitude is seen as merely fasting from society rather than feasting on God and there is nothing positive in it. Jesus warns us about merely cleaning our houses and putting them in order without then filling them with his purpose and presence (Luke 11v24-26).

The deepest risk

Life is inseparable from risk and, though it remains a risk, the greatest promise of solitude is found at the point of greatest risk. At some point, those who journey deep into the discipline of solitude will enter what the mystic St John of the Cross called the 'dark night of the soul'. Isaiah 50v10 describes it well [italics mine]:


"Who among you fears the Lord,
And obeys the voice of his servant?
And who walks in darkness
And has no light?
Yet trusts in the name of the Lord
And relies upon his God?"

St John suggests that we cannot fully trust in God until we have passed though that darkest of nights with no light to see the way. He calls the discoveries there 'sheer grace', adding:

"O Guiding night,
O night more lovely than the dawn.
O night that has united
The Lover with his Beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover."

The dark night is not destructive or to punish or afflict us, but it sets us free from the bonds of others. Friends may tell us to 'snap out of it', but they do not understand the purpose or the experience.

Things that once satisfied (worship services, bible study, witnessing, even maybe the image we held of God) seem childish and do not stimulate. Nothing reaches deep enough, all seems superficial. St John describes this as a 'stilling' of thoughts, emotions, ambitions; like an anaesthetic before a much needed surgical operation when God will show us what we truly need. God is freeing us from ourselves and taking us away from our own activity!

Barriers to solitude

I have divided these into two - the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious are relatively easy to spot and focus mainly on the fact that we are so busy and face information overload everyday. I will outline some steps to finding stillness below. However, ignorance about the benefits of solitude must also find a place - hence this essay!

The unconscious barriers are (to me as a psychiatrist, anyway!) more interesting. These are not absolute barriers, and indeed remain with us all to some extent as we take this journey.

Winnicott calls his classic paper 'The capacity to be alone', and make it clear that not all have this capacity. We can 'borrow' warmth from a transitional object, but this is never ours and will not enable us to be fully alone. When I am trying to be alone, the temptation to make a phone call or watch TV is enormous and reflects the fact that I am still very much learning this. As we learn solitude, it would be unwise to jump straight into the fortnights silent retreat, for we will not manage it.

The psychoanalytical theory of the two-body state tells us that if one of the bodies is removed, the person left alone will be alone not only without the warmth of the other, but also without the capacity of the other to 'hold' their anxieties. Imagine a little girl travelling with her dad - if she loses grip of his hand, all of her fears will return whereas previously he kept her safe. As we begin a journey into solitude and leave behind this we rely on, we will have to face up to all of our insecurities and fears and this will cause a 'depression' of sorts (though not clinical depression) as they will have a negative and blunting effect on our mood. There will be unpleasant stages that some will never chose to push beyond.

There will be times when we will want to 'borrow' warmth from others on this journey and in other papers, Winnicott describes the necessary qualities of that warmth: it must not be perfectly safe or else we will never grow up; it must not be too distant or it will not warm. Instead, it must be 'good enough', like a mother who allows her children just about the right amount of freedom and love for them to mature into adults. It will not be easy to journey into solitude with God if your day-to-day environment is filled with stress and emotional work. Caring for ailing parents, bringing up three children alone, learning a company or church without support may all mean that your 'facilitating environment' is simple not good enough.

Lastly, some personality types will find solitude easier than others. In psychology studies, a preference for solitude is strongly correlated with introversion and, less strongly, with neuroticism (a tendency to anxiety) and spirituality. Our personalities are fairly static but not fixed. I am a strong extrovert, but have been able to develop my 'introvert' side through solitude. In any event, Carl Jung, who invented the concepts of introversion and extroversion said that we should be aiming for a 50-50 split by the time we grow old.
Steps on the journey

The first step is to find motivation for the long haul. This comes in part from reading things like this essay, but also from making and implementing decisions to live your life as process rather than event, as long haul rather than quick fix. This may require some accountability with others to see how much you currently rely on quick fixes and sticking plasters. This is a painful first step, but will hopefully weed out those who would otherwise take a few steps and then just stumble.

The second step is to begin to notice the times of solitude you already have: the ten minute walk to the bus stop, the shower in the morning. These can be made into special times and dedicated to God. Slip outside just before bed and taste the silent night!

The serious pursuit of solitude will give some consideration to place. In scripture and in other traditions, people have always sought out high places to remove the distraction of the lower levels. A good example is in Revelation 4v1. After the distressing behind-the-scenes look at seven struggling churches that John sees, he is called to 'come up here' and see the truth of 'what will take place after this' - a truth he could never have accepted from a lower vantage point. I have walked in the Yorkshire Dales along well known routes so my mind is not filled with navigation! In one survey, 54% of backpakers thought that solitude was 'extremely' or 'very' important to their wilderness experience.

Solitude is a discipline that must be pursued in different ways across the lifespan. Children need it to play and grow and will struggle without a 'tent' or a 'den'. Adults crave it to escape, but craving of solitude can mean that when it comes it is not enjoyed properly - rather scoffed like a fine ice cream on a sweltering day. Older people often have little choice but to be alone, yet this does not have to mean loneliness. Particularly for those whose solitude is an escape or enforced, there is a need to keep a close eye on thoughts.

Longer times alone will generate thoughts like, 'do I have any friends?' or 'will there be any gifts this Christmas'. Sometimes these thoughts are from Satan, as he would deceive us with lies and accuse us as we pursue God; sometimes they are from our own insecurities. Keeping a simple journal of our thoughts (not too detailed) will enable us to see them in black and white and to name them for what they are - thoughts that do not have to change our emotions or behaviour unless we let them.

Though we can only journey into solitude alone, we can make use of others and facilitating environments in our journey. There is no need to exclude spouses or friends, and the importance of being 'planted' in a strong church or similar environment is vital. Otherwise, with whom shall we share the fruits of our labours. Winnicott called this 'ego support', as we gain strength from those around us.

However, though we may use of others, we should give consideration to whom we will share our insights with. Jesus calls us not to cast our pearls before swine and there will be some who will not appreciate what we have to say. Additionally, some of the insights we gain should be valued secrets between God and us. All pairs of lovers have things that are known only to the two of them ;-)

Those more established in the pursuit of solitude will find that a regular space will need to be made in their lives. This may already be something that is a feature of your life already. I try to take a day's annual leave (the countryside is quieter mid week!) about three times a year to walk and pray. Every couple of years I hope to take a longer time of maybe five days or a week to be alone. I first did this two years ago and am starting to long for this again.


Because of the way our society works, the temptation to fill times of solitude with 'tasks' is huge. Surely, we say, it is time wasted if there is no plan, task or purpose. But the greatest benefits come from prayer and within prayer the greatest benefits come from just listening to God.

The story is told of a journalist who asked Mother Theresa what she said when she prayed to God and she replied that she didn't say anything at all, but just listened. 'What does God say?' was the obvious reply. 'Oh, he doesn't say anything.' 'What does he do then?' 'He listens as well.' This story is seen in another way in the words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 5v1-3:

"Guard your steps when you draw near to the house of God.
To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that what they are doing is evil.
Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth.
Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business and a fool's voice with many words."

The 'sacrifice' of such fools is clearly displayed by Peter at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17v1-8, Mark 9v1-8) when he cannot come with the splendour of God revealed in the solitude and mountain-top experience. He begins to babble and offers a daft symbol of an Old Testament sacrifice - but he 'did not know what he was doing' and had filled the 'moment' with something so trivial and human that it took a voice from heaven to get his attention back onto Jesus - and I see so much of myself in this event!

Developing the ability to listen (and not chatter or write or dream or read or fill the space in some other way than with God) is one of the hardest things in the world, but there are great rewards for those who will take the trouble to 'practice the presence of God' and be alone with Him.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1954) The Life Together. London, SCM Press
Richard Foster (1989, 2003) Celebration of Discipline. London, Hodder and Stroughton. Especially chapter 7
Donald Winnicott (1957) On Being Alone. In 'The maturational process and the facilitating environment'. First published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1957;39, 416:420
Christopher Long & James Averill (2003) Solitide: an exploration of benefits of being alone. Journal for the theory of social behaviour. 33:21-44
St John of the Cross (1964) The collected works of St John of the Cross. New York, Garden City.
Rob Waller, 17/03/2016
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