Thursday, 2 April 2015

Unstructured solitude - where and how can we be free, good and happy?

I have an unusually powerful need for unstructured solitude - that is for un-busy, un-hurried, un-distracted time spent alone and without any kind of detailed agenda.

I have been aware of this need since I was thirteen years old, and I have generally been fortunate enough to be able to get what I needed.

Because we are animals; Men require certain circumstances - and unstructured solitude needs some kind of context. What I aim-at is a type of meditation; but the mechanism probably does not look to other people like meditation - because it consists of 'journaling' - that is, hand-writing in a notebook.

Good places for meditative journaling:

  • Cafes
  • Libraries
  • Something like a shed, workshop, or part-covered, semi-outdoor niche
  • Public transport - especially a train
  • Walking - carrying a notebook

While my personal need for unstructured solitude is so great that it is painful for me to be deprived, even for one day; there are problems which, I think, prevent other and less 'driven' people from obtaining what they also likely require (albeit to a lesser extent):

  • Distraction by intrusive surroundings - especially from other people who may be un-ignorably gossiping, or behaving in a threatening manner.
  • The need for distraction - especially the addictive use of external stimulation. People reach for a newspaper, fill their heads with music from headphones, use social media etc.
  • Boredom - as a consequence of habitual passivity of mind. Sooner or later boredom will afflict everybody - but for some people boredom kicks-in, in just a few seconds.
  • Busyness - the pressure of time, a fully organized life, planning of everything and the notion that everything should be planned.

Most profoundly, a false metaphysics, a set of false ideas about 'what matters' - the idea that only active living is important, only social relationships are important; that to be alone and 'doing nothing useful' is selfish, self-indulgent, lazy.

The consequence of these preventive factors is that modern people waste their precious opportunities for unstructured solitude - they waste the time spent in a cafe, on a bus, walking; they waste it on chores, on distractions, or (more rarely) on sheer vacuity of mind (lapsing into 'stand-by' - a state of slack-jawed suspended animation).

If there was real truth in what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living; then each person needs to think about when this 'examining' of our life is supposed to be taking place, if not in unstructured solitude?



Faculty X said...

In conversation? It's not done today, especially in the West now, but that was the way then from the man himself.

Things really don't seem to change. A true inquirer will be met with hostility now like then. There would need to be different types of people in higher number, and then a new culture too.

I'm curious how you take your disposition, one which I share along with some of your other readers, and reconcile it with Mormon practices, which are very busy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - I should make clear that I am not a member of the Mormon church, so I do not 'practice'.

Arakawa said...

There is something about trains, isn't there? I've been trying to understand what it is, particularly in light of seemingly watertight arguments by folks like Antiplanner (very obnoxious libertarian blogger, but diligent on collecting evidence) that they are an obsolete form of transportation that makes no economic sense and should be scrapped in favour of convenient motorways everywhere. Which, if convenience and economic considerations are a bottom line value, seems incontrovertible. (But I don't think they should be.)

The nature of public transportation in general is that it's inconvenient*; it involves the creation of unstructured time mostly because people need to take time and plan to go where (and when) the public transit is laid out to run. A lot of people have to compromise and go out of their way in order to have enough people moving along the same straight line to support a high-capacity transport corridor. It requires some type of sensible decision making by a government or similar-size entity (and God knows that's lacking nowadays) to develop a transit system that is well-integrated. In short, reasonable public transport is something that can only come about in a civilized, cohesive society, where things can be decided at the level of the society.

(* Though in practice the convenience of cars lasts until the next traffic jam.)

So, if that social cohesion and willingness to compromise vanishes, the civilization can buy some time by all getting into separate cars, but that does not represent the 'restoration of cohesion'; but rather a sort of social cease-fire. In some cities public transport has a bad reputation, but this is a sign of the illness of the social fabric, not the public transport.

That may not be exactly it, but still I feel like there's something about trains.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara- You are right.

I also get the impression (based on only tiny experience) that steam trains were even more train-like - in this respect - than diesel or electric trains. It is a strange thing that a particular type of technology - for all its noise and dirt - had such a romance, and suggestiveness and (yes!) spirituality about it.

But another example of romantic technology (easier to understand), whose heyday was even shorter-lived than steam trains, were the canal narrow boats and the 18th century canals in general - with their tow-paths, tunnels, locks and aqueducts.

I used to find another romanticism about aircraft, airports and flying - which has completely gone during the past 20 years. Part of it was the free meals provided in those little shaped trays - when that was abolished, something delightful went with it.

Brett Stevens said...

One of the most important aspects of unstructured solitude is independence from constant distraction. This rules out cafes for me, since there's usually loud bad 90s alternative folk and constant drama from the people surrounding.

I see unstructured solitude as necessary to develop a soul. I oppose our job- and work-fixations as a society because those are designed to interrupt the process of developing a soul. But until we get to know ourselves, we are merely nerves reacting to stimulus and then self-stimming to keep a sense of relevance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brett - Yes, only some cafes work for this purpose. These, I seek-out and stick-with.

"until we get to know ourselves, we are merely nerves reacting to stimulus and then self-stimming to keep a sense of relevance." - nicely put.

islanti said...

I'm glad you touched on this. Ironically, I find myself alienated from the world and God if I spend too much time "in" the world and not enough time meditating, thinking about God/Christianity and the implications that come with that, or just exploring my thoughts. Some of my best memories and when I felt closet to God and the most in-the-moment were last year when I'd spend roughly 2 hours outside my door almost every night just thinking, undistracted. For whatever reason I always had to wait until nighttime to do this, and it had to be outside, while I gazed at the stars or just admired my natural surroundings.

This year I feel a desire for a certain amount of meditative/undisturbed daily time which I am not quite getting right now, to the same degree, as often as I'd like. It's entirely possible I'm letting my "addiction to distraction" get the best of me and that's what I need to work on the most.

Apologizes if you've written about this before, but given the quality of your thoughts and daily writings, I would be interested in an idea of how you approach your days and schedule your time to remain this disciplined, present, focused, sharp, and spiritually fulfilled?

Bruce Charlton said...

The first few that come up here may answer your question:

My practice changed since I began this blog because I retired from paid work due to ill health - so since around 2018 I spend more time being ill, and none at all doing academic work stuff.

The main thing common to the whole span of time is rising early, before the rest of the family (and thereby beginning the day in solitude), and doing my main thinking before (say) 11:00 am.

islanti said...

Thanks Bruce. A few of those posts I had not read. Much appreciated.