How to be alone.

Sara Maitland lives alone by choice in a remote corner of Scotland. In her book How to be alone she says, “Once upon a time, and not very long ago, the word ‘lone’ had rather heroic and adventurous connotations: the Lone Ranger was not sad, mad or bad.” Nowadays the word lone smacks of psychosis, a ’lone stalker’, a psychopath, or a loner unable to relate to other people, weird and best avoided.
Retreat 2It is difficult to find time to spend alone these days. Or if we do, we equate it with loneliness, sitting in our homes thinking that we haven’t spoken to anyone all weekend. However, going on a retreat is not about feeling empty and friendless, it is about withdrawing from the stress of everyday life, which can mean either a frenetic work schedule or one’s own tendency to feel dissatisfied with life. On a retreat we extract ourselves from the onslaught of the media, from other people’s demands and noise. We find a safe haven in which we can recover and seek to heal our minds and hearts.
The feature that all retreats share – religious or otherwise – is simplicity, in order to remember who we are and return to the sanity of who we have always been from the beginning. It could be a walking holiday with strangers or a course in expressive art of some form. It could also be a religious retreat or a yoga or tai chi weekend. Ideally there will be no Wi-Fi or mobile phone connection – we are not accountable to our families and colleagues on a retreat. Often it will be situated in a rural environment, but the location is not the point. A retreat is possible in the city, as long as it is away from our normal schedule and in a place of quiet. A personal retreat might be simply taking time away from life for ourselves, but guided retreats are more popular, since they also take away the need to decide how we are going to spend our time.
Retreat 3Another important feature is not to be accompanied by anyone with whom we have an emotional connection. No close relatives or friends, no people who have any vested interest in what you say or do so there are no obligations or social constraints. So often we feel defined by our spouse, our children or our colleagues. On a retreat we slough off the external world and our concepts of what other people think we are, and sit with ourselves and our inner stillness.
The point is to return to the fundamental self.
This is not selfish, since it will enable us to be a better spouse or companion, a better neighbour and colleague. Spending time on our own boosts empathy and makes us more considerate. The ability to be alone is the mark of a balanced individual who does not need others for identity, security and stability. If we do not look after ourselves we have less to give to others. People who have attended a retreat find they return to their lives with enthusiasm and a healthier perspective which changes their relationship with others. Ideally we would attend two retreats a year of a least two nights.
Retreats combat ageing because they remove stress, which benefits our immune system and boosts our innate healing mechanisms. Breaking our symbiotic relationship with the passing of time also helps us to see it is merely a social construct. Times passes in accordance with our perceptions and on a retreat we become truly ageless since our perceptions change completely. We find we are the same person inside however many years have passed since we were born. Alone with our thoughts, we can observe which ones are least helpful, and understand how the mind works to define reality.
Not many people go on retreats these days. Almost no one has the time, or the inclination, since leaving our normal routine and life behind can feel uncomfortable. The urge to panic is not uncommon. These feelings are normal during the first few hours when we are adjusting to the retreat, but they are temporary, similar to the withdrawal symptoms when quitting other kinds of addictions or comforts.
Retreat 4Brenda lost her husband in 2014. A colleague found him slumped over his desk, dead from a heart attack. He was in his forties, overweight and had serious financial problems. He left her with debts and three young children. He had refused to attend the church retreat a month beforehand, claiming he had to work to try and get his life back on track and help his family through their problems.
None of us are so indispensable that we cannot spare two days to recuperate.
Those who find it most difficult to go on retreat – mothers of young children, or people constantly in demand such as politicians or CEOs – need it most of all. Retreats are not about loneliness. Loneliness engenders fear, but spending time alone takes us away from the judgment and demands of others.

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