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Mindful : December 2018
y father died suddenly during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. The loss unhinged me. Even though I lived with two roommates and was surrounded by fellow students and teachers, I spent the next three years of college in a fog of depression and isolation. After graduation I joined the Peace Corps, partly in order to avoid the draft—it was the height of the Vietnam War—and partly from having no idea where I wanted to go with my life. Arriving in East Africa as a minimally pre- pared secondary-school teacher, I experienced being completely alone in a culture totally differ- ent from the one I’d grown up in. Paradoxically, instead of miring me in loneliness, being in this utterly new and different environment drew me out of my isolation. After a few weeks there, I woke up with a sense of shock to the realization that the way people were living in this part of the world—still organized in traditional tribal societies and cultivating and hunting their own food—was far more representative of how human beings had lived for thousands of years than the lifestyle I’d come from. American culture by contrast seemed like an artificial, self-involved, materialistic aberration. Making peace with time alone and finding the means to do it in the healthiest way may be essential to living life well. ABOUT THE AUTHOR David Rome is the author of Your Body Knows the Answer, a book about accessing deeper knowing through mindfulness of the body. This refreshing experience of solitude gave me the space to find myself, my own values, a sense of purpose. I enacted this new direction primarily in teaching young people who were the first in their families to receive a West- ern-style education, but also through organizing an anti-war protest among my fellow Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya. It was a formative time that, along with encountering Buddhism shortly after my return to the States, set the course for the rest of my life. Ever since that time, I’ve appreciated solitude, and contem- plated its relationship to its close cousins: isolation, loneliness, and aloneness. Making peace with time alone and finding the means to do it in the healthiest way may be essential to living life well. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, dis- cover that I had not lived.” Thoreau’s celebration of solitude has itself been celebrated widely ever since. Yet, between 1825 (when Thoreau was eight years old) and 2000, use of the word “sol- itude” in printed books declined by over 70%. In the same period, use of the word “loneliness” increased by over 500%. What may this curious statistic be revealing? It suggests, perhaps, that we are living in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness accompanied by a famine of solitude, increasingly isolated from each other and yet starved for the kind of time alone that rewards us—and those who come in contact with us—deeply. Both loneliness and solitude are conditions of aloneness—which simply describes the state of being by yourself and doesn’t carry a positive or negative connotation—but the actual expe- riences the two words evoke are very different. Loneliness involves feelings of sadness and yearning for what is absent: family, friends, home, native land, culture. This yearning for people and places that hold great meaning for us expresses a basic human need to belong—to be in active relationship with the things that make us who we are. Loneliness is an instinctive response to feelings of social isolation, moving us to seek and reach out to others. But at times this seeking and reaching behavior can turn → M 46 mindful December 2018 insight