Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Solitude and Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between the need for community and the need for solitude. At this time of year, when many gather with friends and family, I feel the tension between my own desires for both. On Monday the 21st I shared a solstice ceremony with four friends, a time of dreaming together in the darkness and sharing the promise of the returning light. My husband Jeff and I will also spend a day with my sons and a day with his family and, weather permitting, visit with my parents next week. As an introvert even this limited amount of socializing can seem a little overwhelming.
But it also makes me think of those who are alone at this time of year, not by choice, but because they have no family or community with which to gather.

I remember the first Christmas after my divorce. My boys were four and seven at the time. Their father and I had planned for the boys to spend Christmas Eve and morning with me and then the rest of Christmas day at his house. My parents were away so this left me alone for the afternoon and evening of Christmas day. Although Christmas had been a day of family and church community when I was growing up, I had convinced myself that my general dislike for the commercialization of the season would make it no big deal to spend a large portion of the day alone.

To my surprise, it was very difficult. Try as I might, I could not shake a sense of being unmoored. I wandered around the house, unsure of what to do. I wanted to be with family even when I remembered that large family gatherings can often be an exhausting combination of work, small talk and turmoil as old buttons are pushed. I told myself that it was just another day, but it wasn’t. It was a day filled with memories- the aroma of cooked turkey filled with sage and rosemary dressing; working in a hot crowded kitchen alongside my mother and grandmother; smiling to see my dignified grandfather in a tissue paper hat; singing carols at church; watching TV specials together; playing broad games. It was the one day when the commercialization of the celebration of the birthing of the light/Christ child was at its low ebb- stores were closed and people came together with family, friends, and community.

The longing for solitude and the ache for community reflect important needs of the human soul. Both can feel like blessings when they are chosen. But involuntary solitude can be terribly lonely, and I think of all those who do not have family or friends and my heart aches. Involuntary community- attending events out of a sense of obligation when we are exhausted- can feel like a burden, and I think of those who are aching for a moment to sit down and be quiet and alone in midst of all the hustle and bustle.

Sometimes we can shift our experience by simply being aware of what is and choosing to engage in it- to be fully present with ten minutes of desired solitude as we take a bath; to allow ourselves to pause and really see the family and friends who gather, remembering that the unpredictability and impermanence of life means we cannot take for granted that they will be with us next year. Choosing what is, even when the situation is not completely voluntary, can allow us to relax and receive the blessings of the moment.

And sometimes we just have to hold the tension between the ache for belonging and the longing for solitude, until a new way of being with what is comes to us.

May we come to appreciate both being alone with ourselves and being fully with others. If we are lucky enough to belong to community, may we reach out and make room in the circle for those who are not so blessed. If we have been blessed with the time and awareness to really be with ourselves, may we become (as Rilke put it) the guardian of the other’s solitude when he or she needs to turn inward. And may we find both contemplative solitude and heartfelt community, and help create both for others in our world.


  1. May we appreciate and allow oursleves to be ourslevs. Especially this time of year when so much can feel like obligation and/or loneliness. Let us reflect in both and be completely present in our experiences so that as we go on into the New Year we reflect on what it means to us and carry it forward with us. Let us not just go through the Holiday season lets live in it.

  2. Oriah,

    Thank you for this reiteration about community. It is amazing how the Universe orchestrates opportunities to bring people together. I am one who has found it so difficult to really be open to others and I guess what you might say is to truly "love the world". And yet my heart's desire is to do exactly those things!

    This week I was blessed with four experiences that led to the sharing of hugs and tears among strangers, where people's lives were changed, including my own. I find it profoundly difficult to articulate this glimpse of what life can be like when you love people with your soul.
    I have to thank Bill Guthrie for his comment on your post yesterday because it was the link I needed to understand how community was being created and how blessed I was to be a part of it. Sometimes they just seem like events and you don't really see the bigger picture of what is taking place.
    As an introvert who has been gifted with plenty of time alone, I treasure these opportunities to learn and grow and love. It is such an honor to be a part of this growing family that you have on your blog and FB.

    Thank you for Being, Oriah.

  3. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I look forward to your post in that it brings to light my own feelings. I believe that when one has the gift to bring voice to what is within each of us, we are blessed. You have that gift.
    As you shared about your childhood memories, it reminded me of my own. As you shared about your times of lonliness, it touched on my own. As you shared about your conflicting feelings between community and solitude, it touched my own.

    Thank you for giving a voice to what is, and reminding us that what is...really is enough. Blessings to you and your family...Lynn

  4. Great reminder in the comment above: "Let us not just go through the Holiday season, let us live in it." How often do I "get through" instead of consciously "living in?" Too often!

  5. Oriah, How fortunate we are when we can lovingly engage in both solitude and in community. Many of us are only comfortable with one or the other, or a rigid version of either. I have deep gratitude for the community you cocreate in using the gift of your words and beautifully expressed thoughts. Blessings to you this season, Laurel

  6. As a young Jewish boy, Christmas seemed so appealing: presents and parties that were yours by birthright. As I grew up and saw the stress that came with the commercialization and familial obligations, I began to think that maybe just having a vacation without duties was the better side of the deal.

    Now, three days after having sat and chanted in a solstice sweat for two hours, in a time of life when it's all either vacation or work as I choose, I think it's the choosing of ritual as personally meaningful that matters. Those dead obligatory ones aren't good for the soul.

    Conscious living, as you say, is the key.

  7. Hello everyone, Merry Christmas. You all have such great words of wisdom to share and your thoughts reflect how I feel. At 46, kids grown, I am finding that I have so much time on my hands to fill each day, it is very lonely. I would love to hear how you learned to live in a state of awareness because at the moment it is so hard to focus. God Bless. Lynn

  8. For so long, i have felt an outsider looking upon the snowglobe of my own life, unable to fully enter in. For so long, i have observed gentle,soft, stirring words floating down like snow yet i was unable to capture them. As i read your words; there is an opening; an uncovering....i crawl inside the fragile glass of my spirit, lying down in your breath and winter's song....finally able to make angels in your freshly fallen whisper. Thankyou. This is a gift to me.

  9. Dear Oriah,

    The morning of Christmas Eve, my GF and I started a 'three month period of radio silence'. Mainly to help me to learn to be alone with myself.. and find out how to like the empty moments. This has always been a major issue for me. And it is blocking my future with her.

    Today, it was very hard. Although it is 'voluntary solitude'... I had a tough day. I miss her dearly.

    Looks like I have to work on being alone ;)

    Your blog again inspired me. Thank you ever so much.

    In my families tradition, we present each other books during Christmas. Five of my dearest friends (including my GF) received 'The Invitation' or 'Reis naar het binnenste van de ziel' (Dutch translation) this year. They know how much this book means to me already.

    Thank you.


  10. I lay on the couch last night listenting to your hearts prayer,and had every intention of asking about dealing with the Broken Open aspect of the dialogue, that is in relation to my experience in the past year. On entering your blog for the first time I am faced with a whole new aspect of the choices we make in any moment, whilst I may be Broken Open and be feeling very vunerable, wanting to hide in the solitude of my pain, I realise that whilst we feel the hurt and acknowledge its presence, we are still required to live in the world, this time of year reminds us of the blessings we are able to share in family and community - I am reminded in this blog, that whilst we seek the solitude of our aloneness where we can truly experience and be one with our pain, we are obliged by virtue of the fact that we are part of a family to participate in celebrating the birth of Christ. In South Africa, we do not have white Christmases, but we have diverse Christmases in that we have as a nation learnt to embrace the diversity of each other and are finding common ways of celebrating our different cultures. This to is a reminder to me of the of the challenges we have had to face as a nation, today I am not Broken Open, I have closed the wound to embrace the others, the ones that really have nothing

  11. Dear Oriah,

    Many times I feel like one of those people who really has nothing. Although I know there are many others living in worse conditions than I am, my spiritual and personal well-being is in such distress.

    The last year of my life has been very difficult. As a young married couple, my husband and I moved across country to a place I simply cannot find peace. I have no friends, no family, no job here. Health issues began to arise for me and I find myself retreating even further into an abyss of misery from which I feel I cannot come out.

    I have read and respected your words for many years, and discovered your blog this morning. It was a serendipitous moment, for the topic spoke to me on such a deep level. It is this very sense of belonging that I lack in my life. I feel utterly alone - and not by choice. I have no one to call on, no one to sit with, no one to simply be with. Reading about your solstice ceremony - about a sacred and special connection you had with four other beings - stirred up these emotions even more. This is the connection I ache for with myself, with people, and with the Universe. This is what I lack.

    My intuition tells me this crossroad was inevitable - that for years it was under the surface and merely brought out by the move. It does not make the situation any easier to bear, but does tell me that I am in a place I must work through.

    I rarely comment on blogs, yet for some reason, I felt a strong pull to share my thoughts. Perhaps it was my soul's way of crying out, of asking the Great Mystery for help. Perhaps I just needed to be heard, to feel like I exist in more than a merely physical sense. Thank you for providing me with this place. Your community of followers has such wisdom and energy that I feel unqualified to contribute. Still, I hope to come back and find some kind of peace here. Your words have always comforted me, taught me, directed me. Thank you for once again offering a piece of yourself to others. I hope you recognize the power you hold and how much your offerings adds to the world.


  12. K, I hear how difficult this move has been for you, and I am deeply honoured that you have chosen to articulate your need for community here- yes, I do think acknowledging it so powerfully in this comment can be a kind of prayer/request to the mystery for assistance with finding community. And I think you are right- sometimes the "arid" times in our lives bring to the fore what we have been able to outrun for years. May you find the peace and community you need and deserve. Oriah

  13. I just read the comment from K and I relate so much to her words that I felt I should let her know she is not alone in the situation she now finds herself.
    Sixteen years ago this month, my husband and I, a disgruntled cat and a German Shepherd with the patience of Job, moved to the western part of the U.S. We left a home we loved, friends and family. It was a move that had been forced on us by the circumstances of life. We came to our new home without jobs, knowing only one couple who lived in the area.
    Even now, years later, we find we have very few friends in the area, and we still feel somewhat disconnected.
    However, for me this does not come only from where I live but more from the person I am. I felt this before we moved, but the familiar routine of my life allowed me to cope with it a little better.
    I too would like more connection with a community of those who share some of those things I long to share. Even here at this blog I feel an outside, not having the same knowledge and ways to express this knowledge.
    It has taken me a lifetime to understand that I am just who I am. I can’t be anything more than that and I should not settle for less. If we look about us we see the incredible diversity in this world: no two snowflakes or raindrops or grains of sand are the same. No two people are the same, not only in those easy to recognize physical attributes, but in their history, experiences, education, where they live, what jobs they have, what creative outlets they have, their personalities.
    I think the Creator, the Mystery, God, whatever we chose to call this Source of life, went to a lot of trouble creating singularity, uniqueness in each of us and there is purpose in that.
    Sometimes when we find no community where we are we have to remember that we are not alone, and that we are recognized and loved by the Power that gave us life. To quote a Buddhist saying “God dwells with you, as you.”
    On the night of Winter Solstice my husband and I sat out in our back yard near a firepit he had bought me. I know very little about winter solstice except it is a time to acknowledge and find meaning in the darkness, and wait for the light.
    However, I felt a great need to sit outside near the fire and have a sacred moment of introspection. My husband, knowing nothing of the meaning, ageed to sit with me.
    Even if you light a candle, even if you must do it alone, even if you do know very little of a ritual, you can still find something waiting for you if you come to the moment with a willing heart, a seeking soul. You truly are never alone.

  14. Brenda, thank you. One of the reasons I have a tiny apartment in Toronto where I spend about 3 days a week is that, after seven years in an isolated location- as much as I love the howl of the coyote and the star-studded sky- I felt I needed community more than was possible there. I am very fortunate to spend some of my time in the city where I lived for thirty years, where my sons and many others live. Still, for me it's not so much about spending a lot of time socializing- I do not see many folks one-on-one in the city- but being able to go to a bookstore or a park and just feel part of a larger human community before I go back to my apartment and write alone. I do think self-acceptance is the key as you said- to know who we are, to find what works for us and to accept that. For me, walking through the park and seeing other is often all the community I need.

  15. "Here I sit between my brother, the mountain and my sister, the sea. We three are one in loneliness, and the love that binds us together is deep and strong and strange." Kahlil Gibran

    Hi,just wanted to share this lovely quote from my favourite poet, Kahil I read all these great comments on the blog.

    Oriah, you are a lovely woman, the 'Invitation' is a masterpiece :)

    I wish you a life of true 'fulfillment'

    I give you one more thought from Gibran:

    "In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed"....

    Love & Light, Michelle Gohlan

  16. "In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed"...Kahlil Gibran

    Just wanted to share this lovely quote from Gibran, as I believe 'friendship' if deep, respected and well nutured - if you find a friend/s who respects your need for privacy yet will be with you in a heartbeat if you need to sing, dance or cry is a beautiful & rare find. A keepsake forever!

    During my in-between times of solitude and the big wide world around...I find my emotional connection with the Universe and Gibran says it so well:

    "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair".

    Happy in my own skin with the solitude and the friends and mostly the earth :)

    Oriah, the 'Invitation' is a masterpiece, thank you! I wish you 'fulfillment' in whatever ways to seek to find it or not find it...

    Love & Light, Michelle Gohlan

  17. "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair".

    Whether in solitude or with with wide world or during your in-between times of pause...the Earth is perfectly positioned to give you that sense of balance and peace.

    Nurture that spark and come alive in whatever way you feel you should, for the world needs people who have come alive!

    For the friends who have kept me feeling so alive, I quote Gibran again:

    "In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed".

    Happy New Year Oriah and everyone else on this blog.

    Love & Light, Michelle

  18. broken open vulnerable and wanting to sit in the solitude of my pain- was not able to put to words but so what I have been experiencing the difficulty of going back allowing myself to sit with my pain but my difficulty is leaving the solitude of my pain and joining the reality of the world-change-being with friends having a deep spiritual connection or just a fun time- so hard for me to go back to have it end I want to hang on and have it never end - I am working on letting go being open to the outcome of the universe knowing it is not in my hands trying so hard to be open to the outcomes and not try to control when and how I get that connection I so desperatly crave -trying to find the difference between putting out what I want and grasping at straws- spent 2 hours alone on a mountain top today wonderful beautiful time then come home to find out my husband has stomach pains take him to the doctor nothing serious but I started to feel guilty for the time in the morning- balancing solitude and community is a challenge I want to cut cords and open energy channels not cling but connect wholly. I am so grateful for the people in my life one specifically and for this community as all the posts give me something that helps with this journey into the mystery of life and is greatly appreciated

  19. Dear Oriah,

    In a community, surrounded by wonderful people, I could also feel very alone, rejected and abandoned. Because of this, I find it hard to accept myself.

    Whenever I shut my eyes, I see a tree without leaves and a person walking towards the tree with head looking down. And that person is me. I could only assume that that could be my life - alone.

    People walk into my life, take from me and leave me standing alone. Sometimes, I wish to give up everything and become a nun. I want to leave the world behind me and head for solitude....