Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson recalls a solo retreat and the quiet contemplation he has since introduced to his everyday life
A few years ago I spent a whole week on my own on a Scottish island. I’ve loved the Scottish islands and Highlands since I was 13 when I went on a trip to the Isle of Eigg with my Dad. This time an opportunity to visit the island of Eilean Shona came from a commission from the Observer.
Being a fairly sociable person, I was a little nervous at the prospect. Would I go completely insane? The house assigned to me was gorgeous and cosy with a wood-burning stove but no wifi, so I wouldn’t be able to email or do any Internet stuff from the house. Wifi was available in the village hall, about half an hour’s walk away.
I busied myself with reading, writing, cooking and producing sketches. I went for long walks across the island and got lost. If I bumped into an islander or visitor I would engage them in eager conversation, like a castaway who has seen no human life for years. I would pin them with my beady eye. Most days I spent an hour or two with the Wifi in the village hall, which seemed plenty.
I neither went mad nor got bored. But nor did I have any great insights or spiritual revelations while wandering the mountains, like the Dong with the Luminous Nose. I certainly returned home in a very cheerful mood after this period of retreat. Friends of mine have gone on silent retreats but that sounds very, erm, challenging to me, being a chatterbox.
Recently I have been making efforts to introduce a little bit of solitude into my day through meditation. I was struck when interviewing Rowan Williams that he spends half an hour each morning in silent contemplation. The trick, I think, is not to imagine that you are going to see God or successfully empty your mind, it’s just to enjoy doing nothing. I’ve been learning meditation techniques with Sister Jayanti of the Brahma Kumaris. They suggest you keep your eyes open, let your lids droop a bit, and sit in a comfy chair. Thoughts will crowd into your mind, but do not worry.
Half an hour of meditation seemed too daunting so I set my timer for five minutes the first few times. I meditated in the kitchen at about 7.15am, just before the rest of the household emerged. At first the five minutes seem to take an age, but then I became accustomed to it. So I upped the dose to six minutes, and this morning managed seven!
Another obvious way of getting some solitude is to take a walk. Our office is by the canal, and I often take a wander after lunch down the canal path, past the charming narrow boats, some of which look very cosy and have woodsmoke rising from their chimneys. I like to imagine I am Rousseau, who wrote the lovely Reveries of a Solitary Walker, as well as the better known political essays.
How do you find solitude?
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your stories of solo retreat.
Solitude, like a good nights sleep, is vital for me. If I don’t get back to my self I feel taken over by the lives of others and forget my true nature. As an only child, I learned to be alone from an early age. I find joy in sketching and painting and taking off by myself.
I have been a Zen student since the late 70s after a foray into psychology. I was astonished at the state of my spinning mind at first, at the movies that rolled through my head. During my first 7 day silent retreat I watched wild horses gallop across the screen of my mind and endless epic films play out… Now after many years of practice, and over 40 retreats, I’ve learned to settle down a bit. But without solitude, and limiting my activity on a regular basis, life becomes tediously busy and my monkey mind comes rushing back…
How timely, I’m off to Scotland myself for two weeks and had been worrying about loneliness too. However I will be dog sitting so will have furry friends for company. I’m also staying very near the Findhorn community where I lived for a while, so I do have friends there that I can meet with. As for meditation, I am now a very smug daily meditator since 2014. I got very ill and realised I had to meditate no matter what. My start was very similar to yours, five minutes was all I could manage as my mind was just so busy. It was very painful to sit with all those churning thoughts to start with. The thoughts haven’t stopped and still churn sometimes, but now I realise I am not my thoughts, they are just passing by. What a relief. I defend my meditation practice fiercely now. Who would have thought that sitting for 20-30 every day and just breathing, could be do life changing. I am generally much calmer and my tendency to get chucked about my life’s events had subsided substantially.
Well, like you Tom I have taken shorter times of solitude. In fact, it was in response to a podcast interview with Rowan Williams that I felt I could manage silence. He helped me see it was just being in the silence, without an expectation of what might happen that counts. Indeed the silence itself is good for you and helps you to unfurl. So three years in and I am still on seven minutes, before the household gets up. Perhaps you have exceeded that already!
I find trying to communicate with our seventeen year old son a solitary experience!
I think that meditation is incredibly hard and incredibly boring. I know that some people such as [your father] get something from it but I never have, however hard I try. However I do spend much time alone and never get lonely.
Liz Hodgkinson (the author’s mother)
How do I find solitude?
i) by walking the dog in the countryside when there’s no-one around,
ii) stroking the cat and listening to him purr,
and, perhaps strangely,
iii) while pedalling away pre-dawn on my exercise bike. I get a sort of ‘cyclists’ high (like an endorphin-triggered ‘runners’ high).