The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Fortress of Solitude

“To do great work,” wrote the English novelist Samuel Butler, a person “must be very idle as well as very industrious.” Happy people, too, live full, active, industrious lives, yet also reserve time for renewing solitude and rest.

I hesitate to sound like a parental voice from the past, but it’s true: A good sleep predisposes a good mood. For some, fatigue doesn’t stem from staying up late, but from difficulties in falling or staying asleep. Too little sleep can be a symptom, as well as a cause, of depression. But we all experience sleeplessness at times. When we are stressed or anxious, alertness is natural and adaptive. As Woody Allen said in the movie Love and Death, “The lion and the lamb shall lie down together, but the lamb will not be very sleepy.”

Experiments by University of British Columbia researcher Peter Suedfeld and his colleagues show that renewal comes not only from rest, but from REST – Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. Suedfeld knew from earlier studies of sensory restriction that being alone in a monotonous environment heightens a person’s sensitivity to any sort of stimuli, whether external or internal. So he offered hundreds of people a chance to tune more deeply into themselves through a literal day of REST, during which they would do nothing but lie quietly on a comfortable bed in the isolation of a dark, soundproof room.

Lone explorers and sailors often have a deep spiritual experience – a new relationship with God, a feeling of oneness with the ocean or the universe, a life-changing new insight into their personalities. In Japan, where the widely practiced “quiet therapies” combine solitude with Zen Buddhist practices, a depressed or anxious person may undertake a week of bed rest and meditation.

The experiences of great philosophers, scientists, artists, and religious visionaries confirm the creative power of solitude. Being freed from distractions may trigger vivid fantasies and deep insights. Jesus began his ministry after forty days alone, and thereafter lived a rhythm of engagement and retreat. Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, and countless other mystics, monks, hermits, and prophets have found inspiration in times of contemplative silence. Aborigines have gone on “walkabouts,” Native Americans on vision quests, spiritual seekers on retreats.

It’s ironic. In a time when the hustle and bustle of working, shopping, and entertainment have become a seven-day-a-week affair, Euro-American cultures have turned away from the traditional day of rest at the very time that researchers are affirming the healing and renewing power of just such a day – one of REST. To experience well-being it’s good to be both active and also, for interludes, very idle. For everything there is a season: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to do, and a time just to be (like the song says, do-be-do-be-doo). Wordsworth’s words, from “The Prelude,” are worth remembering:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

- The Pursuit of Happiness

The Fortress used to be a place where I would hide from the world, hide from relationship, hide from my own fears and insecurities. My home is now a retreat within which I find peace, tranquility, renewal...