Solitude Is About More Than Just Being Alone

Wednesday, August 2, 2017 - 1:45 pm

Solitude Is About More Than Just Being Alone

In my 20s I so yearned to find my cave. I thought I’d escape to that cave and not emerge until I was enlightened. The fact that I was struggling in relationships and graduate school, I kept telling myself, had nothing to do with that desire.

Spending time between reading Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and Buddhism, I had an idea of what my cave would look like. It would be in India (of course, because God and realization were in India). It would be on a mountain (didn’t Muhammad go to a cave on a mountain top?). It would look down on a pristine lake.

So off to India I went, seeking God and realization. I found that cave somewhere near Ajmer. It was, lo and behold, exactly as I had imagined it. So tempting it was to linger there for a few decades.

But somehow in finding the cave, I had another realization: It would be easy to stay in the cave. Maybe easy was not the word. There still would be my ego, and the refinement of the heart. But the real journey, at least for me, would have to involve seeking and, insha’allah, finding serenity in the midst of people, back in that tumultuous world of relationships, graduate school, and raising children.

May it be that seeking that cave was itself a part of the joy?

When I was younger, I fancied myself something of an extrovert. A “people person.” Someone who was happiest when he had a dozen or more of his friends over for a bagel brunch, with sacred music playing in the background and real conversations about matters of the heart and soul.

As I get older, my attention is shifting to a greater focus on smaller, more intimate circles — and the “guests” of my own heart. There is something of a subtle irony here. There is no path to God except that which goes through humanity. To know God, we have to know our own hearts. We need others, and we have to know our own hearts. We find God in the company of others, and yet we have to be alone with our own hearts.

Which brings me to a slightly different way of thinking about solitude.

We have had, including here at On Being, many reflections on solitude. The approach that speaks to me at this point in my life is one that looks at solitude not as being alone but as being present with God in the heart, everywhere, in both solitude and in the midst of society.

With age has come a beautiful new friend. It is a tendency to be less judgmental of what works for some, maybe not all, of us. When I was younger, I felt more comfortable seeking and speaking in absolutes: “This is spiritually beneficial. That is spiritually harmful. Everyone should do this, must not do that.”

Now, there is more quiet, more tenderness with how so many of us are honestly seeking, stumbling, getting back up again. It feels kinder and also more true to say:

“Search your heart. Find what brings you joy, in whose company you are most serene. Be there, be fully there.”

It is the same way with solitude.

Occasional retreats and weekend spirituality may not be the complete answer. But if it helps, do it. The goal is to find serenity in every breath, or as many as possible. If getting away every now and then helps to remind you of who and what we are meant to be, do it.

Even Jesus went to retreat in the desert — and returned to society. Muhammad went to reflect on a mountain top — and returned to society. If Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad of Arabia had to get away every once in awhile — and return — are we to do any less?

It is both the need to retreat and to return that make the whole path.

The old Muslim sages had a beautiful way of talking about solitude as being more than being alone. They sometimes referred to this as khalvat dar anjoman: finding solitude in the midst of society. Like so much else, they often told this truth through teachings.

They told the great Abu Sa‘id Abi‘l-Khayr, “So-and-so can walk on water!”

He said, “That is easy! The frog and the finch can do the same.”

They said, “So-and-so flies in the air!”

He said, “A fly and a sparrow can as well.”

They said, “So-and-so can go from one city to the next in a single moment.”

He said, “Satan can go in a span of one breath from the East to the West. There is not much value to such things. A real human being is the one who sits and rises in the midst of people, eats and sleeps, conducts trade with people in the bazaar, and mixes with people — and yet for one moment does not become neglectful of God in his heart.”

This, ultimately, is the solitude that I seek: to be present with God. God is always with us. It is we who are often absent from God — and absent from our own true self.

The solitude I seek is to be with God, alone on a retreat or standing in the midst of human community. Rumi says:

“Wherever you are, be fully present there.”

It is relatively easy to be serene in a cave or on a weekend retreat. Perhaps that too is needed, to reawaken the taste of what it is like to be with God, to be serene, to be tranquil. And then we come back, as Jesus did, as Muhammad did, to take care of the children, to serve one another, to alleviate suffering, to love and be loved.

Just as there are seasons — some in which we plant seeds, some in which we harvest, and some that appear to be quiet — perhaps our hearts and souls are in need of these cycles: sometimes more in company, sometimes more in quiet, but always with God.

It does seem lofty to say that we are not to become neglectful of God “for one moment,” as the great saint said. Maybe that is what it means to be saintly, to be illuminated.

So let us, friends, start with a moment here, a moment there. Connect these moments together. Let this breath be one of those moments. We breathe into the heart center.

Hold the breath…


We take our wild thoughts and suffering into the solitude with God.

Hold the breath…


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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Gabby

    There is so much wisdom and humility in this and in the words you share of the sages of your faith. With age, thoughtfulness, and the tempering of ego, may we all lean away from pronouncements of what everyone must do toward the kinder, truer, and wiser path you articulate here.

  • Ayisha Ni’mat

    Your writing, and its impact, continue to be magical…absolutely magical. Thank you for sharing such a gift.

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  • Amor Fati

    Being a lifelong introvert, there was always a part of me that longed for silence and solitude. When I attended my first ten day Vipassana course of silence and meditation, I felt like I finally had arrived. Now that I am in the final quarter of my life, and my compass is set towards eternity, I cherish the solitude and silence I experience now as I take care of my beloved. Our world has shrunk to just our little house with a few trips to the store or the doctors here and there. Visitors exhaust my beloved, even family and close friends. He and I sit in silence long stretches of the day, content in the knowledge that the other one is close by. Lots of time for contemplation and conversations with God. It is a sacred time now, for us both. The distractions of the world hardly ever reach us. While others may look at us with pity, we feel blessed in so many ways.
    Thank you for your thoughtful article. As always, it stirs my soul.

  • Judy Montel

    that is a lovely story you recount! also, in the stories of prophets who went out into the wilderness and returned, there is also the one who refused to compromise with the humanity of his time – the prophet Elijah. When he couldn’t do that, god told him to find a disciple and train him. and then god took elijah up in a “storm” to the heavens. Because, as you say, to be human means to be a part of humanity. Lovely.