In middle-eastern or Asian countries people are often sad, or amazed, that I’m happy to be travelling alone and some women on dating web-sites appear fearful at the thought of being alone.
It seems this fear of being alone is almost primal in many – equating being alone to being lonely. Not so.
Years ago I also feared being alone and often contrived to have people around by having parties, marrying, living or sleeping with men so there was someone in my life, that I was not alone. Nevertheless, being surrounded by people did not guarantee I wasn’t lonely even though I was ‘not alone’ and at times, could still be alone in a crowd.
I have now learnt how to be alone, whether I’m in a group of people, alone at home, or traveling the world, and not be lonely. Here are a few photos of me alone!
Living in cities, with a family, or even traveling, sometimes means it can be hard to be physically alone so it’s a valuable skill to be able to be alone in your mind or emotionally no matter how many people are around you.
Hermits and mystics choose to spend much of their time alone. A pilgrim, whom I met on the north bank of the holy Narmada River, in the centre of India, was spending three-years, three-months and three-days on a Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the river. It is a spiritual quest, for self-realisation, or a thanksgiving for favour asked for or received, or just an act of love, with just as many reasons for the walk as there are people who undertake it. Despite being dependant on people for food by their alms, this sack-clothed man was mostly alone but did not seem lonely.
Women behind a burka can choose to be alone by using the cloth to create a barrier between them and strangers while at other times, still behind the same material, in small or large groups, are laughing and enjoying each other’s company – or talking to me, a stranger. Old age too can confer a barrier, albeit not chosen by the person. This wall is an invisibility cloth placed by over them by the people close by and much to the recipient’s distress or anger.
Language, or rather the inability to speak a language, is another obstacle that can force you to be alone while surrounded by people. As a travel writer, travelling alone is essential and even when separated by language I know I can always break the verbal barrier by ‘talking’ with signs or gestures – all the while chattering in English to non-understanding ears. Silence also allows me to be alone when I hear the occasional English voice in a non-English speaking country – allowing me to eavesdrop on unmonitored conversations while staying alone with my observations.
So how, apart from solo-travel, can you learn not only to be alone, but to be alone and not lonely. For me it started with needing to radically change my life; to change many friends; to stop throwing parties, to stop using alcohol, and learning to mediate.
At first the task of being alone for ten minutes with no coffee, no music, no cigarettes and no people was impossible. Without those props, within 2 or 3 minutes I would rise from the garden seat to pull out a weed or go inside to check the time: “surely I have been sitting here for ten minutes” I would say to myself: the apparent tyranny of living alone can lead to talking to oneself!
And, over the years of practising meditation and trying to still my mind, I find my mind is peopled with imaginings. As Oscar Wilde said “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”, and I never sit alone without ‘something sensational’ to think about. As he also said “serious writers … are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists”. I stand convicted: I can, and do, enjoy the wanderings of my mind and entertain myself for ages, so never feel alone.
So how to be alone? For me, it’s living in the now and, enjoying my own company while knowing I can change being ‘alone’ at any time I choose – it just takes practise.
Like the Nike ad says “just do it’. you will no doubt find, like I did, the fear of being along was purely in my imagination – you are stronger and braver than you realise.
See my book, Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad, for more ways I learnt to be alone. It tells of my solo travels around the world, age 50, and which started with me being full of fear on the very first flight – Auckland NZ to LA, USA.