Solitude, Walking, and Alone-Time

Practical educational and civic transformation.

A daily practice of solitude — whether prayer, meditation, reflection, walking, journaling or study — helps us in a range of ways that both benefit us as individuals and help us be more effective as tutors, mentors and in our community leadership work.

How valuable is it? Nelson Mandela said, “One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release.“ There’s ample scientific evidence that various “solitude practices” make it easier for us to stay focused on the long-term, on what is important, and not just on what is urgent or grabs our emotions.

We hope that the following short lists of university centers, articles, books, and videos on both the benefits and types of practice — including secular, Christian, and Buddhist — can help you find a practice that works for you.

Articles

  • Why Walking Helps Us Think. Ferris Jabr, New Yorker (Sept. 3, 2014).
    “Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them… The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa.”
  • Six Reasons Why Walking Is the Daily Brain Medicine We Really Need. David DiSalvo. Forbes (Oct. 2016)
  • Why Everyone From Beethoven, Goethe, Dickens, Darwin To Steve Jobs Took Long Walks and Why You Should Too. Andrew Tate (2015).
  • In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds. New York Times (Mar. 23, 2013).
    “Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination,” he said. Rather, he said, mindfulness can “create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.”
  • Solitude and Leadership. Wm. Deresiewicz (2012). “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts… What is leadership? Ultimately it means being able to think for yourself. How do you think for yourself? By being alone.” For the highlights, see: http://hereandnow.legacy.wbur.org/2012/02/20/leader-thoughts-alone.
  • The Importance of Quiet Time. Alan Lightman (May 2018). “Although changing habits of mind is difficult, it can be done. With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time. And when we do so, we give ourselves a gift. It is a gift to our spirit. It is an honoring of that quiet, whispering voice. It is a liberation from the cage of the wired world. It is freedom.”
  • Watching the River. Fr. Richard Rohr (adapted from his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer) (May 10, 2016).
  • What Works: Meditation. Phil Fox Rose (2009).
    “Isn’t meditation non-Christian? ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ (Psalm 46:10) The purpose of meditation is to better align with God, to better know God — to stop struggling against God’s Will, against the way things are; to better comprehend that we are held and loved, that we are OK no matter what we might be walking through. There is nothing non-Christian about that.”
  • How to Meditate. The New York Times.
  • Jack Kornfield on Gratitude and Mindfulness. Carolyn Gregoire (MAY 19, 2014)
    “Mahatma Gandhi took one day a week in silence, even in the midst of marches of thousands… When everything was in the middle of this huge transformation, he would say, ‘I’m sorry, this is my day of silence.’ And he would sit and quiet himself and try to listen to what was the most compassionate and skillful and powerful response he could make, coming from that deep center of wisdom.”

Videos

Books

  • Daniel Goleman, Altered States: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
  • Daniel Siegel, M.D., Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence–The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice
  • Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
  • Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
  • Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel or Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer

University Centers

Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

I have always believed that exercise is not only a key to physical health but to peace of mind. Many times in the old days I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punching bag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity. I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life. In prison, having an outlet for one’s frustrations was absolutely essential.

Even on the island [prison], I attempted to follow my old boxing routine of doing roadwork and muscle-building from Monday through Thursday and then resting for the next three days. On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends, and various other calisthenics.

In my letters to my children, I regularly urged them to exercise, to play some fast-moving sport like basketball, soccer, or tennis to take their mind off whatever might be bothering them. While I was not always successful with my children, I did manage to influence some of my more sedentary colleagues. Exercise was unusual for African men of my age and generation. After a while, even Walter began to take a few turns around the courtyard in the morning. I know that some of my younger comrades looked at me and said to themselves, “If that old man can do it, why can’t I?” They too began to exercise. 

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