The bare truth is that every one of us has only so much time. Time to achieve goals, carry out tasks, attend to family, make friends, shower, drink a cup of tea. How we decide to utilise our minutes is up to each individual. But if we speak of quality, do we not want every day to be well spent? Assuming that we do, the achievement does not centre on quantity nor on success as it has come to be defined. Tranquility of mind ensures that our time in this life is golden. Here we explore the contemplative mindsets of a handful of people working in the public eye.

Hella Jongerius, Woven Cosmos, Space Loom #2 (2021), Gropius Bau, photo ©Laura Fiorio

To find moments of solitude within the cacophony of modern-day life is important to human wellbeing. As Virginia Woolf alludes to in A Room of One’s Own, it can simmer up truths that lay lurking beneath. Such moments of solitude are often achieved through spiritual belief, art or ritual. Whatever the approach, we all need moments of escape in order to gain and retain an understanding of the self. Learning the views of artist/designer Yuki Kawae, priest Pat Browne, textile designer/weaver Hella Jongerius, and performer/choreographer Mette Edvardsem, sheds light on some of the magical benefits of allowing time for quiet contemplation.

Artist Yuki Kawae designs sabi-inspired Zen gardens. According to him, “the term solitude exists only when collectiveness exists.” He explains that if he were the only person on Earth, there would be no sense in solitude, since that would be the constant state. To Kawae, solitude is not about being alone, it’s just time spent away from a collective group of people. “There is a connection to others before and after.” In his practise, the solitude of a Zen garden fosters the power of focus… “the desire to craft something with your hands, uninterrupted, that is priceless”. Kawae wants the work he does to “help people ease their mind, even just a little”. A garden of solitude that can be built anywhere.

Solitude, after all, can be practised by anyone at any stage of life and in any circumstance. In such moments, we can rest, think and work without being disturbed, we can look inwardly to better ourselves or reflect outwardly on the way we act within society — as in prayer, you can pray for yourself or for others. There’s much more to being in a state of solitude than simply being alone. It is not dependent on specific environmental conditions. And solitude takes different forms, the main three of which are categorised as Inner-Directed — towards self-discovery and inner peace; Outer-Directed — involving intimacy and spirituality; and Loneliness. Each form has its own situational and personal relevance for the individual.

Yuki Kawae, Zen Garden study, courtesy to the artist

But what does it mean to find solitude within a community? Are society, art and religion able to provide both the mental and physical space in which an individual can achieve a positive state of solitude that invites introspection? This, as opposed to the negative form that can lead to a sense of loneliness, something all too commonly experienced in densely populated cities, and even more-so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The parish priest at the Holy Apostles Church in Pimlico, London (who also serves as the Roman Catholic Duty Priest to Parliament), Canon Pat Browne conveys that “whether it’s a church community, a football community, a school community, or a commune, there is a need to support each other, affirm each other and give each other an identity in the world. But each of us also needs to be able to go away and reflect on who we are within these communities. It was Socrates who said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. You can’t have solitude without there being a community, it’s not a case of either/or when it comes to the community and the individual.” In a sense, both Browne’s and Kawae’s thoughts acknowledge the importance of solitude being a space within any community, enabling time alone within a group. Browne also went on to say that for him solitude relates to loneliness and to aloneness, the former linked to cravings that are unmet, and the latter a personal experience embraced by the individual.

Throughout history there have been moments in which societies have attempted to deal with the lonely version of solitude through communal interventions. When we compare the era of the individual with the concept of the commons, the need for solitude is never far away. British filmmaker Adam Curtis proffered the argument that “one of the agencies of the rise of the self, the use of the self both commercially and politically, was, and still is, Freud’s ideas about human beings.” He finds that these still define our time politically and socially and declares that this is how his documentary The Century of the Self came about.

During the pre-industrial era, from 1750 to around 1850, the social division of labour meant that the extended family was also the productive unit. Therefore, more and more people of the lower class sought a sense of community in order to look after and support one another collectively. However, at the time of post-industrialisation and the subsequent rise of the information era, there was a shift of focus towards the individual. With this came a new creed whereby people would buy things to make themselves feel better, if only for an instant. Since 1979, and with the introduction of the Sony Walkman, there have been technologies that create an invisible do-not-disturb bubble around their user — a bubble of the self that in today’s Western societies takes the form of ear pods.

This bubble, or protective barrier, eradicates the sense of fear attached to being alone. It ensures that no one ever has to feel alone, since there is always some sort of ‘noise’ to hand. This resonates with textile designer and weaver Hella Jongerius, whose latest exhibition ‘Woven Cosmos’ at Berlin’s Gropius Bau, explores the cultural meaning of weaving, beyond materials and techniques, in the context of the challenges we face in our time. “The image of solitude now is being alone on your phone. In a way, this is still a mind-thing but it’s not intuitive like solitude can be – although the phone engages your hands through the need to swipe and tap, it’s not like using your hands as tools to craft.” Jongerius went on to speak of how, for her, it is the solitude found while weaving or making pottery that is luxurious. “It is a type of solitude that’s different from yoga or meditation because your hands are busy, permitting your head to be free.”

For Hella Jongerius, moments of solitude exist within her artistic practice. “The intuition that you get in a state of solitude can be very creative.” For her, solitude is oxygen. She feels that it’s “a very important part of life even if it is difficult to achieve”. It has even led her to join an artistic community this year, a small cultural environment situated inside an old military base in a wooded area in the Netherlands. There, she hopes to set up an atelier to work in peace and solitude for up to six months in succession. Her studio-lab in the city is arranged such that each person has a separate room in which to work, because she believes that “community defines where you can be alone”.

Jumping back to A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes that “ is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” This references surface and depth. In connection to solitude, it perhaps relates to the inner sense of aloneness helping to divert the outer sense of being lonely. The ongoing work by performer and choreographer Mette Edvardsen, ‘Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine’, which began in 2010, focuses on memory and learning. It involves people or performers memorising and reciting a book of their choice, each of which is added to a library collection that currently consists of 116 living books. It exists in Seoul, Riga, Oslo, Mexico, and most recently, Madrid. Edvardsen finds that when she works with memory, whether in learning by heart or when writing, “I need uninterrupted time… for me, solitude is something internal. It’s connected to time and to a certain state, mood or feeling… For practising and learning by heart, I can create a ‘space’ on my own even when I am not alone. It’s like creating a space within a space, or disappearing into a space of solitude for a moment. But it’s very easy to get pulled out of this ‘own room’.”

Canon Pat Browne also speaks of solitude as a space within a space, from a religious perspective. He refers to the Gospel of Matthew, which says that when praying, “go to your room and pray in secret”. Although this can be taken literally, the priest explained that on a deeper level the room doesn’t have to be a physical space, it could also be internal.” This room of solitude, spiritual, artistic or otherwise, is an inner room, a sanctuary within each person. Some people are more comfortable with this space than others; some find peace, creativity or indeed “submerged truths” here.

Yuki Kawae, Ocean Series Painting (2018), courtesy to the artist

Over the years there hasn’t been much change in the idea of solitude for many people, regardless of culture, vocation or age. Instead, it seems that where we spend that time has shifted. The inner space has swung from being specific to places of worship to being anywhere. However, it is evident that time spent in solitude also relies on nurturing a relationship with a community. As mentioned by Yuki Kawae, a connection with others comes before and after these moments of solitude.

It is notable that increasingly there has been a move towards the common, with people such as Hella Jongerius choosing to move out of cities to commune with nature. And in the words of historian Peter Linebaugh, who wants “to portray the commons as an activity, not just an idea of material resources.” It is therefore about creating more space away from capitalism which is arguably filling any possible solitude with the visual and physical noise that surrounds us in today’s technology driven Western world.

Solitude teaches us about the kind of identity and creativity that aren’t dependent on any other surface factor. To be creative, to be spiritual, you need to be able to get rid of these surface noises and embrace solitude in order to benefit both yourself and your wider community. Solitude is being comfortable in a room of your own that is encircled by others.