The best life is the examined life

On Being Alone

I love the dark hours of my being. My mind deepens into them.

There I can find, as in old letters, the days of my life, already lived

and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So sometimes I’m like a tree rustling over a gravesite 

And making real the dream of the one its living roots embrace: 

a dream once lost among songs and sorrow.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours, trans. Barrows and Macy)

This poem speaks to the power of solitude. The power of being alone. For Rilke, it’s an existential fact that we are solitary creatures, ultimately alone, and we spend most of our lives running away from this aloneness (Letter 6). We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? In times of crisis, loss, sadness, happiness, love and even boredom, we discover this aloneness at the core of our being. We don’t want see it. We don’t want to confront it. We don’t want sit with it and let it surround us. We do everything we can to hide, cover up, and bury this feeling. It is easy to do. The distractions of modern life provide excellent barriers, blocking us from experiencing it. Why experience something that only leads to anxiety and fear?

For Rilke, this is a mistake. Our solitude is a place for growth, transformation, and creativity. A place where we can take in, digest, and assimilate our joys and sorrows, ultimately transforming who we are. This is where the artists of living do their work; crafting a life worth living. This is where we all have to go in order to live flourishing lives. Rilke believes solitude is a practice and needs to be faithfully cultivated. 

In this poem, Rilke describes the benefits of solitude. In the “dark hours” of our being we can read into our past, “as in old letters,” and understand how it has shaped our lives. “Then the knowing comes.” By understanding who we are, we open up a space in ourselves for “another life that is wide and timeless.” He speaks of solitude in terms of vast spaces and of walking “inside yourself and [meeting] no one for hours” (Letter 6) The more time we spend inside ourselves the more we discover who we are and the more we open ourselves up to new inner experiences. Here, we get the feeling of expanding and widening. Of touching the timeless. 

We are trees rustling over our own gravesite. The place where unrealized hopes, dreams, and loves remain buried, forever lost to our consciousness. Solitude provides us with the opportunity to discover those buried aspects of ourselves. Rilke wants us to tap into this and “make real the dream of the one its living roots embrace: a dream once lost among song and sorrow.” We must find and take in our songs and sorrows. Only then, can we create something beautiful out of our lives. 

For Rilke, you really don’t have to “do” anything when you are alone. Solitude is an organic process. It’s about watching, feeling, and taking in. He speaks of this in terms of sadness:

“The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadness, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate” (Letter 8) 

We need to be quiet and patient, and let things happen in us. This will happen naturally. It can’t be planned, forced, or manipulated. It is a watchful patience. 

Rilke admits that solitude is difficult to bear and we will gladly give it up to the first distraction we encounter (Letter 6). Being alone can be unsettling, disorienting, and frightening. But if we take the time to cultivate our solitude, we might just uncover the beauty of our lives. So sit with yourself, and see what happens. 

(Additional quotes and citations from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Modern Library, 2001)

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 On Being Alone by Philosophical Living is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a reply