Stephen Batchelor (2020)

The Art of Solitude

Being alone, being lonely, and being in a state of solitude are three very different things. A person can be lonely despite the company of others, or alone without experiencing loneliness, or, as Stephen Batchelor argues, can dwell comfortably in solitude regardless of whether or not anyone is around.

This distinction is crucial to understanding Bachelor’s The Art of Solitude, a collection of 32 loosely connected essays. Colored by the author’s background as a trained Zen monk, his experience with psychedelics, and his expansive knowledge of eastern as well as western contemplative practices, the book connects a variety of interrelated topics. What underpins all of them is the theme of solitude as a healthy state of mind which fosters reflection, introspection, and creative thinking—and one which we are working had to depriving ourselves of entirely in this day and age.

But the book however is neither a mere self-help guide to coping with being alone, nor a history of contemplation, a tale of the merits and woes of consuming ayahuasca, a translation of the Buddhist poem The Four Eights, or a comprehensive study of Michel de Montaigne’s writings. To some degree, it’s all of these things, and also none of them. It’s a patchwork of big ideas, personal recollections, and timeless insight.

Bachelor skillfully avoids spoon feeding the audience conventional wisdom though. Instead of simply presenting the insights he or other experienced meditators collected throughout their practice, his careful writing manages to spark an interest in one’s own inner life in the reader. The book thus induces a deep curiosity to explore the inner workings of one’s mind, be that with or without the help of formal meditation practice, alone on a retreat in the Korean mountains or on a crowded subway train, or by seeking out psychotropic substances.