How to Spend Time Alone
There is privately alone, and then there is publicly alone. To be privately alone can be difficult, because wherever we go, there we are, yammering away at ourselves. “Unless a person has a lot of psychological tools at her disposal, the mind is not a pleasant place to inhabit,” says Germer. “We have evolved for survival, not happiness, and thus we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative.” When the brain is at rest, he adds, it tends to get busy revealing problems from the past and anticipating problems to come. Once we scanned for predators and poisons; now we fret over the unemployment stats and what our mother-in-law had the nerve to say at dinner.
Germer recommends mindfulness, a practice that sounds esoteric but simply means focusing on what’s around you instead of the chatter in your head. When we pay attention to our senses, he says, we can appreciate the color, the texture, and the fragrance of a velvety red rose without thinking, Roses. Valentine’s Day. Why doesn’t anyone send me flowers? Because I’m fundamentally unlovable, that’s why!
Being publicly alone can require a certain amount of bravery, as you know if you’ve ever sat solo in a restaurant and felt floodlit by the pity of fellow diners. (Hey, Miss Lonelyhearts!) However, says Sylvia Boorstein, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher in Marin County, California, and the author of Happiness Is an Inside Job ($14, amazon.com), “if you feel awkward, that’s because you’re telling yourself a story about what other people think. Ask yourself, ‘Is everyone really so remarkably tied up in me?’ Instead of worrying about other people noticing you, try noticing them.” Do they seem content? Worried? Bored? Make up another story.