Resorting to solitude and aversion to the company of others are extolled as signs of Knowledge in the Bhagavad Gita (13.10). The second leads to the first.
Overburdened by the stress of their everyday life, people retreat from familiar surroundings and resort to solitude. In solitude some may try to devote themselves exclusively to spiritual practices for a time. How does solitude influence our mind? Does solitude help our spiritual growth? What is true solitude? We shall examine these questions.
We are inseparably connected with our mind, and it continues to be with us even in a solitary place. Those who revel in continually being in the company of others, talking and interacting with them, could feel troubled being alone and be overwhelmed by solitude. Far from deriving any benefit from solitude, they may not even be aware that they are in an environment of peace, since their restless mind does not leave them alone. Being in solitude with an untrained mind, we can be drawn into a vortex of negative and weakening thoughts, and feel miser-able. Those with a guilty mind could find solitude distressing if their mind starts reviving old memories.
According to traditional commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, resorting to solitude means retreating to a river bank, forest, or temple─any place that is pure and conducive to calmness of mind. The beneficial effect of solitude is usually short-lived. It wears off in no time when we are back home and get busy with our daily activities. For our spiritual retreat to yield any lasting benefits, we have to prepare the mind and strengthen it by discipline. We have to continually detach ourselves from the mind and learn how it functions: its hidden tendencies, attachments and aversions, and vulnerability to weakening stimuli. Only those who live for a spiritual ideal and struggle for its attainment by systematic practice derive the maximum benefit from solitude.
Though the effects of solitude vary depending on our mental state, there are two important gains. (1) We begin to know the tendencies of our mind, and accept that it functions against our spiritual interests. This is not a small gain, since it is difficult to acquire this knowledge amid the whirlpool of everyday activities. (2) We become aware of our strengths and limitations. We often complain about lack of time for study and spiritual practice due to the pressure of work. We realize in solitude that this complaint is a trick of the mind. We understand for how long we can satisfactorily practice spiritual discipline when there is nothing else to demand our time and attention. We discover the true level of our mental turbulence, and to what extent our mind lets us remain quiet and concentrate on higher thoughts. We are humbled by the findings, and stop complaining about the hardships of work and environment. We develop a proper attitude toward work and try to do it as worship, and become regular with our spiritual practice.