There is nothing I enjoy more than being alone. Being by myself is like the beautiful sunset that comes every day, I only need to make time to enjoy its gifts. And just like the sunset, there are always reasons not to sit quietly and contemplate it. But every time I take the time out of my day to do so, I never regret it.
If you’re a fan of those iconic episodic HBO shows of the late 90s and early 2000s like The Sopranos, you’re familiar with the classic storytelling device I will refer to as the juxtaposing dream sequence. It usually starts with the dreamer doing something plain and unassuming, such as walking down the street, with a song from a bygone era playing in the background – perhaps something like Skeeter Davis’s The End of the World. And as the music plays and the dreamer begins the inevitable descent into the absurdism that is the meat of the scene, the brief respite at the beginning when everything is still ordinary is meant to convey a sense of calm and peace.
It’s this feeling I get as I retreat from the world around me. My favourite way is to get on my bike and ride, with no destination or reason. And it is when I act on the impulse to focus my thoughts inside that the rest of the world lays itself before me. The city of Amsterdam in which I live presents herself to me when I stop paying attention to everything else. The small details and micro-wonders right around me emerge like mushrooms after the rain – suddenly I can see them again.
But the benefits of time alone don’t just stop at a higher sense of awareness. Sometimes, as the various dramas in which I take part in daily play out, it is difficult to think about them. In a way, it’s like I am acting in a play and my next actions are already scripted. To understand those little dramas, just like understanding theatre, I have to think on it as a whole, not just get caught up in the dialogue and individual actions. It is with that aloof perspective that I ride and think and the shapes of my surroundings go by, occasionally jumping to the forefront of perception as they gently help guide my thoughts.
If my stream of consciousness is a river, its flow is occasionally tempered by these protrusions. Sometimes, the diversion gives a new perspective or occasionally it refreshes the train of thought with a new subject which organically spawns out of the synthesis of stimuli.
And finally, like Tony Soprano as he wanders through his dreamed reflections, I too like a soundtrack every once in a while. Anything will do, but my personal favourite is deep house music. Its slow progressions and synthetic sounds help me de-focus my mind. Its beats, snares and hats guide me like a tribal ceremony into a parallel and higher mindset where the practiced focus of my regular disposition fades away and the natural flow is restored.
In Chinese history, water management has always been important. The rivers and tributaries of China are unlike anywhere in the world, and present challenges not seen in any other regions in the world. The Chinese have historically approached water conservancy from two philosophical perspectives: Confucian and Daoist. The Confucian perspective is to work the rivers into what is needed by intervening and overriding the river’s natural course to one more desirable, while the Daoist water engineers believed that their projects should not interfere with the natural action of the river whenever possible.
It is not a difficult stretch to look at the natural flow of conscious thought in the same dichotomy. The day often enforces Confucian principles on the way we think, and it shows. Symptoms of this type of water management are also present in a brain that is moulded from outside: stress, constant maintenance of the structures and processes that keep it functioning, and unintended, unforeseen consequences. And it is the Daoist free flow that I believe is so important to allow relief from the endless micromanagement the Confucian approach brings.
And it is that free flow that I treasure so much. It is that philosophy that I have pursued my entire life, and it is the moments of solitude that I find are the purest expression of that ideal.
If I can give one piece of advice to you, it is discover your alone time. It doesn’t have to be biking, it only has to be a natural exponent of your ability to flow freely. Any activity in the day can be that beautiful sunset when you take time to be with yourself. So shut off the Netflix, put down that phone and flow freely.