Venice known as “ Queen of the Adriatic” was a city of commerce and beauty. During the 14th century, ships came in and out from numerous other ports as part of a flourishing trade for exquisite silk fabric, art, grains and spices. Some of these other ports belonged to coastal cities affected by the deadly plague epidemic. These ships were then made to sit at anchor for 40 days or “quaranta giorni” at the nearby island of San Lazzaro. This is where we derive the word “quarantine”.
The word quarantine was and is used to mean a physical isolation, although it is oft confused with solitary confinement. These are two very different concepts. Solitary confinement is an imposition on a person with the pre-requisite being an imprisonment and no meaningful social contact with other people. When you are quarantined you limit physical contact, it does not take away from your freedoms. It is hoped to be voluntary and meant to be a public health tool. It is also meant to be enabling rather than disabling. When in isolation, people have been known to cope differently, with some people displaying positive growth and others, not so much. What do psychologists say of this difference?
Solitude versus loneliness
Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Loneliness is a negative unpleasant and distressing feeling that can happen even when you are surrounded by people. Frustration of your desires plays a very important role in feeling lonely. If I don’t get what I want, in the manner I want it, to the extent that I want it, it can lead to feelings of loneliness and dejection.
Whereas interpersonal intimacy is one of the more basic human needs, research also shows great benefits of introspective time alone aka “solitude”. By solitude I do not mean social withdrawal, shyness, or social inhibition. I mean a social privacy that affords for positive growth. “Solitude” plays an important role in the creative process and in the pursuit of happiness.
Picasso said: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” Spiritual traditions speak of the solitude of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha. Literary traditions too talk of periods of social isolation leading to production of great works, such as those by Thoreau, Dickinson, Kipling, and Kafka.
Scientists who worked alone included Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and James Clerk Maxwell.There is good evidence to suggest that:
(1) So long as we voluntarily submit ourselves to an isolation and
(2) are able to process and regulate our emotions
(3) alongside the freedom to maintain social and personal relationships (unlike Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away), it can greatly promote ideas, fuel creative solutions, and advance spiritual growth.
A constructive (not destructive) quarantine
In India, there is practice known as Vipassana — a form of meditation that requires distinct attentional engagement through mindful breathing practise and social isolation for anywhere between three days and three months. It has undergone some amount of scientific scrutiny and a study done by the University of California San Diego found increased occipital gamma power related to long-term meditational expertise and enhanced sensory awareness. This could mean better selective attention, cognitive control, self-regulation, creativity, reasoning, working memory, fluid intelligence, inhibitory control, task switching and mental flexibility, collectively known as “executive functions”. 2020, the year of the Rat (not bat) — an animal known for being inquisitive, shrewd, and resourceful, can be the year that you decide to pursue all those spiritual, literary, academic and creative goals that you always had little time for. It would greatly help to include mindfulness based practices whatever works for you be it guided meditation, body scans, breathing retraining, guided imagery, breath focus or vipassana, mindfulness meditation (kabat-zinn), yoga, tai chi, qigong in your daily schedule.
Prey tell me, why ?
Given the present situation in the world with Covid-19 and social isolation and given our limited degrees of freedom, if we choose to use this one opportunity to give solitude a shot (versus loneliness), who knows what Eureka moment it might bring for some of us, while for others it might ensure the gift of a longer and healthier life.
We already know the science behind it. Now let us practise the art — the art of living. Art and science are more closely linked than you think. As Arthur Schopenhauer rightly said: “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”