On solitude and thinking

Autumn picture from mygarden.me.ukI like autumn, and every year there’s always a day when it clearly announces itself. Yesterday there was a little chill in the morning sunshine that marked the end of summer and sparked a certain purposefulness that I always associate with this change of season.

There’s some sadness in the transition. It may be the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but it also triggers the seared memories of back-to-school. (By the way, if you’ve got kids, give them a break by joining my friends Chris, Rob and Alex and support a ban on homework.)

For me, September is looking busy which is great but it also marks the end of a month or so of unplanned solitude which I have greatly appreciated. Regular readers (all three of you) will have noticed I’ve had little to say here for several weeks. I have read very few blog posts and made fewer. I’ve actually not been mixing much with the world at all, and basically given myself permission to do almost nothing with any purpose, beyond eating and fits of playing World of Warcraft.

The experience kicked off in my days house-sitting in Cable Bay, New Zealand. This is a wonderful spot with views of sea and hills where you get to settle to a much slower pace of life. In our highly stimulating world, it’s sometimes great to be understimulated. I find this is a time where I really get to observe my own mind at work. I call this solitude, a very different experience from loneliness. I’ve enjoyed the benefits of thinking less and witnessing more.

That word, thinking, is a little tricky though. I don’t mean to dismiss thought but like David Bohm, I like to distinguish between generative new thinking on the one hand, and the mere recycling of old thoughts on the other. I find the better I am at not thinking, the more likely I am to generate something fresh, original and authentic…

Ive enjoyed reading Nancy Kline’s book, Time to Think. She outlines a few very simple but powerful principles to support that kind of high quality thinking in organisations. The one that sticks most in my mind is this: don’t interrupt people. As she puts it

Knowing they won’t be interrupted frees people to think faster and say less

I’d probably say better rather than faster, but that’s just a quibble really. Lately in conversations I’ve been practising not interrupting and realising what a gift it is to give someone attention instead of competing for it.

(When I close an Open Space with an open mike, I say that people can speak for as long as they wish, bearing in mind the desire of others to speak. I sometimes invite the audience, if anxious that someone is “going on too long”, to give that person more attention – not the instinctive less)

I suspect most of us rarely get enough time to hear ourselves think without the rigidity that comes from anticipating challenge. In a nutshell, I think that’s been my gift to myself this summer: the space to think differently. I think that this notion connects strongly to the Trusted Space that Rob has been so eloquent about lately. Rob’s talking about a space that we create between humans, and I think it’s also something we can create within ourselves.

8 thoughts on “On solitude and thinking

  1. Chris Corrigan

    As one of your three readers, welcome back and thanks for this great post! Glad you took time to play, read, sleep and explore solitude…sometimes we need to remember what we learned as kids, before homework got in the way!

  2. annette

    Lovely post Johnnie – I too love th autumn and I can smell the slight change in the air these days – I’m a winter person, not a summer person so I always get excited at this time of the year.

  3. Nick Smith

    Well, I’m number three but I bet I’m not the last 😉

    Yeah, I love that Autumn smell-in-the-air too. Like this post, there’s a certain stillness about it that’s envigorating.

    I think it’s the same feeling you can sometimes get if you go for a really early walk – just before the sun crosses the horizon there’s a pause that’s pregnant with energetic life-force.

    I sometimes have the sense that everything good we create arises out of this stillness. It’s good to see you back refreshed Johnnie.

  4. Declan

    Was that three score or more? Welcome back Johnnie from the sinkhole that is WOW. Looks like your journey from fight or flee to flow is complete. Looking forward to learning lots more about it.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Reader #5 checking in here!

    Your “more attention, not less” thought reminded me of an old Zen notion (or, at least a notion attributed to a Zen master):

    “If something is boring for ten minutes, do it for twenty.”

    I love the melancholy of fall, too.

  6. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I feel welcomed back.

    And Tom, your reminded story.. reminded me of a story about Gandhi. Each day, he would meditate for an hour before getting on with his many tasks.

    One morning, his staff came to him anxiously, telling him that he had a particularly busy day ahead.

    “A busy day?” he remarked. “Then I shall meditate for two hours.”


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