3 Ways to Enjoy Solitude and Live Deeply, According to Rilke
Timeless advice from one of history’s greatest poets
I look around and find myself on a path completely unburdened by footsteps. The overgrowth alive, but disorienting. Hypnotic. Calling.
Before finishing my degree nearly a year ago, it was relatively easy to decide what to do, where to go, and what aspirations to aspire to. Now I’ve got nearly infinite possibilities in all directions, each calling to me in its own way.
However, in my wandering, I’ve concluded that it’s best I find tenets of great thinkers and makers so that I might engage more deeply with my own life and create work with more intention and conviction.
In the pursuit of locking onto my own personal north star, I’ve habituated two things:
1. Reading more. Ever since bailing on my well-intentioned-yet-horribly executed 5 AM productivity plan at the beginning of the year, I managed to make one part of that routine stick.¹ I now wake up to read for about an hour every day, absorbing everything from Atomic Habits to the beautifully written fiction of Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow.
2. Engaging with philosophy. This often coincides with my reading habit — finding philosophical texts I’ve found to be just as useful as watching YouTube videos. I know that scientifically, a good portion of a person’s happiness comes from engaging deeply with something.² This means spending time to really digest the material in any way that allows you to derive further value. A pure enrichment of your experience. For me, it’s books. Art, landscaping, meaningful conversation, and the physical tinkering and construction of things are all perfect mediums to engage with.
I’ve just read Letters To A Young Poet, a short book of Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters to a fellow poet, Franz Kappus, during the early twentieth century. Rilke posits his thoughts on devotion, love, wisdom, and creation with intriguing prose and a deep sense of connection to the human spirit.
I had heard of Rilke (pronounced Rill-Kuh) before. During my most prolific semester, I took a creative writing course and read some of his poetry. I don’t remember any of his prose, but I do remember the lengths at which my professor gushed about Rilke’s work. Apparently, the way he writes is like dew on grass. Calm.
Upon my own reading of Rilke’s letters, I found his notes on solitude and the development of one’s work ethic to be particularly intriguing. Having written the majority of these letters at the ripe old age of 27, Rilke’s knowledge and observations on both the natural world and his own inner world hold truths most people take a lifetime to discover.
Although his letters were written with the intention of aiding in Kappus’ poetic pursuits, Rilke’s letters offer powerful insights anybody can use to find the artfulness in their work and access greater potential. There’s a peace I’ve felt in my own reading, knowing that in these letters, Rilke was a work in progress, no different than most of us today.
1 — Rilke on solitude and meaning
Paris, 17 February 1903
"Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, and admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write?… depict your sadness and desires, passing thoughts and faith in some kind of beauty — depict all this with intense, quiet, humble sincerity and make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory."
Solitude allows us to narrowly define why we’ve chosen our path.
Connecting to your own internal drive to pursue your passion is the first and most important part of the process. For painters, ask yourself why you paint. For writers, ask what compels you to write. The answer is never external. The answer always comes from within.
With writing in particular, I’ve been at war with myself over why I’ve continued to write. There is a calling, I believe that no matter the circumstance if all else in my life failed I would have still sought to impart wisdom through digital ink. Now I also have to contend with the idea of making money (and by extension making a living) from my writing. Thinking about Rilke’s call to internal discovery has led me to conclude that I do want to obtain arguably needless peripherals with my writing. I would enjoy notoriety. I would enjoy money. A literary network is an exciting thought as well.
But internally, I only want to pursue a better craft. I’m obsessed with the translation of my thoughts to the proper words and have been actively studying writing in all forms even before my time on Medium.
Creating good work is something I’ve always sought out to do, but since reading Rilke’s letters, my conviction for that message has grown ironclad.
2 — On solitude and patience
Viareggio near Pisa, Italy, 23 April 1903
"Works of art are infinitely solitary and nothing is less likely to reach them than criticism. Only love can grasp them and hold them and do them justice. — With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights. Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must be carried to term before it is born… To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree that does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!"
Rilke says that the things people create can only be understood through a love found in solitary exploration. We need to spend time with ourselves and the things we find a meaningful connection to (I believe we can extend “art” to be anything we’re passionate about) so that our stirred thoughts mix into themselves. The end product of letting our mind wander over, under, and through a passion is a greater understanding — a personal understanding of the work.
The line to grow and ripen as a tree struck me as a universally important part of the process. I believe that Rilke means we can find a love for nature, work, art, people, etc., only if we spend enough time in the thick of it. A garden will never grow if we dig up the seeds every day to check their progress, only when we give each one enough time and resources will a sleepy leaf poke through the soil.
The same is true with our own work.
In the process of ripening, we might not see the tangible fruit of our labors until we’ve reached a critical stage. But we can never hit that stage without fully embodying the entirety of the process(es) it took to get there.
I don’t think this is Rilke advocating for a blind trust in the process, only that your process needs to have enough reasons it can be trustworthy for future success. This is why I believe learning (in a non-academic setting) is the best way to produce this level of trust. Actively trying to improve your craft will lead to better work, so long as you put in the time.
3 — On solitude and conviction
Paris, on the second day of Christmas 1908
"Art too is only a way of living, and it is possible, however one lives, to prepare oneself for it without knowing; in every real situation we are nearer to it, better neighbours, than in the unreal half-artistic professions which by pretending to be close to art in fact deny and hurt its very existence, as for example is the case with the whole of journalism and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what passes for literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have withstood the dangers of slipping into all this, and that somewhere you are living alone and courageous in a rough reality. May the year to come maintain and strengthen you in it."
Throughout all of Rilke’s letters, there are themes of surrendering. Not in a white flag sort of way — more of a spiritual acceptance, an intimate giving of yourself to your work so that you might grow more refined and complete.
Art and passion, in all of their nuances, are something to surrender to.
In giving yourself to your craft, you commit an act of deep bravery. Rilke’s notes here especially reflect his own life at the time — Rilke had not yet made his name synonymous with literary excellence and had not yet fully committed his own mind against the comfortable conventions of his time. Throughout all of his letters, Rilke seems to be writing for himself, convincing himself to take the plunge and answer the call of the poetic life.
No matter our own calling, answering it is the most courageous and important thing we can do — not only for ourselves but for the rest of humanity. Every time we choose to write that article, paint that painting, or learn in ways that enrich us, we are producing something that can be engaged with on a larger stage.
In writing this article, I offer a chance for the third stage of Rilke’s conversation — should you choose to comment, you would have furthered these ideas in ways that Rilke and I hadn’t explored before. I believe there is enrichment in newness, even if not founded on complete novelty.
In every act of self-improvement, you return to the world with a larger repertoire of skills, tools in your arsenal, that might enrich common interactions, or inspire new ones.
So I look again to the path ahead, lush and alive. And into the foliage I wander.
Disclaimer: This article was originally posted on Medium.
Link to original article - https://medium.com/illumination/3-ways-to-enjoy-solitude-and-live-deeply-according-to-rilke-2b754879134e
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