“Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom,” wrote the late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author of Thoughts in Solitude, upon entering the Monastic life.
I love the phrase, “the four walls of my new freedom” because it seems counterintuitive and yet rings true for me. When I limit myself or am disciplined, I feel more free.
Speaking of limits and discipline, I recently returned from a Silent retreat. What a fascinating, challenging and transformative experience!
I’m no stranger to Silence. In fact, it’s one of my closest companions. After all, I live in Wyoming where there are not many people. It’s not hard to find Silence on an hourly, if not daily, basis. Add to that I work alone, and I enjoy a lot of Solitude.
Socrates said, “Know Thyself.” In my humble experience, Solitude is the medium for self realization. I think self awareness is the first, and most important, step to living a happy and fulfilled life, and that the best way to discover, and come to know yourself is to spend time alone.
I’m also no stranger to meditation and mindfulness. I’ve meditated off and on for the last 24 years, and I’ve kept up a mindfulness practice every single weekday morning since Feb. 2013. It has been a game changer for me. (Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of one of the most influential books I’ve read, Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Before I practiced mindfulness on a regular basis, during times of stress and overwhelm, I didn’t have that space, that pause. Mindfulness practice has taught me how to create that pause, and it has made a huge difference in my life. Now, more times than not, I respond instead of react, and what a difference there is between the two. In short, responding is thoughtful and reacting is not.
And while what I signed up for, and traveled to Ojai, CA for, would include a lot of Silence and Mindfulness, it was more than that. It would be a Silent retreat, with no speaking, but also no technology (no iPhone or Facebook, etc.), which also meant no contact with family and friends. In addition, there would be no music, books or other “entertainment.” And, it would all be part of a workshop with Byron Katie. All of this would be among 115 other people, and while living in a community. This would be a difficult challenge for me, and I was eager for it.
Katie, author of several books, including Loving What Is, is famous for what she calls “The Work,” a method of self inquiry that she encourages people to do in Stillness/Meditation. The Work has helped millions of people change their lives for the better. So to be in the presence of Katie, and to witness her doing The Work with people in attendance who would be brave enough to share about their suffering would be a meaningful experience in and of itself. But no question, the main reason I signed up was to be Silent amidst people, something I had never experienced before for any length of time.
And boy, did I learn a lot from the experience.
Here are some things I learned from being in Silence:
–At the outset of the retreat, we were instructed to not give each other eye contact. It was suggested as a way to make it a little easier for people who would have a hard time not engaging with others. That for sure made the experience more challenging. I value connection, and eye contact, for me, helps make it possible, so this would make the Silence even more awkward and challenging. One of the “tricks” I told myself about this instruction was that keeping one’s eyes downcast can demonstrate humility. Humility is one of the attributes I value most in people, and, in my opinion, is what often makes a person kind, and a leader inspiring and approachable.
–As if no talking and no eye contact wasn’t challenging enough, we had no name tags. So we were Silent, not giving eye contact, and “nameless.” This is one of the things I came for. To be more anonymous and to get practice at that. (I wrote recently in a blog post, “Hungry,” that, among other things, I want to be more anonymous.)
–I like to help put people at ease, and I’m well-practiced at trying to do so. As I sat in Silence with people all around me, feeling the difficulty of not even offering simple pleasantries with one another really highlighted my want, and ability to help put others (read: myself) at ease. It was difficult and fascinating at the same time to resist the urge of trying to reduce social discomfort.
–As people, we are social animals. Most of us, unfortunately, find such Silence in large groups awkward. As a society, we want to fill the space. Notice the next time you’re in a conversation on the phone, in person, or in a group, or with a close friend… If the conversation fades and silence enters, it’s quickly “filled.” That’s what most of us do — we quickly try to fill empty space because it feels awkward and unnatural for it to just hang there, with no words in the air.
This reminds me of something writer Cal Fussman shared in a conversation with Tim Ferriss. A great writer and master interviewer, Fussman challenges us to “let the Silence do the work.” In other words, next time you ask someone a question, or you’re in a conversation and it goes quiet, dare to just let it be. Don’t jump in and try to fill the space out of discomfort. Certainly the Silent retreat felt that way for hours at a stretch. There was a lot of Silence hanging in the air, and it felt both unfamiliar and liberating. The Silence felt like possibility. I will be working to let the Silence do the work…
–When we spend time alone, available only to our own thoughts, as a listener to and noticer of our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly, we discover and come to know ourselves. I personally enjoy a lot of Solitude. For example, I hike 1,000 miles a year. Half of those are hiked alone, and it’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with. I think that more than any other habit in my life, Solitude is the one that is most responsible for my blessed life. I have a clarity about who I am and who and how I want to be that is invaluable. This self awareness informs me about what to say Yes to and what to say No to in my life. It is my guide for how to be my best. I feel so strongly that self awareness is the key to living our best life that I cover its importance in the keynote presentation I’m hired to deliver to corporations and conferences, “Epic Leadership Lessons Learned in the Field,” and I promote getting regular intervals of it to my coaching clients. The experience of Solitude I enjoyed every morning and evening, on my own exploring trails or at my AirBnb refuge confirmed for me its importance.
–Silence isn’t empty. It’s full. I recall the words of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest.” Indeed, Silence is not empty. In fact, the chatter that goes on inside each of our heads is quite voluminous. Often, it’s anything but empty or “silent.” Sometimes in Silence there was so much going on in my head that I wished Silence were empty!
– Without talking, or any music or other audio distractions, we are better listeners. We are better at noticing things. I noticed the sound of my rental car’s blinker, even. Take away talking and you hear everything, and small details or things we normally wouldn’t notice can become fascinating. I was reminded of an excerpt from Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures of Going Nowhere: “Sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”
–Speaking of noticing, the definition of mindfulness that I love best is that of Ellen Langer’s. Langer is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of mindfulness.” (Check out this fantastic conversation with her.) She says mindfulness is simply noticing things. That is all you have to do: Pay attention. Take notice. I noticed a lot. I remember going on a caving expedition one time and, for a few minutes, we turned our headlamps off so we could experience total darkness. It was total darkness. Nothing but black. During that experience, I remember thinking all of my other senses were heightened, as if you when remove one sense your other senses, in compensating, or in being more freed up, become even more attuned. This is how I felt for the five days when I did not say a single word. All of my other senses were heightened. I heard more. I saw more. I felt more. I smelled more.
–I am a very curious person and, not to brag, but I’m a pretty good listener. I work hard at it. I love meaningful connections and conversations. I love to ask people questions, and to hear their responses and to learn about them. It was so challenging for me to not be able to do this, and to not think of it as so many lost opportunities. And, as is usually the case, the challenge of it taught me new skills and insights.
–Speaking of new skills, I honed an important skill – resisting. Saying No to my normal behaviors and trying something different than what I am used to. I learned some skills that I know will serve me in certain situations when I have a strong desire to say something, but prefer not to.
–I love to share and contribute, especially if I think that what I share will be of some value. I share a lot publicly, in my work, in my blogging, and in my relationships. Sharing is part of who I am. However, I decided in advance of the workshop that while I’d do the assigned work, I’d mostly be an observer and see what I could learn and how I could personally grow from the experience. However, I quickly realized that “observing” felt like watching, and I didn’t want to be a spectator but to be immersed and participating and getting the most out of this unique experience. I resolved to pay very good attention and try to notice as many things as I could. I also decided to challenge myself to not raise my hand and offer to contribute anything or do anything that would call attention to myself. I’m happy to report that I pulled this off. It was an uncommon experience for me, and frankly, I’m surprised I succeeded! (I did find that writing all of the things I had felt called to ask or share later in a journal felt almost the same as expressing it to the group, which was an interesting learning, and could be helpful to me in the future as I try to navigate how I will limit my time online, which may result in limiting my public sharing.)
–There’s a saying that goes something like this: “If there are 5 of us, I’ll have 4 teachers.” Everyone I sat with in Silence during the workshop – people I didn’t get to “meet,” given our Silence – I felt a closeness to, and in a way I can’t explain, they were all my teachers during the five days. I still think of them now and can picture their faces. I can still hear the stories some of them shared while doing The Work with Katie. I am pulling for all of them…
–For 2017, I have resolved to “talk less” and say more. What this means, to me, is being more intentional about what I say, share or write about. Being in Silence, amidst 115 people for 5 days and not being able to talk was about the best practice there could be for talking less. I honed the skill, and now let’s see if I can use it. 🙂 Katie has an eloquent presence about her. You can see her carefully choosing/”searching” for the right words before she says them. It doesn’t feel like she’s editing, as much as she wants for her words to count. I really appreciate that, and was inspired by watching her be this way in her communication. She talked less, and in doing so, said more.
–Words matter. During a time when I said not a single word, I learned more than ever how much words matter. This truth has deeper meaning after witnessing so many people doing The Work around suffering. So much of it was/is tied to something a parent said or a partner said that has had lasting, negative impacts on the person and his/her life. As a wife and a parent, in particular, but also as a coach that people trust, it was an important reminder that our words matter, and that we should not be careless or reckless with them.
-Some struggle more than others when required to be in Silence. I wonder if people who consider themselves shy might find this not as awkward as people who consider themselves outgoing? And yet maybe even shy people find this Silent setting hard because no one is speaking up. There are no extroverts taking the lead to start or carry the conversation.
–Some people are better at Stillness than others. For example, the woman who sat next to me on the first two days, was very good at sitting still and quietly. She hardly fidgeted. I have a lot of energy and can be still, but not as easily. I fidget a lot. At home I never sit for long, walking during my phone calls, and only sitting for stretches of 60-90 minutes at most, and not all day long. So it wasn’t that I was bored as much it was hard to sit so still for such long periods.
–While I love people and can be with a lot of people, as I get older, I’m becoming more of an introvert. (Technically, I’m what Dan Pink would call an ambivert. You can take his quiz here). This experience was sort of like a combination of being alone and in a crowd all at once. I found myself in a large crowd for several hours each day, but “off the hook” as far as having to socialize. It was difficult and awesome at the same time!
—If the lights were dimmed or off, I think the Silence would not be as difficult or awkward because we could more easily “hide,” which would make the awkwardness of Silence amidst so many people not as challenging. The lights were on and we couldn’t hide in the darkness. This was valuable. There were no shortcuts or ways to make the experience easier. Not to diminish my point, but I know it’s the same when I have sunglasses on. I feel a little bit hidden when people cannot look into my eyes. When I wear earbuds on an airplane, even if I have nothing playing into them, it sends the signal that I’m unavailable and, in this small way, helps me to hide.
–During the experience, I wondered about people who don’t feel they have a voice, and how it must feel to be Silenced against your will. I felt compassion for people who don’t get to have a voice.
–In Silence, time slows down. The 60 minutes of Stillness twice a day while waiting for the main workshops to begin, were very long. Because I love and value time, I appreciated that the 60 minutes were so long. Remember, no music, no reading, no eye contact, no darkness, no visiting, just sitting. Removing all of the normal distractions stretches the time. Who doesn’t want time to seem more abundant?
–To use a word from OnBeing‘s Krista Tippett, I was more “porous.” More was allowed into me as a result of the Silence. I felt my feelings more.
–Sherry Turkle wrote a book called Alone Together. The title refers to today’s times where you can be in a group of people, or with your family in the same room, but you’re not really together, rather you’re what Turkle calls alone together. You are physically close together, but you’re each far away, alone in your own worlds, thanks to your devices and their capability to connect you to friends and things that are “not here.” During the retreat, many of us waited, in Silence, for the doors to open for the workshop seasons, and we were all alone in our own worlds, looking down and away from each other. Alone together took on a new meaning for me. It felt like we were alone, but together in our Stillness.
-Speaking of alone and Silence, if you’re human and you’re normal, you are hardly alone when in you’re in Silence, what with all of the endless chatter and inner dialogues going on your head. In fact, it could probably be argued that there’s a lot more going on when you’re alone with your thoughts than if you’re in a conversation with others.
–Everyone has a story. I know this, of course. Especially in my work as a life coach, I know firsthand of the suffering so many experience. Still, when you can’t talk and project yourself, or exchange information about yourself –– you can’t edit and share the story you want to share – we make up our own imagined stories about others. When we do this we know we’re not basing them on anything but our imagination and/or past stereotypes and/or experiences, but still it is a little unfair. I caught myself imagining the stories of many of the people around me at the workshop each day. It was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t nail any of the stories.
–Hiding. I figured out before traveling to California for the Silent retreat and workshop that I do a fair amount of “hiding.” And thanks to David Whyte, and his Hiding essay in the wonderful Consolations, I am positive that hiding can be a good thing. He writes, Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light. Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world: the protective quiet of an icy northern landscape, the held bud of a future summer rose, the snow bound internal pulse of the hibernating bear. Hiding is underestimated. We are hidden by life in our mother’s womb until we grow and ready ourselves for our first appearance in the lighted world; to appear too early in that world is to find ourselves with the immediate necessity for outside intensive care. Boy, do I appreciate those words, but to be honest, too often they give me an out. I hide a little too much. I had noticed that when I am in Solitude, which is about half of my life, I’m effectively hiding from others – not always intentionally, but sometimes. When I’m in social situations, just being my best self and asking people questions and then listening to them, I’m effectively hiding myself from others – not always intentionally, but sometimes. Well, I’m here to report that when I found myself Silent amidst 115 people, I couldn’t hide from myself or others. That was uncomfortable, and a worthwhile experience to say the least! That is the Epic I signed up for right there, and boy did I get it!
–I don’t mean to brag, but I am an expert at self criticism. I think, over time, thanks to so much time in Solitude, and becoming so familiar with, and defending myself against what I’ve come to call the “Wrath of Shelli,” I’ve developed more understanding about myself, which has led, pleasantly, to more compassion for myself. But what I learned during the Silent retreat, especially along with witnessing so many people who were courageous enough to share their suffering with us and Katie in front of the room, is that if we’re brave enough to be honest with ourselves, we’re likely to respond to ourselves with compassion instead of criticism. This is a huge learning for me. I saw it happen before my eyes with 18 out of 18 people who did The Work. I could see the compassion for themselves start to appear as they acknowledged truths about themselves. And, I noticed it in myself throughout the five days as I reflected and did my own “Work” and worksheets on my own areas of suffering or negativity. The more honest I was willing to be, the more my self criticism gave way to compassion. Hallelujah to that. As Kelly McGonigal has suggested, self criticism is not motivating. Those of us who are self critical try to convince ourselves that when we are hard on ourselves it motivates us to work harder, but that is not what actually happens. It is unhealthy and not helpful. So for that reason alone – to try to become more self compassionate – I recommend periods of Silence and self inquiry. Create opportunities for stillness and then do an inventory around an issue that is weighing you down or holding you back. And, dare to be honest.
–I prayed a lot, and prayer came more naturally for me.
–I consider myself a grateful person. I hope I am appreciative because it is something I really appreciate in others, no pun intended. I found myself even more grateful than normal when given so much time with so few of the normal distractions in life. And anytime I’m grateful, I feel my best.
–Now, a major detour from the tone of the other things I learned… I returned to Wyoming with a tick from the trails of Ojai! Early on in the five days, while back at my AirBnB, I felt a nuisance and slight pain in the lower part of the back of my neck. I couldn’t reach it with my hand and I couldn’t see it in the mirror. When I got home, 6 days later, and asked Jerry to look at it, it was a tick! He removed it and I started freaking out about Lyme disease. Fortunately, my son, Hayden, informed me that only 1.2-1.7% of all ticks carry Lyme disease. That is helpful to know, for sure, and I feel fine as of today, but this was the only real “bummer” of the Silence. Maybe I would have asked someone to look at it, even a stranger, if not for the vow of Silence. Just something to think about for the next time I guess. 🙂
Thank you so much for reading. I value your time, so I appreciate your taking the time to read my thoughts.
I hope you’ll return soon. I will be publishing a blog post about what I learned with no iPhone or Facebook in my next blog post and it’s an important one for me as I’ve been struggling a lot as of late with my amount of tethered-ness to them. I will also be writing about what I earned from Byron Katie, uncertainty, daring to fail, deep work, and more.
I am a certified life and leadership coach, personal development consultant, keynote (inspired) speaker, leadership development facilitator, adventure guide. I’ve coached 130 individual leaders from across the U.S. during the last 6 years. If you, or someone you know, would like to change your life and/or your leadership impact, I’d be honored to coach you. If you’re interested, please email me. I also bundle coaching with wellness and guided “Epic Adventure.” All of the adventures are “unplugged,” and offer you Solitude and space and time to be inspired and reflective.
WOMEN: Do you want to make some changes to your life, and go on an Epic Adventure with me? Right now I’m recruiting for my Epic Women Zion National Park Day Hiking/Life & Leadership Coaching program, as well as my Epic Women Wind River Range Backpacking/Life & Leadership Coaching program. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like information about either of these, or to schedule a call.
Stillness. Sunrise is my favorite time of day, and I captured this over Worthen Reservoir en route to a hike in my backyard, Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” -Henry David Thoreau
One day in Alaska’s Brooks Range, on my NOLS course in 2011, we got turned around and we weren’t sure of our location. After some hours of backpacking, we were feeling a little demoralized and uncertain so we took off our heavy packs, and got our big topographical maps out before going about trying to figure out where we were.
The Brooks Range is a 700-mile-long mountain range that stretches from West to East in the far north of Alaska. The country is remote and vast and wild. There are no roads and no trails in the Brooks Range. So, in order to determine your location, you have to try to match the land formations around you with features on the map. It can be laborious. After a while of not figuring out where we were, a couple of us grew impatient, myself included. I just wanted to move, in any direction. I was tired of not going anywhere, and tired of not figuring out the answer to our question. One of my course-mates said to me, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s a waste of time to figure out where we are, so we can figure out where we’re going.”
I’ve never forgotten those words. Such wisdom! And not only in our Brooks Range situation, but even more importantly, when it comes to life. We cannot expect to realize our dreams, or achieve our goals, without first having a very good understanding of who we are, and where we’re at. Self awareness is the single most important, and first step, to not only living our best (epic) life, but to being our best version.
By design, I do a lot of things for work. Mostly, I’m a life and leadership coach, keynote presenter, leadership developer and adventure guide. People hire me when they want to take stock of their life or leadership, or both, and to help them make changes.
In order to be content and self aware, we must have some regular intervals of time each week when we’re available only to ourselves in order to listen to our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m not a coach for everyone. Anyone who works with me can expect to do a deep dive into Self. It’s that important to a fulfilled life, and it’s not easy work.
As an Emotional Intelligence consultant, but more importantly, as someone who likes people, and who values relationships, I feel strongly that listening is the most important skill we ought to develop. (Unfortunately we are not taught to listen, which in my humble opinion, is a tragedy, and a lost opportunity.) Most of us are not very good listeners. Right now, take a second to think about all of the people you know and are in relationship with. Can you think of one or two who are really good listeners? These are people who listen to you so closely that you feel as if you’re the only person in the world when you’re with them, and they’re listening to you. It’s so uncommon to find these great listeners, and when you do, it’s a real gift. If you have any of them in your life, cherish and thank them. Seeing and hearing a person is one of the greatest gifts we can offer someone.
But we also need to be great listeners of ourselves.
I hike about 1,000 miles a year. Half of these are alone, and it’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with. Rather, I yearn for a lot of time alone. Solitude has made all of the difference in my life. In fact, I think it probably deserves more credit for my contentment than anything else.
I know I am frequently referencing books, and I’m sorry if I overwhelm you with book recommendations, but I’m a voracious reader. I practically eat books, and they are a tremendous source of inspiration, and learning, for me. I just finished reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (who is also the author of Wanderlust, and The Faraway Nearby. I recommend all of these books).
First of all, what’s not to love about the title, which won my heart before I even read the description for it. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit captures it perfectly for me:
“Summer breezes caressed me, my legs stepped forward as though possessed of their own appetites, and the mountains kept promising. I stopped before the trees were gone, not ready that day to disappear entirely into the vastness. Perhaps these spaces are the best corollary I have found to truth, to clarity, to independence.”
Time alone, and solitude, is not empty, but “full.” Thanks to Joel Krieger for this photo of me in my backyard, near Temple Peak and Temple Lake, in the Wind River Range.
I wish I could take the credit for falling in love with, and discovering the value of solitude, but my love for it happened by accident. When I was 21 years old, I lost my Division I basketball scholarship. It was my most spectacular failure. I wasn’t a good enough player, and there was someone else who was better and more deserving of my scholarship, so my scholarship was given to another player.
I was devastated, and a long way from home. Most of my friends were still on the basketball team, so losing my scholarship meant also losing significant time with my friends. I started spending a lot of time alone, hiking Mount Sentinel on the edge of campus. Until then, I always thought people who went to the movies alone, or who hiked, or did anything alone, were lonely people. Boy was I wrong about that. In fact, lonely and alone are not the same things. I am blessed that I was only 21 years old when I discovered the value of time spent alone, because now I am 48 years old, and the solitude I enjoy has been a blessing over the years. And, speaking of blessings, the “spectacular failure” turned out to be one of my greatest blessings.
We hear a lot about being our “Authentic Self,” and in leadership we hear a lot about being an “Authentic Leader.” Both are hard to be if we don’t even know who we are. I think how we live is how we lead, so self realization is the first step whether your motive is to live your best life or to have a positive and effective leadership impact.
We discover our authentic self during time alone, taking stock, listening to our thoughts, feeling our emotions, asking ourselves important questions and then giving ourselves time and space to answer them.
So, solitude is a gift. Most of us don’t get enough of it. As a coach, there are three excuses I hear most often for not getting enough – or any – solitude.
The first excuse is a common excuse for not doing a lot of things we want and need to do. It is the, “I don’t have time. I’m so busy, and I can’t find the time” excuse. I think it was writer Elizabeth Gilbert who said, “We don’t find the time; we make the time.” I couldn’t agree more. We all have 24 hours in a day. I often challenge people I work with and/or know to wake up 15 minutes earlier, and to simply go to a dark room and sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes before officially starting their day. Using this time to start a mindfulness practice is also beneficial, and is another good way to introduce yourself to solitude.
The second excuse – and one that I commonly hear from people who hire me as their coach – is, “It’s uncomfortable.” I agree. Being alone with our thoughts can be very uncomfortable. It can be difficult to listen to our thoughts because they’re not always positive. This time alone can facilitate a sort of reckoning. We are forced to confront the brutal truths of our life. It is hard to run or hide from one’s self if left alone with our thoughts. This is one of the reasons I think solitude is so valuable. How can we be a truth teller to our self if we’re not aware of the hard truths in our life?
I’m not immune. My time alone is often uncomfortable. Tears frequently come during solitude. The quiet and lack of others around help me to feel and experience and process my emotions at a deeper level. And, as someone who struggles with self criticism, I find that solitude helps me to be more self compassionate. I’m guessing this is the result of having a better understanding of myself. My work at self compassion has only just begun, and I have a long ways to go, but I do think solitude is helping.
I’ve worked with about 125 individual leaders during the last six years, and I think every one of them struggles, at least sometimes, with self criticism. We tend to be hard on ourselves, and it is my belief that time alone leads to understanding of self, which leads to more compassion for, and less judgment of, self, and others.
One question I challenge people I know and work with to ask themselves is, “What am I needing?” This is such an important question, and most of us do not give ourselves time and space to consider the question, let alone the possible answers to it. It is much easier to live in denial, and to not confront or address personal challenges, weaknesses or pains if we avoid making ourselves aware of them. But this lack of awareness also prevents us from making changes that could be significant to our life.
I’m reading a fantastic book called Journal of a Solitude, by the late May Sarton. Sarton was an American novelist, poet and memoirist who suffered from bouts of depression. Journal Of A Solitude is a book that is one year’s worth of Sarton’s journaling, which includes some pretty dark times. Here are just two of the many gems I have highlighted in my dog-eared copy of the book:
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last,” begins Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude. “That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life, unless there is time alone in which to explore what is happening or what has happened.”
And, another gem from the book:“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
Sarton’s book is inspiring to me, in ways I can’t quite articulate other than to say I have my own dark pools and depressive moments, and reading of Sarton’s own struggles helps me feel not as alone in my personal struggles. Like I often do, I use a writer’s words to reference and describe my own feelings when I can’t find the words to do so on my own. I highly recommend the book, which is hard to find, probably due to Maria Popova’s recent recommendation of the book in her amazing Brain Pickings. (I also recommend subscribing to Brain Pickings. For some years now, a highlight for me every Sunday morning is receiving what Popova curates and compiles for our inspiration and benefit.)
The third excuse I hear, and hear most often is more or less, “Solitude is boring.” As a society, we have come to view boredom as a problem to solve. Think about the last time you had to wait for anything – out front of the school waiting for a son or daughter, in the waiting room of a clinic, waiting in line at the post office or grocery store, or at a stop light or stop sign, or in TSA line at the airport – or well, just about in any situation. At the first glimpse of free time, most of us reach for our smartphone. (I read somewhere recently that the average U.S. American adult reaches for his/her phone 150 times a day. This is staggering, and I believe it.)
I work with many creative people, and in my presentations to leaders, and in my coaching work with them, I like to make a case for boredom. In order for us to brainstorm new ideas – to have Aha moments and new solutions to old problems – we must allow our mind to wander. Our mind wanders only when we allow it to – when we’re bored.
Joseph Campbell, from his Power of Myth, writes about the important influence that solitude has on one’s creativity, whether toward self or a creative endeavor.
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”
And another favorite, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea, a book I especially recommend to women: “Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone.”
Try to resist the temptation to reach for your phone, or fill/use up the little bits of free time the next time you are required to wait or have a moment to not do anything. It’s hard work, AND it’s worth it. Note to Self, a great podcast I listen to, did a series of challenges they called “Bored and Brilliant” a while back that were designed to “guide you to less phone time and more creativity.” Thousands of people signed up for the challenges, which included things like not reaching for your phone during public transit, not using your phone as a camera to instead “see the world through your eyes not your screen,” delete apps, and other challenges. (I have one friend/client who is an artist, and he, like me, is wanting to create more. We are toying with an idea of disconnecting for 30 days for purposes of seeing what we could each create by putting to good use the “boredom” we would gain.)
As far as our rampant use of smartphones, which help us avoid boredom, and keep us from being alone with our thoughts, let the record show that I’m guilty as charged! Technology is a Godsend for me, and my work. It enabled our first company (Yellowstone Journal/YellowstonePark.com, NationalParkTrips) to do world-class work from the the Frontier of Wyoming, and it enables me to reach and serve clients from around the country even as I work in an RV parked by the river in the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I think I mostly use technology for good. Facebook, in particular, has facilitated meaningful friendships I wouldn’t have otherwise made, and has enriched so many of my connections with friends and family. It is also a marketing tool for me, as well as a place for me to share things that I find inspiring, and worth sharing with the world.
But I am finding that my almost-constant tethered-ness to my phone and social media is also not always serving me. It’s addictive, and distracting, and it probably limits me at least as much as it helps and enriches me. This is a real conundrum, and something I’ve been working on addressing for some time now. (Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, and also the work of Derek Sivers, among others, are causing me to take serious stock of my use of technology, and big change could be coming for me as a result. I haven’t sorted it all out just yet, though!)
University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have studied people when in solitude. For one experiment, people were instructed to sit alone, with only their thoughts, in an empty lab room for 15 minutes. The only thing in the room was a button they could push, and if they pushed it, it would self-administer an electrical shock. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, half of all participants shocked themselves at least once, the team reported in Science. That’s newsworthy, so I’ll be redundant: Half of us would rather shock ourselves than sit alone with our thoughts for 15 minutes. I can’t help myself – this is shocking!
Sherry Turkle is Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has been studying the psychology of online connectivity for more than 30 years, and she is the author of two books I recommend, Alone Together, and Reclaiming Conversation. The latter, which investigates how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity, is a cautionary tale for us, especially for parents and teachers. (But for the record, I think everyone ought to read the book.)
According to Turkle, “Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.” So just the presence of a phone, which has become a way to “solve” boredom, prevents us from going deep with people.
One finding of Turkle’s that is a surprise, and warrants our attention, is that our capacity for solitude actually helps us be more empathetic with others.
“In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.”
Hear hear. I cannot say it better.
If I were asked what single advice I would offer, it would be Pay Attention. And learning how to pay attention starts when we’re alone.
I hope this blog post will inspire you to carve out more time for you to be alone.
Thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.
“A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.” (Rumi) Photo: Solitude in the Cirque of the Towers.
This blog post is extra special for me, and I hope you’ll find it to be worth your time, and hopefully, inspiring.
I live in Lander, Wyoming, which is in the heart of Wind River Country, my favorite area in the world. I was raised here, left for some years, and then chose to return here in 1995 to live and eventually raise our family. One of my biggest passions is hiking. I hike with my family, I hike with friends, I lead hiking and backpacking expeditions for women, leadership teams, and all kinds of groups for all kinds of occasions. I also frequently hike alone. Recently, I had a conversation with my friend, Casey Adams, who is writer at Wind River Country. Casey asked me some good questions, which are in bold, for me to reflect on and answer. I’m sharing the conversation here.
Did you have fears of hiking solo when you first started, and what were they?
I started hiking seriously when I was 20 years old – some 27 years ago – and yes, I was afraid of hiking alone. I was frightened by all that could go wrong in the wilderness. The stakes in the wilderness are so much higher than they are in civilization, especially when out there all alone.
But I think this question is interesting because when I first started hiking, I had another fear. I was probably more afraid of being alone than I was of hiking alone, if that makes sense.
Alone on the trail, approaching Temple Peak. (Photo by Joel Krieger)
What did you find was the reality surrounding those fears?
I’ve come to believe that fear is not bad, just something to take seriously and to not ignore. Fear narrows our focus, and in the wilderness, this can literally save a life. So my fears about the wilderness and all that could go wrong haven’t vanished. I did get myself some skills, though, which means I’m better prepared than I used to be. I took a NOLS course and became a Certified Wilderness First Responder, and I now have years of experiences that continue to inform my safety. I always let my husband (or someone) know where I’m going, and when I expect to return. I carry bear spray, and I pay attention. I use an InReach personal locator beacon so my husband can track my whereabouts on my longer treks, and I can send a text letting him know where I am at, what time I expect to return, etc.
The other fear – of being alone – is gone. Over time, the more I hiked alone, the more comfortable I became. I have fallen in love with solitude, even if it was not on purpose. I lost my Division I basketball scholarship in year 3. At 20 years old and a long way from home, I was devastated. I found myself without a map, so to speak. And even though the basketball players remained my friends, I was on a different course, and so I started spending more time alone.
At first it was hard, and uncomfortable. I was afraid people would think I was a loner, or lonely. I find this is the case for many who are not accustomed to spending time alone. It can be uncomfortable at first. Now, I yearn for solitude. When I don’t have regular times of solitude, I feel off center. I hike about 1,000 miles a year, and 500 of those are alone. It’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with.
When we’re in solitude, we can hear our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. It can be a sort of reckoning, which is hard, but it is also one of the reasons I argue for its importance. When we’re alone, and our mind is set free to wander, we have new insights, and inspirations that we might not have had. One of my favorite books is Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In it, she says, “Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone.” I have found this to be the case.
Socrates said, “Know thyself.” One of the best ways I’ve come to know myself, and to discover new things about myself, is by being alone hiking up or down some trail, lost in my thoughts, and available only to me.
Leading some friends on a training hike over Jackass Pass, with Cirque of the Towers in the background.
What did you learn/gain personally by hiking?
That I am more capable than I thought I was. At everything. I’ve learned that I can go farther than I think I can, and this of course has translated to all areas of my life, and my work. I’ve learned how to be self sufficient, and how to survive in the wilderness. These are powerful abilities, not only in the wilderness, but in life.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is not weakness but courage. I know myself. I know who and what are most important in my life, and much of the credit for this clarity goes to my time spent alone, examining my life while wandering through the woods.
What is special about hiking with only women in the Winds, specifically?
There is so much that is special about sharing the trail or an epic adventure with other women.
Women tend to want to support each other. They seldom compete with one another. Women tend to put others first. They have such empathy for one another. In my experience, women want to help each other succeed.
I lead women’s groups on wilderness expeditions, and I see this over and over and over again. It is inspiring to witness, and it makes me proud to be a woman.
I’ve also learned, and experienced, that as women, we are often self critical. We can be so hard on ourselves. We are usually juggling many demands in our life and our work, and even if we’re keeping all of the balls in the air, we think we ought to be doing better, or more. What I’ve learned is that self criticism is not helpful, and that it crashes the party, usually during times when we could really use support. I speak from experience here… I have struggled with self criticism my whole life. So one of the things that I hope women who hike together, and with me, gain is a better understanding of themselves, which can have the wonderful effect of helping them to be more compassionate to themselves.
When a friend or a colleague is struggling up a mountain in his or her life, we are likely to be compassionate and supportive. But when we’re doing it ourselves, we’re often our worst critic. It’s so much more powerful to love ourselves rather than beat ourselves up. There’s that wonderful saying, “Treat others like you’d like to be treated.” I would like to add, “And treat yourself the way you’d like to treat others.” When we are as kind to ourselves as we are to others, amazing things happen. We experience joy again. We stop comparing ourselves, or our lives, to others.
Leading last year’s Epic Women Expedition up East Temple Peak, in the Wind River Range, during morning alpenglow.
What lessons do you most enjoy seeing the women you coach discover when they’re in the mountains, specifically when they’re on their own?
That they can climb mountains. Literally, but also in their life. That just because terrain may be loose, they can find stability in it if they pay attention and are deliberate in taking their steps.
Tina Postel, from Charlotte, NC, one of my 2015 Epic Women, said, “trekking in the wilderness showed me that I could lead without having all of the answers. Leadership is sometimes acknowledging what you don’t know and letting others show you the way. Prior to my wilderness experience, I was too proud to be seen as vulnerable. As women leaders we sometimes want to appear stronger or more confident than we feel internally so as not to be viewed as weak by others. But displaying my vulnerabilities ironically has helped me be a stronger leader.” I could not say it better.
My Epic Women group, atop Mitchell Peak, in 2014.
What tips would you give someone who is considering heading out on a hike on his or her own?
First of all, I dare you to do it! You will be so glad you did.
Start small. Pick a well-known trail, and make the decision that you are going to go on a solo hike. Find out the specifics, such as trailhead location, distance, etc. Check the weather forecast. Be sure to tell someone about your plans, including your estimated time of departure, where you’re hiking, and your estimated return.
I recommend leaving at sunrise. The light in the morning is a bonus, and it will be more of a solo hike if you beat the crowds and have some of the country and views to yourself. Leave your headphones, music and/or podcasts in the car. You’ll be more open and alert to your surroundings. Listen to nature’s sounds. Smell the trees, sagebrush and flowers. Look up and around. Let your mind wander. Listen to your thoughts. Imagine. Every now and then, stop and take a breather. Just be where you’re at. We hear a lot about the value of being present, of being in the present moment. In my experience, nothing helps us be present like being alone in the wilderness.
Hiking alone near Saddlebag Lake, in Wind River Country. (Photo by Scott Copeland)
Have a great time! And, great job getting out to hike alone. I promise this will be the start of a great journey with yourself.
Shelli Johnson, owner of Epic Life, is an entrepreneur, life and leadership coach, leadership development facilitator, keynote presenter, writer, adventurer and guide. She is married to Jerry, and is the mother of three sons, Wolf, 16, Hayden, 14, and Fin, 9. She lives in Lander, WY, where she frequently hikes in the foothills and mountains of the Wind River Range. #WindRiverCountry
“Being in the wild gathers me. It astonishes me. It quiets the negative voices inside of me and allows the more constructive ones to talk. It humbles me. It reminds me of how small I am, which has the reverse effect of making me feel gigantic inside.”
—Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things, two books I highly recommend.
Please take a little hike with me as I explain, in my words, why we hike: