By Madis Senner
The following is an excerpt on solitude from Everything Has Karma: Learning to Embrace Our Interconnectedness
Mystics, adepts, pilgrims, monks, yogis and seekers from a variety of faith traditions have found solitude to be a magic elixir that hastened their spiritual evolution and transformation. By breaking the shackles of society they were able to break free and have a growth spurt in their spiritual transformation.
To understand why breaking free from your normal routine can be so transformative remember that in may ways you are influenced and shaped by your friends, your job, the groups that you belong to and more. You think that you free, but at another level you are not. For example, your job gets you think in a certain way—lawyers approach a problem differently than do musicians, or doctors, or social workers… Basically, your job tries to get you to see the world in a certain way.
The cure of solitude provides you with the freedom that can help you change yourself. It can bring a host of benefits:
Reflection. Solitude allows for reflection. Not encumbered by life’s challenges and the demands you can reflect upon your life.
Freedom. Solitude brings freedom to think and do whatever you want, whenever you want. While a vacation can be a period of solitude, solitude is ultimately a vacation from your 9 to 5 self, or who you have become in the material world. You can just “be,” if you want.
Learning. Solitude provides the opportunity to learn about yourself. At some point you will ask yourself, “who am I?”, or “what do I want?”, or “where I am going?” Free from society’s demands life you see yourself in a new light.
Distance. Solitude gives you the chance to see yourself from a distance. Not being enmeshed in life’s daily challenges, you look at things with a clearer perspective. Like a historian who looks back at a period of time after the dust has settled, you see things clearer because you are not bogged down, or overwhelmed by the moment.
Cathartic and Healing. Solitude can bring about a catharsis as you distance yourself from what ails or challenges you; and in the process, heal you.
The Ultimate Vacation. Solitude is the ultimate vacation because you are breaking from the life you have known, no matter for how long.
My Canoe Trip Ritual
Just about every summer in the 1980s and 1990s I would travel to Algonquin Provincial Park in southern Ontario, Canada for a solo canoe trip for a few days. The longest trip I took lasted ten days. Toronto’s population was much smaller then and the Lake District close to Algonquin was just beginning its exponential growth. So there was a greater sense of isolation back then.
To reduce my chances of seeing people, I would try to go in early May. It even snowed lightly one year, on May 2nd. I would also chose routes with long or strenuous portages uphill where I would have to carry my canoe and gear. I felt this would discourage some. I think that the longest I ever went without seeing someone was two and a half days. If I met someone, well, I could not shut up.
Those were grueling, but joyful days. While I would feverishly paddle during the day, it seemed I would frequently stop for a spectacular view, or watch a moose feeding or one blocking a stream ahead of me on my path. I enjoyed the physical regiment, but I had little choice, as I would stay up late watching the campfire. In the morning I would read and reflect, so it would be some time before I began my daily paddle. My favorite read was a collection of short stories by Jack London about the Yukon and the great outdoors, which I brought with me one year. Sometimes if I had a big lake to cross, I might have to wait a few hours in the early afternoon for the wind to die down along the waves it had whipped up.
While there, I was untethered from my life in Manhattan and my Wall Street career. My biggest concerns were the weather and my journey. Often, it was just the joy of being there. My canoe trips were always a cathartic and enlightening experience. No matter what challenges I faced, they melted away the more I paddled. Over the years my trip became a ritual. I knew I was going to go to Algonquin to be purified and healed. The cleansing and healing got better each time.
The last time I went to Algonquin was in October of 2002. I wanted to experience the southern part of the park where I had never been, and felt the fall would have less people traveling this usually busy area. I had left Wall Street and begun meditating a few years earlier. I spent the bulk of my trip on a rock peninsula in a hidden area on a small lake and heard people paddle by, but saw no one while I was there. I did my yoga in the morning and meditated several times during the day. I read a host of books and scripture. In the early evening the loons would wail and the coyotes howled. Most of my time was spent reflecting and thinking about whatever came to my mind.
Looking back at those decades of solo canoe trips with the knowledge I have learned since, it is clear that I had made them a potent ritual. Over time, through continual repetition, I carved my experiences into myself. I had turned my pilgrimage into a ritual; one that could heal me and bring me great joy, as what I experienced each year only got stronger with each successive year. It is with great gratitude and happiness that I look back at my experiences at Algonquin Park.
Take A Vacation From Your Daily Life
You need to find time for solitude in your life. This does not necessarily mean a monastic life. It does mean finding time for breaks, like I had with my solo canoe trips. You need to have periods of solitude if you want to spiritually grow. You have to take a vacation from your daily life.
Solitude can be challenging and bring loneliness. So start slow. Do it for only a few hours the first time. Disconnect from all electronics, don’t talk or visit with others, don’t watch TV or play video games. Just be with yourself or, read a book that helps you reflect, or gain perspective. You need to work the ability to be alone as if it were a muscle. Over time, small steps will become large steps as you are able to spend more and more time in solitude.
Solitude is a vacation from your life; or from whom you have let society turn you into. Solitude allows you detach and explore who you really are. You may be surprised by whom you meet after an extended period of solitude.
In speaking on solitude, psychiatrist and former Oxford professor Anthony Storr notes, in his book Solitude, A Return To The Self:
Removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life… [T]he most profound and healing psychological experiences which individuals encounter take place internally, and are only distantly related, if at all, to interaction with other human beings.
Take inspiration from Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years of relative solitude at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He went into the woods because he wanted “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if [he] could learn what it had to teach, and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.” Speaking of solitude, Thoreau writes that he “never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
As a Naturalist, Thoreau writes in Walden about the flora and the fauna, the changing of the seasons, his neighbors, and surrounding ponds. It is through this simplicity and observation that we see Thoreau grow. He asks why travel to Africa, visit the Nile, go to the Northwest Passage, or the Mississippi if we have ourselves to discover, writing:
Direct your eye right (eyesight) inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography.
Thoreau concludes Walden with an inspiring story that gives hope to all of us, that we too can break free and become who we were meant to be. He begins by saying that there was a story that been going around New England at the time, of how a beautiful bug emerged out of the leaf of a table made of apple wood that had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years; first in Connecticut, then in Massachusetts.
So an egg planted long ago in a living apple tree that was cut down and became what Thoreau called its “well-seasoned tomb” had finally hatched and broken free. Thoreau asks,
“[w]ho knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society?… may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!”
Find time for solitude and become who you can be.