It wasn’t until recently that I understood how my time spent alone led me to not only feel more connected to myself but to others as well.
This paradoxical lesson about loneliness started when I was 18 and I went on a month-long Outward Bound camping expedition.
Outward Bound is a worldwide outdoor school that offers wilderness expeditions that are challenging and aimed at teaching and inspiring strength of character, leadership, and service to others.
The first part of my wilderness adventure consisted of a two week backpacking trip in the Costa Rican rainforest.
I had never backpacked before.
I was with a completely new group of people, doing a new experience, in an environment where there were flying spiders the size of my head!!! Literally!!
One of the final portions of the expedition was a 24-hour solo. This is a challenge that is part of all Outward Bound expeditions.
On your camping solo you are given a designated area to stay within, handed a tarp and water, and sent out into the wilderness to spend 24 hours on your own.
I was scared.
Time moved soooo slow. And every sound felt like it was coming through a microphone.
But the loudest noises of all wer the thoughts in my own mind.
At the time I had a lot of thoughts and feelings of fear, sadness and self-doubt.
I would hear a noise and think, "I can’t do this!" I would have a moment of panic where I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I wanted to cry.
Then I would take a deep breathe and think, “Okay, no, I got this.”
I was forced to have a VERY loud conversation with myself.
I was in a situation where I had to dig deep and find my inner strength to help me get through the difficult moments. And through this, I realized I had a part of me that was stronger and more loving than I had realized.
Throughout the night my mind went to different places…
Regret and shame about things I had done in the past
Self-doubt about my ability to contribute to my backpacking group
Fear of what was to come with my return home
And throughout the night I learned what each of these feelings and thoughts needed in order for me to feel reassured and taken care of.
I let myself know that it was okay to forgive myself for the past
I checked in with how I had shown up as a participant in my backpacking group and decided that me being me was enough.
And I let myself know that whatever was ahead I could handle it. I mean, I was on a two week backpacking and camping expedition in the middle of the rainforest, and I was surviving. Whatever was up the path ahead I would figure it out.
So, at a time in our culture when feelings of loneliness and separateness are at an all time high, it might seem counterintuitive to suggest spending more time alone.
But it can be soooo valuable to learn how to be with ourselves.
When we take time to be alone and use that time to explore our feelings, we can learn many important things about ourselves.
Using loneliness as a way to look inward shows us a more intense version of what we are already feeling inside.
This can be both good and bad. There are fewer distractions. And although this can be scary and uncomfortable during difficult times, it gives us the opportunity to see what we are working with.
It is our opportunity to see what we really need in order to feel taken care of.
We live in a culture where we are constantly receiving external messages. Messages from society, our friends, family, social media, the news.
When we don’t take the time to step away from this influx of information, we lose touch with the messages coming from deep within ourselves.
If you are feeling separate, isolated, or alone, it can be a message to help wake you up and nudge you to pay attention to what you are needing.
James Baldwin writes...
"[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain."
When we learn how to be our own best friend during our most difficult times we are expanding our ability to hold and respond to the difficulties of life with love instead of fear.
And this has a ripple effect, expanding our the ability to listen to and hold the pain of others.
During my 24 hour solo, I had no choice but to be with what was there, from the scary noises to the hunger pangs, to the sometimes painful memories that came in. I had no way to hide, distract myself, or deny what was there.
And as difficult as this was in the moment, it felt really empowering.
I came back from that trip with a much greater ability to let my friends and family be who they were because I wasn’t as afraid of being left or rejected. I had a new stronger relationship with myself, I had learned how to have my own back.
I continued to develop this over the years and to this day I still go on solo adventures. I also incorporate them into every Mindful Wonder Wilderness Program I lead.
I think of it like this.
Can you imagine maintaining a healthy relationship with a best friend or partner without spending quality time with that person?
Relationships with ourselves are no different.
When you feel alone, it is an opportunity to begin developing a kick-ass relationship with one of the most important people in your life... you.
And as cheesy as that might sound, it’s undeniable that getting to know yourself better can lead to valuable insights and a deeper trust in one’s instinct.
For me personally, being in nature with a guide is the perfect place to take this risk because it is safe and nature automatically removes the distractions we are faced with in our day to day lives.
But a solo doesn’t have to be some big epic adventure into the wilderness. It can be as simple as sitting in a your parked car for an extra moment of stillness and staring at the sky.
Either way my hope is that we all learn to embrace the moments of stillness, the moments we have alone, and to turn those moments of aloneness into endless possibilities for connection.