“You’re going to do what?”
When I told my coworkers that I was going to do a three-week solo retreat in silence, in one of the beautiful retreat cabins at Clear Sky Meditation Center where I live, one of the first questions people asked was, “How can you stand to be alone and silent for that long? I think I’d go crazy!”
It’s a fair question. In our hectic modern world we rarely have a chance to be really alone. We have not been trained to spend time with ourselves. Even when we are physically by ourselves, most of us are still staying connected to the world through social media, our cellphones, or what have you. So the idea of being alone, in silence, in a little cabin in the woods, can seem at best weird, and at worst terrifying.
Stepping out to dive in
For some of us though, the chance to unplug and disconnect from all the social contacts and demands can be very welcome. As a counsellor, I spend my working day dealing with people who are struggling. As a resident of Clear Sky, I then go home to live and be part of a dynamic conscious community. Getting time alone to myself, then, is a precious commodity.
Being by ourselves for an extended period in a solo retreat creates the opportunity for three important explorations or insights:
Alone in a crowd: We can examine the concept of being alone
Who is alone?: We can explore the fear of abandonment and death
I’m dancing as fast as I can: We can see our habitual patterns of avoiding connecting with our inner depth
1. Alone in a crowd
What becomes apparent very quickly in a solo retreat is that we aren’t really alone in our head. If you’ve meditated you’ve probably already experienced this. Namely, once we start to slow down and get stiller, we discover that our mind is constantly chattering away and that there are any number of people in there with us. All the little voices in our head become louder and clearer as our lovers, our parents, and people we have conflicts with start showing up. Suddenly, our little retreat cabin can feel quite crowded.
This offers an excellent opportunity to watch how the stories and dramas of our life habitually shape our experience, even when we aren’t actually in those situations or with those people. We get to see how our mind actively conjures up dialogues and conflicts that affect our moods and states, regardless of what is happening in the moment.
2. Who is alone?
We’re all subject to basic, primary fears. Two of these are the fear of abandonment and the fear of death, or annihilation. These are deep, organismic fears stemming from infancy, when being alone (or abandoned) would have certainly meant death. We get attached to physical, emotional, and psychological nurture and care because it’s essential for our survival, and in this way our deepest fears are usually kept at the periphery of our consciousness. In a solo retreat, when we step out of our normal routine and connection to people, our fears can become more apparent.
Our egos formed as a way of learning how to survive in the world and avoid these fears. One of the great gifts of the solo retreat, then, is that we can allow ourselves to experience these fears in a safe environment. This paves the way for that beautiful insight – that beyond our ego, we aren’t alone. We are actually intimately connected with all of the universe.
The ego’s fear of abandonment and death is bounded by time and space, yet we can have moments in the silence of a meditation retreat where our consciousness goes beyond the ego’s little cell, where we experience our union with the totality of existence. We can then ask, “Who is it that is really alone?”
3. I’m dancing as fast as I can
Before we get to that experience of unity, however, the third thing that we can explore in solo retreat is how we try to avoid the feeling of being alone with ourselves. We sink below all the other voices and start to connect with the deeper fears. Once we do this, it activates all the little patterns of distraction that we use to not simply be in our own presence:
- You may find yourself wishing you could check your emails, for example, or call a friend, or catch up on the news, or play sudoku.
- You may start ruminating on that work project you have to do, or the house renovations you want to get done, or how your investments are doing.
Faced with the space and silence that it tries to avoid, in other words, the ego starts scrambling for all the defences that it uses to distract. It’s just like with any other addiction, scrambling to find a fix when we can’t cope. As we see these defences more clearly we have the opportunity to witness them without responding. In time the craving for the distraction lessens, and around it we can experience the spaciousness of open awareness.
So what happened in my three-week retreat?
All of the above. Over the course of my solo time I cycled through all three of the explorations.
- Moments of feeling all alone were balanced by moments of deep calm and a sense of connection.
- Hours of wrestling with my habitual patterns of distraction were countered by periods of settling into a routine of meditation that allowed for deep insight.
- All the voices that make up the ‘me’ in my head would quiet for periods of time, so that I could hear the deeper silence of the spacious, clear mind.
- The important thing was to stay with the practice, even when the fears, the voices, and the desire for distraction were raising up.
So if you’re thinking of a solo retreat and are wondering what it will be like to be alone, I hope my experience will give you encouragement to dive in. When we abandon ourselves to the experience we will find that we are more connected than we could hope.
Edited by Andrew Rogers
FURTHER READING: Dealing with feelings of loneliness in daily life? – Read this blog by Michelle Heinz on shifting feelings of loneliness.