How to spend time alone
Disconnecting from the world to find focus inside.
When I left for the forest, the only rule I had was no technology. No phone, no computer and no clocks. All I brought to my solo retreat was knitting supplies, books (mostly poetry) and a journal.
The aim of my four-night stay in a small cabin in Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia, was to unplug. I hoped to tune into the part of me that gets cloaked by constant input from media and technology. It’s easy to get distracted; I wanted to know what it felt like once the distractions were gone.
The cabin was at a place called Windhorse Farm, “the longest-standing example of sustainable forestry in Canada.” The grounds host 200 acres of Acadian forest, part of only 1% that still stands in the province. Six small, off-grid cabins, a conference centre, a woodworking shop and gardens dot the property. It is a place you can go to be alone.
Marina Abramović, a world-renowned performance artist, has spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which modern life affects humans. Her recent works such as The Artist is Present, 512 Hours and Goldberg all focus on simplicity and reconnecting with the self in the present moment. In other words: mindfulness.
She has said one of the best things you can do for yourself is to wake up in the morning and instead of going about your day, sit by a window and just look outside for a few hours. Notice what happens to your energy when you keep it inside rather than expel it out into the world.
This was the practice I came back to over and over again on my retreat: noticing myself and my surroundings.
The trees in the area tower overhead and thick moss carpets the forest floor. I spent time slowly walking along the pathways. When I first tried walking meditation, slowly making my way through the paths, I found it hard to balance as the tiny muscles used to move in slow motion woke up. I lost my balance many times and yet was surprised by how quickly I moved through the forest, despite my efforts to slow down.
The Japanese developed a health practice called Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, around simply spending time in the forest.
The Japanese developed a health practice called Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, around simply spending time in the forest. The practice is rejuvenating and there is a body of scientific research from Japan that says it can improve the immune system. For certain, it is relaxing and nap induc- ing should you find yourself lying in a sunny hollow, staring up at the gently swaying canopy.
I had participated in a guided retreat at Windhorse, but this solo excursion was dramatically different. With a group, there is plenty of time spent listening to the experiences of others and unpacking the baggage of modern living together. This can be cathartic. When alone, it’s much harder to distract yourself from the thoughts racing through your mind.
It’s also quite boring at some points. Even with analogue distractions, I couldn’t help but wonder what my favourite YouTubers and Instagrammers were up to.
Yet, as boredom set in, so did awareness. By my third day, I started noticing the environment in detail. I could tell that the buds on the trees outside my cabin had swollen between morning and afternoon. The forest around me felt more full as the weather shifted from rain and cloud to sun and warmth and the plants reached up and out from the ground.
I was able to observe the natural shifts in emotion that happen throughout a normal day. When I’d bang my head on the doorway, or start dropping things, I consciously took the time to stop. Breathe. And start again. I had the time after all.
There were moments of pure bliss as well. One evening I sat on a mossy tuffet as the sun sank, casting its glow through the silver strands of spiders’ webs that coated the forest floor. I watched them dance in the breeze like fireworks.
I experienced the realization that thoughts are powerless unless I give them power. A thought that causes anxiety, ele- mentally, is no different from a daydream. Worry, stress and the number of times a thought pops into your mind are not necessarily indicators of importance, unless someone is in immediate physical danger. That isn’t an antidote to anxiety, but feeling the truth of it in my bones has carried onto the weeks since my trip and certainly numbed its acuity.
Before I went to my retreat, I was jangled inside. I constantly checked Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. I carved my day up into precise segments of time. I bombarded my mind with podcasts—all in an effort to be productive and to stay on top of what is happening in the world. But with all that information bouncing around inside my body and mind, my focus fractured altogether. I lost my “why,” or at least, I let it get hijacked.
It’s a perennial issue (and a millennial one): what should one do with one’s life? I don’t think I made any progress in answering that question, but it’s not stressing me out. Taking time to ponder is crucial. I feel focused. Not clear-eyed focused, more like driving-through-a-snowstorm focused. I can’t see exactly where I’m going, but I’m moving forward.
More Inspiration: You might also enjoy this article on the value of silence and how it helps your brain grow.
Author: Grace Szucs was the editor of Optimyz for a while and she is an active writer living in Nova Scotia.