Why I Spent the Weekend Before My Birthday Alone in the Wilderness Or: On the Benefits of Solitude
This year, before my birthday, I went into the Bulgarian wilderness by myself to see if it would help me feel more at peace with myself and the world. Apparently, solitude, especially in nature, has many benefits, as both my own experience and scientific studies show.
Last week I became 28. My birthday always brings a colorful palette of extreme emotions to the table. I feel light an happy, inspired to do more, pleased with the fruits of my labor, surrounded by amazing people; and then, right after other – inadequate, as if all my efforts amount to nothing and I am not going anywhere. I am guessing that this is a normal part of being human and most people experience it to some degree.
However, the days around my birthday often become the eye of the storm, and everything swirls around, violently enough to blow a few cows from here to the end of the Earth. I am especially sensitive then and even though I am not one for ceremonial life-assessments on important dates, I do turn things over in my mind.
This year one of them was the need for inner peace. For the past few years I’ve been striving to be a better human being. For me this is a clearly defined goal, because of which I do, read, and practice certain things, in the hopes of becoming more patient, tolerant, to love and understand myself better (which leads to loving and understanding others as well), to judge less and accept more. I find that inner peace, to replace blind ego, is an important step. And reconnecting to nature, and thus myself, never fails to deliver.
That’s pretty much how I got the idea of spending the weekend before my birthday alone in the wilderness. Here I’ve described some of the psychological benefits of solitude, proven by scientific studies, and I’ve also added a bit about my own experience – where I went (turns out it’s very difficult to find a secluded place in the wild in Bulgaria), how it went, and what lessons I came back with.
Is Solitude Loneliness?
This 2003 study defines 3 types of solitude: “Inner-Directed Solitude (characterized by self-discovery and inner peace), Outer-Directed Solitude (characterized by intimacy and spirituality), and Loneliness.” In the same year, a peer-reviewed scientific article called “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone” once again distinguishes between solitude and loneliness. “Solitude, in contrast to loneliness, is often a positive state—one that may be sought rather than avoided. In this article, we examine some of the benefits that have been attributed to solitude—namely, freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality,” say the researchers.
The idea of solitude is neither new, nor has it been explored solely by science in peer-reviewed journals. For instance, I was drawn to what the Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca had to say. He saw solitude not as a religious path, but rather as an end on its own. Apart from religion (it was a big factor in Petrarca’s day), he defined two other paths to fulfillment (or self-actualization, as Maslow would put it): exploring and developing oneself through solitude; love and belonging.
I find Petrarca’s ideas curious, although I don’t see love and belonging as separate from occasional solitude. In fact, I feel like the two complement each other. Either way, with these paragraphs I wanted to illustrate how I distinguish solitude from loneliness. As they say, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. It’s all about the why and the how. For me, this weekend of solitude was something that I had pursued and planned for weeks.
Why Alone and Why the Wilderness
I’ve traveled “solo” several times. That’s how I went to Southeast Asia, South America, and Jordan. Yet when you are on the road the easiest, most natural thing in the world is to meet and befriend other travelers. Usually that makes the journey way more fun, you learn a ton of stuff, and gain friends from around the globe. Still, the other side of the coin is that you can rarely spend time with yourself. This time I was looking for something different. Here’s why:
In Bulgarian we have a curious word play. The words for “nature” (“природа”) and “with extended family” (“при рода”) are pretty much the exact same thing, as you can probably see, if you can’t read Cyrillic. The only difference is an interval. I had never noticed it, before a friend pointed it out, and now it seems perfectly logical. …. It seems to me that in the past few decades our species has strayed from our natural environment way too much. I definitely don’t plan on moving into a yurt (no wifi, can you imagine?!?) but spending time in nature does make me feel reenergized and connected to the entire world. That’s why I chose to spend my weekend in the wilderness, instead of booking a hotel room at a wellness center for example (which is also a great experience, just wasn’t right for this occasion.)
In the Company of Thoughts
There are people who prefer to savor their thoughts until they’ve mulled them over and are ready to share. And then there are those whose inner world cannot stand to be closed within the walls of the mind, so it bursts out through words. I am definitely the second type. Being that, I say almost everything that crosses my mind and am sometimes impacted by other people’s reactions. So I thought that being in solitude with my thoughts, at least for a couple of days, would allow me to gaze at them for a bit, testing and exploring, without any outer influences.
Self-Reliance and Trust
The Rocky Mountain Research Station in the US published an interesting article, exploring solitude from several different angles. My personal favorite is how they summarize the solitude theme in Ralph Emerson’s works: “Emerson’s solitude embodied the inner world of self-reliance and ingenuity. Diverging from the elitist rhetoric of the romantics, Emerson’s solitude was not for the rare individual, but the democratic privilege of each individual to seek their own potential.”
I am lucky to be surrounded by people whom I can count on when life gets hard. This is a rare privilege and I wouldn’t dream of complaining. Yet I wanted to put myself in a situation where I had to count on myself, so that I would trust myself and my own abilities more. I believe that everyone can do everything but so often we hinder ourselves. By placing myself in new, potentially scary and difficult circumstances, I wanted to prove to myself that there are no actual obstacles in my way.
Time to Consider my Own Needs
Anthony Storr was a psychoanalyst who believed that: “modern society is preoccupied with intimate personal relationships as the “touchstone of health and happiness,” and that this preoccupation is a relatively new phenomenon. Earlier generations would not have rated this focus on attachment so highly.While he does not deny the importance of social attachments in our lives, he believes the preoccupation grossly underestimates the importance of the inner mind of the individual separate from the influences of external attachment. In particular, capacity for imagination and creative achievement.”
To some extent I agree with Storr’s stipulations, because when I am with others I often find myself trying to satisfy their needs. Even though the desire to please others is a whole different topic, my point was that solitude in nature seemed like an excellent way to focus on my own needs for a while. To place myself first. I consider this to be a valuable asset, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into selfishness.
Away from All the Notifications
Have you ever head the phrase “Quiet the mind and the soul will speak”? But how are you supposed to quiet your mind when there is constantly people texting, posting stories that arouse your interest, when you are always getting notifications for posts and events, when someone somewhere always wants something…For me, this weekend of wilderness solitude also meant tossing my phone aside. I told my loved ones that I had arrived alright and got away from all screens.
The Spot I Found
Last summer I visited a friend in Norway and twice we went to something called “a cabin trip.” In the Norwegian wilderness you’ll find small wooden houses, mostly with no running water or electricity, but with saunas and on the shores of lakes. They are completely isolated from “civilization” and so you can immerse yourself in nature, while still having nice sleeping conditions. I turned the world upside down looking for a similar place in Bulgaria – I searched all the websites, asked every friend who might have heard something, and posted in hiking groups. Finally, I had to resign to the fact that cabins like that simply do not exist in Bulgaria.
Here, you can either rent houses for 20 people (and I wanted something small and cozy) and/or go to a place with a lot of people around (and I wanted solitude). Mountain shelters come closest to what I was looking for but as far as I know most of them are in poor conditions and besides, being public establishments, anyone can show up anytime. Which I wanted to avoid, seeking solitude and all.
Just as I thought I’d never find anything good, a friend called up to recommend “The Pines” bungalows, near a ski slope called Beklemeto. During the winter it’s full of skiers and snowboarders, while in the summer it becomes base for hikers. But in the spring, when the last snow hasn’t melted yet and the first crocuses are rearing their sleepy heads through the black soil, there’s almost no people at all.
When I first got to the bungalows, I was a bit disappointed because there is a mountain road nearby and on the weekend people with buggies came out. However, in the middle of the ski slope starts a little path to the Chuchul hut. On the path and near it I found my solitude.
So? Was this Solitude Worth It?
It sure was. And I hope that the effects will seep through my days for a long time.
Even the things that seem miniscule at a glance – like driving myself there and back or lighting my own fire, were powerful experiences for me. I’ve only driven outside of the city by myself once, and this time I didn’t even have a GPS on my phone to keep me feeling on track. Besides, even though I’ve probably seen hundreds of fires being lit, I’ve never actually done it myself. And I have to admit that to try and succeed was empowering. I felt capable and proud of myself.
What’s more, solitude in the company of nature provided exactly what I was looking for. Expectations come true so rarely. In fact, they never really do. But this time they did come as close as they could get, perhaps because instead of fixating on “I want” I let myself enjoy the experience. It might seem a bit silly or overstated, but at some point I felt the connection between trees and humans, like the brothers that we are, and I saw the clouds as I’ve never seen them before.
I left my retreat a bit sunburnt, recharged by the earth, and with more confidence that I brought with me. I got the answers I was looking for because I gave myself space and time to do it. I don’t know if it’s something I’d do again or if I would ever seek solitude for longer. But I am happy and proud that I allowed myself to experience it, instead of letting my fears pull me into an easier option, like taking someone along.
The gift that I gave myself for my 28th birthday was entering this year with more clarity, peace, and love. And a bit of solitude definitely helped.
The way that I see it, contemplative solitude always has benefits. Honestly, though, I am not sure if it’s right for everyone. So I’d love to know what you think about it. Have you done it? And would you? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on social media 🙂
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.