Finding the Solitude in Isolation

The two last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, are resounding within my soul right now:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Those two lines taken out of context may conjure up images of the intense, singular pursuit of vast success and a grand life. 

In truth, though, this poem is about lying down in the grass and observing how a grasshopper behaves. More broadly, it’s about becoming absorbed in the details of the natural world to the state of wonder, reverence, and awe. 

That’s how I ended up here in Vermont. I wanted to embrace a life of simplicity and nature immersion like so many who have inspired me—Thoreau, Emerson, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Sy Montgomery, etc—and learn from that experience. 

I’m an idealist—and an industrious one at that— so I am constantly trying to reach Polaris as an actual destination rather than using it as a point of reference. Suffice it to say, the learning part of life is what I always underestimate. When I imagine an arduous journey of any kind, I really use my mental Hollywood effects. I edit the images in my mind as a montage with some poignant music—gathering eggs from hens, painting barns, tapping maple trees in spring (Beta Radio, Gregory Alan Isakov, Reed Foehl)—and I have sold myself on the end experience: happiness. 

The actual truth is, when you’re living the learning, it’s painful at times. And happiness isn’t an end result. Happiness is a by product of a life well-lived. And a life well-lived takes a lot of work. And the work isn’t always gathering eggs or tapping maple trees. Sometimes it’s internal work like facing down the mundane and deciding what to do with it or acknowledging what keeps you from inner peace when all else is quiet. 

In this regard, I had a little advance study session on this whole self-isolation thing that we’ve all been plunged into recently. It was called “February in Vermont.” It’s a private study group that meets in peoples minds all over the state, individually, for weeks at a time. 

So back in early February, I decided, for extra credit, to set aside a solid week where I focused entirely on leaning into this uncomfortable experience of feeling isolated. I wanted to listen to what it was inside of me that kept avoiding the stillness. Why did the cold, damp February sky weigh on my soul so heavily? Why couldn’t I allow myself to just settle down and connect with what and who was around me? 

After a week of waking early to mediate, running daily without any music or distractions, eating only minimal amounts of clean foods, avoiding screen time, journaling, and letting myself acknowledge what I felt— I got my answers.

For me, isolation and a lack of regular, positive human interaction can make me question my worth–sometimes the existential purpose in general. It makes me question the finitude of my own life and grieve all that will never be. When I feel disconnected, it is because I feel restless and I want to dream up new adventures, pursuits, life paths, and ambitions. When I feel isolated, I really want to believe that there is a place I can go, or an experience I can have, someTHING that I can eat, buy, or drink to feel better. All of those things experiences are great in their own right, but when I’m using them to avoid facing my fears, they’re each just one more way to run away from myself. It’s what I do when I want the happiness without the work that creates a life well-lived.

My nigh unbearable urge to escape the discomfort of feeling isolated—and for me, that means ultimately afraid that life is meaningless— is because there is a real need there— to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to something bigger than myself. 

I’m not saying that it’s bad to have other humans help us meet that need for connection—for sure that’s vital to our health! But we can not always rely on others for that connection back to ourselves.

Health and wellness are built on something that we experience and build when we are alone in our thoughts, our feelings, and our own internal worlds. When it’s quiet and we are alone, it’s best if we can acknowledge how we are doing and sit with it without immediately trying to escape into some distraction. Having a life that isn’t so full with activities and people can feel like it leaves too much time to be alone in our thoughts. Can we find a way to be at peace within ourselves when there is no easy distraction? That’s something that sometimes takes the kind of work that doesn’t always make it into my musical montage. 

Usually, our current global world with instant everything doesn’t force us into this discomfort very often. We can instantly be entertained, distracted, and consume whatever we want usually within minutes if not seconds. This whole lock-down and virus has forced us—even those of us who are fortunate enough to be somewhat removed from the devastation of the sickness itself—into an uncomfortable position where we are more limited than we have become accustomed to being. 

I have learned that limitation in healthy doses can be conducive to personal growth. I used to think that infinite possibility was glamorous and ideal. I’ve changed my mind. When our focus is too much on reaching outward while not wanting to sacrifice opportunity, we forget sometimes to care for what and who is right around us. And that begins with ourselves. We are each worth working to know better, love better, and help grow.

Emerson said it well, 

“Give this person the inner work of his intellect, and he will be happier than the richest person.”

Developing our own minds and selves (which I view as a holistic sense of consciousness in a spiritual sense too) allows us to live a richer life even when we are unable to have that wonderful, social connection that we want when we want it. Accepting ourselves, acknowledging our inner being that needs attention—it’s important. 

So, where do I turn when I’m alone and I need meaningful connection back to myself and what is around me? Personally, I turn to nature. That is where I find meaning, wisdom, and hard-bought peace of mind. Being immersed in our natural world reminds me that I am part of something much bigger than myself. If I can’t get outside, I really need art—poetry, literature, music—the work and inspiration of others who have had insights through their own personal journeys and share them as a piece of the great map towards consciousness and enlightenment. Then I need time to process my own internal synthesis of my experiences in nature and art. I like to journal, play the piano, and work through ideas and concepts. 

I believe that spirituality is a sacred, intuitive element of human nature. The desire to find and create meaning in this world is as hard-wired as hunger and thirst. I think that when we allow ourselves to sink down to that place of quiet, stillness, and solitude—sometimes it can be scary at first. We may find that we are with a hyperventilating, fragmented part of ourselves. But I’ve learned that when we listen to what that part of ourselves has to say, and we sit with whatever that is…eventually we see that we can help ourselves to endure hard things. That wave of panic or boredom or whatever it is crashes over us and the recedes. Comfort comes. Insight comes. Growth happens. And then, when we step back out into society we will hopefully be stronger and wiser having been through this pandemic. But even now, we always have a choice about how we will engage with our life.

So, do tell–what will you do with your one, wild and precious life?

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