On September 28th, I returned home after 10 days in the woods.
Four of those days and nights I spent on a solo fast, with a tarp, a journal, water, and not much else. Ostensibly, my “quest for vision” amounted to very little, but that nothingness demands reflection. Through a series of writings about what I learned “on the land,” I hope to begin to unpack and understand this experience.
As I sat on the shore of Lake Somerset, I saw the bright oranges and yellows, greens and browns of autumn reflected in it. Every few minutes, the wind would pick back up behind me, and a chorus of leaves would answer. Occasionally, a trio of ducks would break the stillness of the scene before me, or a gem-colored dragonfly would land on a nearby rock, wings quivering.
Across the lake, I could see specks of red or blue where other participants in the program passed their time, equally isolated. And yet, I have never felt quite so far away, nor quite so alone, as I did there.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, I had a cell phone. On a nearly deserted island in the Indian Ocean, I had wi-fi. On the summit of Mount Mansfield, I had scores of tourists passing by. But here, here I had nothing—absolutely nothing—but myself.
It is no easy task to truly step back from our lives. It is both physically challenging, as technology and “development” descend upon even the farthest corners of the earth, and psychologically taxing, as we become ever more dependent on these things. I found myself compelled to try, though. I eagerly anticipated an idyllic reprieve from my day-to-day life: a return to nature filled with magic and illumination.
In a way, I think I did achieve these things. I slept under the stars, swam naked in the lake, and wandered through the forest with dragonflies. And yet, my experience was anything but idyllic.
Feelings of doubt, loneliness and confusion characterized those four days. And, of course, cold and hunger. I questioned, repeatedly, my motives for coming, and received no answers. I sought to know myself more deeply through this isolation, but nature proved a cryptic and foggy mirror. Nonetheless, She was a mirror, and the loneliness I saw reflected in her surprised me, tucked as it was amongst the brilliant oranges and yellows of autumn.
How could I not be joyful while surrounded by such beauty? I wished to feel ecstatic, not abandoned. Without books, without people, and without work to busy my hands, however, I often felt alone.
The evening before my departure, a friend recited to me a favorite poem by Hafiz called, “Eyes So Soft.” I could not have known then how fitting a choice it would prove to be:
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God
Contrary to what we are taught to believe, loneliness is not always an affliction; it can be an opportunity for growth as well. It “seasons” us. Replace the word “God” with “Spirit” or “meaning” or “purpose,” and I think most people know the feeling that Hafiz describes. Left to ourselves, without any distraction, we must confront our deeper need for meaning.
Loneliness, then, becomes a tool that pushes us to excavate beneath the surface of our lives.
In company, we can coast serenely in the shallows, but alone, we have almost no choice but to plunge into the depths. It is murkier there, and less pleasant, but we will miss something if we never visit. Without a doubt, this excavation is a life-long practice, but I hope I may have at least gotten my legs wet.
I would encourage you not to surrender your loneliness so quickly, for you might find in its embrace a part of yourself worth knowing.
Hafiz poems and excerpts are from Daniel Ladinsky’s Penguin publications The Gift, Poems by Hafiz © copyright 1999, and I Heard God Laughing, Poems of Hope and Joy © copyright 1996 & 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Leland Francisco