A heightened sense of self- awareness and self-discovery can be found when spending time alone in nature. It may be a solo basecamp, or pack-walk or a few hours deliberate intention in urban parkland or forest. A solo experience can provide space and time for this form of self-discovery.
I have had the fortune of experiencing two Outward Bound solos where I spent three days and three nights in the wilderness in both Australia and New Zealand. This part of the journey provided connection with healthy relationships with people and place.
Solitude or Solo
My fantasy about solitude from a young age has come to mean different things, as a child “go to your room”, and as an adolescent in my exposure to television Prisoner, and Steve McQueen characters in The Great Escape and Papillon, solitude meant punishment. As a young widow solitude meant pain.
Following Outward Bound it meant peace, tranquillity, planning, reflection, and self-awareness. When busyness of life begins to take its toll, I enjoyed a solo pack walk – a chance to enjoy the simplicity that nature and solitude can afford and the chance to recharge the batteries. Now a bit older, it can mean a few days away alone – a kind of self-enforced solo silence retreat to work through issues or as a chance to create a space for creativity.
Others have described solitude as a chance to feel “calm, restful, relaxed and feeling one with people and things when no excitement is around” (Winnicott, 1965 p. 54); “a chance to take a rest from seeing yourself through other people’s eyes – or how you imagine other people are seeing you – and to discover more about how you feel on the inside about your own self” (Dowrick, p. 138) and an opportunity to “transact some private business with the fewest obstacles” (Thoreau, 1854).
Outward Bound is one program that provides space for participants to be alone, to think, reflect, and consider the lessons learned (Sakofs & Armstrong, 1996) p.27. Principle 9 of Outward Bound is Solitude and Reflection (as cited in Sakofs & Armstrong)
“Solitude, reflection, and silence replenish our energies and open our minds. Be sure students have time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections and collate their own ideas. Then give the opportunity to exchange their reflections with each other and with adults. Expeditionary learning Outward Bound designed principles.”
Relationship of people and place
Why does Outward Bound consider solitude in its programming if the connection being sought is a healthy relationship with people and place? Consider Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden. He wrote
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our own chambers (p. 180).
Frankl (1959) had a similar view of the need to get away from others. In his book Man’s search for meaning an account of his life as a Jewish Psychiatrist in a concentration camp, he writes of the need to be alone and his short moments of solitary focus.
There were times, of course, when it was possible and even necessary, to keep away from the crowd. It is well known that an enforced community life, in which attention is paid to everything one does at all times, may result in an irresistible urge to get away, at least for a short while. The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and for solitude. After my transportation to a so-called “rest camp,” I had the rare fortune to find solitude for about five minutes at a time… I just sat and looked out at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape, framed by the meshes of barbed wire. I dreamed longingly, and my thoughts wandered north and northeast, in the direction of my home, but I could only see clouds. (Frankl, 1959, pp. 71-72).
Both Thoreau and Frankl in very different situations write of solitude and the relationship with nature, one in reality, and the other dreaming of being in nature. Wheatley (2002) in her book Turning to One Another writes about the relationship with nature to strengthen our relationships with one another “we need to learn how to be good neighbours.”
I believe the easiest way to become partners with life is to get outside, to be in nature and let her teach us. … Even Charles Darwin, who interpreted life’s evolution as a battlefield of competition, death, and struggle for survival had paradoxical sensations when he was outdoors in “the smiling fields.” He could feel the peace and harmony of the fields, even though his work described warfare. In his journal, he wrote: “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the quiet woods and smiling fields.” (Wheatley, 2002, pp.108- 109).
And in the woods, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, and the calmness and ruggedness can provide that space for reflective solitude. Thoreau published Walden (or life in the woods) in 1854. It has gone onto being considered a literature classic selling millions of copies worldwide. This famous quote comes from Thoreau
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Outward Bound Australia & New Zealand
My first experience of solo was in 2002 on Outward Bound Australia’s Summit to Sea program. It was the one thing that I was most concerned about before I joined Outward Bound. I worried about how I might be alone in the forest at night.
From an early age I lived next door to a forest but as tranquil as the forest appeared it held secrets in my imagination. I recall my sister and I having a séance in the woods when I was six. My early childhood memories were heightened with horror movies like Evil Dead and the Blair Witch Project. I had a suspicion that if Outward Bound wanted to make life interesting they might come along at night to deliberately scare us. However, once I commenced the course and experienced the intensity of living with a group 24/7, I could relate to the passages I have quoted from Frankl and Thoreau and wanted to get away and have my own space.
My second experience of solo was on Outward Bound New Zealand in August 2003. Although I did go on a couple of solo pack-walks in between courses. On the afternoon of solo, we were advised of the list of activities that we were to consider whilst out in the wilderness. I found this list an intrusion on my plans for solitude. I found it to be a form of homework and a distraction even before I left.
A solo experience can be the basis for a good relationship with self, people, and place. It is definitely easier if you are open and curious to the experience, and you do not have too much emotional trauma in your life. Solo is also the opportunity to consider our relationships with the environment. What is my relationship to this tree? How do I fit in to this environment?
What are the considerations in programming the journey to incorporate a solo experience? Perhaps guided reflections are not necessary. If reading is a distraction, is journaling not a distraction? How would I feel if I went into the wilderness with the clothes on my back, shelter, and food? How might that be a very different experience for me? Does it need to be recorded to be real? Do I have to plan with pen and paper, or will I forget what I thought might be a good direction for my future? Do I need to read a book, write a letter, know the time, have a torch? A further experience might be to exclude journaling and any form of guided activity or homework.
The chance to be alone, to focus on reflection on what has been accomplished so far in the journey, to develop plans for the remainder of the journey and what changes are important in life outside the experience has been an important part of journeys with me. Being alone in nature provides that sense of freedom to explore our relationships with ourselves and with others to reflect on the past and plan the future. Isolation is a very powerful tool when you have the freedom and an environment conducive to the feelings of being alone.
Solo may be a privilege but perhaps it is a one-hour walk by yourself or the opportunity to sit in a parkland alone to be in solitude, to be silent and to reflect on connection with people and place.
Dowrick, S. (1997). Intimacy and solitude. Random House: Sydney.
Frankl V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Washington Square: NY.
Sakofs, M. & Armstrong, G.P. (1996). Into the classroom: The Outward Bound approach to teaching and learning. Kendall/Hunt: Iowa.
Thoreau, H.D. (1817-1862). Walden. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth (reprinted, 1995).
Wheatley, M. (2002). Turning to one another. Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco.
Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. The Hogarth Press: London.