9 Insights from my Time on Wilderness Solos —
For close to two decades during my Conscious Leadership apprenticeship and training, I took time off to be in Nature. Most of these nature retreats were wilderness solos, embarking on an adventure with Mother Earth and all living beings in solitude, on my own.
In August 2006, I did one of those solos when I revisited a favorite spot in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above the little town of Crestone in southern Colorado. I did my very first six-day solo with Sacred Passage and John P. Milton on this powerful land in 1997 and my Vision Quest the following year Timing and circumstances felt right for a solo, and John gracefully facilitated me. I always follow my intuition about when to do a solo and can trust that knowing when it comes over me.
As we are hearing more and more about the detrimental effects of stress and burnout in the workplace and in people’s busy lives, I am reminded of my own experience of combatting this phenomenon. After admitting that I had become a workaholic at the end of my entrepreneurial career in Iceland, I made a conscious decision to change things around once I had relocated to the USA. Part of that process was spending that alone-time in Nature usually six to seven days at a time, once or twice a year. I found Nature a most generous teacher and some of my most important leadership lessons I learned from her.
1. Going For Renewal, Gathering Energy
The reason I made these nature retreats was to renew myself, to break through stuck places in my life, allow creativity to well up, relax, and ground. By allowing a fresh and new life force to breathe through me, my health would improve. Joy and gratitude replaced stress and worries and Too-Much-Thinking. Who couldn’t do with more of that? Accumulation of tension and stress from daily life takes its toll on everyone. And I was no exception even though I worked diligently at being proactive by practicing energy cultivation, taking nature walks, and meditating. Nothing compares to spending time in Nature to relax and experience deep rest and release while gathering new energy.
2. Setting Intention
Before going out into the wild, I usually had a firm intention to work on some specific issues facing me. Sometimes though, the issues that come up for us once we get there are entirely different from our original intention. What comes up is what needs to be addressed at the time, and it is wise to accept that. Still, it is good to state a firm intention at the outset. It is as if our issues are taken to some “energy headquarters” and worked on. Then suddenly, when we have managed to unwind and relax, the answers we have been waiting for emerge. Going out on a solo is one of the best problem-solvers there is. Things simply have a way of working themselves out and giving us the solution we have been looking for, and that comes from a deep place. To get to that point, there is some work involved. The work is to relax into Nature, allow her to embrace and heal us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. There is no stronger force I know that can do that. We just have to show up and let go.
3. Getting Clarity
Apart from deep rest and relaxation, I always came away from my time in Nature with greater clarity and a more profound sense of my life’s purpose. It feels as though I had tapped into this vast container of life that Nature represents. It humbled me to realize that I was the one with the disadvantage of not being connected at all times, as are all the plants, creatures, and the elements that you encounter out there. They are always awake to the present moment. They are not dwelling on the past nor daydreaming about the future. Many people tend to replace that connectedness with a modern high-tech way of living, and we pay the price of becoming disconnected. How many people do you know who live a comfortable life, but are still full of anger or resentment, fear, or loneliness? And who hasn’t experienced anxiety, self-deprecation, or self-loathing? Too many people lack the joy of life and numb themselves with anti-depressants or other substances to keep going. Why is that? I believe it is a lack of meaning and purpose, a lack of connection to themselves, to others, and to life itself. No fancy cars, impressive portfolios, titles and false power, fame or fortune can replace that basic human need of connecting to and serving life through some higher purpose, in one way or another.
4. Tapping into Creativity
Another precious gift I’ve often come away with from solos is an increased surge of creativity. This usually happens toward the end of the solo, when I have emptied out — then I am open and receptive to new things. Ideas just pour in, ideas to do with my work as well as with my private life. And there were many other inspired ideas that came in, especially to do with my work. I was literally bombarded with new ways of seeing things, as the final days wound down. Even though we are not supposed to read nor write while out there, we do take a pen and paper for emergency messages. I made use of these instruments, and I jotted down the keywords for the various ideas that streamed into my consciousness. I felt like I was standing under a shower of gifts, and I was not fast enough to catch all the pearls that were bestowed on me. Not a bad idea for companies in which creativity and innovation are stifled to send their people out into Nature for a while and see what happens — a worthwhile experiment.
5. Gaining Insight
One thing that always amazes me on solos is how much I learn about myself through observation. When I watch how I react to and deal with things that come up, I often get invaluable insights. And when it feels like nothing is happening out there and boredom seeps in, I discover that things are constantly in motion if only you pay attention. Nature becomes your mirror and shows you things about yourself you never knew or noticed before if you are looking for them. It unveils hidden areas, it purifies, restores, and opens you up to become more of who you really are. Nature is the most amazing teacher.
6. Becoming Present
It is impossible to be out in Nature without being present. Everything around you is alive, and the tapestry of interaction is fascinating. As you don’t have your usual distractions — electronic gadgets such as your computer, phone, or iPad, nor do you have any reading material or a companion to talk with, you are pretty much left to yourself and the other inhabitants of the area. Then once you get fed up staring at your toes, you start paying attention to things around you. You become present to what is happening and who is showing up to connect with you. You begin to listen, watch, and even interact. Talking to a bird or a squirrel that comes to visit is not unheard of. Needing to outsmart bears and finding soft-eyed deer staring at you is also a possibility (at least that could happen in Crestone). The more present you are, the more connection you become aware of the aliveness of everything around you.
7. Noticing the Elements
You are sure to learn a lot about the elements when out on a solo. You start to be in tune with the sun and the moon, the day and the night, the wind, and the formation of thunder in the distant clouds. You greet the sunrise with more attention and enthusiasm than you usually do. Maybe the night was cold, and you can’t wait to have the warm rays of the sun thaw you. Or you start to be able to read the sky before the rain hits. Do we usually take the time from our busy days to notice things like that? If it rains, it rains. So what? But on solo you might start to study the phenomena. You need to be prepared. Maybe you are airing your sleeping bag in the sun, and you don’t want it to get wet. Staying dry on a solo is essential.
8. Nourishing the Body
People often ask me what I eat when out on a solo. Each person has his or her own way of dealing with food. Usually, I start to eat more lightly a few days before as well as the first day or two out there. Fruit, nuts, and granola are favorites. Then I fast for a few days to go deeper. Fasting doesn’t mean you don’t nourish the body at all — you replace solid food with liquid, either plain water, drinks with plenty of electrolytes, or the famous Master-Cleanse, a fasting formula that John Milton recommends to his soloists. What you learn — with experience — is that we actually need much less food than we think we do. When out in the wild, Nature’s chi (energy) nourishes us 24/7. The effect of that is that hunger disappears, and we stop thinking about food… at least I do. Weight loss is actually a welcome by-product of going on a solo. It just happens. On the last day, I usually open up a tin of sardines and eat a few before offering the rest to the birds. My brain gets a significant boost of energy (sardines are perfect for the brain), and they give the body strength to hike back to civilization with my gear.
9. Appreciating Life
When coming back from solos, it usually takes me a while to adjust to the fast pace of ordinary life. Allowing yourself a few days for integration after your return is a smart thing to do if you possibly can. That allows for a full embodiment of relaxation and often a renewed outlook on life. Being full of chi is a rich experience. Savor it. People might comment on your radiance and peacefulness and ask, “what on earth have you been up to???” Optimism, creativity, courage, and inspiration all bring you back to the outer world with excitement and a fuller appreciation for life. To me, the adventure is worth it. Are you ready for an experience?