On Being Alone

Solitary woman running towards a forest with mountains in the background.
Photo credit by Light and Lea, Alberta Canada, August 2018,. Used by permission.

In a time when nearly half of Americans report sometimes feeling alone or left out, it may surprise you to hear that others work hard to spend time alone.

Really?

Yes, really.

According to a Cigna Study in 2018 that used the UCLA Loneliness Scale (a scale on the subject of measuring loneliness, known for its accuracy and statistical significance), 20,000 adults surveyed showed an alarming trend of isolation and feelings of loneliness and lack of meaningful connection that have sparked conversations around such topics as depression, suicide, and the future of communication in a world of advance technological access.

With a high indication of a loneliness epidemic, why are there those who are working hard to be alone? And where are they going?

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, and Solitude expresses the glory of being alone.

Paul Tillich

As my gal friends were chatting it up on the way to a snowshoe trip, the topic turned to safety. Several of us had been scolded and lectured about not hiking, running, or camping alone, even though there were several among us who had experience doing so during all of the above activities, with the exception of mountain climbing. We packed out “Ten essentials”; we told a friend or spouse where we’d be, and what time we were expected back. We studied weather forecasts, read trip reports, and paid attention to road conditions and closures. We are intelligent, informed women. We do our homework and our due diligence in managing risk.

Even with precautions taken, many of us were still discouraged – and in some cases shamed – by others who did not understand our desire to be alone in nature. Why, wasn’t being alone for loners, oddball hermits, and recluses who did not know how to have close relationships with people? Aren’t we crazy for daring to be alone in a dangerous world? And if you wanted to be alone, couldn’t you just find a quiet corner in a Starbuck’s, put on your Beats headphones and a pair of dark sunglasses, and tune the world out?

Shouldn’t that be enough aloneness?

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

John Muir

For over ten year, I’ve found a certain strength in seeking to be alone in nature for periods of time: a few hours, a day, or a long weekend. From these experiences, here are just a few personal reasons why being alone on purpose and in nature might be a transformative experience that you might just want to turn into a habit and ritual as a part of your own personal development

Four Reasons for Being Alone in Nature

  • Going out. When you travel to more remote parks, forests, reserves, and trails, you physically leave your home and your city behind. Instead a news, music, TV shows, and work meetings, you hear birds, insects, rivers, and wind rustling through tall grasses or trees. Time is measured by the movement of the sun and the moon, by light and shade, not by the clock. You directly connect your legs, arms, lungs, and mind to the beauty of what nature unrolls before your eyes.

  • Going in. If you give yourself a chance to unplug from the digital world, you don’t just see what is in front of you. You also go inward, attending to your own thoughts that arise when you have no one and nothing else to attend to but yourself in nature. If you experience fear and anxiety, sadness, anger or frustration, your inner eye is often awakened without the distraction of other voices or needs. Like hunger, you may only become aware of it if you stop eating by the clock and actually allow yourself to feel your rumbling tummy or your sluggish mind. Similarly, by being alone with little distraction, the slower world of nature is a setting that allows inward processing and awareness without closing your eyes in meditation. It is a moving meditation, just at a slower pace.
  • Self-reliance. I personally learn more about who I am and what I need when I’m alone and there’s no one to hand me what I’ve forgotten. This requires me to be methodical about planning, to be flexible and creative when things don’t work out quite the way I had hoped, and to learn from my mistakes. One time while camping alone in the summertime, the weather turned unusually chilly overnight. I ended up making a tent within a tent, trapping warm air around my body. Another time, I was grateful to have remembered to pack a set of Yaktrax in my day pack after encountering deeper than expected snowfall, preventing my trail hike from becoming a lengthy hour of postholing. If I was with someone else who brought full gear, I might have an easy way out. Instead, going alone teaches me to rely on myself and own my decisions and experiences.

  • Changing your pace. When I go out in nature alone, my pace is often different than if I were in a race or with a group of people. I take whatever time I want to truly enjoy the time. I might stop for longer breaks, spread out a picnic of foods, jump in a lake and sunbathe to dry off, or take it easy in order to make sure I can “go long” and not run into trouble. Because I am not beholden to anyone’s schedule but my own, I can let go of any pressure to hurry, with only the weather, the terrain, and the amount of daylight as the boundaries of what I am doing. As a therapist who has learned how to measure off a 50 minute interval in her head, it’s a refreshing change of pace in all respects.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is Patience.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Your Turn

If you are interested in exploring what being alone in nature could do for you, consider reading a few articles to help you prepare, and use available resources, such as local trail conditions and trip reports, which often include tips on what to bring regarding gear, food and water.

You can also join a Facebook group on climbing and hiking, and see if there is local group that is open to fielding questions from new hikers.

If you are concerned about safety as a solo hiker, runner, climber, etc., take the time to read safety recommendations on solo activities, and don’t be shy about asking what others do to take precautions.

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