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How to cultivate a mindset that can help you thrive through solitude
If I can say so myself, I am an expert in self-isolation. The longest I have gone without seeing another human being was five months, from April to October 2011, as I rowed solo across the Indian Ocean. No human contact, no internet, no TV, no books, no land. Just me, a 23-foot rowboat, and an awful lot of sea and sky.
It’s not as bad as you might think. It probably helped that, by the time I set out from Australia, I’d already rowed alone 11,000 miles across the Atlantic and the Pacific, so I’d had plenty of opportunities to get my solo act together.
Like everything I’ve learned in this lifetime, I learned how to cope with solitude by doing it the wrong way first, struggling and stressing, before finally figuring out a better way to cope with it. Like so many things, it’s not what happens to you, it’s the story you tell yourself about it.
“The whole value of solitude depends upon one’s self; it may be a sanctuary or a prison, a haven of repose or a place of punishment, a heaven or a hell, as we ourselves make it.”
— John Lubbock
There are lots of aspects of coronavirus I can’t help you with. But if you’re going stir crazy being cooped up alone in your house for most of the day, that’s squarely in my wheelhouse, and I’d be happy to share the benefit of my experience.
Here are seven suggestions, humbly offered, that I hope you find useful. And rest assured, I’m not going to badger you to write a bestseller, train for an ironman, spring clean your house, or in any way bust a gut trying to turn into a totally different person before normal life resumes. These are gentle ideas for self-care and curiosity while reality is temporarily suspended.
1. Be Kind to Yourself
The voices in your head can be vicious little buggers. When we’re left alone, free from the usual bombardment of external stimuli, our inner critic spots an opportunity and can make the most of his chance to have a field day. (Your inner critic(s) may not be male. Mine were. And they could be very, very harsh.)
Worse, we don’t have friends around to reassure us that we’re really okay. So you’ll have to be your own best friend. Celebrate small victories, like bothering to get out of bed in the morning. Bonus points if you shower and get dressed rather than slobbing around in your pajamas all day.
To the extent that you can (and given that others may have beaten you to the supermarket and cleaned out the entire fresh produce department), eat healthily. Your immune system will thank you for it.
Do a few gentle stretches or some yoga — but don’t do anything too radical. The emergency room really doesn’t need new patients at the moment, and you also don’t want to be there.
For me, personally, I feel better if I maintain some semblance of discipline. Even though there was nobody around on my boat to judge me if I didn’t do my full quota of 12 hours of rowing for the day, I was around, and it didn’t feel good if I slacked off. I know — I tried. But it actually wasn’t worth it. The slight benefit I got from skipping shifts was outweighed by how crappy it made me feel about myself. I realised I wanted to be able to look back on my time on the ocean and feel proud of how I showed up.
“Character is who you are when nobody is looking.” — Anon
2. Focus on What You Can Control
These are crazy times, and there is a lot that is outside our control. You might be in a city or country in total lockdown, which is pretty much like being under house arrest. There is a reason that deprivation of liberty is a punishment — mostly, humans don’t like it.
So you can try fighting reality, but I can assure you that reality will win, one hundred percent of the time. This might be a good opportunity to remember the serenity prayer: to have the serenity to accept the things you can’t change, to have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I often got really, really frustrated when I was alone in the boat. Winds and currents are no respecters of human plans. I’d want to go west and they’d be pushing me south, or whatever. I used to indulge in magical thinking, imagining that if I could just figure out what the ocean was trying to teach me, the elements would start working in my favour. This way lies madness. I figured out the hard way that I had to let the ocean do what oceans do, and simply show up and do what ocean rowers do — namely, row.
“Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky
3. Talk Out Loud, Sing, Dance, Be Silly
Talking out loud is said to be a sign of insanity, but actually, I found it helped me stay sane. I talked to everything, including myself. I would congratulate myself on finishing a challenging rowing shift. I would swear at the wave that had just soaked me and my dinner. I would talk to the rudder, the boat, the birds, the clouds… whatever.
It really helped me not to disappear down my mental plughole. Saying something out loud helped stop the thought from pinging around in my head, going over the same loop again and again. It was reassuring to hear the sound of my own voice, to remind myself that I was real. Sometimes I could have quite a long conversation with myself if I needed to figure out a navigational decision or some other problem. Putting the thought into words enabled me to pin it down, make sense of it.
Of course, you may want to drop this habit when you go back to your open-plan office!
“Women need real moments of solitude and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away.”
— Barbara De Angelis
4. Treat It Like an Experiment
Put your ego aside, with all its wants, desires, cravings, aversions, and frustrations. Get curious about the gifts of these strange times. Feel the strange excitement that comes from everything being a bit off-kilter and unusual. Notice what thoughts come up when you’re jolted out of the busy-ness of the day-to-day.
Who are you when you’re not interacting with other people? When you’re not being someone’s colleague, or boss, or customer? What does it feel like to simply be you? Do you like what you find? If not, can you change it? What little tweaks can you experiment with while there’s nobody around to intrude?
“When I’m by myself, I can be myself, which is what I want to be. Not just a part of someone else.”
— Jean Culligan
5. Make the Most of the Opportunity for Long-Term Imagining
Limbo can be a wonderful place to run thought experiments. Being around other people keeps us being who we’ve always been, because that’s who they expect to see, and we respond to their expectations. When there’s nobody around to have an opinion, take some time to think about who you want to be in the long-term future.
Do you want to stay in that job (assuming that’s an option)? Is it really taking you where you want to go? Does it make your soul sing? Will it make you feel you’ve spent your irreplaceable time well when your time is running short?
Do you want to stay in your house, your city, your country, or is there somewhere else you’ve always wanted to try living? While travel is impossible now, it is a perfect time to imagine where you would like to travel to. You don’t have to do anything about it (unless you want to) — just allow your imagination to roam.
“It is only when we silence the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.”
— K.T. Jong
6. Enjoy Woolgathering
Woolgathering, noun: indulgence in idle fancies and in daydreaming. When you were little, did you sometimes used to just look at a flower for ages? Watch dust motes dancing in a sunbeam? Count panes of glass in a window? Watch the flames in a real fire?
There is no point to woolgathering. That is the point.
“Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.”
— Alice Koller
7. Be Grateful
There is always something to be grateful for. If you have a roof over your head, food in your belly, and maybe even toilet paper in your bathroom (what is it with the hoarders and toilet paper? no — don’t tell me, I don’t even want to know), you’re doing better than about a billion people. If you have internet (and if you’re reading this, you obviously do), you’re better off than about four billion people.
And if all else fails, there is always somebody worse off than you, so you can be grateful that you’re not them. When I was frustrated with rowing, I would think of guys like Terry Waite, who went to Beirut to try and negotiate for the release of some hostages. Instead, he was taken hostage himself, and held for 2,353 days, mostly in solitary confinement. He didn’t know if he would ever be released. He didn’t know if he would be killed. He hadn’t signed up for solitude. He was definitely worse off than I was.
“It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking… in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.”
— Franz Kafka
And of course, wash your hands, eat well, sleep lots, and don’t kiss the pizza delivery guy, no matter how happy you are to see another human being.