“Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.” ~ Rumi
Last week I read about Lia Ditton, a 38-year old long-distance rower who plans to row 4,500 nautical miles from Japan to San Francisco in early 2019. It will take between 5 and 6 months and she will be completely alone the entire time (though a GPS will track her and send help if she runs too far off course). She will run ocean water through a desalinator to make it potable, eat jerky to keep her energy up, listen to audiobooks and sleep a few hours here and there. But mostly she will row. Alone.
Now, I don’t want to live on a tiny boat for half a year. And jerky? Ugh. But 6 months of perfect solitude? Now this appeals to me greatly.
Lia is the cheese. As in, hi-ho, the derry-o, the cheese stands alone. Like the last child picked in the German nursery rhyme The Farmer in the Dell, we too often see being the cheese as a state imposed upon us, not as a state we choose of our own volition. As a result, we suppose being alone makes us defective, unworthy of spending time with, the last child picked in the nursery rhyme.
I also am the cheese. Though I love to be alone, I have never been lonely. I enjoy my friends and family, can be extroverted when necessary. But the most significant person in my life is me.
I like to travel alone, dine alone, hike alone. I think people avoid being alone because they are not comfortable with their own thoughts. So they surround themselves with people, even when they feel lonely or undervalued in the crowd. If there aren’t others around, they distract themselves with music, reading, television or social media. Social media is the worst distraction, because it creates the illusion of being connected. We can’t be alone if someone out there likes our posts, right?
But this leaves us looking in the wrong place for happiness and validation. We end up spending our days wearing clothes that don’t fit or aren’t quite our style. Because then the shape of our lives is forced upon us, not chosen from our authentic longings. It isn’t about being what others want us to be, but what it is our destiny to become. Not about listening to the shouts of the insistent world, but listening to the quiet murmurs of our own soul.
And we can only truly hear in solitude. We cannot know who we are and what we want if we don’t take time to sit with our thoughts. Introspection and creativity cannot exist without seclusion. It is in moments of silence and solitude that we get in touch with that part of us that knows our real worth, the reason of and purpose for our existence in this world.
Further complicating the experience of real solitude is the sound machine of our own minds. Buddhists call those chattering voices in our heads the monkey mind. It’s often louder to be alone than in a crowded room. My particular monkeys all have ADHD and no inside voices. Anytime I get still and quiet, my mind literally explodes with the noise of my monkey circus. And that’s perfectly normal.
Neuroscience believes humans have more than 60,000 separate thoughts a day, generally jumping from one thought to another, like a monkey from thought-tree to thought-tree. So how do find alone time with the constant presence of babbling primates without going, well, apeshit? We can’t fight the monkeys or force them into submission. Like everyone, they simply want to be heard and understood and loved. So we acknowledge they’re there; we notice each thought-tree, but without judgment or expectation. Do it long enough and your monkeys start looking forward to alone time too and will naturally quiet down a bit when you choose stillness. A quiet mind makes for an accessible heart. And an accessible heart is necessary to cultivate a connected, fulfilling life.
Be the cheese.