The (rather uneventful) first 100 hours of complete solitude

Spending the next 100 hours in complete solitude was not quite the idea when i hugged my friends Fuji and Grete goodbye. From where they dropped me off, i still had another couple of kilometers of walking along a dirt road to Fuji’s family’s Summer cottage on the Swedish countryside. The idea came up as i walked past the last house before the cottage, and gradually settled along the rest of the way — what if i went not only offline, but completely without interacting with other human beings for a while!?

The premise

The longest i’d been in complete solitude like that before, as far as i can remember, was about 24 hours. It happened last Summer, in the Faroe Islands, where the only mammals i interacted with in between the gentleman who gave me a ride to the trailhead and the girl starting that same trail as i walked out of it the day after were sheep — tones of sheep — and their poop — absurd amounts of it.

I’d been longing for an extended period of solitude ever since. It doesn’t seem very easy to find space and time to be alone in this world. There are people pretty much everywhere you go — even in the Faroe Islands! Plus, i keep finding out that we actually need them more often than i’d like to admit — and they probably need us also.

But i could not let this opportunity pass — i had access to clean water and enough provisions for more than a week, my closest neighbor was almost one kilometer down the road, and i couldn’t anticipate anything that might happen in the world that might require my attention in the immediate future.

And so the experiment began . . .

So, how was it?

Before i share with you some of my raw impressions from this experience, a quick disclaimer though. You might find most of what you’ll read below rather unimpressive — at least i did to a large extent.

Perhaps 100 hours is not that long — perhaps being alone in a Summer cottage i was already familiar with and with lots of entertainment is very different from being alone in a remote trail in the Faroe Islands — i did not have any remarkable insights. I didn’t meet any inner demons i wasn’t already expecting, and i didn’t face any problems that didn’t turn out to either have a trivial solution, or be something that didn’t really bother me after all.

You’ve been warned 🙂

I’m also interested in hearing about what may have been your own experience doing something like that, or what might be your expectations about it — please feel invited to answer to some of the questions below in the comments, or by email.

  • It was surprisingly easy to spend all that time alone. In fact, i feel like the real effort was to snap out of it — do i really have to!?

    For instance, on my second day, i was looking for a tree to climb in the area, and caught myself turning back as soon as i could see the neighbor’s house, so as not to risk interacting with them. If i didn’t have to touch base with my friend and his mom about arrangements for the following week, i’d likely have continued until i ran out of supplies or someone came to me.

    Have you done something like this before? How was it? If not, do you think it would be challenging?

  • I listened to obscene amounts of music — album after album — from cover to cover — doing nothing else but intently listening to it.

    Oh, gosh, i was so glad there was a good stereo set in the house! I dearly miss my headset.

    In case you’re curious about what i brought to my retreat: Dream Theater: Images & Words, Falling into Infinity and Octavarium; Haken: The Mountain and Affinity; Metallica: Black Album; Mumford & Sons: Babel; Periphery: Periphery III: Select Difficulty; Porcupine Tree: Deadwing and In Absentia; Skyharbor: Guiding Lights; and TesseracT: Altered State, Polaris and Smile.

    What album(s) would you bring to a solo retreat?

  • I noticed a lot of things i’d have likely not noticed otherwise — the birds, the butterflies, the scratches and patterns in the ceiling, the bees and wasps, some of the sounds from the nature preserve surrounding the cottage, the fire, and so on. I found the simplest events incredibly interesting at a much larger rate than usual.

    Look away from the screen. What’s the first thing around you that catches your attention? Had you noticed that before?

  • I spent a disproportionate amount of that time alone just on my underwear, and that felt so great!

    Do you also like to walk around naked, or semi-naked?

  • It was refreshing to be remembered that one can do reasonably well without continuous access to the Internet. I’d already made this decision before, and will likely stick to it — whenever and wherever i settle down, i won’t have Internet at home!

    I’ve met a few people without Internet at home during my travels over the years. They’ve all seemed perfectly functional, and their not having Internet may have well enriched our encounter.

    During this project, Boris (a roadside invitation in the Chernivtsi Region) and Nastia (my host in L’viv) didn’t have Internet at home. Whether or not that’s a coincidence, they have also been the only hosts so far with whom i’ve had a call with afterward. (UPDATED August ’19: Nastia and i moved in together a few months later and eventually got married — we didn’t have Internet at home for a year; i remain in touch with Boris, and visited him on my 2019 tour of Ukraine and surroundings with Nastia.)

    Have you tried going without Internet at home? How was it? What do you think about this idea?
  • I’ll probably want to do a retreat like that once a year or so. Perhaps a longer one though, and perhaps a bit more remote and/or constrained.

    Have you heard about darkroom retreats? Have you done one? How was it?
  • I’ll probably want to do a mini-retreat like that very often. Perhaps choosing a night every week or so in which i’ll go completely offline and out of reach.

    What kind of time and space do you regularly create for yourself? What do you gain from it?

  • Just like the week i spent offline in Moldova (but not in isolation), these few days in solitude were some of my most productive during this project so far.

    I wrote a lot, including at least two blog posts essentially from scratch! I took lots of pictures, and probably prepared more posts for my Instagram than i do on average. I sat down to read a book for the first time in a couple of months, and realized how much i actually miss it and want to prioritize that also when i’m on the move. I made tones of sketches, also a lot more than i do on average. I caught up with my bicycle’s state of disrepair. I caught up with drafting my pending Couchsurfing/Warmshowers references. I kept up with all essential household tasks such as doing the dishes and cutting the grass.

    What would you work on if you could create such time and space for that?

  • I really enjoyed the countryside tempo — having to fetch water from the well, having to walk all the way to the outhouse for number 2, having to heat up the water for my shower, and also to do the dishes or wash my clothes, having to make a fire to keep the house warm — everything takes time — every task needs to be started before it’s an emergency — but nothing is really an emergency.

    Do you live or have you lived in the countryside? Am i romanticizing it a bit too much? What kind of amenities of “civilization” do you miss the most?

And i think that’s really about it

Like i said, there wasn’t anything terribly deep, particularly intense or remarkably insightful. Oh, well — it is what it is.

I’ll let you know if i do a longer solo retreat though, or at least in a different context — and if anything else comes up — You please do the same 😉

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Featured photo: my friend Fuji’s family’s Summer cottage, where they and their friends come throughout the season to enjoy the light, the slow and the quiet — and which i was kindly allowed to use for my retreat and other experiments (Sweden, Summer ’17)


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Experiments: retreats

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