The first time I ever experienced complete, self-directed and intentional solitude was at age 15. It happened during the “solo” portion of an Outward Bound course I completed on Table Rock Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina. Equipped with a backpack full of the bare essentials of a tarp, sleeping bag, water, a map, a compass, a journal and portable food I became very acquainted with myself. I listened more and watched more closely — to both my external surroundings, as well as to my internal geography. Self-indulgence was mine for the taking. For example, the pattern of the splotchy birthmark on my ankle; the details of rhododendron leaves; or my extended daydreams, which I’m sure culminated in slightly dramatic teenage angst-ridden journal entries about Life (capital “L” intended), hopes, fears and dreams. At the end of this 24-hour solo I was hooked.
The delight that I could conquer my fears about being with myself (Wouldn’t I get bored? No!) have been life sustaining.
It helped that I also had been attending a Quaker high school in Philadelphia since the 7th grade. The required weekly Meeting for Worship sessions were another touchpoint that acquainted me to turn within through silence — albeit in a communal meetinghouse space.
It’s important to spend time with yourself and explore your internal landscape. As a result, you recharge and attune to the more subtle bits of yourself. Without those pauses, you run the risk of burnout, nihilism or pessimism. But with those pauses you’ll return to your family and work in a more aware and motivated state.
I often remind my clients that it’s really hard to wonder when you are going 80 miles an hour. Wonder is an essential dimension of creativity. And our professional mission to “innovate!” is fully dependent on our creative capacity. Slowing down and pausing is required to build our creative capacity with deepened curiosity, awe, blue-sky thinking (wonder) as well as discipline and focus (rigor).
Now I regularly schedule these solitude moments into my calendar.
I call them micro-retreats.
But I didn’t always do this.
I would shove in a version of solitude during a longer vacation or even on a work trip.
I was encouraged to be more intentional about planning pauses and solitude by a friend, Holly Carter. She learned from the Dalai Lama that humans should commit to solitude for spiritual growth. At the time she was a busy new mom with two toddlers in New York City and doubted she would ever fit in time for herself. But then she realized that a tiny step would be to book 1 night at a hotel, get a cab to said hotel, order room service the next morning, and then return home. It worked wonders. Holly’s advice to me was not to wait until I could get away for a week but to start planning my escapes at regular, short intervals: an afternoon here; 24 hours there; two days in the next quarter.
If micro-retreating sounds like a privileged event- you’re correct. It is. But not in the self-abnegating way you might think. It is essential that we treat ourselves with these privileges in order to sustain our health and productivity.
Here are three ways you could start designing in micro-retreats into your life and work.
A Noticing Retreat
Block out one morning/afternoon next month on your calendar where you will visit a different neighborhood in your city or town, walk around, sit in a café and read non-work-related stuff. Enjoy being a stranger and relish what’s suddenly novel.
A Walking Retreat
Schedule a weekly walk, either in the woods or along city streets. These can last as short as 5 minutes and as long as one hour. The goal, as in the Noticing Retreat, is to be an anthropologist and just take note: of shapes, light, sounds, your own feelings and your own thoughts.
A Quarterly Reflection Retreat
Don’t worry about retreating to some exotic locale in order to experience a micro-retreat on a regular basis. Identify a hotel in your own town or city (or nearby) and book one to two nights. It can be a luxurious splurge or affordable — totally up to you. The point is to be in a new environment. Bring a journal and some prompts. For example, I’ve booked a one-night stay at an aka hotel on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia for next week. Two of my reflection prompts?
1) Create a list of 50 questions for yourself (just the questions — not the answers!)
2) Create a list of 50 gratitude statements.
If you commit to these regular pauses, you’ll not only be doing yourself a favor, you’re paying it forward to your colleagues, your clients, your spouse and your children.
Natalie Nixon, PhD is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, the author of the award-winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work, and the CEO of Figure 8 Thinking.
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