As I write this, I am holed away in a little shepherds hut deep in the English countryside with my dog. We are surrounded by rolling farmland and woodlands and very little else. Last year, whilst the world navigated the pandemic, it gave me time to reflect on my own hectic life and it’s severe lack of work/life balance. I have an exceptionally busy life running two companies. I have also always been seen amongst my family and friends as the ‘strong’ one, the one that always takes cares of everyone else.
2021 proved to be one of the most challenging years of my life, running a personal care business during a global pandemic was stressful enough, but the universe decided to throw some pretty big curve balls my way too, just for good measure. As the year unfolded I was faced with navigating a cancer scare for myself and my father, a very long-term sick family member whom needed 24 hour support, my dog developed very unstable and life threatening epilepsy and I was still dealing with the huge financial implications of my business being forced to close for 10.5 months due to Covid-19.
By the summer I was totally exhausted, I knew deep down I was on the brink of breaking point, but it wasn’t until I confined in a very close friend of mine about what had been occurring in my life over the past few months, and her subsequent shocked reaction, that the magnitude of just how much I had been carrying all by myself came to light. I finally had to admit to myself that I had been neglecting my own physical and emotional health for the past 18 months in order to support everyone else, and that of course was not sustainable.
I decided going forward, when the world reopened, I would make a little time and space each year to focus on myself. My Zen teacher recommends to his zen students that we should try to make some time once or twice a year to disconnect and take ourselves off on solo retreat, preferably in nature. So here I am, and it has been one of the most nurturing and restorative weeks of my life.
Looking after yourself first is not selfish it’s a necessity.
Through much of my adult life I tended to be a people pleaser. I would more often or not put everyone-else’s needs before my own, in order to be liked or at least to live a life with less conflict or confrontation. Of course, there will be times we will need to put someone-else’s needs before our own. But we also need to have enough self-awareness to be able to do this with a balanced view point. If we are always sacrificing our own needs to please or support someone else, to the point it becomes detrimental to our own physical or mental health, we are not in fact being kind to ourselves. Learning to be kind to ourselves without feeling guilty is one of the most important steps we must take in order to cultivate a happier and more wholesome life.
Disconnecting From The World Is Restorative
I recently went on my first formal Zen Retreat (Sesshin) with my Zen Master. Whilst there we weren’t allowed to talk for 5 days, complete silence. Although I admit I was a little apprehensive at first, I found the silence very nurturing. One thing I teach on my mindfulness courses is that we live in a world so connected with technology, that it often leaves us disconnected from ourselves. A world of constant distractions. The internet, our smart phones, television, radio, emails, social media; The list is endless.
We are often also distracted by our relationships, our family commitments, our need to socialise or be present with others. Sometimes, it isn’t until we step away from these things, even just temporarily, can we begin to truly rest.
Taking time out to switch yourself off from all the things that are constantly present in our lives, and consciously or unconsciously prevent us from just being still, quiet and restful is actually incredibly restorative. On my third day here, I didn’t turn my phone on at all. I meditated, walked my dog over rolling hillsides in blustery winds, read for a couple of hours, journaled, cooked wholesome food and listened to some very relaxing music. I went to bed feeling incredibly calm, centred and grounded.
Spending time alone allows you to get to know you and your emotions better.
Zen practise helps one ‘find their true nature’. It’s a focused practise of self-enquiry. Much of our practise is zazen, silent sitting meditation. A practice in which you can discover a lot about who you really are. Some stuff may be easy to sit with, other stuff not so much. Ultimately, it’s about being present with yourself, in quiet contemplation, nothing more and nothing less.
For some of us, being alone with ourselves can prove difficult. Because it’s a space in which we only have ourselves for company, just us and our own mind. For many of us this can feel over-whelming or uncomfortable. Because being alone with ourselves, with no distractions, means we have the time and space to be present with our thoughts and with our emotions.
Although this may seem daunting at first, having the courage to actually sit with ourselves is one of the most empowering things we can do. It gifts us with an opportunity to transition into a space of open honesty and gentle curiosity about our lives. Time alone, away from everything and everyone that may distract, trigger or influence us, enables us to just be present with what is. And that in itself can be incredibly healing.
Stillness increases wellbeing
Most, if not all of my most inspiring or transformative moments of clarity have come during periods of solitude.
It’s no surprise that the global interest in mindfulness meditation had increased tenfold since the pandemic. There are now also hundreds of thousands of clinical scientific studies that prove the benefits of mindfulness meditation impact both physical and emotional factors. Including lowering blood pressure, elevating brain function, slowing down the biological ageing process, reducing anxiety and depression, increasing sports performance, improving self-esteem and body confidence, as well as increasing empathy and compassion towards ourselves and others. When my sceptical friends or family suggest that mindfulness meditation is just some form of holistic mumbo jumbo, I always recommend they read some books or articles from the hundreds of neuroscientists who have been studying this subject for decades.
The science is well and truly out there, quite contemplative stillness is good for us.
A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. Studies have shown, allowing ourselves to walk, exercise or rest in nature can lower both blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduces nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety and improve mood. I love being in nature, it has always been my go to healing place. As a children we went camping on our holidays. And during playtime we were encouraged to get out in the fields or the woodland. To get messy and have fun. Solo retreats not only provide you with a space of stillness, but if you combine that with nature, you have a very powerful and natural healing environment to rest and restore.
Being comfortable with your own company is healthy and empowering, and don’t let anyone else make you think otherwise.
From a relatively young age, I have always been encouraged to enjoy my own company. Yes of course I love to socialise, to go out with my friends. And being with my family is one of my most valued things. But that doesn’t mean to say I cannot enjoy just being with myself. Quite often, being comfortable with your own company can be a reflection of being comfortable with who you are. Comfortable with your life. Sometimes, it may even be a reflection of the amount of inner work you have done on yourself, in order for you to have transitioned into that space.
Don’t ever feel any pressure to explain or justify to anyone why you may choose to go away on your own (after all it’s no ones business other than yours). In my experience the very small handful of people who have ever questioned my decision to go away alone, tend to be people who would never have the courage to do it themselves (for whatever reason), or they are people who are (when you look deep enough) carrying a lot of insecurities or unhappiness about their own lives. So their comments come from a place of fear, rather than a place of unkindness (because they just can’t see for themselves why such a retreat could be beneficial for the soul, because being alone with themselves is probably the last thing they would ever want to do from where they currently are).
I am always inspired by the lone solo world travellers, those who possess the courage and conviction to explore their life on their own, in a way that suits their needs and dreams. Does the courageous solo world traveller worry about what John from number 32 thinks about their solo world travel arrangements? No of course they don’t, they are too busy exploring the world, living life to the full and immensely enjoying themselves in the process.
Taking time to truly heal yourself, helps you show up in the world in a way in which you can help support others.
I am not ashamed to admit that this time away was needed. It was needed to physically rest (I haven’t had a full day off in almost 5 weeks). It was needed to process all of the stress and associated emotions that have built up over the past 18 months of challenges. It was needed to gain clarity and insight into where my life currently is, and where I want it to go. It was needed in order to allow me the time and space to let stuff go. Instead of holding on to difficult emotions, this time and space has allowed me to transition through them in a healthy and productive way. So those emotions don’t impact others negatively (we project so much of our anger, bitterness, shame and resentment on to others when we do not take the time or the effort to work through them ourselves).
I’ve been able to dedicate a lot of time since being here to my zazen practise, which has been healing and wholesome in itself. But most of all it was needed because I have every right to be gentle and kind to myself, without judgement or guilt.
All of this means I will return home after just seven days, feeling stronger, lighter, more grounded and more centred. Having the courage to first acknowledge I needed this time, and secondly have the conviction to know I needed to work through some stuff, means when I return home, I am in a much better position to show up in the world in a more helpful, loving and supportive way. A way in which my family and loved ones are used to and will hopefully benefit from.