The soul of solo
PHOTO LINDA WORMHOUDT
During the first years I was guiding people on a wilderness solo* in the mountains I would get nervous when a storm came in. I would be worried people would not remember what (not) to do – or worse, I would realize I didn't tell them in the first place. I would be concerned they would panic or something would go terribly wrong. Over the years quite a few storms have come during our wilderness solos and I have been in council afterwards with the bravehearts who sat through them. Now when a storm comes in I take my drum and I sing to welcome it. Because I have learned that nothing comes even close to the insights you can receive by being by yourself on the land with nowhere to go during a storm in the mountains. I have heard from those for whom the storm has been a gateway to grief, to joy, to empowerment, to a sense of resilience, surrender and humility, and from those whom it took away from a universe in which we as humans are the center.
The importance of this last experience can hardly be overestimated in today's world where everything seems to revolve around us. A major shift occurs when we feel in our bones that the non-human world is in charge and we are but part of the web of life; we are nature and nature ceases to be a realm we step in and out of. When we turn to the old stories, to our ancestors, or directly to the land in a dialogue we can all learn to remember, this shift happens time and again.
To wake up to our human-centered lifestyle being a dangerous and soul-eroding one can be a shock. I remember walking away from my spot after my first solo in a state of bliss and buzzing with the gratitude I had found in myself. After hiking for a bit I saw a plastic bag at the side of the path in the forest. The impact of that bag hit me in its full glory and it hit hard. Wide open as I was in that moment the pain of the disconnect we are often living in was not to be warded off. Meeting that bag was one of the moments that made me decide to let go of what might have unfolded as a successful career as a journalist and start to get involved in some deeper work. Though I had no clue at the time, guiding solos myself would be part of this shift in my life’s path. A vow I did not have words for started to take shape then.
This moment also made me realize that, unlike what a lot of people seem to think today – and I am sorry to disappoint you – a wilderness solo is not about you. It is not something to tick off your bucket list. It is not about doing it in the toughest way or in the most exotic location. This ancient ritual has always been about your community: you go out by yourself so you can find your gift and bring it back for the bigger whole. This doesn’t mean you yourself won’t get benefits; the creatures who come back from the mountain have shiny eyes and tend to burst with creativity and vitality.
What I have seen over the years and what I have observed in myself is that we tend to be rather good at going to the mountain but we are not always as good at coming back home and integrating what happened there. Mythologist and wilderness vigil guide dr. Martin Shaw calls it 'the addiction to severance’. “If we are all in movement, living for the next big event, then how can this (integration) occur?” It is only when we can live our deepest insights in the most mundane daily life experiences that we can truly say we have been to the mountain.
What makes this into an advanced exercise anno 2018 is the fact that we are living in a culture that doesn't understand what we have gone out to do on the land. Long ago we stopped giving value to rites of passage, yet the origin of wilderness solo work goes back to this key rite of stepping into adulthood. In the old days mothers would cry when a child of theirs left on a solo because they knew they would never see them again. The ritual marked a symbolic death, the end of a life stage. When they would come back as adults their mothers would pretend not to recognize this 'new' person. There would be a council of elders or a shaman to support the ones who returned with meaning-making. There would be a village ready to welcome them back. It can be harsh for today's initiates to return to that cultural void and part of me is always crying when sending them back 'home'. Luckily we can set ourselves up for community. The more people step up to do this work the more support we can offer each other.
Earlier this year I was holding a ceremony for a woman who had recently turned seventy and wanted to step into elderhood. When I asked her what was most important in life she brought me to tears talking about daring to open your heart and be vulnerable. “It might seem weak, but it is actually very powerful.” To dare to be touched is one of the big gifts alone time in the wild can bring us. To get back to the raw animal state where our breath merges with the wind and we can do nothing else than acknowledge that the earth is having her way with us, not the other way around.
One of the changes I have seen in people coming to the mountain over the past seven years is how much more difficult it is becoming for them to put away and leave behind their phones. In spite of the fact a lot of good things are happening thanks to social media our nervous systems are under constant and increasing pressure and even those people who are well centered get sucked into clouds of narcissism and egocentrism. The tendency is to make these wilderness experiences shorter and shorter following up on the demands of our time; 24 hour solos and even shorter, more bite-size experiences are getting increasingly popular (and have their value!). However what our terrorized bodies need is longer immersions to get back to our senses. There is sanity to be found outdoors. The earth is telling us the most important of stories. Come, sweet people, come and listen.
June 21st-29th, Catalan Pyrenees
August 28th-September 5th, Sweden
The photos in the article are portraits taken by Miet Van Hee during the 2014 midsummer wilderness solo in the Pyrenees right after people returned from their solo time.
*I chose to use the phrase 'wilderness solo' instead of 'vision quest'. A traditional vision quest as it was practiced in Native American traditions such as the Lakota lineage literally brought questers to the edge of life and death. Apart from the fact the term 'vision quest' has been coined by 19th-century anthropologists, I feel too much respect for these cultural lineages that are not mine to use these words.
A wilderness solo is a contemporary ritual that is inspired by ancient rituals that were held all over the world and in which some elements were always coming back. Alone/solo time away from the village/in the wilderness have always been vital elements together with fasting and some form of praying. I do want to acknowledge the limitation of the term 'wilderness solo'. Though we do refrain from human company we are after all far from alone during our solo time. When it comes to wilderness, a Sami elder rightfully told me it does no longer exist in Europe.
My work as a wilderness solo guide is inspired by our northwestern European roots and traditions about which I have learned a lot from my shamanic teacher Linda Wormhoudt. We might not have ready-made rituals that have been passed on to us from generation to generation. We do have bits and pieces of the puzzle and the land that loves us to turn (back) to it.