Saturday 22 January 2011

Burning off the fluff

I’m just back from five nights alone in the hills of Retief’s Kloof in the Magaliesberg mountains and feeling deeply refreshed, energised and alive to new possibilities. There is something about alone time that burns off the fluff, helps get down to what is really important, and flushes out some of the chaotic complexities that lurk inside all of us. And I find it helps me review the year gone by, and reassess my plans for the year ahead, from a new and valuable perspective.

It’s a big part of leadership, too: knowing yourself and preparing every inch of body, mind and soul for the one “cubic centimetre of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time” quoted and explored by Joe Jaworski in his book Synchronicity: the inner path of leadership. What I find is that alone time tends to allow out both my biggest dreams and their concomitant fears. Leadership and resilience are about living with both the light and the dark of being human, and continuing to choose a good path in full knowledge of who we are.

Four or more days completely alone, at least once a year, preferably in natural surroundings, is highly recommended for all adults. It’s a time to ground to the rock bottom facts of life, who you are and what really matters. Eat very simply, or better still (with appropriate experience and/or support) just drink water . Let it be a time of “inside out” rather than “outside in” with the voices of TV, phone, email and even books and loved ones be quiet, except for a journal to write in and/or draw.

Ancient rhythms of the earth - Retief's Kloof, Magaliesberg, South Africa

Spending a few hours just watching the stream wear away the rock of a waterfall, or musing about how a tree came to survive on its crag and grow in such extraordinary twists and shapes, can inspire and support our determination, resilience and appetite for change.

You owe it to your soul.

The bottom line if you are thinking of taking a few days alone:
  • Prepare thoroughly, identify in advance some of the big questions facing you at this point in your life
  • Find a safe area to spend the time, and make sure somebody you can rely on knows where you are going, when you are due back and will both hold the space for you energetically and act if you need practical help
  • Arrange a way of sending a daily message to your helper so they know you are OK, and a set time after which they will come looking for you if you don't check in
  • Remember to allow time afterwards to re-integrate – don’t rush from the mountains to your city desk without at least a weekend to make the transition
  • Turn off your phone, computer, internet and get far from the likes of TV and go inwards.

Most of the world’s religions have built this kind of time of prayer and meditation into their rituals, and whether or not you adhere to a formal religion, you can benefit from this practice. It helps to include your preferred way of going within, be it prayer, yoga, exercise, meditation, art or contemplation.

Taking quiet time alone can work wonders for strategic clarity, grounding and resilience. Daily practice is also of huge value – even five minutes of meditation a day works wonders! – and I got the idea of a regular longer solo time from Steve Biddulph, the wonderful Ozzie author of Raising Boys, who recommends taking a few days off alone around the time of your birthday.

It can go much deeper, if you choose to explore the powerful spiritual potential of this work. There are many ways to do this, and what I offer here is the route that has worked for me. I learned to fast and experienced huge and transformative life-changing growth on a Vision Quest facilitated by Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris. With gently powerful preparation, utterly reliable support on every level, and careful deep listening after the solo time – a kind of debriefing that opens new vistas, they hold a small group through each one’s own personal solo journey that includes four days fasting alone in the wilderness.

I highly recommend Judy and Valerie’s Vision Quest near Cape Town in South Africa; nearer Johannesburg, I can equally recommend Kevin Rudham’s Circles of Stone, and internationally you can learn more and find other opportunities through Steven Foster and Meredith Little’s School of Lost Borders. Or explore the indigenous culture of your area – I believe that long ago, this kind of practice was widespread in almost all cultures.

Note about fasting during your alone time:
I don’t recommend that you fast for more than a day without thorough preparation and support. You may get this through your spiritual community, or your physician, or through specialists such as Vision Questers.