Imagine you had a month to escape to the mountains, far away enough from society that you would seldom see people if at all unless you went to them. You would have the basics of the hierarchy of needs, food, water, and shelter. All of your concerns, societal inputs and life stressors are removed and of no consequence. What would you do with this type of being? How would you make the most of it? What would your days look like without screens, noise, air, or even light pollution at night? Can you imagine how much those 30 days could have the potential for you to break free from old ideas, thoughts and beliefs?
I am about to find out. My life, with no little support or help of my amazing wife, has presented me with a long time personal dream. I have the opportunity to take a month-long, solo retreat into the mountains. Over the years, I have been inspired by the likes of Thoreau, Muir, Whitman and countless Zen monks. The hermitage of solitude as a path for understanding oneself has always been an aspiration that I have had. To explore a vulnerability in my relationship with myself?
For the whole month of August, I will live in almost total solitude. The location is 80 acres of land tucked away in Park County, Colorado. There is a portion of pine trees, with rolling hills and a considerable amount of prairie land. (See photo below for a snap shot)
During this hermitage, I will be eating simple, healthy food, sitting in meditation, keeping a journal and doing a little reading too. I am allowing myself a few days to occasionally go out fishing in the area, and I will meet up with my wife and son every few weeks only to get provisions and to let them see how smelly and enlightened I am getting. To keep me occupied beyond that I will begin the construction of a platform foundation for a shed or hut that I can return to and visit again in the future.
The logistics have been in the works and I am now in the process of putting it all together over the next few weeks. There is a balancing act of taking too much and not taking enough. Of course, there is a near by town that I can run into for anything I need but I really want to avoid that as much as I can. As humans we do have a desire to have contact with others. Loneliness is as much a distraction in a retreat of this kind as being in our lives surrounded by people. So I have made the concession to bring my dog along. And by "made the concession" I mean, "My wife did not want to have to deal with him on her own while I was away". It will be good for him too I am sure.
Why am I doing this? I also keep asking myself this question… This last June, I turned 55. Which isn’t old but also isn’t young. I have been conscious of my own mortality for quite a while. Without a doubt, this was impressed on me in experiences during my time in combat during the Gulf War. Impermanence of self has made a home in the background of my life. I am conscious of relative brevity of life. As we get older, we blink, and a decade seems to go by. It would be nice to blink less and to be more connected to each moment of our lives and to savor life. To do this though is a process of unlearning and waking up. It is of learning to not let external aspects of life detract you from living your life truthfully and with integrity.
Thirty days will be a challenge. The longest I have been alone like this on a retreat was when I was in my late 20s. I spent 7 days in total solitude. The property I am doing this retreat at is fittingly the same. Since moving to Colorado I have pretty much visited this land located in South Park, to at least camp a night or a weekend every year. I know the property well and have shared my adventures there camping there with my son on Instagram.
Lately, our modern world has created so much conflict within me. I have kept my combat PTSD fairly well "in check" and managed. But, I have also seen myself become less capable of coping with the noise of everyday life and have at times found anger brewing inside of me. This retreat is a true gift that will allow me to shed the layers that have built up on my psyche and to find some clarity and direction for the continuation of my life.
Taking a hermitage retreat is about being alone and building an honest relationship with yourself. It is about removing distractions and honoring yourself with simplicity. In removing some of the comforts and as much of the distractions as possible we learn to see and listen to ourselves. We can find places of strength and clarity that we can bring back into our lives with other people.
I understand as well that with this journey I have already started to create ideas and projected onto the experience expectations. The practice I hope to follow though is to deal with each day as it is, to dive into the simplicity and face myself honestly. I have consulted with a teacher and friend who takes 90 day solo retreats himself. The best advice he gave me was to be gentle with myself, and don’t make things difficult (or easy).
He has also recommended to me the practice of "loving kindness" meditation.
Who knows what will happen? I know that taking this journey is something I really need. How often are we alone? How often do we find ourselves with the freedom of time and distractions to see ourselves and understand our place? Perhaps while I am away you will try to find those places in your life where you do get to be alone. Even if it is for just a few minutes each day. I look forward to writing a little about my story and discoveries when I return. Be well my friends and fellow passengers in life.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.