7 Things I Learned from 5+ Years of Solitude

Isolation can be transformative and empowering, here’s how.

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

It’s been one year since the pandemic started, a year that’s brought significant changes for just about everyone.

Some of us have been overly trapped in a house with too many people; but others of us have been all on our own for quarantine, left alone with our minds, and a pet, if we’re lucky.

Going from a life of being out in the world, talking with people, experiencing novelty and freedom — to being all alone in your apartment, like, every day, can be immensely difficult.

In October of 2015, I had my last day working at a health company that had been extremely compassionate in regard to my sick time. I had been crashing right after work most days for years, and the days where I couldn’t leave the house at all had started to outnumber the days that I could.

Since then, it’s been a life of treasuring the days where I do feel good enough to leave the house.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

I’d learn that I had a B12 level of 132 pg/mL; the doctor noting that I’d have been paralyzed within a month, and dead within a year. A year and a half later, having been tested for just about every other ailment — I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, explaining the pain all over my body, but leaving me with many unanswered questions.

And, finally, just this summer I was diagnosed with Level Two autism, a mind-blowing diagnosis, for sure, but one that has brought me the answers to those questions, tools, and a literally like-minded community (if only online, for now).

So, when the pandemic started, I was already on year four of near-complete solitude — I have been completely by myself for the vast majority of my hours, for five freakin’ years.

At first, it was really hard. Not gonna lie.

But this solitude has brought me treasures, as well. Transformational ones.

May we all be infinitely more awesome versions of ourselves by the time the world reopens, ready to rock its socks right off.

Our world constantly feeds us information to process and react to, and while letting all that go might be difficult; its absence can be immensely centering, especially with some intention and effort.

Though the arrival of vaccines is exciting, the reality is that many of us (especially my fellow high-risk peeps) are probably going to be solo’ing it up for some time — so I thought that I’d share the gifts that isolation has brought me, and how to get at ‘em.

7 Things I’ve Learned from Extended Solitude

Photo by Afonso Coutinho on Unsplash
  1. The most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. For a lot of us, it’s easy to be thrown into everyone else’s world, letting other people occupy our mental spaces rather than focusing on cultivating our own internal peace. It’s important to engage in activities that help us feel closer to ourselves; for me, it’s spirituality and making art (ta-da) — maybe for you, it’s gourmet cooking whilst listening to personal development podcasts. But whatever it is, making it happen regularly is absolutely worth the effort.
  2. Self-care, like meditation and daily movement, is not optional. Similarly, it’s important to hold ourselves accountable for taking care of our minds and bodies, which can be tricky when your whole routine is thrown out of wack. Luckily, to get rolling all you need is a bit of floor space, maybe some direction and inspiration from YouTube, and willpower derived from knowing that self-care leads to happier and more productive days — making you your best you.
  3. It’s okay to follow your own rhythm. Our society pushes a fast-paced lifestyle that starts at 6:30 am, and even if you’ve been laid off, or your hours have become more flexible; it’s likely you’re still feeling pressure to keep it up. Take this opportunity to learn about your own internal rhythms — see what time you wake up natural, be busy on a Sunday and chilled out on Monday, discover what truly works for you.
  4. Authenticity is key to sanity. I first started falling ill regularly over a decade ago, and the forced solitude helped me realize that I wasn’t being my full self when around others, that I feared doing so, and it made me anxious, almost constantly, which I hid, constantly. After a few months alone, unobserved, unguarded, unedited; I found myself being sillier, as well as feeling more joy and peace, and I’m better able to bring that into my relationships when I do have the energy to connect.
    .
    Notice how you are alone, and how you are with others — is there a gap? As the great Brené Brown says, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief,” which is something I can personally vouch for. Mind the gap, my friend, then close it good.
  5. Societal conditioning is utter nonsense. All this time alone, without being persistently exposed to and influenced by the views of others, being able to control the amount of conditioning I’m exposed to — has helped me to really see our society for what it is. (And, very often, it’s not great.)
    .
    Inspect your psyche and motivations, how much is “mother culture” affecting your goals, assumptions, and beliefs? How does advertising affect you? Social media? Keep your eyes peeled for internal reactions (especially shame) when encountering aspects of socialization and our society, observe how conditioning can be an insidious mofo.
  6. The key to never being bored is caring more. My mother always used to say, “If you’re bored, you’re boring,” which irritated me as a restless teen, but I’ve come to see its wisdom. Engaging people are always engaging with something, learning about their new passion, supporting the people around them (if only from afar), and generally cultivating their curiosity at every turn — and the key to it all is caring.
    .
    While happy hours and concerts allude, opportunities for caring are still abundant, and one is never bored whilst giving a shit about something. (It just can’t be done.) Whether it’s getting involved with your community somehow, taking up a new hobby, or exploring your obsession with some random topic you love with all your heart; bid adieu to boredom and get it get it.
  7. It’s crucial to know what company uplifts, and who drains you. When availability for interaction is limited, it’s especially important to be particular. Once I started examining how I felt after talking with people (in-person or otherwise), I realized that I very often wound up in a negative space afterward; realizing that they hadn’t asked me a single question, that an errant comment was making me insecure, or that I was feeling otherwise diminished, less seen.
    .
    My experience was certainly colored by my unconsciously deflecting to mask my autism (and other coping methods), but this isn’t an uncommon issue. Some of us are keener to hold space, and others are keener to take it — it’s important to find balance in both our behavior and in the company we keep. The forced space of quarantine can help ween out potentially toxic relations, leaving more time for connection that uplifts.

While I hope that this isolation is broken sooner than later, I try to remember the overwhelmingly external times in my life, the days I had too many places to go, too many people to talk to — and remember that those times will come again, and they’ll likely send me into a light nostalgia over my present situation.

Let’s make the best of being here, now, shall we?

May we all be infinitely more awesome versions of ourselves by the time the world reopens, ready to rock its socks right off.

We got this.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Meditation is the shit.

It might seem like you’re just sitting there, but you’re learning to steer your mind.

Meditation is simply the shit. It may seem like just sitting there trying not to think; but it’s really a process of centering in oneself, learning to better manage our mental space, and finding our best selves.

It’ll start working quickly too, even if you find that you can’t get a moment of mental silence during the beginning. This is because awareness of what is happening in your mind. If you’re a fellow flawed human, you’ve probably heard yourself say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did it, it just happened!” (Not. Fun.)

Mindfulness helps get rid of that sort of banal unpleasantness by properly introducing us to our minds, thereby meeting our motivations. And when we start to see the why’s behind our did’s — they change.

And then there’s the recognizing of harmful thought patterns: seeing the negative self-talk, all the replaying shite memories, the limiting beliefs, and all the other ways we let our minds bully us.

Meditation and mindfulness help create a detachment from all that unpleasantness, which helps it to lose momentum, allowing us space to choose to work towards creating a more nourishing mindset.

Our society seems to think we’re a mere collection of our past thoughts, that they define us — but our minds are our tools, they are not who we are.

“We think, therefore we are,” sure sure sure.

But we can also think about thinking and change it, working to ban harmful conditioning and replace it with awesome; therefore we are also more than our minds.

Our minds are just tools.

And meditation helps empower us to use them better, to gain control — so a tool isn’t always calling the shots. (We get enough of that in politics, yes?)

It’s super easy to get started too.

Here’s a quick how-to:

  1. Get in a comfy position. You don’t need to pretzel it up, know lying down can lead to sleeping, but other than that, just be comfortable in your body.
  2. Focus on your breath. Feel the air moving through your nose, filling your lungs, and effortlessly flowing out.
  3. Don’t engage with your thoughts. As Mooji says, “Let every thought come and hug you, but you don’t hug anything.” Don’t judge it, try to not mentally react, just note it and return to your breath.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! It’ll get easier with time, really it will. Eventually, you’ll start enjoying the peace of clear mind, which is addicting once you know it.
  5. Anywhere. In my cubicle days, I used to depend on bathroom stall meditations to find my center and get through the day — you can truly meditate an-y-where. Try it on a walk, focusing on the sensations in your body as it moves.
  6. Anytime. Well, you can’t meditate while having a conversation, not a decent one anyways — but you can rock the mindful 24/7, simply by keeping an eye on your mind. Keep a detached, yet discerning, perspective; giving energy to inspired thought patterns, and ignoring the others, which will get them to peter out.
Image for post
Image via Giphy, created by GiosolARTE

My Chronic Illness Left Me Broke And Homeless, So Meditation Is My Medication

Meg Hartley for Ravishly
03.16.18

(Photo courtesy of the author.)
(Photo courtesy of the author.)

I’m currently homeless and have been for a month now. My body stopped working right a few years back due to fibromyalgia and injury from severe B12 deficiency (cause that’s a thing), and long story short — maintaining a job when you’re calling in sick all the time is very hard, impossible even, and getting on disability usually takes years, if it happens at all. It’s real sticky-wicked to have your body become unpredictable and tortuously painful. And the financial mess that comes with it creates one hell of a situation. 

So here I am. Homeless.

I often wake up with the sun as it pours its first light into the backseat of my 1993 Toyota Camry. On these days, like today, and the three before, it takes a very long time to actually get up. My body feels like it weighs hundreds of pounds, each bone crushing the one under it as I slowly unfold myself from the fetal position. I go in and out of consciousness as I try to get up, too awake to really sleep, but too sleepy to really wake.

Eventually, I gather myself into a sitting position and reach into my bag of clothes that live in the passenger seat. Even though the windows are usually too foggy for anyone to see me, getting my pajama shirt off and my sports bra (can’t handle underwire with my new bod) on stresses me out every single time. 

Once I’m dressed and have wrangled my hair into a top knot, I pull my tarot cards for the day and do a short meditation on them. Today was The Magician in reverse, reminding me to focus my energies on the things that I want to bring into my life, like a book deal; and not the things I don’t want, like ill health and no place to live. The second card was The Star, directing me to stay hopeful. 

The first order of daily business is to empty my bladder and charge up my devices: my phone, my tablet, and my vaporizer — which I use for medical cannabis. Whether in a library or a coffee shop, the latter makes me nervous every day, just as much as potentially flashing a passer-by. I’ve yet to have a single person visibly notice, and if someone were to recognize my lil’ PAX vaporizer, it’s probably just because they use one, but it’s nervous-making nonetheless.

I get as much as I can get done in these first few hours while charging my devices. 

My nervous system pain is reset by sleep, with morning being as good as I’m going to feel, and the pain getting worse as the day goes on. This really sucks on days like today, where it starts out so horrible. Bonkers days like this are for finding home/job leads and for creative work, the kind of work that gets me closer to a book deal. The days where my head’s on a bit tighter are for any freelance client work I’ve got, errands, applying for jobs I have no idea if my bod will let me perform, and other reaching-out oriented fuck-up-able items.

When my pain levels get to near-crying, I pack it up and head back to the little neighborhood that I’ve declared as “home.” It’s a residential area with a busy street going through the middle, lined with all kinds of various businesses. This means that there are all kinds of random cars parking in this area, so it’s not the kind of neighborhood where a newcomer would be noticed. It’s also well-lit and seems very safe.

My view.

I try to get there before people start getting home from work. My car is very loud and my out of state plates further make us stick out, so I like to sneak in early before everyone’s out walking their dogs and chatting with the neighbors. I hop into the backseat and lie down, covering myself with one blanket and plopping the other, more fluffy blanket, on my middle — hiding my face from anyone walking by, aided by a little sun-blocker shade on the sidewalk-facing back window. I also have a larger shade covering the windshield — the store only had a conspicuous zebra-print one, so I make sure to put it snazzy-side in.

Most days I just lie in my backseat for hours and hours at a time, just as I did back when I had a bed — too overwhelmed with pain and other symptoms to do anything else. 

I feel lucky that I have such a rich internal world. Though I still battle clinical depression and other more typically unpleasant thought patterns, for years before this health debacle stole my external life, I worked with mindfulness and meditation to create a sanctuary-like headspace. My mind is now much like an amusement park: there are definitely some funhouse mirrors up in there, and a quite-terrifying horror house in the back, but the bulk of it is quite amusing indeed.

Once the neighborhood settles down for the evening, usually after several hours, it’s dinner time. I have a genetic mutation that requires a special diet: no gluten, no dairy, and as organic as possible. Breakfast consists of a handful of brazil nuts, and my lunch/dinner is jerky and snacks like snap pea crisps and trail mix. Dark chocolate is always involved, often eaten in conjunction with bulk-section gummy bears or bites of an apple. This deliciousness, combined with a couple of episodes of The Good Wife, is often the highlight of my day.

My tablet’s battery usually bunks out before my bodily energy reserves, but sometimes it’s the other way around, either way leaving me with several more hours before I finally pass out despite the pain, with the help of several prescriptions. My second round of just lying there is more meditation-oriented, and I work to focus and calm my mind, sometimes getting lost in beautiful and timeless breaks of stillness; but other times I fail, getting lost in memories and my own stories about them.

Eventually, usually, sleep and I meet.

And then I do it all over again, hoping that today will be the day that I find a way to make an income with my body behaving like this.

Today will be the day that I find a place to live. Today will be the day that I find the action that propels myself and my situation forward. 

*Editor’s Note: We here at Ravishly want to help Meg in anyway we can. If you’d like to help Meg, too, you can tip her via  paypal.me/MindfulnessMeg

Do You Constantly Think and Worry About Your Relationships?

Tiny Buddha, 2016
By Meg Hartley

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paulo Coelho

Sometimes it’s easy to define ourselves by our roles and relationships.

We can look at ourselves as a daughter, or someone’s employee, or so in so’s husband. These things mean a lot to us, and we often subconsciously use a variety of behaviors and mental constructs to protect these roles and relationships.

It can take form in innocuous ways, like buying clothes you don’t really want or feigning interests in order to fit in. (Go sports team!) But it also affects more serious things, like how we view ourselves, what we think we’re capable of, and what goals we pursue.

A common theme in movies is the mid-lifer who suddenly realizes they’ve made all of their decisions in life to please other people. It’s reflected in the zeitgeist so often for a reason—because it’s a common occurrence, and an easy trap to fall into.

My realization that I was doing this started taking shape with several ah-ha moments over the last several years, but it became palpable during an entrepreneurial workshop almost a year ago.

We all were assigned a personality test to take at home before returning the next morning. Mine said something like: You think with your heart and are excellent at building thriving relationships.

I thought that was a lovely-sounding result, but the next morning I got a bit of a jolt from the woman putting on this portion of the workshop.

“Ah, you’re a blue!  You constantly think about yourself in relation to everyone else.”

“I do not,” I replied, embarrassed.

“But you do. What are you thinking about when you fall asleep at night?  Your relationships. You wonder if everyone’s okay. You wonder how you affect others. You wonder what they think of you.”

I must have been nodding, because she said, “See? That’s thinking about yourself in relation to everyone else. Their approval means a lot to you, and that’s how it manifests in your mind.”

That irritated me in a huge way.

I ignored her for the rest of the day, fuming about how someone could say something so mean—and because of a silly little test that didn’t say anything about wanting approval! I was still thinking about it when I got home, all riled up with indignance.

Then it hit me. I’m a fan of Jungian psychology. I’m not an expert or anything, but I like the way that dude thinks.

He espouses the philosophy that our irritations and overreactions point to key truths about ourselves; when something or somebody really gets to us, it could be because it’s pointing to a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to see.

I had noted people-pleasing tendencies before, and I had made great strides! I no longer fake-laughed at things that I didn’t find funny.

I no longer thought of others, or their judgments, when making personal style decisions. And I no longer cared about being as thin as others, after struggling with eating disorders for years.

These things were a big deal to me, and it took focused effort to make these changes. I thought I was done! Then some random person goes pointing out the other-focused thought constructs in my brain like she can see them? What the what, man? Pssssch.

I tried to ignore it. Tried to pretend that it wasn’t there. But once something like that is pointed out, life tends to keep pointing it out to you.

I eventually leaned in and decided to do something about it. I’m a lover of meditation and mindfulness in all forms, so invented a mindfulness game of it.

I started watching my mind for other-oriented thoughts, and then I imagined shooting them down with the gun from the 80’s Nintendo game, Duck Hunt. Pew! Pew! I shoot them thoughts right down:

Imagining an argument with a family member: Pew! Pew!

Comparing myself to someone else: Pew! Pew!

Wondering how I’d explain myself for doing something: Pew! Pew!

Overanalyzing lack of reactions to my Facebook post: Pew! Pew!

(A few things that don’t count: non-judgmental relationship reflection, hoping people are happy, and forgiving others and myself.)

It might sound silly, and maybe for you it would be, but for me, it’s worked wonders.

It’s helped me find my center. I feel like my whole life I’ve been off, getting tossed about in the storm of others’ wishes, real or imagined; flung around in subtle manipulations, others’ or mine; and thrashed into the ground by judgments, spoken or merely assumed.

The benefits of cultivating a centered perspective like this are immense. For one thing, it leaves us free to cultivate inner-direction—to focus on the things that really matter to us, the things that we love to spend time on, the things that make us sparkle.  

I’ve discovered that we can adopt a centered-perspective as homebase. It had been there the whole time, this calm and peaceful mind, this quiet in the eye of the storm.

I had frequently visited it, usually while meditating, or by way of painting, or even via chore lists done in a zen-like fashion; but we can learn to operate from this place all the time.

My mind still swerves into the storm, but less and less. It’s noticeable, and feels odd, far from being a filter for life or a perspective to see it from, like it was before.

And once we spot mental constructs in this way, we stop identifying with them, and they can’t sweep us up like they used to. They lose power as new neural pathways are created, bringing with them new ways of thinking and of approaching life.

Try to spot your other-focused mental constructs going forward. Recognize when you’re dwelling on arguments, comparing yourself to others, or looking for their approval, and shift your focus back to yourself. Find your center.

Know that you’re more than how you affect the people around you. You’re more than what other people think of you. If you can focus a little less on who you are in relation to everyone else, like me, you might find yourself less stressed and far more fulfilled.