Experiencing Extreme Solitudesam
An Interview with Robert Kull – Author of “Solitude”
In February 2001, Robert Kull travelled to a remote island in the Patagonia wilderness with enough supplies to live alone for a year. He sought to explore the effects of deep solitude on the body and mind and to find the answers to the spiritual questions that had plagued him his entire life. With only a cat and his thoughts as companions, he wrestled with inner storms while the wild forces of nature raged around him. The physical challenges were immense – especially for a man who had his lower right leg amputated after a motor cycle accident in the ‘80s – but the struggles of mind and spirit pushed him to the limits of human endurance.
What led you to spend a year alone in the wilderness? Did you see anyone at all during the year?
I’ve always spent time alone in nature. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a rock one hot dusty morning watching the clouds and buzzards drift across the southern California sky. There was tension in my family, and between us and our neighbors, so perhaps I disappeared into the woods and pastures seeking peace and a place where I could be myself. I doubt, though, that I knew then why I went; I still doubt I really know why I go. I can give plausible reasons, but finally, I just feel, from time to time, a mysterious urge to leave society behind.I saw people only once during the year when a national parks ranger dropped by to see my camp.
What was it like where you went, and where did you live?
I spent the year living on a tiny remote island on the Pacific coast of southern Chile, just west of the Andes Mountains and more than a hundred miles by water from the nearest small town. The coast of southern Chile is astonishingly beautiful. It’s a wild, stormy, uninhabited region of rain and windswept islands and fjords; no boats or airplanes, and only the occasional faint sign of distant human activity.
I wanted to experience true solitude beyond the reach of human activity, and finding such a place is not easy. People live almost everywhere it’s possible to make a living. For absolute solitude it’s necessary to go to a climatically extreme location – usually in the desert, high mountains, or far from the equator.
I built a ten foot by sixteen foot cabin, five feet of which was a porch open on the side facing the sea and mountains. I set the cabin on posts so the floor was two feet above the soggy ground. The frame was constructed of 2 x 2 inch and 2 x 4 inch lumber; the floor and roof were plywood. I covered the walls and roof with white tarp on the outside and clear plastic on the inside. This allowed light to come in and created a two inch dead air space that acted as insulation. Three Plexiglas windows let me see out. A wood-burning stove heated the cabin, and I cooked on a propane stove. I used a wind generator and solar panels to generate electricity (stored in two truck batteries) for the 12 volt lights and for charging the laptop and satellite phone. It was a very aesthetically pleasing and comfortable refuge.
What did you do out there all by yourself? Did you meditate? Did you get bored? Were you ever afraid? Did you ever feel like you were losing control? How did you keep from going crazy?
Sometimes time stretched on forever, usually when there was physical, emotional, or spiritual pain, otherwise the days drifted easily by. There was always plenty to do to keep me busy: cutting firewood, fishing, building or repairing something, photography, writing, thinking. On and on. The challenge was to refrain from busywork and remain still to allow an opportunity for insight and healing. As the months passed, I spent more and more time in meditation. Simple tasks also became forms of moving meditation. I definitely got bored dealing with the same old repetitive neurotic crap, and I was frequently afraid. One of my intentions in going was to surrender control and become part of the flow of the universe. The difficulty was often my ego’s resistance to letting go of the need for control.
I’m not sure I did keep from going crazy. The line between craziness (not psychosis) and eccentricity is a fine one. Living alone in the wilderness demands the ability to survive physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually with minimal external support. Such independence is sometimes frightening, but trusting and relying on oneself is also deeply rewarding. The ability to build a shelter, stay warm and dry, obtain and prepare food, repair clothing and damaged equipment, maintain personal health, and use a map to navigate on land or water are all necessary physical skills. It is also vital to have the psychospiritual tools and experience to deal with the mental effects of long solitude. There are various ways to do this, but most fundamental is the capacity to experience with equanimity (or to ignore) whatever arises in the mind.
What did you learn? Did you find what you were looking for?
Some new-age gurus flash big smiles to show that they have found the answer/system and it WORKS. I don’t really trust this approach. It’s based on the illusion that there is someone or something outside ourselves that can “save” us. I’ve always liked teachers that don’t claim to be enlightened beings, but simply fellow travelers who can guide those who not have walked as far along the path. But finally, I believe we must each find our own way home, and we need to come clean with each other about our ongoing doubts and confusions. For me, solitude, meditation, and direct reflection on my own mind body process are integral to the process of inner transformation.
Living alone for a year in the wilderness and writing about the experience has brought the realization that more and more I know less and less. I’ve found no sure answers – at least not the kind I went looking for – and because of this I sometimes feel bereft, as though I’ve failed in my quest. When caught in such doubt, I long for and question why others have found certainty when I have not. But when I relax into trust, I remember that certainty is a conceptual illusion. In life, there are no sure answers to find.
Was coming back from solitude difficult? Have you lost what you found there? Do you have a regular spiritual practice?
Since I was familiar with the process of reentry, it was not as hard coming back this time as it had been after previous retreats. Even so, although not aware of it at first, I slowly settled into depression. I felt confused about what I had and had not learned in solitude. This was a continuation of the doubt, frustration, and anxiety I’d often felt on the island about not finding the answers I was seeking, and the belief that I should have Answers to share with others. I thought perhaps someone else would be able to help me see what I could not see and accept on my own. I visited a psychiatrist, who after talking with me for fifty minutes told me, with no apparent doubt, that I needed strong medication if I wanted to be free of my obsessive-compulsive perfectionism. I declined his invitation and found another doctor who was not as eager to prescribe pills.
I worked with her once a week for about three years, and the process was very healing. I didn’t learn much I hadn’t figured out on my own, but her steady mirroring of positive regard gently began to soften my self-deprecation. Although I hadn’t found any ultimate Answers in solitude and sometimes still felt grief at that failure, more often I remembered to not take my questions so seriously. Slowly the gloom of depression lifted, and there was a gentler sense of quiet spaciousness in the movements of my heart and mind.
I still spend time alone in the wilderness, and I practice meditation daily. I also regularly participate in a First Nations sweat circle. The insights of solitude come and go and the process of transformation continues. There are still difficult times, but my relationship to them seems to have softened.
Robert Kull is the author of Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes—A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness (New World Library, October 1, 2008)