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  • Gena Chieco

2022 Reflections: Solitude, Slowing Down, and Stillness

Updated: Jan 14

This is the temple

of my adult aloneness

and I belong

to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

There is no house

like the house of belonging.

~David Whyte, House of Belonging

(Poem in full at the bottom)


At the beginning of 2020, while I remained blissfully ignorant of the imminent global pandemic, I put together the finishing touches on a summer 2020 travel sabbatical. I had not taken a big trip since my transformative 2018 sabbatical, because I spent 2019 launching and building my coaching business. My summer 2020 sabbatical plans included a breathwork retreat in Mallorca, the Camino Finisterre trek in Spain, and an artist’s residency in France.


My vision for the crowning jewel of the 2020 summer sabbatical entailed a modest unit in a Mediterranean coastal town to spend an entire month off the grid, largely in solitude. I am a total extrovert, and my yearning for solitude perplexed me. Though I did not fully comprehend my desire for solitude, I felt an aching in my bones to experience it, with dreams of writing, resting, reading, creating, and spending time in nature.


Little did I realize at that time that the shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic would soon bring me ample solitude—just in a hellscape version of the more glamorous form I had initially envisioned—and that my 2020 travels would all be canceled.


Prior to the pandemic, my life was go-go-go. I rarely sat still, and filled most of my waking hours with work, activities, socializing, and a never-ending to do list. When the pandemic hit, it felt like brakes screeched everything to a halt. My calendar emptied of the dinners, shows, and travel I had looked forward to, and thus began a new relationship with solitude, slowing down, and stillness.


The initial forced, and later chosen, stretches of solitude of the past ~3 years transformed my relationship to self and offered an invitation towards healing and growth. The stillness of my days and blocks of unstructured time fundamentally changed me in ways I could not have comprehended prior to stepping into this chapter.


One of the greatest and unexpected gifts has been in fully coming home to myself, for it is only when we are comfortable in solitude and in stillness that we can discover the true depths of who we are, like the quiet bottom of the ocean holding treasures beneath the choppy surface. I have come to understand that the ultimate journey is the homecoming to our true selves and arrival to our sacred “house of belonging”. In order to embrace solitude, slowing down, and stillness, the gateways to this homecoming, I needed to first unravel a few things.


Difference Between Being Alone and Loneliness


I used to experience crippling bouts of loneliness in my 20s, walking through crowds of vibrant people, feeling like my insides were decaying. I projected this void onto finding a partner, mistakenly attributing my periods of misery to my single status. (Cue the card game Old Maid that we played as children.) Social norms had taught me from an early age that being alone, being single, meant to be unchosen and was to be avoided, reminiscent of movie scenes where the ostracized student sits alone in the cafeteria. This false narrative and stigma kept me from cherishing solo time, and from developing a relationship with my deeper self. Romantic relationships brought me band-aids of connection, but the deeper loneliness was still there, lurking below the surface. I looked outward for relief, viewing being alone as the enemy.


Yet, the most powerful antidote to loneliness is not through any external source, but rather by going inward and embracing our true self, our spirit, our soul. When we shed the masks, the shoulds, the inner critic, and the feeling not enough—replacing these with compassion, kindness, and love for oneself—we heal the disease, the parts of us that feel broken and lonely, we show up for ourselves, and the symptoms of loneliness fade.


Humans are wired for connection and deep intimacy boosts our well-being, so embracing periods of solitude isn’t mutually exclusive with being with others. Rather, it’s a complimentary dynamic of deepening our relationship with our own self while also cultivating relationships with others. We need both deep connections with others and a deep connection with ourselves, like a yin and yang.


I now fully appreciate that there is a difference between being alone versus being lonely and that solitude is sacred. It is in stillness and quiet that we access the buried gifts within us—our creativity, our intuition, our whispers dreaming up a better life. It is how we integrate our minds with our hearts and process emotional undercurrents that may be keeping us stuck or in suffering.


I came to see that I am more of an introvert that I realized, and that I need quiet solo time to recharge. I stopped running from things and slowed down and sat with them instead. Our relationship with self is the most sacred relationship we will ever have in this lifetime and there is such freedom, and an invitation to truly know oneself, in solitude.

Workaholism and Other Coping Mechanisms

In my prior career as a lawyer, I wore Type-A tendencies as a badge of honor, not realizing this spectrum of behaviors is unhealthy and maladaptive. Type-A is characterized by impatience, competitiveness, drive, perfectionism, being stressed out, and an unhealthy dependence on external rewards. Type-As are excellent at achieving goals so tend to excel in the workplace and reach traditional markers of success. It’s a strange mix of toxic yet celebrated.


I held a slew of demanding roles as a lawyer, including serving as General Counsel of a startup, working on the Boston bombings at DHS, and leading the processing of an unprecedented 1.4 million public comments on a rulemaking at the CFPB. I thought I thrived on the adrenaline and the pressure, when in fact I was often a walking stress case with unrelenting standards. Yet when things slowed down at work and the adrenaline faded, I felt bored and listless. Back then, I would have never considered myself a workaholic and did not understand that workaholism is a maladaptive coping mechanism, it was all so normalized culturally.


Simplistically speaking, when we are children, we seek and crave belonging, unconditional love, and safety from primary caregivers. Our caregivers do the best they can with what they know, yet often do not have the capacity to satisfy our needs. When we are not met with compassion or accepted for who we truly are–tears may be seen as weak, creativity may be met with disapproval—we begin to hide away parts of themselves. Children also explain externeal events, including trauma (little t and big T), by internalizing them, thinking they did something wrong to deserve it, leading to a core wound of feeling defective and not enough. Social forces of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and classism lead to legitimate feelings of self-doubt, exclusion, and undervaluation in a kind of double whammy of wounding. Out of this wounding, children aspire to be the good child, to get good grades, to not rock the boat, to be attuned to their caregiver's every mood and rule.


This wounding is where the coping mechanisms or trauma adaptions come in to try to keep us safe—people pleasing, working hard, and perfectionism all at the expense of our true self. We become preoccupied with what others think of us in order to gauge our sense of belonging, which takes us even farther away from ourselves, from our vulnerability, and from the spaces where we can hold ourselves in high esteem. We become disconnected from our true self – we smile when unhappy, keep our voice quiet, and hold back our magic. These inconsistencies between how we act and how we feel lead to a growing mistrust in our true self, being out of alignment with our integrity, and abandoning of self; workaholism and other coping mechanisms try to fix these wounds by giving us a sense of being enough. Yet, we inevitably come to see that these coping mechanisms, while helping us survive earlier in life, prevent us from thriving in adulthood. Thus begins a long process of shedding the things that no longer serve us.


I tied so much of my self-worth to a professional identity trumping all other aspects of myself. Filling my days with work gave my ego a boost and allowed me to feel “productive.” My turning point came after I left my job as General Counsel, burned out and somewhat disillusioned with my career, and embarked on my 2018 travel sabbatical. Untethered to work, I finally faced questions such as, “Who am I when I am not working? Who am I if I am not a lawyer? What is my definition of true success?” "What is my vision for a life that is fulfilling and excites me?" What began as a midlife crisis quickly evolved into a midlife awakening.


Deprogramming from the Productivity Myth

We place such a premium on productivity: the busy, the doing, the distractions. There is a kind of “cool” factor in how hard we work (you know the drill: work hard, play hard). Yet, we cannot serve others if our tanks are empty. We cannot tap into our deeper wisdom, truths, and creativity when we are drained.


As a lawyer, I had succumbed to the productivity myth, valuing paid work above all else, thinking I thrived in the hustle, grind culture. If I ever attempted to slow down, I would feel uncomfortable in stillness and seek to distract myself. If I had a weekend day in which I did things purely for myself – yoga, a nap, a brunch with friends – an inner critic voice would say, “I didn’t get anything done today.” If I felt wiped out and craved rest, an inner critic would call me “lazy.” I did not devote much time to myself or to selfcare.


I mistakenly thought that the hustle and adrenaline rushes made me feel alive. What I came to realize in deprogramming from the productivity myth and getting off the hamster wheel is that my prior way of living off of adrenaline hits was not sustainable; true, lasting energy comes from bringing things into our lives that restore our sense of self and feed the spirit—the arts, nature, deep connections, creating—while also tending to invitations to process emotions as they arise, rather than distracting, numbing, or pushing them away.


When I abandoned my Type A tendencies, I consciously reframed “productive” to include non-work related, restorative things and by truly slowing down. I began to see rest, exercise, creative pursuits, cooking, writing, building community, taking walks, and naps as productive. I listened to what I needed and finally saw being a workaholic as a negative, knowing I don’t need to grind myself into 12+ hour days to be “successful.” I came to understand the true meaning of success for me, which is honoring mind-body-heart-soul in some way daily, having a rich community, and doing deeply purposeful work aligned with my unique genius.


There are times when I am out for a walk, fully present and in the moment, admiring a sunset or watching a bird, and I think, this is truly the mecca, this is the way I had intuitively been yearning to feel for so much of my life—at peace, alive, energized.


It is a long process to deprogram, filled with confusion and doubts at times. I occasionally hear that old familiar voice whisper, “I didn’t get anything done today,” and instead of feeling badly, I reflect on whatever I did that day, allow myself to feel a sense of accomplishment, and remind myself that rest is productive too.



Wading into Stillness Within

When the busyness stops and we are left to ourselves, it is often uncomfortable. We cannot escape emotional undercurrents we have been avoiding. We notice sensations in our bodies we can sooner ignore when we are distracted. We resist clearing our minds because our ego-based chatter is so familiar. Who are we without our operating system of worry, control, resentment, or other patterns that keep a hold of us.


Yet it is only by wading into stillness that we may accept the invitation to heal the very things that are holding us back. Meditative states in which we quiet mental chatter can be achieved through many things beyond meditation – fitness, creative pursuits, walks, listening to music, dancing.


When we quiet the mind and drop down into a place of stillness and peace within, we can access our intuition, our inner whispers, our deepest truths. This is where the greatest potential for growth lies, outside of the clutter and incessant chatter. Through this experience of embracing stillness and quiet, we come to see that we are not our thoughts, and we break free from those patterns.


One of the greatest gifts of being a coach is witnessing this place of stillness, peace, and deeper knowing that exists within all people. It is where our humanity and connection to higher consciousness resides.


Homecoming through Embracing Solitude, Slowing Down, and Stillness

These pandemic years have inevitably invited the question, "What would it mean to place a greater premium on preservation?" What would it mean to feel a sense of pride and success in truly taking care of ourselves, in viewing rest as rebellious? Solitude, slowing down, and stillness offer a path to a new relationship with our innermost recesses. We begin to nurture and soothe anxious and fearful parts while inviting us home to our true selves and reminding us of our resilient foundations.


Imagine if instead of celebrating every checked-off item on our never-ending to do lists, we instead valued each act to restore ourselves, to honor our truths, to find peace within. Imagine if the “cool” factor became linked to how healthy we are in mind-body-heart-soul.

In learning to embrace slowing down, it is key to be mindful of our thoughts about productivity. Notice when you feel "important" or "useful" when busy, verse "lazy" or "unproductive" when doing self-care. Replace thoughts such as, "I got nothing done" with "I gave myself permission to rest." Increase awareness around "I have to [do X]" and change it to "I choose to [do X]." Reward yourself for acts of self-kindness as if you completed a big deadline at work. Give yourself permission to slow down when you can, recognizing it is a privilege to be able to do so, as many people are in survival mode working multiple jobs to stay afloat and serving as caretakers.


It is important to find some quiet, solo time each week to restore, even if just 10 minutes a day. Journaling, meditating, exercising, and taking walks are all incredible ways to restore self. If we spend our days alternating between working, taking care of others, and binging Netflix or scrolling through social media, we are not devoting any time to what truly boosts our well-being.


As you shed things that do not serve you with compassion while bolstering your sense of self, you will find that sense of “home” within yourself, and that your energy, well-being, and sense of possibilities expand. Let joy be your north star. Do the things that light you up, whether it be creative endeavors, sports, or other hobbies. Reclaim things you loved from childhood. Allow yourself to be a beginner again. Surround yourself with people who you can be your true self around, who allow you to feel at home. Become mindful of critical thoughts and change that narrative to kindness - talk to yourself as you would speak to a beloved. Journal, meditate, and see a coach or therapist to heal deeper wounds. Treat yourself to indulgences that you would gift to a partner - buy yourself flowers, draw yourself a bath, take yourself to a movie, book a trip for yourself. Speak your truth, even if it scares you; model to yourself that your voice is important. Align your actions with your words. If you slip up, be kind, trusting you did the best you could with what you knew; learn from mistakes. Celebrate your successes and keep a list of the compliments you receive. Ask for what you need from others and set healthy boundaries. If it is not a hell yes, it is a no. Seize moments of craving external validation as opportunities to self-validate instead. Develop a healthy relationship with grief as a gateway to joy. Honor your intuition, listen to your inner voice, trust your gut. Flip the switch from productivity to preservation; you may just find that your professional performance is enhanced, you are able to be truly present for loved ones, and you can embrace a vibrant life as a result of preserving yourself.


As you release things that do not serve you with compassion while bolstering your sense of self, you will find that sense of “home” within yourself, and that your energy, well-being, and sense of possibilities expand.



Some prompts to consider:


What are the thoughts you carry about rest?

If there is an inner critic around slowing down, what does the voice sound like? Is it familiar?

What activities truly restore you verse those that drain you?

What holds you back from honoring and prioritizing rest?

If you could wave a wand and bring rest into your life in a form that is true to you, what would that look like?

When was the last time you felt unbridled joy? What were you doing?

What are some of the things you yearn to bring into your life if you had unlimited time?

What does resistance to slowing down feel like?

What are some baby steps you can take to bring rest into your life?


Resources

Nap Ministry, https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/: Offers a “REST IS RESISTANCE” framework and other resources, and engages with the power of performance art, site-specific installations, and community organizing to install sacred and safe spaces for the community to rest together.


Byron Katie, The Work, https://thework.com/: Tools to gain mindfulness around thoughts holding us back.


David Whyte, https://davidwhyte.com/: Books, workshops, and other offerings.


The House of Belonging

Written by David Whyte

I awoke

this morning

in the gold light

turning this way

and that


thinking for

a moment

it was one

day

like any other.


But

the veil had gone

from my

darkened heart

and

I thought


it must have been the quiet

candlelight

that filled my room,


it must have been

the first

easy rhythm

with which I breathed

myself to sleep,


it must have been

the prayer I said

speaking to the otherness

of the night.


And

I thought

this is the good day

you could

meet your love,


this is the gray day

someone close

to you could die.


This is the day

you realize

how easily the thread

is broken

between this world

and the next


and I found myself

sitting up

in the quiet pathway

of light,


the tawny

close grained cedar

burning round

me like fire

and all the angels of this housely

heaven ascending

through the first

roof of light

the sun has made.


This is the bright home

in which I live,

this is where

I ask

my friends

to come,

this is where I want

to love all the things

it has taken me so long

to learn to love.


This is the temple

of my adult aloneness

and I belong

to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.


There is no house

like the house of belonging.





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