The following post is a part of the Trip Binder series.
Only a profound inward revolution which alters all our values can create a different environment, an intelligent social structure; and such a revolution can only be brought about by you and me.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life
One of the most powerful, yet misrepresented aspects of a trip is Solo. Remember that the purpose of a trip is to be removed from ‘the degenerate ways of society,’ undergo perspective expansion, and find out on a visceral level what is required to create a truly just society. In this pursuit, external circumstances must be interpreted by the internal world of each person, and the group comes to understand each individual through this lens, creating compassion among its members. Conversely, the individual understands that every interpretation they make must be for the greater good of the group.
Well, in addition to the degenerate ways of society, we live in a world that is also constantly giving us hints – often not very subtle ones at that – about who we should be and for what we should stand. Think of the average messages that an adolescent receives on a daily basis – from parents, teachers, peers, advertisements, entertainment shows, and of course the internet and social media. The last two factors are especially pertinent towards Solo – when we are plugged in to the internet, we are unplugged from ourselves. After a trip full of decision-making for the good of the group above all, the end of the trip presents a ripe time for individuals to reflect on learnings and begin to spend time thinking about and developing themselves as individuals.
Remember that Solo is not a survival exercise. Learners should have everything they need to be comfortable – nothing more. While not a survival exercise, it is important that learners are living simply; a meager existence devoid of the lavishes (and time-wasters) of everyday life helps learners to be alone with themselves for the period of time necessary to have a breakthrough moment. By completing a Solo at the end of trip, students are already used to this simple existence, but you may need to reassure them that they can only access transformative experiences through first becoming comfortable with (rejoicing in) minimalism and the bare necessities.
In the months and weeks before Solo, it is important to prepare students mentally. As with all experiences, students are more inclined to trust you if you are real with them. This doesn’t mean that you are Mr. Cool Guy. Being real with them is showing your authentic self. Sometimes this means stepping away from being driven by the next standard you are required to teach, sometimes it is sharing a story of real struggle from some time period in your life, and sometimes it is holding them to the highest possible standards – to allow them to become their true selves. This last point is critical. Learners (kids is appropriate here) may say they ‘hate you’ (or something to that effect) in the moment when they are faced with a decision they don’t like; try asking “in your heart, do you think I have your best long-term interest in mind when holding you to this standard?” Most who are honest with themselves will answer ‘yes.’
Once you have some modicum of student trust under your belt, hold a meeting and talk to students about the experience. It helps to have a real experience from which to speak – meaning your own Solo experience. If you’ve never had one, seriously consider doing one for yourself one weekend. You won’t regret it – and if you think you will, all the more reason to do one such that you know you won’t – we all know kids can see through that B.S. we spew where we actually don’t think something matters but we tell kids it does.
If you absolutely can’t have a Solo experience of your own before the prepping begins, simply know that the important part is to somehow convey the message that there lies potential for transcendent experience through this activity. We don’t know what it is going to be for each student, we just know that many people have completed such a task and come back with a totally different worldview, and from that point hence, nothing was the same (as plain). Now, that change in worldview didn’t just happen – Solo is an extremely challenging mental experience, as it might require facing some hard truths about yourself. But like all things in life, ‘nothing that comes easy is worth a dime.’
As of now, that is all – entertain a few questions and leave it at that for students to ponder as the experience draws near. “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things,” Anatole France reminds us, “Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.”
When Solo is upon you, begin by scouting the area in which you will have learners. Draw a map and label each location where you will place a learner. Obviously have your co-leader lead an activity or get students fed while you scout, then switch off. Depending on the logistics of your group, plan to either take students out one at a time (very time consuming) or in small groups (some students may be able to see where others are located).
When the time has come, begin with your Opening Circle. Choose your quotes that you like to read – I prefer to have each leader read one of the quotes and ask students to reflect (either silently or by calling on them – whichever you feel is appropriate). Also plan on having students set an intention going into Solo – depending on the group you may want to lead with the Intention statements or read the quotes first to give learners fuel for thier intentions. Here are my favorite quotes to use at this time:
“To go into the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.”
I feel that this relates to our inner environment, to love and joy as well as boredom and sadness. Experiencing these emotions and knowing them deeply is an experience and a knowledge worth having if we would like to be truly alive. We should take some time to engage with them, embrace them, and enjoy even the emotions that are unpleasant in the moment instead of always trying to hide them, which in the long run is unsuccessful anyway. Ask learners why they think you read that and they will have better answers than I.
Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.
– Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
Again, ask students why they think you read that – their responses will be gold. The next reading comes from a book on long-term travel, called Vagabonding.
“Those who travel the world hoping to get “blinded by the light” are often blind to the light that’s all around them.
“For first-time vagabonders, this can be one of the hardest travel lessons to grasp, since it will seem that there are so many amazing sights and experiences to squeeze in. You must keep in mind, however, that the whole point of long-term travel is having the time to move deliberately through the world. Vagabonding is about not merely reallotting a portion of your life for travel but rediscovering the entire concept of time. At home, you’re conditioned to get to the point and get things done, to favor goals and efficiency over moment-by-moment distinction. On the road, you learn to improvise your days, take a second look at everything you see, and not obsess over your schedule.
“In this way, vagabonding is like a pilgrimage without a specific destination or goal—not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions, an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way.
– Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
An intention for Solo can be a goal, or it can be similar to a Mantra of which students remind themselves. Some examples include:
“My intention is to rediscover my concept of time, to shun my quest for answers and to instead celebrate the questions, to embrace the ambiguous, and to be open to whatever experience comes my way.”
“I offer unique beauty to the world through the pursuit of artistic expression and interdisciplinary outlets for that expression.”
Create one for your own Solo, also!
Once students are out on Solo, take some time between your trips out to the student sites (for their food and water re-supply) to do a mini-solo of your own. Enjoy!
When it’s time to break the silence, you can collect students in the same way you dispersed them – either one at a time or in small groups. If you choose the latter option, maintain an air of silence about you. I consider it fine to give an overjoyed, ‘proud-parent’ hug while staying totally silent.
Once all students are back in the closing circle, break the silence how you see fit. I prefer to read the following poem and memorize and repeat the following script to our students:
“Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know.
Keep your mouth closed.
Guard your senses.
Temper your sharpness.
Simplify your problems.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth.
This is primal union.
He who has achieved this state
Is unconcerned with friends and enemies,
With good and harm, with honor and disgrace.
This therefore is the highest state of man.”
You have just completed a Rite of Passage in a world that is largely devoid of such matters. While this doesn’t put you on a higher pedestal than anyone else you may encounter, it does give you experience that will broaden and color your ability to perceive the world.
For the first time in three days, use your voice in a community to congratulate someone nearby. (this would also be an appropriate time, should your group be this type of group, to ‘howl’ at the moon. Or sun…)
I typically then spend some time on logistics of getting dinner food ready for everyone (we typically do a secret calzone-over-the-fire meal to celebrate).
Then, close with something to the effect of “During this time [while we are getting dinner ready], keep some of your experiences close to your heart so you can let them out in a more meaningful forum at closing circle.”
Closing circle should be fairly simple, have each learner do a ‘Spirit Read’ from their writings or simply talk about their experience. Caution: this self-reflective part of the trip is emotionally powerful! I have no issue writing notes from each learner’s Spirit Read as part of my process of getting to know them, but you can decide for yourself if that’s something you would like to do! Either way, make sure to site back, listen, and enjoy the experience yourself – there are few like it in today’s world.