Seeking Solitude on the Sandy Shores of Costa Rica

Why are we so afraid to be alone?

Hello friends and welcome back Life Reimagined, a free weekly elixir designed to make you feel good and live better.

This week, I wrote a new essay exploring our relationship with being alone and the hidden preciousness of periods of solitude.

You can find the full essay below, or you can read it on my website here.

Seeking Solitude on the Sandy Shores of Costa Rica

Made with Midjourney

Solitude is precious.

That’s what comes to mind as I lean back on my forearms and nuzzle my toes into the soft sand of Playa Carmen. It’s the first discernable thought I’ve had in a few hours. Now that the unbearable heat of a Costa Rican afternoon has loosened its grip, my mind is working again.

All around me, friends gather in small circles to share laughs and light beers. Surfers snag their final waves of the day, performing as much for themselves as for the land-dwellers who watch them. Cicadas buzz loudly in celebration of the sun’s descent below the horizon.

I’ve spent the last two weeks bopping down the coast of Costa Rica discovering the textures and rhythms of unfamiliar waves. Friends have appeared here and there, but I have been on a primarily solo expedition to deepen my ongoing love story with the ocean.

At least that’s what I thought when I began this trip.

But as I sit on this beach, alone and typing furiously on my phone with no desire to communicate with anyone but the voice inside my mind, it feels like there is something other than the pursuit of waves that is emerging from this trip.

I’m not unfamiliar with the rhythms of solo travel. I spent multi-month periods of my twenties hopping around foreign lands, floating like a dandelion in the wind to wherever life took me. I enjoyed that aimless and solitary period. I had no home base and was on a mission to figure out who I was and what I wanted. Solo travel was indispensable to the process of self-discovery.

But now, these self-inflicted periods of solitude seem out of place. I live in a city I enjoy, am happily married, and believe that the only thing that matters at the end of life is that we share it with loved ones. Yet from time to time, I still hear the call to hit the road and see what happens.

I often listen to that call, knowing that it’s a signal that something needs to be worked out. I’m just not always sure what that something is. The trip always reveals the answer.

Last year, the call took me to the surf-filled coast of France and Spain, where I spent two weeks exploring new waves, puttering around, and enjoying good food. 

It was only when I returned home from Europe that I realized how that trip helped me unlock a new relationship with creativity. Solitude allowed me to re-examine my stale relationship with writing, and I came back with a renewed vigor for sharing ideas. That was not the intention of the trip. It’s just what happened, and the feeling endures to this day.

But what is this Costa Rica trip all about?

On the surface, it was completely unnecessary. I had no real reason to be in Costa Rica outside of my love for surfing and distaste for the moderately cold and rainy winter days of Northern California. That reason was enough to book a plane ticket, but I was curious to see if something more profound emerged.

I think I’m starting to see what that something is, and I’m slowly finding it in the many feelings of discomfort that I’ve had while navigating life near the equator on my own.

Being alone, now that I’m married and settled in San Francisco, is not as comfortable as it used to be. When I was young and had no real home, drifting around felt more normal. Not just to me, but to people who heard my story. People don’t turn their heads when a lost soul in his twenties is basking in solitude, but some people do when you’re married. 

Oh, you’re married, why isn’t your wife with you? Is she okay with you being here?

Answering these questions isn’t difficult, but the fact that they’re now being asked reminds me that something has changed. And while I think such questions are often a projection onto me of what people believe life after marriage has to be, they are a good forcing function to make sure I’m still doing something I want to do and not repeating the wandering escapism of my youth.

The experience is also different for me. I now feel that solo trips make me miss out on things I enjoy back home. I see packs of travelers laughing and drinking and sharing stories with people they love. I watch lovers embrace during sunsets. I feel like an aging, stone-faced wallflower when I see young people enjoying the bliss of their first year on the road.

These feelings and experiences raise questions that weren’t as relevant during my earlier years: Why am I here? Should I be at home? Am I too old for these trips?

This trip has also surfaced the nagging insecurities of an earlier version of me. In some ways, I feel like I’m a new kid at school trying to navigate the oddities of a middle school lunch.

As I pass through my days, I look around awkwardly, hoping that the cool kids will welcome me to their table and tell me how glad they are that I’ve arrived. I want to feel like a person worth knowing, someone with people to see and things to do. But this type of emotional validation does not make it into my days. 

And so I’m left alone to sit with my questions and insecurities.

This experience is particularly noticeable in the surf towns I like to visit these days. I wake up at dawn to squeeze the maximum juice out of the morning surf window. It’s an unbelievably exciting and energizing period for me. I really am living my dream. But after that session is done, I eat a well-deserved meal and my thumbs start twiddling.

If you’re not surfing, tropical surf towns aren’t very exciting places. As the heat picks up around 11 am, sluggishness consumes my mind and body. All I can seem to do is sit lazily in the shade or retreat to an air-conditioned room. From there, I wait.

What am I waiting for? Mostly for the sun to set, which on some days offers a window where the wind drops and the ocean cleans up to allow another round of surfing.

But whether or not that window opens up, I’m left with hours of uncomfortable moments.

I think this discomfort is the point of this trip.

The uncomfortable quiet of my experience is something that I need to feel. For what reason? I’m not sure yet. But the awkwardness, isolation, and silence — the things that I spend so much of my life trying not to feel — appear to have good and healing properties.

I can think of a few benefits to these feelings.

The first is that they help me remember why it’s worth having loved ones and friends in this life. I realize how nice it is to have these people around. They really do make life worth living. 

Not only do they give me the sense that I am someone, but they are joint gatekeepers of the mundane, sad, and profound experiences we share. And simply having shared memories of those experiences is a deep source of joy and connection in my life.

In the absence of the people who enrich my life with meaning and purpose, another benefit of discomfort bubbles to the surface. I have the chance to explore who I am without these people and the comfort of feeling that I belong.

In Letters to a Stoic, Seneca says:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ 

While Seneca is talking about practicing financial poverty as a reminder of how little you need, my solo expedition offers something similar. By creating an environment in which I’m forced to practice social poverty and feel all the feels of solitude, I’m remembering just how little I need to be and feel okay in the world.

While I’ve had many uncomfortable moments, they have not killed me. Nor have they stripped me of satisfaction. On most days, I wake up with a healthy dose of stoke and find myself sleeping well at night. Knowing that I can still be content living with the ups and downs of being alone in an unfamiliar place is a good reminder. Wherever I am and whoever I’m with, I am indeed okay.

Feeling gratitude for loved ones and knowing how little I need for contentment are valuable lessons, but they’re too reductive. They don’t quite get at the beating heart of this experience. There is something deeper to solitude. 

This something is difficult to describe, but it feels like entering the clear and sunny eye of a hurricane. In the chaos of the violent storm that surrounds me, I’m realizing that I can still tap into the equanimity that is always there at the core if I can just remember that it exists and muster the courage to get there.

Yes, that’s part of it. Solitude is helping me remember something fundamental to the experience of living an imperfect and sometimes difficult existence.

And remembering that has a similar effect as a vigorous surf session. After hours of intense paddling, underwater demolition, and brief moments of bliss, my body buzzes with the invulnerable knowledge that everything I need is always with me. Striving and yearning disappear as I trot like a barefooted zen zombie along the beach.

This is how I’m starting to feel as I get closer to the end of this period of solitude, and it’s similar to how I’ve felt during other such periods.

Solitude, in a weird way, is slowly washing away the accumulated muck of the life I know that has taken me far from the simple core of existence where true equanimity rests. As the muck begins to clear, I’m starting to see myself and the life I’ve built more clearly.

This process only seems to work if I surrender fully to the experience. Surrendering involves feeling it all — the lulls of the day, periods of peace, and longing for what I know.

Surrendering is not easy. When my legs start moving or the call to drink alcohol arrives or I grab for my phone, it takes courage to avoid distracting the discomfort away.

The distractions come in seemingly benign forms — a podcast I should listen to, making plans for the next day, and so on. I’ve learned with time that these distractions are a form of self-sabotage. While they may alleviate short-term discomfort with what seem like productive or harmless actions, they subtly subvert the process of rebirth and growth that solitude offers.

The most difficult part of avoiding the distractions comes when my mind starts asking hairy questions: Is anyone back home thinking of me? What am I doing here without loved ones? Why am I not a part of the friends huddled together and enjoying the sun’s final act of the day?

So far, I’ve allowed my mind to race without numbing it with distractions.

Being booze-free for the first time in my life, taking headphone-free walks, and regular meditation have helped. But no tricks or techniques can take away the small stings of discomfort. So like a meditating zen-master who ignores the fly that has landed on his eyebrow and continues to focus on the rhythms of his breath, I trudge forward knowing the discomfort is part of the experience.

Now that I’m sitting on this beach and beginning to understand what this period of solitude may be about, I can’t help but wonder if all of this was necessary. Did I need to isolate myself in a foreign land, embrace discomfort, and limit distractions to get here?

And is here even a better place than wherever I was before?

Maybe, but it’s impossible to know.

What I do know, however, is that solitude has helped me in the past and appears to continue to have some function in my new life. In a sense, these self-induced periods of being alone seem to facilitate a process that will allow me to return to the life I know with soft, still eyes. 

Like the water and sunlight of Spring help plants emerge in full stride after a harsh winter, solitude is an elixir that helps me remember my core during the many seasons of life.

For most people, I doubt it’s necessary or possible to venture to foreign lands for weeks or months at a time to experience this opening and re-alignment of mind, body, and spirit. My guess is that even a few hours or a day of solitude in the place you call home can at least nudge you in the direction I’m talking about.

And yet, how often do we create space for even an hour to explore the wisdom of solitude?

But I also know that a longer adventure, if you can make it work, certainly forces your hand. With nowhere to hide, all of the frenetic energy that tells you to be somewhere else and to cover up the acne of existence starts to melt away. In its wake, there is now room for something new.

In a world that has hijacked and monetized our attention at nearly every waking (and even sleeping) moment, we have been convinced that we must know what’s going on and constantly striving to be somewhere else and someone different. There is no escape unless we actively fight against this pressure to do anything but be alone.

It may be more difficult today than 50 or 200 years ago to be alone, but our strained relationship with solitude is not a modern problem. While writing Gift from the Sea in the 1950s, writer Anne Morrow Lindberg shares her observations about solitude from the sandy shores of Florida:

“We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Lindberg goes on to describe why she has resisted these forces and made her way to the coast of Florida for a few weeks of alone time:

“Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.”

Like Lindberg, whose work I discovered on the sandy shores of Costa Rica, I’m realizing that being alone is slowly helping me to reconnect with my core. Yes, that’s it.

When I return home soon, I suspect I will see the fruits of this re-connection not only in the inner stillness that has begun to replace the discomforts that solitude has surfaced but in a deeper connection with all those people who graciously allowed me to go on this adventure and re-emerge into their lives.

And perhaps that’s what this whole trip has been all about.

That's all for now. See you next Sunday.

— Cal

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