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Tyee Books

He'd Rather Be Alone

Author Bob Kull lived a long time in solitude on a remote island. Here's what he learned.

By Deanne Beattie 29 Oct 2008 |

Deanne Beattie is the arts editor of SFU's The Peak.

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Kull took this photo of himself weathering the wind and mist.
  • Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes
  • Bob Kull
  • New World Library (2008)

In March 2001, Bob Kull packed up tents, tools, boats, clothing, food and 40 rolls of toilet paper to do what many of us think we would like to do: escape society to live alone on a deserted island.

The Vancouver resident and UBC graduate student had been spending time alone in nature since childhood, and was at last following up on a life-long dream to commit to the experience for a full year. When he returned, The Tyee shared some of his reflections in an article. Now, five years later, in his new book Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes, Kull records the transformations he underwent on a remote island off the coast of Chile.

Solitude is the daily journal that documents Kull's survival and moments of philosophical clarity in the Patagonian wild. The entries are punctuated every few months with essays regarding solitude and its effects on human spirit and psychology.

In contrast to the fast-paced story structure of the typical adventure memoir, Solitude rises slowly, unexpectedly and organically from Kull's plodding journal entries. Over time, the daily routine of living and being becomes fascinating and exquisitely beautiful.

Kull finds joy and vitality in ordinary moments and ordinary things. He begins to devote careful thought to the lives most live without regard for emotional experience, or interactions with nature and people.

In a political season when environmental policy is the stuff of candidate debates, Kull offers a different take. According to his observations in Solitude, no environmental ills can be cured until we first remedy ourselves.

On his lonely island, Kull finds that we in this society strongly desire to satiate and confirm ourselves through consumption and production. Our identities have come to depend on it. But in the process, we sacrifice our critical awareness, and become ignorant of the fact that our excessive reaching out for a feeling of being important and being alive actually does very little to achieve the experience of vitality.

"My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature," Kull writes in Solitude, "but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than individual ego."

A practiced Buddhist, Kull advocates "mindful awareness" in everyday life that is similar to the awareness that a still mind achieves in meditation. Solitude has helped him get there. "With few distractions," he writes, "my mind naturally slows and deepens even without strong self-discipline" -- and this leads to looking at the world in a whole new way.

"Meditation is not an intellectual activity grounded in thinking," writes Kull. "The source of understanding is insight arising from a still mind rather than from discursive analysis." When we depend more on intuition and insight than scientific logic, "our truth is discovered in our own embodied existence in this moment, and this, and this."

In a conversation with The Tyee, here is what Kull had to say...

On getting past the panic of loneliness

"We have an idea of who we are. An identity. And we hold that in place. We actively hold it in place. It's also held passively in place by our culture. We are constantly, in our relationships, putting out signals asking for affirmation of who we are. Out there, [in solitude], this active mirroring process of humans is gone, unless we imagine it. We can use the imagination to imagine the past or the future. But if we're actively trying to let go of that, and come into the present moment, that stuff starts dissolving. And it can feel like literal death.

"The ego creates the illusion of actual physical risk. If you don't understand that's what is happening, then it leaves you panicked out and terrified. If you do realize it's happening, then you can just be with it and dissolve into that. The world opens out into wonder."

On learning a new relationship with nature

"Typically, I -- and I think this is a 'we' -- don't really experience nature. It's sort of a backdrop to human activity. So even when we go into nature, it's in a context when we go hiking or canoeing, we do this or do that, but it remains a backdrop to our activity.

"In my younger years, especially before I went into solitude, but even after that, I was always reaching out, grabbing for life. I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to do exciting things. I've learned that I feel most alive when I'm still. That what I'm searching for, this experience of aliveness, that I am alive. We are alive.

"In solitude, in coming into stillness without the distractions of appointments and telephones, and just settling into the natural rhythms of the natural world, there's a deepening and an integration that happens for me, in the sense of truly belonging to the world, the biological and spiritual world [and] accepting more and more of myself as being natural."

On why writing about solitude is really impossible

"One of the things that is really fascinating is that you can't really write about solitude, because as soon as you write about it, you're not in solitude anymore -- you're with an imagined reader, whether or not that reader is a future you.

"What was writing doing to me? It was keeping me at the level of language in some ways. It wasn't the actual writing [that did that], because the writing took between half an hour to an hour a day in the journal. It was experiencing something, and solidifying it conceptually, internally, in words, that I would write in the journal later in the day. There was a fracture in the nowness of the world, just being in each moment and letting it go. On the other hand, that practice helps me to notice things. I would say, 'Oh, I want to remember this,' and it would help me to pay attention in a detailed way because I wanted to describe it. It was a bit of a mixed blessing."

On finding true luxury in a spacious moment

"In our culture, we're really confused between necessity and luxury. We're so caught up in thinking that we need all of the things in our lives, especially technology. We don't really need it. It's nice, but it has more to do with our self-image, who we think we are, and the kind of life we want to live.

"It's useful to spend some time and really look at what we're doing and the franticness of our lives, and question, where am I trying to go? Why? What am I trying to get? Because it seems to me what we're trying to get, we already have. We are already alive. This frantic grabbing pulls us further and further away from a quiet experience of joy.

"In some ways, it's really easy to imagine being on a deserted island somewhere in the wilderness -- for me and other people. The real challenge is to realize that if [solitude] is sacred, then this must be sacred, too, because it's all a part of the same world. For me, when I'm able to relax into the moment, and relax my desires and aversions, there's a kind of spaciousness that's really comfortable. I think we could use that."