One Monday a few weeks ago, I spent my day doing nothing.

I’m not referring to the ‘lazy day’ nothing, or the ‘unproductive work day’ nothing, or even the ‘day drunk’ nothing. I’m talking about the ‘nothing’ nothing.

Mark O’Connell, a writer for The Guardian, calls this practice a ‘wilderness solo’. The soloist is someone who spends some chosen amount of time in nature, free from all distractions. Most soloists will forgo any form of entertainment. This ranges from the obvious like a phone or a book, to the more subtle, like food, which can become a distraction when nothing else is present. Soloists attempt to connect with themselves and nature on a different, if not deeper, level to the one that ordinary life permits.

‘Wilderness soloing’ is just the latest spin on a practice that has existed throughout history. Humans have been venturing into the wilderness for peaceful (self-)exploration for aeons. The archetype of the hermit can be found throughout many of the major religions, from Christianity to Hinduism. Even the Buddha, in his determination to reach full awakening, retreated alone to the bodhi tree, only consuming food when it became necessary for him to survive.

I certainly wasn’t planning on achieving enlightenment, nor was I seeking a word from God. My personal motivation was to find an adventure of sorts, and with options limited to one-day excursions due to pandemic restrictions this seemed like an ideal time to experiment. 

I was also inspired by the philosophy of the ‘slow’ movement. The idea of slow living emphasises taking one’s time to complete tasks, to focus on the moment and to enjoy things as they are. It asks us to step back to focus on the quality of an experience, rather than the quantity. This is something I’ve been working to achieve, but I’ve noticed that my excursions from the rush of daily life were little more than just that – excursions. I crammed  these moments into my day, slotting them into the blank spots on my Google calendar. I had sped up the slowing down. Of course, life often has to move fast, but when this opportunity presented itself, I had to take it. I may have been glancing at nature before, but this would be an unbroken stare.

I chose a clearing in Oxleas Wood, a small area in south east London. The A207 grumbles by in the background, but otherwise there isn’t much to tell you that you’re in one of the busiest cities in the world. I established my camp (five metres in any direction from the base of a particular oak tree) and settled in for the day.

On the face of it, not much happened. Of course, this was the plan, but it didn’t quite prevent the shock after the initial half an hour of settling in. The day expanded in front of me to a degree which I hadn’t quite anticipated. It almost mirrored the dwarfing, awe-inspiring sensation you get when you step into a gigantic empty indoor space, or what I imagine the Grand Canyon feels like. “It’s only a day” I told myself, but as the minutes slowed their march to a stroll, it didn’t feel like it.

A few things did become clear. As O’Connell says, time moves more slowly when you’re bored. For anyone looking to extend their life, or at least their perception of it, this is a pretty good way to achieve it. The day dragged on forever. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it definitely was uncomfortable. I realised that I’m completely unaccustomed to having nothing to do. Between work, socialising, and the screen, there’s always something for me to do. Maybe this would subside with practice, but for my plunge into the hermetic world it was definitely a shock.

Worse was the sensation that I should have been doing something else. I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that I should have been producing something, or forcing myself to self-improve in some way.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot of work to be done in life, and sitting around all day isn’t going to achieve it. On top of this, I suspect that some degree of motivation is deeply ingrained into our psyche. Even if there is no present threat through lack of food or shelter, many people think forward, taking steps to improve their future lives through their actions in the present. Perhaps this partially explains the development of human culture.

With no opportunities for entertainment, my attention turned entirely to nature. I noticed things I might not have otherwise. A scurry of squirrels took an interest in me, and I got a front-row seat to watch their squabbles and powerful leaps from branch to branch. A small robin visited throughout the day, resting delicately on twigs that barely moved beneath it. I heard the birdcalls of dozens of different species and watched them swoop and play. I noticed how the branches of the tree I sat under always seemed to split in threes, possibly a quirk of evolution to help it suck in the most sunlight possible. Over the course of the day the greens and yellows distinguished themselves from their neighbours, each subtly different from the last. All of this was compounded from hour to hour as the sun crawled across the sky, throwing emphasis on different parts of my little Eden.

If I hadn’t invested this time, then those birds would be mostly indistinguishable, if not by species then by personality. The trees would all be some ambiguous uniform green in my mind’s eye, and the whole picture would be a snapshot, rather than the detailed, slowly moving film I can look back on now.

What comes of all this? Am I going to change my life to do this every weekend? No, I don’t think I could. There are too many fantastic things to do and life is too short to spend it all sitting. Was it worthwhile? Yes. There’s almost always something valuable in pushing one’s limits, even if in this case it was through a deprivation of sorts. In this case, it was also thoroughly enjoyable to sit and look at nature in a way I never had done before. I had no epiphanies, no sudden moments of realisation, or satisfying ‘clunks’ as life abruptly slotted into place. But I still think the experience was valuable. Would I recommend trying it at least once? Definitely, if for no other reason than to try something new.