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13 Aug 2023 | Coaching

Discerning disconnection

Caption: Photo from the path to Tourmakeady Waterfall, Co Mayo, Ireland (Aug 2023) near to where I am currently enjoy living a bit of a hermit life, albeit an internet connected one. An eternally revitalising tunnel of trees to meander. It is easy to find times where you can walk these paths and not meet or even hear another human.

I was generously asked to write a few paragraphs for Neil of 150 Dunbar Street (Substack) on the positive reasons to disconnect from other humans in order to provide points of balance for his recent article on why it’s important for us to connect with each other.

There’s a particularly interesting point in his article quoted from Association for the Prevention of Torture which notes, “Solitary confinement, that is the confinement of a prisoner for more than 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact…”.

But what if we choose to disconnect and regularly spend more than 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact?

Does this not give us space to reconnect more intensely with our internal selves?

Of course the few paragraphs are far too limiting for my brain, so I promised a full article on the positive reasons to choose a life less noisy.

Why disconnect?

Some references and theories to help understand why people may choose to disconnect from society, and indeed the world.

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”

[The Minotaur]”

― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Also, if it’s good enough for Buddha….

View of Skellig Michael Ireland

Photo (of Skellig Michael, Ireland) by Rachel Lillis on Unsplash

If you don’t know about the rocky island of Skellig Michael (above), it became more famous in recent years for the ending scene to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where the young, upcoming protagonist, Rey, goes to find Luke Skywalker (spoilers, sorry) who’s decided he’s had enough of conflicts in the universe (it is rather noisy after all – talk about overwhelming over-stimulation) and that a remote monastery built on a rock off the coast of Ireland would be the best place to retreat to. You can see how annoyed Rey is at having to climb the wind-burnt, steep paths to persuade him to save said universe. Again. You can sympathise really. Note in the entire scene that no-one speaks, at least not with their mouths. That which is unspoken but nonetheless communicated as if telepathically is remarkably powerful. I love his reaction at the end of the clip. I can empathise – I did the same with my lightsaber in Killary Fjord (sshh, don’t tell anyone).

On the rocky island is a church, and six beehive shaped huts made from fragments of slate stacked as dry stone walls. They will be neither draughtproof or insulated. Imagine living there with no outside contact whatsoever (alone, rather than with 6 or so other monks for this particular imaginary scene) in the inclement Irish weather on a rock poking out of the Atlantic Ocean. Great views on a good day. (I wonder… what did they eat??)

Off to see a hermit – Star Wars: The Force Awakens & The Last Jedi

On collecting thoughts on this piece I came across a handful of quotes which give some interesting perspectives on the idea of wilful disconnection – the Camus one above, and also this from another hermit: one committed to his Christian (or Catholic?) god (I’m not “big G” religious myself, but cherry pick certain ideas of a “spiritual” nature to help with keeping “faith” in things like synchronicity and intuition, let’s say) – Father David Jones who has apparently been living a monastic in Ireland life since the age of 15 and seems to be well into his 50s (see this YouTube clip for the below quote’s source). I think hearing the thoughts on inner peace from someone who has dedicated their life to disconnection in some ways offers much to learn about ourselves and humanity regardless of their own faiths.

One being asked, “What is silence?”, Father Jones replies:

“Entering into a life where one is bathed and rocked* by calm liturgy gives a great serenity, and that is not just made of absence of noise – it’s a mode of being: an unhurried mode, a mode which is not contaminated by deadlines and by now bleeps and many voices. One goes through life at a natural pace and the mind is not overcrowded by more words than it can handle.”

(*as in a cradle, as a baby, if confused like I was for a moment!)

There’s certainly something to be considered there in our ever-busy, connected lives.

He continues:

“One can be in the countryside with no noise at all and not find silence. One can be in the heart of Rome and find a deep silence, because in the last resort, it’s on the level of the heart, the conscience of the will. If that is troubled, if the conscience is not in peace, one can do what everyone wants with regard to finding physical silence but one will not find it. One has to get in and fix it where the problem is. Silence is a deep affair, and if a person is troubled, expecially by the conscience, he can’t really flee it, it has to be handled. That’s when no matter what’s going on outside there is a certain deep peace anchored in the serenity of god and the while universe.”

Father David Jones, Ireland, 2018

Something I’m sure most of us can relate to. Home is where the heart is, and what it’s saying to you.

This from Donna Goddard.

“Withdrawal is not really a choice. Nor is it something one should try to do. Some people will find that their attachment to the world has, without effort, diminished and they will crave solitude. They may withdraw from mainstream life in order to focus on their growth. Withdrawal can be deceptive in appearance. A person can live an apparently solitary lifestyle but their mind is full of noise. On the other hand, someone can have the appearance of a normal life but, unknown to others, be in a state of inner solitude.”

― Donna Goddard, Pittown

Interesting that she starts by saying “withdrawal is not really a choice” and “nor is it something one should try to do” before continuing to say people do it as they feel a diminished attachment to the world in order to focus on their growth.

She is very on point with the idea that we can appear to live an solitary life, but have a head full of noise which is precisely why I am here tapping out pieces as a way of helping to make a little order in the chaos of my own internal noise. My stack’s tagline notes this and I wrote that before finding this quote. For those who live in it, chaos isn’t a bad thing despite its usual connotation. It’s certainly not for everyone, and one has to learn to live with a busy, chaotic and/or noisy mind. Much creativity exists in our internal worlds if we can learn to listen to it and connect with it. It has much to offer if we give it some air. From rich inner worlds from which fantastic stories of worlds far far away, imbued with eternally connectable human sagas of overcoming darkness, to deep analysis which may provide potential solutions to our life’s and world’s problems. If only we can learn to express them to others. If only others are willing to calmly, intently listen in case there is something to learn and build on. The humility to know we don’t know.

Even in writing this piece – sometimes you just know why it’s important to become more hermit-like, but when trying to explain it out loud, it’s quite difficult. I looked for quotes, research papers on the benefits of living a monk-like life, I dived into a rabbit hole on a range of academic research papers covering the actual benefits of forest bathing (Shinrin Yoku as it’s called in Japanese) and pasted in a bunch of seemingly erratic notes and quotes as a draft. Yesterday (two weeks before publishing this) when trying to hit my own deadline for it (I’m two days a week late now), my mind was jumping from thread to thread and I just couldn’t settle into the writing like I am here now today – quite frustrating even when you enjoy doing a task like writing.

Sometimes we have to learn to let our brains do what they need to and not fight it so much where possible.

Often with these busy internal minds, it’s hard to find others who can keep up with us. It can be a frustrating and confusing process over the decades to find anyone at all who remotely “gets” us, let alone anyone who enjoys our minds and us theirs. It is remarkable to find another with whom you always enjoy talking to, who never tires you or tires of you, anyone who you feel genuinely free and able to sharing thoughts with and for them to be able nod and “get it” without being rejected and labelled as a weirdo. When everyone from your childhood upwards calls you “weird”, “strange” at best and tends to avoid talking to you, you learn to connect with your inner self more. Swim vs sinking – natural survival abilities – when you stop thrashing around for a moment, you discover that more consciously considered movements provide a way to float. Keep doing this until you learn to create a independent balance, which gives you the ability to lie back and stare at the sky without drowning. Time to ponder the contents of the clouds, atmospheres, worlds, the universe and everything. Science or fiction, or both.

Perhaps Goddard’s quote that “Withdrawal is not really a choice, nor is it something one should try to do” is actually pointing to the idea that for some of us, entirely because of our brains’ ability to over-think everything, entirely because others find us strange and can’t keep up, we naturally “don’t have a choice” and tend to float towards seclusion where we feel more free to exist as we wish. “Nor should we try to” as the path to a point of wanting to live as a hermit be paved with frustration and hurtful confusion. It’s not like we set out to choose to be hurt from rejection, confused in trying to find a fit into normal peoples’ worlds. Yet very valuable when we do decide to disconnect – time to focus on the self. Perhaps this is what Goddard was meaning? That’s my take on it currently.

Another quote to ponder:

“…if everything’s connected, does that mean that everything can be manipulated and controlled centrally by those who know how to pull strings at strategic places?”

― Malcolm Margolin

This is from a longer quote which ponders the idea that connectedness leads to group think, which leads to powerful influencing, which leads to powerful groups of people going about the world influencing others to think their particular god or ways of living provides a better life so you should definitely convert, or be deemed savage heretics and dealt with accordingly. Dark, but history has enough examples of that happening. Cake or death for a lighter break on that note.

If, through living your life, you decide, “Actually, I’m good, thanks. That’s not for me.” aka, “The world can feck off”, you might be experiencing a fundamental shift in how you view the world and how you’d actually like to live it which may not fit with the majority’s views and values.

And breathe. And take a moment for a home made biscuit.

At 2am in bed idea to Move to a forest meme

Positive Disintegration

In essence: “Fuck this. This is dumb. I will find a better way for myself.”

Here’s another rabbit hole to helter-skelter slide into. Perhaps a perspective on nervous breakdowns and finding a higher path of self-determinism out of the madness.

Let me introduce you to the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) by Kazimierz Dąbrowski – the five levels of personal development and positive maladjustment.

“As we know, bears hibernate in caves. They appear almost lifeless. This is an analog to the practices of ancient shamans, and to Sufis who practice the forty-day halvet (retreat), in which the Shaman would enter a cave, have an experience of dying, explore the spiritual realms, and then is reborn as the Initiate or Master (just as the bear is reborn each spring as it “wakes up” and leaves its cave).”

― Laurence Galian, The Sun at Midnight: The Revealed Mysteries of the Ahlul Bayt Sufis

In essence, TPD posits the idea of that life’s emotional tension and anxiety as necessary for personal growth.

The 5 Levels for Positive Disintegration are described as:

  1. Primary Integration: Nature – you’re born with inherent tendencies towards ways of being which will stay with you throughout life. Nurture – those around you in the world you’re born into affect how you understand the world and apply predefined rules, boundaries of what it or is not permissible. Parents, guardians, school, work, peers, friends (everyone with their own nurtured ways of living, and natural perception of what is right and wrong) – everyone who influences you. There are some contentious aspects here – Dąbrowski notes that although this level contains most people, he calls them “average people” who are happy with the norms of their environmental and social perspectives. He says people at this level generally seek out self-fulfilment above all else with an attitude of “it’s all about me” and “the ends justify the means”, sometimes disregarding the means which ironically is where those with psychopathic tendencies exist. Apparently he notes that many people considered to be leaders will fall into this category…

    His idea is that most people stay at this level throughout life, only perhaps breaking out in teenage angst and rebelliousness (a stage of disintegration) which may lead to the subsequent levels, but usually they will return to their normative world and Primary Integration. Part of the hive, as it were.

  2. Unilevel Disintegration: Usually triggered by one or more brief and often intense crises. Examples may be hormonally triggered – puberty, menopause for example. Or may be caused by difficulty in dealing with some traumatic external event, or under psychological conditions such as “nervousness” and “neuroses”. Existential crises are the predominant emotion. People at this stage will start to deeply question their world, create their own values which may conflict with their Level 1 world’s norms. People at Level 2 may see their learned (Level 1) world’s norms as inadequate, wrong, hypocritical etc. At this point those people may start a path along strong potential for personal development and personal growth. At the end of this stage, Dąbrowski notes that people will either fall back to Level 1 and accept their world as it is, or at the extreme, will decide ending their life is the only option. The other option, Dąbrowski notes, will take an enormous amount of emotional energy to undertake within three factors of how to proceed in life – an internal struggle of “Do I follow my gut (first factor), my teachings (second factor) or my heart (third factor*)?” The answer from this leads first and second factors back back to Level 1 often for life, or through a transformation of lower instinctual emotions like anger into a positive motivation which provides a shift to Level 3.

    *A side note that The Third Factor is a small community of folk who feel aligned with TPD, and small “g” giftedness, those with over-excitabilities, neuro-divergency. They’re really quite an interesting and chilled bunch of people which is where I “met” Neil. Worth a look if this has piqued your curiosity.

  3. Spontaneous multilevel disintegration: This is where the fun really begins. Dąbrowski defines “multilevelness” as happening when a person looks at something they have seen many times before and they see it differently, and they cannot go back to seeing (or understanding) it as they did before. It’s the gradual realisation of a new, “higher” life as it were and the leads to continual comparison of contrasting higher and lower lives – the new vs the old. The quintessential “Hero’s journey” model of storytelling, really. Having started to question their world in Level 2, they start to see how life can be better – based more upon their own ways, values, ideals. This stage is still one of conflict as although the person in this stage would choose a higher path for themselves, to create their own world (a “vertical view”), should their own actions fall short of these new ideals, internal disharmony will occur and a drive of reiterations to review and reconstruct often follow. If the person cannot make enough progress from the crises at Level 2, they may choose to reintegrate to the old world (Level 1) or continually develop one’s emerging individual value structure (life preferences). As life is seen in relation to this multilevel, vertical view, it becomes untenable to support the choice to return to the lower course when higher goals can be created.

    Naturally there is a rejection of (or disintegration from) the old world here and those in the old world – friends, relatives, colleagues, peers etc – may feel that rejection, and feel hurt (due to their own psychology) as the individual seeks out their brave new world… They may say things laced with spite like, “You just think you’re better than the rest of us”. I may or may not have thought but not said out loud, “Well, actually, not better, just different, but yeah…” My bad.

  4. Directed multilevel disintegration: Here a person takes full control of their personal development. The involuntary realisation that one’s world isn’t the best way and subsequent iterations of creating a new, better, “higher” life in Level 3 is replaced with deliberate, conscious and self-determined review of their world and their life. This the stage where the real “third factor” of autonomy occurs. Behaviour become less reactive and more deliberate as aligned with the individual’s personal choices regardless of attempts at influence by others. The old world’s “lower” norms are adjusted to one’s own preferences – they are not necessarily rejected wholly here. They may be re-accepted by the individual but also adapted or replaced to fit the newly individual-created hierarchy of values.

    From a social perspective, this process gives rise to an internalised reflection of a deep responsibility based on rational and emotional factors of what is “right”, what “ought to be”. Dąbrowski notes that people at Level 4 will feel responsible for the realisation of justice and protection of others against harm, and that this sense of a higher “right vs wrong” value system leads to a responsibility which extends to almost everything.

    This can lead, ironically, to a potential for raising one’s social profile. Thus, the genuine, authentic cultivation of a set of “higher” values may conflict with the “lower” society’s values (ie the old world in Level 1) – the individual at Level 4 is maladjusted to that world, but as they have sorted a “higher” sense of right vs wrong values, or “positive” values, at this level they would be referred to as being in a stage of “positive maladjustment”. In other words, being maladjusted to the world’s norms is a perfectly positive thing. As the individual will have shunned any negative, harmful (psychopathic”) tendencies by this point, we don’t tend to see any “good” psychopaths – as these people tend to exist only in Level 1, not questioning their actions.

  5. Secondary Integration: People who reach level 5 display a fully integrated, harmonious character fully at peace with themselves where behaviours are guided by carefully considered, weighed decisions based on their curated hierarchy of values. Dąbrowski sees that people at this level find peace in creative expression. Also that problem solving and art represents the highest and noblest features of human life. Art especially is fed from one’s innermost emotional states, based on deep empathy and understanding of the subject – those with highly developed sensitivities. As we know, human suffering and sacrifice often comes from the greatest artworks – through brush stokes or words. Highly regarded, visionary works are those which are truly unique and novel created by those who are able to express their vision unshackled by normative conventions. The greatest advancements in society through political discourse, philosophy, and faiths are commonly associated with people who reach Level 5. Some notable examples may be Gandhi, Martin Luther King, et al.

Personally, I feel I very much went through the stages to oscillate between Levels 3 and hints of Level 4 in the time of the pandemic and my father’s passing which left me feeling deeply disconnected from the world. There have been moments of a silent howling void where I may or may not have perhaps experienced some kind of “episode” which others may consider to be a mental “breakdown”. Perhaps more of a disintegration whilst I reintegrated my needs. It wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t nice to a lot of people in a deep state of self-protection. I hope I’m being nicer to those who deserve it and nicer to myself also. But I’m different. Changed. For the better? I hope so. I feel more aligned with the ideas in Level 4 now. Working on 5. Trying not to occasionally slip into 3 in times of conflict with strangers outside of my inner peace circle of friends, but I’m human and a little self-acceptance and self-forgiveness is important.

Benefits of choosing to disconnect

If we consider Dąbrowski theory of disintegration (dis-integrating from the normative world, as it were), the choice to retreat is an incredibly powerful chance to (re)gain a connection with ourselves, with the important people in our lives, and the natural world. Although it takes enormous effort and, at least on the face of it, will cause conflict internally and externally, if you can bear the burden of change it may change your own life. It has potential to change the lives of others too (for the better) in time.

Doing it on your own terms doesn’t necessarily means living a life of a monk who’s taken a vow of silence. Nor does it mean that you have to move to a cabin in a forest with nary another dwelling in sight. Plenty of people feel unwillingly disconnected and isolated in the busiest of cities. I’m sure plenty feel willingly disconnected and at peace there too in moments of solitude in the busyness.

Choosing to disconnect, choosing to slow down and declutter one’s life can have a positive effect on one’s health – physical as much as mental. Reducing (or changing*) stress can impact your wellbeing immensely.

*some stress is good as it helps push us towards the change we feel will get the life we want. It helps with development. They key is to accept, embrace and learn how much stress is good vs bad. Learning exercises on how to notice where the stress is manifesting in your body can help you to learn to “listen” to what your inner self actually needs at that time. Stress is, after all, a sign that current life is in disharmony with your core values and needs in some way. In the future I may write a follow-on piece with some no-nonsense guides on how to actually meditate and why. It won’t need booking a trip to an infinity pool in Thailand where you feel you have to sit cross-legged with hand pressed in prayer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) definition: “Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. … The way we respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to our overall well-being.”

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress – everything from being irritable to heart attacks.

retreat (n.)

c. 1300, retrete, “a step backward;” late 14c., “act of retiring or withdrawing; … from Old French retret, retrait, noun use of past participle of retrere “draw back,” from Latin retrahere “draw back, withdraw, call back,” from re- “back” (see re-) + trahere “to draw” (see tract (n.1)).

Meaning “place of seclusion” is from early 15c. Meaning “period of retirement for religious self-examination” is from 1756.

Meditative moments allow us to enquire, contemplate and experience profound truths that lie dormant within us. That which we have (had to) suppress and/or ignore for so long.

Some things to help you to disconnect

(and to learn to listen to what you need)

“Meditate”

(Quote marks because I don’t mean the stereotypical meditations the word may conjure up in your mind)

Only in quiet moments can we take the time to learn to ask our selves what we want. Once learned, this exercise is easier to do in busy environments, but first we need to practise and that practise is easier done in moments of solitude, of quiet. I want to add what I feel “quiet” actually means – not everyone can find a place where there is no noise. Some of us, our brains don’t actually get into a good meditative state in sheer silence. “White noise” – be it simulated radio static, or rainfall, waves brushing a sandy shoreline, or your favourite pieces of music that somehow help to calm chaotic brains and, for some, heavy metal music – can be as calming as utter silence. Personally, even in the sheer silence of where I live, I still turn on my active noise cancelling headphones which entire cup my ears and provide a comforting cocoon effect. Find what works for you.

Reconnect with nature

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken” – Leo Tolstoy

If you are fortunate enough to live near a wooded area, try spending some time around the trees for they have “magical” properties. Forest bathing (Shinrin Yoku) – “Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health” at the New York State Dept of Environmental Conservation which lists 20+ sources of research on what we probably already gut feel know. As I have a personal interest in neuro-divergency especially with regard to ADHD, this particularly caught my eye: “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study” which notes its conclusion as “Green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.”

Another paper “Health and well-being benefits of spending time in forests: systematic review” (2017) concludes “Forest therapy may play an important role in health promotion and disease prevention.”

Even if you don’t have a nearby forest to visit ad-hoc as needed, any green space may help. Don’t look for places which offer “activities” – the natural world will provide enough stimulation for everyone’s brains should they care to stop, look, allow for cautious prodding to allow creative imaginations and curious inquiry to flow. Look under some rocks to see what universes may flow forth.

Listening to and watching the flow of water seems to have such an uplifting effect on the spirit also, be it a stream or the ocean. Water in dreams is always perceived as a connection to the subconscious somehow. Water is often referred to as a connection to the afterlife – the boatmen taking your soul to the next world. The river Styx, for example. So if you can find somewhere with a flow of water, this may help also.

Be Quiet

The denouement of disconnecting from the world is that the willful disconnection from humans even for more than 22 hours at a time can allow a more meaningful, healthy reconnection with yourself. Listen to what you feel, and feel what you hear. See what your intuition is telling you you need most, even if that’s to sell all your stuff and move to the forest.

If you find any of this of value, please consider buying me a coffee / plant 🌱 on my Ko-Fi page

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