A photo essay collaboration with Romain Juchereau for Slow Drive Magazine.
We are lost.
Society has spoon-fed us from birth with lies of conformity. We believe we must integrate, abide by dogmatic routine, we must be busy, popular, social. Aloneness and loneliness have become inseparable, polar opposites now entwined in a web of false beliefs.
Solitude and companionship have been cast into disparity, the one not conducive of the other, antitheses of connectivity. We have lost the ability, or perhaps the concept, of connecting with ourselves. We no longer see ourselves as the unshakeable companion, the strength to our weakness and our greatest, self-serving support network. We have become detached from our hearts and society has told us that to be alone is to be lonely and unpopular, that we must be social, communicative, extroverted and popular in order to be a successful human being.
And yet for some, the gift of companionship in solitude is the ultimate quest.
Solitude to many has become a curse, a challenge, a rarity at best. It is seen in fleeting moments; a warm bath, a solo jog, a coffee and a book. But before the true message of solitude is given to us, the companionship we find with ourselves, we are driven back to connection and a need to interact.
Many years ago, I surfed with a guy who, before he left the confines of the shore for the expansiveness of the ocean, would apologise to those he was with for his antisocial nature in the waves. “I won’t talk to you”, he would say, “I’ll be alone.” Many would take this comment as an affront, believing that he was ditching those around him in insult to their camaraderie. But I recognised it for what it was: surfing, running, climbing, in any pursuit in which we rely exclusively upon ourselves, we are always alone, and therein lies our companionship.
Gone is our ability to be content in our own presence, lost is the art of introspection. We have come to presume that being alone is to be lonely and we crave companionship like a flower craves the sunshine.
As surfers, we are alone all the time. Even surfing in crowds or with friends, much time is spent in solitude; the waiting for a wave, the single-minded focus of the take-off, the liberation of the ride or the long, determined paddle back out. In these moments lie the magic and beauty of surfing. It is, of course, desirable to have someone to share the experience with, a friend with whom to share the stoke, pass time between sets or recount and regale the day’s activities over a post-surf coffee. But it is within the isolatory moments of aloneness that we find the resonant comfort and empowerment of a companionship with the self.
But as much as these times set our souls to rapture, they also bring about a fear. We have become unable to be content in the company of ourselves and we have lost the companionship we hold inside. Spiritual pursuits allow us glimmers of the interconnectedness of body, mind and soul, but even these have been socialised and reinvented to accommodate our inability to be alone. Yoga and meditation are intrinsically about letting go of everything external, but even these have become a group affair. This isn’t to say that there is anything particularly wrong with practising collaboratively, it can even be helpful and educational, but it is somewhat missing the point…isn’t it?
Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently spent nineteen days on the sheer granite face of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Navigating and conquering a new route, the duo were completely alone. They didn’t pop back down in the evenings, they didn’t have a support crew on the wall with them; they lived, ate, slept and climbed on that vertical, barren surface in both solitude and companionship. Clinging to holds sometimes no wider than an average coin and living each moment so completely in the face of fear and even death, they existed only for themselves, not themselves as a pair, but themselves alone. In every single second of that long, nineteen days, they were so far from society and, while they were never very far from each other, clinging so tenuously to the unforgiving, inanimate granite face, the might as well have been completely alone: their true companion on the wall was only ever themselves.
Although not to this absolute extreme, surfing, too, offers similar opportunities of being together, alone. Though you may be in an ocean peppered with dozens of likeminded watermen and women, you often have only your inner voice for company, your muscles and bones to rely upon and your innate skill to support you. Surfing instigates introspection. The simplicity of it, offering nothing but yourself and the ocean, stripping away worries and concerns so unshakeable on terra firma, making nothing else matter for a few short hours, allows us the space and complete emotional freedom to find the companionship in solitude.
Because of this and perhaps unlike any other sport or pastime, surfing inspires its practitioners into expression. Film, photography, writing and art all blossom from the waves. Fed by nature, nurtured by solitude, our creative urges attempt to share the moments and emotions we have only ever felt alone. We yearn for camaraderie in that solitary experience and to connect with others through the joys and pleasures that were only ever ours in solitude because, no matter how many people you surf with, no wave is the same and no moment can be repeated in the constant, variant flux of Mother Nature. So these things of creation, in imagery and words, may be borne of a very personal experience for their creator but will only ever elude to an entirely separate moment or emotion in the viewer.
If we can rediscover the companionship in solitude we will find ourselves nourished. We can dispense with the inherent paranoia and self-consciousness of society and embrace every occurrence far more deeply, thrilled that we are there with ourselves to share it with. Companionship and solitude have been lost in translation, becoming company and loneliness, excess and loss. But in these experiences of forced isolation, whether surfing, climbing, meditating, cycling or any other ultimately solitary activity, we are given the opportunity to reunite with the companion inside, the one who opens our eyes and hearts a little wider, who drives us and inspires us, who excites us and motivates us, who helps us see and feel and taste and smell so much more than ever possible in the sensorily deprived tomb of loneliness or clamourous confusion of society.
When we welcome back the companion that lies within, no moment will be lost and a world of wonder will unfold at our feet.
All Photos: ©Romain Juchereau
– This article first appeared in the June ’15 edition of Slow Drive magazine.