The Value of Stillness and Solitude
My Conversation with Gena Chieco, executive and life coach, former lawyer who served in the Obama Administration and counsel at the CFPB
Hi Friends! On this happy Friday, I share with you my conversation with Gena Chieco, who left the practice of law to start her own executive and life coaching practice. Prior to starting her coaching practice, Gena served in the Obama Administration, practiced law at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and worked as General Counsel and Chief of Staff to the CEO at a cleantech startup. We discuss her travel sabbatical that ultimately led her to leave the law to start her coaching practice, her journey to integrate all parts of herself, the value of stillness and solitude, and shifting away from people pleasing.
A major theme running through this episode is the idea of stillness and solitude — both are states of being that tend to make humans uncomfortable. As you will hear when you listen, Gena models becoming comfortable with these states, ultimately using them as a tool to know and connect with herself.
Every year (tbh, it’s only been two), I intentionally travel alone to practice stillness and solitude. A portion of this time is spent with my phone on airplane mode. At first, such as when I’m driving to my destination, I notice myself feel more attuned to my environment, as if all colors are brighter. My body feels open and expanded. At some point, usually during my first meal alone or first arriving at my place of stay (when I undoubtedly contemplate how an intruder may enter and kidnap me), I notice myself begin shifting a bit more in my seat, reaching for my phone, craving connection with the outside world. This discomfort subsides as I begin to focus again on my environment, my feet on the floor, the sounds traveling through my ears.
I ask myself, why is airplane mode so uncomfortable during these first few moments of solitude, when I feel so comfortable flipping to airplane mode each night as I prepare to wind down, my heart even fluttering as I think about how nobody in the world can reach me?
Humans are connected creatures. Besides my nightly airplane mode, I tend to furiously flip to airplane when I am anxious, on the verge of panic — when I feel trapped, seeking any means of escape. I rarely, however, flip to airplane when I am not (a) winding down for the night or (b) approaching panic. It is in the moments when I otherwise would be plugged in when I find airplane mode most valuable, but riddled with discomfort. A forced stillness; forced solitude.
I think about how before cell phones, computers, the internet, etc., humans spent so much more time alone. If you watch any period piece set pre-1900 (The Gilded Age is my most recent example), you will notice solo leisure time is spent drawing, reading, painting, walking, or any other activity involving going inward. No iPhone present.
Constant (and instant) connection has resulted in me squirming in my own body during the first few moments of conscious solitude, grasping for anything to entertain myself — a book, watercolors, exercise, cooking, talking to myself. At first, I may judge my grasping as though I am trying to distract myself from being “truly alone.” I then soon realize my ability to entertain myself and I smile, even laugh. I think I’m fun (and sometimes funny). I now relish those moments where I am able to entertain myself, disconnected from the rest of the world, becoming my own best friend. I connect with myself most in these moments, though I need to be intentional about initially setting aside that time.
Spending time alone is not the default for many of us. But perhaps that makes us appreciate it more? So long as we can crawl out of the discomfort and avoid spiraling. Each time is easier, growing more comfortable with the discomfort. The value of stillness and solitude becomes more apparent, more obvious, as it did for Gena during her travel sabbatical. Ultimately leading to a drastic career change, Gena was able to lean in to her discomfort, savor it, get to know herself more deeply, and come out the other side as a more integrated person.
I encourage you all to set aside some time in the near future to be in solitude. Flip to airplane mode. But remember to be kind to yourself if you start to spiral or reach for your phone. Living in a state of solitude is not normal in 2022. It will get easier. You do a brave thing.
When was the last time you felt truly alone and disconnected? How did it feel?
If you could travel alone to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
What activities in your life do you enjoy doing alone? How can you do more of those each week?
Links Mentioned in the Pod (and others I’m enjoying):
The Hoffman Institute — I recently completed the Hoffman 2-Day Essentials program and it was mind expanding
Open source “map” of forest sounds across the world (SO COOL)