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The joy of solitude

By STEPHANIE ZUBIRI, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 25, 2023 5:00 am

The pastel seascape of gently lapping waves and cotton-candy sunrise skies was like a balm to my spirit. Gently cradling a young coconut, I felt its soft, cream shell, slightly rough but not abrasive. Closing my eyes, I slowly took a long, languid sip of its cool, fresh nectar, the sweet water, restorative and refreshing. Has a coconut ever tasted so good?

I was on a solo retreat at Chiva Som in Hua Hin and every day, at each meal, regardless of whether it was dawn, noon, or balmy evening, I had my coconut. It had become a ritual, a true practice in mindfulness, a relearning of sorts of what it really means to taste, to feel, to awaken my senses, and inhabit the world around me fully.

I’ve traveled alone in the past, mostly for work where I had people to meet and interviews to conduct. They’re often a frenetic schedule of exciting experiences where I made connections, built my network, and even forged lifelong friendships. This, however, was a first for me: five days entirely to myself and alone with my thoughts. You see, Chiva Som is device-free. You can only use your mobile phone, laptop, or tablet in the privacy of your room or in designated areas. They are particularly strict about it during mealtimes.

Situated by the seaside at Hua Hin, just 3.5 hours away from Bangkok, the beautiful Chiva Som property is 28 years old but still looks timeless and fresh.

I have always been a fan of dining alone, particularly lunch in a nice restaurant with a glass of wine. I have always thought of it as a lovely celebration of one’s self. Cheers to me! But with the rise of smartphones, I don’t think I’ve had this experience properly in a long time. Normally, we would be scrolling our feeds, texting with friends, or taking calls… one is never really “alone.”

Willingly taking part in the digital detox that Chiva Som recommends, my meals and much of my holiday were in utter, delicious solitude.

Cooking with chef Sinchai Srivipa

It’s easy to enjoy the alone time because the resort is beautiful—simple and chic with a nod to its Thai heritage. The staff is friendly, kind, and non-intrusive, and the overall ambiance is one of peace and quiet. Meals are usually seaside, with only the sound of the waves for ambient music. The food is incredible—clean and healthy versions of vibrant Thai favorites—so flavorful and nourishing. I loved that everything came in small portions so I could always order a mini buffet for myself. Think glass noodle salads, pomelo, and crispy quinoa tossed in tamarind, fresh fish steamed with lime and chili, the most zesty and zingy passion-fruit sorbet ever. I savored each bite, ate slowly and intentionally, each dish had its moment in the spotlight and I could take my sweet time to enjoy every morsel.

I meditated in the mornings and took long walks on the beach every afternoon. I would leave my phone behind, gingerly at first then with relish the following days, allowing the sunlight and the sea breeze to kiss my skin and immerse myself in the world, observing people and their comings and goings.

Solitude is the soul’s holiday; an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.

My intent for this holiday was to go on a yoga retreat to improve my practice. Every day, I had a private class with instructor Sean, who by chance also practices Ashtanga. It was my first time doing an actual class with someone else and with a teacher for a number of years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had been self-practicing, but nothing beats sharing the energy with other people. As expected, he corrected my posture and helped me through the poses, but more importantly, we worked on the breath—focusing on letting my breaths guide the movements with ease and once more, with intent.

Nam Tok Pla, seared sea bass with spicy tamarind sauce, and Pla Nuang Manoa, steamed sea bass with lime and chili: Delicious creations by chef Sinchai Srivipa using only the finest produce from their organic gardens and the freshest catch of the day. His unique technique of searing everything without oil and using only their special vegetable stock is the secret to Chiva Som’s healthy but tasty cuisine.

Much like everything in life, we rush through things. My yoga practice was becoming a metaphor for this. Just going through the motions, ticking off boxes, swiftly getting through each pose like a task on a to-do list. For yoga, just like for everything else, we need to slow down and flow with purpose.

More time was spent alone, enjoying their daily massages and a quiet moment in the sauna, melting away the day as I melted away my worries. After the second day, I felt lighter, airier, and more vibrant. I found myself really thinking through the small, mundane choices and finding joy in making them. Dressing up for dinner was my favorite. I had a date with myself and every night took pleasure in looking nice for no one else but me. Oh, and my coconut.

Dining solo by the sea three times a day was the highlight of my trip—and, of course, my coconut.

As a woman who wears many hats—mom, caregiver to my parents, sibling, friend, entrepreneur, journalist, host, all-over nonstop hustler extraordinaire—you can imagine it was hard to put aside all my cares and really embrace total solitude. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned, you need "me time." If your own cup is empty, what do you have left to give to those you love? Taking time to fill your cup however way you need is essential.

I came home, my heart bursting with gratitude for the experience and feeling like I had so much love to give. I was more present and engaged with my children, had more patience for my family, and was brimming with ideas for work.

Quiet time to read, relax, and explore.

I try to carve out that alone time every day. Often, 10 minutes is all I need, while on the more difficult days, I take an hour or two and shut the door… to have a bath, to pray, to read, to close my eyes… to breathe. The key is to take it before you need it so you don’t blow your top. But it’s okay if you do. Just apologize and excuse yourself and get that alone time.

So here I am, championing a moniker I have just made up: JOSO—the Joy of Solitude. American author and mindfulness expert Katrina Kenison wrote: “Solitude is the soul’s holiday; an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.” When you are having guilty thoughts about taking time out from the world—whether that’s five days or five minutes—think of it as an act of love for the people you care about, and most importantly, for yourself.