Every day, I try to disappear. It is my version of staying sane, of getting in touch with what matters most to me. Depending on the day, I spend an hour or so walking, typically surrounded by trees, hills, and hopefully an animal or two. This is how I clear my head, how I work through difficult and uncomfortable feelings, how I come up with my best ideas.
But sometimes, I need to leave for longer.
Last fall, I went on a hiking retreat to Zion National Park with some friends, and we hiked to the top of Angel’s Landing, one of the most dangerous hikes in America. Along the way, there is a long chain for hikers to hold onto as they ascend the peak.
This was during COVID, so the area was closed since they didn’t want people licking the chains or something. Seeing the CLOSED sign, I immediately looked at my friend and said, “I want to go.” He grinned a boyish grin and nodded. We both grabbed the chains and made our way up, no licking involved.
After thirty minutes of climbing, we reached the summit, surprised to see we were the only ones. We spent an hour exploring, each of us disappearing into our own activities. My friend started meditating or praying, I think, or maybe he just took a nap.
I walked to the edge of the mountain, sat with my feet dangling, and took a deep breath. Below was a 1500-foot drop, and I felt… alive. This is it, I thought. This is the art of living: to be so close to death that you can’t deny the power of life. To sit and stare at the beauty of creation, to breathe deeply in the mountain air. To enjoy the stillness and just be.
I returned from the trip a different man, clearer. It took many months to unfold, but after a trying and difficult season in which I could not see beyond my own pain and confusion, I was finally able to get a vision for what was next. This is what disappearing does.
This is nothing new for artists. At the age of 22, Bob Dylan was on the verge of quitting music and decided to spend a few days in Woodstock, NY after a long and exhausting tour in Europe.
One night he started writing something, the result being 10-20 pages of stream-of-consciousness that became “Like a Rolling Stone,” what has been called the greatest song of all time and the first song I ever illegally downloaded in college (true story).
Retreating from the world, it seems, just might be the best way to change it.
Disappearance can also refresh a person, reminding us of what we are truly capable of. It can invigorate and inspire us, as it did for Agatha Christie, whose own disappearance made international news and marked a shift in both her work and life, leading her to travel the world, find new love, and become the bestselling writer of all time (tied with Shakespeare).
What makes a disappearance good is nothing, by which I mean that nothingness is an essential part of the process: no responsibilities, no to-do lists, no contact with the outside world (if possible). This kind of detachment is hard in our modern world—and it is necessary.
To do our best work, we must leave what we know, as Van Gogh left his Impressionist cohorts to retreat to the South of France, where he entered the most prolific and productive season of his life.
Leaving allows us to create the space we need for something new to emerge.
Our best work, ironically, doesn’t always come from working. Thoreau, who was not only a writer but a surveyor, considered his daily walks a matter of survival. He wrote in the last essay he ever published:
I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
Sometimes, going forward sets us back, and what we really need to grow is to slow down. This is the quest of the artist, the visionary, the creator. She must go to the heart of life, tasting it at the very marrow, and only then return to talk about it.
This is not a weekend stay at the Ritz; it is a Campbellian descent into the belly of the beast. Discomfort is the point. When we retreat, even if only by turning off our devices for an evening, we reconnect with what we really are.
For some traditions, such as the Jewish Sabbath, this regular unplugging and reconnecting with our souls is built right in. But for many of us, it is foreign. We are stuck in the rut of routines, and retreating from such a humdrum existence, even for a day, seems almost unthinkable.
But this is a natural part of life, the becoming and unbecoming, and to be more creative, we need to do more of it.
If we don’t disappear, we miss so much, getting lost in the myopia of our daily dramas. The discipline of stepping away from the outer world to access a deeper, inner one is what makes our work—and our lives—meaningful.
So, try it. I dare ya. 🙂