The shaman, who is the predecessor of the hermit, was always a risk-taker isolated from the clan or group, depending upon himself or herself for physical survival but, more importantly, for emotional and psychological well-being.
Today, with the enormous and faceless institutions and corporate entities that control everything from economics to education to environment, we sense the virtual impossibility of physical survival as a classic hermit. Instead we must focus on the same processes — if not physical conditions — that classic hermits have pursued, namely attentiveness to emotional and psychological survival, in our case in an increasingly crass and unethical technological world.
Our search for solitude may best succeed if we suspend the ideal quest for physical survival in wilderness solitude — if only because we don’t have the time. We must get busy distinguishing ourselves from those forces that most impact our emotional and psychological well-being. This means a concerted effort at being mindful of what we read, watch, listen to, eat, clothe ourselves with, consume, with whom we speak, how we pass our days. This is standard advice in the literature of sages, but we cannot keep it at an intellectual level. We have to monitor ourselves, change ourselves — not just think about it.
We may no longer have an organic link to a tribe or clan or community, but that need not be missed because that is why solitude appeals to us. And we may never satisfactorily live in a wilderness growing our own food or gazing at a forest or mountain sunset unimpeded by city landscapes — not that these settings automatically bring awareness or contentment. The one thing we can and must do as people inclined to solitude is to safeguard our emotional and psychological well-being, what is variously called the “soul,” not so much from evil but from the world, from what the Chinese call the “red dust” of the world.
The function of a wall is to demark, to separate two worlds. There are short boundary walls, enormous fortress walls, and great symbolic barrier walls as in ancient China. Society builds the walls, then induces us to bump up against their confines and test the outer limits of survival and pleasure. The confines of society are vast and wide, limitless, but it is we who maintain the walls, reinforce them with mortar. Society wants us, like conditioned animals, to press a button or pull a bellstring that drops the social reward top-down, always within the walls. We wage wars, compete, consume, dissipate, and lay waste within these walls, all for what we call right or truth or duty or mandate from the heavens. Freud was incomplete in defining pleasure as a survival mechanism. Pleasure is a serious social business, not infantile or subjective. It objectifies all phenomena. It makes all our superstructure of ideas sufficient. It justifies the walls.
Pleasure is a kind of necromancy, a pleasure in dead things, in contingent and impermanent things, exemplified by the petty pleasures that society manufactures for us as balm or as opiate. What an enormous effort, then, to put down the surfeit of pleasure and burst through these walls. The walls are not so impervious after all. In fact, they are familiar. Society has been erecting them around us from our earliest moments of life. Which is to say that throughout life we unconsciously maintain them, augment them, see them as inevitable. Even those who say they flout convention do so within the walls, do so with the tools society has already put into their hands.
We can pass through these walls, pass through them like ghosts. And once past these walls we can rush into the night sky of moon and stars, or the daylight where the unaccustomed sun dazzles our eyes. And we can drink deep draughts of fresh, revitalizing air. And we can wonder why we complicitously and cravenly put up those walls in the first place.
Though we are obviously socialized in order to function as human beings, our particular circumstances can override our logic, intuition and intelligence if we do not question and examine everything around us. What we consider good and moral must be built from our deepest convictions and not simply mimic our social settings, institutions, or education. Nationalism always overrides this personal and intuitive process. Nationalism appeals to the setting and not the thinking, to the baser group instincts and not the moral explorations of mindful individuals. Our best instinct should universalize the human experience, not tribalize it, not base it on the worst instincts of groups, crowds, or forceful personalities.
The hermit’s instinct has the potential to detect this play of power over our minds and hearts. The hermit’s insight is to perceive the universality of human needs and appeal directly to its moral call, refusing to accept that material or spiritual blessings should go exclusively to any one nation, culture, group, or tribe — nor to the epiphenomena of culture: religion, technology, science, political organization, etc.
Hence the simple but universal sentiment of the hermit Shabkar’s prayer:
May auspiciousness prevail in all countries!
May all diseases of humans and animals disappear!
May all enjoy long and healthy lives!
May crops be abundant and everyone be happy!
In the night’s stillness, the moon is small and aloof, its soft light barely sufficient, barely necessary. Still, a strong luminescence reflects from pebbles, rocks, clusters of trees and leaves, a white-surfaced work-table. The eerieness of this textured light combined with a distant reticent moon seems to dissolve night, but not the way sunlight dissolves daytime. The moonlight is enveloping like a fog, with a haunting sense of irretrievability.
Plato taught that every person wants happiness no matter how wicked they are because whatever they do they do it believing that it will bring them happiness. Of course, Plato did not know psychology, not even as well as the playwrights and historians of his time. By this standard, everyone desires peace of mind, too, because whatever they do they claim it is for their own good.
Happiness or peace or mind: it is the same error, for our desires, our clingings and graspings, are rationalized as necessary to achieve a state of mental satisfaction or, for that matter, happiness. This realization should be a caution to us. The most important mental function we have is to constantly “check in” with ourselves as to why we do things. We must analyze as bluntly as possible whether what we want is realistic, whether what we say (to ourselves and others) is honest. Fortunately, we don’t have to confess or mumble these secrets to anyone, just keep our own watch on our thoughts. This is, after all, what used to be called “examination of conscience” except that now we are not looking for sins but for habits, assumptions, values, emotions, aspirations, and illusions. Plato’s Socrates is right when he calls the contrast an “unexamined life.” We see this lack of self-knowledge everywhere around us. We must hold a mirror to ourselves, polishing it all the time in order to reflect truly what we need to see.