One of the interesting insights into meditation is that clearing the mind is just one part of meditation. We come to realize that our thoughts are never entirely our own anyway. Our thoughts come from our sense surroundings: what we think about things we have heard, seen, or felt. Our thoughts are coming from our environment, our society, our culture, our everyday experiences. They are provoked and contrived. This is not to gainsay creativity, insight, uniqueness. But the universe is always “smarter” than we are: more creative, more insightful, more characteristically unique.

Realizing the second-hand nature of our thoughts may alarm us as solitaries. We may wonder about that self we so carefully preserve and keep aloof from the world and the crowd, that grand project of our solitude. Is it really just a slightly lesser product of social stimulation, like a plant in a dark room without sunlight?

Our desire for eremitical life is inspired initially, perhaps, by a restless realization that all this worldly stimuli weighs upon us, and that solitude is a path towards equanimity, provding space for growth. This may entail a sense of guilt at first — is this selfishness, indulgence, egoism? Meditation responds to all these questions by introducing the universal order into the orbit of our own daily selves.

The importance of meditation — or its equivalent in whatever tradition we find ourselves comfortable — is to empty the self of external stimuli. This process empties ourselves not by argument, refutation, disgust, penitence, or absolution but by continued disengagement. This disengagement means that simply physical solitude does not make the ideal hermit, nor an attidue of detachment while in the crows. It means that the disengagement is not just from the world but from thoughts, our thoughts. We empty ourselves at both the source and ground of our thoughts. At the very place that our fickle minds take in externals, mull them over and entertain them, extrapolate upon them, turn them into feelings and sensibilities. Here is the proper disposition for solitude, where the foundation for solitude is laid: disengagement, which is the very process of achieving solitude.

Getting lost

Rebecca Solnit’s book has an intriguing title: A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The essays are intensely personal and “modern” and not necessarily related to solitude as much as alienation. The book uses her life story to explore a theme best captured in this line: “To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.”

Solnit notes that of travelers in wilderness who get lost, those who did not live on a tight schedule did not panic. One could extrapolate: those who had few possessions, those who had few worldly responsibilities, etc. Her premise is that while we enter nature with a thread behind us to safely circumscribe our adventure (a la the Minotaur’s cave, though it is my analogy, not Solnit’s), the author thinks one ought to intentionally look for nothing in a not familiar environ and lose oneself psychologically, philosophically, and practically. As Solnit puts it: “The question, then, is how to get lost.” Invert the Biblical phrase about gaining the world and losing your soul to echo Thoreau: lose the whole world, get lost in it, and find your soul.

“Life is a Dream”

Many writers have proposed the idea of life as a dream, an illusion, the most famous perhaps being Calderón de la Barca’s play La vida es sueño or Life is a Dream. The topic is not so much the meaning of our dreams — there is a wealth of interest and writing about it, especially among psychoanalysts and New Age authors. Of more relevance here is the idea of the illusory nature of life, the dream-like quality of the sequence of events, the characteristic unfolding of time and circumstances that seems familiar but is uncontrolled, that contains its own logic but not a logic that makes events predictable or any more meaningful. Real life sometimes unfolds like a dream.

Our quest for certitude in life concerning that gross sequence of accidents and twists and turns is not unlike our quest for understanding in philosophy or religion. Of daily life, we can speak of the familiar that is unfolding in a predictable, even inevitable, way but which always remains uncontrollable, inscrutable, mysterious, unreasonable, illogical, unsatisfactory. Of spirituality, we can speak of our inklings, our striving for knowledge or truth, our “intimations of immortality.” But is our spiritual quest likely to be inspired by our life experiences or is it inspired by dreams, from some realm of subconsciousness? Are our life experiences really teaching us anything or is our life trickling out the way a dream goes on, waiting for ending after ending, another reluctant beginning with its own built-in ending, abrupt or slow but inevitable nevertheless? These feelings all resolve themselves not in knowledge or truth but in faith, or perhaps what Santayana called “animal faith” to highlight the very mindless nature of what we need in order to reconcile ourselves to life and death.

We see other people convinced that they can control their lives and intent on controlling the lives of others. They think they can control their dreams, basically, and those of others! We may wonder at or envy their certitude, if we don’t dismiss them altogether as superstitious or illusory or pernicious if their desire spills over into society and culture.

If what we think we can control is but a dream, and yet each of us dreams differently no matter how alike we are as human beings, then each of us has to wrestle with our own dreams. What someone else dreams may be parallel or suggestive or inspiring to us, but it is ultimately irrelevant, not applicable. This is the heart of solitude: to realize that we alone have a certain set of circumstances, contingencies, situations — unlike those of anyone else. We have great repositories of wisdom to consult in books, thankfully, but what good are they when events remind us of what is illogical and irreconcilable?

Ultimately we are our own physician. We have to decide as individuals, as inevitable solitaries, what the Buddha’s parable of the arrow says. We have to decide if we really have the time and the heart to diagnose and describe and study whether the poison arrow that has struck us is made of this wood or that, this poison or that, is lodged in us at what depth, where it was made, who shot it, etc., etc. Or whether we had not better just pull the arrow out and get on with living — or dreaming that we are.

Misanthropes and hermits

Misanthropes and hermits are often conflated. Misanthropes are historically depicted as curmudgeons, cranks, ranters, and misfits, unyielding, furious, impatient. They don’t get along with anyone, including themselves. Their intelligence is dimmed by their emotions, their emotions are dimmed by their resentment, their resentment is fueled by their intelligence — and round and round.

For classic depictions of misanthropes I can think of Diogenes, Timon of Athens, Javert (the inspector in Hugo’s Les Miserables), Dickens’ Scrooge, Verne’s Captain Nemo, various characters in Russian fiction — I am surely missing many more. Ultimately there is Moliere’s sympathetic prototype, Alceste. Who can argue with Alceste’s reflection in The Misanthrope that “too much perversity reigns in our age, and I am resolved to avoid in future all intercourse with men.”

Hermits are often lumped into this volatile mix of misanthropes because, as Ryokan the Japanese Zen poet-monk put it of himself, “It’s not that I hate people, it’s just that I am so very tired of them.” But there, perhaps, is the distinction.

The genuine hermit historically has sought out solitude not because of resentment or ill will or hatred but because of world-weariness, experience, and wisdom. Hence it is useful to (temporarily) set aside a strictly spiritualized or religious criteria in considering the wider psychology of solitude and eremitism in history. It is a fine line to draw between the psychology of the hermit and the misanthrope; perhaps a misanthrope is just a hermit gone sour.

One criterion is to look at the ego and the degree of attachment. The misanthrope is far more “engaged” with the world, and wrestles like Jacob through the night with what may be an angel or a demon. (It is darkness so he/she doesn’t know.) The hermit may well wrestle, too, as did the Christian desert hermits and the Tibetan Buddhist yogins. This wrestling with demons is a grand metaphor, but it has a sound psychological basis.

If the hermit is to succeed, ironically, the hermit must do nothing, what Taoism called wu wei. In dropping attachment, passion, anger, the desire to be heard and to have redress for offenses and insults from the world, so much the better hermits we become. As the Dhammapada puts it, “Through hatred, hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds always appeased.” The misanthrope gets passionate about many things, and issues of violence and justice are issues for which a moral passion can be justified. But it is how we proceed from understanding, what path we follow to comprehend the world, that distinguishes us as either a misanthrope or a hermit.

Politics of Eremitism (9)

The word “enlightenment” has two distinct connotations, East and West.

In the Western world, the Enlightenment was an historical era that saw the rise of reason, logic, and science over what it considered authoritarianism and superstition. Hence, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on society and institutions, and it continues to do so today.

In the East, enlightenment refers to the fruit of a religious, spiritual or philosophical pursuit, and has historically had more of an impact on cultural institutions and values rather than political or social institutions.

Traditionally, these two concepts of enlightenment have been diametrically opposed to one another, even within the same cultures. The point of contact, however, is best seen in the fate of the individual. In both schemes, the concern could well be called “consciousness.” In the West, the concern was for individual and social consciousness. This notion of consciousness was intended to bring liberation to the individual, regardless of whether the Enlightenment figure proposing it was Locke, Rousseau, or Marx. In the East, too, the pursuit of enlightenment has been for the individual and social consciousness, as when the Buddha saw enlightenment and the values it involved as bypassing the social and economic caste system, and how “enlightenment” even in the Hindu tradition was a social mechanism for individuals to escape caste, even while the true nature of Eastern thinking about enlightenment was not directly concerned with society.

Today, enlightenment in both senses is more urgent than ever — both spiritual and moral enlightenment, and enlightenment concerning reason and science. And, as in the past, enlightenment begins with the individual, for without individual enlightenment, nothing else changes. And without individuals transforming themselves, power and inimical social and political forces remain as obstacles to both forms of enlightenment. Whether the solitary joins others physically or in spirit in the pursuit of enlightenment, the pursuit is still as pressing.