Wooden bowl II

I wrote about my wooden bowl some time ago (August 2003). I related how a crack had appeared due to ignorance of the need to oil the bowl on a timely basis. The other day, in a moment of clumsiness, the bowl fell to the floor. Now the crack has extended half-way through, a little past the center. It may split in two and that will be its end. The wooden bowl has served me so well that I feel like Ryokan (the Japanese Zen poet and hermit) when he lamented in two poems:

Picking violets by the side of the road,
I forgot my begging bowl.
How sad you must be, my poor little bowl!

I forgot my bowl again!
Please, nobody pick it up,
my lonely little bowl.


Consciousness enables human beings to exercise volition or will. Consciousness gives humans the ability to guide events and circumstances, with the self as a kind of stage-manager. At least that is the mechanism as described by science.

Yet we always feel the awareness but never the control. Even when we decide to do or say or pursue something, even when our effort is successful and satisfying within the definition of what we are attempting, there is always an element of happenstance, of serendipity at best — or, when things don’t work out, an air of futility and regret. Consciousness is certainly the proverbial two-edged sword. Why is it usually the one side we are aware of at any given moment, the one side that haunts us even in our felicity?

This is not to say that a perpetual melancholy dominates our lives. It is only a keen sense of life’s fragility and impermanence, even in the midst of day-to-day accomplishements and the enjoyment of blessings. This keen awareness is a stumbling-block to those who enjoy social relations and worldly pursuits. It is interpeted as pessimism. Perhaps it is the undefined prerequisite to being a solitary, the mark of personality that identifies the solitary. But it is more than a morose cloud or pessimism. There is a psychological breakthrough here — dare one say ontological breakthrough.

The insight of the solitary is consciousness and awareness applied in a thorough and unambiguous fullness. It penetrates the facade of society and culture (and, potentially, self) to see nature, self, and universe as they are. It is the transformation of a raw physical capacity into a wondrous ability of the mind or soul to be aware, to distinguish, to be separate — and yet to be nothing but a piece of it all, nothing but a part of a whole.


vanGogh Vermeer

Whatever objects are in a room, the characteristic aspect is always light. Hence, if we assign an activity or purpose to a room but do not rightly account for light, the activity is subtly undermined. Light is not just an issue of brightness or color but source. An artiificial source of light projects the artifice of the room’s purpose — or the artifice of its occupant’s activity.

A room is created by light, and as that light dims so to the activity that depended on light. The obvious example might be reading or something involving vision.

Light is relevant to our room because the solitary spends a great deal of effort accommodating to existence in a room. Whatever the size of the room, its intimacy for solitude makes the room reflect the degree of our projected thoughts. That is why open spaces outdoors in a natural setting can open our minds so much, while small and confined spaces of our own making can usefully allow us to concentrate our minds. Light can amplify the bad effects or compliment the good ones. Smaller spaces require less light for thought and concentrated light for concentration (as in reading or writing).

Natural light carries with it the sense of open space. All of the indoor settings of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, for example, are full of natural light, which makes for a sense of harmony with whatever is just outside the window. The lighted space is not intimate as such but is connected. Or perhaps that sense of connection is what makes the room more intimate, or at least hospitable. Contrast this with a famous painting of Vincent van Gogh, where the source of light in the room is harsh, intrusive, overwhelming — as its occupant would doubtless have felt.

One doesn’t have to be a designer to appreciate light in our rooms. How light makes us feel is enough of a criterion.


Within the spectrum of solitaries there is great diversity. Perhaps the anchorites present the greatest paradox. Our daily routine may seem solitary enough, but we grant ourselves the freedom to move about, to choose our food, our books, our music, our hours, the freedom to daydream, to seek creative outlets, to enter the world of work or society as we see fit or as life and circumstances dictate. We may take our freedom of thought and movement for granted, our pursuits as necessary for our well-being, our obligations as inevitable, yet still respect our ideals of solitude and silence.

But the anchorite willingly renounces all this, perceiving a different order or vision, one that makes this freedom unnecessary, purposeless, and without value. The anchorite gives this up, wants to die to all of it. Thus, historically, was the anchorite’s dwelling considered a tomb, and the ritual of the church that confirmed the anchoritic life was the funerary ritual, the burial of the dead.

Solitary life is a spectrum. The physical isolation and dependence on others seem to contradict the goals of solitude and silence. But are we not dependent on others even in our daily lives: our food, our income, our fuel, our intellectual needs? Is it the chafing against this literal dependency that further drives us to solitude, a drive that the anchorite merely accepts and crafts to herself, turning it on its head?

The anchorite makes of dependence the dependence of others on herself or himself. Others have a moral obligation to the anchorite. Others have an obligation to feed and clothe, to service the dwelling and put off the curious, the disrespectful, the thief. Others have the burden of prayer and remembrance and esteem and justification, not the anchorite. Meanwhile, the anchorite can die to dependency, while other solitaries go on struggling with complex social and interpersonal necessities.

The anchorite shows us that dependency is a relative thing, that to die to smugness and attachment is more important than to strive for a complete lack of dependence on others. Yet, seen in this psychological and moral light, the anchorite is not alone among those who have directly confronted the issue of dependency. Mendicants and wanderers and wilderness hermits may share this insight, which may be conscious or tacit.


The solitary is more interested in rooms than in houses. The room is the focus of as many activities as possible, designed and adapted to personal interest, while a house is usually designed and built by someone else, a faceless builder constructing to conform with social convention, profitability, and municipal codes.

The rooms of a house have been given social functions based on an ideal of socializing. Thus a dining room for dining, a kitchen for cooking, etc. More status is reflected by houses with more functions to their space — in other words, more rooms, so-called family rooms, entertainment rooms, drawing rooms, foyers, libraries, and the like.

House occupancy or ownership presupposes a higher social and economic status in the first place. Throughout history, people around the world have lived in one large room. Their functions were defined by nature and their family role, not by rooms. No wonder that hermits in these societies have always sought out a cottage, a cell, or a cave, while the majority of people sought out the marketplace, the community well, and gregarious places.

Solitaries may live in buildings where sets of rooms are “apart,” (i.e., apartments) and where scale and partitions make intimate spaces more of a challenge, but the idea of house versus room is the same. Even within the smallest spaces, the solitary finds a smaller one and makes of it an intimacy.

Ultimately, rooms project individuality whereas houses project social faces. Rooms look inward; houses look outward. Rooms are where we live while houses are where we dwell. Rooms are intimate and personal while houses are concessions to functional containers with spaces occupied occasionally for particular functions. We don’t want visitors to our room but we accept visitors into our houses. We display tokens of our beliefs and personalities in houses but keep our originals within our private space. If we invite someone into our room it is as if we have invited them to glimpse our souls.