The motive of the solitary has a strong parallel to the objective of the hermit (or monk) described by John Cassian in one of his Conferences. One of the first premises is not so much what the solitary does but whether others should know or become aware of the solitary’s “project,” of his or her conscious pursuit of solitude. Hence, when approaching the hermit Moses for his wisdom, John Cassian must admit that

We had known that he [Moses] had a very determined mind and that he would never throw open the gates of perfection except to those who longed for it in all faith and with chastened hearts, since this is certainly not something to be made known to the indifferent or to those whose interest is only lukewarm. This revelation can be made only to those longing for perfection. By handing it over to the unworthy or to begrudgers, he seemed to fear to do wrong or to run the risk of a betrayal.

This is a very important point for the solitary. While a professed religious in the modern world states his or her eremitism publicly (to the extent that a public even notices), the rest of us weave a solitary life that appears to the average onlooker as a quirk of personality, an affectation, or just a private penchant. (Hence the nasty remark of Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary that “A hermit is someone who engages in vice, but privately.”)

The “private little room” all to oneself, as Montaigne described the mental reserve of the solitary who intersects with the crowd, is jealously guarded as a haven, resource, and retreat. Here the solitary is free to pursue the “project,” the way of a personal vision. Of course, the more that “way” can be cultivated, the less self-sonscious need the solitary be in social settings or even in pursuing so-called social obligations with others.

But the concern only intensifies: how does the solitary protect and safeguard that insight, that which lies behind “gates of perfection,” as Joh Cassian so felicitously puts it?

We can see this concern on the broad analogy of the “pearls to swine” gospel admonition. Why not share our wisdom, our insight, with others? The answer is built into the saying itself:

Do not give to dogs what is holy, neither cast your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet and turn and tear you.

Thus hermit Moses feared that the indifferent and the lukewarm would turn into the unworthy and the begrudging if they were offered his eremitic or sagacious insights. They would trample the pearls in their ignorance and intolerance but also “turn and tear” him from his project, his way, his solitude.

The solitary is quickly confirmed in this. The solitary safeguards solitude. Not to do so is to waste time among the idle, the curious, and those who leave us emotionally drained or demoralised. Worse, it is to open the gates to those who would undermine the “way” and thus trample the project.


What are we to make of the death poem of Chogo, an eighteenth-century Japanese poet?

I long for people —
Then again I loath them:
end of autumn.

Because it is a death poem, is its inspiration that characteristic mood of serious sickness wherein one wants alternatively to be left alone and yet to be comforted? That is the sense he projects when he then writes: “end of autumn.” But perhaps the poem is an epitome of his life (about which almost nothing is known)? In this case, did Chogo pass a lifetime of desire and conformity with alternative periods of self-hatred for what others had done to him — or for what he had done to himself?

The solitary must understand his or her motives as clearly as possible. A standard image of the hermit (or better, the recluse) is of someone driven by social failures to live apart: sullen, resentful, and misanthropic. Let this not befall us or be our motive. Our desire for solitude may be mixed (nothing is unsullied) but by understanding and refining our motives through introspection and honesty we can avoid the darker emotional drive that makes of solitude an involuntary reaction to life and its circumstances, a reaction that can so easily sour the motive for solitude. Instead, in a nuanced way, we need to be able to say, like the Japanese poet Ryokan:

It is not that I dislike people
It is that I am so very tired of them.


written about 3 a.m.

At the moment I want to change half of the old saying that “Man proposes, God disposes” and say “pain disposes.” Pain obliterates every project, plan, and inspiration. At least that is what happens at the worst moments of the excruciating toothache I have. After three weeks of moderate pain escalating to a couple of sleepless nights, I will be seeing a dentist today and hope a solution wil come.

Ajan Chah, the Thai forest monk, tells a couple of stories about toothache. Once, alone in the forest, he suffered a horrendously painful episode. He could not lie down or sit. He tried walking meditation but that did not help. He sat again to meditate, breathing carefully, and mindfully, through the pain. A moment came at last when he no longer identified with the pain and made a breakthrough. A dull pain lingered but nothing like before.

In another story Ajan Chah tells how he could feel tooth pain coming on but the next moment a tooth popped out and rolled about in his mouth. He took it out and looked at it and remarked: “I guess I must be getting old.”

But the solitary traveler Bob Kull, described in the March 25, 2005, entry of Hermits Around the Web, is memorable. Kull, a scientist spending a year alone on a southern Chilean island far from human contact, went so far as to self-extract a painful tooth using just a mirror and old pliers — and a great deal of courage!

I need to read the survival handbook entitled What to Do When There is No Dentist. The book describes itself as offering not remedies until the doctor arrives but remedies because there will be no doctor. I’m sure I am not ready for that, or for Ajan Chah’s meditative strength of mind, or Bob Kull’s strength of heart. I am overturned and disposed. Pain is one step at a time, like climbing a mountain, and though I have had my share over the years, no sleight of hand on my part can make up for sheer courage.

written about 3 p.m.

Aha! The problem was a wisdom tooth. It was extracted, and the pain is gone. … A dog in pain will bite its master. Well, farewell, old tooth. We have been together for many years …


Fog that descends with night has always seemed of a character different from the fog of dawn. They are the same to a meteorologist but the metaphors are distinct.

With night comes the end of processes and pursuits, the descent into sleep and the loss of consciousness. Hence the metaphor of a foggy brain or of one’s mind in a fog is a negative image, a smothering of vitalities. It has nothing to do with night people or owls who enjoy late night reading or music or reflection. These insulate the self from the night, make it a context. They do not live in the night but, in a sense, outlast it, until sleep comes inevitably.

But the fog that seems to emerge with the first light of dawn is a bridge to awakening and consciousness, a promise of brightness, a clear and cooling metaphor for gradual enlightenment. (It can accommodate sudden enlightenment, too, as when one moment there is fog and the next there is nothing but absolute clarity.) The scintillating moments when night begins to ebb and fog reveals itself pulling away from the thick edges of darkness show how independent is fog. The ambiguity and flexibility of fog at dawn is a reminder of how everything gradually reveals itself, that it is not the harsh light but the gentle realization of perception and pattern that gives meaning and insight.

“Grandfather” Squirrel

“Grandfather” Squirrel probably died. I don’t know for sure but this is another year in a row in which he has not returned to the trees he enjoyed for so many years.

The fox squirrel got his name from his predicatable annual appearances: seeing his black and gray colors progressively become grayer and whiter, seeing the squirrels that accompanied him, clearly younger, who seemed his progeny, even his grandchildren. Of course, the squirrel might just as well be “Grandmother.”

Unlike other fox squirrels in yellow or the many smaller gray squirrels (not to be confused with the color, just the name), Grandfather was notable for his loud and intemperate chucking sounds when any creature neared his trees or the seeds in “his” bird feeder. He was the first squirrel (among successors) to foil the “squirrel-proof” feeders. And the first to not only appear regularly for food, but to even come up to the house and sit on the window sill looking in and demanding seeds when they were forgotten or overlooked by a distracted human occupant of the house. Despite his irrascible temper, however, he was the first to eat seeds from a proffered hand.

“Grandfather” had never been driven from his territory by rivals, but one year he did move quietly from his usual haunt to a clump of trees some yards away when another large squirrel (perhaps his progeny) muscled in. That was the first sign that he was growing old. After that season, Grandfather never reappeared.

Given a squirrel’s short lifespan and predictable foraging behavior, it is likely that Grandfather Squirrel will never come back. He will be missed.