Walking at twilight when I spot a flock of large white birds flying low against the darkening sky. It is in a perfect formation and flying directly towards me. I brace myself, struck by the contrast of slow white motion and unmoving dark sky, and by the utter silence. In a moment, the flock is winging right over me. The sound is utterly unexpected: a low quiet hush, like a subtle wave over sand. A tangible tingle passes through me. Everything lasts a second. I look back to see the birds wing away.

As a child, the Indian mystic Ramakrishna one day fell into a swoon while crossing a field and seeing a flock of white birds against a dark sky. I could understand the experience when I read his biography (by the French writer Romain Rolland), but could not appreciate it as fully as I could the other day, and do now.


We make restless efforts to achieve, improve, and strive. We always want to go somewhere, like restless hunter-gatherers, or, negatively, like wanderers doomed to scavenge the earth.

That is why the image of the flower in nature is such a calm and reflective alternative to the sense of restlessness. The flower makes us pause and wonder at its beauty and its utter simplicity but more importantly at the startling fact that it has done nothing in order to be or become the way it is. No one has intervened on its behalf to bring it about. A flower is a chance occurrence of soil and wind, of rain and sunlight.

Here is the beginning of a philosophy of nature and life that is easy to grasp yet inexhaustible in its profoundness. Can we be like the “lilies of the field”? We are scattered seed upon the earth. Can we discover the optimum conditions for a simple and fruitful life, nurtured by the elements of nature, not by contrivance, artificiality, or intervention?

The seed does not sprout in places it was not meant to. We are where we are because of some ineffable circumstance, and we may never know why. That is the source of our restlessness. Can we selflessly follow the wise pattern of the flower’s growth and beauty and decay, which occurs irregardless of what it might “try” to do? How many mystics have given up on the “why” in order to throw themselves, like scattered seed, at the deeper solution: the ineffability, the mystery, the emptiness!

A field of flowers is impressive, and a bouquet of flowers has its charm, but it is the one solitary flower in the forest or the meadow or the trashheap that teaches best.

Four films about hermits

Four films of interest to anticipate:

1. Into Great Silence is a documentary film of the Grande Chartreuse and daily life of the silent monks there. Because no one in the film speaks and there is no voice-over narration, Into Great Silence is a visual and aural experience of great depth. URL: http://www.diegrossestille.de.

2. Milarepa tells the story of the 8th-century Tibetan Buddhist hermit Milarepa. The Bhutan-born producer Neten Chokling filmed with monks as his non-professional cast on location in the Indo-Tibetan frontier. Shown at film festivals, the latest being Vancouver, B.C. URL:

3. The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life and Death of Robert E. Harrill is a documentary film. The web site blurb explains that Harrill “spent 17 years under the stars and scrub oaks of Fort Fisher, North Carolina. Surviving off the land and the contributions from thousands of visitors, he became one of the areas largest tourist attractions.” A DVD is available. URL:

4. The Island tells the story of a modern-day guilt-ridden man who sacrifices life by entering a rigorous and isolated monastery and pursuing a life of atonement there, where he challenges the monks and attracts pilgrims who seek him out for advice and healing. Not knowing the ending, however, I will not recommend but merely not the appearance of this one. URL:

Thanks to friends of Hermitary for bringing these films to our attention.

New Age consciousness

Another version of consciousness is the notion that amalgamates matter and energy. On the one hand, the New Age version of this view appropriates quantum physics as a kind of scientific proof of non-scientific ideas. On the other hand, this view extrapolates the principles about subatomic activity into everyday life, as does the film and book titled What the Bleep Do We Know?

Our thoughts determine reality, says this view of consciousness. See how a thought can make us sad or angry or aroused? Our brains are bathed in chemicals, and our depression or elation (or cancer or financial wealth) results from a flood of neuro-peptides. If we can harness this process, we can make our own reality. Or at least we can get a handle on our lives. So say the presenters (largely unnamed) of the film.

The premise is a kind of spiritual materialism. Matter is all that we are, neurons firing and chemicals mingling, basic science and better known than in the past. But thought and language and expression then become sparks and ashes of this chemical process, hence the materialism.

The ends of changing reality are noble but the means are not likely. How consciousness is to get to a point of equilibrium that equates or approximates enlightenment is hard enough for masters. To literally change reality (as in “miracles”) is not for the rest of us. We can see the premises of What the Bleep? in its chief inspirer John Hagelin of Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, or in the channeler of “Ramtha.” If we can create an institution or organization or a thought and make it reality, then other realities can be affected by it. At a personal level, for example, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment (not in the film) advertises classes wherein you can “became a remarkable life.” Hence changing reality sounds at first like improving your health or attitude or seriously addressing addictions, diseases, or mental problems, but in What the Bleep? reality is in fact the world of the paranormal, psychic, and spiritualist. At most, kind masters of the past would have called these “optional.” It is what I call “old” New Age, like theosophy.

What we do know is that human beings are afflicted with too much culture and organizations and blessed with too little tranquility and solitude for collecting themselves and pursuing sustainable lives. While some may desire to take on paranormal powers, we should not distract anyone from the banality of organizing their lives, thoughts, and desires. We should strive to not be remarkable people and not have remarkable powers.

When a rival master visited a certain Chan master, the visitor boasted of being able to walk on water and perform other great feats. The host shrugged and replied. “I, too, have great powers. I chop wood, I haul water.”