Recovering nature

For convenience, it is easy to distinguish nature met intentionally (as in camping, hiking, retreats) and the serendipitous and less intimidating sense of nature in one’s own backyard. But not everyone has a backyard, or, in fact, goes out into nature at all. Nature is increasingly the object or context of a specific outing, not something enjoyable in an urban or unpropertied setting, at least not as a contrivance like a park or piece of lawn, which are not natural in the first place.

The desert setting of the early Christian hermits, the forests of the starets and European hermits, the mountains of the Chinese and Japanese hermits — all were an important psychological context to the practice of eremitism. We can recreate these through books and readings, or even try to emulate them with forays into equivalent areas, but wilderness is fast becoming extinct in the world, and with it comes a threat to the re-creation of eremitism.

Hermits can survive urbanization because the cell or room or anchorhold has been the context dwelling for hermits immemorial. But many historical hermits were nurtured and thrived on the ability to make their cell or room near natural places, where they could see sunlight, hear birds, feel fresh air and smell trees, soil, and flowers. Thus Ryokan, the Japanese Zen hermit and poem, for example:

My hermitage lies in a forest all around me,
Everything is thick and green
no one finds this place,
Only those who have lost their way.

No news of the affairs of the world
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.

A thousand peaks, ten thousand mountain streams
yet no signs of anyone.

These experiences have more potential for changing the human heart and shifting it away from society and the marketplace, which is usually presented to as the only reality, or at least the reality that is “natural” and matters. A scholar may stoke the imagination reading about the natural settings of historical hermits, and we may enjoy the poets and hermits in books, but one day in the wilderness is enough to kindle or reinforce eremitic values — and with them, a philosophy of life.

Nature works by softening the heart that is made artificial and competitive in society. Society is a human contrivance built around whatever the culture values — usually strength, cleverness, competition. Hence society’s members conform their minds and hearts to those social values presented as the only ones that ultimately matter for survival in a hostile world (note all the premises about nature and life).

Thus we experience the loss of the suppleness of original human nature. When Hobbes described human existence as “nasty, brutish, and short,” it was society and not existence that he had better in mind. Similarly, the popular notion that human nature is corrupt and conniving is really a portrait of life in society and culture. The description does not apply to original human nature or to an abstracted individual or human potential, only to the socializing and competitive human being.

Nature allows this hard shell formed by life in society to soften and become unnecessary and irrelevant. Nasty behavior and misanthropy do not function in nature. They serve no purpose. They are irrelevant. Brutish behaviors, whether as glib hypocrisy or arrogant violence reveal themselves as masks of society, and we would be relieved to be rid of them. One can do so in nature, donning them again, to one degree or another, wen returning to the world.

Popular media argue that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” but this as much a projection of what we see in human society. The patterns of violence we witness in nature are not the product of a consciousness equivalent to that of humans. They hardly represent the willful behavior of beings that have evolved as far as we humans would claim. Nature does not represent values and their products anywhere near the premeditated and gruesome violence that humans perpetrate on one another.

Indeterminate

A friend of Hermitary notes with regard to consciousness the primordial sense of the indeterminate, prior to even the basic yin-yang, as found in Confucius. This is what Chuang-tzu refers to in saying: “At the great beginning there was non-being, which had neither being nor name.”

The indeterminate It is not quite equivalent to the “great ultimate” which is the force that precipitates or engenders the yin-yang motion, the fundamental motion of all things.

From a Western perspective, one might say that the indeterminate is what is described (in a sense) in the second line of Genesis: “And the earth was void and without form; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The great ultimate, then, would be closer to the rest of the passage: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” — leaving aside a definition of “Spirit of God.”

The problem for the Western sensibility is that these passages come after, not before, the engendered forces of yin-yang or equivalent. The first line, before the above lines, is: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So the philosophical assumption for Western thought is the a priori status of God or the Prime Mover or First Cause, etc.

As our friend points out, referring to Kant, the a priori status of everything is derived as consciousness, reason, ethics, etc. In this sequence, we never get to posit the peace, rest, and “nothing” state first, but we are immediately thrown into motion, forces, dualism, and what Taoism calls the “ten thousand things.”

The chief characteristic of origin stories is the rush to justify or explain what “is” rather than accept a certain indeterminacy in the primordial universe. The stories attempt to explain what “is” and how it got that way to the satisfaction of the given culture, which is why so many creation myths sound naive and amusing to our modern minds. At the same time, in attempting to justify or give reason, the stories address why things exist rather than do not exist. At this point, they merely fall back on the facticity of the universe, of the heavens and earth, and derive their perception of moral or ethical necessity from the contemporary culture that has already evolved them.

How, then, to understand the primordial nature of the universe as rest and balance and peace and stability if we cannot get behind what is called God? For God represents the active element that in effect forces all of creation to enter the endless cycle, the endless turning of the wheel. Zoroastrianism, like Genesis, presents creation as orderliness, the opposite of the intolerable void and darkness of the primordial universe before God casts light into it and begins separating and identifying its parts. From this and other origin presentations the West takes its dichotomous universe: good and evil, darkness and light, truth and falsity, order and chaos.

Eastern thought presents an Absolute either as a descriptive Brahman or a less descriptive Void. The attempt to reach back into the original state is based on the insight of how the mind and consciousness function. The mind and consciousness in the state of peace and meditative emptiness are not social functions, busy with activities, events, and processes. They reflect a truer, more genuine state of being, and to describe these mechanisms is the goal of these traditions. Yet the momentum of spiritual life in, say, the Christian mystics, early hermits, and hesychasts is toward transcending duality, even while accepting the necessity of a literalist presentation to the masses.

For that matter, perhaps all philosophical and spiritual traditions originate in this context of non-duality, but accept duality as what seems to be real and necessary for the ordered evolution of culture and society. Society never returns to an exploration of the primordial because the culture has driven out speculation in favor of ritual, law, and centers of power and authority. Such speculations are left to shamans and mystics — if they are allowed to disrupt the established order.

Additionally, our friend notes correctly that Nietzsche did much to attempt to break through this conundrum — if largely by sweeping away the philosophers and religionists altogether and starting over! Nietzsche seeks to identify the primordial motion within us, rejecting ideas of consciousness up to that time as contrived projections. He hits upon the formula of will, but the conundrum of consciousness and the contrived state of mind when functioning as a social and cultural “will” still needs to be integrated. That was the challenge for existentialism in the twentieth century, or at least in part. Western thought is still preoccupied with things “post-creation” — and not making much progress in insight. Western thought is by-and-large not working on the primordial, the indeterminate.

Perspective

Many popular images are intended to demonstrate that how we view things is a matter of perspective. For example, the image of a glass of water: the optimist says it is half-full, and the pessimist says it is half-empty. All a matter of perspective, we are told triumphantly.

Except that the perspective cannot end with the glass as is. The water in the glass is at a specific level and how it got that way we don’t know, but it matters. In real life we tend to accept conditions and situations because their mere existence gives them credence; their longevity or their persistence tends to legitimize them as necessary and real. As Hegel insisted, “What is real is right, what is right is real.”

Both perspectives of looking at the glass of water are looking not at the past or even the present but extrapolating into the future. The optimist says, “It can always be filled up,” while the pessimist replies, “It can always be emptied altogether.” Perspective is not just a matter of what exists here and now. Perspective must take into account a variety of factors.

In Hindu tradition, the story of the person entering a house at dusk and mistaking a coil of rope for a serpent is an old parable. The story illustrates not just how we mistakenly perceive things (that are remedied with time) but how we respond emotionally to misperceptions and assumptions.

The issue is not the physical limits of our optics and brain but the response that extends our personality and values. The apparent snake frightens us to no end, our heart racing, our palms sweating, blood rushing to our head. That is all physiology and much of it out of our control. But worse is how we implement subconsciously the values we have already cultivated. Do we prepare to strike violently with a shovel or whatever is at hand? Are we altogether paralyzed with indecision or fright? Do we run in fear? Or do we stay and observe just one fraction of a moment to allow comprehension to arise?

The snake and the rope is a parable for daily life experiences. Perspective has more to do with response than with action or miscalculation. Wise people doubt perception in the first place, not because they cannot judge or assess. Rather, they know that with values long cultivated and now steady and clear, all phenomena will fall into place for them. Judgment need not be instant or hasty. How long merely depends on how important the situation. And in many cases, the situation will end up being of low enough importance that the wise person will not have had to worry or be angry or be moved at all, as the situation merely falls away. Taoism considers inaction (wu wei) one of the highest virtues.

Nor is perspective a matter of cultures and societies and mores being relative; rather, these are expressions of physical and intellectual limitations, products of an unwise and unreflective collectivity. If we acknowledge the origins of ideas around us, we can begin to free ourselves from relativism. We are then able to organize what we perceive into a perspective that does not depend upon circumstance, accidentals, chance or the limitations of society, body, and mind.

Looking for consciousness

Consciousness plunges into a full discussion of so many other universal questions. Even apparently opposing points of view about consciousness seem to approach one another after all, then diverge suddenly like charged particles. Even defining consciousness provokes forays into divergent topics, as if eluding sight of the subatomic particle.

One can begin at an extreme, that of the radical opponents of consciousness like B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. The behaviorist dismisses consciousness as non-existent. If it cannot be weighed, measured, or quantified then it does not exist. Instead, according to behaviorism, everything humans do is conditioned long before, just conditioned reflexes. This may simplify our understanding of, say, motor reflexes, but it assumes that we are products of upbringing and of society’s acculturation — which is true to a large degree. That is, most people seem to function as automatons in some perverse avoidance of thinking and reflecting on what they have inherited and on what is surrounding them.

But that is not what consciousness or denying consciousness is all about. Instead, denial is the denial of a human nature other than whatever physical juices have evolved. Human propensity for violence is due to inevitable shortages of electrical impulses or to an overlarge amygdala. All of this sounds sufficient if we are assessing the human being as a composite of society and culture over the centuries. It does not address the individual or potentialities. And we can sense the inadequacies of scientific explanation when we see how it is as much dependent on society’s values at the time, as in behaviorism’s heyday of the 1950’s infatuation with technology and progress. The modern behaviorist fears Descartes’ ghost in the machine, the theologian’s soul, the universal self , because ultimately behaviorism cannot accept will.

The existential philosopher Sartre appears to represent the very opposite point of view. Consciousness is demonstrated by the very fact that we are completely, starkly, and imminently free to define our selves and exercise our wills. This is the insight of existentialism, which is not trying to make of the will a hero or metaphysical champion but instead to recognize the profoundness of our individual capability to become aware of the content and nature of society and culture. We are conditioned in an anecdotal sense, in that we are born with this or that set of parents, learn this or that language and set of values, cultivate this or that personality. All of this is grist for consciousness: to recognize all of this socialization and to wonder at its significance — and yet at its insignificance in assessing what it means to be human, really human.

Yet Sartre concludes that when we look behind all of this accoutrement of social face and presentation to the world, consciousness is not that. Consciousness is not the sum of acculturation, not the sum of the parts. But neither is it the soul or the ghost in the machine. Sartre says, simply, that it is nothing.

Now, “nothing” and nothingness have a long career despite their 20th century tone of nihillism. In Vedanta, for example, we catalog the objects of our senses and conclude that what “is” is “not that, not that.” It is the nada that John of the Cross spoke of. It is the object of meditation east and west when our minds rest in emptiness. It is no “thing.” But, then, what is it? It is our awareness of this emptiness, this nothingness, that constitutes consciousness. Equating this nothingness with consciousness does not define consciousness but sets out its existential parameters. It identifies what the individual can “do” with the objects it encounters. What it “does” reflects the maturation of will, the refinement of self, and, ultimately, the qualities of consciousness.

A sense of what consciousness is might be to consider a flower. How conscious is a flower of not its surroundings but of its self? We would say not at all but, well, it does not matter. The flower’s surroundings are its self — to the delight and the denial of the behaviorist, who will gleefully not assign the flower (or the human being) a self, and will see the growth of the seed, the stem, the leaves, and the flower, as the equivalent of “conditioning,” needing no consciousness, which is dismissed as a primitive anthropomorphism. The flower will have no more meaning than the universe.

But we have as much of a career as the flower. The only difference is that, as Heidegger says, “being” is an issue to us. We are reflexive, we are out of our emptiness and nothingness, unlike the flower, which exists in perfect harmony with the universe, its surroundings, its self. Our human restlessness makes the behaviorist in turn restless about the possibility that we humans have — even as we grow, mature, age, and pass away like a flower — awareness. Who can deny that we are painfully and achingly aware of this, that we have “consciousness,” be it the ghost, the soul, the self, the unit of expression by the universe, or an eternal flower.

So the challenge is to search for consciousness but with the expectation of finding, well, nothing. And everything.

Wandering

A traveler is not a wanderer and the wanderer is not a hermit, but there are affinities among them.

The Japanese Zen poet and hermit Basho traveled throughout Japan visiting shrines and places of interest — but on his last journey he had renounced his property, a hut, expecting not to return. Basho’s journey was as a pilgrim and a traveler but he was not lost, in the sense that we typify the classic wanderer. In part due to age and infirmity, he traveled in company and not strictly as a hermit, but in spirit he was still so.

What is a wanderer but a homeless soul, or perhaps a dwelling-less one? The hijiri of Japan, also inspired by spiritual motives, considered themselves homeless, much like the sadhu of Hindu India and the digambara of Jainism. These are wanderers in that they trek across the geography without possession or claim to anything on the earth. In this way they belong unabashedly to it. But they, too, are not lost.

Wanderers have been made so, too, in history — exiles, fugitives, and survivors of war and disasters. Their pitiable states are hardly to be romanticized. Victims of injustice or historical circumstance fall into the category of involuntariness. That is a social consequence, not a freely elected pursuit.

Thus the “Wanderer” of Old English elegy (see Hermitary article) borders on eremitism not because of any less involuntariness but because he concludes that to be alone and a solitary is his fate — though how he got there was not of his choosing. He reflects and writes and universalizes, and so becomes a wanderer.

Odysseus of Greek lore is a homeless victim of war, too, but he savors adventure, mingling pleasure with the sorrow of exile and the longing for home. The difference with the Old English poet is that Odysseus has not lost his home but only lost his way home. Because he can still identify with home, and with a wife and child and property, Odysseus is a wanderer by proxy.

Sea poems with their vigor and optimism make wandering the opposite of tragic tales of exile and loss. The poetry of John Masefield, for example, should be read aloud for its exquisite capture of rhythm:

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. …
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry-yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

These are rousing lines even if we adhere to the Portuguese saying: “Love the sea but stay on the land.” Masefield could be giving voice to the Dharma Bums at sea, or even Han-shan were he to trade his Chinese mountain haunts for the ocean, assuming he could tolerate his fellow mariners. Masefield is not a hermit, of course, but the secret pleasure that he enjoys being both alone and simultaneously in company is not unlike a coenobite’s monastery flung open to the sky and seas, with cabin provisions for the hermit.

Such enthusiasm should infect eremitism and solitude just as throughly. Except for the struggles with philosophizing and emotions, a hermit can awaken each day just as intensely. Ascending mountains of logic can have its reward, but a wild appreciation for what is right there in front of us, filling our eyes or nostrils or sweeping our hair, can bring to our days as wanderers a great joy.