Preparing for death

The Stoics knew life as a rehearsal for death (see last entry), but so, too, did the early Christian desert hermits in their realization that the world was eremos or desolation and that solitude was the deliverance of self to nature and the divine.

On his deathbed, the hermit Pambo said only that since he had come to the desert he had eaten nothing not of his own hand, that he had said nothing to offend God, and that he had not even reached the point of being pious. Pambo’s mind and heart recede from a self-consciousness that would make him aware of his weaknesses — or strengths. His no-mind is paralleled in Eastern thought. When asked for a word of wisdom he kept silent, saying that he had not yet found something worthy enough to say. Implying that he probably never would.

This purity of heart is the great challenge. Virtue performed for vainglory or ostentation is worse than participation in the world because it denotes more about the content of the mind. Death shakes thoughts into a marching order, and the most vainglorious are accorded the highest rank for fullness of the world. Emptiness of mind is emptiness of the world, the worldly, and the impermanent. Even hermits fall who follow ascetic practice in order to flatter themselves or show off to others. Their deeds are circumscribed. They could well be jostling the elite and powerful in the marketplace and the theater, attracting worldly adulation, for they have misunderstood eremos (desolation, empty space). The desolation of the world remains in their hearts and they have not realized it.

That is why desert hermit stories always feature hermits who have been tempted in one way or another to return to the city, to resume a worldly life. There is the story of the hermit who believed himself wise and articulate enough that he should now go to the city and preach. There is the young woman in her house performing acts of piety and asceticism, who could hear the sounds of laughter and enjoyment in the streets, who at last flung open her window and invited the first man she saw passing by to enter.

Not pious acts will save or enlighten but the presence of death in our minds and hearts. As Palladius, the compiler, says: “For those who keep death always in mind, that it will come of necessity and will not tarry, shall not greatly fall.” But not death as a morbidity or fear, as a hypochondria or madness, but simply as a point on the arc of life, an arc that remains a mystery and cannot even be quantified.

The Dalai Lama has published many books, and they do read much like one another. He wants to emphasize his ideas, of course, and one can pick up nearly any of his titles fruitfully. In Becoming Enlightened, he offers a section on death and how to think and account for it; the chapter is titled “Knowing You Will Die.” The Dalai Lama offers a summary (adapted here) of what we should contemplate concerning death:

First, that death is definite because

  1. death cannot be avoided
  2. our life span cannot be extended and grows ever shorter
  3. even when we are alive there is little time to practice.

Thus, our first decision must be: “I must practice.”

Second, death is uncertain because

  1. our life span in this world is indefinite,
  2. the causes of death are many and the causes of life are few,
  3. the time of death is not knowable due to the fragility of the body.

This leads to the second decision: “I must practice now.”

Third, at the time of death, nothing but what the Dalai Lama calls “transformative practice” will help us because

  1. at the time of death our friends are no help,
  2. at the time of death our wealth is no help, and
  3. at the time of death our body is no help.

This leads to the third decision: “I will practice non-attachment to all of the wonderful things of this life.”

The urgency is in confronting death and emptying it of its terror and its power. Death is like a tool that excavates the mind and heart of its attachments, a painful process of wrenching us from the world and from the world we have constructed. But how do we cheat death in this inevitability? We have, use, and enjoy many innocuous things daily. Not simply the pleasure of food, books, music, kind words from others, (friends, wealth, and the body mentioned above) but also nature, birdsong, trees, and wind. Must we disassociate ourselves prematurely from these, as if we should stare at white sanitarium walls all day?

In fact, staring at a wall is what Bodhidharma (who brought Buddhism to China) did, according to legend. But this is a metaphor for understanding what the mind is, especially in the face of death. Bodhidharma taught that

As long as you are subject to birth and death, you will not attain enlightenment. To attain enlightenment you must see your nature. Unless you see your nature all talk about cause and effect is nonsense. … The nature of the mind is basically empty, neither pure nor impure. … The capacity of the mind is limitless. The manifestations of the mind are inexhaustible. Seeing forms with your eyes, hearing sounds with your ears, smelling odors with your nose, tasting flavors with your tongue — every movement and every state is all your mind. At every moment, where language cannot go, that is your mind.

Whoever knows that the mind is a fiction and devoid of anything real knows that his own mind neither exists nor does not exist. Mortals keep creating the mind, claiming that it exists. And arhats keep negating the mind, claiming it does not exist. But bodhisattvas and buddhas neither create nor negate the mind. This is what is meant by the mind that neither exists nor does not exist. …

And that is the point about “the wonderful things of this life.” We sift and select and refine from the myriad things that which serves as a mirror to the mind, a mind that is empty, a mind that is neither existent nor non-existent — like death itself. We need to practice in order to live, not in order to die. Because living correctly is dying correctly. And practicing these is to embrace the wonderful things for what they are, and thus empty ourselves completely in them.


What becomes of the solitary or hermit in old age? Or does the question assume that anything is or should be different after a long rehearsal for death, as Schopenhauer might put it? The acceptance of death prompts the search for wisdom over a lifetime. Life is an engagement with those elements of nature and the universe that will teach us how to craft this path. We stay engaged with life when we are engaged with these elemental teachers. To not be so engaged is truly to waste life and to be a walking dead.

Montaigne argued that no one falls into decrepitude; they get that way through bad habits long sustained. But sometimes nature afflicts the body for no obvious reason, sometimes the mind, and perhaps, we may add, always the soul. Montaigne would have death take him while planting cabbages. Seneca, too, complained gently about physical aches and pains but sees the whole process of aging as somehow bemusing.

The media is filled with stories about old men and women living alone and dying alone. Most suffer dementia; they are not hermits. If hermits grow old and come to be demented, that has nothing to do with eremitism, and their status of hermit or solitary becomes accidental and falls away. Sadness hovers over the plight of the old anyway, not as nature but in terms of how society deals with the old. Old age is the period in life when a person’s unattended matters of psychology and soul are no longer addressed by society, and life ebbs as quickly as an extinguishing candle.

Such neglect should not be the case, of course, but modern society has no place for the old who lack material or social provisions for their declining years. Further, modern society lacks a spiritual consensus, and abets the alienation of individuals and families wherein a solitary personality may have been shunned, ridiculed, or rejected.

In ancient India, the young man (it was always men) was expected to study the scriptures and make a decision about pursuing the life of a householder (involving marriage, child-rearing, and an occupation) or electing the life of a forest hermit or wandering mendicant. The original system presented four paths, the first being studentship in which the young man decided to live and study with a teacher. In each, one would grow old, of course. The householder was expected to retire to the forest, renouncing property and social engagement, upon the coming of age of his sons. Ultimately, seeing his life, health, and faculties waning, he was expected to stop eating (although there is no clear consensus about this).

The practical provisions for eremitism that existed in ancient India (and have their counterparts in other historical cultures of Asia and medieval Europe) understood that the individual must consciously make provisions for death, including eremitic options. But society, too, supported and encouraged these provisions in an objective but unintrusive way. Such societies saw eremitism as a microcosm of its own spiritual values, and so gave space and dignity to the hermit. This cannot be expected today except among consciously religious communities, or among the handful of friends that a hermit or solitary might have.

Instead, the example of the recluse occurs — far different from the ideal situation of the hermit. An example is in what the media typically reports: a recluse suffering from Diogenes syndrome.

Diogenes syndrome, also known as senior squalor syndrome, is a condition of elderly senility. The popular media is noticing it more frequently, labeling such seniors “recluses,” but occasionally and erroneously calling them “hermits.” Diogenes syndrome is a neglect of personal hygiene and, in their dwelling, a hoarding of rubbish, called syllogomania. Such seniors often come to the attention of authorities due to a fall or medical emergency. A Lancet article notes that of a sample studied that

Personality characteristics showed them to tend to be aloof, suspicious, emotionally labile, aggressive, group-dependent, and reality-distorting individuals. It is suggested that this syndrome may be a reaction late in life to stress in a certain type of personality.

Additionally, these seniors suffered nutritional deficiencies that may have further predisposed them to an inability to deal with stress. Clearly their personality characteristics were not those of the eremitic ideals we encounter everywhere in historical hermits. Indeed, as if underscoring the fact that these individuals were suffering acute stress and nutritional deficiencies, the Lancet article mentions that

Half showed no evidence of psychiatric disorder and possessed higher than average intelligence. Many had led successful professional and business lives, with good family backgrounds and upbringing.

An Encephale article notes that no single cause has been identifiable, and that most observers

agree that this behavior does not reflect free will and has consequently no theoretical relationship to the Greek philosopher. There is no true consensus about diagnostic criteria. They include the main features of the syndrome and exclude known psychiatric syndromes.

Here are some sources:

So the philosophers have it right. Sometimes the body betrays us, sometimes the mind, without obvious explanation if we have led active and conscientious lives. We have to rehearse for all these possibilities, expecting little solace from society and less from many peers, for that is the path of solitude.


The etymology of the word “hermit” is suggestive for more than just linguistic interest. The Greek term eremos refers to desolate spaces, and the eremite is one who goes into that solitary expanse, usually thought of as a desert. And perhaps the desert image is an appropriate one in offering a physical landscape with little redeeming value compared to forest, valley, or mountain (let alone city); the desert image also describes the psychology of a soul bereft of comfort from the world — the situation of the solitary in his or her first ventures into solitude.

Eremitism savors the paradoxical and contrary, as opposed to contradictory. Eremos is desolate in the physical sense, poor and simple in aesthetics versus the rich complexities of the city or palaces of the world. Yet desolation is what characterizes the grand places in their spiritual sterility. So “desolate” places takes on two meanings. The hermit reaches out across the centuries to other like-minded sages, never alone, never “desolate.” Never as alone and “desolate” as the soulless who inhabit the palaces and splendid places.

In physical eremos, solitude is the telling characteristic about the person, without reference to intellectual or psychological content of that one who enters it. In early Christianity (nor later), the hermit was not a consecrated religious; the content of his or her calling was not regulated. The hermit did not have to conform to institutional standards. What, after all, could be expected of the hermit who enters desolate space?

The ancient hermit was not only not consecrated, but not even authorized, to enter eremos. The hermit was not living a sanctioned office, nor even living a socially acceptable life by the standards of his contemporaries, for Christianity emphasizes duty and social service.

Rather, the hermit is a rebel, but not a revolutionary. The hermit does not intend to overturn institutions but to check them and assert contrary values. The hermit expresses dissatisfaction with both secular and religious contemporaries, with their practices and pretenses. This rebellion may be expressed, at first, involuntarily, circumstantial, accidental. For example, in St. Jerome’s little portrait of Paul, the supposedly first Christian hermit, Paul hardly set out to be a hermit. He was simply fleeing a wave of persecution in his city and was betrayed by his brother-in-law as a Christian.

His brother-in-law conceived the thought of betraying the youth whom he was bound to conceal. Neither a wife’s tears which so often prevail, nor the ties of blood, nor the all-seeing eye of God above him could turn the traitor from his wickedness. He came, he was urgent, he acted with cruelty while seeming only to press the claims of affection. The young man had the tact to understand this, and, conforming his will to the necessity, fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution.

Paul fled for a practical reason, involuntarily. But we may extrapolate the situation of historical hermits who reclused themselves for political safety (as in ancient China) or as in Paul’s case. We can extrapolate from a precipitating cause to a reflecting upon what the continual danger of society, authority, and state represented to the individual’s values. Not the value of self-preservation only — though this may be the only motive initially, as in Paul’s case. All the historical hermits eventually reflect upon their situation and come to realize that flee they must, flee into eremos, into a place where the world does not follow because it does not extend its values and win back the hermit.

Jerome’s introduction has not the promise of eremitism but involuntary solitude — and mere eremos, desolate space. The desolation is in physical space and psychological alienation. But Jerome suspends the story of Paul for that of Anthony, who takes the readers’ place as one curious to see how someone can successfully be a hermit. And Jerome offers no details or how-to, only the wonderful dialog ensuing when Anthony finds Paul.

Paul lives in a cave, which he barricades against the sound of an intruder in the night. At the cave entry, Anthony beseeches Paul with pleas and tears. Paul opens at last, realizing that the pleas are genuine. He asks Anthony if he realizes that he has come here to die, so far from anything hospitable is this eremos. But likewise of himself, Paul says:

Behold the man whom you have sought with so much toil, his limbs decayed with age, his gray hairs unkempt. You see before you a man who before long will be dust.

Among historical hermits of Asia, for example, to enter a mountain or forest was to be as if dead, dead to the world. The Hindu forest dweller or forest hermit was not permitted to partake of foods or products from villages, things cultivated by the labor of other than self and nature. This was faith in the providence of nature or the divine to find means sufficient to life, life always teetering on the brink of extinction. The practices of historical hermits like eschewing common foods, warm clothing, conventional shelter, sleep, or the comfort of hearth and companionship, are like archetypes for “how-to.” These methods are crowned with the hermits’ own cultural method of meditation.

Jerome’s narrative then puts into Paul’s mouth what is emblematic eremitism:

Tell me therefore, I pray you, how fares the human race? Are new homes springing up in the ancient cities? What government directs the world? Are there still some remaining for the demons to carry away by their delusions?”

Every generation deems its own times worst, and only a successive generation can apply a material measurement to its predecessor’s claim. T.S. Eliot described a post-World War I world as a “wasteland,” and yet the decades since have seen only worsening material and social conditions. Surely a material measurement today is not a measure of how things are at present but a projection of how they may become in the future. With the collapse of globalization, the onset of global warming, the acceleration of peak energy, and the legacy of destructive technology, the possibilities project to a far worse future than present.

Yet the times are what any individual can make of them; they are whatever comes out of the heart of a person right here and now. The solitary knows that the world is going to be what it is going to be, and that is why the solitary has gone out of it, and lives as if it is the worst as it is now, and will be the worst as it is then.

“How fares the human race?” asks Paul rhetorically, and we of a later generation know that nothing has changed, that it fares the same — except, perhaps, a material increment, a sophistication of contrivance, a collectivized destruction of mind and heart by the idea of progress and clinging delusion over the centuries, all waiting to be “carried away,” as Paul puts it in his own vocabulary.

The solitary may not enter solitude voluntarily, but eventually the condition of solitude imparts a wisdom that no social group can. Solitude strips away the layers that separate us from the raw condition of being.

We may see the desert of eremitism as a desolation, but the historical hermit saw society and the world as the desolation.

Plainness of soul and aspiration are best reflected in eremos, in the places eschewed by the world for their lack of excitement and glamor. The sad destruction of the very physical places reveals the profound ignorance of the worldly. These places are destroyed because the busy people, the ambitious and worldly, never see beyond the veil that separates them from themselves. The veil remains, unwittingly, shielding them from the desolation that is within them, shielding them from the eremos of their very selves.

Solitary “disorders” – 2

Of the mental disorders identified with solitaries (see last entry), the broad brush of schizoid is often applied. The DSM-IV describes Schizoid Personality Disorder (301.20) as

a pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings.

The individuals with this disorder

appear to lack a desire for intimacy, seem indifferent to opportunities to develop close relationships, and do not seem to derive much satisfaction from being part of a family or other social group. They prefer spending time by themselves, rather than being with other people. They often appear to be socially isolated or “loners” and almost always choose solitary activities or hobbies that do not include interaction with others. They prefer mechanical or abstract tasks .. and take pleasure in few, if any activities.

A broad brush indeed! A brushstroke that paints introverts as a class, with no particular concession to the legitimacy of an inner life, just a certain dull insensitivity viewed from without.

Disorder must be linked to dysfunction. Only more specific criteria can begin to demonstrate this. But what to make of the advanced criteria?

  • “indifferent to approval or criticism of others and do not appear to be bothered by what others may think of them”
  • “oblivious to the normal subtleties of social interaction and … social cues … without visible emotional reactivity”
  • “rarely experience strong emotions such as anger and joy … appear cold and aloof.”

The DSM-IV goes to lengths to distinguish these behaviors from similar ones during depression and related mood disorders, personality disorders, and disorders prompted by substance use. “Individuals who are ‘loners’ may display personality traits that might be considered schizoid. Only when these traits are inflexible and maladaptive and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute Schizoid Personality Disorder.”

With Schizotypal Personality Disorder (301.22), the criteria tightens, and here we see the traditional solitary and the schizoid part ways from the schizotypal. In fact the behaviors become focused on the external world far more than the Schzoid. Characteristics include pursuit of an assumed paranormal power, secret idiosyncratic language, paranoia, eccentricity in circumstances that are outside the social or public context (such as dress or manners). The DSM-IV tacks on the usual indifference to social relations, but distinguishes between the awkward introvert and the agitated schizotypal.

This is not a large population. In fact, over half of schizotypals have a concurrent depression, complicating diagnosis. Only 3% of the population is schizotypal, and of that even fewer cases actually develop into psychotic symptoms of paranoia, delusion or true schizophrenia. Most of the cases have a clear genetic or hereditary correlation. Though not mentioned, every introvert can probably cite environmental factors in upbringing. Perhaps the schizotypal does not have such factors in their upbringing because they are genetic, not environmental.

Psychohistory identifies historical personalities by observing psychological characteristics. Major figures like Hitler and Luther have been traditional objects of scrutiny, and various mystics, gurus, and creative personalities likewise lend themselves to typing. We can easily try to type mystics and high-profile solitaries like Simon Stylites, let’s say, but the game is futile when we look at the self-effacing profile of the historical hermit, especially in terms of culture.

Of course, how a person came to be a hermit is grist for the psychological mill, and the conjectures have their place. But the solitary has a more compelling motive for solitude than the psychiatric or the dysfunctional. Or certainly should. Understanding the self is part of weaving together the mesh of a philosophy of solitude that encompasses all aspects of reality, including discussions of personality.