Travel reveals the emptiness of time. Traveling from one point to another gives the process no purpose other than dependence on the points. Whether the points are themselves of value, the dependence on the process makes the traveling empty. Yet humans, being conscious of time in a literal way versus animals, are always sensitive to time passed in travel, and must “kill” time in order to shrink the distance between the points. One can get some things done, but it is always an expending rather than a taking-in.

Hegel said that time “presents itself to consciousness as empty intuition,” and that is why our expenditure of time without some intrinsic and palpable action (not end) associated with it tempts us to “kill” it. Time passed in travel is a succession of “nows,” as Heidegger says (though not about travel) but, oh, so many nows!

No one traveled less than the philosophers like Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger. Thoreau thought one ought to travel to give one’s intellect a freshening, but his travels, too, were circumscribed, primarily nature excursions. These are retreats of a sort, not travel of the modern type, to be amused, entertained, or awed, though nature travel certainly provides all of these. A spiritual retreat has a different goal, but, again, the interim of travel can easily define the end point.

In science fiction, travel across galaxies being of such huge distance, travelers are placed in an induced “cryosleep,” and awaken fresh at their destination, their point B. So even fiction recognizes the tediousness of travel. One step from acknowledging the tediousness of the end point, thus jeopardizing the whole point.

I am traveling and am away from my usual resources for a couple of weeks. The next entry will replace this one, or elaborate on the idea of time.

“What is Enlightenment?”

Kant’s famous little essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” offered a simple method for addressing every realm of human activity, from spiritual to mundane. Although published in 1784 — already anticipating considerable political tumult on the European continent — the essay represented the first foundation for an individualism that was not merely a revolt against something but an assertion for self.

“What is Enlightenment?” is full of memorable sayings.

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. …

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (natura-liter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. …

A public can only attain enlightenment slowly. Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass. … Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. …

If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”

The weakness here is Kant’s abiding faith in reason and in the ability of people to enlighten themselves if they are given autonomy from contrivance and the tools of reason and discourse. It is a weakness of argument, not of values. One certainly wants his proposal to work, but history — and human psychology — has defeated this aspiration with sobering reality in the ensuing centuries.

Rather, it is for the intellectual that Kant pleads autonomy of thought, for he notes that in one’s business and in the public square, one necessarily conforms to the rules of order and civility, but as a scholar one should be free to explore, reflect, and critique. And that admits of the inevitability of enlightenment failing among the masses.

Not to mention those factors that militate against enlightenment of the masses: the enormous growth and centralization of power in institutions and organizations since Kant’s day, the application of science and technology to ends that further frustrate hoped-for health and well-being, and the discoveries of psychology that show reason to be only a small part of the human psyche.

Kant’s argument is best received as an individual seeking enlightenment. Enlightenment is a process from immaturity to understanding, but as Kant says, the process involves resolve and courage — meaning not merely intellect but will and discipline. These latter factors were incompletely understood in the Age of Enlightenment, awaiting the psychology of the 20th century. But the political individual, from Aristotle to Kant, was much the object of attention as an abstraction, and Kant’s individual here is poised to move from legal individual acting reasonably to selfhood.

The philosophy of solitude will ever point to the necessity of examining not the abstract individual as political entity or social animal, but to the self understood as the unique being with consciousness. Consciousness is not an irrelevant by-product to be downplayed in the construction of society, viewed as the only functional context for an individual. Consciousness, will, and the characteristics that lie below the surface of Kant’s “scholar” are common to everyone, everyone in those unruly and immature masses, with the potential to achieve self-realization. That is the driving ethos of the freedom Kant speaks of, not merely the civility and tolerance for discourse among the learned and powerful.

Given the era, Kant’s works do establish philosophical methods that are prerequisites to social functionality, even if that functionality will ultimately be used to stifle the individual into a conformity designed by the powerful as a norm.

Reason is a first and necessary tool, but more complex tasks require more complex tools, and that is where reason ends. Houses are assembled and disassembled, but in history they are never repaired, never made whole again. The hammer of Nietzsche was to be as equally constructive as the refined tool of reason, for culture and society are always full of violence and power, not mere immaturity. The contradictory tools of swords and plowshares are made of the same metal. Immature humanity has overturned its toolbox, emptied itself of both reason and spirit. If we want to exercise reason, we must walk alone.

“Walking alone”

The late Japanese Zen master Dainin Katagiri wrote a small essay entitled “Walking Alone, As All Beings,” commenting on the paradox in Buddhism of living solitary versus living with the group or sangha.

The conventional response to this paradox is to affirm that the sense of “living alone” is meant as a mature and free person, while life in the body of believers is associative and social. Thus:

There are two discourses on the sangha by the Buddha that appear to be contradictory. In one he speaks of the virtues of living in solitude. In the other he says we should find a wise and good friend with whom we can walk through life.

Without getting into the history of Buddhism (the early emphasis on the individual, the later on the group), we can conclude that these two statements are talking about the same experience, as Katagiri realizes.

But these teachings aren’t actually contradictory. Both refer to the spirit of self-discovery, of coming to the realization that you live with all beings and that your life is inseparable from those of others.

That our lives intersect, overlap, and parallel those of others is inevitably true. And for many solitaries, finding a friend for life, be it a sibling, a loved one, a spouse, or just a friend, is not an absolute contradiction to the eremitic life. Many Asian masters, from Brahmanic householders to Zen teachers, have been married. On the other hand, many Western non-hermits such as monks, priests, and nuns, have been unmarried and celibate but lived their lives within communities. Eremtism moves an entire sets of people from the notion of “social” life conventionaly understood as discourse, interrelations, and shared effort, to the notion of individual life lived internally, introvertly, or subjectively, regardless of physical and social context.

Again, Katagiri:

Strictly speaking, no matter what situation you are in, happy or sad, you live alone, and your practice is to walk steadily and alone.

The depth of this walking alone is reflected in the path, sometimes complex and elaborate, that we set before us. Only the one who trods it can envision this path, and sometimes even that one does not know where it leads. Subjective emotions, the depth of inner intuition and insight, are unique products of individuals, and do not necessarily contradict life in society. They are not competitive experiences, only parallel, seemingly overlapping the world but more like the asymptote that never really intersects with the line seen as norm by society.

The eremitic experience of one living in the world is to be engaged in work or communicating clearly and productively with others, yet never fully “there,” never fully delivered of self to some outward thing. Outward things are relational to the self, not real entities. Real enough, of course, but only taken into account by us when they need to be. Our relationship to the world, to people, to sentient beings, and to nature, defines and shapes our consciousness but can never fully “be” in us, never fully absorbing or be absorbed by us.

Instead, this function of monitoring one’s consciousness, one’s mind and its reactions when in the world, takes on a particular quality or value or “taste.” This experience then shapes our daily lives. Again, Katagiri:

Learning to live alone means that, whatever the situation you have to live quietly. All you have to do is just walk, step-by-step. It’s not so easy, but it’s very important for us. And if we are not too greedy, the good friend will appear.

The appearance of a good friend alludes to the old refrain about the appearance of a good teacher (“When the student is ready the teacher will appear”). But the latter saying is more receptive to a hopeful relationship of authority and mentorship. The solitary senses early on that no such teacher will ever be adequate, and that the best teacher will demure, sending his student away as soon as possible. How many stories of Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan masters, for example, tell of a student who clings to a master a long time, apparently making no progress, apparently wasting time in tedious and unproductive tasks (Milarepa is an example), until one day the teacher opens up with a few teachings that overwhelm the student in self-realization. Or the student comes to a sudden enlightenment. And then the student can go away.

While the solitary will not reject the “good friend” who may appear, the hermit is skeptical about a teacher appearing serendipitously. For a reason, the spirit has led the solitary into the desert, the mountain, the forest. Here, having already progressed beyond word or example, the hermit encounters all beings. And sometimes, this wilderness is still within the world, the city, society.

Katagiri follows up this idea:

In ancient times in India, people would look to find such a good friend meditating in the forest. If they found such a person, they would sit with him. This is how it was with Buddha. As people began to gather around him, he called them shravakas, which means “listeners.” The relationship between the Buddha and those who came to listen to his teaching was not like that of a boss and an employee or a parent and child. It was more like that of a master and an apprentice. If you go to see and listen to such a wise friend, you are not a student, exactly; you are just a listener. The idea of being called a student came about in a later age.

This point is very important: that we must free ourselves from an authority relationship even when seeking wisdom from another, because we are listening and exploring how the application of what we have heard relates to the intuitive path we have perceived, and to the adjustment we can make to increase the efficacy of our path, in short, to add insight and enlightenment to what is a mere intuition in our hearts at the moment we go off seeking advice. The analogy of master and apprentice, where we learn a skill that will later sustain us, differs from the analogy of master and student, where the latter imbibes a doctrine or teaching but cannot assimilate it because it is too much the path of another and not the components or aspects of a potential path of self for the listener.

Katagiri concludes by pointing out that the social dimension of Buddhism only came later: non-solitaries coalesced into groups or sanghas. This later era basically institutionalized paths, a phenomenon closer to contradiction than paradox, as the work of Stephen Batchelor, for example, shows. We must adhere to the original inspiration for striking out in search of wisdom, not adhere to the byproduct of too many bureaucrats and administrators who ossify the inspiration by turning it into an institution.

Finally, too, we must acknowledge, as does Katagiri in this little essay, that we are not different than all the myriad beings before, with, and after us. All of them exist, but are intrinsically alone. The paradox of solitude is that living alone yet finding a friend “both refer to the spirit of self-discovery, of coming to the realization that you live with all beings and that your life is inseparable from those of others. To live in solitude is to live with the understanding that there is nothing to depend on.” We come to realize best when in solitude that we are not separate from anything else, and that “suffering occurs only because we see ourselves separate in the first place.” Seeing this interdependence, yet experiencing this profound sense of solitude, brings us to both grandeur and humility.

Kierkegaard on the lie

Writing in the 1840’s, Kierkegaard had already defined the psychology of the personality long before the the 20th century.

In Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the depressed and the schizophrenic as the two extremes of personality (of course, not using those terms). The touchstone of his insight is not so much dysfunctional behaviors as the existential response of individuals to the realization of finitude, of death and decay. Freud placed this discovery and its accompanying repression early in life, to undermine the self into adulthood. In Kierkegaard’s case, the approach is philosophical, but he does not lack insight into behavior, including repression, as will be seen.

These themes pick up on previous blog entries: Society and the world define a rational norm for its members. W are socialized to function within that norm — or else be deemed mad.

On the first part of the spectrum of dysfunction, a person experiences “too much necessity” to his or her life, a crushing weight of obligations, desires, situations, people, conflicts, and entanglements — while at the same time feeling that there is “too little possibility,” too few options or solutions, that there is no escape, no exit, no way to get out with the self intact. This is a classical description of depression.

Kiekegaard sees depression as a philosophical notion as much as psychological, wherein the person sees no solution to death, finitude, the inexorable dissolution of meaning and purpose. These are fundamental observations of what would become existentialism.

On the other end of the spectrum is the person who sees through the deceptive veil of society and its norms, and is not willing or capable of conforming to basic modifications and civilities. For such a person there is “too little necessity,” for nothing is very compelling or convincing, nothing rivals their private concept of reality and the way things can be. There is “too much possibility,” too much that can and must be pursued, too much that calls for investigation, pursuit, attachment, a ready ear or eye. There are too many visions of and too many calls from what is hidden or manifest below the surface of the vast sea of what is irrelevant and unnecessary. Yet this universe overwhelms their resources. The self is shattered to the core of identity. This is a classical description of schizophrenia.

And in the middle of the spectrum lies the grand majority of society’s normal, those whom Kierkegaard calls the “philistines.”

The philistines are those whom one observer calls the “normal neurotics,” whom Freud considered repressed by their psyches for their own good because they are not capable of too much reality. They are easily duped by the powerful to do their bidding in relative silence, to pursue their pleasures in stupefying doses, to contribute to society, that great edifice of somnolence and enslavement about which Nietzsche railed. The philistines walk about in “fictitious health,” says Kierkegaard, alluding to their contentment with conventional norms, tastes, and values. They suffer “neuroses of health,” as Nietzsche wrote. The vast majority are “tranquilized with the trivial,” to quote Kierkegaard’s excellent phrase. Freud described philistinism (but not with that term) as a “pathology of whole cultural communities.”

Ultimately, philistines are living the “lie of character,” says Kierkegaard. They are presenting the false mask of self in everyday life and playing at this or that style or behavior but without conviction, without belief, ever justifying the social fiction that the lives they lead are the best possible lives. And perhaps they are the best possible given what depth of consciousness they carry in their hearts and minds, for otherwise they would be depressed or schizophrenic if they but reflected a bit. But they will not, are not capable of it. The social experience is nothing but the anesthetizing of true reflection. T.S. Eliot describes the philistine’s “sky” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table …

So we have this:

Kierkegaard then proposes methods of breaking through philistinism without becoming dysfunctional (depressed or schizophrenic). He warns that these involve a severe disengagement from what human society values and employs its time and energy in pursuing. It cannot mimic the tranquilizing or anesthetizing solution that calms the self and permits him or her to go on with the lie of character.

The core answer is solitude and reflection. It may be a gift, or a pursued avocation, or a small and occasional withdrawal or disengagement, even while living life in society and living the lie of character. But the introvert (understanding introvert as one who looks within and not just one who avoids others) is the one who will succeed in the breakthrough. Reflection is a prerequisite to detaching the self and really examining what the world does and says and values and expends lives and energy on.

With introversion or introspection, Kierkegaard has set the stage for two responses. He does not name them but we know them from Nietzsche: one is the self-created path Kierkegaard calls the “demonic rage,” and which Nietzsche generally calls “Promethean.” The other is the deepening of the introversion to a spiritual level that Nietzsche would call Apollonian if he accepted the possibilities of a dogged and disciplined transcendence.

For Kierkegaard, transcendence (and what he will call the “leap”) will finally permit the self to understand the grand lie of character, the lie of society, and become a self-realized person.

Solitude and madness

A friend of Hermitary points out an interesting article on solitary confinement titled “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker. The article focuses on involuntary solitude, but some physiological results of voluntary solitude are similar. The article describes hostages, prisoners of war, detained terror suspects, and high security prison inmates as involuntary sufferers of solitary confinement and its physiological and psychological effects. The dubious history of solitary confinement and its recent resurrection as a practice elicits reflection on why the practice is torture.

What is the relationship of the effects of involuntary solitude to voluntary solitude?

Voluntary versus non-voluntary solitude is the first consideration. While the physiology of voluntary and involuntary solitude is similar, the psychology of the individual involved is not. In both cases, the person is disengaging from time, space, and environment. Sue Halpern, in her book Migrations to Solitude, has a chapter on a penitentiary inmate in solitary confinement that compliments the article in The New Yorker.

But even for “normal” people, disengagement is necessary if we are to understand things, necessary for enlightenment. Post-Freudian psychology and existentialists (from Kierkegaard forward) offer unique insight on the human condition. According to these sources, society and socialization, beginning in childhood, have fashioned people to conform to an arbitrary and inherited social world that does not squarely face its own nature and situation in the universe. Rationality is defined as conformity, subordination, repression, in a world constructed around power, authority, and the political and economic mechanisms for enforcing desired behavior.

Society is not simply enforcing repression of dangerous instincts but enforcing repression of autonomy, individuality, creativity, self-actualization, and a genuine relationship with other sentient beings, nature, and the universe. Such repression makes us “rational” in the sense of being functional in society, as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the famous DSM) defines it. Conversely, the misfit, the critic, the dissident, the outsider or stranger (as Camus calls him/her), the non-conformist, the socially- or economically-deprived, is a thorn in society’s flesh and teeters on being punished by the system.

Ultimately, the “crazy” person (such as the creative schizophrenic) has seen through the repressions and glimpsed the yawning chasm of self and impermanence — and so gone mad. This is the origin of suicide, what Freudians would call Thanatos, the Death Wish. But isn’t our society and its powerful elites always pursuing Death — and dragging us along?

Solitude unrepresses. Since repression begins in the infantile stage, we don’t realize the depth involved. Jung would say that we don’t have to go back into childhood and can move forward as adults, but, of course, his method requires a great deal of enlightenment work.

Solitude brings the unconscious to consciousness. We either go mad or we navigate. We navigate with a spiritual master, a trusted loved one, a community of like-minded, our own introverted personality, lots of reading and reflection, lots of physical work, lots of solo nature adventures, lots of spiritual practice, or just plain tenacity.

We navigate to balance with social reality, or to accommodate with reality. Mystics and others may navigate further, to the edge, to peak experiences. But that is not necessary.

Solitude is not for everyone. It is not something that should be recommended or encouraged in others without evidence of the prerequisite navigating. People do need solitude if they are ever going to break out of illusion, but it is a powerful thing, too powerful for most without a lot of depth. Ideology may substitute the break-out navigating, but it does not address the deep psychological factors that motivate or propel human beings. So there is no substitute for solitude. And no hurrying of it for those who are not ready. When they are ready they will discover it.

Solitary confinement is a forced situation that loosens the physiology first (sensory deprivation) and then the mind. James Austin, in his monumental book Zen and the Brain, describes this whole process in infinite (and fascinating) detail. As torture, however, this process inflicted on inmates leaves them nothing to fall back on. The result is the disintegration of their mental world.

The physiology for meditators is never so extreme, nor their lives so socially isolated. If the latter, they have sought out nature, and learned to see and hear the universe expressed in it, like a voice in the wind or rain. They know the voice is not human, but they need not pursue the difference. Only the world in its insistence on conforming to a single narrow-minded view of rationality and of what should be done everyday is going to call the voice-hearing madness.

But for inmates and detainees, this process, forced upon them, is torture. The voices are hellish, not enlightening.

Post-Freudian thought and existentialism do not, of course, talk about eremitism — though Nietzsche presented solitude as a remedial state for soul-seekers. There are, of course, other ways to approach the subject in terms of the dangers of solitude, the necessary cautions.

That the world is mad (violence, war, consumption, destruction, hatred, rivalry, envy, anger, fear) makes sense. And that the world wants us to be “mad” with it by acting the way it shows us, by conforming to its social norms, is the madness itself. In that sense, the “mad” (poets, sages, saints, mystics, solitaries, hermits, et al.) are the only people who know what the world is really like.