The shaman, who is the predecessor of the hermit, was always a risk-taker isolated from the clan or group, depending upon himself or herself for physical survival but, more importantly, for emotional and psychological well-being.
Today, with the enormous and faceless institutions and corporate entities that control everything from economics to education to environment, we sense the virtual impossibility of physical survival as a classic hermit. Instead we must focus on the same processes — if not physical conditions — that classic hermits have pursued, namely attentiveness to emotional and psychological survival, in our case in an increasingly crass and unethical technological world.
Our search for solitude may best succeed if we suspend the ideal quest for physical survival in wilderness solitude — if only because we don’t have the time. We must get busy distinguishing ourselves from those forces that most impact our emotional and psychological well-being. This means a concerted effort at being mindful of what we read, watch, listen to, eat, clothe ourselves with, consume, with whom we speak, how we pass our days. This is standard advice in the literature of sages, but we cannot keep it at an intellectual level. We have to monitor ourselves, change ourselves — not just think about it.
We may no longer have an organic link to a tribe or clan or community, but that need not be missed because that is why solitude appeals to us. And we may never satisfactorily live in a wilderness growing our own food or gazing at a forest or mountain sunset unimpeded by city landscapes — not that these settings automatically bring awareness or contentment. The one thing we can and must do as people inclined to solitude is to safeguard our emotional and psychological well-being, what is variously called the “soul,” not so much from evil but from the world, from what the Chinese call the “red dust” of the world.