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.