Henry David Thoreau
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
“LESSONS IN THE PRACTICE OF DZOGCHEN IN SOLITUDE.”
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
Buddhist teacher and Dzogchen master
We consider it to be good tone to uphold relationships with other people. But great masters such as Milarepa, Longchenpa, Jikme Lingpa and Patrul Rinpoche didn’t consider either interpersonal relationships, friendship, wealth, clothes or food important at all. They didn’t go to parties, they didn’t indulge their friends with gifts, and they didn’t worry about how they would be thought of by society. They weren’t isolated from their practice because they weren’t dependent on others. They only depended on the practice of meditation. They had no interests other than achieving lucidity during one's lifetime.
Externally, avoid distracting samsaran activities. Internally, don’t allow your mind to become distracted from the practice. If you free yourself from external and internal distractions, you mind will become very clear. In such a clear mind, the states of lucidity, compassions, devotion and meditation will come easily. In order to achieve this, remain in solitude. It is better to let yourself go in true lucidity for one minute than to spend a year in conventional meditation.
Monk Gennady (Rusev)
hermit at the Pskov-Pechersky monastery
What is a skete? It’s a place where a monk lives alone and according to stricter rules than in a monastery. The word “skete” (hermitage) comes from the Sketis Desert in Egypt, where many hermits lived during the flourishing of Egyptian monasticism from the fourth to the seventh centuries. Hermitry itself began appearing in the third century. On the one hand, Christians were forced to save themselves from persecution by the Roman emperors. On the other hand, the self-sacrificing spirit which moved the first Christians, the contemporaries of the apostles, gradually weakened. By the third century, the spiritual life of the Christians had become more relaxed. That’s why some of them, the most zealous, decided to abandon the world and secular society and cloister themselves in the desert. That’s how monasticism came about – from hermitry.
The hermit is a contradictory figure: a man, living in self-isolation, resembles both ascetic monk and exiled criminal. In cases of the former, his solitude and serenity are interpreted as traits of a highly purposeful life. In cases of the latter, his refusal to live as the next man is perceived as an inability to conform.
But neither image applies to a hermit. His decision to isolate himself is a result of difficult individual relationships with the society in which he grew up. An ascetic monk voluntarily accepts strict limitations in the hope of achieving one or another cultural ideal – be it truth or enlightenment, for example. An exiled criminal, on the other hand, violates even basic societal restrictions.
In contrast, a hermit is able to coexist with other people. But at some point he decides to limit the number of people he has to negotiate with and depend upon, to himself. A hermit does not deny or glorify the culture in which he was raised, but estranges himself and creates one of his own.
At the same time “one’s man culture” is a contradiction in itself: it is not a culture in a strict sense, since purpose of any culture is to ensure the survival of a human group. Its uniqueness lies elsewhere and can not be related to us by a hermit – as dialogue with someone but himself is not an integral part of his inner “culture”. When a hermit talks to somebody, he has to adapt to the life we are accustomed to and behaves differently from what he does alone.
All that’s left is to assume and guess, making comparisons between our own experiences of solitude and the little of what a hermit can tell. It seems though, that temporary social asceticism, spiritual quests of any kind and desire to be near nature are not the same experiences as that of life with oneself, when one’s liberty is severely limited by one’s ability to survive.
religious studies scholar
social theory scholar
Certain traits characteristic of hermitry can be already found in the customs of primitive societies. Rites of passage and initiation rituals imply a temporary social death of the individual achieved through a period spent in isolation. The issue is that a person’s identity in a primitive society, inconceivable outside its context, is limited to a selection of roles. There is no place of an autonomous “I” there. In order to achieve a new status, a person must be removed from his current position in the social structure. The old identity dies in order to be reborn. Such rites fulfill an important social function within tribes and, at the same time, always have religious underpinnings.
What we understand as hermitry began in the period described by philosopher Karl Jaspers as the Axial Age. During this time, religions of individual redemption appeared, which is linked to the movement of the paradigm of consciousness: from the collective – with its foundations in mythology – to the individualism of a rational person. One of the most famous hermits in world history can be found on this threshold – the Kshatriyan prince Siddhārtha Gautama, more commonly known as Buddha.
He, of course, was not the first. He was preceded by the Brahmanical tradition of śramaṇas – hermits who would go and live in the forest in search of truth. Buddha joined them with the aim of adopting this knowledge. However, disillusioned, he broke with them and created his own teachings. The Buddhist doctrine was borne out of a practice in which a separation from societal norms is the starting point. In the Hindu roots of Buddhism, a link is formed between ascetic hermitry or social death and a spiritual search for religious truth.
In Greek culture Plato made a distinction which helped the entirety of future Western thought: the distinction between the world of ideas and the world of things. Later, this opposition was inherited by the Gnostics and Neoplatonists, and became one of the poles in the development of Christian theology. In the Greek philosophical tradition a person outside society was unimaginable and, according to Aristotle’s famous words, was a primarily political being. There was one exception: the philosopher. He connects with the truth through spiritual exercises and transforms himself through studying philosophy.
Although shared by all Gnostic sects, the conflict between the spiritual and the physical did not have the same practical outcomes. Some people, in order to reject flesh, turned to ascetic practices including hermitry. Others, also hoping for redemption, methodically immersed themselves in debauchery. In the Gnostic worldview, the collective and the individual were at odds. For Gnostics, societal existence was seen as something contrary to the divine. Gnostic knowledge was transcendent, and for that reason it was necessary for people to reject the identity formed for them by society.
As religious feelings grew more complicated over the course of social development, religious dimension became something that transcended everyday reality, something absolute. As a result, entering into it and supporting it could only be achieved through severing ties with the everyday world. This was a conclusion shared by all hermits motivated by religion: Essenes, Buddhists, Christian monks, Islamic Sufis.
A curious inversion of this appeared in Christian asceticism: the move away from the “world,” or an act of individual will to redemption, began to be used as a channel for the redemption of everyone. The hermit, the monk and the holy man were not only rejecting the world, they began to be associated with Christ, who sacrificed himself for all humankind.
Nowadays, the religious character of hermitry can be obscured when it’s not linked to a concrete religious tradition that sanctions the ascetic practice. Many new religious movements in the 20th century were inspired by secular ideas, which can be deceptive. For example, Scientology often refers to science and in principle presents itself as a scientific religion, and many movements like Jediism borrow their fundamental dogmas from the artistic and literary worlds.
Rudolf Otto’s concept of the “Numinous” can make things clearer. The delight of seeing the beauty of a spring morning, the awe inspired by Florentine painter Giotto’s works, the joy of a sincere prayer – all these have religious undertones. Feelings of this kind are fundamental and vital, but their essence does not always have a clear religious form. The gradual dissociation of the social and the religious, which has been taking place over the entirety of human history, in the conditions of a contemporary world leads to the disruption between religious phenomena and their traditional forms. The same is happening with hermitry.
Take the contemporary phenomenon of downshifting – isn’t this a modification of the rite of passage? The hermetic lifestyle of J. D. Salinger can be interpreted in the most prosaic way: he wanted to hide from his fans. However, Salinger’s preoccupation with Eastern religions and practices, as well as the unresolved burden of his traumatic experiences of war, are well-known. Even now, the search for a new identity involves an estrangement from the self, a temporary death. That’s why, when we say, “I need some time to myself,” perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that we are looking for the chance to be “without ourselves.” As a practice, the rejection of society is essential in the search for our “I,” the truth, our place in the social hierarchy. As an instrument for overcoming our imperfections, regardless of its changing forms, it retains its essential meaning.