Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 3: Relax and Retreat > Chapter 5: Solitude
One needs a place where the only noise is that which one makes oneself. Then, the lovely stillness without helps to induce the lovely stillness within.
The solitude which accompanies or is necessary to these first periods of stillness should be accepted and gloried in to preserve the experience from being broken into. Do not run and leave it prematurely. For although at the end of this quest the mind's silence can be found anywhere within the bustle and activity, the turmoil and the noise of modern city life, the first faint tender ventures must be guarded, protected: solitude, outward solitude, is the best way.
We go apart into solitude or take a walk alone to think over a personal problem which has suddenly come up. How much more is solitude desirable to think over the larger problem of life and to meditate deeply on oneself?
It is harder to find solitude in this mid-twentieth century than it was in the mid-eighteenth century. We have gained more neighbours, easier communications with them and transport to them. But we have lost much of our chance of just being alone, just being with our own self and getting acquainted with its deeper aspects. Yet the pressures of civilization have increased, so that this need of finding inner strength and gaining inner poise has also increased proportionately.
This need of communing with our own soul expresses itself as a need of solitude, as a disgust with society, or as a nervous hypersensitivity.
When his commerce with God becomes his most important activity and remembrance of God the most habitual one, solitariness grows deeply on a man. His need for friends grows less.
If he grows in real spirituality, and not in the emotional imitation of it, he will grow to love solitude as much as most people dread it.
He will come to enjoy solitude as much as formerly he enjoyed society. For when alone, he is alone with the beauty and serenity of the Soul but when with people, he is also with their greedy natures, their bad tempers, and their ugly insincerities.
We are least troubled and most content when we are in solitude and silence with the Overself. It is when we are with others that these states are harder to feel.
Whoever is willing to take up the inner work of quietening the activity of thoughts and add the disciplining of feelings will find with time that solitude is a valuable help. If the possibility of country rather than town life can also be realized, his way will be easier.
If you want to know why so many hermits have sought their solitude, the answer awaits you in the character of man.
We must find ourselves, our spiritual centre. We know that the discovery comes only in solitude, but make no mistake: Yogic cave, nun's convent and ascetic's monastery are only for the few. Withdrawal from the affairs of life is not for the many. Theirs is to be the solitude of the inner life, the keeping of a reserved spot in the heart while busy in society.
Everything depends on the point of view. To most people this experience is a retreat from reality but to a few people it is a return to it.
It is not that he shuts himself up in his own life because he has no interest in society's but rather that the fulfilment of the purpose which, he believes, God has implanted in his being, is paramount.
In the end and perhaps after many years he finds that he cannot get away from man's innate loneliness.
There is a vast difference between an idle morbidly-introspective solitude and the inwardly-active creative solitude advocated here.
Sufi idea: To be worldly or to be in the world is to forget God. You may go to caves and mountains but that is not to leave the world. Live a normal life and remember God. That's all. Don't live outwardly but inwardly.
He will learn to appreciate and even become tough enough to like this aloneness. He will realize that he has enough in himself, as well as in the inspired writings that he will keep around him, to last a lifetime. He will come to see how soft, how weak are all those who cannot live without craving for, and constantly having at least one other human being near at hand.
Aloneness is good for a man, but when it is felt as too overpowering, it is not. Then the balance must be redressed by society.
The decision by unmarried persons to live alone rather than to share an apartment or a house with other adults is not necessarily a misanthropic one: it may be a nervous necessity. There is too much strain and pressure involved in such sharing, too much confinement and limitation, too much lack of freedom.
When in meditation a man faces God, or his own higher self, he arrives at a complete solitude in the sense that no other person is present to his consciousness. It is a curious fact that on his way to this unique experience, he tends to live more and more within himself, less and less in the mental sphere of society.
Even Paul did not straightway start on his mission to the Gentiles after the vision of Jesus, but lived for three years of solitude in Arabia to prepare himself. What did he do there? What else could he do other than pray, learn, meditate, purify himself, and strengthen himself?
It is enough at the beginning to make these occasional excursions into the quieter and lonelier places. If they can be absolutely quiet and utterly lonely, his purpose will be best achieved.
There are times in the career of an advanced meditator when he needs to avoid contact with humanity and live entirely alone.
One may take a warm interest in what is happening in the world, be thrilled or saddened by dramatic events, and yet refuse to join in the scramble to get on, the fight between opposing parties, the denigrating gossip or foolish movements. One may live as a hermit, while living in the world, and thus live with oneself.
If he refuses to give himself to the demands of society, that is not because of disdain for it, but because of a felt need to give his highest aim his whole attention. By isolating himself from worldly contacts he can develop with less hindrance those qualities which the worldly do not possess, and even discourage.
To the man with sufficient and active cultural interests, solitude may be quite tolerable but to the man without them it may be unbearable. To the man who has learnt the secret of entering inner stillness, it can be an exquisite pleasurable experience.
The mystic who dissociates himself from the affairs of his era and shuts himself up in seclusion may still contribute some influence on that era. But it will be necessarily limited to the plane nearest to the one on which his meditation operates. He will affect the minds of sensitive persons.
This need of solitude and privacy as being not merely a temperamental but also a vitally spiritual one, is recognized by some monastic orders. In Catholicism, the Carthusians live shut in their individual cells.
The criticism is heard that this idea if put into practice today seduces the intelligent individual to try to strengthen himself by weakening society at a time when society itself is most in need of being strengthened, and that it withdraws the unselfish man from the common effort at a time when his services could be most fruitful.
When a man enters this phase, he begins to feel a great weariness with life. He loses his interest in many things which may have absorbed him before. He becomes emotionally indifferent to activities and persons formerly attractive to him. He withdraws more and more from people and society. When this fatigue with all existence descends upon him, then he will be more ready and more willing to lose the personal ego in the universal ocean of being.
So far as the rest of mankind live for aims directly contrary to his own, he himself must live inwardly apart from them.
For a sensitive person privacy is a need. And if he also happens to be both a scholar and a writer--without mentioning a meditator--then it becomes a very real need. The irony is that, the modern world being as it is, his possession of it depends on material things, that the only way to assure it is to have money; the more money the more is privacy possible--and such a person is the least likely to accumulate money.
The desert has given mankind some of its greatest prophets. Out of its solitude there appeared a wild-looking man, dressed in a rough camel's hair girdle. He came living on locusts and wild honey, but fasting often. He went among the cities of Judea, praying, calling for repentance, denouncing wickedness, and proclaiming the Coming. This man was John the Baptist.
Immediately after illumination came to him on the road to Damascus, Saul went to the desert. He stayed for three years, engaged in self-training and inner development. When he emerged from it, he was Paul the Initiate.
Islam was born in the desert wastes of Arabia.
It was not for nothing that the early Christian mystics of lower Egypt fled from populous cities to the open spaces of the desert. Their instinct was right.
He will find the Path leads him away from the crowd into solitude; and, later, away from the thoughts of the crowd that people solitude into himself.
It is hard to get this privacy, harder still to get solitude in the full sense. Other people will not let him alone. If they cannot intrude physically, they do it by letter. If not that way, then by thoughts about him.
Most of those who have attained this pure philosophic truth not only revolted against and deliberately lived apart from worldly communities, but also from monkish communities. This was not only because they were entirely free from religious sectarian bias (with which religious organizations tend to become identified) since they usually acknowledge no ties--but also because the physical habits of living among worldly people were repellent to them.
People misunderstand his motives, resent his keeping to himself, reject his need of solitude, and prove totally unable to understand his reasons for staying on his own lone path rather than society's beaten path. So they descend to injustice, call him haughty or self-centered or poseur. His refusal to get involved in relationships which will sap time and energy needed for higher things or in situations whose troubled outcome he can foresee quite clearly, will be denounced with anger as inhuman.
He may have goodwill to all mankind but this does not make him sociably inclined to all mankind.
Without moving from one's home, without any experiences in the world outside it, a man may form character and acquire wisdom, but only if he correctly understood and faithfully followed the philosophic meditations.
Total independence is impossible to attain in this or any other society. But what may not be found outwardly may still be found inwardly.
I have known quite a number of hermits, ascetics, and monks in my time and travels, but I have never known one who was so totally withdrawn from the world that he was not, in some small or large way, dependent on the world. Complete isolation is theoretically possible but practically it is not permanently possible. Even the millionaire who seeks it needs those who will help create it for him, and to that extent he depends on them.
But the essential thing is what we do with the mind. Socrates nurtured his philosophy in what was for that time a large city; he did not need, like Thoreau, to withdraw into Nature's solitudes.
It is important to his success or failure that this temporary isolation be protected against unwanted intrusion.
The old yogi, sitting under the shade of a neem tree, unconcerned with the bustling world, is entitled to his withdrawal and justified in his view. But those who follow another way, who stay in the world without being "of it" are not less deserving of tolerance and respect.
The more he can find a place, a time, and a circumstance when he is least likely to be distracted by any cause whatever, the better will his meditation be. In this connection it is needful to remember that to help achieve this purpose of solitude, seclusion is better than society--even than the society of one person and that a member of the family or a close friend. This is because the other's thoughts and feelings may penetrate his consciousness in a vague way and disturb it since he is sitting receptively and passively.
He must resist the interruptions of his privacy whether they be boorish or well-meant if they lead to interruptions of his peace.
It would be interesting to count the men of your acquaintance who are able to stand on their own solitary opinion, who refuse to be strapped down in the straitjackets of conventional public opinion. You will usually find that such men, by taste or by circumstance, are accustomed to pass somewhat lonely lives. They like to sequester themselves; they prefer to live in quiet places. If destiny grants them the choice, they choose the place of quiet mountains rather than the prattle of little men. Such men develop their bent for independent thought precisely because they prefer withdrawn lives. Society and company could only assist to smother their best ideas, their native originality, and so they avoid them. Thoreau, that powerful advocate for solitude, could never be intimidated by anyone.
In the still hours of the evening, when the activities of the world drop from its tired hands, the mind can find anew its olden peace. But in solitude there can be comfort and healing. Genius fleeing the multitude, as Wordsworth did, knows this to be true.
So few know either the meaning or the delight of inner silence; so many know only the depressive associations of outer silence, such as ancient ruins and peopled cemeteries.
Privacy is a great privilege--almost, in these noisy days, a luxury. To be able to live without being interrupted by others, to be able to converge all one's thoughts, without being disturbed, upon the highest of all thoughts, the discovery of the Overself, is a satisfaction indeed!
Not many persons are suited for solitude. To get the best it has to give requires a special sensitivity of temperament, a fine appreciation of Nature, and a little knowledge of the mind's possibilities.
Not all persons leave the world because they cannot cope with it: some do so for the very opposite reason. They can handle its affairs only too well, they know its human weaknesses and deformities from personal experience and can counter them. But enough is enough: their scale of values is now on a new higher level.
The higher creative works are best developed in isolation. Those to whom they are offered later would, if present, disturb the concentration needed or obstruct the blowing wind of inspiration.
A hermit sitting in a sequestered retreat may eventually draw to himself by the mind's mysterious power, as some Oriental sages have done, certain spiritual seekers, those who were then benefited by the contact.
The man who cannot be as happy in his own society as in that of others will never attain true happiness at all.
A time must come to every sensitive person when he tires of the multiple distractions activities and tensions of twentieth-century civilized living, when he yearns for a simpler, less exhausting, less complicated existence.
The mind germinates with great truths after these lonely sessions.
The demands made by acquaintances, and even by friends, ought not be permitted to supersede those of the inner life.
The enforced cessation from external activity which imprisonment may bring could be a help to spiritual awakening. A few months before he died Oscar Wilde said, "I have lived all there was to live. I found the sweet bitter and the bitter sweet. I was happy in prison because there I found my soul."
Why should he contend with a society that is dominated by materialism, motivated by egoism, and saturated with sensualism?
A man who is spiritually minded often has moods when he sickens of frequent contact with his more sordid fellows, when he prefers to withdraw and become a mere commentator on life.
The theory of breaking all connection with the world in order to make connection with the Eternal Spirit, is sound enough.
They withdraw from experiences because they want to withdraw from the senses.
It does not need much thought to understand why it is easier to find the presence of God in the absence of people.
For a month every year Muhammed withdrew from the world and from Mecca into complete solitude, and thus balanced activity with contemplation.
He deliberately isolates himself from the crowd at these regular intervals because he believes that only in loneliness can he approach the Ideal. Not that he ever really achieves such a condition for God alone is alone.
The man who is frightened by loneliness is not yet ready for philosophy.
If solitude is filled with growing knowledge and deepening peace, one never wearies of it.
I am too enamoured of this tranquillity which solitude gives me to accept the overtures of those who have no connection with me except a geographical one. If there is no spiritual propinquity it is better to stay alone.
The creator in art and the thinker in philosophy need privacy for their work. Those who break into it without being invited--whether in person or by letter or, worse, by telephone--deprive others, rob humanity.
It is his inner apartness that enables him to keep his freedom and pursue his quest. Whether it has to be translated into outer terms is another matter, and one dependent on his circumstances: it is not inexorable and essential.
Solitude becomes intolerable to those without inner resources. The time passes too slowly for them, too boringly. Unless they have some outer activity to keep them busy all the day, the inactive hours become unendurable.
Whether a bodily withdrawal should follow the inner one at the same time, or at some later date, or is not necessary at all, must be determined by each person for himself in accord with his outer circumstances and personal strength.
To be always among other human beings, be they in a city or a village, is suffocating to the growth of awareness of one's own higher individuality. There are times when even the involvement of family or the cloistered life of a monastic institution have saturated one's aura and occasional liberations are needed.
The hermit who tries to improve himself, to deepen himself, to purify himself, and to enlighten himself is, indirectly, also contributing to the improvement of mankind generally.
To put it plainly he has less time for society because he wants more time for God.
Loneliness he is thankful for and comes to regard as a blessing, not as the misfortune it is so widely supposed to be. If choice and destiny have brought him seclusion, he would not give it up easily.
The recluse who finds his spiritual and cultural resources sufficient company is as happy--in a different way--as the householder enjoying his family.
Loneliness is cold to those who know only the self which gives them a personal existence, but very warm, very friendly, to those who know their other self.
It is a matter of temperament and circumstance whether he shall bury himself in a solitary existence or not. The inner life is always available, whether he is active or passive, for in both cases it is available only as he turns toward it, retreats into it, or draws upon it.
He finds that his solitude is inhabited by another being than his familiar own, that a higher presence has entered the area of consciousness.
By communing with his deeper self in quietude and solitude, he can renew his battered ideals and fortify his aspirations.
There are a few periods of his inner life when complete isolation is greatly needed and greatly advantageous.
The law which completes every thing and every movement in Nature by its opposite or contrary acts here, too. If a period of self-sought isolation is prolonged enough, a man inevitably gets tired of it and desires a change.
Read the Book of Genesis and note how Joseph's inward liberation came during his outward imprisonment. Read the biography of Sri Aurobindo and note how his spiritual awakening came during the year spent in jail. Read the poems written by Sir Walter Raleigh during his last confinement in the Tower of London and note the depth of religious feeling they reached.
Periodic retreats into solitude are a necessity to the advanced soul if he is to fulfil his purpose in attaining true, free, and inspired Individuality.
Although few will have troubled to perceive the fact, or may even be able to perceive it, we all have to live in inner solitude anyway.
The need of withdrawing at certain times from outer contact with other human beings will be felt and if so should be obeyed. If he disregards it, he misses an opportunity to progress to a higher stage.
Swami Ramdas: "You should not take refuge in any ashram for the purpose of realizing the supreme state. What you need is solitude and suitable environments."
The difference between seeking holiness in a corporate monastic life and seeking it in a solitary one is wide.
Man's long search to find himself may begin with a crowd but must end in complete loneliness.
He will have to endure at times the solitude of the man who finds himself on a summit.
He will tend to become more and more solitary in his social habits, less and less disposed to carry on with external work, for he will grudge the time and feel that it belongs by right to the prayers and meditations which are leading him inwards. The same solitude which may lead others to despair or madness must lead him to calmness and wisdom.
Because he has to find a balance between the wordly life and the inner life, he discovers and develops a portable solitude. This he takes with him to work or social leisure.
The same mental isolation which may lead to illusion in the mad may lead to truth in the well balanced.
When the disadvantages of fame are severely felt, the advantages of flight into obscurity become attractive.
It is not so much that he, as an individual, has come into conflict with society as that he finds the goals offered him by society to be unsatisfactory, sometimes even frightening. So he withdraws from it.
The love of solitude will not be felt by those who are still enthralled by the love of gregariousness.
His sensitivity to the world's evil currents may become unbearable, forcing him to withdraw into isolation or else to suffer enormously.
His sensitivity to the world's evil currents may become unbearable, forcing him to withdraw into isolation or else to suffer enormously.
The world thinks it could hardly wish one a worse fate than to be cast away like Crusoe on an uninhabited isle, and the mystic could hardly wish himself a better one, for then he might come to complete grips with himself and follow Ariadne's thread till he finds the Soul.
If for a while and in certain ways the student has to learn to live unto himself alone, this is only that he may later and in other ways better carry out his responsibilities towards his fellow creatures. He has not washed his hands of this responsibility but he has decided to equip himself better for it.
A princess once told me about a friend of hers who had been an officer high in the Russian Army and a popular member of the Russian aristocracy. After the Bolshevik Revolution he escaped to Greece, renounced the world, and made his home in Mount Athos. There, in the hermit settlement perched on the windswept cliff-face of Karoulia, he occupies a kind of half-cave, half-hut, perched high above the sea and reached by perilously steep unprotected steps. He slept on the floor with his head on a stone pillow and with the bony skulls of former monkish inhabitants of the cell lined up on a shelf. Father Nikon, as he is called, is one of the very few educated and mannered men to be found in the peasant-stock illiterate community of Mount Athos. In a message he sent the Princess after many years of this solitary existence and in response to her enquiry, he said that he had found great peace and had never before known such happiness. The visitor who carried the message was struck by the contentment which radiated from him and the serene self-mastery with which he bore himself.
The wider his experience of the world, the more he is tempted to become a recluse.
The impingement of other people's auras, if they be inferior and if he be sensitive, causes him a kind of suffering. Can he be blamed for preferring solitude to sociability?
The man who seeks to defend his solitude and protect his privacy for spiritual purposes is not the type that the public admires. Yet why should he present his sacred treasures before scoffers? Why should he cast the divulgements which come to him in quiet meditation before a sneering world?
The man who prefers his solitude to listening to the silly chatter of those who talk endlessly but say nothing worth saying, has at least done no worse.
When a man becomes disgusted with the world's ways, he may decide to leave it to its own fate, retreat into solitude, and seek out his own progress.
He is not afraid of being alone, nor even of living alone. It is in such solitude, he knows, that he can become acquainted with his real self. But neither is he afraid of sharing his solitude with someone else's. The Spirit is large enough to be findable in one or the other, despite all monkish or ascetic claims to the contrary.
People blame him for being a recluse, but then he will rarely meet a beautiful soul whereas he can always meet a beautiful bit of Nature. Do they blame him for preferring Nature? Besides, he is so taken up with this task of getting to know himself that he has little inclination left to get to know others.
If he is to be away from outer temptations which stimulate afresh and keep alive thoughts that he is desirous of subduing, then it is better he should be away from society. If he is to avoid the semblance of situations which may outwardly compromise him even though he is inwardly guiltless, it is again better that he should be away from society.
There are times when a man needs to be alone, apart from others, to be wholly himself and think his own thoughts.
It is hard for such a man to stay in society without compromise, without playing the hypocrite, without becoming half-insincere. It is understandable if, disgusted, he would rather retire from the world and be a recluse.
His revulsion against this materialism is understandable. Its denial of the finer culture which he is beginning to find is reprehensible. Shall he follow the Indian example and withdraw from the world, repudiate its values, and disengage himself from all relationships? It may not be the easiest way to live but it is certainly the sincerest.
Hearing some nearby worshipper singing out of tune, say quite flat, does not promote the feeling of reverential worship, let alone of brotherly love. Yes, the argument for privacy in worship is a strong one!
Left alone, with no intrusion of other people's auras to create tensions, a beautiful placidity takes over the mind of a philosophically developed man.
:> "I regard my last eight months in prison as the happiest period in my life. It was then that I was initiated into that new world . . . which enabled my soul . . . to establish communion with the Lord of all Being. This would never have happened if I had not had such solitude as enabled me to recognize my real self. Although I did not study mysticism, the mystics I read in prison appealed to me tremendously."--Anwar el Sadat, former president of Egypt
No matter how many other persons anyone surrounds himself with, he is and remains fundamentally alone. He may not recognize it, or may refuse to recognize it, but an hour comes when the hidden truth is forced upon him.
He must use a shield against intrusive society, against aggressive egos ever ready to desecrate what he holds most holy. That shield is concealment.
The lonelier he is the likelier is meditation to appeal to him.
Solitude is not a necessity of the meditative existence. A man may go his own way in the midst of a society inwardly detached, calm while outwardly busy and alert, weary of the witless talk that imposes upon their dementia a pomposity which provokes right and proper ridicule.
This is not my own discovery. The ancients and the medievals knew it, too. Richard Rolle, the fourteenth-century English mystic, states, "In ancient days many of the more perfect went out from the monasteries to dwell alone." I myself witnessed the procession of the more advanced of Ramana Maharshi's disciples exiling themselves, one by one, from his ashram during his lifetime.
At such times, when he is alone with the best in himself, he will come to appreciate the worth of solitude.
The recluse who rejects society is entitled to do so and to find his own spiritual path in his own way; but it is neither just nor wise for him to impose his way upon the others who have to live in society, who can not reject it.
To the man of thought, feeling, and meditation, privacy is a treasure--a necessity of his way of life, a creative and fruitful period.
Solitude is the best way of life, Nature is the best company, God is the best presence. Those who are wealthy surround themselves with servants, so that they never have solitude, but always other presences, other auras around them. Privacy is the accompaniment of solitude and where there is no solitude there is no privacy.
It is pleasant to live ignored and unknown. The world then lets you alone and keeps its negative thoughts off you, directing them to someone else. To be regarded as a nobody and let others find out after you have passed from their physical ken or moved elsewhere that you are a somebody prevents unwanted intrusions.
He is a prudent man who does not much encumber himself with commitments to other persons upon the journey of life but retains some measure of the freedom which is found in aloneness and independence.
Who has full freedom and complete independence? Who is walled against the actions, the influence, the suggestions, and the presence of others? Even the recluse who withdraws from society will find it difficult to live or be alone. He prefers to be inconspicuous among others, to live quietly in society, to have a humbler rather than a grander position, and to hide himself in anonymity or obscurity. But these are his own preferences. If, however, the Higher Power wills or instructs him intuitively to come into the public eye, to be publicly active, he will reluctantly have to obey the call.
This mental solitude will seem to be enchanted, almost magical, outside the working of time itself.
He must not be afraid to hide himself if that is the only way he can avoid being disturbed.
Many people look upon living alone and staying alone as often as possible with something like horror and to be avoided. The philosopher has no such attitude for on the contrary he is able then really and truly to be himself and not what the pressures of others force him to try to appear to be.
The large spread of vulgarity in the world makes a fastidious person find more enjoyment in solitude.
The better part of his character revolts against much that he finds in the world but which others have long since received into their concept of an acceptable and respectable society.
The mystical temperament covets solitude and quietude, detests multitude and noise. The mystical way of life renounces the limited ego, battles against the lower instincts, and abjures personal strife. Consequently, the mystic is inevitably repelled by much that belongs to the active life. His breadth and depth of outlook find little attractive in it. He wants to save the time and energy it absorbs so as to make his life inwardly profitable.
If he seeks to live apart from others for long periods, he is entitled to do so. Society and community may do much for a man but they do not give him inner peace. For that he must fight alone in the full sense of the word.
A sensitive man is entitled to protective shelter from intrusions to his private tent in the wilderness of this world. Aloneness with the Overself may be his particular way of life. Solitude may be his necessity, but someone else's curse.
Has he obligations to society which remain unfulfilled if he chooses solitude whilst he remains in it, or withdrawal into a retreat when he does not? Is he acting dishonourably? The answer is that he is entitled to his decision: it is personal. His own future life is at stake, not society's.
The criticism that the man who withdraws and excludes himself from the turmoil and agitation of ordinary life for spiritual reasons is antisocial and selfish is a narrow, one-sided, and superficial one. If he uses the hermit-like retreat to improve his character and to foster resolves to amend his conduct when he returns to society, he will surely be a better member than before. Since society is composed of individuals, that which leads to their moral elevation cannot fairly be called antisocial. And since everyone benefits by it in the end, it cannot be called selfish.
Is the man who has gone aside for a while to collect his forces, to quieten his mind and to study the ancient wisdom, to be labelled a deserter of civilization? How false such a label, how foolish the critic who affixes it! All that is best in civilization has come from men who for a time went aside to gain the inspiration or the vision out of which their contributions or creations were born.
The disgust with the world which Shankara regards as one of the four essential qualities for the Quest, or dispassion as it is sometimes translated, must also include disgust with humanity. Therefore, if it leads a man to seek a solitary existence in order to find what the world's influences obstruct, he ought not to be blamed.
If the hermit is busy with quietening his thoughts, penetrating his consciousness, deepening his attention and uplifting his emotion, his unsocial behaviour is quite justified. He knows now that he must fulfill his duty to himself and that it takes time and strength. If he leaves other persons alone, does not intrude into their lives, it is because he is trying to make his own life so much more valuable, and this in the end will make him so much more valuable to society. Thus, not only is his own patience called for, but also the patience of society, to bear with his solitary ways.
Experience will instruct him that until he attains a certain inner status, the more he moves with others, the less often he finds the inner light. The more he is alone the easier it is to commune with Nature. It needs courage to practise solitariness at the proper times, for too many meetings and too much chattering deprives.
When he sees how much malignancy there is in the world, a man may be excused if, without turning misanthrope and for the purpose of higher development, he cuts himself off from his fellow men and withdraws into seclusion.
The hermit who isolates himself from neighbours in order to enter a deeper intercourse with himself, is entitled to do so. It is the spiritual motive which justifies the antisocial act.
To leave the worldly life, out of clear perception of its insufficiency and unsatisfactoriness, or out of disgust and fatigue, is not necessarily a cowardly act. It may well be the only proper and prudent act.
Dangers of solitude
The benefit which can be got from solitude, is had only by properly balanced minds. The others will be still more unbalanced by it.
The hermits who go, self-banished, into their rural retreats have as much right to their solitude as we to our society. But if they avoid all contact with others for too long a period, they fall into fresh danger of monomania, hallucination, or illusory progress. Here, as in all things, a balance must be kept.
The tendency to withdraw into oneself in disgust with the world is useful so long as it does not end in a withdrawal to some other part of the ego. The result is likely to be that one shuts oneself up in sulkiness, if not morbidity--a sterile move.
If he loses interest in the world to the extent that he is quite willing to let it go hang, for all he cares, where is the evidence of spiritual unselfishness in this? Is it not rather a complete obsession with personal development?
So long as he does not go into action, the hermit is in no danger of being shocked into discovering all the truth about himself and about his theories. His meditation may reveal some or much of it but so far as this practice is swayed by his imaginings or permeated by his ego, it may lead him only to false results. But in the world he will meet with events, rocks, oppositions, temptations, that force him to bring up to the surface what is really in him or test the advances he has made to measure whether they be real or imaginary.
Hermits who dwell overlong in mountain eyries get out of touch with common life. Their outlook becomes narrow and confined; their thoughts become unable to take wide generous and balanced views. They fall into a fatal complacency.
There is a dangerous side to excessive solitude spent in efforts at meditation. It may lead to a dried-up, holier-than-thou sanctity which hides and protects the very egoism he sets out to kill. It may breed hallucinatory visions and pseudo-revelations, in which he gradually becomes lost to the truth and sanity of real vision and authentic revelation.
An excess of solitude may lead to a degeneration of manners. The man who lives too much in himself may forget how to live with others. Living alone, unsociable, having no companions, much less confidants, a hermit may lose polish, graciousness.
The dangers of introspection exist mostly if he is to revel in egoistic thoughts. But the philosophic aim is the very contrary--to cut a passage-way through all such thoughts and escape entirely from them.
The mere indifference towards other men and the self-sought blindness to events which characterize such a recluse are not necessarily the highest kind of detachment.
There is something outwardly ironic in asking such a man to love his neighbour as himself. Having secluded himself from all normal contacts with his neighbours, how can he find the chance to love them?
Isolation from all culture may either breed insanity or foster wisdom.
Prolonged isolation from his fellows can fill his mind with unreal imaginings about his own experiences and wrong ideas about other people's.
He becomes too withdrawn into himself in a negative way, ending in a lethargic apathetic self. This is not at all a philosophic result but quite the reverse.
The solitary man may or may not have a better chance to attain stillness, not enlightenment. This is because he is likely to have less distractions of certain kinds. But in that case he is likely to have other kinds instead.
Solitude may help a man immensely in his spiritual life during certain periods which may be quite long or quite short. But just as any good that is overdone becomes a bad or turns to a folly, so it is with solitude. Too much of it may cause a man to go astray and lose himself in chimeras and illusions. For if he has no other human contact he has no one with whom to check his ideas, from whom to receive constructive criticism, and by whom he may be warned about deviations from the correct path.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.