Monday, October 02, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 3: the hermit hut

There are attractions to the monastic lifestyle: silence, solitude, simplicity. The opportunity to go within oneself. The quiet life. It's often enough that it might seem attractive, to a poet, to drop everything, take only writing implements and a few things to read, and check out for awhile. There are numerous retreat centers that offer hermitage experiences: isolated desert and mountain locations, quiet retreats overlooking lake or sea. It's a long tradition that goes back millenia, in both Western and Eastern cultures. There is a grand literary tradition of writing about one's stay in such places. From Po Chu-i to Basho, from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton, from the Mahabharata to May Sarton, the urge to take hermitage has always been there, and has been considered, contemplated, and written about.

There is an apparently universal human instinct towards hermitage, retreat, seclusion, monasticism, meditation, and contemplation, that turns up in various versions in most cultures. In shamanic cultures such as the Plains Indians, there is the sweat-lodge and vision-quest. In African tribal cultures, there are similar tropes. In Australian Aboriginal tribes, there is the tradition of the Walkabout. I think the thing that ties it all together is solitude in a natural setting, whether it's a hut or a pilgrimage. There is always danger involved, often both psychological and physical. There is always risk. The non-risking, mall-going, socially-conforming, mundane, ordinary life of urban snivellization offers little support for pilgrimage or hermitage, if it even acknnowledges their existence. Thus, undertaking such a path can be a radical disruption, a breaking away, and a major change, depending on who you are and where you start from. It can also be An Awfully Big Adventure, and tons of fun.

I sometimes wonder if the Beats didn't stumble on to this idea simply because they were looking for an escape, a rebellion, any escape, any rebellion, and found what would serve in the literary traditions of East Asia and Zen Buddhism. I also sometimes think that Gary Snyder was the one who opened that door for the rest of the Beats, as he was already a scholarly grad student in these topics when the rest of the Beats met him. Asian poetry, the hermit hut literary tradition was one avenue of rebellion and exploration; the Baudelaire-Rimbaud-Artaud tradition of the derangement of the senses (drugs and synaesthesia) was the Beats' other principal route of escape and exploration. As such, the Beats obviously influenced and prefigured a lot of what happened in the Sixties, and in many ways they were the pioneers, along with some others such as Leary, et al.

The romantic notion of a hermitage is that one is going to retreat from the world, get away from the hustle and bustle, withdraw into silence. But what dabblers (and this could include many of the Beats) don't know, because they haven't experienced it, is the tough reality rather than the romantic ideal: you bring all of that with you, to your hermit hut. The world does not just drop away: it has to be actively let go of.

The same goes for your sense of self, for your personality-ego. Lots of people don't get very far into the hermitage experience, because they get fidgety or restless when deprived of the usual cultural stimulations. With only limited social interactions, with no one to chat with, with no one to project one's self onto, the inner noise gets suddenly louder, and some are not up to the challenge of waiting for it to fall away.

So, if you are expecting a hermitage retreat experience to help you get away from your own ego, your own self, and your own shadows within—the opposite is true. Be warned: The monastic life is the hardest life you will ever live: you will experience, first hand, your own darker nature, and be unable to run away from it. You will be confronted with every mistake you've ever made, every horrible thing you've ever done to yourself, or to others. Your life will be in jeopardy.

Because the monastic life is a pressure-cooker: it brings you face to face with yourself. If you are a successful monastic, you will go through a lot of hell to get to heaven. If at some point you don't have a profound faith crisis in the monastic setting, I would worry about your progress. It's like Meister Eckhart said: I pray God to rid me of God. Every illusion, every assumption, every easy ritual, even all the ones you have valued to date, will drop away—so that you can encounter, directly, the Face of God. (We'll use the word "God" here out of convenience, not in any conventional religious sense, but simply as a ready label for Mysteries that are unnameable.) After awhile, the darkness does all fall away: as the world falls away. But it's not an easy process. It's a kind of death. Sometimes all you are left with is endurance. Sometimes you come face to face with the void, the abyss, the death of all meaning, even the death of the faith you once had held so firmly. If you are not strong in seeking, and cannot endure this separation from God, you can get lost for real, and be damaged. The separation from God is itself an illusion, in the end, but while you are in that part of the process, it is very very real, indeed. If you come past it, you come to realize that you are not, nor have you ever been, separate from the Divine. And that is the mystics' knowledge in a nutshell: as Eckhart says, God remains present. It is we who have gone out for a walk.

Total seclusion means that every interaction you have ever had with another person comes to you in memory, and you cannot escape. This takes courage. You will review your life, and it is necessary to do so. After a point, you realize that interaction with other people is a precious experience, and at the same time you can survive without it. You don't have to go looking for characters; they will all come to you, any of them you are ever supposed to meet; they will all appear to you. If you haven't seen any person, for even a week, the first person you encounter will be so intensely memorable, so eccentric, so much a character, so much fully themselves, that it will be almost overwhelming, and you might want to flee back to your retreat rather than to have to spend a lot of time with people again. Your perceptual sensitivity will be heightened beyond measure.

If any of this speaks to you or you own experience, you may be a hermit already, in spirit, whether you live in a cabin in the woods or an apartment in the city. Not all people who carry the hermit archetype live traditional monastic lives; many seem quite ordinary on the surface.

Living out of a truck cab may count as hermitage, albeit a rolling one. There is time for contemplation and inner work in such circumstances, certainly, which are part of the hermit's lot. A hermitage is not always a permanent residence, but sometimes a waystation; a place you spend some time alone, to get your head together, and get your heart woken up. It's not a life that suits everyone, and yet it also seems to have universal benefit to those who try the life out, even if only for short periods of time. Being a hermit has nothing to do with religious monasticism, necessarily; it's a way of looking at the world, and can be practiced even in the midt of a crowded city. The best introductory book I have read on the topic is Marsha Sinetar's Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics.

Another book that is essential reading for hermits is Thomas Merton's Day of a Stranger. In poetic prose and photos, he describes his typical day in his hermitage near Gethsemane Monastery in central Kentucky, in the 1960s. Japanese Buddhist poets Ryokan and Ikkyu both are good reading on this front, too.

When I abandoned the settled life in 2004, and became semi-nomadic, Four Huts: Asian Writing on the Simple Life, translated by Burton Watson, was one of the few books I took with me, as my truck pulled the little Scamp trailer westwards. Merton's Day of a Stranger and Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior were two other books I viewed, and still view, as essential hermitage reading, and brought with me. I lived in the New Mexico desert near Taos all that fall, and into winter, when it became apparent I could no longer survive in the trailer. And then the trailer was taken away from me, leaving me with just the truck and what remained of my belongings. I was reduced to near-nothing again.

At other times, in previous years, I have camped under the stars in northern Minnesota, in Wisconsin, and other parts of the Midwest, in all seasons, for weeks at a time. Nothing is as healing as the silence of the night sky in the far north, under the Northern Lights and so many stars you have to work to pick out the familiar constellations; the sound of coyotes or wolves in the distance only adds to the silence. I have spent time in a single-room cabin with a wood-burning stove to cook on. (Food always tastes better cooked over a wood fire. Always.) I have slept in the truck on long drives. I have tent-camped in all seasons, from the Midwest to the central south, Kentucky and Tennessee, and in all but two of the Lower 48 states that lie west of the Mississippi. All times of the year, all season, all conditions. I'm in my late 40s now, and still more comfortable alone in a tent in the woods than I am in most large social situations. I have always been an introvert, and suited to a semi-monastic life. The best place I ever lived was in an apartment that was the upper-half of a house in a small town 20 miles from the larger city where I worked. I had the best of all worlds, and the commute was across two-lane state and county roads, not freeway driving, so it was only occasionally tense. I like people, and I like interacting with them. and I need large amounts of time alone, in silence, in solitude. The time spent alone also wakes you up to the world, when you go back to the towns; you observe people more closely at the truckstops, you notice more details, you see what people do that's unique, and strange, and perfectly them. "Normal" is a town in Illinois, and has nothing whatsoever to do with a state of consciousness or a pattern of socialized behavior. England relishes its eccentrics and characters; in post-Puritanical America, we lock them up or shun them.

I have mostly lived alone. I can live with other people, and I can compromise and communicate and work things out. The usual problem is that most of the people I've lived with can't reciprocate. I get tired of other peoples' drama, when my only contribution to it seems to be my mere presence. So, sometimes it's just easier to live alone.

As a species, humans tend to be species-centric. Like other primates, we are statistically a social species, even though we have a wide range of tolerance within those basic statistics. I've heard more than one writer say: writers depend primarily on their interactions with other people to feed their inspirations. I strongly disagree. While it can be argued that all writing is about relationship, not all writing is about human relationship(s).

While I agree that anything can be done to excess, I would argue that many great writers have been introverts who brought whole worlds into being through imagination. To discount the role of daydreaming, and inner journeying, to the life of solitary writing, is to do it a huge disservice. (It is also a typically left-brained Western-rationalist idea, to place higher value on "empirical experience" than on inner experience.) In fact, many great writers do "make it all up in their heads." They have indeed spent years observing and absorbing what people do; a writer will call on memory going back as far as they can remember, to bring forth characters, situations, and inspirations. A lifetime's worth of fuel for this fire has already been gathered; all you have to do is sit down, get quiet, and tap into it.

Even primarily solitary writers have human contact. Rilke practiced an extensive correspondence. Here was a man who lived in solitude and isolation, and went within for his inspiration, and found worlds upon worlds within—thereby disproving the theory that inspiration must come from sources outside oneself—and at the same time wrote thousands of letters to his many correspondents. Letters to a Young Poet contains ten letters that he wrote that go deeply into his method of solitude as a source for inspiration; but these ten letters are only famous as a collection now because their recipient, the young poet Kappus, gathered them together as a group; they are in no way atypical of the rest of his correspondence, but rather quite of a whole. Reading Rilke's Selected Letters is a good guidebook for living the solitary writer's life, and thus for being a hermit in the modern world. Similarly, Thomas Merton's extensive correspondence contains many of the same tropes, clues, and guidances.

I think that more writers are introverts than extraverts, overall. It's a job that pushes one in that direction, anyway. Writing is a mostly solitary activity. The real balance, as Jung said, is when one works to integrate all aspects oneself into a whole being, and finds a balance that way, in oneself. One becomes a compensated introvert, then, perhaps fundamentally shy but able to handle group situations; or a compensated extravert, fundamentally boisterous but now capable of self-reflection.

It has also been said that introverted writers will "lack the wisdom balance of having observed and lived life fully." Again, I strongly disagree. In order to be that unbalanced, you would have to have never lived, never gone to school, never had a family that you grew up with; you woulkd have to have been raised in isolation, in a box. There's no other way to avoid input; the world always rushes in. Even some autistic people have been writers and artists. While I agree that anything can be taken to an extreme, there's no way to be that introverted short of having grown up alone in a fairy castle, taught to read by the winds, seeing the world only through distant, high windows. It might work in a fairy tale, but it won't happen in real life.

Towards a reading list on the hermit life:

Marsha Sinetar: Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Jane English: Fingers Pointing to the Moon: Words and Images of Paradox-Common Sense-Whimsy-Transcendence

Thomas Merton: Day of a Stranger; also, Woods, Shore, Desert; The Wisdom of the Desert

Sherry Ruth Anderson & Patricia Hopkins: The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women

Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums. The character of Japhy Ryder was based on Gary Snyder. A version of a piece of the novel appeared in the Summer 1958 edition of the Chicago Review under the title “Meditation in the Woods” along with essays by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, poems by Philip Whalen, and a piece on sesshin by Gary Snyder.

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, translated by David Hinton (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002).

Alan J. Berkowitz, Patterns of Disengagement: The Practice and Portrayal of Reclusion in Early Medieval China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Four Huts: Asian Writing on the Simple Life, translated by Burton Watson (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).

John Suiter, Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002).

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (New York: Orion Press, 1964), 31.

C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

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Blogger Frank Owen said...

Enjoyed this very much.

I walk the same Way.

Deep Peace.

12:17 AM  

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