Archive for December, 2009

A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

In the course of researching and writing the book Maitland spent silent time in silent places – on Skye in the Hebrides; in the Sinai Desert; in forests and mountains; in a flotation tank; in monasteries and libraries. She was trying to match her personal experiences to those of other people – from fairy stories to single-handed sailors, from hermits and romantic poets to prisoners and castaways, from reading and writing to mountaineering and polar exploration, from mythology to psychoanalysis.

For Sara Maitland, a practising Roman Catholic, silence has a profound religious dimension, which is also examined and discussed. This journey into silence has held surprises and setbacks, but mainly a deepening sense of happiness. In the end Maitland built a little house on an isolated moor in Galloway, designed for solitary and silent living.

Buy now: A Book of Silence


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Realizing that I was drifting and not cultivating the virtues in myself that I value – compassion, right speech, integrity – I decided to restart what had been my routine for several years. Like a garden choked with weeds, I’d allowed other concerns to crowd out what I believe is most valuable for any human being.

Wealth, fame, comfort are not as important as self-awareness and living an ethical life. Selling oneself to the highest bidder in the marketplace through a thousand and one “shortcuts” in the workplace, in the supermarket, with friends and family is a disease that has been in societies for centuries. Though it seems to be reaching a new crescendo in the current era of celebrity worship.

No-one can know what may happen to us in the world – but we can manage how we respond. Cultivating wise responses, intelligent and compassionate responses is, for me, the most important reason for spiritual practice. Yes, to become a better person! So now I’m beginning and ending my day with prostrations, meditation and chanting. My own practice follows Buddhist tradition, but I think there’s tremendous value for anyone in beginning and ending the day with a brief time of quiet and some form of reflection, prayer or reading to aid reflection. The prostrations work for me because I’m a very physical person and working off that energy in front of a representation of ideals greater than myself (Buddha statue on an altar) is more constructive than working out in a gym looking at myself in the mirror.

Of course, people find different methods that work for them. It doesn’t have to be meditation, though it’s an extraordinarily powerful way of calming mind and body. When teaching or leading meditation I’ve always called it “a colourless, odourless gas” that reaches into all parts of a person’s life. Other people find prayer can have a similar effect.

There’s some flexibility in my routine so that even when the full practice of prstrations, meditation and chanting is not possible, I will at least be doing practice every day rather than breaking the routine.

Pulling myself out of bed to do 108 prostrations can be a real effort each morning, but once done, the day seems properly framed. The evening practice is a welcome bookend to the day that encourages recollection before sleep.

5.50 am – wake
6 am – 108 prostrations, meditation for about 20 minutes (until candles go out), read Heart Sutra, read Bodhisattva Vow. 3 prostrations.

(If time is very short, then 36 or even just 3 prostrations and the Bodhisattva Vow.)

around 9pm – 3 prostrations, meditation for 30 minutes (until the full candles burn out), recite the Great Compassion Dharani, read the Bodhisattva Vow. 3 prostrations. Read at least one chapter of my assigned book.

(If for any reason, the time is very late, then 3 prostrations and read the Bodhisattva Vow.)

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In the 1940’s American-born Willard (Kitchener) MacDonald jumped his troop train heading to WWII. Fearing authorities he lived as a Hermit deep in the northern wilderness of Nova Scotia, Canada, for more than 60 years. This is the true story of The Hermit of Gully Lake, a man who lived a life that the rest of us could never endure. He was a soul in exile and yet you will discover that he touched the lives of so many, in ways that no one can really explain — Willard became a Legend.

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Another short documentary about this remarkable man.

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Perhaps for many, the journey of solitude begins with the discovery that he or she is actually happier when alone than with other people. It is probably rarely an “all or nothing” encounter with self, but rather it develops as a growing realization of who we really are.

Some people thrive in the company of others. And they don’t have to be the life and soul of a party to want to be around other people. We all have that to some extent – human beings are social animals after all. Some people want and need to be amongst other people, even if they don’t talk a lot. There’s an energy and a buzz that’s shared. When someone like this spends time alone – which they may do for odd hours from time to time – they find that their energy winds down. Half a day alone and they need to be with other people to get recharged.

Some other people are exactly the opposite. For example, I myself am not anti-social and have many friends. But a couple of hours with anyone is usually enough for me to be looking to be alone again. Even with someone I really like, even deeply love, the need to be alone never goes away. Instead, it’s that period of solitude that gives me the energy to be open to others.

This is classically described as “introvert” and “extrovert” but I suspect these words are inaccurate because each lumps together at least two qualities that are different.

“Need to be alone” and the “capacity for introspection” may overlap but they are surely not the same. When I’m painting or cleaning I prefer to be alone but my thoughts are hardly introverted. During a retreat, one can be in a hall full of people yet enjoy profund introspection.

Likewise, “needing company”, not wanting to be alone, does not necessarily make a person “extrovert”. Every extrovert needs an audience – often quieter individuals who would no sooner choose solitude than a hermit would choose a cocktail party.

So the desire for deeper solitude may begin as a small discovery about oneself – that we need time alone to recharge. Yet its implication and consequence can be profound. Of course, a need for occasional solitude does not make anyone a hermit, nor necessarily take a person along that path. For most people, a little time alone is a way of balancing the time immersed with other people.

However, in my own exeprience, it has been the repeated realization that I am more myself when alone than when I’m with other people that has gradually lead me deeper and with more confidence into solitude. After even just a few days alone, I find that I think of other people with much more love than I do when I’m with people all the time. After a few days alone, I smile more, listen more, laugh more, am less judgmental, and flow more easily with what’s going on. Away from people I become much more concerned for their welfare; when I’m with people I often just want to escape.

When I’m with people, alas to say that the humanity newly recovered in solitude, does not last long. Soon I’m talking too much again – projecting “me”, reacting to the ways people are reacting to me. We’re playing a game again and no longer being ourselves. So then I retire and a few hours later begin to feel settled again. A few days later, I may feel sufficiently centred to imagine it’s safe to venture out again, only to discover that the social conventions, the learned patterns, the need to present a “face” have overwhelmned me again and that I am relating to other people as social beings not human beings.

Most people are content to taste solitude just briefly and from time to time. For a very few, solitude beckons more and more until the call becomes irresistible. Then they must decide either to try to be as happy as they can be in the world, or to take the risks, live with their doubts and strike out on their own. In my experience, there is no right or wrong, and a person may return to the same moment of decision several times before committing wholeheartedly to their choice.

Indeed, a whole lifetime may pass with that decision being repeatably delayed. In my own case, that is part of what impels me now. After decades of “being in the world” and tasting an awful lot of what it has to offer, it’s time now to set aside distractions and doubt and to commit to the life I have always known was truly my own.

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The Hermit of Manana, a film by Elizabeth Harris. Released May 2006.

“The Hermit Of Manana” is the true story of Ray Eugene Phillips (1892 – 1975). He was born in 1892, attended the University of Maine, fought in World War I, held down a job in New York City in the bustling 1920s, and then, seemingly on a whim, happily decided to leave it all behind for a life of solitude on the tiny, isolated island of Manana, Maine. He spent the rest of his life there, with a herd of sheep and a gander, a small wooden rowboat, in a shack made out of materials that washed up onto the shore.

His story became one that traveled quickly and altered radically. Myths, legends, and folklore surrounded the story of Ray, then and now, and he became known up and down the east coast, as “The Hermit of Manana.” Newspapers sought him out, photographers hounded him, a children’s author wrote a story about him, and rumors spread wildly. “The Hermit of Manana,” the documentary, seeks to sift through the stories and reach towards Ray as a person and what made him gladly choose this lifestyle.

Today Manana Island stands uninhabited. Ray Phillips was the longest resident of the island, from 1930-1975. For a time, the coast guard had a manned station there, but that was eventually automated. One family lived there for a couple of years but moved on. The grass has grown up high and Ray’s paths are long gone, but you can not look out on Manana without thinking of him.

From the director: For me, the choice between city and country life is one very close to home. The seductions of the city have drawn me in but I feel strongly that I deny myself something by living away from the country. Career ambitions often demand city life, while personal happiness takes a back seat when country people are trapped in the city. My film addresses this conflict in everybody, and focuses on one man who faced this conflict and chose unlike anyone else. This project is meant to stir a discussion about our priorities, and the value in simplicity, existence and basic survival.

Ray’s decision to fend for himself and avoid social interaction attracted attention, making headlines of newspapers and magazines all over the northeast. Withdrawing from the norm made him stand out much more than if he had remained one of millions in New York City. What elements in his upbringing and psyche allowed him to happily opt out of society? What can we learn from his decision and how could it impact our lives? My personal journey to uncover more about Ray Phillips leads me to numerous characters who knew Ray, and to question my own lifestyle along the way.

A DVD of the film is available at: TheHermitOfManana@gmail.com.

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The Hermit Writings of S. are a collection of short essays on many aspects of being a hermit – self-sufficiency, hermit and the world, love, time, urban eremitism, and virtue, for example. They are straight-forward, down to earth and direct. “We cannot give up the world and then expect the world to do anything for us, or even to respect us,” he writes. The writings are posted on the Hermitary website by Meng-hu. They are presented here with no changes or edits whatsoever. the purpose is to present them to more people and in a pdf format that may be more convenient to readers.

The essays offer sound advice to novice hermits not only about the practicalities of the life (such as suggestions of where and how to live) but more importantly about some of the issues that are bound to come up as soon as the distractions of the world fall away.

“Every moment of every day is a threshold on which we teeter. The door is always before us, though not always so clearly, let alone ajar, it beckons as we totter on the doorstep. The abyss of everything we know is behind us, we can topple back into it as into an old nightmare. or we can push forward, our hope on an uncertain bliss, if we give up everything, even analogies, and accept everything, specially antipathies.”

The writings of S. are among the most important contemporary accounts of eremitism, to be kept alongside Thomas Merton for example. What makes his essays so valuable is that he is clearly writing from experience. He has walked to talk; he neither encourages nor discourages yet simply accepts that those who must live as hermits will do so and at the same time points out some of the traps and digressions likely to be encountered along the journey of solitude.

Hermit Writings of S

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