To be isolated from human contact for long periods of time is considered to be a severe punishment. Inmates at penitentiaries who violate prison regulations are placed in solitary confinement. Anecdotal evidence claims that prisoners would rather be in the noisy company of convicted violent rapists, robbers, and murderers than be placed “in the hole” of solitary confinement.
On the other hand, there are spiritual pilgrims who spend great sums of money to go on retreat to isolated mountain retreats in places like Nepal to spend weeks or months entirely alone in the wilderness with nothing but a primitive hut for shelter. Many of those seekers love the feelings of bliss they obtain from extreme isolation.
I’ve traveled to more than a couple of retreats and can attest to the benefits of sublime aloneness. Sometimes, I prepare for and engage in “do-it-yourself” retreats at home over the span of a weekend or a week with no contact whatsoever with other people. These voluntary times of isolation are pleasant and gratifying. (I do allot a short amount time to blog and briefly correspond with fellow bloggers.)
It’s interesting that there are such extremes regarding social isolation. In the case of solitary confinement in prisons, aid organizations and the United Nations state that solitary confinement is a human rights abuse. Yet other people willingly fork out thousands of dollars in order to spend a month or two in primitive conditions in a developing country in search of spiritual enlightenment.
It is commonly accepted that humans are social creatures. If we involuntarily lose our family connections or become isolated from a friend or lover, we suffer stress and grief. Even if the isolation is voluntary, there is still a certain amount of adjustment necessary in order to compensate for the lack. This is one reason that abandonment causes so many psychological problems. Even the most isolated hermit enjoys the company of fellow humans sometimes, albeit short spans of time.
I posit that if prison inmates could learn the value of isolation they could derive great value from solitary confinement. A famous example is Nelson Mandela, who was forced to live for extended amounts of time alone in a tiny seven feet square cell with only a slop bucket for company. When not in solitary, he was forced into hard labor at a rock quarry. Mandela stated, “One of the saddest moments of my life in prison was the death of my mother. The next shattering experience was the death of my eldest son in a car accident.” He was not allowed to attend either funeral ceremony.
Mandela’s harsh, solitary experiences are not unique. Many human rights activists are arrested and kept isolated as political prisoners. The punishment either breaks or strengthens their resolve. Although these people are in no way hermits in the conventional sense, one might say that they are involuntary hermits.
Then there are those of us who treasure our alone time. We’re introverts by nature. We need time away from other people in order to recharge. When vacationing, we prefer to sojourn alone, preferably to wilderness areas or to cities where we can remain selectively socially isolated. For me, Toronto, Ontario, Canada fits the bill perfectly.
Although my former work in broadcasting required a great deal of human interaction, I treasured each day off for its rejuvenating powers. I considered a day off as an investment in good mental health. At least once per year, I indulged in an informal, two-day mini-retreat as part of each two-week vacation. I found out that similar behavior is practiced by other introverts.
“If a hermit lives in a state of ecstasy, his lack of comfort becomes the height of comfort. He must relinquish it.”–Jean Cocteau
Cocteau stated a major conundrum that solitary monks and hermits face. When isolation becomes too pleasant, isolation becomes akin to pleasurable vice. When this happens, the bliss becomes the warning alarm that signals that it’s time to get outside of the box. Just as the comfort zone stultifies progress in daily practical life, getting stuck in soothing beliefs and rituals can stagnate and regress our inner lives.
To push back the mental frontiers, perhaps extroverted people need to go on extended solitary retreats and introverted people need to attend crowded seminars instead of the other way around.
In the meantime, I consciously work towards keeping the inner hermit in balance with the need for community.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes “Miss Manners” Judith Martin. “Etiquette is all human social behavior. If you’re a hermit on a mountain, you don’t have to worry about etiquette; if somebody comes up the mountain, then you’ve got a problem. It matters because we want to live in reasonably harmonious communities.”