This evening, an inner light shone up from within, and a voice called, “Come to me, trust me, depend on me. You cannot do it yourself. You’re trapped where you are, and your struggling efforts to free yourself enmesh you more deeply. Come to me.” “Yes,” I answered, and surrendered. Yet my pride was soon fighting back. This is the work I came to do.
— Robert Kull[i]
In Solitude (Part 1), I described one man’s experiment of living in total solitude for one year on a remote island in southern Chile. On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Christian retreat from habitual living and pesky attachments, it seems a good time to ask what Robert Kull’s experience might teach us about spending time in the “desert.” What happens out there? Will it change us?
Kull has few pretensions about being a hero. One of his first journal entries expresses a feeling of utter weakness and vulnerability: “Alone. A tiny solitary speck completely vulnerable in the face of an infinite universe intent on my annihilation.”[ii] Over the next twelve months he suffers frequent bouts of anxiety, loneliness, rage, depression, emptiness, grief, and self-doubt – all those demons that have nowhere to hide without the constructions and distractions of the social world. “What is this core I’m knotted around?” he wrote after three months. “What painful wound am I protecting? I want nothing to touch me there – but rain, wind, cold, and Cat [his feline companion] keep battering the walls I build.”[iii]
The solution, as he must learn over and over, is not to fight and overcome his human condition, but to surrender: “My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than individual ego.”[iv]
He was never entirely free of the hero’s quest to attain a goal, to find the Holy Grail of a perfected self. “It’s painful to feel I’m failing,” he wrote halfway through his year.[v] He worried he was just going round in circles instead of making real progress. He felt like Sisyphus. But isn’t that how the soul dance goes? It’s not the attainment of a final cure for what ails us, but a lifelong process of continual care and self-compassion. As the monks say when asked what they do all day in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up.” Or as a Zen patriarch once put it, “One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person.”[vi]
We should rejoice that enlightenment and foolishness (or grace and sin) remain so intertwined in this life. It reminds us that grace is a gift, not a possession. It frees us from pretension and pride, and makes us ever grateful.
In his last days on the island, Kull wrote:
I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I believe there have been moments. If so, enlightenment is not something I can get. It’s the process of abandoning myself to the world. There have been times when, like a clear bell, I could hear the sound of one hand clapping and feel the sacredness of everything. It’s the sound of the world, once I remember in my heart that there is truly nothing to get. What I’m looking for, I already have.[vii]
In his year of solitude, Kull experienced many moments of enlightenment to go with the many foolish ones. Some of his best thoughts are framed in the language of his adopted Buddhist tradition, but his struggles with self-will and ego are resonant with Christian spirituality as well. “Surrendering the ego to Something Greater is at the heart of spiritual practice, and the process is endlessly subtle and challenging.”[viii]
Kull’s wilderness year did not fix him. He returned home still a work-in-progress. But he had definitely been changed by his sojourn in solitude, and the meaning of that change will only be revealed over the rest of his life. As I often heard when I walked the Camino de Santiago, “when you reach Santiago, your real Camino begins.”
Kull’s relationship with the wind is my favorite example of his spiritual growth. When he began his year in the southern summer, the winds were intense and seemingly endless. If you have ever camped in high winds, you know how wearying, even terrifying, a continuous barrage of turbulence can be. For a long time, Kull regarded the wind as his enemy – an attacking, malevolent force trying to break him down. But as he gradually learned to surrender to the world, to accept the way things are and not take them personally, he recognized the wind had been his teacher all along. In his final weeks on the island, he began to fly a kite on calmer days. The wind had become his playful companion.
For those of us beginning our Lenten retreat today, Kull’s valuable experiment in solitude has much to teach us. The subtractions of retreat – doing without, giving up, setting aside, getting away – can free us from the clutter, noise, addictions, distractions and deceptions that drown out the still, small voice calling our name in every moment. And the unaccustomed hardships of the “desert” – severity, deprivation, emptiness, loneliness, demons – can break the spell of self-sufficiency, returning us to the honest condition of primal need. Few of us will spend a year on a Patagonian island, but a faithful keeping of Lent may take us to a place of similar learning and growth.
Perhaps the best thing we can take from Kull’s journals is the gift of self-compassion. We don’t have to be heroes. We don’t have to be cured. We don’t have to pretend at spiritual competence or perfection. We don’t even have to be “good,” as Mary Oliver reminds us. We “only have to let the soft animal of [our] body / love what it loves.”[ix] And every now and then, as Kull duly notes, we get it: “Finally I am – if only briefly – the flowing All.”[x]
Tonight I will kneel in church for the imposition of ashes. A priest will trace a charred cross on my forehead and say to me, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
What a relief! Only dust, neither hero nor angel. And yet, is not dust the very material God selected to fabricate a physical image of the divine self? This dust may yet shine with glory not its own.
Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’ry where.[xi]
[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) 98
[ii] Kull, 4
[iii] Kull, 70
[iv] Kull, 47
[v] Kull, 141
[vi] Hui Neng, Sixth Zen Patriarch, q. in Kull, 288
[vii] Kull, 293
[viii] Kull, 271
[ix] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) 110
[x] Kull, 283 (italics mine)
[xi] George Herbert, “The Temper”