Solitude Revisited


Aloha! I’m taking a break in Hawaii at the moment, but will be back with a new post next week. Meanwhile, here are a couple of posts from February 2015 about a rather more serious – and more rigorous- getaway from civilization.

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

Solitude (Part 2)

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

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”

Solitude (Part 1)

St. Onuphrius

St. Onuphrius

Go, sit in a cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

— Abba Moses (4th century)

Great liking I had in wilderness to sit, that I, far from noise, sweetlier might sing, and with quickness of heart likingest praising I might feel.

— Richard Rolle (14th century)

A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.

— Thomas Traherne (17th century)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

— Henry David Thoreau (19th century)

In the seclusion of a cell… the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor (20th century)

I wondered how I could stop feeling attacked by the elements, and then remembered that I came here to be shaped by the experience of solitude in nature. In that moment, I relaxed my grip on who I think I should be and how the world should treat me, and opened myself to the process of change and growth.

— Robert Kull (21st century)

We don’t know the names of the first hermits, or exactly what drove them to flee their social world for the solitude of wilderness. Not every reason was spiritual, nor did every hermit aspire to higher consciousness. The woods and wastelands have seen their share of outlaws and misanthropes. But for many whose names we revere (such as Moses, Buddha and Jesus), as well as for countless saints who have successfully achieved anonymity, the desert, the mountaintop, the island and the forest primeval have been crucial habitats for the work of the soul.

You go to the wilderness both to lose and to gain. You lose habitual patterns and social roles, along with addictive comforts, clocks, calendars, distractions, noise, news, and the various stresses of public and personal life. You gain time, silence, solitude, freedom, wild nature, and the occasional attention of both angels and demons. If you don’t leave too soon, you may also discover a voice which has kept you company since the day of your birth, a voice which has waited patiently until your inner silence grew deep enough to hear it.

When Robert Kull was a young man, an American expatriate living in Canada, he quit his logging job and paddled a canoe deep into the interior of northern British Columbia, where he lived alone for three months. Psychologically and spiritually unprepared for such extended isolation, he almost “lost it” out there, consumed with fear of the vast unknown as his stable sense of self began to crumble. One night he left his campfire to lie down unprotected in the forest darkness. When a bear drew near, he was terrified, with no recourse but to call upon a higher power. “In that moment of surrender, I felt lifted and found myself floating in a pool of clear light. Looking down, I sensed myself lying peacefully on the forest floor. The world was no longer a hostile alien place, but my home. No true separation remained between me and the world.”[i]

During the weeks that followed, Kull felt so joyful, so “deeply integrated into the universe,” that he resolved to spend an entire year in wilderness solitude at some future time. But soon after returning to the world, “I lost my way, and the clear inner light faded.” It would be 25 years before he would keep that promise to himself, a long stretch during which he sought to recapture that original but elusive state of grace through meditation, self-analysis, and spiritual exploration.

Finally, in February, 2001, Kull set up camp on a remote island off the coast of southern Chile, where he would spend a year alone in the Patagonian wilderness. An abridged form of his journals, interspersed with later reflections about the experience, was published by New World Library in 2008 as Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes. It’s a marvelous read. By shunning a grand narrative thread or an authoritative single voice, Kull let his recorded thoughts, observations and experiences stand just as they were written, paragraph by paragraph, full of changing moods and contradictory voices. This documentary restraint allowed me to be in the moment with him. Each time I picked up the book over the past few weeks, I was immediately returned to that island solitude, its hardships and its beauties, its frustrations and its revelations. When the “year” was finally up and I resumed my accustomed life, I was left with the same question that Kull returned with: what happened out there, and has it left a permanent mark on me?

As the Lenten journey into metaphoric wilderness looms near, I want to explore the implications of Kull’s spiritual experiment for the rest of us. I will do this over the course of a few posts. Let me conclude this first installment with some thoughts about his approach.

Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Kull eventually migrated to Buddhism. He still uses the word “God” at times, but speaks more often of a felt Presence, Something Greater, or mystery. His favorite term is alive or aliveness, always rendered vibrant with italics. Shorn of traditional theist attributes which might divorce the divine from the given world, this Presence is often interchangeable with “nature” or “universe.” Sometimes it has a voice, and responds to our attention, while sometimes it seems a more impersonal, all-embracing flow.

But constructing a coherent systematic theology is not Kull’s design. While he brings his own presuppositions to his observing, as do we all, his aim is ontologically humble. He is not trying to make an objectively comprehensive model of Being, but to describe his own experience when he opens himself to larger spiritual realities. While he draws on the wisdom of various teachers, his knowledge remains largely personal.

As he tells us, he wanted “to explore, through living, the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects of deep wilderness solitude.”[ii] Formally, his project was an academic study for a doctorate at the University of British Columbia. But as he later wrote, “although my intention at the beginning of this retreat was to explore solitude through a purely secular lens, [I] have had to admit that I cannot fully live nor write about what is happening without using spiritual terminology.”[iii]

A Christian of the last century, having spent considerable time praying in a cave in North Africa, said that “the trouble with going to the desert is that you risk meeting God there.” And as the series of epigraphs at the top of this post demonstrate, there have always been a few of us willing to take that risk. Those who stay home are all grateful for anything they can tell us afterward.

What Kull learned on that Patagonian island is valuable for several reasons. One is the sheer length of his solitude. The Desert Fathers had visitors, and said mass together on Sundays. Thoreau also enjoyed visitors, and dropped off laundry at his mom’s house in town. But Kull had only one brief visit from park rangers. The rest of the time he was entirely bereft of human presence. He thus provides an uncommon source of data about human consciousness.

Such data is hard to come by. I once heard the scholar-writer Stephen J. Pyne read a brilliant paper on the otherworldly environment of Antarctica. White on white, often without any visible separation between ice and sky, the polar landscape is stripped of the visual cues and details by which we orient ourselves in space. Being there is like dwelling in an abstract painting. I asked Pyne whether prolonged exposure to such strange phenomenology might produce interesting forms of consciousness. Shouldn’t the polar outposts be treated like monasteries where the far edges of human perception could be explored? “Maybe,” he laughed. “But the fact is, everyone just stays inside the sheds watching videos and drinking.”

Kull’s experiment is also valuable for his suspicion of preconceptions. He tried to stay open to whatever happens, as free as possible from abstract ideas about the nature of psychological and spiritual experience. Of course this is not entirely possible. We are all products of culture, language, personal history, social location and other contextual factors. But while I would be interested to see what a theologian could do with the raw data, I am glad it was Kull and not the theologian (myself included!) who did the empirical work. Fewer ideas to get in the way.

Finally, Kull’s report is imbued with his own frailty and vulnerability. He’s neither saint nor guru, just a slob like one of us. Afflicted at times by feelings of spiritual failure, and liable to follow an experience of the oneness of all beings with an angry swipe at his whining cat, we feel the camaraderie of a fellow beginner. When he comes across Merton’s sweeping assertion that the “hermit’s whole life is a life of silent adoration…. a prolonged communion … ever in the presence of God,” Kull can’t contain himself: “[N]owhere does Merton’s statement find support,” he argues. “On the contrary. The mind and heart are all over the place, from the most trivial, mundane, and negative to the joyful, peaceful, and sacred. Solitude is like the rest of life, only with less opportunity for escape into diversion.”[iv]

I like to imagine Merton laughing in agreement.

To be continued in the next post

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wilderness in Extremes (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) xiv

[ii] Kull, 54

[iii] Kull, 214

[iv] Kull, 103