Friday, May 29, 2020

Saving the World through Gentle Witness

"Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world,
and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!" 
—J.R.R. Tolkien

Since making the sudden ‘born-again’-like decision, on May 10, 2020 at 2:15PM, to transition from ‘dime-store recluse’ to ‘serious eremite’ (life as a hermit), thoughts and reactions have come to the surface as from a volcanic explosion.

Rather than be paralyzed trying to sort and organize the hot molten content that has been erupting and spreading over my spiritual landscape, I’ve chosen to start by simply making a list of random thoughts. So here goes.  (Last updated July 15, 2020)
  1. The period of COVID-19 isolation has been an eye-opening, surprisingly positive experience. It pointed to the ‘rightness’ of a simpler life with more social isolation. This seems more the way the world used to be, and more like the direction it should be heading.
  2. There is an amazing similarity between monastic life styles in various faiths around the world. This suggests that these individuals are reaching out to and tuning in to something much more fundamental than the specific dogma and rituals of their individual faiths. It is that fundamental something that I intend to seek.
  3. Silent advocacy, leading by example. How can disengaging from the world be considered "saving the world"? Christian monastics regularly make that claim. I was cynical about it at first, believing their reclusive life was more about achieving personal redemption and closeness to God or nature. But there are at least two unique ways that the eremite works to improve the world. First is by providing a living example of a path that severely reduces one’s ‘footprint’ and respects Nature. The second is by being that still, solid center in a crazy, frenetic world—a safe haven and a touchstone of stability. There is a third, but it depends on one’s belief in and use of prayer, and it depends on what devoted outreaching prayer can accomplish. I’ll address that separately.
  4. The vows. Christian eremites, anchorites, hermits, and monks take three basic vows: poverty (sell what you have, give it to the poor), celibacy (denying the ways of the flesh), and holy obedience (denying honors and positions of authority that feed ‘self-love,’ giving all honor and authority to God). They almost always stay in one place, even though the original hermits from the 4th century Middle East were desert wanderers. And they spend most of their day in silence. However, modern hermits come in many forms beyond Christian; and befitting the solitary lifestyle, each individual sets his/her own rules. Here are some of my tentative rules:

    • Immediate increase in ‘quiet time,’ seclusion, and time spent in nature.  Retirement from social obligations.  Inspired by the Hindu ‘forest dweller’ stage of life, which I have reached.
    • Work toward living in one place, off the grid, in a simple natural wild setting surrounded by wilderness.  Here's the final selection for the location—over ten acres of deep woods with bold mountain streams, surrounded by thousands of acres of protected land—“The Cloister at Three Creeks,” located near the tip of the orange arrow: 
      Settling here will involve some time of ‘apprenticeship,’ getting a routine established and settling as many of the outside-world affairs as possible.  And the start-up has been slowed because the virus limits options for some of the needed chores.  Meanwhile, there has been ample time spent finding quiet space in familiar non-wilderness settings:
    • Advocate by example for returning to simple sustainable living, for giving up technologies that cannot be sustained, and for living humbly, respecting the other life forms that share our interconnected natural system.
    • Emphasize spiritual pursuits, exploring the nature of God, with a particular emphasis on non-traditional perspectives. This has been a life-long pursuit.  God has so many meanings, and I can lose myself in any of them.  I'm listing some specifics here, though this may be more appropriate as a blog post of its own.

      1. The God represented in many faiths is a personal one, having personality, and accessibility. On the other end of the spectrum is the impersonal God, which can be as simple as the mathematical concept of 'infinity' or the physical notion 'everything.' The middle ground between these is where I have begun to settle. Here 'God' is 'nature,' at least in part. And it provides us with a fundamental 'Great Small Voice' within, which is purely physical, though it seems to produce a profound array of emergent behaviors. The 'Great Small Voice' is our DNA. It speaks through the instincts that it has instilled in us, and which human reason and logic often override. There is no more fundamental or more fully vetted 'holy scripture' than the sacred texts of our DNA.  (See the Nature's Code tab for more on this.)
      2. There is palpable power that God, by whatever definition, wields through the actions of true believers. These actions shape the reality of even the most adamant non-believers in that God.
      3. Then there is the actual physical God that Atheists cannot deny using their preferred tools of logic and reason. The argument for a real physical God stems from the near certainty that our reality is not fundamental reality, but is a simulation or thought experiment performed by some advanced culture or being. (See and consider that the parent entity need not be limited by what we observe to be the information capacity of our universe—they could live in a much bigger, more information-rich reality.) The simplest argument goes like this: If intelligent beings someday or somewhere, even just once, achieve technological prowess to do ‘Ancestor/predecessor simulations’, then the number of simulated realities far exceeds the number of physical ones. To us living inside the simulation, the race doing the simulations is obviously our ‘God;’ and since these super-beings are likely to be observing the outcomes of their models, including the thoughts and prayers of those who find the simulation (their lives) in need of repair, perhaps the ‘Watchers’ actually respond to prayer, and make changes, either to this, or to some future simulation.
      4. Back to the 'impersonal' and 'indifferent' God that follows from the logical exercise of trying to envision 'That entity of which nothing greater can be conceived'.  I've spent years pursuing this seemingly fruitless line of reasoning, and I've satisfied myself that there is indeed a meaningful fruit.  It's not one that most people find satisfying or nourishing, but it is borne on a living world-tree with roots that go as deep as it is possible to go.  For a summary, see the Paradox Tab of this blog.
    • Abandon pursuits that feed ‘self-love,’ that draw attention to the self, that aim to exert authority or power over others or seek their admiration. If respect is to be actively sought, make it respect for a way of life, not for the one following that way.
  5. Sustainability and the Trappist monks: a link to the PBS video of Holy Cross Abbey. . This 1200 acre monastery, an hour west of Washington DC, has put in place a state-of-the-art system of agriculture and conservation. Living by example, quiet stewards of the land. There’s a lot to learn from them.
  6. An apprenticeship, a period of experimentation. What will it include? Wandering in the wilderness before settling into one place? Settling all worldly affairs, reducing possessions to a bare minimum?
  7. What is prayer? Virtually every culture can be seen practicing it—calling upon unseen forces to help in time of need or suffering, thanking the same forces for healing or salvation or some other unexpected grace. Who hasn’t lifted their eyes skyward and said something like “please don’t let it rain.”? Who are they asking? Though different cultures ascribe very different attributes to the unseen power, it certainly seems to be a universal human concept.
  8.  What does a life look like, in which every aspect of it is inspired by the hiker's 'Leave no Trace' ethics (Take only photos, leave only footprints)?  First of all, if this approach is the right course in the wild, then it must be the right course everywhere in life.  Nobody, of course, actually leaves *no* trace at all.  We all inevitably leave Footprints in nature's Wilderness (the consequences of our actions radiating outward like ripples in a pond).  But sadly, Humans have become the only species that aspires to amplify their individual ripples, to stomp around making the biggest, noisiest, most badass footprints we can.  We call it 'making a difference' in the world.  The problem is this:  Those big waves that people make may impress their fellow humans, but the rest of the natural system almost always suffers.  The only right way to leave the world a better place than one found it is to recognize, understand, and respect the complex interdependent web of creation in which we are immersed--to work with the bigger picture, as partners with it.  And the first step toward respecting the wider realm of life and nature, is to pay attention, to learn what's around us, to stop stomping around and sit still for a moment and open our senses, smell the fragrance, watch the dance, taste the flavor, hear the song, and feel the pulse.
  9.  Reasons for living separate from the modern world:  Amish culture is a good example of a way to live a simpler life in the midst of today's human 'rat race'.  As individuals, the Amish are hardly reclusive.  Their family and community connections are actually far stronger and more sustaining than those of the average person these days.  Yet their culture is arguably the most successful 'monastic' movement the world has ever known.  They reject many of man's modern ways as being too self-centered - too focused on individual aspirations at the expense of our connection with those larger, higher, powers where true, big-picture fulfillment is to be found.  There is actually a much more extreme example of a culture maintaining their separation from the world.  These are the Sentinelese--a tribe of roughly 100 people living a pure stone-age lifestyle in complete isolation on an island in the Indian Ocean west of Indonesia.  Because the Sentinelese violently reject all attempts at contact, very little is known about them.  They shoot (arrows) at any boat attempting to approach their shores.  Their isolation has been enforced by Indian Government law since 1956.  It is illegal to come within five miles of the island.  These are just two examples of ways of living that deliberately reject the direction in which the majority of humanity is headed.  So, where are we headed?  There are two very different objective ways of judging modern Human civilization, dominated as it is by Western cultural values.  The first looks only at the quality of human life, and the argument is that it has never been better.  The second looks at the condition of the world's natural balance - the condition of the interconnected living ecosystems as a whole - and the argument is that it has probably never been worse since the days of the last mass extinction following the Chicxulub bolide impact 65 million years ago.  Those who favor this big-picture view of how humans are soiling their own nest would do well to stop participating in the carnage, step aside, demonstrate better ways to live, and advocate for them.  Frankly, there are loads of people who talk the talk, but it takes a lot of courage, a lot of deep sacrifice, to actually walk the walk.
  10. Do Hermits get lonely?  Probably every individual Eremite has their own response to that.  During the 2020 virus pandemic, there is probably more loneliness in the world than there has been ever before in human history.  Those who choose solitude may have important lessons to offer to the wider society.   Avoiding loneliness is a discipline.  Dealing with the feelings of loneliness when they occur is not substantially different from dealing with any other mental condition, because loneliness is an internal state of imbalance in the mind.  It has less to do with the actual reality of one’s social situation—their degree of interaction and companionship—and more to do with a feeling of being in a situation you don’t want to be in and don’t know how to get out of. For most people loneliness is the feeling of lacking human relationships that they believe they need in order to feel ‘right’ (known, understood, loved, fulfilled, accepted, validated, needed, happy, even entertained—and especially sharing these positive feelings both ways, mutually with others.) For the eremitic, a tiny amount of interaction goes a very long way, and they arguably feel less loneliness than those in the wider community. Avoiding loneliness is a matter of seeking a personal balance between what you have and what you need (or what you want—given the practical wisdom to know what you really want).   Those suffering from COVID-19 - imposed social isolation might benefit from studying those who voluntarily choose isolation.

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