Are You Fed Up and Longing To Be a Hermit?

One frigid January night in 2002, while living a hermit’s life in my draughty shack nestled beside a ten-thousand acre tree farm, I turned on the radio at 2:30 AM to catch the CBC Radio rebroadcast of Radio Australia’s “The Religion Report.” I am a manic-depressive and sometimes keep strange hours in order to manage my mood swings. Staying up late to deprive myself of sleep shifts me (like everyone else) away from depression.

Forest Hermit and His Hut

The mindset of an anchorite can be useful in everyday life. (Image: public domain.)

On that particular gloomy night, I was delighted to hear Rowan Williams, the then Anglican Archbishop of Wales, do an interview about the ancient Christian concept of what it means to be a religious hermit or anchorite. Badly in need of some cheering up, the unusual topic seemed wonderfully appropriate!

Archbishop Williams laid out some of the simple yet powerful ideas used by those anchorites of old. First among these was the notion of “do the next thing.” That is, as you live your life, move from one simple act to the next, doing what you can. Do not get caught up in a lot of cogitation, just do what seems obvious and natural. Commit yourself to being yourself, here, in the place where you are.

Then we have the injunction to “pledge one’s body to the walls.” The walls, of course, being the walls of your monastic cell. Commit yourself to staying where you are.

Together these two “rules” add up to being who you are, when you are, where you are. They constitute the anchorite’s two guiding principles: fidelity and staying. Religious hermits evolved these ideas, yet they have obvious utility for stressed moderns as well.

Anchorites cultivate peace of mind by remaining “solitary in the crowd of our thoughts.” This is like meditation on the fly. In other words, stay focussed on one thing, stay in the here and now, and by simply doing the next thing, prevent unrelated thoughts from intruding among those thoughts needed to perform the task in hand – and possibly distracting you from what you are doing altogether.

On those rare occasions when they leave their monastic cells or desert huts, anchorites take the position that being “solitary in a crowd is taking your cell with you.” Remain aloof from others while keeping the rest of the solitary mindset in place: as always, do the next thing, and commit yourself to being yourself, here, in the place where you are.

These simple easy-to-remember concepts may be just the thing to get you through another tough day in your office cubicle, or help keep you calm as you live among the crowds of the urban jungle.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

23 thoughts on “Are You Fed Up and Longing To Be a Hermit?”

  1. Interesting post, Thomas. I’ve always felt like a born hermit, so ‘being solitary in a crowd’ comes naturally to me (some might say too much so). Staying focused, on the other hand, is tricky!

    I’m really quite jealous that you managed to live so far from the rest of the world, right out in the Canadian semi-wilderness. Admittedly I’m a bit of a romantic, and so probably have an overly idealised notion of what this entails, but it sounds wonderful!

  2. I’m an introvert too. I work a job that forces me to be more social and I think it exhausts me emotionally so that when I come home, I want to be left alone, much to the sometimes irritation of my family.

    Thanks for the post, Thomas!

  3. I think this my favorite post of yours, Thomas.

    “Commit yourself to being yourself, here, in the place where you are.”

    I’ve been practicing this over the past three or for months, and I [feel] that a lot of my anxieties and depressive thoughts are lifting. Not gone, but lessening.

  4. I have mixed feelings about spending sixteen years on the edge of the Great Canadian Wilderness. My living conditions were rough, yet during those years, I went through an immense personal transformation that would not have been possible anywhere else. Looking back on the experience, I think it was the most horrible, the most rewarding, and the most important thing that ever happened to me, all rolled into one! (Actually, doesn’t that sound like a synopsis of the thing we call “life”?)

    I should point out that much of the horrible had to do with the individuation process. If you have serious problems with anger and repression, working through it all can be daunting. I threw violent fits of rage in the forest that would have seen me locked up for good in town. There was a deep wisdom behind going into the woods, an instinct, if you like, that steered me into a situation that allowed me to do things a more ordinary life would have ruled out. While I was working through the process, I discovered, and recognized the profound truth of, Jung’s concept of the self.

    Here is something to consider. Feeling “like a born hermit” can be an entirely psychological thing. It may not be physical isolation you crave, Mari, so much as more psychological and emotional independence. That is to say, you may prefer less engagement with others than you now experience. You feel (perhaps unconsciously) as if people are pressing in on you, hemming you in, making demands on your time, attention, and emotions to a degree that is beyond your limits as an introverted person. In other words, you would like more psychological space and more emotional room to maneuver.

    In such cases, the unconscious obligingly comes up with an image of what we need: the archetypal hermit or anchorite. We imagine that becoming a hermit is a simple and direct way to get that psychological and emotional space, loads of it, in fact. The truth is, unless you have a serious mental illness, you can get much of what you need merely by adjusting your lifestyle and attitudes *in situ*. Claim more “alone time” for yourself, get away altogether occasionally; insist on having things your own way a little more often, and so on. Such a strategy often works wonders.

    If you do harbour a literal desire to live simply in the natural world, then the best thing to do is get yourself a trial run. If you can wrangle a couple or a few months and find a rustic place to spend them in, give it a go. It definitely is not for everyone, and people do romanticize what it is like. We are all more dependent on other people and the niceties of civilization than we realize. Avoiding “psychic entropy” in a low stimulus environment (and that is what being a hermit entails) requires a considerable amount of inner resources.

    My difficulties with being bipolar make me a poor advisor here, I am afraid. I suffered badly from depression in the early going, but whether this was the result of the sudden solitude, or the effects of my breakdown, or just being bipolar, I cannot say. I do know that a trial run (if it is long enough) will confirm or remove your urge to live like a hermit.

  5. You have my sympathies, Dan. I know what it’s like to be an introvert who has to deal with the public. Stress and emotional fatigue become a way of life and others sometimes also pay a price. In the end, my own situation, which I refused to do anything about, wrecked my marriage. What you need is a more suitable job, but these days, getting picky about what you will or won’t do can land you in the poor house!

  6. I read about your struggle with anxiety on your blog, Adam. What you have to say about medication is a familiar story to many who suffer from mood disorders. I am a huge believer in the psychoanalytic approach. In my own experience, “diseases” such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are actually nothing more than symptoms of intense stress and depression. Find and deal with the root cause and these so-called illnesses clear off.

    Anxiety is more complex. I had a whole basket of problems when I suffered my breakdown and anxiety was one of them. It took years of distressing cognitive behaviour therapy to work through the worst of my fears (like being terrified of dental work), but becoming more conscious, more self-aware, worked wonders for my general level of anxiety. The trick with all psychological problems is not so much getting rid of them as learning how to manage them.

    Intense anxiety and depression often stem from living a life we do not really want. We are socialized to see certain things as desirable, but deep down, we may have other ideas. Bringing your life into alignment with your authentic preferences can change everything. People often resist this when they find they are a lot less ambitious than they thought they were!

    Trying to keep up a false persona is another way of running into anxiety and depression troubles. Nothing stresses you out more than promoting and defending an unrealistic image. Again, people resist abandoning an idealized self-image when they realize they are much less splendid than they had hoped!

    When it comes to sound mental health, self-acceptance is everything. As I worked through the individuation process, I found that self-discovery is not very hard. All you need are a few observation skills and some honesty. It is accepting yourself as you truly are that gives you fits (literally).

  7. Man, you hit the nail on the head. Managing head stuff is key. Like I said in my article (and thanks for reading, by the way), I always had this idea in my mind before treatment that there was a cure-all; I put the work in or pop the pill, and everything goes away after that. Unfortunately for you and I, and many others, it just doesn’t work like that. It’s ongoing.

    I’ve lived a significant portion of my life the wrong way. I’ve never really known myself until a couple of months ago — actually, when I started doing this. Writing has helped me to discover a lot about myself. I’m starting to realize my potential, as well as identifying the real and false people in my life. There’s a lot more un-learning to do yet.

    “Trying to keep up a false persona is another way of running into anxiety and depression troubles.” Yes. Completely agree. That’s what I’m digging myself out of at the moment — living according to other peoples’ definitions of “ideal”. I have my own. Maybe I was a bit naive, or maybe it has something to do with how I was raised, but I always figured that we were all supposed to live our lives in relatively the same ways — traditionally.

    Thanks for the great post, and an even better follow up.

  8. Your remarks about false persona troubles are spot on, Adam. We all suffer from some degree of social hypnosis. Parents, peers, teachers, and the spirit of the times all influence us as we grow up. Trouble starts when our genetic makeup and early learning collide with what comes later. It becomes necessary to work out, or discover, who we really are and what we truly want. This can get complicated as it involves uncovering (not choosing!) a consistent sense of self and the worldview that goes with it. That worldview may or may not have a lot in common with things as they are. I grew up in a Canada moving sharply left, but I am by temperament a conservative. The discrepancy bent me considerably out of shape. I don’t know your situation well enough to comment, but you hint that you had a conservative upbringing. Perhaps you are by nature (genes) a liberal. You cannot decide this. You must find out.

    My own situation may illustrate some of these points. I am the only intellectually inclined member of my family. As a youth, I met with a combination of blank incomprehension and stiff resistance for being that way. Coming from a working class background, my peers sneered at everything to do with books and academic success. As an immigrant, I found that teachers favoured Canadian-born children when it came to promoting their students’ academic futures. I was not strong enough to be who I really am under such inauspicious circumstances so I constructed an elaborate and often contradictory false persona as a shield. I became badly conflicted about my identity and true values. Incredibly, my intellectual pursuits became an (often hidden) guilty pleasure. When I reached adulthood, I was a psychological shipwreck even without the manic-depressive illness that had kicked in at about sixteen.

    What you said about “realizing your potential” prompts me to add that people may not be just *less* ambitious than they had expected but ambitious in *different directions*. Letting yourself go in that new direction is not always easy if doing so collides with a strongly defended false persona.

  9. Dan, I seem to recall that you are a computer game designer by trade. Have you looked into employment opportunities up here in Canada? Vancouver and Toronto are both significant centres for this kind of work and we have a serious shortage of qualified people. Many Americans do come to Canada to take employment and most seem to like it here.

  10. I am fed up with living a hermit’s life. For some reason, possibly because my mother was so outgoing, or because my father was so conservative, I spent my childhood being seen and not heard — and liking it that way. I spent my marriage being protected. When my mother died, something snapped. The butterfly broke from her cocoon, and the world was big, and interesting, and inviting! I found out I love being with people. I love listening to them, trying to “get” them. I love flirting with them (not necessarily romantically), making their day better in some little way, and looking them in the eye. I love conflict resolution and problem solving. I had a job I loved and allowed all of these things.

    After four years, the management changed and I could no longer morally align with the way employees were treated. I left to the job I have now, under a wonderful manager for a wonderful organization, into a cubical with two other women I see every day, 40 hours a week. I talk on the phone. I stare at a monitor. I am a cog in the wheel. I’m going to start chewing on my foot.

    Obviously, I don’t need anyone to decipher this. But it is basically what you said, except flip-flopped. You just shouldn’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

    What you said was meaningful, because I realize I need to take myself with me in order to find a way to be at peace where I am . . . at least until I can find a better place to be. If I can’t be at peace where I am, I will be paralyzed to find a new place.

  11. Jean, I think many people chafe in their office cubicles. At least you are not alone in yours! I recall conversations with fellow computer people conducted while sitting on a foot-thick program printout in a five-foot-by-five-foot carrel. You know, “pull up a print-out, and let’s talk.” Since work is so much a part of life, it’s important to find employment that suits your personality. Continually going against the grain can be painful in the short run and damaging in the long. Taking a philosophical view of things – staying centred within yourself – can help, but what you crave is not distance from other people but rather continuous direct engagement with them. As an introvert, I shrink from the prospect, yet I understand that the majority of people enjoy (up to a point) being with others. As you say, you must keep your head, stay in good spirits, avoid getting stuck in a rut, and search out a more congenial position. Your obvious people skills make you a worthy employee in today’s job market.

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  13. I’m so glad I found this blog! Both this entry and the subsequent comments (I’ll be catching up with your other entries soon) are so interesting and thought provoking. I’m very much drawn to the religious hermitic (sp) life, but I’m a widowed mother of two teenage girls. I can completely relate to part of my need for solitude being a reaction to all the daily emotional and physical demands of running a home alone. I’m hoping to go on retreat for a weekend this summer, but something usually comes up, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll continue to follow you with much interest 🙂

  14. I’m happy you find the blog interesting, Yvette! What you say about being drawn to the solitary life is true of many people in our hectic times. The demands of everyday life grow ever more complex, frustrating, and time consuming. Most of us must also deal with the needs of others in one way or another, and this puts further strain on our limited personal resources. When we chafe under the load, the mind naturally turns to thoughts of simpler ways of living.

    A retreat would probably do you a world of good – if only by letting you learn whether or not they help! I would suggest you keep your expectations modest (and therefore achievable) by remembering that travel and exposure to new surroundings can be a source of stress as well as relaxation. Try to get those daughters of yours onside so they don’t end up inadvertently putting the kibosh on your plans. For the rest: you must be assertive (even ruthless) from time to time or other people and circumstances will casually eat up your entire life. When you say, “Something usually comes up” you are acknowledging one of life’s most basic – and discouraging – realities.

  15. I can relate, any other posts since 2013?

    I can act sociable and have travelled and observed and had relationships, children, who are the light of my life, even though we live in separate provinces. The past years in a weird pattern of events. I have quit jobs, relationships, self destructed etc….and now its the 3rd time to start over and venture out again….. keep all the lessons I have learned and find groups of people to listen and get inspired by… getting the pulse to go out and about around town without expectations…and enjoy life and interactions again. I am a bit of a funny/quirky, no filter, kinda knee jerk response persona, like a 5 year old would respond (my son mentioned that to me in his Teens…he is now 27) amongst other people. I am 45 years old now and have researched many topics on religions, psychology, occult synchronicity….etc….still feel like I am a kid/woman…. there is only so much research and inner contemplation a person can do. I observed how Naïve I was yet misunderstood by certain people back in my youth. I have kept myself locked in my own fears of getting close to anyone and its TIME to start over….again without repeating the past patterns. Unknown Territory……… it feels like I have lived 3 lifetimes in 1….Now it’s time to write a new BOOK…I have no idea…..I am pushing myself to just go out and walk, take a bus, observe and listen…..

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