There is a common perception that, in my opinion, has hitherto escaped nearly all scrutiny. By which I mean to say, it is a sentiment that remains unchallenged even by those who do not see fit to practice its perceived wisdom. The perception I’m talking about is the notion that solitude yields enlightenment. That the act of being cut off from social interactions somehow grants a person the ability to tap into a great depth of intellectual growth, which remain elusive to her/his more sociable counterparts.
The idea is that one’s withdrawal from societal obligations and distractions allows the individual to better reflect inward. To become truly introspective about one’s inner self, and by extension be able to eventually apply this self-conscious awareness outward, towards understanding the world that surrounds the individual (and defines her/him). When mused over in such mindful diction the whole idea of the enlightened recluse becomes very persuasive. Especially for those of us who spent most of our available free time in self-imposed solitude; it gives us the warrant to excuse our shyness away as an example of robust intellectual discipline, instead of just plain social awkwardness.
People seem to have a high regard for those who decide to cut themselves off from the mundane worries of modern life. Few people speak ill of the person who wandered up to a mountain top to “find himself”, or secluded him/herself to a monastic life or nunnery. Even if they disagree with the wisdom that will result from such actions, people as a whole still find such decisions to be oddly admirable. But my question is, what great enlightened wisdom has actually resulted from such dire life decisions? What mountain top yogi has actually stumbled upon a paradigm changing revelation that has added to the resource of human knowledge about the world/life/existence in general? People have for centuries now been secluding themselves in the woods, lived as spiritual recluses, and yet never could figure out what are considered to be the most basic of facts to any child nowadays. Facts like that the earth revolves around the sun. Or that disease is caused by germs. Discoveries like these weren’t made by the lone individual, spending all of his time in complete seclusion from the world, they were made through a trans-generational exchanging and modifying of preceding ideas. Even when it comes to knowledge about the inner dimensions of the human identity, solitary methods alone can leave things wanting.
The only mind any single individual has unrestricted access to is her/his own. Thus the tendency to subconsciously apply our subjective experiences to others is a powerful temptation for most of us. Yet, it’s a temptation many of us will refrain from doing, because our observations of the people and things that surround us demonstrates to us how our personal thinking is not to be taken at face value; we must verify it with the experiences of others and the consistencies of physical reality. But how does one do that in complete seclusion from others? In a life where the only source is either one’s own mind, or mind’s that already agree with one’s own, how can observations and musings about reality be fully trusted? Better yet, why should such a method of attaining truth be admired as anything other than a foolproof way of avoiding having one’s views about reality rigorously challenged?
The idea that the loner is free of the emotional baggage the rest of the world carries, and can therefore engage in a more rational inner dialogue, is nonsensical, since if one is left with nothing but one’s own consciousness to contemplate reality, what else but one’s emotions will be dictating the introspective discourse? And I say all of this knowing full well that I have spent an innumerable amount of my time on this blog arguing for the need for individuals to become more introspective about their values and desires. But it needs to be understood that all the introspective philosophizing in the world will prove futile, if it is devoid of a relentless pursuit to measure one’s findings against verifiable data that has been attained independent of one’s subjective experiences.
I am a man who spends most of his time alone, in my house. The time I spent at work, my conversations are usually brief and rarely dwell into personal matters. I have to physically force myself to interact with others on anything more than a casually superficial level, hence I would love nothing more than to say that all one needs to do is to shut oneself away in silent thought to attain a greater understanding of the world. But to embrace this view would be to fall in the trap of accepting a self-serving answer, simply because it would mean less effort on my part. Knowledge and values gained through blind seclusion are little different from knowledge and values gained through group conformity; both are bound to be self-delusional. Thus, rather than view the monk as a man who needs to be intellectually admired, I view him as a man who needs to be intellectually challenged–for it may be the only chance he’ll get to experience it in any thought provoking way.