How to be a Recluse
Let me start with a confession: I enjoy being a recluse. It’s probably because for most of my life, every experience I’ve ever had, has evoked a feeling of utter dread. It’s not just social situations — in fact like a chameleon I can blend quite easily, but not enjoy it— it’s all situations. This apparent lack of adaptability is at the heart of my personality. For years I fought against it. I’d peruse the world of more ordinary folk, and feel a degree of envy and confusion, “what’s wrong with me?” I’d ask. As I’ve got older I’ve realised there’s nothing wrong with enjoying solitude, , it’s actually beneficial.
In fact, to be a recluse you don’t have to be one of the crusty old desert father’s feeding on locusts and honey. As eminent psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr once wrote ‘some of the most profound and psychologically healing experiences which individuals encounter, take place internally.’ That is to say far from the madding crowd, where creativity manifests, imagination runs riot, and in the stillness of the moment, tranquility sets in.
The problem in today’s world is everything’s upside down and back to front. We live in a crass age. The media glorifies loud brash characters, at the expense of the more sensitive souls; delicate snowflakes, we might assume will melt away at a moment’s notice. However, as author Susan Cain writes in the Power of Quiet, ‘There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.’ In fact one might argue, the best ideas don’t emerge from the blue sky thinking of the boardroom, but in the solitary visions of recluses. From Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravity, to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, creation emerges from superlative silence.
In today’s world, you’d be forgiven for wanting to bury your head in the sand; however you can keep your head up, while still remaining detached. Here’s a few reasons why you should unleash your inner-recluse.
Being a recluse means you can unlock your mind
To get rid of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ as the poet William Blake might call them, one has to escape the city — or at the very least, the mundanity of urban living. The problem with today’s hyper-connected world, is that our views and opinions are built out of the noise of the metropolis. At the same time, we find ourselves sleepwalking into behavioural automatism. That fast pace at which you walk through the crowded streets, the head down pose you adopt on the jam-packed train, it’s not accidental; a 1976 study has shown this behaviour is consequence of the city. At the same, Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory suggests we are also all learning to think the same. There is it seems cognitive component to urban life too. The point is to get out of the reactive mind. By being a little more reclusive, and a little more reflective you see the intricate knots of conditioned thinking and start to unwind.
Being a recluse means creativity flows free
There’s a reason why every creation myth, begins in primordial state of nothingness. From the Rig Veda’s ‘bottomless abyss’ to Hesoid’s ‘gaping chasm’ life begins in the void. Some of the greatest art ever created, emerged from intense quietude — from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis; from the Minute Waltz of Friedrich Chopin to Leo Ornstein’s Suicide in an Airplane; from Michalengelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling to Edward Munsch’s Scream — as one new study shows ‘unsociability is associated positively with creativity.’ To use an analogy from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, the pleasure dome is built on hollow ground, and yet for those who have imagination this hollow ground teems with life and unseen spirits.
Being recluse is a chance to practise the sweet art of doing nothing
The Italian’s famous phrase la dolce far niente, meaning the sweet art of doing nothing points at a secret we’ve yet to discover. Doing nothing is delicious; and yet it’s also an art, and like any art form it’s a practise that needs to be cultivated. The Dutch have done exactly that elevating Niskin to a lifestyle choice. And yet this is not some egregious act of laziness, nor a drooling state of incompetence, rather it’s a cognitive and behavioural way of allowing yourself to be free. Can you float like a cloud in the sky, or ripple like a wave? You’re probably more likely to scoff at such new-age claptrap, and yet the idea of doing nothing is sensible. As one study concludes it allows ‘the mind to wander’ and this ‘may facilitate creative problem solving.’ On a deeper level it leads to tranquility and psychological wellbeing. This could ‘increase human body immune response’ and ‘enhance resistance towards diseases.’ Doing nothing is not a waste of time, it’s actually time well spent.
Perhaps the ultimate goal of reclusiveness is happiness. That in seclusion, you’re cut off from life’s currents; attaining a stasis which the world would deprive you. No longer hostage to the past or future, you withdraw into the infinitude of the present moment, where you find peace.
A common accusation levied at the illustrious hermits of the past, is that there must be something wrong with them: Ravaged by mental or physical illness, solitude is an escape worthy of the most derelict individuals who can’t stand up to life. Remember though, every time you dip into a good book, it’s an activity you do alone. Either you are guilty of the same crime of escapism, or more likely you are in confrontation with yourself. It’s only in solitude that we have time to reflect on who we truly are and think about who we want to become.
Of course, there’s a strange irony to all this. The coronavirus is the result of overpopulation. The so-called spillover event, when a virus transmits from our vespertilian brethren to human beings, was the result of too many organisms — insects, animals, microbes, bats, and people — being packed too close together. If anything should convince us to step away from the cacophony of noise pell-mell of destitution it’s this. Nevertheless we also know being a full-time recluse is not healthy; even for us initiates who’ve earned our stripes. We’re social animals, and even the most crusty old hermit will need some form of support. Studies show social isolation, particularly when it’s involuntary leads to a range of negative health outcomes, everything from cardiovascular disease, to heightened risk of mental illness. There’s clearly line we have to draw between too much and too little interaction. However, during this time of plague, pestilence and pandemic use this time to recharge and reflect.
Being a recluse right now might be the very best thing for you.