Since those who draw their strength and inspiration from an interior life — in other words, introverts — make up only about 15% of the population in the West, it’s no wonder that people who choose a solitary path are largely misunderstood.
Others become uneasy because they don’t understand what could motivate someone to live outside the safe context of daily life, to reject the authority of society’s dictates and live alone. People bandy about terms like “social phobia” and “social isolation” as they worry about friends who have opted out of the social whirl. Loving and well-meaning parents often decide that an introverted child is “just shy” and eagerly arrange more and more social activities while encouraging the child to “get over it.”
And even though an isolated spiritual path has been accepted and even honored in several religions, notably Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, most modern religions have made no place for hermits. The Quaker religion is anchored in the blessings of silence and solitude, yet even in the Pagan movement the value of the solitary path is hotly debated.
It’s important to remember, though, that both Jesus and Buddha spent time as hermits on their paths to enlightenment, and for centuries monasteries all over the world have made special accommodations for hermits and anchorites. One Hindu sect considers isolation or solitude to be a natural, third phase of a four-part life. Interestingly, a recent survey of religious hermits in the US showed that this path was normally chosen by people in their 40s and 50s, and more often by women than men, although it included couples. A majority said that they felt it was time to set aside the duty of personal service to humanity in favor of unwavering devotion to God through simplicity, meditation, and prayer.
When is being a recluse a bad thing? When you decide not to date because you’re tired of being hurt, you’re convinced that no one knows how to be faithful any more, or that you’ll just be left alone again so why bother, you’re choosing solitude out of fear, and that’s not healthy. When the isolation is involuntary, as seems to happen most frequently with housebound elders, it’s tragic. If, when you’re alone in the car or your home, you tend to fill the silence with television, music or podcasts, then solitude might not be a good choice. Or when you feel alone rather than cozy, then solitude is simply not right for you, at least not at this stage in your life.
Solitude is empowering when you want to focus within for spiritual, religious or creative reasons, or if you’re ready to embark on a profound reorientation in your life, such as when, after a difficult divorce, you set aside time to rediscover who you are, who you’ve become, and then go on to build new goals and a new life from that knowledge.
One of the best known images of a solitary spiritual seeker is The Hermit, card number IX in the Tarot Major Arcana. This Hermit is the Tarot’s Wise Man, who has attained enlightenment through introspection and who now holds up the light of knowledge and spiritual insight to guide the steps of pilgrims who happen upon him. Like many California Psychics, he lives alone but welcomes travelers along his out-of-the-way path.
In divination, The Hermit represents introspection, spiritual maturity, discipline, or control, the balance between “reality” and wisdom and between authority and self reliance, the power of silence, and the ability to gather and hold energy and knowledge rather than dissipating it through talk and action. The Hermit probably evolved from a traditional character in Medieval romances, in which the hermit was a wise old man ready to help a knight errant on his quest. The Star Wars movies’ Jedi masters Obi Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda are archetypal hermits.
Solitude as a sacred path isn’t for the faint of heart and truly isn’t the best choice for everyone. But you’ll know it’s the right path for you if you long for solitude and silence like a thirsty man lost in the desert and, when you get it, your entire being breathes a profound sigh of relief. When solitude is a healing choice, when and if the moment comes to re-engage with society, that calling is as powerful and welcome as was the original summons to solitude.