The Mind Does Not Like To Be Alone With Itself

Writer Brooke Williams visited Fact & Fiction last week as part of the tour in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet. It was an interesting discussion and I enjoyed it immensely. One particular topic piqued my attention the most: hermits. I wish I could remember the specifics, but Brooke mentioned something about reclusive Chinese poets (part of his talk was about his recent trip to China, which is another discussion entirely) and how someone had mentioned that one of the interesting things about America is we really don’t have a tradition of hermits who are important contributors to our culture. That’s kind of a hamfisted way to put it — fault for that being entirely my own — but that was the gist of it.

That discussion led me to finally reading The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Bozeman author Michael Finkel. Here’s a short synopsis of what it’s about:

“This is the fascinating true story of Christopher Knight, who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years and survived by stealing supplies from vacation cabins while living in extreme conditions to avoid detection. After more than 1,000 burglaries, he was finally caught and partially reintegrated into society. His story is told together with the history of hermits and those who have sought solitude in order to have insight. Chris defies psychological profiling, and it’s amazing Finkel was even able to interview him to write this book. This level of solitude would drive most people insane, but for Chris, it seems like an almost pure contemplative state. An excellent read.”

— Todd Miller, Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI

I found this book fascinating. I was also mildly surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, with the number of personality traits I share with its subject, Christopher Knight. In particular, this passage struck me:

A large majority of men, and twenty-five percent of women, a University of Virginia study found, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. Unless you are a trained meditator, the study’s authors concluded, the “mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

That boggles my mind. I’m no “trained” meditator, though my morning practice is one of my favorite parts of the day. Beyond that, though, I bet I sit with my own thoughts for spans of fifteen minutes or more multiple times a day. I find as I’ve gotten older, silence is my preferred state. I rarely listen to music anymore. The list goes on. I’ve never considered myself particularly unusual for that, but perhaps I am. Particularly among men, it would seem.

I love quiet. I love the ambient sounds of the world uninterrupted by human-introduced noise. I love solitude. I’m convinced I could live perhaps not entirely secluded, but far more than I am now. I think I would thrive in that environment.

Brooke Williams said he too was fascinated with the idea of hermits, and that might be the subject of his next book. If that is the case, I await it with enthusiasm.