In her book “One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing Myself and Finding Grace on a Zen Retreat,” Zen teacher Jane Dobisz recalls the three months she spent as a young person alone in a hut in the woods, bowing, chanting and meditating. It is a gloriously honest and entertaining look at hermit life from the perspective of a normal young person, raised in an affluent, Western society.
This article is part of a year-long series in which we examine six different philosophies of happiness and how they apply to today’s life. Find all the articles in this series here. Find all articles about hermits here.
When I think about introductions to hermit life, I can think of no better example than the little book of Zen teacher Jane Dobisz, One Hundred Days of Solitude.
After returning from her retreat and writing this book, Dobisz went on to become a professional Zen teacher and, presumably, to go on many more and more demanding retreats. But this one is her very first and as such it has that special magic of the first experience, the wide-eyed wonder at every turn of the way, and all the fear, boredom, annoyance and surprise that such an experiment brings with it.
This book was also one of the first books I read on Zen and hermit life, and it has always had a special place in my memory and on my bookshelf.
There are, of course, countless more elaborate, deeper and wiser books on both Zen and spiritual retreats, from all over the ages and across the globe. But it is often hard for the modern reader to empathise with St Anthony in his desert cave, eating only bread, salt and water and fighting off the demons of temptation through single-minded prayer. Jane’s hundred days in a cabin in the woods, trying to come to terms with her craving for cookies or her desire to sleep in on the first day of her retreat are much more accessible to us, the readers of today. She is a young woman who is no saint or sage, and this makes her one of us: an explorer, in our name, of the wide, lonely and silent spaces of the hermit experience.
It is often hard for the modern reader to empathise with St Anthony in his desert cave, eating only bread, salt and water and fighting off the demons of temptation through single-minded prayer.
Starting the journey
Jane Dobisz begins her journey in… Tibet. Seeking enlightenment in the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, she travels as a young woman to the Tibetan mountains in search of a guru. (I’m emphasising her youth because it is so much part of the experience that the book describes — her naivete as well as her infectious enthusiasm are unmistakably those of a young person looking to find her way in the world.)
After travelling for two weeks throughout the stark landscapes of the Himalayas, she finally arrives at a small temple and immediately recognises it as the place where her spiritual teacher must be waiting for her to find him. Funnily, it turns out that the master is gone… and is now in New York!
“The lama is in New York?” I asked incredulously. I sat down on a big rock and laughed out loud. Always the long way! I could have taken a four-hour train ride to New York, and here I was, unemployed, without a home to return to, on the side of a Himalayan mountain.
In the end, it turns out to be a good thing that the lama was gone, because Jane eventually finds her own real master at a Zen centre in Massachusetts. And, eventually, she feels that she has to go and experience the solitary life of a hermit in a hundred-day retreat in a remote cabin in a forest.
She arrives with the help of friends in the middle of winter, on a snowy January day, and unloads her provisions for three months: rice, beans, sunflower seeds, miso-soup, tea and a bag of dried fruit. And because this is the story of an American girl, also “a medium-sized jar of Skippy peanut butter.”
Her cabin isn’t much. A stove to keep her warm, a bed, shelves, a simple chair and table. There is no running water, no plumbing, and any water she’ll have to carry up from a stream with a bucket.
The first thing she does is to draw up a schedule: the same for every one of the following hundred days: a sequence of sitting in meditation, walking, working, eating and resting, and then the same all over again, from three in the night, when she plans to wake up, until nine in the evening: bedtime.
Already on the first morning, she’s tempted to turn off the alarm and sleep until it’s light — and it is in moments as this that the reader can feel exactly how it must feel to wake up in the icy dark of a cabin without electric light or heating, and how much willpower must be required to roll out of the sleeping bag and begin chanting one’s mantras in the middle of a snow-covered, deserted forest.
Already on the first morning, she’s tempted to turn off the alarm and sleep until it’s light.
After that, it’s time for bowing, then for walking meditation, “which has no destination or goal other than paying attention to every step.”
Standing up from the cushion, I walk slowly back and forth across the cabin, letting my mind sink down into the soles of my feet on the warm pinewood floor, continuing to repeat the mantra.
Through Jane’s description of her retreat and her changing attitudes to the silence and loneliness, but also to the forest, the snow, and to the needs and wants of her own body, to her desire for food, for sweets, for a change from the monotony of eating rice and beans, we glimpse both the hardships and the rewards of this kind of hermit-life light.
Although she tries to keep her mind from wandering, her thoughts go back in time to all kinds of half-forgotten memories that were buried in the “closet of the mind.” One of the first insights of her journey is how many memories and images we carry along in our minds without being aware of them — until a few days of trying to quiet down the mind bring all of them out into the light.
Jane Dobisz’ book “One Hundred Days of Solitude” is as entertaining as it is insightful. What happens if someone goes off alone into the woods to experience the hermit life for three months?
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Another effect of the monotony of her daily rhythm of life is that she learns to appreciate the smallest of things: the changing colours and textures of the snow outside. The light as it changes over the day. The appearance of a bird. Even the structure of the pine floorboards of her cabin:
Joy comes from appreciation. Appreciation comes from paying attention. Paying attention is the practice of Zen. It’s so simple, yet look how I have had to strip away everything, come out here to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, adhere to an unforgiving schedule, and stick it out through all the ups and downs in order to discover it.
And she learns that the goal of the hermit’s spiritual exercise is to leave complexity behind and to approach simplicity. At the end of the journey is nothing else to be found but one’s “natural self.” What we are after we’ve stripped away all the false wishes, dreams and pretensions that we keep up in society, that we wish to present to others as what we are. But Jane eventually realises that “the less thinking you have, the better Zen student you are. Just put your whole self into each and every thing you do until it becomes part of you and you become part of it.”
The goal of the hermit’s spiritual exercise is to leave complexity behind and to approach simplicity.
At some point, she is so fed up with the never-changing diet of water-boiled beans and rice that she decides to fast for a few days: even eating nothing must surely be better than eating beans and rice again!
But soon she learns that even white rice can look like a feast when you’re hungry:
It’s eye-opening to experience the depth of my need for food and how it supersedes all the other needs I have always considered crucial to my happiness. … My whole life has been spent chasing one desire after another. Where does it come from and how does it control me? What happens if I don’t follow each desire that comes into my mind? What happens if I don’t eat for a short period?
What happens is what any idiot could have guessed would happen: I am ravenously hungry.
You’ll have to read the book to enjoy all the twists and turns of Jane Dobisz’s (almost lost) fights against desire and temptation — but also her final realisation that no fight is lost as long as we keep on fighting. What counts, in the end, is not winning the fight, but marching on, not giving up on one’s dream.
And there are other insights. One that is very important to her, coming from a Zen background, is the distrust of names and thinking in binary, clear-cut categories. Is this a tree? Is that a cup? Such questions point more to the limitations in our thinking patterns than to any feature of reality. A tree will grow out of the soil, age, be cut down and burned, and then return as carbon and other materials to the forest, from where another tree will grow:
So it isn’t really a tree; it’s a moving, changing phenomenon that we call ‘tree’ for the sake of convenience. … Zen transcends opposites and goes to the heart of what is useful.
In the end, the insights of the hermit experience are many and varied — but they all are related to the awareness that what we perceive in our everyday lives as our selves is nothing but an illusion. We ourselves, like the tree, are always changing: growing, ageing, incorporating and giving off material and energy, learning and forgetting, dying and being reborn (in some way, depending on your belief system; but even the fanatically materialist will not deny the “rebirth” or recycling of one’s carbon compounds in another living body).
Who is “me”?
One of Jane Dobisz’ insights from her retreat in the woods reminded me very much of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech “This is Water”:
Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
As Wallace points out, these experiences are not really about me, but our perception is often “by default” wired so that we perceive everything that happens as something that is directed at us personally.
Spending a hundred days alone in the woods, Jane Dobisz learns that the self is an illusion, nothing but “smoke and mirrors.”
Spending a hundred days alone in the woods, Jane Dobisz learns that the self is an illusion, nothing but “smoke and mirrors.” Like the tree, it becomes, on deeper thought, impossible to delineate the self. Everything is in flow, constantly moving and changing:
All the problems and confusion we’ve ever had are based in this misperception that whatever is happening, it’s happening to “me.” Anger, desire, fear, jealousy, hurt — all of it. Every time we take a closer look, we can see there is no such thing. … There are now six billion people living on the planet, and the number is growing exponentially larger every day. Most of these six billion people are attached to their idea of “my” life, “my” country, “my” way, “my” religion, “my” possessions — and so the world is full of suffering and fighting.
Each one of us is a part of this problem, and each one of us is the solution.
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Thanks for reading! Cover image by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.