Yale University Press has just released Stephen Batchelor’s new book, The Art of Solitude. In this book Stephen turns his attention to solitude, a practice integral to the meditative traditions he has long studied and taught. He aimed to venture more deeply into solitude, discovering its full extent and depth.
This beautiful literary collage documents his multifaceted explorations. Spending time in remote places, appreciating and making art, practicing meditation and participating in retreats, drinking peyote and ayahuasca, and training himself to keep an open, questioning mind have all contributed to Stephen’s ability to be simultaneously alone and at ease. Mixed in with his personal narrative are inspiring stories from solitude’s devoted practitioners, from the Buddha to Montaigne, and from Vermeer to Agnes Martin.
In the following excerpt from the book, published in the Spring 2020 issue of Tricycle magazine, Stephen discusses how the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne’s reflections on how to live well and to confront death offer a sensibility and set of insights similar to what we find in early Buddhism.
To find out how to purchase Stephen’s new book, click here.
Wrong-minded people voice opinions,
as do truth-minded people too.
When an opinion is offered, the sage is not drawn
there’s nothing arid about the sage.
—Sutta Nipata 4.3
“I feel death,” says Michel de Montaigne, “continuously nipping at my throat and kidneys.” Montaigne knows that “each stumble of a horse, each falling of a tile, each slight pinprick” could be the harbinger of his end. To be able to die at peace, a philosopher needs to die to his attachments to the world. This, for Montaigne, is “true solitude,” where one’s thoughts and emotions are reined in and brought under control. “To prepare oneself for death is to prepare oneself for freedom. The one who has learned to die has unlearned to be a slave.”
To die to the world is far from straightforward. “People do not recognize the natural sickness of their mind,” says Montaigne, which does nothing but “ferret about in search of something, ceaselessly twisting, elaborating, and entangling itself in its own activity like a silkworm, until it suffocates there like ‘a mouse in pitch.’ ” We rush around in a compulsive flight from death. “Every moment,” he remarks, “it seems I am fleeing from myself.” No matter how many laws or precepts we use to fence the mind in, we still find it “garrulous and dissolute, escaping all constraints.” This flight is chaotic and aimless. There is “no madness or lunacy that cannot be produced in this turmoil. When the soul has no definite goal, it gets lost.”
Chronic dissatisfaction further drives this restlessness. “Nothing that we know and enjoy feels satisfying,” remarks Montaigne.
Since what is present fails to gratify us, we hanker after future things of which we know nothing. It is not that what is present is unable to gratify us, but we grasp it in a sick and uncontrolled way.
This strategy increases the dissatisfaction it seeks to dispel. For what we cling to turns out to be hollow and empty. “We clutch at everything,” he says, “but clasp nothing but wind.”
Montaigne suggests that nature distracts us from ourselves “so as not to discourage us.” To divert our attention, it has “very cleverly projected the activity of our gaze outward so that we are swept forward on its current.” This is why “to turn the course of our life back toward us is a painful move.” It is hard work to swim against the stream. It creates turbulence, like “when the sea, pushed back onto itself, churns in confusion.”
Montaigne compares himself to “a vessel that disintegrates, splits apart, leaks, and shirks its duty to itself. It needs to be knocked together and tightened up with some good strokes of a mallet.” Such reform cannot be done piecemeal. It requires a continual training of the soul. “Recover your mind and your will, which are busying themselves elsewhere,” he urges. “You are draining away and scattering yourself. Concentrate yourself; hold yourself back. You are being betrayed, dissipated, robbed.”
“It is a tricky business,” he acknowledges, “to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.” This is impossible without rigorous self-governance. To rein in its compulsive wandering, “no beast more justly needs to be given blinkers to keep its gaze focused on what lies before its feet.” It requires that you learn how to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation.” “Others,” he comments, “study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lay it down to rest.”
“The procedure that works well for me,” says Montaigne, is this: “With very little effort I stop the first movement of my emotions, and let go of whatever has started to weigh me down before it carries me off.” By “spying closely on the effects and circumstances of the passions that govern me,” he has learned to detect “the tiny breezes that brush against me and murmur inside me, as forerunners of the storm.” Seeing them approach lets him “slow down a little the frenzy of their charge.” Experience has taught him that without knowing how to “close the door against your emotions, you will never chase them out once they have gained entry.”
To succeed in examining and managing one’s life is, for Montaigne, to have accomplished the “greatest task of all.” It is not easy, but with practice you can tame the mind. Rarely does anyone attempt, let alone succeed in, this endeavor. Montaigne considers himself unusual in this regard: “Never has someone prepared himself to leave the world more simply and totally, or detached himself from it more completely than I strive to do.”
Montaigne follows Plato’s “middle road” between “hatred of pain and love of pleasure,” and instructs himself to “contemplate both pain and pleasure with an equally calm gaze.” To live this way, you need to jettison even the guidelines and pointers that have brought you to this point. “Most people get it wrong,” he explains:
Of course one can proceed more easily by sticking to the side of the road, whose curb serves as a limit and a guide, than by following the wide and open middle way. Yes, it is far easier to proceed by artificial than by natural means, but it is far less noble too and held in less esteem. The soul’s greatness lies not so much in reaching lofty heights and making progress as in knowing and respecting its range.
One needs to cultivate an intuitive sense of balance and orientation that is responsive to the demands of each moment. “I want death to find me planting my cabbages,” he says, “worrying about neither it nor my imperfect garden.”