The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar

 

 

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 

 

A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

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Vipassana Retreat – a brand new article from the author of Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome

Woodland Sunrise

Vipassana Retreat

When trying to make sense of the social world as a person diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I have often found myself learning social skills through observing those around me, especially non-verbal gestures such as facial expressions and eye contact. This can often leave little scope for exploring one’s own emotions and feelings, such as being able to notice how they arise and pass and where they take control over one’s actions. Stepping back from the flow on a ten-day Vipassana retreat enabled me to get in touch with this.

One of the purposes of ‘Vipassana’ (which means to ‘see things as they really are’ in the Pali language) is to help those who practice the technique to experience themselves as they are and experience sensations as they occur. By sensations I refer to anything experienced at the physical level, both those that arise from internal bodily feeling and those that arise from external factors, such as the surrounding temperature or the materials of the clothing one is wearing. A mixture of sensations occurs throughout the body constantly, but due to the many distractions around us we are often oblivious to them and how they can determine our thoughts and actions.

Observed in noble silence for ten days with no verbal communication, no non-verbal gestures or signals and no contact with the outside world, a Vipassana retreat provides a distraction-free environment in which one can get more in touch with oneself and be able to observe the comings and goings of thoughts and feelings, including different degrees of Asperger-related obsession with thoughts. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome what I found so helpful about there being no non-verbal communication was that I find trying to interpret a lot of non-verbal gestures (including understanding how other people feel about me) very confusing, which can then become a source of worry and anxiety, especially if I feel someone is giving me the ‘silent’ treatment. But during the retreat, being aware of the absence of non-verbal communication helped reduce a great deal of this worry, thus giving me more freedom to explore and understand the workings of my own mind.

During the first four days of the retreat participants are instructed to focus on the breath coming in and out around a triangular area from the tip of the nose to the upper lip, one gradually begins to notice a range of physical sensations that arise and pass around this limited area. Participants are encouraged to observe different sensory experiences as they occur rather than create sensations that we find comforting, allowing each breath coming in and out to be as it is naturally and each physical sensation to arise and pass as naturally as possible. On the fourth day one is then instructed to gradually expand awareness throughout the body, scanning through the body slowly starting from the top of the head.

Participants practice this technique for up to ten hours a day throughout the retreat, including three hour-long sittings of serious determination where one shouldn’t make any major movements to their posture or open their eyes unless absolutely necessary. This is so that as well as noticing different sensations or any urges to move, (such as averse sensations around the knee joints when sitting) one is able to observe their response rather than acting on it and acknowledge that sensations, both pleasant and painful are impermanent and subject to change.

Where I find Asperger’s Syndrome can be a strength during practice is through applying attention to detail and being able to notice sensations very closely. Sometimes, due to sensory preferences, the mind can end up being controlled by sensations that can lead to one becoming controlled by obsessive thought. With continued practice and patience, I found  that I was able to exert more control over my mind, including Asperger-related tendencies and obsessions, rather than allowing them to control me. Thanks to this I noticed that each night I was going to sleep much quicker than normal. I felt I was able to notice sensations on a deeper level, including blood flow and vibrations throughout my body coming from my heart beating. Normally, my mind distracts me from going to sleep.

I came home from the retreat thinking that although our physical make-up takes up a limited physical space it has a huge degree of variation with regards to what it is made up of in both a spiritual sense (with the five elements, earth, water, wood, fire) and in a scientific sense. Atoms and particles (the source of most physical sensations) are a constant in our make-up and we are unaware of how much they are influencing our thoughts and actions and how they trigger habits and obsessions. With awareness developed from patience and practice one can eventually exert more control over the mind, and thus more freedom from mental constraint, including anxiety and depression.

On my return to the outside world I noticed just how dependent we can be on external factors for happiness and self-esteem because we aren’t often in tune with how we are within. Turning our mirror neurons towards us enables us to see who we are as we are in the present, rather than being constrained by the need for outside approval. In turn, being happy in this way reflects well on those around us.

 

Chris Mitchell is the author of Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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Holding Calm Within, Concentrating Attention Beyond – Asperger’s Syndrome and Lake Meditation

Chris Mitchell 2People with Asperger’s syndrome are known for a liking for solitude, particularly if they feel that they can’t be understood or don’t feel accepted within the social world. Though a person with Asperger’s Syndrome may be quite content in such a setting, they may not initially be aware that it can lead to excessive isolation. However, where such a preference can help develop social skills is through adapting qualities from spending time in solitude into social environments. To enable this, one must see solitude as a place to step back from the flow rather than as a place to hide. Since being  diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this is an aspect of my condition that I feel I have gradually begun to notice more. I am more aware of how solitude affects me and others around me, including how my Asperger-related tendencies have an effect on others as well as how the moods of others affect me. When stepping back from the flow in a natural setting, particularly in a forest or by a lake and  applying my focus to the present, I am able to see how various inter-connected factors cause different effects to happen, as well as being able to observe and be present with the qualities of adaptability and receptiveness that nature has.

When practicing lake meditation, a meditation technique that can be practiced by an actual lake or just with the lake image in mind.  One begins to notice the receptiveness of the surface of the water contained in the lake, and the lake’s responses to constantly changing factors including responding to wind with ripples, which produce a sparkling effect when reflecting sunlight or moonlight. On a clear day, from a good vantage point, the depths of a lake can sometimes be seen. Lake Wastwater in Cumbria is one such lake where the depths of the lake, including what the lake is comprised of, can be seen from the ascent of nearby Scafell Pike. With continued and focused attention, one also notices that the surface of the lake changes colour in accordance with the weather, dark when cloudy and inviting in reflections under clear skies.

 It is important to expand your attention during your practice to consider how factors that affect the appearance of the lake also affect how we feel within the body.  How we feel within affects how we present on the outside. For instance we may shiver when temperature drops or a when a draft blows in or ‘jerk’ when caught in a gust of wind. But rather than allowing such occurrences to become an interruption or a distraction to the extent that they lead us to giving up the practice, it helps us to notice and acknowledge any impulses we have to react. In turn, this helps one notice how when we act on our impulses we find ourselves on ‘automatic pilot’, almost being controlled by them.

When we transfer the qualities experienced during lake meditation to social situations, we notice how factors affect our moods and feelings. Like the surface of a lake changes colour in response to light, facial expressions in people often change in shape and form. People’s complexions can change in between moods  and a change in mood and feelings brings about different actions and responses. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I sometimes feel like I am an ‘actor,’ in that I learn non-verbal social skills from observation. But to enable appropriate acknowledgement and response in a social situation, it helps to be able to maintain the calm beneath one’s external presentation, relating to the calm water beneath the surface.

Taking a step back from the social world into solitude to practice lake meditation can help a person develop observational skills that are helpful in developing non-verbal social skills. To be able to be present with such observations, as well as to be able to apply attention when listening andretain the calm beneath the surfaceare qualities that when applied to social situations can enable social connection, acceptance and inclusion.

Chris Mitchell is the author of Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness (2012) and the forthcoming Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome (December 2013) both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Chris Mitchell is currently raising money for the Daisy Chain project in Stockton-On-Tees. Daisy Chain is a charitable foundation that provides support services to the autism community, including animal therapy and arts therapy projects. To find out more about Daisy Chain and Chris’s fundraising events visit. www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR