THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
Part Five: ISOLATION
by Inanna Arthen ©1991
A shaman walks for days through the forest, emerging at last to greet the sunrise from a craggy mountainside. A ceremonial magician works by candlelight in his library, spending day after day without speaking to another being. A priestess secludes herself in silence during the dark of the moon to await a vision from the Goddess. A Witch lives, in a smile hut on the edge of the woods, tending her garden and weaving her Earth magick in the sole company of her animals.
When many people think of an archetypal magick worker, the figures they invoke are those of individuals in solitude. Despite the rapid growth of the Pagan community and the increased number of covens, temples, groves, and other magickal working groups, true magick is often viewed is a lonely pursuit. The perception is an accurate one. “Solitary” Witches, Pagans and magicians probably outnumber those who work with other people by a considerable proportion. Even members of magickal groups or societies usually do a significant part of their work alone, in addition to circles and meetings. For thousands of years, mystics and magicians have known that one of the most powerful steps on their Path is the step away from ordinary life and other people Isolation – with-drawing oneself from the company of others and the bustle of everyday affairs – is such a fundamental element in magickal and spirituial work that it is easy to underestimate its power as a consciousness-altering tool. It may be difficult to realize how much we are changed simply by being alone.
People in “primitive” societies, in which the cooperation of the community is essential for individual survival have always been keenly aware of the power of isolation as a magickal tool. Shamans, medicine people and other tribal magick workers frequently undertake solitary journeys to obtain knowledge from the spirits, as well as to gather supplies from the Earth. Besides these physical journeys, tribal medicine people also utilize such practices as secluding themselves in caves or spending days alone in special ritual huts or buildings. These actions hold immense psychological impact for members of societies that view the individual primarily as an integral part of his or her tribe, community or environment.
In some indigenous cultures, almost anyone might undertake a vision quest, leaving the tribe to spend time alone in the wilderness. The vision quest may be a prerequisite to puberty rites or a means of opening oneself to answers from another reality to a particularly difficult problem. Living off the land, the seeker often had to face challenges to his or her survival, such as inclement weather and an uncertain food supply. But in most cases, no mind-altering techniques aside from isolation – such as fasting or sleep deprivation – were deliberately employed. It was the fact of being alone with the Earth, the sky and the spirits that produced the desired effects. These effects ranged from dream messages, to visions, to the experience of having entered, for an extended period of time, a totally alien reality.
Western Christian tradition has laid great emphasis on the importance of isolating oneself from the everyday world in order to concentrate on spiritual realities, and there clearly is much more behind this than a wish to eliminate distractions. Jesus’s and John the Baptist’s sojourns in the desert are two of the earliest examples from the Christian tradition of using isolation for spiritual growth. According to the Bible. both of these men retreated to the wilderness to fast, and both emerged deeply changed. Following their lead, countless Christian mystics abandoned their villages to live for extended periods of time in wild, lonely areas – in an era of history when this was extremely dangerous to do. Their rewards ranged from ecstatic experiences to hallucinations of demonic attacks. During the Middle Ages, hermits and anchorites locked themselves into tiny buildings and cells where they spent their time in prayer while being sustained by food from charitable passers-by. Many of these devotees appeared to have entered a radically altered reality. Some reported long-term ecstatic states. In modern times, the solitary, silent retreat is a tool used by some Christian traditions to enhance believers’ sense of unity with the universe and with God.
During this century, the limits of “isolation” have been pushed to extremes almost unknown to our far more interdependent ancestors. Reported experiences of individuals in complete social isolation for long periods of time often suggest that they have entered a magickal reality of considerable depth. For example, solitary sailor Joshua Slocum saw a mysterious stranger take the tiller of his small boat during a gale in the South Atlantic while he was incapacitated from illness and had not properly taken down his sails. Slocum said that the man explained that he was the pilot of the Pinta and that he refused to take down the sails because it was necessary to catch up with the Pinta. The next morning, Slocum’s craft had traveled 93 miles on true course. The stranger appeared several more times during gales after he had come to Slocum in a dream and promised to return when he was needed.1
Numerous people who have been in similarly isolated conditions, both at sea and in desolate polar regions, have reported experiencing such phenomena as a sense of oneness with the universe, the sky, the sea or the moon, bilateral conversations with “inanimate” objects, a tremendous reverence for life, and a lack of fear. Frequently, these individuals were aware that they were no longer experiencing the same reality as those they met when they returned to civilization. They describe a readjustment period during which they listened intently to conversations and avoided speaking for fear of being thought insane.2
The typical psychological explanation for experiences like Slocum’s is to draw an analogy between the isolate’s state of mind and mental illness. A Witch or shaman, however, immediately sees parallels to magickal reality. Many social isolation studies find that those who successfully weather the period of isolation report “a new inner security and a new integration of themselves on a deep and basic level.”3 No matter how much the solitary sailor or explorer has to occupy and stimulate his or her mind, mere isolation can bring about a state extremely similar to the classic “shamanic breakdown” and reintegration.
At the farthest extreme, sensory deprivation and perceptual deprivation experiments in laboratories have explored the influence of isolation, not just from other people, but from the physical world itself. Sensory deprivation, as achieved in flotation tanks like those popularized by John Lilly and the film, Altered States, attempts as far as possible to isolate the very mind, throwing it completely upon its own resources – or upon input from other than the five senses being restricted. Subjects in sensory deprivation experiments report a wide variety of consistent effects, including vivid and complex hallucinations, memory recall, changes in body image, and persistent, vivid dreams.4 Flotation tank subjects who worked with John Lilly found that when the mind is isolated from the body itself, it begins to freely recreate reality. In very short periods of time, Lilly’s subjects experienced vivid dreamlike encounters. memory playbacks, mythic visualizations and other effects.5
Although sensory deprivation experiments are intriguing, they obviously represent an unnecessary extreme. Social isolation for extended periods accomplishes equally dramatic results. But why should simple isolation – voluntary separation from human company – have such a profound effect?
Our definition of what we call “reality” is created by our minds based on several factors that all affect one another. We tend to imagine that what we experience through our senses is “reality.” In fact, what we think about our sensory input controls not only our interpretation of our senses, but what perceptions are allowed to make an impression at all. Our minds are excellent editors, and they have been trained in this way by the constant cues we receive from other people in our environment. The urge to conform to social patterns is an overwhelming one. Human beings have proven themselves capable of adapting not only to the social structure of thousands of incredibly varied cultures. but also to the structures of non-human societies. From the moment we are born, we respond to countless visual, verbal, emotional and even psychic cues, which teach us how to build our inner models of the world. This web of social reinforcement is so addictive that most people experience great anxiety when they are separated from it – isolation, with no other uncomfortable conditions, is recognized as a source of extreme stress. In the absence of actual people, individuals in our society often rely on the constant reinforcement of television or radio. The instant that societal cues are removed, our grasp of consensual reality begins to decay.
Witches, shamans and other kinds of magick workers oftenlived on the fringes of their society, and therefore always occupied a frame of reference that was more or less different from that of their community. At the extreme, such a person may have acted in bizarre ways, responding to perceptions that were invisible to other people. In other cases, the magick worker was able to effectively live in both worlds, acting as a translator or conduit. But in order to maintain this position she had to stay semi-isolated. This is often true for Witches and Pagans today. Many of us grew up more or less isolated from our social peer group, and our personal reality includes many concepts that we easily forget are not shared by those around us. The training of a magick worker, now as in the past, involves the restructuring of his or her experience of reality more than it does the imparting of specific skills. We cannot learn to travel on the astral plane until the astral plane is included in our definition of reality. In order to accomplish this restructuring, a certain degree of detachment from society is needed. Serious students of magick may withdraw from old friends and begin spending far more time alone than they once did.
But living apart from society, and, hence, in a slightly different reality, is not the same as applying isolation as a specific magickal tool. When we choose to isolate ourselves from other people and turn away from the cushion of human society in a concentrated, controlled way, we are thrown into confrontation with ourselves. By deliberately separating from the consensual web for an extended period (closing our door, turning off the television, walking into the woods), we open ourselves to a profound – and possibly permanent – change. Cutoff from the unending stream of external cues, the mind begins to rely upon its own perceptions to fill in the growing cracks. We find ourselves seeking more and more perceptual material, and doorways that we were taught to close long ago slowly creak open. In the light that spills out of them, we may encounter the voices of our spirit guides or the nightmares of our childhoods. Sifting and responding to these new perceptions can be a challenge, but that challenge is also the essence of magickal work. The sources of knowledge, information and power that can be opened to us in isolation are not easily closed again.
Modern Pagans who have participated in short (one day) vision quests can speak for the potency of this technique. A seeker who embarks on a vision quest leaves behind not just people, but books, radio, television, familiar settings, and companion animals to strike out into the unknown. As soon as the seeker sets off into the woods, she becomes aware that her mind is spinning with greater and greater speed as it attempts to maintain its grasp on the reality structure. The vision quester is plagued by a torrent of trivial thoughts – issues at her job, things that need to be done when she gets home, interpersonal problems, fretfulness and boredom. As the quest lengthens, these thoughts slow down and weaken. Now the edges of the consensual structure grow ragged. The quester feels that everything appears strange: colors are not quite right, sounds are too high or too low. She sees shapes dart by her peripheral vision, hears voices speaking words she almost, but not quite, understands, smells unexplained odors, has impulses to do odd things. The process of detaching from the reinforcement of others and opening to an internally-directed reality has begun.
This process can be a frightening one. Panic is the greatest danger faced by those in isolated situations, which is why vision quests should be done with a group, facilitator or partner. who can keep an eye on what is going on from a distance. Some solitary sailors and explorers die as a result of panic or self-destructive, irrational actions. But when a magick worker uses isolation deliberately as a tool, she can alleviate the negative effects by consciously opening herself to the possibilities of a radically new outlook. Instead of struggling to maintain consensual reality, the isolated magick worker embraces the opportunity to cast away old barriers to perception and allows herself to enter a world she had been censoring from her mind. Instead of finding herself alone, she may recognize an entire community of new companions, friends, challengers and allies who have been with her all along. In isolation, the magick worker slowly ceases to limit herself by external directives of “what should be” and becomes able to absorb what is.
Like all the methods of the Eightfold Path, isolation is best used with care, thought and clear intent. We may sometimes envy the stories of mystics or shamans who pushed themselves far past normal limits and experienced ecstatic states or stunning visions of other worlds. At the same time, few of us can abandon ourselves so completely to our magickal work that we can afford to release all vestiges of consensual reality and cast off every line holding us to the common landscape. As a controlled magickal tool, isolation can be used to help us reach beyond our boundaries without forcing us to leap irrevocably off the edge of the world. As we open ourselves further, we may indeed encounter transfiguring visions and unimaginable joy.
Like the shaman who returns with a vision for his people, the mystic whose revelations inspire faith, the Witch whose solitary studies bring healing to her village, we too may retreat into isolation to enrich ourselves and our community. The role models that inspire our imagination are drawn from every part of our past and reflect our intrinsic understanding of the degree to which our perception of reality is defined and limited by others. Magick is a process of pushing the boundaries of the possible in order to effect change in our inner selves and the outer world. In the stillness of a quiet room, in the complex loneliness of wild places, in the darkness of long nights, we can find the inner power to make that change.
- John C Lilly, The Deep Self, New York, 1978, p. 124.
- Lilly, pp. 122-126.
- Lilly, p. 126.
- John E Rasmussen, Ed., Man in Isolation and Confinement (Chicago, 1973), pp.3-50.
- Lilly, pp. 173-265.
INANNA ARTHEN is a longstanding member of The EarthSpirit Community and a frequent contributor to FireHeart.