“Three months after becoming a monk, I took off to the Himalayan foothills behind Dharamsala. I was 21 years old. My backpack contained a sleeping bag, groundsheet, towel, kettle, bowl, mug, two books, some apples, dried food and a 5-liter container of water. Monsoon had just ended: the sky was crystalline, the air cleansed, the foliage luxuriant. After 3 or 4 hours, I left the well-trodden footpath and followed animal trails up the steep, sparsely forested slope until I reached the grassy ledge hidden by boulders and sheltered by branches that I had identified earlier on an earlier foray.
“Inspired by stories of Indian and Tibetan hermits, I wanted to know what it would be like to be cut off from all human contact, alone and unprotected. I would stay here as long as my meager supply of food and water permitted. No one knew where I was. If I fell and broke my leg, was bitten by a cobra or mauled by a bear, I was unlikely to be found. High in this aerie, I could still hear the distant horn blasts and grinding gears of buses and trucks below, which I regarded as an affront.
“I would wake with my sleeping covered in dew. After peeing and meditating, I would light a fire, boil water, make tea, then mix it with roasted barley flour and milk powder to form a lump of dough. This was breakfast and lunch – following the monastic rule, I did not eat in the evening.
“My meditations included the sadhanas into which I had been initiated, where I visualised myself either as the furious bull-headed, priapic Yamantaka or the naked, menstruating red goddess Vajrayogini. I alternated these tantric practices with an hour of mindfully ‘sweeping’ my body from head to foot, noticing with precision the transient sensations and feelings that suffused it. When not eating or meditating, I intoned a translation of Santideva’s Compendium of Training, an 8th century Sanskrit anthology of Mahyana Buddhist discourses, which I had vowed to recite in its entirety while up there.
“What remains of that solitude now is my memory of the sweeping panorama of the plains of the Punjab, the immense arc of the heavens, and the embrace of the mountains that harbored this fragile dot of self-awareness. Once, a fabulous multi-colored bird that launched itself from the cliff beneath, floated for an instant in the air, then disappeared from view. A herdsman and his goats came close to discovering me one afternoon. I peeked at them through a lattice of leaves as the animals grazed and the wiry, sun-blackened man in a coarse wool tunic lay on a rock.
“Supplies exhausted and text recited, I trekked back to my room in McLeod-ganj below. During my five days on the mountain I had acquired a taste for solitude that has been with me ever since.”
Stephen Batchelor The Art of Solitude: A Meditation on Being Alone with Others in This World New Haven, CT & London, England: Yale University Press, 2020