Spiritual seekers today often disparage the ascetic, renunciate traditions of monastic life or cave dwelling. They contend that such a path may have been tenable in the past, but these days we have so many obligations; we are too busy with worldly affairs. Cave dwelling isn’t an option, they say ruefully, and then dismiss it as misguided. It’s taking the easy way out. It’s an escape from the complications and challenges of life. It would be easy to be spiritual, living away from society. We moderns must awaken amid the hubbub. We do not shirk responsibilities nor shun the phenomenal world, and can do much good to change its course if we remain engaged, abiding as awakeness.
These points in favor of living as awakeness in the midst of society are well taken. But the renunciate’s path is also worthy. Those who dismiss it as escapism do so without having fully considered what that choice entails.
Cave dwelling is not easy. Much is relinquished: social, family and work life. It is dangerous. You’re exposed to the elements; food may be scarce. Recently I heard of a Himalayan cave dweller who fell and injured his back. He was alone and helpless, and would have died, but for chance discovery and rescue. Cave dwelling is by no means a simple, slacker sort of life. It demands the utmost spiritual dedication and courage. Monastic life may be a little more secure and comfortable, but it, too, takes great dedication and sacrifice.
Apart from the physical challenges, the solitary ascetic is also subject to the vicissitudes of the mind. Alone, he is vulnerable to attacks by demons, whether they be perceived as traditional meddlesome spirits, aiming to throw him off track, or as his own psychology launching an assault. He is walking the razor’s edge between enlightenment and madness. (“He” because traditionally this was not a path open to women.)
Abiding as awareness in the midst of a busy, secular life is wonderful; it’s in the true yogic tradition of the Bhagavad Gita. It is certainly an easier path to incorporate into the typical modern life, and for that reason, more common. But that does not make it the best or only way.
Respect for the renunciate’s path matters because it is not merely a relic of the past, with just a few remaining practitioners in the Himalayas or the Zhongnan mountains of central China. On the contrary, we are witnessing a renaissance of the phenomenon: the modern cave dweller.
Wealth and technology enable, for better or worse, many of us to live in relative solitude. In the United States, the number of people living alone has been steadily increasing over the past century, with about 30% doing so today (vs. 5% in 1920). The Washington Post, "More Americans living alone, census says." Tim Henderson, September 28, 2014. Even living with others in a modern, spacious home, we may still have plenty of solitude. With all the shopping available online and delivery options, we run fewer daily errands, which minimizes casual interactions. Many of us work from home. Families are less enmeshed these days, too. You probably aren't living near a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and most likely won't be taking in your elderly parents when they need on-site care.
A modern person can thus be quite shielded from the distractions of the marketplace and social life. This can foster alienation, but it can also be embraced as a unique opportunity to be an ascetic, with time and energy to focus on spiritual life. We can even connect and participate in online sanghas. This arrangement parallels the traditional monastic life: plenty of solitude, with time for contemplation and study, but with connection and teaching from others doing the same.
Being awake in the midst of a busy life is marvelous and rewarding, but a quiet, more isolated abidance can be magical, too. If you are living as a modern ascetic, recognize this and make the most of it.
Don’t be ashamed of your isolation, or consider it an escape or easy living. Acknowledge its challenges, being aware of the ego’s capacity to lead the solitary seeker astray. But also value and pursue this opportunity to study and deepen your spirituality without undue distraction. This is all the more true today as we can dwell in relative comfort and security.
Modern cave dwellers are upholding a noble lineage. If you are one of them, honor that tradition and yourself in your exploration of the divine, of What Is. Embrace your inner caveman or woman. She is a powerful force.