Thursday, 28 August 2014

Update on Christopher Knight, "The North Pond Hermit"

Loon Island, Forest Lake, Gray, Maine It's been a busy few weeks for the backlist. First, the passing of Robin Williams led to a run on my review of The Zen Path Through Depression. Then my article on Christopher Knight – "The North Pond Hermit" – trended as well. A quick Google search revealed that GQ had recently published an in-depth story about him.

The Strange And Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit is a remarkably sensitive and balanced account by Michael Finkel, the first journalist to win Christopher's trust… or at least enough of it to permit him to write a well-developed article. Reading it, I had the following thoughts:

o Apparently, Christopher really did live year-round in the Maine woods – in a tent, with no fire – for 27 years. I was not alone in doubting this part of his story; I've lived in Québec, and it's frankly difficult for me to imagine surviving even one night in the depths of that winter. In fairness, Christopher himself admits that even he barely did, sometimes. His greatest strength seems to be iron discipline, sticking to rigid protocols that allowed him, day after day, to meet critical challenges. My hat is off to him; I could never be so consistent for so long.

o As earlier accounts reported, Christopher possessed no firearms and offered no resistance when arrested. (Which didn't happen in his own camp, as I first believed, but at gunpoint, while burglarising a cabin.)

o I also predicted that we would soon learn troubling details about his saga, but this too has proven overly cynical. Though much of his past remains blank, everything released so far checks out. He really does seem to be nothing more than a guy who walked into the woods one day. (And who refuses to discuss his motivations for it.)

o He talks like the real thing. "More damage has been done to my sanity in jail, in [seven] months," he says, "than years, decades, in the woods." As a forest monk, I have no trouble believing that. And he has clear insight into his fate: "I stole. I was a thief. I repeatedly stole over many years. I knew it was wrong. Knew it was wrong, felt guilty about it every time, yet continued to do it." Believable perspective from a man who has been living in solitude; denial is a disease of the gregarious.

o It's interesting to note that in the woods he was always carefully groomed, but stopped shaving in jail. I also was more fastidious about my appearance on the mountain, in part to avoid attracting the attention of possible onlookers. Christopher claims his bushy, unkempt jail beard was a calendar; otherwise he had no way, in that barren, sterile environment, to gauge the passage of time. Again, credible.

o As it happens, he did meditate, but only when in danger. It worked, too: "I am alive and sane, at least I think I'm sane." But in spite of the article's title, Christopher isn't a true hermit. "When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me," he told Finkel. "Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy." (An impression that is totally accurate.) He was in fact a recluse: a person who lives in isolation for non-spiritual reasons.

o Mental health examiners suggest that Christopher may have Asperger's syndrome. Speaking as someone with close experience of this condition (think Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory), it's plausible. He was often cold, unresponsive, and impatient with Finkel; he sometimes voiced a high opinion of himself and disparaged perceived rivals – even famous confrère Henry David Thoreau – in adolescent terms. Tics not likely produced by three decades of solitude, which tends on the contrary to make difficult people (such as me) more friendly, loving, and mindful of others' worth.

o Another detail that may be counter-intuitional to the inexperienced: his camp turned out to be almost within sight of a cabin; isolation and distance are not always synonymous. He lived in a state of camouflage, just as I planned to do when I thought I'd have to sit my 100 Days on public land. The best defence is not to be seen in the first place.

o His difficulties with advancing age also ring true. He complained of the growing hardship of a lifestyle tailored to a man in his twenties, and shared my battle with failing eyesight, which he partially solved the same way: "I used my ears more than my eyes."

o Finally, and most fascinating, he did in fact gain profound existential insight out there, even though he wasn't a contemplative. "Solitude did increase my perception," he told Finkel. "But […] when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. […] To put it romantically: I was completely free." That's pretty much what happened to me, too. Interesting that Zen training apparently wasn't necessary – though it did get me there a few hundred months sooner.

Ultimately, my conviction that Christopher's story is essentially accurate as he reports it boils down to the following "Wisdom To Live By", surrendered at last to his chronicler after repeated pestering:

"Get enough sleep."

I learned the same thing, Out There.

UPDATE, 21 April 2015: The Lena Friedrich documentary on Christopher, formerly known as Hermythology, is now called The Hermit and has a Facebook page.

UPDATE, 7 July 2015: Christopher was released on parole in March. News releases quote both his attorney and the judge who decided his case as expressing confidence that he will transition smoothly back to civil life. Details here.

UPDATE, 8 March 2017: Finkel has just come out with a book about Christopher, entitled The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit. (Even though, as I've explained, Christopher was not in fact a true hermit.) I haven't read this book yet; I'll comment further when I do.

UPDATE, 15 April 2020: Lena Friedrich has made her Christopher Knight documentary available free on Vimeo.

(Photo of the Maine camp country courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

WW: Okanogan sunset

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Robin Williams and Atonement

I've purposely held off posting about Robin Williams until the tidal wave of pro forma anguish washed past and left us in a place of calm. I'll give the media this: this time the coverage wasn't schlocky and over-the-top. Which is good, because the man deserves better.

But given the way he went, and the fact that August has somehow become Suicide Month here at Rusty Ring, I've got stuff to say.

First off, Robin Williams was a crucial figure to my generation. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere – not surprising, given that those of us who followed the Baby Boomers have always been studiously ignored. But Robin Williams was, to some extent, our John Lennon. The fact that he was apolitical suited us perfectly; so were we. His lightning genius was dazzling, his sword scalpel-sharp, though he never seemed to over-use it. He took down the officious and precious, but never harped or dwelled. In nearly every photograph a childlike gentleness glows in his eyes. He wasn't angry; he was self-mocking. In him we saw perhaps not ourselves, but what we wished we could be. And on a personal note, as a kid of Scottish descent growing up in the States, I'll be eternally grateful to him for finally convincing the Yanks that Robin IS TOO a boys' name. (Haven't been hassled about that since Mork.)

None of which I realised until he was gone. Sic transit gloria mindfulness practice.

With his passing, my man Robin also brought depression to international attention, resulting in myriad thoughtful, helpful articles about the relationship between creativity, damage, and loneliness. Last week my 2011 review of The Zen Path Through Depression trended worldwide, attracting hundreds of hits. So people are interested in the topic, and with luck some who need counsel are seeking it.

But one thing I haven't seen is any discussion of the collective responsibility for the condition and its consequences. Some time ago I read a study in which researchers assembled a group of depression patients and another of random others. Researchers gave each individual a series of open-ended true stories and asked them to predict the outcome. The depressed subjects consistently augured more accurately than those in the control group.

Get it? Another word for depression is insight. Often, depressed people suffer in part from the misfortune of not being as mentally incapacitated by denial as their cohorts. The implication is clear: at least some of depression isn't sickness at all; it's a tragic lack of sickness, in a world gone barking mad.

Last year I uploaded a piece partly addressing the issue of how to deal with such unfashionable insight, should you be so afflicted; suffice it to say that killing yourself because everyone else is crazy is unskilful, both for yourself and the world. But like Thich Nhat Hanh says: "Those who think they are not responsible are the most responsible." Therefore, today I'm talking especially to the non-depressed majority.

What can you do to reduce the suicide rate?

The standard Zen response is to be mindful of the seeds of violence in yourself and deny them water. Some of the best instruction in this highly effective practice is found in Claude Anshin Thomas's autobiography At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace. In the meantime, here's a short list of possible first steps:

  • If you belong to a church or other religious organisation that identifies any group of fellow mortals ("Satanists"; atheists; gays; intellectuals; competing religions) as individuals who must be "stopped"; converted by physical or social violence; or liquidated; leave it. 
  • If you belong to a political party or movement that ascribes the problems we face to some superficially-defined group of people (immigrants; gays; rich or poor people; criminals; another race; proponents of a political or economic theory; another nation); leave it. 
  • Boycott anger-tainment – shock jocks, call-in shows, intentionally biased networks, sensationalistic books and movies. Anything that's heavy on analysis and light on facts. Don't forget the red tops, too. The constant public shaming of Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse (who apparently still isn't dead enough), or whatever other none-of-your-business train-wreck is selling at the moment, dehumanises us more than you think.
  • Too ambitious? Ok, just declare peace on somebody. Your choice. Choose one group that annoys the crap out of you and say, "From now on, you have my permission to be or do that." Slow drivers? Fast drivers? Loud children? People who use bad grammar? Obscenities? Residents of big garish houses? Those who dump their shopping trolleys in the car park for someone else to round up? (Ooo, that's mine!) 

Note that none of these are solutions to any problem, suicide least of all; rather they're a way to begin clearing the ground so solutions can develop. Maybe now that those self-centred bastards who strew their carts all over the place are no longer prompting a battle response, I will see the cause and effect behind their actions and perceive an end to it. Worst case scenario: I'll stop squandering my finite human energies on unproductive suffering. (Starting with my own.)

Once you start, it becomes addictive, this business of reason, acceptance, and forgiveness.

So go ahead, brothers and sisters: take that first step. See how it goes.

Until next time, honoured reader: Nanu-nanu.

(Still of Robin being human from the Bill Forsythe film of that title.)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

WW: Sunflower in August

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Meditation Tips

(Note: readers new to zazen may find How to Meditate useful.)

"Meditation is simple," says Father Laurence Freeman, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. "That is why it so easily becomes complicated." He's right; the practice of zazen is so straightforward, so quickly mastered, that people want to fill it with something. Because if there isn't more to it, then what are you supposed to, like, do?

You want to avoid this mind. But obstacles do come up, and the benefit of others' experience can be helpful in overcoming them. So this week I'm posting some techniques that have been effective for me in those situations. None of them are "have to"; all of them are "choose to." Even: "choose not to."

o  Sometimes it's difficult to get your head on the right frequency, even after the standard beginning ritual of fixing the eyes on the horizon and three followed breaths. Early in my practice somebody suggested I add the following: hold gassho while following three more breaths, saying inwardly "May I sit" on the in-breath and "Just sit" on the out-breath.

o  Later I added "5 Ws and an H", as a means of anchoring myself in reality before entering formal zazen. So after the prayer above, I rest my hands palm down on my knees ("in-the-world" mudra), and pose the following koans – questions on the in, answers on the out:
Question: Answer:
Who is [your name]?I don't know.
What's asking? I don't know.
When is now? I don't know.
Where am I? I don't know.
How did I get here? I don't know.
Why am I here? I don't know.
Then I take dhyana mudra and commence typical 1-through-10 zazen.

o  Zenners usually meditate eyes half-open, and if we can trust our statues, the Buddha did too. But it's not a requirement, and sometimes (to centre the mind; in bright or distracting surroundings; under turbulent emotions; maybe it's just better for you) it's useful to close your eyes for part or all of the sit. Go ahead; nobody's watching.

o  Visualisations can also help usher out nagging thoughts, especially for beginners. Two that work for me:

 •Imagine dandelion fluff floating off on the wind.

 •Imagine you're sitting at the bottom of a lake and the thoughts are air bubbles, rising up and away. (I picture myself at the bottom of the ocean in front of my house, just beyond the breakers, on a sunny summer day. The roiling water mimics the whirling inside my skull.)

o  If strong emotion defeats the 1-through-10 mantra, "don't know" is often an effective replacement.

o  At the end of a sit, I hold gassho again for three breaths, saying "Thank you" (for the practice) both in and out. Then I rest my hands on my knees and go through 5-Ws-and-an-H again to finish. The response to each question is still "I don't know", but after 40 or 50 minutes of zazen the answer feels palpably different.

May these tips assist others with their practice.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

WW: August bounty

(Himalayan blackberry [Rubus armeniacus] lines most North Coast roads and bears strawberry-sized fruit by the tonne this time of year.)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ten Feet of Chutzpah: Northern Alligator Lizard

One day, as I heated laundry water on the old woodstove in the barn, I spied a lizard stretched in plain sight on a delammed sheet of veneer beside the hearth. His brown and black check blended in well with the dusty wood, but the ten-year-old I once was immediately detected the outline of his body. A stubby tail and missing rear foot bespoke close calls, and his willingness to bask by a human's fire, in full view and harm's way, betrayed a daring nature. Clearly he was as disgusted with that pseudo-summer as I was.

Like garter snakes, northern alligator lizards (Elgaria cœrulea) are classic Green Side live-bearing omnivores, if somewhat less ubiquitous owing to their love of sunny dry. In sharp contrast to their legless relatives they shun water, though strong swimmers when compelled. Theory has it the common name comes from their crocodilian lines; or maybe the namer simply knew one. For if alligator lizards top out at ten inches, their chutzpah stretches on that many feet. One may sink its seventy-odd fangs, like tiny needle-points, in a capturing hand, grinding its steel-trap jaws back and forth with real malice. As a boy I once had one ride peaceably in my grip for several minutes, only to clamp down suddenly on the web between my thumb and forefinger, chomping with a hateful fury it could apparently summon at will.

For all that they had distinct personalities and active, intelligent eyes, and I enjoyed keeping them as temporary pets. I learned to pin them to the ground with the flat of my hand, rather than grabbing, which might net no more than an amputated tail. It's a more than cosmetic problem; the animal's nutrient reserves are stored there, the loss of which can endanger its life.

My new companion remained by the hearth for an hour, as I moved carefully so as not to spook him off, until the grey ruptured and he slipped back under the west wall. I later found him ensconced in a bent-up corner of the corrugated iron siding, soaking up the fresh-bloomed sun.

He visited habitually thereafter, each time I built a fire. I never saw him enter; I just looked up, and there he was. Always in the same place, always with the same cocked expression of petulant entitlement.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Top photo courtesy of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game; bottom courtesy of Gary Nafis and

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

WW: Lion's mane jellyfish

(Cyanea capillata. We've always seen these from time to time here in the North Pacific, but lately it's one of several species we're suddenly getting a great deal more of. And this one isn't even remarkably big.)