Stoicism, mysticism and getting lost in the woods

Christopher Knight's camp

This story in The Guardian about Christopher Knight is incredible. He parked his car and disappeared into the woods in Maine, USA at the age of 20. He’s been living there for 27 years.

What interests me the most, however, is this section:

Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”

The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.

For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.

“If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”

It’s a tenet of Stoicism (as exemplified by the discourses of Epictetus and Seneca, for example) that one needs to learn how to be comfortable in your own skin — that possessions or a change of location can’t make you happy in and of itself. Knight’s experience, and that of others who have spent a long time by themselves without going mad, seems to be a step even beyond that.

What I like about Stoic philosophy is that it emphasises the responsibility we all have towards civic society. Secreting yourself away and cutting off ties with society, at the end of the day, feels a little selfish, to be honest.