Guest post by Nina Lalumia

A friend of mine recently said that the perfect example of an introspective introvert is the hermit who withdraws from society into solitude. I want to explain here why I think this is mistaken…

What’s a Hermit?

When I think of hermits, I think of religious or spiritual hermits: for example, a nun or a monk, or a dervish or a certain type of rabbi. In particular, I think of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who in his mature years was sometimes drawn to spend several days in a cave. It was here, when he was forty years old, that he reported that the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to recite. What he recited at various times during the remainder of his life became the Qur’an—literally, the recitation. In Christianity, there is imagery similar to the Prophet’s cave, for example, the interior castle of St Teresa of Avila. Also, in monasteries, each person has their own private room or cell.

The personality type of a hermit

It’s safe to say that most, if not all, religious or spiritual hermits are introverts, simply because they have a strong preference for spending time alone and in silence or even darkness. They withdraw regularly, and sometimes completely, from the bustling, noisy, talkative world of society. Even if they live together in a monastery or convent, they typically limit speaking to each other only to necessary communication; they refrain from chatting, and sometimes for extended periods they take a vow of complete silence.

But I think it is mistaken to think that they are introspective—that they tend to give their attention to their own personal experience. This is symbolised by the fact that they typically have few if any personal belongings, and by the fact that they wear uniforms or habits. They divest themselves of Personality and become more or less anonymous; often they take on new names, and they typically limit, or even eliminate, contact with their family members. So to a large extent they have no personal experience to reflect on.

So what do religious or spiritual hermits reflect on?

Anyone who has tried to practise meditation knows that when you begin, perhaps by focusing on your breathing, that personal thoughts appear: typically about recent events or things that you have to do in the near future. We are naturally drawn to reflect on our past (either with regret or pleasure) and to speculate about our future (either with fear or hope). But the teachers of meditation tell us, when such personal thoughts come up, to witness them as if from a distance, and then gently re-direct our attention to our breathing or to some other fairly blank object of focus. If we are “successful,” eventually these personal thoughts settle down and perhaps disappear completely. So what is left? In a word, nothing. This is the deeper level of meditation or prayer that many hermits or mystics seek to reach. At this level, there is nothing personal left to reflect on. In this darkness one does not belong to a family, and one has no ethnicity or language or nationality. Some controversial mystics would even say that at this level they have no particular religion or set of beliefs.

What does one think about when one thinks about nothing?

The Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali explained it as follows. A person has two aspects: first, their body, which is a public object that others can examine with their five senses; and the body itself examines the rest of the world with its own five senses. But then a person also has an inner reality, the capacity to understand and reason; and this activity is not observable to any of the five senses. So also Al-Ghazali suggested that the world as a whole has two aspects: one that we can examine with our five senses—its exterior, superficial aspect, and one that we can only reach by the understanding or intellect—its inner, deep aspect.

So many mystics would agree that what they think about when they think about nothing is the inner, deep aspect of reality—the hidden basis of reality, or perhaps even the Reality itself that some call God or the Higher Power. So the religious or spiritual hermit, the mystic or person who meditates, is an outward-looking introvert—not an introspective introvert. They look outward toward the deeper reality of the world, or perhaps toward Reality itself.

The social contribution of spiritual introverts

Often, spiritual introverts spend time in solitude and then return to society with a contribution: either a spoken or written message, or their own personal example of integrity in the way that they live. Both aspects are present in the way that Susan Cain talks about her grandfather, a rabbi who loved both to study in solitude and to communicate lovingly with others; she is the author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. In either way, in their message or in their personal example, one of the contributions that spiritual introverts can make is to show us how to see beneath and beyond our external differences and to see the common core of humanity in us all. For example, this is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi did and that, in the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh does. This contribution seems especially important today, when the emphasis on external differences seems to be on the rise—often with violent consequences.

It is a painful paradox that many of the people who emphasise these differences the most call themselves “religious.” This makes me wish that they would return to the traditions of meditation, prayer or mysticism that the different religions share—each in their own way, but with a common core at the heart…in the human heart, at its introverted best.