Common steps and sub-activities
Using a hermit’s cell
The hermit in olden days was a person who deliberately chose to live a life of partial sensory deprivation. The cells of the convents or monasteries were in effect voluntary isolation rooms, as were the tiny caves often used by ascetics.
We cannot classify a hermit’s cell as an isolation room in the full sense of the term. An isolation tank or isolation room attempts to completely cut off your senses, it is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation, but a hermit’s cell is a step in this direction. An example may help to show the difference.
If you take a walk up the ridge near Butuceni, in Moldava, you will find a monastery.
The church room of this monastery is still used for devotions.
If you then walk downstairs to the cells where the monks lived you will find the monk’s cells [see left]. The window is new.
The hermit’s cell is thus a dark, possibly pitch black space which may well have few smells and because of the thickness of the walls and the fact it is below ground, little sound. The temperature is probably constant, because the space is so small, but complete sensory deprivation would not have been possible because the sense of touch would still be very active.
Thus for a hermit of old, the hermit’s cell could have been very effective over an extended period.
In Vodou, initiation (or becoming "made") as a Houngan (Priest) or Mambo (Priestess) is a formal procedure that involves arduous ritual performances by the candidates at the ceremony of bat guerre ("the battle for the spirits"). The final night of the bat guerre is followed by seclusion for five nights and four days in the dark isolation of the djevo, the inner sanctum of the Vodou temple.
Khalwa in Sufi [and Islamic] practise, refers to a form of retreat, once widespread but now less common. A khalwa may be prescribed by the shaykh (spiritual advisor) of the murid or talib (student). Muslims believe that most of the prophets, and also Maryam (Mary) the mother of Issa (Jesus), lived in some form of seclusion at some point in their life.
St Anthony [the Christian hermit] and Milarepa [the Tibetan ascetic] are two more examples of religious men who used this technique.
Milarepa had a number of out of body experiences.
According to the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet by French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, Milarepa spoke of having “crossed in a few days, a distance which, before his training, had taken him more than a month”.
David-Néel also added: “that at the house of the lama who taught him there lived a trapa [monk] who was fleeter than a horse” using the same skill.
These days I think we would tend to go more for the Retreat rather than a hermit’s cell. So in some sense this is an interesting historical oddity. But it did work.