Urban Hermit: A Different Way of Being in the World

“William Powers, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, has recently taken on a leadership role in the global “Slow Movement.” As part of his own personal involvement in slowing down, he spent a season in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid in North Carolina. He wrote about his experiment in an award-winning memoir called Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream (2010). His follow-up experiment of living in a tiny apartment in Manhattan was motivated to a large extent by a somewhat angry question from a reader of the book. “It’s easy,” she had written, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?”

So, Powers and his wife jettisoned 80 percent of their belongings and moved from their 2,000-square-foot townhouse in Queens, across the river to a 350-square-foot micro-apartment in Greenwich Village. Their attempt to live slowly and mindfully in frantic Manhattan is recounted in New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City (2014).

In many ways, the experiment conducted by the Powers in New York City provides a bookend to how Walter in Vermont has been experimenting with his own life. Both were seeking an answer to the same question: Is it actually possible to leave only the tiniest carbon footprint regardless of where you happen to be living? While Walter was inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Powers has spent two decades exploring the speed of American culture and its alternatives in some fifty countries around the world. He has been a leader in development and conservation movements in Latin America, Africa, and North America. But what makes Powers different from other writers on conservation and/or mindfulness is that he and his wife actually put their lives on the line.

Many years ago, I came to know two Westerners in their late thirties or early forties who had become students of a Tibetan lama. They and other like-minded people had pooled their resources to rent a big house in Toronto where they and their teacher could all live and practice. These two—a man and a woman, though not a couple—worked at the large postal sorting facility where I also worked for one summer.

They had chosen to work at the post office because sorting an unending mountain of mail was in many ways an ideal activity for continuing and deepening their meditation practice. Their value system was centered around ethical living in their small community of Buddhist practitioners—a simple life without television or any overt forms of entertainment.

These three narratives all have their own trajectories and unique worldviews and intentions, but together they create a space for the beginning of a conversation about the paradigm of an urban hermit. In many ways, such a conversation has been and continues to be taboo among philosophers and culture-shapers.


An urban hermit is not an identity but a felt-sense of being in the world. A “felt-sense” is by definition both fluid and guided by one or more specific principles or questions. A case can be made that we all have a felt-sense of struggling to be at peace within ourselves regardless of the many ways in which our conditions and circumstances may differ. For many, the idea of solitude, of being alone for a short or long period of time, may be an appealing way to disengage from pressures that create and define the struggle to be at peace with ourselves in the first place.

The three narratives above all seem to have been informed by a desire, a need perhaps, for solitude. All of these people were aware, at some level, of the need to create some distance between their inner lives and the fragmentation produced by a chaotic social setting and work culture in a post-industrial society, particularly its American version in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries…

An urban hermit is inspired to turn inevitabilities into art forms—the art of living, the art of being alone, the art of serving others, the art of dying—and to train himself or herself in orienting to life as an opportunity for learning, exploring, and seeing what is and what is not possible. One finds a principle or a question, an image or a feeling, and one follows it—wherever it might lead, however long it feels worth following.

Most of us have imagined what it would be like to live in a completely different way. We all seem to believe there’s something in particular waiting to be discovered in a deeper inner or outer solitude—the promise that there just might be a radically different way to depend on and relate to the world and one another…”

An extract from Mu Soeng “Urban Hermit: A Different Way of Being in the World” (2016). Full-text available on-line at: https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/urban-hermit-a-different-way-of-being-in-the-world/

Mu Soeng, a former Zen monk and teacher, is the scholar-in-residence at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. He is the author of many books on Buddhism, including Trust in Mind and The Diamond Sutra. He lives in Barre, Massachusetts. See: http://www.wisdompubs.org/author/mu-soeng

See also:

William Powers Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream New World Library, 2010


“Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist William Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her wildcrafter philosophy of living on a planet in crisis. Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, then accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a season while she traveled. There, he befriended her eclectic neighbors — organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers — and discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life.

In these pages, Powers not only explores this small patch of community but draws on his international experiences with other pockets of resistance. This engrossing tale of Powers’s struggle for a meaningful life with a smaller footprint proposes a paradigm shift to an elusive “Soft World” with clues to personal happiness and global healing.”

William Powers New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City New World Library, 2014


“Burned-out after years of doing development work around the world, William Powers spent a season in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid in North Carolina, as recounted in his award-winning memoir Twelve by Twelve. Could he live a similarly minimalist life in the heart of New York City? To find out, Powers and his wife jettisoned 80 percent of their stuff, left their 2,000-square-foot Queens townhouse, and moved into a 350-square-foot “micro-apartment” in Greenwich Village. Downshifting to a two-day workweek, Powers explores the viability of Slow Food and Slow Money, technology fasts and urban sanctuaries. Discovering a colorful cast of New Yorkers attempting to resist the culture of Total Work, Powers offers an inspiring exploration for anyone trying to make urban life more people- and planet-friendly.”




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