Amidst the chaotic disruption of daily life, an increasing number of us are feeling the strain on our mental health. The economic shakeup has altered the way we work, how we shop, where we go, and what company we keep. Spending more time at home, whether in quarantine or out of caution over catching and sharing the virus with those we love, introduces its own challenges.
Without the freedom to go “out there” and do what we normally did in the world, the walls close in and our joie de vivre (joy of living) starts to lose some of its joie.
Add to these pandemic conditions the political chaos in America, the global tensions among nations, and the climatic upheaval of our planet, and we begin to wonder if life is even worth living anymore, let alone whether we will ever get our joy back again. Keeping our sanity and nursing our hope are taking more and more energy, and with each passing day we can feel ourselves circling the drain.
Are we losing our minds? Is there reason to keep going? Why, and for what?
I am both an outspoken advocate and relentless critic of religion, for the way it can help us manage meaning in life, but also how it so quickly becomes a prison of our spirit. The very word religion comes from the Latin religare (“to link back” or “connect”), where its principal function is to draw order out of chaos by establishing the boundaries, rules, roles, and rituals that conspire to actualize a sanctuary in space and time.
Way back in the day of archaic religion, before building a new settlement, a location would be identified as the axis mundi (“world center”) and the people would proceed to organize their communal life around it, making sacrifices and calling on the gods to bless and protect their new home.
This religious act of making a sanctuary in the wilderness and bringing order out of chaos is the basic principle of monasticism. A monastery is not an escape from the world, but is rather about creating a world at the very center of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and apparent disorder of existence. Monks, then, shouldn’t be regarded as drop-outs and quitters, but instead as creators and facilitators of deeper meaning, higher purpose, and authentic joy.
How they do this is a matter of discipline. This post will explore a few monastic practices that we, too, might find useful in making our home a COVID monastery during these challenging times.
Our nation, global politics, and the changing planet present us with challenges and threats way beyond our personal control. In case you haven’t realized it, no one is getting out alive. Now, we can fix our focus on these conditions and let it paralyze us, outrage us, and ultimately depress us. Or else, we can choose to accept the reality of what’s outside our control and direct our attention to what we can control. What exactly?
We can control how we feel. I hear your protest: That’s my problem! Everything is falling apart and I can’t keep it together. It’s all making me feel helpless and hopeless.
Let’s begin by sitting quietly in a comfortable place, in a chair or on a cushion if you have one. Take a deep breath … and then another. Feel the tension in your muscles release. If it helps to rest a soft gaze upon something in front of you, then do that. Don’t think about the object; just let it become a gentle tether for your mind, holding you here in this present moment.
Breathe in for a count of five seconds, hold it for one second, then breathe out for four. Quietly counting through the breath cycle is another helpful way of tethering our mind. Our body is always HERE and NOW.
A breathing meditation invites our mind back to our body, and back to what’s real.
This is a proven monastic practice of preparation. For the brief interval of time that we are engaged in this practice of meditative breathing, our mind gradually stops telling stories and starts to relax into the rhythm. Stories, or the dramatic scenarios composed in our mind, attract and intensify the feelings we have. Anxiety, outrage, hopelessness, and depression don’t just happen in a vacuum, but are instead “conjured up” by the stories we recite (listen to or watch on the screen), over and over to ourselves. By calling our mind away from its storytelling, this monastic practice allows us to become fully present where we are.
This is our axis mundi.
Consecrating Space and Marking Time
After we are properly centered, our next monastic practice is to walk slowly through the rooms of our house or apartment. This is the space of our monastery. To consecrate something means to acknowledge (or declare) it as sacred, literally “set apart” and dedicated to a higher purpose. Declaring a space sacred does not magically change the space itself, but instead effects a change in our degree of attention and intention, in our capacity for being fully present.
Sacred intention is what makes our space a sanctuary.
When we speak of a “higher purpose,” we are referring to this elevated intention – not to something that has to be done or some mission to accomplish, but to the mindful and devoted way we do anything at all. Consecrating the space of our monastery helps us “set the intention” to live here on purpose and with purpose. In our monastery very little is done by accident or thoughtless habit.
Passing through the rooms of our house or apartment we say, “This space is for (e.g., cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, playing, relaxing). In consecrating this space, I create a world that is purposeful, meaningful, delightful, and welcoming.”
After consecrating the space of our monastery, our next practice is to create the schedule of activities, routines, and events that will carry our intention throughout each day. We “make time” for the things that help us feel joyful, healthy, creative, and alive. Our sacred order of time doesn’t have to be strict or rigid, but it should accommodate (literally “make room for”) the activities that interest us, inspire us, renew us, and connect us to what really matters.
The Sacred Practices of Work and Prayer
Inside a monastery, monks live by a prescribed order of time often announced by the ringing of a mindfulness bell, and in dedicated sanctuaries of higher purpose: sacred times and holy places of intentional living. Allowing for brief retreats throughout the day for rest, amusement, creativity, and quiet reflection, the schedule also holds them to the mandatory practices of work and prayer.
Mandatory does not mean forced or compelled against our will, but rather identifies a practice as essential and therefore more than merely voluntary, where we might engage in something only if we want to or feel like doing it.
Both work and prayer are about connection – as we said above, connecting to what really matters. We can think of them as two lines of intention that extend, one outward and the other inward, from the axis mundi of our centered self.
As outward intention, work connects us to the sacred space of our monastery, to others who may inhabit our sanctuary with us, and to the tasks and responsibilities that are essential to managing the sanctuary of our home. Giving our time and energy to these projects turns them from menial chores into mindful and devotional offerings for the sake of a greater good.
Monastic prayer is not the interpersonal conversation between us and god, as imagined in popular religion. More often called “centering prayer,” this monastic practice is actually about breaking below the back-and-forth traffic of conversation and descending through the silent depths of Presence and Mystery, to the very Ground of our being. In monastic and mystical theology Presence, Mystery, and Ground name the deepest reality of what we are.
Connecting with our Ground opens a wellspring of inner peace and fills us with joy. Every time? No. But that is why the practice of centering prayer needs to be anchored in our schedule, several times each day.
With the chaos and uncertainty all around us, managing our mental health and finding meaning in life is a formidable challenge. Instead of hunkering down, distracting ourselves with mindless activities, or looking for something to numb us out, however, we can make the commitment of turning our home or apartment into a monastery. Its space is our sanctuary, and time through our day proceeds according to a holy order of activity and rest, connection and solitude, sacred work and centering prayer.
There’s no need to wait for the world to change.