Meanwhile, in the Monastery

“With the COVID-19 pandemic causing increasing restrictions and isolation, including long-term lockdowns, I’m really struggling to find ways out of depression and a deepening sense of malaise. I’m doing my best to keep up with my exercise program, but do you have other ideas that might help during these dramatically oppressive times?”

It’s a good idea to look toward experienced experts when confronted with an unfamiliar challenge. Historically and currently, there are such elite practitioners who have learned to survive well within very constricted circumstances over long periods of time: those who live in monasteries. If we look at patterns and habits they’ve developed and refined over centuries, across many different cultures and faiths, we can find some dependable handholds that clearly work well. Here are some universal practices that run through many forms of monastic life, adapted here to give some practical ideas to explore.

We can look at the human being like a monacha or monk would, as having four distinct bodies: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Each body needs to be attended to for long-term serene sanity, enthusiasm and overall wellbeing, especially during unusually trying times. Although our separate bodies interact and blend into each other, let’s isolate each body with a few corresponding essential practices:

The physical body

  • Attend to posture and breathing, including during sedentary activities.
  • Maintain a consistent program of full-spectrum physical exercise, which includes agility, strength and endurance.
  • Hone diet towards a more plant-based, unprocessed variety of foods.
  • Stay active, including gardening, if you can, walking in nature, cooking and cleaning.

The emotional body

  • Set aside time specifically for quiet meditation; that can be 20 minutes or more of slow diaphragmatic breathing or any form of traditional meditation, once or twice a day.
  • Communicate authentically, guiding conversation (spoken or written) toward more revealing, honest, meaningful interactions.
  • Engage art, listen to music and read poetry (or better still, sing and read aloud), watch programs that inspire and unlock deeper emotions.
  • Avoid superficial commotion that causes agitation or just fills up time (such as social media gossip and propaganda, and idle overindulgence in news).

The mental body

  • Read challenging works that introduce and expand on ideas that are unfamiliar or different from your own.
  • Write down your own reflections, dreams or personal plans, and take on small creative projects.
  • Choose to guide the mind away from complaint and worry, and notice the forms of abundance you do have around you.
  • Focus on timing and precision in all activities, even the most casual ones; this includes patterns of sleep and rest.

The spiritual body

  • Contemplate on the people, ideas and things that matter most to you.
  • Consciously locate and apply an appropriate range of personal qualities throughout each day, such as simplicity, equanimity and grace.
  • Offer your full presence in all encounters, even the briefest ones, including listening with greater attentiveness and providing touches of sincere care and humor.
  • Take moments to look and feel into larger dynamics beyond current patterns and structures, with an intuitive eye toward deeper rhythms that transcend the time-frame of your existing difficulties.

With some practice, these suggestions can be combined and fluidly integrated into any day, no matter what external restrictions you may have. But it’s equally effective to work down the list one at a time – as if in a monastery with specific scheduled chapters to each part of the day – making sure that each item is engaged at least briefly every day. Or pick one or two a day that you’re less skilled in, and focus on that throughout your usual activities. In even just a few days, the impact is noticeable…and begins to open into a natural, sustainable way of life.

To be clear, these suggestions are not meant to eliminate or denounce – as an old monk used to call them – “your preferred distractions and poisons” (parts of everyone’s independent self-creation), but to give more tangible meaning and relief from existential anxiety and malaise. And once you get out of the monastery, which is not too far down the path, you’ll have some new, wholesome habits that you may wish to keep with you.

Photo: Katskhi Pillar monastery, Georgia

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