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Calm • Anxiety

The Need For A Modern Monastery

However much we claim that we would like not to be so anxious, lonely, disconnected and depleted, we seldom systematically undertake truly concerted efforts not to be any of these things. 

Our moves, in so far as we make them, tend to be modest and intermittent: a book here or there, the odd candle, a trip to the countryside, a New Year’s vow to do less and think more. Yet we hold back from fundamentally rearranging our activities in the name of a more serene, inward-focused, sincere life. We let our ambitions for calm take a backseat to other, more standard and noisy priorities: making money, raising a family, gaining status.

Therefore, let’s imagine what a life might look like in its details if one actually did raise serene inwardness to our overwhelming priority; if everything one did from dawn until bedtime, if all one’s practical and psychological goals permanently had as their target an untroubled reflexive state of mind. 

– Living Together

For a start, we would probably seek to live together, communally, away from the loneliness of a single life or the fractiousness of a nuclear family unit, among a group of people similarly committed to containing anxiety – but also similarly sensitive to losing their grip on higher values. The ideal community would be marked by kindness, gentleness and great sympathy for the troubles of being human. Among such people, there would be no pressure to impress or to deny one’s sorrows and worries. Everyone would be open to the idea that they were a little ‘broken’ – while simultaneously profoundly committed to the business of repair and generosity.

A Building

Christian monks understood early on that living as part of a community governed by an ideal would require a particular kind of architectural setting and location. The monasteries that sprang up around Europe in the Dark Ages enforced their spiritual commitments with very specific architectural features: massive stone walls, bare but noble furnishings, inner courtyards, communal dining tables, kitchen gardens and simple – though often elegant – cells equipped with a bed, a desk and a narrow view out onto open country. The monasteries were typically situated far from cities, so that their members could concentrate on their studies and thoughts, while regularly drawing inspiration from the sublimity of nature.

There are obvious differences between a life devoted to God and one devoted to Calm Inwardness, but we can imagine being no less purposeful in the design of a community for serenity. An ideal such community might, for example, be situated in one of the more remote Canary Islands (El Hiero or La Gomera), a Greek island, a deserted part of Northern Scotland etc. 

There would be dispersed bedrooms around the property, a large dining room, a library, space for meetings – and colonnades around which to walk and share pieces of one’s inner life.

Concept drawings, A Modern Monastery
Concept drawing, A Modern Monastery
Concept drawing, A Modern Monastery
Concept drawing, A Modern Monastery

Gatherings

Every day in this ideal architectural setting, one would gather in a group and share whatever was in danger of engulfing or troubling one: there might be a discussion on shame or childhood neglect, anger or passivity. The purpose of such group discussions would be to foster a mood of communal introspection and strengthen every individual’s commitment to understanding and soothing themselves. Any feeling that one was an outcast would regularly be diminished by the spirit of honest confession and candid interaction. 

Time for Reflection

A lot of the time, in the Community for the Anxious, one would be free of commitments and able to sit on one’s own, downloading the contents of one’s mind, while sitting in an elegantly appointed but very simple room (perhaps with a glimpse of a fig or mango tree outside). One would work through outstanding anxieties, run through historic hurts and analyse where one’s life might go next. 

Psychotherapy

As a substitute for the religious instruction of monasteries, there would – in the Community for the Anxious – be a full complement of the best psychotherapists. Once a day, one would be able to sit with someone expertly trained to listen to, and make sense of, the confusions of one’s mind. To the sound of a trickling fountain outside, the therapist would tease out one’s more reticent and defensive aspects, help one feel compassionate towards one’s younger self, untangle dreams and fears – and teach one how to trust anew and communicate maturely with other people.

Routines

Life in the community would, in the best sense, be very boring. There would be no newspapers or screens. What was happening beyond the island would be a matter of deep indifference (except in so far as it had urgent relevance). Every day would be much like any other. One wouldn’t be trying to do anything very complicated. An achievement might be to help to rake the courtyard or rearrange some books in the library. The therapeutic value of cooking, housekeeping and gardening would be fully recognised – and rather than being seen as demeaning tasks, these would be framed as calming and essential. ‘I’ve been so busy’ would be one of the most shocking things one could say to others. All the glamour would centre around being able to reveal that one had done not very much at all other than think, talk and rest.

No Status Race

Because one would be among sincere friends, there would be no attempts to jockey for position or assert one’s superiority. Being famous or rich would lose any meaning because the only currencies in operation would be those of sincerity and kindness. 

Good Habits

The community would recognise that the great enemy of a good life is that we have the wrong habits. It isn’t that we don’t know in theory what would help us, we simply have no mechanism for instilling the right behaviours in practice. So the community would impose a deliberately rather bossy set of routines, not in order to trap us, but in order to liberate us to be the calm people we anyway long to be. The diary for the day might look like this:

6.30 – 7 am – Wake up, wash and dress

7 – 7.30 am – Exercise

7.30 – 8.30 am – Communal breakfast

8.30 – 10 am – Time alone in a room to think and reflect

10 – 11am – Psychotherapy

11 – 1 pm – Housework

1 – 2 pm – Communal lunch

2 – 3 pm – Siesta

3 – 4 pm – A walk with a friend

4 – 6 pm – Friendship groups

6 – 7 pm – Reading, learning (especially study of Stoicism & psychotherapy)

7 – 8 pm – Dinner

9 – 11 pm – Study of the stars

11 pm – Sleep

It would – of course – be very hard for us to live like this but this deliberately somewhat dramatic proposal at least gives us a sense of what we might need to do if we are sincere in our aspirations to lead calmer lives. Given that an unagitated state truly is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding of modalities, we might dare to make a few major moves. We are anxious not only out of our innate biological dispositions (though these don’t help), but chiefly because we don’t structure our lives properly so as to counteract our panicky natures. And given that we rarely obtain what we don’t plan for, we are about as worried as we can be expected to be – in the conditions we have built for ourselves.

For too much of our own lives and for too long in the course of human history, we have left calm to chance. We owe it to ourselves to start more consciously to build the calm lives we so deeply crave and could so richly benefit from.

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