One of the downsides of returning to work has been an exponential increase of things that occupy my mental landscape, and so my writing has been sidetracked.
One of the many upsides of returning to work has been re-immersing myself in a community firmly grounded in Benedictine wisdom.
A quick history lesson: St. Benedict lived in Italy just around the fall of the Roman Empire, as the world was crumbling into chaos and corruption. St. Benedict wrote a set of rules for monastic life to try and make sense of all the mess, particularly within the Church, and his text has remained unchanged while respected and followed throughout the world for the last 1,500 years.
Roman Catholicism is not a groovy religion to the public. It’s so much more hip to be “spiritual but not religious” than it is to be Catholic. I believe this is because the hipster world has not sampled the Benedictine flavor.
Today we had our annual faculty retreat, in which we reflect upon one of Benedict’s many spiritual themes that are presented in his Rule. Each year’s themes is different; today it was stability. The retreat was led by a monk and a self-proclaimed hermit, who has lived his solitary lifestyle for 16 years. (To be fair, he also was a Franciscan friar for 2 decades before that, so he has perspective on a non-hermit’s life.) (It is so hard to not think of Kermit the Frog whenever I type “hermit…” for obvious, rhyming reasons.) (It’s not easy being green.)
When you are in the presence of a soft-spoken hermit, you listen. It doesn’t matter your faith background or your shoe size, you listen. Fr. Daniel was pretty amazing in his opening remarks, so much so that he not only inspired this blog post, but has permanently tweaked my vocabulary. I was furiously jotting notes in the hour-long reflection he shared, and here are a few stand-outs:
“To acknowledge one’s ignorance is a wholesome thing to do.”
“We hope to be humble enough to open ourselves to wisdom.”
“Stability should not be confused with the counter-productive stasis of fundamentalism.”
“Asceticism is refusing to default to the negative.”
“To mind-fast is to abstain from an attitude.”
In the four months that I took off from work, I was constantly shown the power and importance of deep personal reflection. I wrote about it pretty regularly here, analogizing my meditation to surfing and barefoot running. I read Saltwater Buddha and then met and befriended Jaimal Yogis. He lived in a Zen monastery for over a year, and his climactic metaphor between surfing and Zen meditation is that in our minds, we are all surfers, our thoughts are the waves, and we can choose to ride the ones that we want and let the bad ones pass us by. He expands upon this in the following video clip, which is a legit enough youtube clip that it’s preceded by a commercial, which you know makes it legit. None of my youtube videos are preceded by commercials, that’s for sure.
In the clinical world of psychiatry, this is all akin to cognitive behavior therapy, in which you recognize a negative thought pattern, and deliberately interrupt it. (aka, if you start thinking “I look fat in these pants,” and you know that a thought like that will spiral into more and more self-criticism, you go and pet your dog to interrupt the thought pattern.)
Fr. Daniel, Jaimal Yogis, St. Benedict, the Buddha, Thomas Merton, my therapist–these people are all speaking slightly different dialects, but they’re all espousing the same message. In other words, the most modern of medical science, the grooviest of surfer widsom, and the most ancient of Christian philosophies are all treatises on the same point. That’s pretty incredible.
What to call this message? The Buddhists call it mindfulness, which is also used by psychiatrists. I like that, but I really fell in love with the phrase Fr. Daniel used: mind-fast. The concept of fasting is common to all religions, and is a deliberate deprivation of food. That’s great and all, but why not a fasting of the mind? How much more powerful to not just restrain from having a milkshake, but abstaining from harboring jealousy, or rage, or fear? To recognize the feeling as it arrives, but to choose to let it pass you by. Mind-fast. It’s also dictionally cunning, as the varied definitions of “fast” most immediately evoke images of speed, rather than slow calmness.
Towards the end of the retreat, we were given a blank canvas and some paint and were encouraged to create an image that symbolized stability. My immediate thought was of a wave, most immediately for the personal reason of how therapeutic the ocean is for me. More than that, still frames of waves are deceptively stable. They freeze a process that is tremendously dynamic and chaotic. Surfing a wave demands that you synchronize with that chaos, and requires balance and stability. It felt right. I’m no artist and I never will be, but I’m happy with the painting I created.
To repeat: to mind-fast is to abstain from an attitude. What powerful simplicity, what freedom there is to gain from restrictions!