Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Holy leisure vs. unholy sloth

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul." Thus begins Chapter 48 of the Rule of St. Benedict, in which he lays out a schedule balancing manual and intellectual labor. Yes, we think with a private groan, we should keep busy. We should be productive! But wait -- that same schedule, that same paragraph in the Rule, also has time for a daily nap! St. Benedict's monastery was in Italy, after all. And then, there's my favorite commandment, the one about resting on the Sabbath. Idleness is the enemy of the soul, but rest is holy, and it is mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Practical Asceticism: Get Bored

One of the quickest triggers for compulsive behavior, in my experience, is boredom. Learning to do absolutely nothing, even for a few seconds, is one of the hardest and yet most important lessons for me in the hermitage. It is also a very, very common challenge in our modern times, when we've all got a perfect little rectangle of constant distraction in the form of a smartphone. 

I'm 53 years old; I grew to adulthood without a PC, let alone a smartphone. We used to use phone books, big, thick, paper phone books. We used to buy maps at the gas station to figure out how to get where we wanted to go. If we got lost, we'd have to pull off the road to look at the map again, and if a road was closed for construction or the map was out of date, we'd have to find a pay phone to call for directions. If we had car trouble, we'd have to get out and hike to the next rest stop on foot to call AAA from a pay phone. We had a complete set of Encyclopedia Brittanica at home, a 3" thick unabridged dictionary, and library cards. We used to write our school papers longhand. It's incredible how remote those memories are. It's almost as if I read about that life in a book (an e-book, borrowed from the virtual library), instead of having actually lived it myself. 

I'm typing this on a Chromebook. I've closed the sudoku tab, the two Gmail tabs, the journaling app tab, and the tab for the article I was reading that was not relevant to this topic. My phone is on the table next to me. As almost always, it is on do-not-disturb mode. I have no notifications coming to my lock screen; I unsubscribe from almost every mailing list; I don't do Facebook or Twitter or Instagram at all. And still, I struggle with the temptation to lose hours playing solitaire or browsing endless web pages. There's nothing wrong with playing solitaire, and there is certainly nothing wrong with letting my curiosity roam freely around the fascinating resources on the internet. But I've lost something, and I think that it is something really crucial to the contemplative life: boredom. 

I think of boredom as what Thomas Merton called the point vierge, a pause that is empty in itself but poised with infinite potential. I think of it as "fallow mind," a pause in which the mind can rest, unmolested, and regenerate its creative fertility, the way a field does when it is left fallow for a season. It is a very uncomfortable state, itchy, littered with the burs and twigs of whatever came before, groping around semi-blindly for what might come next. It is really surprisingly hard to do nothing, even for a minute. It's surprisingly hard even to do just one thing at a time.

I want to share with you some books I've read that have made me think about disconnecting and quieting my mind. One is What the Robin Knows, in which the author pretty much blows me away by describing how he has learned so much about bird behavior: by just sitting still and watching them. So simple, but so hard to sustain! Another is How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh, about how to pay attention to what you are doing, and only what you are doing, for as long as you are doing it, and how valuable that is. Nir Eyal's Indistractible and Manoush Zomorodi's Bored and Brilliant are both specifically about asserting a right relationship to the gifts of technology. Check out this TED talk by Zomorodi.

My phone and my Chromebook are tools. They are amazingly useful. I use them to keep me on track with my horarium, ringing bells at the different hours of the day to call me to prayer time, meal time, chore time, bedtime. I have much of my library on Kindle. The phone is a tool for citizen science, for learning about and contributing to knowledge of the natural world around me. I've got weather forecasts and tide tables. My calendar is there, to-do lists, grocery shopping lists. Medical records and communication, banking, shopping, recipes -- on and on and on. But it takes mindfulness to keep the tool from becoming the master. 

And (this is supposed to be practical asceticism, right?) OK, here are some things I do that help to keep my phone under control:

  • I have multiple e-mail addresses, and they have separate notification settings. I don't get pop-ups for newsletters, shipping confirmations, etc. 
  • Unsubscribe! Even if I have signed up for a news feed of some kind, I usually end up unsubscribing from it. If I don't want to, I have it sent to a separate inbox, so I can sit down and browse through it at a time of my choosing.
  • Use the Do Not Disturb setting on my phone. I can customize that setting to let through calls and notifications of my choosing. Ditto notifications on the lock screen.
  • Remove icons from the home screen. If there are shortcuts I want there, I group them into folders to reduce visual clutter. 
  • I don't use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anything like that. If you don't want to give them up completely, I'm pretty sure you can customize your settings so that they don't bombard you with information you aren't looking for. Either way, maybe schedule a specific time or times in your day for looking at them. The point is to choose how you want to use them, not just to react to constant clickbait.
  • Ditto YouTube, which I do look at sometimes -- just turning off Autoplay is all it takes. 
  • There are games I've had to just uninstall. Sometimes more than once. I know I'm not the only one! 
There are no doubt other settings and apps designed to help us turn our devices from soul-sucking monsters back into useful tools. If you have any to suggest, please comment! I am definitely not as free as I want to be. I'm a beginner at learning to let my mind float free, but I've come just far enough to be convinced that it's very much worth trying to do.

Peace and joy to you all

Monday, December 14, 2020

Practical Asceticism: Lose the Whip

Following up on this post, I want to start off with this first, fundamental precept: stop beating yourself up. Self-flagellation is really no fun! But more important: it does not work. Think about it: when you screw up, which you inevitably do because you are human, does self-recrimination actually keep you from screwing up the next time? Not only doesn't it help, by breaking down your self-confidence it actually makes it harder to change. 

You may ask, isn't beating yourself up a venerable old monastic tradition? Well, no, actually, it's not. It might be a medieval monastic tradition, but if you go farther back, to St. Benedict and back before him to the old Egyptian desert monasteries, it really is not the way. St. Benedict says that during Lent, each monk may freely offer some extra penitential sacrifice, of his own free will -- but only with the approval of the Abbot, because "anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward." The desert fathers and mothers would have said the same thing. 

In my personal experience, what St. Benedict says is absolutely true: self-imposed penitence is more likely a sign of pride than humility. Why? Because getting all worked up over doing something wrong kind of implies that I expected myself to do everything right! Other people may be miserably imperfect, but if I slip up it's worthy of all kinds of drama and wailing and wringing of hands. Not! I'm human, and I share a whole set of very common weaknesses with all the rest of the human race. I'm also as unique as every human being, and therefore I am more likely than average to slip in some ways, less in others. I'm not a monster, and neither am I such a paragon of virtue that any little screw-up deserves sackcloth and ashes. 

On the other hand, I'm not suggesting brushing off my bad behavior as if it didn't matter. Examination of conscience, confession, and making amends are very fundamental to the good life. But "contrition" is not "conversion." Acknowledging that we've done wrong is a necessary step in changing, but it's only the very first step, and getting stuck in it doesn't help. If what we want is to change a bad habit, then we have to do something more than just be sorry about it.

What does help is to approach self-examination with a spirit of curiosity instead of blame. You ate the whole carton of ice cream, bummer. Why? Yeah, I know, because "yum," but that's not good enough. The devil made you do it? Hah. Yeah, you wanted it, but you also wanted not to eat the whole thing, or you wouldn't be beating yourself up over it. So why did you do it?

So the first thing is to get really clear about your standard of behavior. That means, think about ice cream, and the role you want it to have in your diet. How much, how often, what time of day, what days? Would you like to have some ice cream every evening for dessert? Or is it just for birthdays, or would once a week be just about right? Define the portion size. Be specific. Make a rule for yourself

This rule is not a lifetime commitment. It's a hypothesis, not a conclusion. Hypothesis is what scientific experiments are based on, and that's what this is for: exploration. So make a very clear, very specific ice cream rule for yourself to try out: "I may eat 1/2 cup of ice cream for dessert on Sundays and holidays (list them); I will eat it in the evening after dinner. I may also have up to 1/2 cup of ice cream, if it is offered with birthday cake. I will not eat ice cream otherwise." Note that the rule codifies indulgence, not just abstinence. Then, when you are in the grip of the ice cream temptation on a Wednesday afternoon, you can tell yourself "yes! I will have ice cream on Sunday!" and it makes "not now" easier to take.

Try it for a month. Pay attention to how it goes. When temptation hits, instead of reacting with either indulgence or resistance, react with curiosity.  What was going on when you felt the urge? How were you feeling right before it hit? Where do you feel the temptation in your body? Are you actually hungry? Do you feel tense? Bored? Anxious? Upset about something else? Are you tired? Has someone hurt your feelings? Have you been concentrating on your work for too long without a break? And remember, since this is an experiment, failure is a possibility. If you slip, examine that in the same way. Ask those same questions. Don't judge, don't wallow, just pick yourself up and pay attention.

Also, think about how you can make it easier to act the way you want to act. Do you have fresh fruit handy, to snack on when the sweet tooth strikes? Can you buy ice cream pre-packaged in little single-serving portions? Could you negotiate with your spouse who's not willing to give up ice cream, so that he maybe agrees to store it in the freezer down in the basement, where you won't have to see it every time you go looking for ice cubes for your healthy unsweetened iced tea? Etc. Be creative.

Making a rule separates the decision from the impulse. Temptation and denial are best friends forever. It's amazing how our minds can justify really stupid behavior when in the grip of a strong temptation, how easy it is to blank out the good intentions. So, the rules you make for yourself can be negotiated, but -- here's another rule -- not impulsively. You can make exceptions to your rule, but only planned ones, and well-defined ones. Not "I can eat anything I want just this once," and not "I can eat anything I want on my month-long vacation," but maybe "I can eat anything I want for dinner on my birthday."

And maybe your first hypothesis doesn't work out, and you need to try something else. Maybe you find that you're verging on diabetic, and your system really can't process sugary desserts at all. Maybe you would do better on a low-carb diet, or a vegetarian diet, or intermittent fasting. And maybe your ice cream temptation has nothing to do with ice cream or diet at all. You might be depressed, you might be worried about money, you might be unhappy in your relationship and subconsciously trying to make yourself fat and unattractive to your partner. Looking the real problem in the eye, with self-compassion, maybe with counseling, often takes the zing out of self-sabotage.

One more thing: focus. Don't try to tackle all your bad habits at once. It's not so much because changing a lot of variables at one time blows your scientific experiment. It's that it takes energy to change, and energy is limited. When we resist a temptation that we are used to indulging, we literally re-wire our brain. Well, OK, they're not literal wires. But we do actually alter the default pathways in our brains when we push back against impulsive behavior. I mentioned "dopamine addiction" in the last post, and it's a real thing. We have to wean ourselves off of instant gratification, and that takes energy. Think about starting with diet, sleep, and/or exercise, the ones that directly affect how much energy we have for everything else.

There are many, many possible reasons why you ate that whole carton of ice cream, or why we do any of the many things we wish we didn't do. But I'll tell you some reasons that are not true. You are not a loser, you are not worthless, you are not hopeless, you are not bad. You are not weaker than everybody else. You don't lack character, and you don't have a willpower problem. You're just human, and humans are wired to go for instant gratification. It's normal! 

So lose the whip, burn the hair shirt, pull on your lab coat and start figuring yourself out. It's totally worth it!


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The power of weakness

I hate being weak. I hate being vulnerable, insecure, getting sick, needing help. I hate getting angry, scared, moody, not having all the information, and not being in control of outcomes. No, I don't like being weak. Who does?

So the really stunning thing about the Christian God is not the power and glory, but the human weakness, frailty, littleness. The Incarnation of the most high God came in the form of an absolutely dependent, powerless being: an embryo, son of a girl who was barely old enough to get pregnant, in a time when infant mortality was exponentially higher than we can get our heads around in this era of high-tech obstetrics. She wasn't married yet, and her fiancĂ© very nearly ditched her when he found out she had gotten pregnant, not by him, before the wedding. The damn Romans forced them to travel to Bethlehem --by donkey if she was lucky, or maybe on foot-- when she was 9 months pregnant; she gave birth to the baby in a stable; and then they immediately had to get up and run away to Egypt to escape another tyrant. When they came back they lived in Galilee, working-class citizens of an especially distressed province of a weak little nation under the boot-heel of a big strong empire, with all the brutality, all the brave but futile resistance, all the corrupt collaboration by both civil and religious local elites that goes along with that. 

When God decided to become human, it wasn't as a great big strong hero. Baby Jesus embodied all the weakness and precariousness of the human condition. And mother Mary, she was not just a vessel, not just a pass-through between Heaven and Earth. Mary was a partner in the Incarnation. She was given a choice, and she chose to participate. Jesus's humanity is Mary's humanity, his flesh was her flesh. Mary didn't supply muscles and weapons and armor. She gave her smallness, her weakness, her vulnerability, and her mortality, to the singular merger of Divine and Human that took place within her frail body. 

And after that encounter with Gabriel, having said "yes," what did Mary do? What would I have done? Even if I had had the humility and trust, in the presence of the angel, to say "yes," as soon as he disappeared I'm pretty sure I would have curled up, freaked out, and melted down. OMG what did I just agree to?? What am I getting into?? What will Joseph say?? How am I going to explain this to him?? He'll never understand!! Nobody's going to believe me!! I'm going to end up on the streets ... die in childbirth ... stoned to death.....  You get it. I'd be "catastrophizing." It's the control freak's answer to the inescapable reality that we are not in control.

Mary didn't do that. She didn't freak out. She went off to celebrate the event with her cousin Elizabeth, who had a new miracle pregnancy of her own. What can I learn from that? What is the essential difference between Mary's response to the Annunciation and my response to being confronted with my own smallness, weakness, and vulnerability? OK, today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which says that from the moment she was conceived in her own mother's womb, Mary was kept free from the burden of original sin. And what was the original sin? Eating the apple, yes, but why? What the snake tempted Eve with, in Genesis 3:5, is this: "when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods." Being free of original sin, then, is the humility to accept being merely human, and let God be God. Mary is "full of grace," as Gabriel says; she says, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." But I've been baptized, and the whole point of the sacrament of baptism is that it purifies us of original as well as personal sin, right? So can't I be full of grace enough to accept my own weakness, ignorance and vulnerability, with Mary-like uncomplicated simplicity, humility, and trust?

There is an essential mystery here, a fundamental paradox, that I am struggling to put words to. Trusting in God does not mean believing that I will be safe. It doesn't mean everything will work out fine. The essential fragility of the human condition is just what God took on in the Incarnation. Jesus was crucified! There is nothing safe about that. And yet ... it's not just that Heaven is fabulous enough that it's worth everything we go through to get there, everything Jesus went through. 

It's that a part of embracing God, of becoming united with God, is embracing my own humanity as Jesus embraced humanity. It means embracing my own and others' weakness, taking pain by the hand, looking vulnerability in the eye with compassionate love. It means embracing my neighbor's weakness and brokenness, not with strength and answers and competence so much as with my own honest vulnerability. It means taking my frailty to God in prayer, going there with my anger and fear, my fleeting enthusiasms and superficial pleasures, my hurt feelings and confusion, all my paltry, sordid self. Not trying to pretty myself up, as if I thought God was looking at the image I try to project instead of the total reality of who I really am. There's a kind of radical acceptance in Mary's example that challenges me profoundly.

God, grant me the grace to let go and let You be God, as Mary did, and to love weak humanity -- my own and my neighbor's -- as You do. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Practical Asceticism in the Modern World: Intro

According to Merriam-Webster, asceticism is "the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline : the condition, practice, or mode of life of an ascetic : rigorous abstention from self-indulgence." 

That doesn't sound like much fun, does it? It seems crazy, in a modern culture that celebrates the opposite: strict self-indulgence, and a rigorous abstention from self-denial. 

And so what's wrong with self-indulgence, and what's so great about self-denial? Well, there's nothing mysterious about that. Overindulgence in food and drink leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, addictions, etc. ad nauseum. Inappropriate sexual self-indulgence, lust without love and commitment, is another way to contract nasty diseases, but it's an even better way to wreck relationships, break hearts, and erode self-esteem. Covetousness, as in impulse shopping or "keeping up with the Joneses," can get us into serious financial problems and leave us insecure in the long run, not to mention the degradation of natural resources and the exploitation of "third world" producers of cheap consumer goods. I could keep going through the seven deadly sins, but you get the point. Some amount of ascetical practice is just "being a grown-up," something for all of us to aspire to. 

In the modern world, we are blessed and cursed with resources that St. Benedict couldn't have dreamed of. Social media is allowing us to sustain close relationships in a time of pandemic, but it can also be viciously superficial. The availability of seemingly infinite information is a gift to curious minds, but I wonder if it doesn't discourage us from slowing down to absorb and think deeply about one thing at a time. The convenience and variety of online shopping is great, but cheap consumer goods are seldom made to last. Processed and globally-sourced food is easy and affordable, but it's not very nourishing.

There are also deeper benefits to ascesis. Marie Kondo's Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is all about letting go of the excess possessions that weigh us down, so that we can be surrounded only by the things that "spark joy." That's not so much about having less as it is about really valuing all of the things we have, not acquiring or holding onto things that we don't really need or want. It's not so different from St. Benedict's teaching that we should treat all the tools and property of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. It is about letting go of the superficial pleasures that clutter up our lives and distract us from the things that really bring us joy.

For monastics and other religious ascetics, there is a still deeper value in asceticism. Communion with the Divine is easily overshadowed by worldly desires, worries, resentment, ambition, etc. Buddhists call it "the monkey mind." The more we follow every whim and satisfy every impulse, the wilder the monkey gets, and the harder it is to hear the still, small voice of God. The voice of God is never raised to shout down the monkey mind. It is we who have to be still, and know God, and that means breaking the cycle of distraction and superficial self-indulgence.

Are you depressed yet? Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, your diets never last, your resolutions are broken within days or weeks, the wagon seems designed to be fallen off? Yes. All that, and plus I have ADD, which means that I am even more prone to impulsivity and even weaker in self-discipline and will-power than people with typical brains. My brain is chronically starved for dopamine, and since "working memory" is one of the central deficits of the disorder, I literally can't remember my good intentions when I'm distracted by an instant reward.

But I've started to learn the art of monkey-whispering. Here and there, in one area of my life and another, I'm starting to find ways to live a more orderly, disciplined life. I'm still a mess, still a beginner, still backsliding, still figuring it out ... but I've made some progress. So I want to write some things about what I've learned so far, and maybe figure some more out as I go along. Maybe someone reading will find something useful, too.

It's a huge topic, so I have it in mind as a series, not one huge brain-dump. Just a few quick teaser thoughts, that I intend to get back to in more depth later. In no particular order:

  • Will power is a limited resource, easily depleted
  • Getting motivated is overrated
  • Habits, once formed, don't require will power
  • Some habits are more fundamental than others (diet, exercise, sleep), because they affect how much energy and focus we have available for the rest
  • Dopamine addiction is a thing, worth pushing back against
  • Decision fatigue is a thing. Constrain choices, and plan ahead. 
  • Plan treats -- anticipation extends the pleasure and defuses impulsivity.
  • Ditto breaks in routine: Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy -- "give yourself a break" is a commandment 
  • Mindfulness is powerful stuff: meditate; single-task; acknowledge impulses without indulging them, and they will pass
  • Habit and routine do not make a boring life -- they make the boring stuff automatic, so I can stop thinking about it and free up head-space for more creative and interesting stuff
  • Pray for help and guidance every morning and when facing a challenge
  • Examine conscience with curiosity rather than judgment, to learn from both successes and failures 
  • Maybe most important of all, for me, is to remember to aim for progress, not perfection. Take it slow, don't try to change everything at once. Good intentions are not magic wands. Rely on the grace of God, ask for human help when I need it, and humbly accept that I can only grow up gradually.
It's worth saying that for most people, peer pressure -- buddy systems, support groups (or obedience to a Rule and an Abbot) -- seems to be really key to keeping good intentions. If you find it easier to keep your commitments to others than to yourself, roll with it and find yourself an accountability partner or group. It's not really a big motivator for me, though, so I won't be having a lot to say about it. It is helping me to get this posted ... having publicly stated my resolution to work on my writing and post to this blog weekly, here I go..... For what it's worth. 

I place it in Your hands, God. Fill up my defects, and may it be pleasing to You.