Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cultivating the Monastery Feeling

            A couple of weeks ago I went to New Melleray Abbey for a few days for a short unofficial retreat.  I went to New Melleray last summer also, and wrote about what I learned there about harnessing time when I got home that time too.  (See The Power of Real Rest)
New Melleray’s a real working Trappist abbey, with monks who wear robes and celebrate Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline and so forth, every day. I’m not Catholic and never have been (when I was a kid I went to the Westhampton Congregational church but I haven’t gone regularly to church since I was given the choice, which I think was when I was in the seventh grade).  But I’ve been going to New Melleray, which is eighty miles from my house, for short retreats in their guesthouse about once a year since the early 1990s. 
            I love going there for the silence and the rest, for the peace and the prayer that seems to linger in the air – monks have been praying there pretty much around the clock since the 1850s -- but most of all I love going there for the time.   When you’re at the monastery, even if you’re only there for three days and nights, it feels like you’re there, like you’re going to be there -- every time you look inside yourself to see if you have the feeling you do – forever, for all the time in the world.  Time stretches out before you like a vast snowy field, because you have nothing to, nothing you have to do, but read, think, sit in the chair and stare out the window, lie on your back on the single bed and stare at the ceiling.   Or maybe it’s something in you that stretches out and expands, some part that starts off the stay like a flattened dehydrated sponge, from which every drop of whatever has been squeezed by all the busy-ness, the things you have to do and the feeling of having to do them, the appointments and errands, the emailing and talking, of daily life in the regular world, and then over a few days and nights in the monastery, the water of whatever is slowly restored to yourself and that part of you is like a puffed-up sponge, hydrated, refreshed, restored, feeling fresh and rested and new.
            What I noticed most this last time I went to the monastery was the grief I felt when it was time to leave.  I started getting the feeling on Wednesday afternoon (we were leaving the monastery on Thursday morning).  Suddenly I didn’t feel like I had all the time in the world any more.  Now my time to have all the time in the world was limited to part of one afternoon and one night, and I’d be sleeping for most of the night.   I felt like I used to feel on Sunday nights when I was a kid and I had to go back to school on Monday morning.  I still remember watching The Wonderful World of Walt Disney and having it spoiled by that feeling, some kind of deep nostalgia for the weekend, a weird loneliness for the freedom to be myself, away from the requirements and the meanness of school.  I felt echoes of that same feeling at the end of my little stay at the monastery, except that I wasn’t going back to school the next day but to my life.  
What’s up with that, I kept wondering.  Does my life really feel to me like being in grade school?  And how can I harness time to get more of the monastery feeling into my life?  The latter was the question I had the last time I left the monastery too (see The Power of Real Rest).  And as I was packing up my stuff to leave this time, and then as I was driving back home with my friend Nancy, who went with me to the monastery, and ever since, I’ve felt a renewed determination to get more of that peaceful open feeling – that sense of spaciousness around time, that feeling that you have all the time in the world – into my regular life.
            Last time I concluded that the way to get more of the monastery feeling into my regular life was to create windows of time in some of my days (a couple of hours here and there) for resting and doing nothing else, and I have been doing that and loving it when I do.  But obviously I need to find more and better ways to hold onto the monastery feeling, since I felt such dread going back to my life when I left the monastery this time.    
My friend Nancy and I talked about it on the drive back to Iowa City:  how each of us could hold onto some of what we got during the retreat now that we were done retreating.  I said that I was going to try to make some monastery days, where I spent whole days reading, writing, and resting, and not doing errands, talking on the phone, emailing, texting, or otherwise instant communicating, et cetera, about once a week (my work life is flexible; I can do as many or as few writing coaching dates as I have the energy for or can afford to cut back to, as I want).  Nancy, who has a huge, crazy-busy, full-time job, said she might be able to fit in a monastery day once a month.  And then we decided that in addition to taking monastery days, there are monastery attitudes that we can try to adopt, especially the feeling that it’s okay to take a whole day off, that we have a right to take time for ourselves, that nothing bad will happen if, say, we don’t respond to someone’s email or everyone’s emails for a day or two.
            So last week I tried having my first monastery day at home.  There was lots of stuff that I could have done, especially writing-career-related stuff, which is different from actually writing (writing is just writing, which I love; writing-career-related writing involves writing stuff like publicity material for an upcoming speaking engagement), and I have to confess that I did do a little of that, and I emailed and talked on the phone some too.   Nevertheless, I managed to have a very peaceful day, a day where I had, pretty much solidly all day long, what I call the monastery feeling.
When I looked inside myself to see what the biggest factor was, what was really creating the monastery feeling, I realized it was all about feeling like I had the freedom to do what I wanted to and to not do what I didn’t want to.  I realized that what makes me so happy when I’m at the monastery is feeling like I own my time, my own self, my own everything, and there’s nobody and nothing around who can take that away (or that I feel compelled to give it away to).  That the discomfort I have in my own busy life is akin to the old, sad, weird loneliness for the freedom to be myself that I used to have on Sunday night when I had to go back to school on Sunday morning.  That the problem lies not in how busy I am or in what I’m doing but in the feeling that there are things – more things than I can keep up with – that I have to do.  That getting the monastery feeling is at least partly about somehow coming to feel like my needs are at least as important as everyone else’s, like I can and will be in charge of my own decisions and choices – like I have the freedom to be myself no matter what I’m doing, and I don’t really have to do anything.  
If that’s true, then I can cultivate the monastery feeling no matter where I am or what I’ve got on my list.  And maybe, if I really work at it, I might even be able to have the monastery feeling all the time, or at least a lot more often than I do now.  And that, as my Czech ex-boyfriend used to say, is a really good news.

                                                    -- Mary Allen