Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

St. Bene­dict by Fra Angeli­co, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We might imag­ine that life in a monastery is one of the safest, most pre­dictable ways of life on offer, and there­fore one of the least dis­tract­ed. But “medieval monks had a ter­ri­ble time con­cen­trat­ing,” writes Sam Hasel­by at Aeon, “and con­cen­tra­tion was their life­long work!” They com­plained of infor­ma­tion over­load, for­get­ful­ness, lack of focus, and over­stim­u­la­tion. Their jumpy brains, fun­da­men­tal­ly no dif­fer­ent from those we use to nav­i­gate our smart phones, were the cul­prit, though, like us, the monks found oth­er sources to blame.

“Some­times they accused demons of mak­ing their minds wan­der. Some­times they blamed the body’s base instincts.” Giv­en the nature of their restric­tive vows, it’s no won­der they found them­selves think­ing “about food or sex when they were sup­posed to be think­ing about God.” But the fact remains, as Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia pro­fes­sor Jamie Krein­er says in an inter­view with PRI’s The World, monks liv­ing 1600 years ago found them­selves con­stant­ly, painful­ly dis­tract­ed.

It wasn’t even nec­es­sar­i­ly about tech at all. It was about some­thing inher­ent in the mind. The dif­fer­ence between us and them is not that we are dis­tract­ed and they aren’t, it’s that they actu­al­ly had savvi­er ways of deal­ing with dis­trac­tion. Ways of train­ing their minds the way we might train our bod­ies.

So, what did the wis­est monks advise, and what can we learn, hun­dreds of years lat­er, from their wis­dom? Quite a lot, and much of it applic­a­ble even to our online lives. Some of what medieval monks like the 5th cen­tu­ry John Cass­ian advised may be too aus­tere for mod­ern tastes, even if we hap­pen to live in a monastery. But many of their prac­tices are the very same we now see pre­scribed as ther­a­peu­tic exer­cis­es and good per­son­al habits.

Cass­ian and his col­leagues devised solu­tions that “depend­ed on imag­i­nary pic­tures” and “bizarre ani­ma­tions” in the mind,” Hasel­by explains. Peo­ple were told to let their imag­i­na­tions run riot with images of sex, vio­lence, and mon­strous beings. “Nuns, monks, preach­ers and the peo­ple they edu­cat­ed were always encour­aged to visu­al­ize the mate­r­i­al they were pro­cess­ing,” often in some very graph­ic ways. The gore may not be fash­ion­able in con­tem­pla­tive set­tings these days, but ancient meth­ods of guid­ed imagery and cre­ative visu­al­iza­tion cer­tain­ly are.

So too are tech­niques like active lis­ten­ing and non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which share many sim­i­lar­i­ties with St. Benedict’s first rule for his order: “Lis­ten and incline the ear of your heart.” Bene­dict spoke to the mind’s ten­den­cy to leap from thought to thought, to pre­judge and for­mu­late rebut­tals while anoth­er per­son speaks, to tune out. “Basi­cal­ly,” writes Fr. Michael Ren­nier, Bene­dic­t’s form of lis­ten­ing “is tak­ing time to hear in a cer­tain way, with an atti­tude of open­ness, and com­mit­ment to devote your whole self to the process,” with­out doing any­thing else.

Benedict’s advice, Ren­nier writes, is “great… because obsta­cles are all around, so we need to be inten­tion­al about over­com­ing them.” We do not need to share the same inten­tions as St. Bene­dict, how­ev­er, to take his advice to heart and stop treat­ing lis­ten­ing as wait­ing to speak, rather than as a prac­tice of mak­ing space for oth­ers and mak­ing space for silence. “Bene­dict knew the ben­e­fits of silence,” writes Alain de Botton’s School of Life, “He knew all about dis­trac­tion,” too, “how easy it is to want to keep check­ing up on the lat­est devel­op­ments, how addic­tive the gos­sip of the city can be.”

Silence allows us to not only hear oth­ers bet­ter, but to hear our deep­er or high­er selves, or the voice of God, or the uni­verse, or what­ev­er source of cre­ative ener­gy we tune into. Like their coun­ter­parts in the East, medieval Catholic monks also prac­ticed dai­ly med­i­ta­tion, includ­ing med­i­ta­tions on death, just one of sev­er­al meth­ods “Cis­ter­cian monks used to reshape their own men­tal states,” as Julia Bourke writes at Lapham’s Quar­ter­ly.

“A medieval Cis­ter­cian and a mod­ern neu­ro­sci­en­tist” would agree on at least one thing, Bourke argues: “the prin­ci­ple that cer­tain feel­ings and emo­tions can be changed through med­i­ta­tive exer­cis­es.” No one devis­es numer­ous for­mal solu­tions to prob­lems they do not have; although their phys­i­cal cir­cum­stances could not have been more dif­fer­ent from ours, medieval Euro­pean monks seemed to suf­fer just as much as most of us do from dis­trac­tion. In some part, their lives were exper­i­ments in learn­ing to over­come it.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Med­i­ta­tion for Begin­ners: Bud­dhist Monks & Teach­ers Explain the Basics

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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