Friday, December 31, 2010

To stand outside of yourself

The monastic life is not a place where you think you’d find the absurd. All the devotion and seriousness of purpose and belief in the power of prayer and salvation, etc. And yet…

We read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short book, A Time to Keep Silence, in which he writes about his experience staying at a few monasteries in Europe. Karen Armstrong’s introduction includes a fascinating passage, which strikes us as very absurd. Give this a read:

“The monastic life demands a kind of death – the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life. We are, perhaps, biologically programmed to self-preservation. Even when our physical survival is not in jeopardy, we seek to promote ourselves, to make ourselves liked, loved, and admired; display ourselves to best advantage; and pursue our own interests – often ruthlessly. But this self-preoccupation, all the world religions tell us, paradoxically holds us back from our best selves. Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves – incrementally, slowly and imperceptibly. Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.”

There much that is absurd here. And we appreciate the effort to shed the ego and stand outside of self. We’ve written before about this before. It is partly what creates those feelings of wanting to “go bamboo.” And as we read Fermor’s book, we had the urge to stay in a secluded monastery, if only for a time, to see what it is like.

Fermor writes about how uncomfortable it was at first. He felt lonely. The monks had taken vows of silence. There were long stretches of days where nothing happened. He can’t sleep. He feels depressed.

After several days though, things change. He starts to feel very relaxed. Time seems to go by quickly. He sleeps deeply at night. His attention drifts from himself. It’s as if he shed the anxieties of modern life.

We understand, rationally, that circumstances don’t matter. We can carry these liberating absurd ideas wherever we are. This was part of the learning process for us, too. We came to realize that we don’t have to go bamboo. We don’t have to travel. And we don’t have to join a monastery. Certain environments seem to make it easier to be absurd than others… but there is no reason we can’t try to step outside of ourselves wherever we are.

When you step outside of yourself, you seem more clearly the ridiculous nature of that self and of existence entirely. You see the irony of the whole thing called life.

As we write this, it is New Year’s Eve. Use it as a time to start fresh. Shed the anxieties and worries and baggage your ego demands you carry. Step out of yourself. Turn over the calendar to 2011. And revel in the fact that none of it matters.


  1. Kathleen Norris's "The Cloister Walk" and Sarah Maitland's "A Book of SIlence" are also excellent reads along these lines . . .

  2. I go to silent zen meditation retreats from time to time. it's kind of like being a monk for a brief period of time.