How Spending a Week at a Monastery Changed My Life for the Better

There’s a whole lot to be learned from the tranquility of a cloister.
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There’s a whole lot to be learned from the tranquility of a cloister.

We are surrounded by a constant barrage of noise, distraction, and busyness. We have “social” media, yet social interaction is more stilted than ever. There is never a moment of silence in our lives. But in a world of more gadgets, more entertainment—just plain more—we inevitably come to a place of wondering: How do we escape it?

I’m certainly not the only one wondering this. I have friends who went from smartphones to “dumbphones,” friends who got rid of their television and Netflix, and friends who decided to be done with city life, moving to a rural town in the middle of nowhere to join the tiny house and homesteading movement.

As Americans, we check our phones eight billion times a day. People ages 18 to 24 check their phone seventy-four times a day. This isn’t counting answering texts or looking at your phone when it goes off—it’s looking at your phone to see if anything new happened. For a research study, people installed an app on their phones to track usage. The average person in this study checks their phone eighty-five times a day, spending five hours browsing the Web and using apps. This is almost one-third of the time we are awake.

I wanted to get away from this. Somehow I got to a point where I was having anxiety attacks and crying on a daily basis. My solution was, to some, a bit crazy. I decided to spend part of my Christmas vacation time at an abbey, with a cloistered community. The abbey I visited is a monastic community of about fifty women between the ages of 25 and 93. There were at least seven women there between the ages of 25 and 40—women who had decided to live this way for the rest of their lives.

The visit was an experience like no other in my life. The abbey had rules that all visitors must abide by. It did not mandate silence but mandated that the words spoken must have purpose. You could ask questions or relay messages, but there was no idle chatter. They rose very early in the morning, at 3:15 a.m. They were allowed one cup of coffee or tea a day. They did not watch television or spend time on the Internet. Their diet was vegetarian. When I spoke to the guest mistress, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn that she didn’t know anything about any of the pop culture references I made; she was in her eighties and had entered the isolated community when she was just 19, traveling to Massachusetts from Ireland.

Overall I experienced things on my monastic retreat that I never would have expected.

01. I felt a real sense of freedom.

Unlike xoJane writer Alison James, I didn’t cry during my silent retreat nor did my anxiety rear its ugly head. I wasn’t worried about answering emails, texts, Facebook messages, or phone calls. I didn’t have something that had to get done. While I was in a strange place, it was a sanctuary that gave me the freedom to unplug. I could just be me, not the work me or the friend me or the daughter me, but I could finally figure out who I was without all of the pressures around me to be something I wasn’t.

02. I felt less selfish and more appreciative.

Mostly, I reflected on my family life, my work, and what I wanted to do with my life. I took time to write down all the things that I have to be grateful for. When I joined my family for the holidays, I found that my patience with my siblings had grown. My desire to help my mom clean or my dad shovel snow had increased. I was able to be less selfish because I had spent time realizing how self-oriented I had become. By spending time with my thoughts, my thoughts turned toward others and how to serve them.

03. I felt more self-sufficient and in control of my emotions.

I’ll be 100 percent honest about this: Normally, I don’t eat well. I just eat whatever is easy and don’t really care about what I’m putting in my body. While there, I made myself eat at each meal. I ate healthily. I cleaned up after myself. I talked myself through each of my problems. I reflected on big issues, read, and formed my own thoughts. When I left, I found myself choosing how to react to each situation. My sister backed up into my car? It’s OK, I know she didn’t mean to. My brother is forcing us to watch an episode of NCIS I watched yesterday? OK, I’ll go read a book. Annoyance and anger were choices I avoided. When I spoke at home, I chose words with purpose, trying not to speak without thinking. This allowed several sisterly battles to be avoided.

04. I rediscovered my passions.

As my inner life grew, so did my creativity. I had stopped writing for the six months since I started my job, but as I spent time in silence, I wrote. I wrote letters and poems and stories. I wasn’t there terribly long, yet I wrote more in that visit than I had in six months. It reminded me of a story about a father who told his daughter she could only speak a thousand words a day, or she’d lose the ability to speak the next day. In my case, speaking depleted the number of words I could write. By refraining from speaking, the words I could write increased exponentially.

05. I felt happier.

When I left, I was happy. Spending time in silence, alone but not lonely, ensured that I was happier when I was surrounded by my large (and loud) family. Spending time without technology encouraged me to read that stack of books on my bookshelf. Spending time with my thoughts made my thoughts less scary, less of something that I ought to avoid and more something I could embrace without fear.

In essence, spending time without pressures, be they work, social, or technological; spending time with my own thoughts and evaluating my life and actions; and spending time just being me made me recognize that I could be—and am—someone I like.

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