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How to Think Like a Medieval Monk (2017) (laphamsquarterly.org)
178 points by diodorus 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

I work with about a dozen Cistercian monks at a school run by Our Lady of Dallas Cistercian Abbey[1]. I started here 10 years ago after working 22 years as a software developer, and it's been the best job I've ever had. I manage the IT and I teach computer science and theology.

The things discussed in this article are still a part of the modern Cistercian life. In fact, the crests for the abbey and school feature the word "mors", which is Latin for death. However, there is much more to their lives than these meditations, especially since the monks of this community work as educators either at our prep school or at the University of Dallas.

[1] http://www.cistercian.org/

I wish that meditative practices like this were more common in modern-day Western Christianity! You can still see a lot of this type of contemplation in Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but not so much in Western Catholicism.

Also, I disagree with the writer that practices like this tend to "distance" yourself from death. I think that ascetics (Christian or not) are extremely, extremely aware of death in a way that average people are not. And I think that to these people, it's not some "immortality standard" which is just a checklist of rules, but a complete and all-consuming lifestyle that gravitates towards a single principle.

Prayer is similar in many ways.

Even the poses associated with prayer, hands pressed in front of the heart center, are quite common in physical meditative practices.

There are codified names in yoga for all of the poses in the islamic prayer ritual as well (tadasana (mountain pose) and balasana (child's pose)).

These are particular orientations of the body known to the ancients to align the mind towards meditation. It's not an accident. Nor is the fasting requirements common to various traditions, which are meant to quiet the gut, and thereby the mind, making meditation much easier.

Even group singing/chanting can be considered meditative. Many monk traditions of course incorporate this as a formal meditation.

So it's not too far off. Modern life obscures the original intent of course, but the meditative elements are there for any adherents.

I agree!

The truth is, there is are contemplative traditions in Western Christianity, most notably from Ignatius of Loyola. His spiritual practices include the lectio divina, and deeply contemplative readings of Scripture.

What's interesting is that the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) are Ignaetian, but you often don't here them talk about the contemplative nature of their order.

There are lesser-known traditions in Anglicanism as well (Martin Thornton did much work in this area, though he is a bit more ascetical in his practices than Ignatius.

It always amuses me to see articles which talk of monasticism as something of the distant past. These traditions are alive and well. Also, a lot of these features exist not just in monastic practice but also in the practice of lay Christians of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

Related to the Cistercians, there was a map posted on Reddit not so long ago detailing their expansion in Europe during the middle ages: https://i.redd.it/bwirmwctdf501.jpg . The /r/europe discussion can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/europe/comments/7lfx2l/cistercian_o...

I do a lot of this stuff as a yogi. Very interesting.

A while back - maybe ten years ago - I'd do a meditation where I imagined myself on my knees facing an executioners gun and allowing my thoughts to visit that moment. Quite illuminating.

It's long been a part of the Japanese samurai culture as well - to meditate on death every day.

> meditate on death

Years ago I read a story. As I now recall it, a mother drew a picture of her child, each day, as they headed off to school. For she (correctly) knew, that was the last time she would ever see them alive. The child who returned in the afternoon, was invariably a different person than the one who had left that morning, never to be seen again.

One hears advice like "consider that this may be your last day". But it never has been, and for most isn't likely to be. And one-shot it-will-happen-someday processes aren't great for iterative improvement anyway. So I like the story's twist on this.

There will likely be someone tomorrow with your name on them. They will likely be a person very similar to you. Though given the vicissitudes of life, they may have different, even very different priorities than you now imagine. A disk crash, an injury, a phone call, an opportunity - things change. You can give forward - a good night's sleep, a new bit of insight or wisdom. And you can weigh their wellbeing in your decisions, as you do all those whom you variously care about. But for you, this day is it. Was it. You do not get another. You will not see another. As usual, immortality lies in the lives you have touched, now including, some future people, who though they share your name, really aren't you.

Is the 'why' explained anywhere in this?

Link seems to be down.

<!-- insert rant about the "challenges" of serving static(!) websites here -->


Yeah although ipfs looks cool until we have a p2p based web you really need a cdn service for static sites that take a lot of hits. I wonder if Amazon is worried about ipfs because if that gets big there won't be a need for the S3 service.

> you really need a cdn service for static sites that take a lot of hits

No, you don't. HN traffic isn't that large. Even a Raspberry Pie should be sufficient (with good internet connection, though). See the above link.

You'll need a CDN for videos and maybe huge hi-res images, though.

I cannot digvup right now an article I read on HN about the load spike following HN visibility of a site. I was planning to get back to it someday to understand how a static site like mine (with several HTML files and just one webpack-generated JS) would behave.


1. Meditate on death everyday when you wake up. Face the fact that you will die with help of a belief system that helps calm anxieties about death. Termed Terror Management Theory (TMT), it helps reduce existential anxieties. In the framework of the christian afterlife of resurrection and judgement, it also makes you more motivated to do the tasks that promise a better afterlife.

2. Through ruminating on the suffering of others and explicitly realising emotions of empathy repeatedly would overtime make such reactions a second nature applied in real life.

3. Attributing boredom (or rather distraction) to an external malevolent force helps better combat it.

4. Performing 'living funerals', meditating on their life as if they might die now, before going to sleep to help gauge their life and maybe how happy they are with the direction.

This is an accurate summary, but I also feel that a TL;DR is quite contrary to the spirit of the article!

> Attributing boredom (or rather distraction) to an external malevolent force helps better combat it.

You could think of the entire concept of "spirits", either benevolent (angels) or malevolent (demons) as an extension of this idea. Mental processes could be thought of as chatter that takes place in a network of neurons - if you have any notion about modern biology.

But what do you do if you don't have that information? You create metaphors for these things and simply ignore the root cause explanation because it's beyond the boundaries of your knowledge anyway. You represent them as "beings" inhabiting a special "spiritual world" - which is not that far off the mark given the relative independence (to some extent) of many of our mental processes.

Beyond the explanatory power, this also serves a more practical goal. When undesirable mental processes are thought of as being "separate" entities, it does become a bit easier to fight them. Just don't fall into the error of taking these images at face value (literal beings inhabiting a literal other world).

All in all, as long as you keep in mind that these are metaphors for stuff that happens in your consciousness, a good chunk of the mythology that these monks subscribed to actually does make sense.

Fear of dying is just so distant to me, I don't understand why people make such a great deal out of it. That doesn't mean I have some suicidal thoughts, in contrary I love my life. And I am an atheist/agnostic, so there is no magical fairy tale land after this life, nor does the wheel spin one more time. Just this time we have now, and that's it. And it's perfectly fine and correct way of things. Only exception I would understand is fear of leaving behind people who depend on you, especially children - but I don't have the impression that is what fuel most of the fear.

I believe in mankind, as long as I give a bit of positive energy/actions in it and leave things in a bit better shape that's enough. Anyway we achieve some form of immortality via our kids, have to work hard on this topic since I believe I can be a good parent and provide loving environment for them.

I guess it helps me being active in potentially dangerous sports and activities (climbing, alpinism, paragliding, diving, ski touring etc) where you are facing your built-in fear of death on very regular basis, and being successful in it lies in great part in constantly overcoming that fear in smart ways. Of course I take great care in doing stuff as safely as possible, within unavoidable amount of risk. But if you are 100% safe and have really everything under control, there is simply no adventure.

When I compare to my fiancee who is hardcore catholic and should logically look forward to meeting her creator and master of it all, she is way more afraid. I presume emotions > rationality even long term.

Hey. I feel that I should say that a lot of your recent comments were dead. I read them and I couldn't see any obvious reason why. I vouched for a few and I hope that might make the HN system reconsider, but you might want to test any new posts in a private browser window for a while just to check that they're actually getting posted.

I feel that I should say to people who are downvoting this comment: You're using the downvote as a disagreement, rather than to filter the content you would like to see on Hacker News.

Content on Hacker News should be: relevant, considered, well-written. I don't see anything above that isn't any of those points. Just because you disagree with something, doesn't mean you should downvote it.

Just a note to say that when I see a hell-banned commentator where there's no obvious cause, I email the mods to draw their attention to it. I can't recall a time where the account hasn't been reactivated, and I've received a courtesy email usually with a brief explanation.

I don't think they are downvoting as a disagreement in this case. The answer seems self serving and less about fostering discussion about the information presented so much as self-aggrandizing.

It read, to me, like "I don't see why medieval monks cared about death since I don't." Then there was the dollop of "I am atheist/agnostic," which again didn't seem to be usefully on topic.

That isn't to say you shouldn't discuss these things, it is an interesting conversation to have... But look at where this comment was placed; on a summary of the article.

The whole thing just felt like something that deserved a place on Reddit's "IamVerySmart" subreddit rather than on Hackernews.

> It read, to me, like "I don't see why medieval monks cared about death since I don't."

I didn't see anything self-aggrandizing in what was written, merely someone describing how they personally related to both the comment and the article. I can't see a reason why it wasn't relevant since the post above it is basically the same sort of thing, just with different conclusions.

> I don't understand why people make such a great deal out of it.

All we know is our existence. Death is the end of existence as we know it. Other than that, no worries I guess.

As a counterpoint, I'm an agnostic theist and I agree with a good amount of what you wrote. (Except that my hobbies are a bit less exciting...) Which, interestingly, is also why I don't fear any eventual judgement. I try to act in a compassionate manner -- and I mess up a lot, because I'm human. And I certainly believe in leaving things in a better state than I found them -- and I mess up a lot, because I'm human. And I hope that's good enough.

I can't understand your way of thinking, it's alien to me.

There's so much to see and do, and experience, I can't imagine ever having reached a state where I have seen enough, done enough, lived or loved enough that I would be happy to pass. Especially after a paltry few decades.

And yes, on an emotional level, I have a base fear of there being an end to me. I fear dying too - not the pain but the finality. I hope I don't see it coming.

It's a huge burden on me that I won't get to see all the wonders that will follow after me. Knowing that one day I'll be forced to stop learning and experiencing in a very real and final way really affects me. I want to know if we ever make it off this rock in a real way. What is out there? I'll never know. I want to see how things turn out so badly.

Can you experience a forest?

You can look at a map of a forest, but the map is not the territory. A detailed enough map would have to contain all of the detail of the forest and change as the forest does. It would have to be the forest itself.

You can visit the forest, but you are limited by your single viewpoint. You've only got two eyes and you're in one place all the time.

And yet, visiting a forest is a pleasant experience. Although most viewpoints are hidden from you, the one you have is beautiful.

Yes, I can experience a forest. With more than just my eyes.

I also smell (the trees, the flowers, the mushrooms, the soil) and hear the birds and the insects and feel the ground under my (bare)feet and taste the raspberrys ...

This is the forest. Doesn't matter if I can't feel all trees at once, I still experience 'the forest'.

(oh and btw. visiting a forest can also be quite unpleasant, like when there is a storm and trees are falling around you and there is no safe shelter)

So ... this was maybe a bit nitpicking, but I still wanted to say it ;)

Doesn't stop me from wanting to go for a hike.

Given your hobbies, I’d wonder if perhaps you’re generally less anxious, fearful, and probably emotional in general? Your hobbies also speak to quite a high arousal threshold, in regards to your need form stimulation, adrenaline, etc. Do you find that you’re at your “most alive” in what others consider to be high stress conditions?

TL;DR imagining yourself dying every day, meditating on it, will change your brain in a way that will make you a better person. This technique is about one thousand years old.

Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics did similar techniques ~2000 years ago.

>Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics did similar techniques ~2000 years ago.

And the Bodhisattvas, and the Hare Krishnas, and the Dalais, and the Sōtō...

It's all just a realization of the same truth.

my tl;dr .... The author told us to do three things:

1 - Evaluate your good/bad actions, morning and evening. Makes you act according to your "standard" more.

2- Practice feeling bad about people in difficult situations. Makes you automatically have those feelings without practice (more empathetic).

3 - Blame something external for your boredom/listlessness. Makes you cope with it better.

Last one seemed a bit odd tbh.

I'm always surprised when I see another Western European religious movement that is so similar to Zen. Why do we look so far for solutions if we have some in our own history?

But one thing I feel is lacking in most western movements: The handling of emptiness. If you really think about consequences of actions and how small one is compared to the whole, one cannot avoid realizing how meaningless and heartless the world is. Facing this void and not running away is one of the hardest challenges a human can cope with. We have a very deep desire to see some meaning in life, even if there isn't.

Zen at least admits this and offers ways to interact with this void and one's own growing understanding of it. I think these monks don't because they simply assume the meaning is to show how good you are so you can receive redemption after death.

So I think that would've been a great point three of the article instead of handling boredom, which in some way is also about handling the meaningless, but on a less deep understanding of it. If you are bored you still believe other people are doing meaningful things.

> Zen at least admits this and offers ways to interact with this void and one's own growing understanding of it. I think these monks don't because they simply assume the meaning is to show how good you are so you can receive redemption after death.

In the Christian tradition, it isn't how good you are that gives you redemption after death, it's a free gift from God that you can never be good enough to deserve.

This is probably also why the Christian mystical tradition doesn't engage that much with the void and lack of meaning (although see Ecclesiastes), since a Christian believes that fundamentally there is a huge amount of meaning to life that comes from relationship with God.

> In the Christian tradition, it isn't how good you are that gives you redemption after death, it's a free gift from God that you can never be good enough to deserve.

Isn't this the protestant view ("sola gratia")? I'd think one's actions are very much accounted for in catholicism, which is also why there is a big stress on confession/repenting and penitence.

My understanding is that in all major forms of Christian theology, including Catholicism, salavation is an unearned gift of God. This is not to say that actions are irrelevant in any of the major forms - Protestants too believe that the gift of God must naturally result in particular kinds of actions by those who have genuinely received it.

It's also the case that many (though not all) Christians believe that it is possible to lose your salvation by giving up your faith, something that could be argued to be an 'action' and that all forms of Christianity emphasise 'repentance' another potential 'action'.

I think (from the Catholic view at least) that actions should come from your belief in God. Faith isn't just supposed to be a belief that god exists, because Satan knows god exists, it is supposed to be an acceptance of his will into your heart. If you say that you have accepted his will into your heart and yet you don't perform charitable deeds, are abusive to others etc. then it shows that your are either deluding others or yourself about your relationship with God. Or from the Book of James "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble."

Yeah, it's very circular and as a Christian I find it the most challenging component of faith.

Salvation by faith not works. But the act of faith, if you believe in free will, is the ultimate work.

In which relationship would you put doubt and faith? Are they clear opposites in that understanding?

Pretty much.

Christians face the void and the emptiness, but the Christian claim is that the void is the lack of God in our life caused by sin; that is, to fill the void and to address existential crises, we must engage further with God.

Mystic theology in the Protestant tradition is very obscure. My judgement is that it is because the Protestants are essentially a textual tradition. Pentacostals shook that up, but have some maturing left to do there. :-)

Check out Ecclesiastes.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

This is from Solomon, a man who had everything and it didn't satisfy.

One question would be why aren't we satisfied?

An answer, from a Christian perspective, would be, as cs lewis states:

> If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world

A consistent biblical them is God's Providence in suffering. The book of Job for example, or Joshua's, what you meant for evil God meant for good, but along with these examples the people aren't given any explanation for what has happened to them. Job never gets told why he was made to suffer.

And so Providence imbues the apparently meaningless with meaning, even if it's meaning we can't understand.

The analogy of children is appropriate. Often they find themselves in situations they don't understand, and actually they're developmentally incapable of understanding, but their implicit trust of their parents comforts them. This is how we were designed to live our lives.

> This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

> This is from Solomon, a man who had everything and it didn't satisfy.

Well, it's attributed to King Solomon in one tradition and attributed to Hezekiah and others in another. I am not sure if either has been definitively established. It could as well have been a disillusioned religious scholar.

Great more stuff to read. Thanks.

The Solomon quote reminds me a little of Morty's speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_qvy82U4RE

Ecclesiastes does have a Zen feel about it but it doesn't go far enough and, therefore, comes off as a bit depressing. ;)

What is it lacking that Zen gives you?

Returning to God and the realisation that I never left. :)

"Why do we look so far for solutions if we have some in our own history?"

I believe we had even much more solutions, but most have simply been wiped out. The celtic druids for example seemed to had a very interesting philosophy, but they were destroyed by the romans and the christians finished off, what was left, just like the germanic and slavic religions/philosophy systems. And since they had a tradition of vocal teaching and not writing down, we know allmost nothing for sure about them as most of it comes from christian chronists.

But the bits you still can find, are very interesting, I think.

I think Christian Theology smothered some of the thought that developed along those lines in Greek and Roman philosophy.

Death contemplation can be found in the buddhist scriptures, dating as far back as 2500 years ago. So a similar technique is in fact far older.

I imagine any human or protohuman, a hundred thousand years before history, sitting before a fire in the wilderness, contemplating death. It's 'progress' that lets us avoid having our mortality rubbed in our faces daily.

I look at the care with which humans were once buried and recognize how far we've removed ourselves from the essential.

Agreed. Author should have said "at least 1000" instead of "about 1000"

Unfortunately, it can also change your brain, or hasten changes to which you're predisposed, in a way that can make you anxious, depressed, or suicidal:

It's worth mentioning this because while meditation could help more people than it could hurt, the magnitude of the hurt can be much greater than the magnitude of the benefit. Meditation might make 20 people moderately more happy, but it could bring 1 person to depression and a premature death.

I love the pithy irony of this comment. Not sure if it was intentional.

Far older than just 1k.

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