When routines and habits and practices become as lifeless as the manner in which one brushes one’s teeth, when the choreography of one’s existence resembles a blindfolded slog through quicksand rather than the Jets and the Sharks leaping across the streets of the Upper West Side, something must be done.
Some years ago I quit the job that had become my prison, and every year since then I’ve shut myself up for a month or so at a monastery in Europe. I first decided to do this crazy thing because an inner voice—a voice constantly squelched by the habits and practices which have crystallized into that series of obligations that constitute my life—was screaming hoarsely that it needed to be heard.
Each year when I arrive, I say goodbye to all those habits and practices—email, meetings, meals, alcohol, scheduling, relationships, movies, email (in a word: people, but in a better word: myself)—and say hello to books, writing, silence, isolation (in two words: another self). I begin to reexperience the pure rapture of being alive.
Life—speaking, eating, walking, breathing—it all slows down, as does my brain. If I have to perform or remember the slightest task, I must write it down: a note to the kitchen if I’m skipping meals that day or not, a note to myself to buy some rice cakes or pick up a postcard or two for the folks back home.
When I return to seclusion each year, I relearn a horrifying truth about myself: I’m a creature of my surroundings—that is, I become the self that’s habituated to the particular environment I find myself in, conditioned to behave the way I do. Within the cloistered confines of the monastery, there are no movies to go to or miss or feel bad about missing, and all that other stuff back home—email, food, refrigerator, snacking, talking, restaurants, alcohol, email—is nowhere to be found. And, therefore, too, almost nowhere to be found is the self who habitually is a servant to, and habitually identifies himself with, all that stuff back home. In his place, another self, a writing/reading/inner-directed self shows up—and does so almost instantly upon arrival, as if a personality-transformation switch has been thrown. That self, the one who’s dormant in my everyday life, starts to pay attention to the inner voice I rarely hear, let alone listen to.
At times, the two selves battle it out.
“Why,” one self asks the other, “am I cooped up here, hidden in this college dormitory-sized room, not drinking, barely eating or talking, forced to sleep on a marshmallow-soft mattress that makes my back even worse than it already is? Look at what you’re doing,” he goes on, “you’ve built yourself yet another prison cell.”
Every so often, my other, newly awakened self, nestled in with and awed by the simple act of reading a book, will pipe up: “How can you permit all those other stupid habits back home to crowd you so much that you can’t find the time to be alone and read a goddamn book? How is that possible? Now in my golden years and an official member of AARP for more than a decade, how can you let that happen?”
No matter how furiously my cranky habitual self has it out with his more mellow counterpart, satisfactory answers to those questions—like the ones I ask myself about why I dress or brush or piss the way I do—never come.
Oh, and there’s another horrifying truth that hits home each year: given the slightest opportunity (and I always seem to find one), I transform even the most pleasure-bestowing experience into a mandatory assignment, a resented obligation. By virtue of this magical transforming talent of mine, even the break that “going to the monastery” represents, has, over the years, acquired the taint of a habit as lifelessly regimented as anything I’ve left behind in New York City.
The monastery I go to is actually a convent, one that welcomes guests, or “retreatants.” The sisters’ daily schedule—for food, work, prayer, and rest—runs literally like clockwork and, in contrast, makes the one I follow at home seem like the epitome of spontaneity. For example, the sisters pray, religiously, at 7:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. (Some days, even more.) They pray in French. I don’t understand French. That’s a godsend. No chance word or phrase can ever accidentally hook me into feeling obligated to pay attention to what they may be saying, or chanting, or singing. (I, stupidly, feel my ignorance is as freeing to me as their ritual is to them.)