A Blog About Introversion.
November 24, 2020

Until My Next Apert

Some problems are sticky. We believe we’ve solved them, time and time again, yet we come back to the same old struggle. I say, if you want to know yourself, look at your sticky problems. These sore spots of the psyche seem to represent the gap between our aspirations and our attitudes. There are few things more humbling than being stuck in a loop, yet the loops themselves tell us something of our own souls, I think.

One of my sticky problems is my relationship with external stimulus. I have a goodly amount of free time and I’m curious about many things, so I often reach out with my eyes and fingers and read what is laid in front of me. And when I’m not careful about my inputs, I feel awful.

My mind: distracted.

My heart: distressed.

My imagination: put to all the wrong uses.

I don’t want to overstate my problem. Overall, I’m capital-G Good! I’m not wandering around feeling unhappy. But this particular problem remains sticky. So I’ll lay it out on the page and inspect it.

Fantasies can be useful sometimes. And I keep returning to the fantasy of becoming a hermit or monk. Monastic life first captured my imagination during our travel sabbatical in 2017. We visited beautiful monasteries in Spain, and later, in Meteora Greece, where the monasteries soar high atop craggy cliffs, a kind of epic beauty that exists nowhere else on Earth.

I was fascinated by monastics: Why do people cut themselves off from the world? What do they hope to achieve? What are they smoking, and can I have some of it? I’ve watched some documentaries, and read about monks, and poked at the topic. But it’s not the religious ideology inside the monasteries that interest me. The monks and monkettes (okay, nuns) have withdrawn from society to get closer to God. Where as I want to withdraw from society to get closer to wisdom. I often yearn to shut out the cruelty of the world. To lock out the stupidity, the avarice, and the endless selfish grasping.

Calgon… take me away!

I’m not interested in a religious hermitage. But as an exercise, I’ll ask myself: If I were going into a monastery of my own design, what would forbid inside my beautiful stone walls? The answers come easy.

Liars. Slant. Conspiracy. Trolls. Clickbait. Cynicism masquerading as humor. Nihlism masquerading as realism. Sensationalism. Rage. Contempt. Propaganda. Gossip. Outrage-bait. Catastrophizing. Meanness. The Cult of Personality. Political screaming and exaggerations. Trends. Proud Ignorance. All forms of this is what the hive mind is saying/thinking/reading/reacting to right now.”

These are good things to avoid, but still, my desire for withdrawal feels self-indulgent and immature. The world will not stop being what it is simply because I avert my eyes. Wouldn’t it be better for me to toughen up?

Sure, coping with this world would be easier if I could lock myself in a beautiful stone building in fantasy land. I’d enjoy it, at least for a while. But the walls would be a crutch, no? I believe we have a responsibility to one another, to society, to be present in our community instead of running away to a cabin to get away from it all.

So I’ve been toying with a new metaphor. It’s a monastic concept borrowed not from the real world but from science fiction. In his novel Anathem, author Neal Stephenson wrote about monastic communities that opened themselves to the secular world on a schedule. They called this time of opening an Apert.

Some of Stephenson’s fictional monasteries interacted with the secular world once a year, others, once every thousand years. Thus the monastic communities maintained a culture and way of life distinct from the broader world. As a side effect, they served as repositories of older knowledge. But they reconnected with the broader world at regular intervals, during those openings, or Aperts.

I find the notion of cyclical retreat-and-engagement to be a useful fiction. You might say I’m embracing a hermitage of the mind and heart. A purposeful withdrawing from the corrupting world for a cycle of time, but not forever.

The way I see it, passive consumption of media can act as a form of mind control. When you read or watch media, even in the context of entertainment, you’re allowing the writer/speaker to hijack your thoughts and lead you down a path for a while. Done with care, this can be good! It allows you to explore new ideas, take imaginative jaunts, and consider new perspectives. But when you’re putting the wrong sort of people in charge of your brain, and when you’re steeping your perspective in toxicity, it causes problems. And all of this leads me back to:

My mind: distracted.

My heart: distressed.

My imagination: put to all the wrong uses.

A Month of Retreat

I started this essay about six months ago. Afterward, I decided to borrow from the metaphor of Anathem and close up my life for a period of time as a lived experiment. I marked a day on my calendar as my next Apert and then I ceased all activities that were prohibited within my monastery walls.

My list was personalized and kinda strange. For example, I stopped watching late night comedy shows. While they made me laugh, they were also full of contempt, and contempt was something I was eager to escape. For a month, I hung out in the flesh-and-blood world, did my work, read books and curated blogs, and enjoyed correspondence with friends and online friends. Unsurprisingly, I came out of that month feeling great.

That was my first cycle of retreat. I didn’t rent a cabin or make any announcements. But I did what I could to build a little monastery within my own mind and heart. And I tried to shut the toxic elements of our culture out.

I’ve been back in the wider world for months now now, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the lingering effects of my time away. After my break I was feeling more grounded. And I still don’t watch much late night comedy. Contempt used to make me laugh and cringe in equal measure, now all that’s left is the cringe. Overall, I’m a bit choosier in what I read, and it feels good. I’ve learned a trick, you see. Our wider world may be distressing but I don’t have to engage with it 24/7. I can leave for a time, tend to the hermitage of my mind and heart, and return, refreshed, ready to be a citizen again.

Until my Next Apert

2020 is coming to a close, and I’m feeling ready to duck back inside my monastery walls for a period of retreat. I’m giving up the news for a while, updating my RSS feeds, blocking Reddit and Twitter on my devices, and so on. And I’m contemplating my list of exclusions. What will I be living without, and why?

Until my next Apert, my world will feel pretty small. And that’s okay. The wider world will still be there when I’m ready to engage again. For now, I’ll close my eyes and hold out a hand, like baby Yoda, using the force to encircle myself with an invisible monastery of my own design.

A blanket of charcoal gray clouds are rushing overhead, right now. The wind is rising. Huge sheets of rain are blowing sideways outside our window, forming a shifting veil of water that looks like a lace curtain being drawn. I imagine myself folding this blog post up like a sheet of paper, and sticking it in a mailbox embedded in my monastery wall.

I am glad to be sharing letters with you, dear reader. The flag in my mailbox is up! With my letter sent, it’s time to put the typewriter away, light a candle or two, and relax until dinner.

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