Monastic Trails: Why You Should Practice Solitude
A weekly church bulletin is the last place one would expect to find a reference to Cal Newport and his widely acclaimed book "Deep Work," but there I was, three weekends ago at Grace Church in Lynchburg, VA, pleasantly surprised to see just that. While the bulletin was not in reference to Cal or the book specifically, it did invoke images of a term he labels "Monastic Work", a method of cognitive output in which the adherent is secluded in a concentrated, highly-focused, deeply-intensive and distraction-free work zone for several days, weeks, months, or in extreme cases, years at a time. Imagine scribes in an early European Monastery or Monks in a secluded retreat high up in the Himalaya in what is now modern-day Nepal; this is the Monastic style in action, and as Cal states often, can produce significant results both in terms of quality and quantity of results achieved.
The section of the bulletin was entitled "Monastic Trails," in reference to a trail through a wood created by a Grace Church couple on their farm, with the intent to foster silence, solitude, and a Monastic experience for their enjoyment, reflection, and spiritual growth. They open this trail to others on occasion, and often in the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, the goal to encourage believers to experience the power of the Resurrection, while secluded in nature and practicing silence and solitude to deepen their Faith.
It is not just on spiritual matters where I will focus my thoughts today, however one could obviously apply the lessons learned here to a spiritual practice, and of any faith. My thoughts focus on "Monastic Work" specifically, and how one might benefit from this style of deep work without having to move to Nepal or join a Monastery in upstate New York. I do believe everyone can benefit from a deep foray into the realm of Monasticism, whether they be secular or religious, service or professional, knowledge or manual labor, white or blue collar, etc.. Monastic work can be adopted by all, and with great benefits to those who practice it seriously.
As mentioned, Monastic Work is characterized by an extended amount of distraction-free, focused, deep work, often in an environment and location different from the "normal" workplace. I believe environment is of the highest importance, and I will speak further to environment below. For now, know that I believe it paramount, in my humble opinion, to practice Monastic Work in a location that is different from your regular place of employment or work space. There are myriad examples of Monastic Work in action throughout time and in the modern day, and Cal covers many in his book.
I would expand on Cal's definition further, including such activities as hiking, camping, hunting, vacationing in general, and business trips as ideal candidates in which to practice Monastic Work. While Cal is writing for the professional, knowledge worker crowd, as anyone such as myself that comes from a manual labor background knows, Monastic Work is not just for writers, artists, professors, and other creative types. A week-long hunting trip into the woods of Potter County, PA, with your father, when you are 12 years old, is quite the Monastic experience indeed, and includes all the benefits associated with this type of work for the knowledge worker class.
And of the benefits, there are many. As I've written ad nauseam on this site, we live in a distracted world, with our attention, focus, and time fragmented on a scale that was unheard of just a generation ago. As Cal would agree, to go deep into an undistracted work session is rare, and the "work" I describe here is again, not limited to the knowledge class alone. A father and son on a hunting trip, connecting with nature and with each other, free from wi-fi and cellular distractions, may be different "work" than a professor finishing a proof or the last chapter of a book, but is certainly not any less important. Different, but not less important.
Students can benefit from Monastic Work in their academic studies. A greater depth and understanding of coursework and related information is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the benefits; surely that term paper would be of a higher quality if it were written free from the distraction of Snaps, Insta, and Facebook. Couples and families alike can find benefit from Monastic vacations and weekend escapes. How often do families unplug, get away for a while, and go to work on their unit? Do they go deep? How well do they know each other? Do they spend quality time together? For the Grace members who took advantage of the Monastic Trails that opened this article, I am certain there was something to be gained in their spiritual lives. Silence and solitude are tremendous vehicles for spiritual growth; the results are magnified when combined with a Monastic focus. Religion, after all, is where we popularized the term - surely our spiritual practices, of all faiths, would benefit from Monastic Work.
And the list goes on and on. Extended periods of distraction-free, focused work can do wonders for the soul, our creative output, our studies, our families, and for our lives in general. We need only commit to Monasticism to reap the benefits.
But how? Is it possible to practice monastic work in our always-on, constantly connected society, where instant email response is seen as a sign of working hard, and open loops provide for a never-ending cycle of stress and response in the brain? I believe it is possible, yes, and I believe it is possible for everyone, from professors and coaches in academia to auto mechanics, farmers, and steelworkers alike. In fact, I would debate it is easier for a farmer to practice Monastic Work than a college swimming coach, and I know from experience, as I grew up on a family farm and now coach swimming for a living.
1. First and foremost, commit to a time block of Monastic Work.
Plan the time into your calendar. For fans of The One Thing, this is time blocking your time off first. For some this might be a vacation, for others, a sabbatical. For students, it might mean a period in the summer or a few days of spring break. Whatever your current occupation and stage of life, you probably won't be working a full 365 days over the next calendar year, so take the time now to schedule a period of Monastic Work. How long? This will depend on your specific occupation and time availability - ideally, you are scheduling multiple days in a row to allow yourself total immersion. Simply skimming the surface will not allow you to reap the full benefits of Monastic Work.
2. Protect your period of Monastic Work.
Again, a concept borrowed from The One Thing. It is funny what we humans will fight for when motivated to do so - consider our current political climate as just one small example. Imagine, if as a collective whole, we fought for periods of deep, focused, distraction-free, Monastic Work with as much vigor as we wage our political battles. Where might our time and energy be better spent? Political jokes aside, the point remains; protect your time with as much energy as is needed to see it through to fruition. A conflict may arise - do you have the energy, willpower, and fortitude to say no? Be intentional, and be strong. Have the courage to say no to attempts at sabotage. No one is expected to work 365 days a year, nor should they. It is your time...take it!
3. Prepare for the work, and plan ahead accordingly.
Again, I believe wholeheartedly that location and environment matter. Mark Twain had his cabin in the woods, and Walden and Thoreau will forever be linked throughout time immemorial. Teddy had his Badlands, and London his Beauty Ranch and the Klondike. Here too, the list goes on and on. While one does not need a distinct, special location in which to practice Monastic Work, there is much benefit from a cognitive and overall physical standpoint when digital and social distractions are removed, and nature is introduced. The research in this area is definitive, and growing; our brains and bodies work better in a writing shack in the woods than in an office in the city. We know this instinctively, but few go to the lengths needed to make their unique, ideal environment a reality. And the ideal location is certainly subjective, it is unique to the individual. Some may prefer the Outer Banks, others the Sierra Nevada. For still others, a hunting cabin will suffice. I've had the privilege to experience Monastic Work in all three of the aforementioned locations, and all have their benefits. In a perfect Monastic work space, one is far enough away from society that cell phones lose coverage, thus removing altogether the ability to reconnect should one be tempted to do so. If this isn't possible, make a commitment to keep the phone turned off. It is nearly impossible to practice authentic Monastic Work - to allow the brain to engage fully in your endeavors - when distracted by the lure of the digital abyss.
4. Execute the plan. Do it. (And keep the phone turned off)
No further commentary required here...do it!
Periods of brief or extended Monastic Work are attainable for all, and immensely beneficial for those willing to commit to the process. Whether writing the next great American Novel or the next chapter in a marriage, deep, focused, distraction-free Monastic Work is a goal that we should all aspire to achieve, and experience frequently in our lives.
I make time for Monastic Work on average two times a year, and while not for as long as I would prefer, the benefits of just a few consecutive days of disconnectedness from the digital world produced long-lasting results. While my output pales in comparison to the Giants I mentioned above (along with running a country, Roosevelt also authored some 35 books or so), I would not have published my Power Tower Book or written the 60 articles on this site without my intermittent Monastic habits.
I remember not what I "missed" on social media or through text message/email during those days of pleasant disconnectedness, but the Power Tower book and blog articles remain. Far more value do I add to the world collective through said articles and books than my text messages or Facebook posts, and contrary to popular belief, I didn't lose a single friend in the process of disconnecting.
What do you want to accomplish, whether personally or professionally? Is it a better relationship with your spouse or children? Is there a big project at work that could benefit from Monastic depth? Perhaps you want to rekindle a spiritual fire that the digital world has a funny habit of dampening? Whatever it is that you can envision, Monastic Work can help you achieve, and I urge you to dive in, head first. Perhaps your next week-long vacation is split in half, for example, with four days of disconnected, Monastic Deep Work (in an area that may or may not be associated with your day job), combined with three days of a normal vacation? The benefits are many, and the drawbacks are near zero for this type of work. Now get to it, and as Cal would say - go deep!