For the past couple of years I have been wrestling with depression - the chemical imbalances and perspective that have turned me into my own worst critic and shaped (for the worse) the way I see myself and interact with others. Over time I have tried various things to help me manage this condition - from exercise to medication to meditation to therapy to diet - but I have become increasingly aware that one of the things which aggregates it most is the demands on my attention from modern technology.
I am drowning in the intense rhythms of modern life. My iPhone is like a petulant 21st century Tamagotchi needing constant attention. I find myself wondering when did life get so complicated? How did it become so hard to switch off? How had I forgotten to be still? To be happy doing nothing?
Realising how much of an impact my depression was having on my work and my family life, my wife organised a weekend retreat for me with the Benedictine monks at Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester. I spent three days living with the monks, sharing mealtimes with them, attending services and simply spending time doing nothing. Although I am an atheist my time on retreat was an immensely positive - and spiritual - experience and brought home two things: the importance of simplicity and the sacrifice of self.
Back to simplicity
Emails, tweets, SMS, calendar notifications. Over the last ten years the web has evolved immeasurably. The tools and technology which it is inextricably bound up with have grown exponentially, all professing to make our lives easier. But in making our lives easier have these enablers made our lives more complicated? Easier is very rarely simpler and if anything have they only freed up our time to be even busier?
This digital deluge lies in stark contrast with monastic life. An average day is punctuated by services six or seven times a day, with two mealtimes. Services serve to break up the day and give a sense of routine but also offer regular opportunities for quiet reflection and moments to be still. It is striking how few opportunities we make to be still in our lives and I found myself craving a simple routine. A day punctuated only by the semi-regular call to prayer and the chance it brought to be alone with my thoughts.
Time spent sitting, thinking, being still, being quiet, making peace with myself. To sit, to read, to walk, to do nothing. We have become so obsessed with filling our time with things to ‘do’. Yet we seem to find it so hard to make time to ‘be’. Our economy is built around time, especially within our industry. And with time equating to money - literally ’billable hours’ - we feel the need to fill every second, every minute with productivity. With being busy rather than just being.
Abandoning the self
Depression is a selfish disease. I do not mean that people with depression are selfish people but rather that it is a disease where one is consumed with and by the self. Your every attention is focussed on how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself. You are wrapped up in this thing we call self.
Monastic life is defined by the sacrifice of self: abandoning personal possessions, donning a simple habit and sometimes sacrificing even their names. Being in the company of those who had abandoned the self really offered some perspective on my depression. An example of this was that for the past eighteen years I have not eaten meat. I had originally become vegetarian to make a sacrifice - to give up something I valued as proof to myself that I could. I sat down to eat with the monks on Sunday - in silence as at all mealtimes - and meat was served. I was a guest in their house. An atheist. Yet as a complete stranger they had shared their hospitality and food with me and I felt a need to honour and respect their kindness.
Eating meat was - for me - a sacrifice of the self. And it gave me some perspective on how my depression was affecting those around me.
Turning it off and on again
When technology struggles, when we get the spinning beach ball, when the fans start whirring; we hit restart. Yet we find it hard to personally restart, to reboot when our CPU has too many tasks running. A retreat for me was an opportunity to restart. To make things simpler - even just for three days - and for a short while to see things without the myopic, distorting lens of the self.