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kottke.org posts about Jamie Kreiner

Advice from Medieval Monks on Avoiding Digital Distraction

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2020

For Aeon, historian Jamie Kreiner writes about what advice medieval monks might have for us on avoiding the distractions of our phones, social media, and Netflix.

Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

John Cassian, an influential figure in early Christian monasticism, wrote about how to fortify yourself against these sorts of distractions.

Some of these strategies were tough. Renunciation, for instance. Monks and nuns were supposed to give up the things that most people loved — families, properties, businesses, day-to-day drama — not only to erode their sense of individual entitlement but also to ensure that they wouldn’t be preoccupied by that stuff in their professional lives of prayer. When the mind wanders, the monastic theorists observed, it usually veers off into recent events. Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention.

Restraint had to work on a physiological level, too. There were many theories in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages about the connection between the mind and body. Most Christians agreed that the body was a needy creature whose bottomless appetite for food, sex and comfort held back the mind from what mattered most. That didn’t mean that the body must be rejected, only that it needed tough love. For all monks and nuns, since the very start of monasticism in the 4th century, this meant a moderate diet and no sex. Many of them also added regular manual labour to the regimen. They found it easier to concentrate when their bodies were moving, whether they were baking or farming or weaving.