Thursday, March 09, 2006

Having a Daily Structure to Live By

Part of a disciplined life is having a structure to your days that works well for you. I find myself very drawn to the idea of a monastic life because I would greatly value a life in close community with others who also regard life as essentially spiritual. One of the effects of such a community would be to create a daily rhythm conducive to keeping in good touch with each other, and keeping spiritually centered.

This Quaker retreat center where I am is like this. The rhythm of the days here sustains me and nurtures me. It carries me into a good Way of Being: happy, peaceful, creatively productive. I am finding this soul-restoring.

Here is how this community structures the day:

  • 7:15 am – gentle morning exercises
  • 7:45 am – breakfast
  • 8:30 am – morning Meeting for Worship (half-hour)
  • 10:45 – morning coffee
  • 12:45 – lunch
  • 4:00 – tea
  • 6:15 – dinner
  • 9:30 – evening worship time (15 minutes)
  • 9:45 – evening cocoa

This leaves generous spans of time in-between for attending to one's work. What has evolved for me is as follows:

Before morning exercises: Catch up with e-mail. (And I must confess that sometimes -- ok, usually -- I don't actually make it to morning exercises, which are, of course, optional.) It's especially fun catching up with e-mail first thing in the morning knowing that my friends back at home receive it with time-stamps like 2:30 am because of the time difference!

Both morning spaces after breakfast (sometimes skipping morning coffee): I work on my research, usually in the library. Sometimes I pause before lunch, like now, to check the news and maybe compose a blog entry.

Right after lunch: I go for my walk (approximately an hour). Then I return to work, usually in my room at my computer, reading through notes, typing up thoughts, or continuing to read.

After tea: I’m starting to use this time for reflection time: journaling, composing possible blog entries, etc.

After dinner: I practice music, though I’ve had trouble finding a reliable place to do this. Still, I’ve been consistent, practicing in my room if all else fails. I worry about disturbing other guests, but I figure that no one is likely to be trying to sleep immediately after dinner.

Then, I allow myself to do whatever I feel like doing before evening worship time. Sometimes I read. More often I do some web-based research.

After evening cocoa: I read a bit more and go to bed.

All of the meal times and break times are opportunities to meet and chat with others. I have thrown myself into this social richness with great enthusiasm. There are so many fascinating people here, from all over the world, here for varying lengths of time. It is wonderful to meet them, hear of their experiences, and learn what they are doing.

What I like about this way of life is that you still do have a great deal of control over the bulk of your time, and can work very hard and focus very intently during those times, but then there is always soon to be an opportunity for finding someone interesting to talk to if you are excited about something you want to share, or stuck with a problem, or just needing a break.

Would I want to live this way long-term? At times I have. I’ve lived in similar community settings several times in my life, for stretches as long as a few years. It’s a question that comes back vividly for me now, while I am here and so much appreciating this rhythm.

Most elements of this kind of daily life can be created in somewhat modified form even without living in community, but not all of them. What I have found hardest to find in my normal life are: (a) places to go to reliably find someone ready to just hang out and talk a bit, and (b) daily Meeting for Worship.

The reason it is hard to find places to reliably find someone ready to just hang out and talk a bit is that, in the U.S., people are constantly busy and usually stressed out. Even “leisure time” is highly structured and programmed. So you can invite people over for dinner. But this takes coordinating schedules, and planning, and it often turns into a major production. We just don’t have a culture of gathering somewhere for tea every day at a set time and informally talking about ideas. How creative this could be! How much we could all learn from each other! Maybe we’d all work more effectively if we did this. Maybe we’d be less stressed. Maybe we would learn more from each other; maybe we’d be less inclined to keep independently re-inventing the same wheels; maybe we’d even avert a few disasters!

Time together can be sacred time. I often get the sense that many people don’t value it as such. But I don’t get that sense here, at this retreat center, which is why I love coming here so much. Is this a difference between U.S. culture and U.K. culture? Or is it a difference between Quaker culture and Western mainstream culture? Or both?

I worry a lot that the stressed-out American work-ethic has resulted in the loss of a vibrant and efficacious public conscience. We just barrel blindly ahead in frantic "productivity" not really aware of the full implications of all that we "produce." We don't have time to think about it! We must just get it done! If we don't get it done fast enough, we might lose our jobs! Besides, it's good for the economy, isn't it, if we do get it done quickly? If it has harmful consequences to other people or the environement, sorry! We are morally pure because we didn't mean it! "Collateral damage" -- not our fault -- somebody else's problem!

So few really give themselves either personal contemplative time or communal contemplative time to reflect on it all or plan for effective change. Not only would that be "wasted time," it would threaten the status quo. "It would distress us to become so aware, and we're stressed enough as it is. It would be hard to face -- harder to know what to do about it. So, get back to work instead! Others will get it all sorted out eventually!"

So, I am really glad to be here, where it's socially expected to be in touch with each other about what really matters. I am greatly encouraged to remember and re-experience that there are places where Awareness and Concern are highly valued, and where the structure of life supports the cultivation of these virtues. These are the places that are holding the world together.

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