Tag Archives: monks

Battling acedia through energetic engagement

I’m happy to report that the weekend was acedia free and full instead of life admin like grocery shopping (hooray for cheese imported from New Zealand and ground beef from the German butcher, let me say), and seeing friends here, and dining out at a new restaurant, and eggs on toast and ginger tea for breakfast.

Oh, and chocolate and coconut ice cream from the German guy down the street. I plan to con/beg/plead/command/cajole until we walk down there this evening and have some more. It’s getting warmer here again and those two little scoops of ice cream served in a frosty glass goblet… luscious.

Sorry, I seem to spend 50% of my time at the moment thinking about food. There is plenty of perfectly lovely food here in Laos, so no one need feel the slightest bit sorry for me, but there are certain things that are just not the same. Do not even get me started on how much I miss really good hamburgers and bbq sauce and sweet potato fries. Or ribs. Or (and I blush to admit this) Panda Express orange chicken and chow mein…

I must stop. Therein lies the road to madness. And 15 extra pounds.

So I’m not at all sure I did a decent job of explaining the concept of acedia last week. Here are a few more summary points that might help clarify things before I get to what Norris says about fighting it.

Who? “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better, for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.”

When? In the middle of the journey. The monks used to talk about it striking when the day was already halfway through but evening seemed a long way away (I wonder what the monks here in Laos would have to say about the whole concept?). Norris takes that and stretches it out like this:

“Acedia, it seems, is not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life, when it seems impossible to care about so many things that used to matter. Do I have to care, if it means having to acknowledge the contradictions and dissonances by which I survive?”

Acedia verus depression: Norris tries hard to differentiate the concept of acedia from depression, and I’m not sure she always succeeds. As she herself says, “the boundaries between the two are notoriously fluid… acedia operates on the border between the physical and spiritual life.” At risk of oversimplifying, Norris suggests that depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication and that it’s causes are often easier to discern, while acedia is a temptation or a vice that is best countered by effortful engagement in life, spiritual practices, and the discipline of prayer.

The power of routine to help us fight acedia: “What is it about repetitive acts,” Norris asks, “that make us feel we are wasting our time?… Everyday life [which can numb and weary us] also holds the seeds of salvation.”

I don’t think Norris is saying that we should find cooking dinner every night or scrubbing the toilet regularly so meaningful that we are inherently fulfilled by the activity and set other dreams and aspirations aside. But she does believe that these sort of routine activities – when done mindfully, inhabiting the moment with acceptance rather than resenting it as a chore – can help provide the scaffolding of a more peaceful and centered life. These and other spiritual disciplines – practices that connect us to something larger than ourselves and help grant us perspective – can return us to “essential understandings that we can discover in no other way.”

Food for thought: “Disdaining ordinary mundane chores that come to nothing can lead to my discounting personal relationships as well.”

What to do about it? Norris describes the opposite of acedia as energetic devotion, and the monk Evagrius had this to say about fighting it; “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it.”

Norris’ remedies for acedia are simple: Start something. Go for a walk. Memorize Scripture. Read the Psalms and monastic writings. Seek community. Worship. Shovel manure. Dust a bookshelf. Wash dishes. Write. Be kind to one another.

Do this all deliberately, with thankfulness for the moment, with self-awareness, and without haste.

Food for thought: “Do you devour each moment distractedly, hurling yourself into the future?”

For writers: Even as she discovered her vocation as a writer, Norris says, she had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits and routines necessary for nourishing it. In discussing what she’s learned about weathering dry spells as a writer she says:

“It helps considerably if one has developed writerly habits. People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have time to make her art. Even as I fret over juggling responsibilities to my ageing mother, my disabled sister, my friends, and my art, I have to admit that it is not obligation I fear, but my distressing eagerness to squander the precious time I do have in running from the emotional demands that writing will make of me.”

Anything jump out at you from this post? Anything that rubs you the wrong way or that you still wonder about? For me, many of her words on the writing process resonate. It is usually when I am spending a lot of time alone and I’m in between projects (or avoiding starting a new writing project that I know will be difficult) that acedia is likely to take hold.

I hope you’ve had a great weekend, wherever you are placed around the world – a weekend free of acedia and full of ice cream.

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Acedia and Me

It’s Thursday morning and I’m at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating cereal and trying to ignore Zulu, who is sitting silently by my side and staring up at me with big brown eyes. Occasionally he’ll lie down without being asked and wag his tail, just to show me what a good boy he is and how much he deserves a treat.

I told Mike last night that I sometimes feel guilty when I eat in front of Zulu without sharing because he so obviously longs for what’s in my bowl and I know I could make him so happy (for at least the half second it took him to gulp it down) by giving him some. Mike told me I had boundary issues.

So this morning I’ve read the letters in all four email accounts, perused my google reader, checked facebook, skimmed the news, glanced at Twitter, and now I’m stuck.

What I should be doing is going upstairs, taking a shower, and then getting down to work on the trauma chapter I’m slated to be writing this week for a university in London. Or writing a thought-provoking blog, or even a fun and frothy blog along the lines of, “ten ways owning a puppy has helped prepare me for motherhood”. Or doing one of any number of other productive things, like pregnancy yoga, with my pajama-clad self.

But I’m in one of those moods. The only thing I really want to do right now is bake giant ginger molasses cookies. Except there are a couple of large red stop signs standing between me and executing this want – most notably the fact that there is probably no molasses within a 500 mile radius of me, closely followed by the fact that we do not have an oven.

Given that, I just want to go back to bed and keep reading the book I started last night. But even that plan is not sounding all that enticing.

“Maybe you have acedia,” Mike said last night after I’d kept him up past his bedtime, tossing and turning and sighing and admitting that I was in a woeful mood and had no idea why.

“Maybe I have pregnancy,” I huffed. “Maybe I’ve been waking up half a dozen times a night because my bladder is now the size of a lima bean, and there are mosquitoes in here, and someone snores.”

“That too,” Mike said, clearly hopeful that if he appeased me I would let him go to sleep before midnight.

But I’ve been thinking about this issue of acedia again this morning, and of a book I read a couple of years ago – Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris.

I heard Kathleen speak several years ago at a writer’s conference and immediately put this book on my “to be bought” list. When it arrived I read it with highlighter in hand, and today when I flipped through it again the book was full of colour. Acedia is definitely something I’ve struggled with at times, and even if the root cause of my problems at the moment are primarily pregnancy hormones and disrupted sleep, the mood it’s engendering certainly looks something like acedia.

So what is acedia?

Acedia was originally a monastic term, one of the “eight bad thoughts” that plagued monks. The monks often referred to acedia as the noonday demon – a great lethargy, restlessness, and animosity that beset the monks during their afternoon prayers. Over the centuries, however, some of the subtlety of the monk’s conception of these eight bad thoughts as temptations that an individual may identify and resist before they turned into harmful actions was lost. The eight bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins, and acedia was subsumed within sloth.

At its Greek root the word means “absence of care.” Someone afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. Norris puts it this way. “I suspect that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia’s root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.”

Norris writes that, for her, acedia manifests first as a series of thoughts that tempt her from her work. These thoughts tell her it’s not worth it, or too much effort, or to take a break and do something more fun. If she indulges that voice for too long, she says, she can then start to grow weary with the repetition involved in daily routines of life such as showering, shopping, and cooking. She slips into states she calls “both anxious and lethargic” in which she can trudge through several paperback novels a day for days on end – not so much reading the books as consuming them. She complains of having so many leisure choices that she grows indifferent to them, even as she hungers for still more novelty.

Does this ring a bell for anyone but me?

Next time we’ll look at Norris’ thoughts on battling acedia.

Have you ever heard the word acedia before? Do you ever struggle with it? What do you tend to do when it strikes? And what do you think of the quote below?

“If the church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as society.”

New moon dawn

“What are you writing about for the blog?” Mike asked.

“Um,” I said. “I started out by writing about how it’s a full moon because I found that cool photo you took of the full moon over the temple. Then I wrote about how you were doing the grocery shopping on a bicycle. Then I wrote about the dog.”

Mike looked at me blankly.

“That’s totally random,” he said.

“I know,” I said, a bit defensive. “I’m having a hard time getting my head back in blogging territory after the last week of being only in resilience report territory.”

“You should call it Lisa Gets Her Groove Back,” Mike said.

“But I haven’t gotten it back,” I pointed out. “I’m still firmly in the Lisa Is Random zone.”

“Yeah, Mike said. “Maybe you’ll get it back next week.”

Maybe.

In the meantime here are the Lisa Is Random offerings:

It’s a full moon here tonight, so tomorrow morning the monks will get double (or triple?) their regular offerings of sticky rice and other food. Apparently it’s particularly auspicious to offer alms to the monks when the moon is full. Vendors line the streets for a couple of days before-hand selling incense and little cones made out of leaves topped with orange flowers. I think those are for the temple offerings, the food given to the monks is made by women who rise before dawn to prepare it and then venture out to gain merit for their families. If you go out here at dawn you’ll see women (usually) kneeling alongside the road at various points in the town, waiting to make their silent offerings to the monks as they file past.

On a full moon dawns there are so many people making offerings to the monks that they are each followed by a young boy carrying another pot to store their loot – sort of the Buddhist equivalent of an altar boy, I guess.

But all of that is tomorrow, and today Mike is out doing the grocery shopping by bicycle. We are without vehicle this weekend (sometimes we can borrow an organization vehicle and pay mileage, but this weekend they’re all out in the projects). We have now not owned a vehicle of any sort since the first week of June, which bothers me not at all. We will buy a motorcycle in January, but I’m in no hurry. I have a love/hate relationships with motorcycles. They are undoubtedly good fun, but I am also scared of them. Whenever Mike makes fun of me for this I point out that in comparison to being scared of flying, or being hit by lightening, or being eaten by sharks, it is perfectly rational to be scared of having a motorcycle accident. Given Mike’s respect for logical and reason you would think this would stop him making fun of me. No.

By the way, I am a little bit scared of being eaten by sharks, but not much. Really. Except when I am swimming in the ocean I am much more scared of motorcycles than sharks.

So Mike’s ridden off on his bicycle (with a helmet on) and I am puppy sitting.

Zulu has already woken us up before seven this morning. He has ripped a newspaper to shreds, chewed the leg of his toy puppy wide open, refused to eat his breakfast until we warmed it up, and moaned piteously whenever we left the room (and anytime we entered the kitchen). He has stuck his nose in a tiled corner and licked it furiously for ten minutes. He is, as Mike pointed out this morning, “a stinky puppy,” and later today he will be getting a thorough bath with jasmine rice scented puppy shampoo, which he will loathe.

He has also wagged his tail furiously in greeting whenever we reappear from somewhere, rolled over so that we can scratch his belly, climbed into my lap and looked up at me as if he had just entered doggie heaven, and taken himself outside to the toilet. I think we’ll keep him.

That’s it from me for now. Maybe I’ll get my groove back next week, maybe not. But I’ll see you then.

PS, This is what Zulu looks like most of the time…

Upon arrival

It’s been about 72 hours now since I stepped off the plane in Laos after 38 hours en route from Vancouver, through LA, then Bangkok, and finally… our new home town, Luang Prabang.

I have to say, things didn’t start out all that well.

It was about 95 degrees when we stepped off the plane. The immigration queue was not what you might call efficient. No one was there to meet us at the airport. After we’d dumped our four suitcases in an untidy tumble of luggage at the Hoxieng guesthouse and spent a brief spell lying underneath the air conditioner and gasping like landed fish, we ventured out again in search of food.

Half an hour later we were sitting outside at a table for two on a platform overlooking the Mekong. The setting sun was gilding the brown river with golden glimmer. Laughing boys splashed in the shallows below us. Two monks in bright orange robes walked down a track and climbed into a long, narrow, boat. One of them overbalanced as he tried to start the engine and almost fell into the water. Out in the middle of the river a fisherman stood steady in his own slim boat with a fishing net streaming through his hands in one long line. On the far bank, green hills clambered atop one another.

It should have been undeniably charming. And I was not at all charmed.

After we made the decision to move here in February, every time I met someone who’d been to Laos and told them about our plans, they all basically said the same thing: “You lucky girl.” But sitting by the Mekong on Monday night with my skin prickling with sweat and my feet swelling out of my shoes, I didn’t feel lucky. I felt exhausted, famished, and miserable. I felt trapped. I felt utterly pathetic at the prospect of being the only person in the entire world who actually hated this place. And when I remembered that we were here to stay for two years, I felt like drowning myself in the Mekong.

I looked at the table. My hand lay opposite Mike’s with just our fingernails brushing. It was too hot to touch.

“I’m going to miss holding your hand,” I said mournfully.

Across from me Mike was mostly silent in the fog of his own fatigue.

“It’s going to be OK,” he said.

I highly doubted that. At that precise moment I also doubted that I was going to be able to get through dinner without degenerating into an inconsolable, bawling, mess. So I chewed on my cheek, stared at the muddy river, and concentrated on keeping the tears corked.

But then the food came. And with every bite of chicken sautéed with chili and ginger and basil, or fried river fish topped with crispy garlic, I felt a bit better. And when we paid the bill and stood up to wander as the sun dipped below the horizon and the heat eased just a little, I felt a bit better again. And when we walked down a shaded brick alleyway, past a temple standing silent in the dusk, and stopped to pat a puppy that was beside himself with excitement to be the recipient of attention and affection, I smiled. And when we ambled through the night market under a sky sprinkled with pink clouds and I saw that, contrary to my expectations, the market was full of gorgeous things besides elephant slippers, I felt the first tiny stirrings of excited. (By the way, if anyone out there knows why people here in the tropics have decided to specialize in making warm padded slippers, please email me).

Since then there’s been a mélange of other moments – congealed pigs blood, house hunting on the back of a motorcycle being driven one handed by a woman whose other hand was cushioning the head of the sleepy toddler strapped to her chest, monks receiving alms, lychee and mint daiquiris, a violent thunderstorm, and cheap baguettes. And I’ve started to learn my first Laos words.

But that all came after that first night and my first hesitant steps up the trail leading out of the deep emotional chasm I tumbled into on the banks of the Mekong. For by the time we crawled into bed that night under the blessed benediction of a working air conditioner, I no longer wanted to drown myself.

I guess we all have to start somewhere.

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