Secular Monasteries for an Awakened Public

“I want to live,
I want to give
I’ve been a miner
For a heart of gold.
It’s these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
For a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.”[i]

—Neil Young

It is as though civilization itself is getting too old. And with age foll­ows either decay, dementia and despair—or wisdom and self-knowledge. Can then modernity, the present world-system, begin to know itself? This would be the *meta*-modern mission: to create a deeply self-reflective modernity; a modernity operating not only upon nature and the environ­ment, but one that reexamines its own perspective, its own choi­ces—if you will—its own soul. Modernity did peer into the soul of individual human beings, under the auspices of psychiatry. But it never developed a full process for look­ing into its own existential foundations and to treat the maladies of civili­zation. Modern society has, as Foucault famously argued, been profoundly mar­ked by “the birth of the clinic”. Metamodern society and its existential civ­ilization must usher in “the rebirth of the monastery”, echoing and care­fully re­cycling some of the finest aspects of medieval society.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. 

In The Listening Society I wrote that “Everybody should get a year off once in a lifetime to go look for new purpose in life and make tough life decisions under professional care and support—in a kind of secular monastery.” The pur­pose of metamodern monasteries would be to offer all citizens nec­essary periods of seclusion (and/or community) and con­cen­trated ho­ning of inner skills, such as heal­ing from trauma, mak­ing large life decis­ions or transitions, learning new life philo­sophies, pract­icing meditation and tak­ing care of the body, forgiving people who hurt us, sorting out ethical dil­emmas, and other transformational practices.

It would make sense to create a great network of secular monasteries, properly equipped with teachers, coaches, therapists, libraries, gardens, gyms and simple accommodation. People would be trained in one or more wisdom traditions, be supported in making nec­ess­ary changes of habits, face their traumas and so on. Instead of an authoritative priest­hood like in traditional religions, the main agent would be a professional group of “exist­ential social workers”, trained to deal with people’s diffe­rent life crises and to act as advisors. They should be highly skilled in one or more mind­fulness and meditation techniques, in turn scrutinized by scien­tific studies.

An important aspect of such a neo-monastic societal infrastructure would be to include different kinds of bodywork and “subtle body pract­ices”, refining the skills of dealing with direct bodily experiences and sen­sations and developing the general wellness of our bodies. Such develop­ment is not only of great value for its own sake, but also a necessary tool for strengthening our overall body-mind systems so we can handle the difficulties inherent to life’s crises and the stage transitions of per­sonal dev­elopment.

So we’re looking at a major project of the listening society, one that is indeed comparable to the construction of the welfare state. You need new facilities, new infrastructure, new groups of professionals, new educatio­nal and career paths (which can generate quite a few new and very cool jobs by the way), and new institutions to govern, evaluate and devel­op the whole endeavor. It’s going to take decades to build and/or culti­vate, and yet it will produce few tangible, manifest things. But it will pro­duce a more listening society, and an existentially mature civilization. Millions of people will untie subtle knots in their inner worlds and manage their lives more com­passionately and skillfully. If the listening society is to fulfill its pro­mise—a society where everyone is genuinely seen and heard—it must rest upon a foun­dation of inwards listening.

All of these services should be backed up on a collective level so that people are guaranteed a year off from work and be guaranteed a basic live­lihood during the per­iod. Hope­fully, it could be possible even for parents of children to attend such periods of seclusion, just switching their day-time work for monastic life.

“What’s the point of all this? And, again, can we afford it? Should we really be sucking our thumbs and navel-gazing when there are so many issues to attend and so much suffering in the world?”

Still not following, modernist mind? Sigh.

The point is that it is only by seriously helping people to get what they really need and want from life—by supp­orting serious adult devel­op­ment, development of the mind and the per­sonality as a whole—that we can raise the level of behavi­oral functioning through­out soc­iety and the level of mental health through­out all social groups. It is in this man­ner we can raise the average “eff­ective value meme” of the popul­ation above the modern stage.

And, just to remind you of the stakes: With­out a deep and lasting chan­ge towards higher effective value meme, we’re pretty much all going to die in a horrible car crash as we enter this age of super-tech­nologies without a corresponding shift of psychological and cultural devel­op­ment.

So it’s not that we can’t afford to do it, it’s that we can’t afford not to. “Can’t afford” a medicine that will save your life from an aggressive dis­ease? Well, then, too bad, you’ll just have to suffer and die.

Existential Politics isn’t navel-gazing. Things are only navel-gazing if they are not conducive to growth and social change. If something does prevent oceans of human suffering, improves lives in so many ways, and saves soc­iety from collapse because it spurs human growth into deeper mat­urity—then it’s not navel-gazing.

As things stand today, many of those who belong to the social groups I have called the Yoga Bourgeoisie, the Triple-H Population (Hacker, Hippies and Hipsters) and the Inte­gralists already find ways of getting support for growth during trans­itional periods: they go to workshops and retreats, do shadow-work (busting your own bullshit with a therapist) and whatnot.

But there are several pro­blems with this privatized and individualized app­roach of present-day spiritual seeking. One thing is that it’s only really available to these privileged seg­ments of the population. So it’s miss­ing where it’s needed the most. Another problem is that the norms of soc­iety aren’t really up to speed: Most people think it’s a waste of time, too idle and boring. Society as a whole should make sure more people see the pro­found value of prolonged, serious inner work. And a third pro­blem is that there is no concerted effort on society’s behalf to guarantee the quality, reliability and safety of such practices, which enables all kinds of swindlers and quacks to prey upon the Astrology Precariat. Making this a priority of Existential Politics would work to remedy many of these issues.

A neo-monastic institution, offering its support to the wider popula­tion, should of course also be linked to activities such as crim­inal reh­ab­­ilitation, psychiatry, social work, palliative care (of the termin­ally ill), the development of more customized and meaningful funeral cere­mon­ies—and of course to education, where the opp­ort­unities for psy­ch­ological and existential support should not only be a back­ground struc­ture as it is to­day, but a central and prioritized feature of life in schools and univer­sities. Not to mention healthcare more generally; most present-day healthcare systems are bogged down with people seeking medical attention when they in fact have social, emotional and existential problems—as any gene­ral practitioner can attest to. So often will people come in with a headache or stomachache but soon start crying about their life problems.

It should be a societal goal that 18-year-olds enter adult life with a sen­se of inner responsibility and self-love, which sadly is far from the case in today’s educational system. As argued in The Listening Society, all children can and should be offered thera­peutic talks with a trusted adult professi­onal throughout their years in school. How many life courses could that change; and how pro­foundly? Very many, and quite profoundly indeed—seeing as you get a cumul­ative, collective effect as the children and youth interact with one another.

If we are to turn the tide of spiritual poverty and alienation inherent to modern life, we must begin to nourish the souls of millions. Only then can we develop a metamodern society, a society that takes its own develop­ment—interior and exterior—into its own hands. If there is one thing that char­acterizes the emerging meta-ideology I call the Nordic ideo­logy, it is this: a systematic and deliberate nourishing of the human soul through­out the life course; a clarion call for adult development.

How to get there is far from obvious, but without an explicitly formula­ted and manifested Existential Politics, and without pro­per societal proce­sses to address these concerns, we are unlike­ly to achieve any such goals.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, 1971.