theFWD submission #1

Posted by on Sep 17, 2010 in Otherhood | 2 Comments

In developing my ideas on secular monasticism, I’ve been attempting to both to hone my thinking and to let it run completely wild.  I found a great opportunity to do so in The Future We Deserve. I submitted a few inter-related pieces for this collaborative book on:

  1. Secular monasticism
  2. Art monasticism
  3. Spirituality as game
  4. 3rd-party spiritual certification
  5. Monastech

Here’s the 1st:

Secular monasticism

In contrast to other types of intentional community, monasticism is in decline [1. “Between 1978 and 2004—nearly the entire span of John Paul II’s pontificate—the number of men in monastic and religious orders (not including priests) decreased by 46% in Europe and 30% in the Americas, while the number of women decreased by 39% and 27%, respectively. Compare this to the trend in the global South: During the same period, men in monastic and religious orders increased by 48% in Africa and 39% in Asia, with women increasing on those two continents by 62% and 64%.” http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/re-monking-the-church-new-monasticism/] in the global north. Is it a social form that has lost its relevance to the developed, and increasingly secular world?

If we consider monasticism as an exaptation (a useful by-product) of religion, we can ask the question: What would secular monasticism look like? [2. (By “secular” I mean everything that isn’t the domain of one particular religion; spirituality in general and the interfaith movement are thus considered secular).]


A secular monastery is a structure, independent of any one spiritual lineage or religious tradition, for increasing mindfulness and compassion in the world. As a structure in space and time, and as a social structure, it is designed to foster gratitude and awareness.

Secular monasticism is an empty, open framework for a community that

  1. appropriately adapts time-tested elements of monasticism.
  2. assumes the spiritual agency of community members and fosters this capacity
  3. provides a means by which members can discover how their goals overlap
  4. provides an agreed upon structure in space and in time to best achieve these common goals.

Elements of Monasticism

What distinguishes monasteries from other types of intentional community, such as communes, ecovillages, student cooperatives, land co-ops, cohousing groups, ashrams, kibbutzes, and farming collectives[3. http://wiki.ic.org/wiki/Intentional_Communities]? Some of the elements unique to monasticism include:

  • Unique structure in space (architecture with equality, eco-efficiency and mindfulness in mind)
  • Unique structure in time (shared schedule of work, meals and contemplation together throughout day)
  • Unique governance & social structure (monastic rules & vows about things like celibacy, renunciation & poverty, hard work, silence, etc.)
  • Unique practice (e.g. meditation, prayer, chant, “lectio divina,” art-making, study, debate, philosophy, mysticism)
  • Unique goal (e.g. whatever it is that contemplation leads to, whether that’s God, the absolute, non-dual awareness, awakening, concentration, peace, knowledge, etc.)
  • Unique members (avowed monastics who may or may not be separated by gender)
  • Unique relationship to society and ecology at large (ecological sustainability, a degree of separateness from society, subordination to a centrally organized spiritual lineage or religious tradition)[4. http://otherhood.org/elements-of-monasticism/]

What can we tweak in this equation to keep monasticism relevant? What is monasticism without religion? Without celibacy? Without separation of men and women?

Monasticism vs. Intentional/Spiritual Community

Secular monasticism has the potential to combine best aspects of spirituality and intentional community, without the shortcomings of both. Intentional community brings the resilience, teamwork, and social fabric of having a common vision, and has an emergent eco-efficiency that more siloed family-unit living lacks. Spiritual community further narrows the vision and the goals of living together, and often grows out of a set of moral, philosophical and practical teachings that can ease some of the typical problems of living together. On the other hand, where intentional community often fails is in having a lack of resolve and depth, lack of discipline, disparate motivation, and the positive and negative results of exchanging efficiency for egalitarianism. Spiritual communities are often disordered and lack sufficient governance, transparency and accountability to protect the individual community members and the sustainability of the community as a whole. In the latter, it could be said that “spiritual authority” is not sufficiently isolated from “municipal authority.”[5. Vinay Gupta – http://openenlightenment.org/?p=475]

Many of the early Western monasteries also conflated municipal authority & spiritual authority in an almost guru-like figure (e.g. compare the early, very vertical Rule of the Master to the relatively horizontal Rule of Benedict that followed it). Yet in the religious monastic traditions that have survived 1500 years in the West, final spiritual authority is almost entirely held by a set of texts (which are often canonical and unquestionable), and municipal authority is held by a person or group of people who have been chosen by the community to lead. The key is this: the Abbess is the role-model who leads by example, but is not herself the Christ. She has final decision-making authority, but is accountable to the monastic rule and the vows she has taken, which are often the same as other community members. The same holds to varying degrees for monasteries in Theravadan, Tibetan, Zen, Vedantan, Taoist traditions.


The members of a secular monastery might take up residence in a building that is ostensibly no different from the monasteries that monks have been living in for thousands of years. They might vow to wake up at 6:30am, chant 5 times a day, meditate for 3 hours a day, eat some meals together in silence while a text is read, work at a trade for 4 hours a day, and yet could be mixed-gender, only voluntarily celibate, and devote themselves to a highest goal of their own choosing (e.g. God, dharma, self-knowledge, wisdom, or the perfect blueberry pie).

Or by entering a certain co-housing community, you would take a temporary vow (perhaps for 2 years minimum) to wake up at 7am, meditate together 3 times a day, eat dinner together and read a certain poem together at the end of the day. For several weeks a year, the community might invite a teacher from outside and transform itself into a silent meditation retreat center for its members.

One living example of secular monasticism is art monasticism.

Secular monasticism that combines monasticism and technology is called monastech.



  1. Phoebe J
    September 18, 2010

    Regarding secular monasticism:
    I’ve been thinking a lot about religion lately, and the point that the Dr. Armstrong made in your post on “re-monking.” His statement that anyone who pursues a monastic lifestyle without a belief in Christ will eventually hit a ceiling has been itching the back of my brain for weeks. No disrespect is intended here, but I think the opposite. I suspect that anyone who undertakes contemplation with the idea that they have permanently identified the path and its guides will be limited to having only that experience. I feel drawn to observation, to listening to the limitless…is this secular?

    • Nathan Rosquist
      September 21, 2010

      Ken Wilber makes a useful distinction between spiritual states and stages of development. Someone who claims that their way is the ONLY way is in one of the “1st tier” stages: mythic, rational or pluralistic/post-modern. This person is just as capable of achieving the various spiritual states (Wilber defines them as gross, subtle, causal and non-dual), but they will interpret their experience through the lens of the stage of development they’re at. From the perspective of someone at a “2nd or 3rd tier” stage of development (integral or higher), there is nothing necessarily bad about the view that only in Christ can highest truth be found, it’s just a limited way of looking at the world and has problematic consequences. Each time you transcend a level of development, you must acknowledge that it is still an important part of you.

      I personally can see the appeal of living life in a narrow framework that limits your possible actions and the breadth of your thinking. If you don’t have to explore Christianity AND Buddhism AND Vedanta AND Judaism AND atheism, you can really go deep into your way of looking at the world. You don’t find yourself flailing about on an infinitely wide plain with infinite choice (that is, with a post-modern perspective, in which no view has priority over any other view… except for the view that “no view has priority over any other view”). But rather than intentionally narrowing my view to one of the pre-given ones or flailing in post-modernism, my goal is to find the commonalities in traditions at the same time that I appreciate the differences.

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