It’s time for our annual ritual of setting some resolutions and disappointing ourselves soon afterward by not living up to them. As we struggle to exercise more discipline this year, we might take solace in the fact that our new-year feelings are really very old. Even early Christian monks, who had abandoned their former lives to dedicate themselves to the divine moral order, found that they couldn’t quite make their minds do what they had made up their minds to do. They lamented this state of affairs as early as the 300s CE, and their complaints continued, from Iran to Ireland, for centuries. Their resolve just didn’t seem to cut it.
The experience of losing a grip on their goals was especially frustrating because these men and women had sacrificed so much to concentrate on them in the first place. They knew that everyday life was inherently distracting, with its endless obligations and conversations and dramas large and small, so they had gone to great efforts to distance themselves from its demands on their attention, which they were trying to fix entirely on God. Some had moved to deserts, cliff sides, or holes in the ground, and many others had relocated to the suburbs. Granted, some had just stayed in their hometowns, but all of them had radically changed their lives—devastating from their assets, disengaging from the culture of social striving, and scaling back contact with their friends and family—to disentangle themselves from competing commitments. These sacrifices were supposed to clear out a monk’s mind for the things that really mattered.
But even in a solitary hideout, the mind still launched thoughts at itself like a slingshot. Once monks had escaped from the world’s perpetual claims on their attention, it was only that much easier for them to see that their minds still misbehaved anyway: Despite the monks’ determination to dedicate themselves to divine matters, they still got distracted from their goals. They compared the feeling to being robbed, shipwrecked, besieged, or left to die on dry land like a fish gasping for air. It was, in short, the worst.
When it came to accounting for this crisis, monks pointed to different culprits, including sometimes themselves. Some figured that human beings harbored enervating forces that could counteract their strengths and aptitudes if left unguarded. Others thought that the self was often split between contradictory desires, torn between the lure of long-term goals and short-term gratification. But whether a failure to follow through on a resolution represented a weak will or a headstrong one, monks could not agree: They, like their minds, were conflicted.
Demons were also to blame. The monks didn’t mean this metaphorically. Demons were actual, literal antagonists who were capable of physical and psychological warfare. They closed monks’ eyes when they were trying to read. They paraded around, with costumes and props if necessary, to try to make monks laugh or flinch at their antics. They might even beat monks up. But above all, they launched unwelcome thoughts into unsuspecting minds with the sole purpose of sending them down detours: They were trying to keep their opponents from making contact with God.
But the mind’s failures were not always so personal or so sinister. Many monks also believed that their distractedness was a metaphysical condition. Ever since Adam’s first sin (or, according to some monks, from the moment the world was first created), the universe was irreparably fragmented and dynamic. Not only did this exacerbate a monk’s sense of his own distance from God, it also made it impossible for his mind to stay fixed on something for very long. Because as part of a created thing distinct from other created things, in an environment defined by difference and flux, it couldn’t help but wander.
Given all these variables—the contradictory self, the malice of demons, the perpetual motion of the world itself—the monks figured that it was impossible not to get sidetracked sometimes. But they didn’t go any easier on themselves just because the problem was pervasive. One influential monk named John Cassian (recounting his conversation with another monk Theonas) compared the ethical gravity of concentration to the risks of tightrope walking: Monks needed to know that “they’ll fall to a grisly death the instant they waver and take a single misstep or wrong turn.” The stakes were awfully high.
So, the monks devised a battery of tactics to counteract the many forces that torqued their minds. By design, their approach was correspondingly multi-vectored. They developed fixed daily schedules to stay on task while also avoiding monotony. They worked with mentors to hold themselves accountable. They supported each other, corrected each other, and sometimes they ratted each other out. They developed regimens for bathing, sleeping, celibacy, and eating in an effort to improve how their bodies and minds trained in tandem. They read a lot, in the hopes of blurring the distinction between what they thought and what they read, and they designed their manuscripts to engage readers more deeply.
At the same time, they set rules for how and when they could read, because even books were a technology that could be overused to the point of distraction. They developed intensive meditational practices that involved not clearing or calming the mind, but rather filling it with images and setting it in motion to generate new insights from the assemblage. They monitored the comings and goings of their thoughts like undercover detectives. They motivated themselves with intense emotions, thoughts of death, visions of the afterlife, and the fleeting moments they felt when they had achieved exactly what they were after. And they wrote about all of this, to share what they’d learned.
The Christian monks of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages never fully resolved the struggle between their aspirations and their distractions. They argued about what would be the most effective approach to self-discipline, they relapsed, and even the most advanced and wise among them got very low. (Shemʿon d-Ṭaybutheh once said to a monk who was about to head into solitude, “Sometimes sadness swells in the heart and envelops the soul like a great cloud.” Likewise, John of Dalyatha mused in one of his letters, “All I do is eat, sleep, and be negligent.”)
That said, the strategies and systems of support that the monks developed got them considerably farther than where they started. All these centuries later, their perspective is both refreshingly strange and strangely familiar. Their inventiveness and grit in the realm of self-discipline is something to behold. They might even inspire a few of us today to be more experimental, as we strategize about sticking to our resolutions.
But the monks also check our aspirations of taking charge. Resolving to do something, going down detours, judging ourselves for getting distracted, trying again: This cycle–and its moral overtones—are more than a millennium old. It is a medieval legacy for the modern day.