The Crisis of Our Age: The Loss of the Interior Life

It turns out spiritual traditions can help us lead a more reflective life.

Posted Nov 03, 2017

World power means nothing

Only the unsayable jewelled inner life matters

— Rumi

The world’s sacred and philosophical traditions have always played a vital role in protecting the inner life of the individual. The external world with all its pleasures, successes, failures and countless demands constantly tempts us to dwell solely in the external world. Like a spider on the surface of the water we can simply skim along going from task to task with a minimum of self-reflection. As Nicholas Carr has argued in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010) the various forms of technology and social media have only reinforced this tendency.

Spiritual traditions have always insisted on maintaining the depth and dimensionality of life. They have developed practices to ensure that this occurs including meditation, contemplation and various forms of self-reflection. With the loss of religion more generally we have also lost these safeguards against staying forever in the shallows.

The importance of creating both time and space for solitude was recognized across the world’s traditions and viewed as essential for psychological well-being and personal growth. Though the modes of self-cultivation varied these were linked to the ability to think deeply and to access higher modes of consciousness fostering positive states such as attitudes of compassion and gratitude.  

While there has always been stress and strain, today we face an extra challenge in harmonizing contemplative with worldly life. Many of us are living in societies whose values don’t support the seeking of an inward life of balance and reflection. Our days have become so completely focused on practicalities that we hardly know when to stop, and attend to subtler modes of being. Commenting on the lack of space for introspection in contemporary life, James Finley argues that “It’s the crises of our age, the loss of the interior of our lives.” [1]

New words are surfacing describing our distracted minds and increasingly fragmented lives; words such as ‘multitasking’, ‘crazy-busy’, and ‘over-stretched’ are now part of the daily vocabulary. These can easily give a false sense of efficiency, but are fundamentally pointing to a much larger problem of alienation from the activities we are engaged in, and the demand to keep up with an accelerating pace of life. When there are no boundaries between work and private life it is easily our personal and interior life that suffers.

However, there are signs that many people are feeling this lack within their hectic lives. The popularity of various kinds of retreats at both Buddhist and Christian monasteries and convents, and yoga schools, reveals that many people are beginning to appreciate the value of retreat and reflection. After the broadcast of the surprise hit The Monastery on the BBC the Worth Abbey website received 40,000 visits. Abbot Christopher Jamison noting that many speak of “being busy as a force beyond  their control” has noticed that there is a growing sense that monastic practices have something to offer even the non-religious. [1]

At the same time increasing numbers of psychologists are using meditative and contemplative practices drawn from spiritual traditions. It is estimated that 30% of GPs in England refer patients for mindfulness training that are now officially accepted by the National Health Service. [2] Contemplative therapies and methods of mindfulness counteract the frenzy and alienation of contemporary life by fostering concentration and calm.  Interior recollection provides techniques for exploring, healing and developing the human mind.

One of the ways in which we can meet the challenges of daily life is to carve out some time, some place for quietude and contemplation. To have a certain hour of the day, or clearly demarcated periods of the year, where we can withdraw from social life, technology and practical demands on us can help enormously with the stress and tension so many of us suffer from. It is strange to realize for many in contemporary society, but the world’s spiritual traditions have much to tell us about slowing down, reflecting on what is important, and how to pay attention to the interior life.

[1] Michelle Boorstein, “Silent Retreats’ rising popularity poses a challenge: How to handle the quiet”, The Washington Post, December 12, 2012

[2] Mia Hansson. “NHS Recognizes that mindfulness meditation is good for depression.” The Guardian. February 26, 2013.

References

Carr, Nicholas. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Jamison, Christopher. (2006). Finding Sanctuary. Monastic Steps for Everyday Life.

London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.