How to Think Like a Medieval Monk
By Julia Bourke
They may have been founded in 1098, but the Cistercian order in France still managed to anticipate one of the most exciting discoveries of modern science. Known as the “white monks” because of their habits of undyed sheep’s wool, the Cistercians envisaged religious life as a process of cultivation. Pioneers of hydraulic engineering and large-scale agriculture, the white monks described their spiritual transformation in just the same way, creating fertile fields in the garden of their souls, plucking out vices like weeds and watering their flowering virtues with tears of grace.
When they practiced inducing emotions through meditation, the monks were in fact drawing on the brain’s property of neuroplasticity — its ability to learn, adapt, and change itself based on its environment. Although doubtless they would have other philosophical disagreements, a medieval Cistercian and a modern neuroscientist would agree on the principle that certain feelings and emotions can be changed through meditative exercises. The following are four techniques Cistercian monks used to reshape their own mental states — and the science behind them.
Meditate on Death
A common practice for a monk upon waking was to picture his reanimated body rising from the grave on the day of Resurrection. As he rose to his feet, he might have imagined himself standing before Christ’s Judgment seat, surrounded by all humanity, both the damned and the saved, and wondered to himself if he had done enough to win redemption. Such meditations on death and the afterlife were often recommended in Cistercian texts, and modern psychology demonstrates why they were so effective. Building on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski have developed what they call Terror Management Theory (TMT), which proposes that humans cope with the terrifying awareness of their own mortality by investing in a “cultural worldview.” This worldview allows us to distance ourselves from our awareness of death, protecting us from existential anxiety. In order for a worldview to shelter us effectively, it must offer immortality in some form, whether it be symbolic…