Freedom in a time of crisis

This piece was written for the Idler.

The monastery has come to us. Life has gone on retreat. For the next period, we’ll be living in the refectory and cloister. And, as transpires when you go on retreat, strange things will happen.

Part of that will be anxiety. There are those for whom Covid-19 gives direct cause for concern. But agitation will be more widespread, too, simply because the customary distractions of life have vanished.

We’re being thrown onto ourselves, and that is unsettling. As Franz Kafka put it: “It’s often better to be in chains than to be free.” But that implies something else, a first surprise. We might seize this unexpected time as freedom.

By freedom, I don’t mean that we won’t be working. Many will. Many will want to. Rather, it’s the freedom of a new mood. It’s social permission to think about life without the usual expectations. It’s a time of imagination.

It’s the freedom some of our ancestors seized during times of plague. Isaac Newton worked on the theory of gravity when his college was closed because of it. William Shakespeare penned King Lear and Macbeth during a similar season. Socrates lived during regular bouts of pestilence induced by the decades-long war against the Spartans. The Athenians were humiliated and lost, but the city’s greatest son sparked an inner revolution.

It’s the freedom that can follow a disaster. It lets you think: what’s it all about?

Retreats offer the same interior liberty. It can be alarming, which is why, when you go on retreat, one of the first things you notice are the treats.

They are simple but thoughtful. A monk may have made biscuits. The cushions on the sofa will be plumped up. And people are kind to each other. They smile at meals when passing the salt and bread. They respect each other’s space to muse, daydream, think.

That suggests a ground rule for the next few weeks. Humdrum benevolence.

A second feature of retreats is the routine. But it’s unlike the pressure of usual life, to get up, to get out, to get somewhere, to get back from somewhere, to sort someone or something out.
Instead, it’s a routine that creates space. It holds and protects the newfound freedom.

A good routine is containing not crowding. Monasteries understand how it works. Something happens roughly every 2 hours. It may be a short service. It may be a bell for tea. It may be the period deliberately earmarked, “recreation”. It’s a time for a walk.

This kind of routine is wonderful. It is creative. It exists to preserve time rather than fill up the time.

Something similar might be adopted in the next few weeks. A coffee break at 11, with the emphasis on the “break”. A step outside to watch the great tits or black birds busy with spring. A pause at 3 to send a message or check the family WhatsApp.

The pattern will also help you stay sane. And this is really important, not just because you don’t want to feel stir-crazy, but because keeping a mind about what’s going on is key to benefiting from the freedom of a retreat.

The psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott, had a word for it: play. He realised that playing is something children practice and adults can do, if they are lucky. It’s the ability to explore, to test, to connect.

It’s akin to what the ancient philosophers meant by the art of living. They used an analogy. Imagine a circle. Inside the circle is what you know, be it the time of the next newsflash or how to make sourdough bread. Outside of the circle is what you don’t know, maybe how long this will last or what life’s all about.

The art of living is playing on the edge of the circle. You neither rush to the centre of the circle grabbing certainties, or panic buying at the supermarket. But neither do you do the foolhardy opposite and dash into the zone of the completely unknown.

Instead, you create a playful mix of facts and imagination, tasks and silence, routine and pondering. There can be dash of trepidation in it, too. What this allows is an easing of the tyranny that would fill our lives, possess our lives, control our lives. It makes space for a revolution: life to speak to us. It’s to let in and listen.

It’s to cultivate different organs of perception, to use William Blake’s phrase. He was sure that, if cleansed, everything would appear as it is: “Infinite”. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern,” he continued.

And this is, perhaps, the strangest thing that can happen on retreat. It feels like you are closing down, before life starts opening up. It feels like restricting your freedom, until you sense just how unfree everyday life can be. It feels like relocating to an island, but then you discern it’s a place of visions not limits, of fresh experience not dull round.

So keep safe. Wash your hands. But also, enjoy the freedom, the routine, the retreat.

Mark also invites you to accompany him through Dante’s Divine Comedy. He is producing a YouTube film and podcast for each canto, to mark the 700th anniversary of this odyssey masterpiece. See more at