The Cloistered Mind
Sister Teresita is a 103-year-old Spanish nun from the Buenafuente del Sistal Convent near Madrid. She entered the convent on April 16, 1927. It was on the very same day that the present pope was born. She was 19 years old then and has reportedly never set foot out of her convent except for a few of hours during fighting in the Spanish Civil War. This year, however, she will travel to Madrid to meet the Pope on the occasion of World Youth Day. Sister Teresita has reputedly stated that “she will make the trip outside with her eyes closed so that nothing will distract her.”
In other words, rather than actually leave her cloister, Sister Teresita will be taking her cloister with her. It’s a form of willful blindness. You may find it hard to understand how someone, after 84 years of spiritual pursuits, can still be willfully blind to the world like an infant. But the “cloistered mind,” as I call this, is generally the rule amongst human beings. In some ways, this is no different than any other form of human narcissism.
Every summer, tens of thousands of families attach their recreational vehicles to the hitches of their cars and they “vacate”. They strike out onto the highways and byways in order to “get away from it all.” Of course, they do no such thing. Rather than get away from it all, they take it all with them. These RVs come with all the familiar domestic amenities, appliances, and more — the flat-screen TV. A shower, a bath, or even a jacuzzi. The propane barbeque. They even take their Blackberries with them so they can keep in touch with the office. Maybe they even take their alarm clocks and their infernal time-pieces. They are no more “getting away from it all” than Sister Teresita with her eyes closed to the distractions of the world. Like Sister Teresita, they also take along their own mental cloister. And like Sister Teresita, also, nothing ever truly new can enter the enchanted circle — even cage — of their habitual, familiar, everyday routines.
The only thing people really do is fool themselves and others on an almost constant and daily basis. They love it when politicians hunting for votes speak of “change.” But change is, in truth, the very last thing they actually want. They hate change.
We can contrast Sister Teresita’s aversive response to the world outside the cloister with that of Prince Shakyamuni — the future Buddha. The Prince was kept carefully guarded and equally cloistered within his family’s palace, living a Disneyland Life because a prophecy at his birth foretold that he would become a chakravarta — a turner of the Wheel of history or “Universal Monarch”. A chakravarta could be a conqueror or a Buddha. The Brahmans who interpreted the signs of his impending birth told his father the king, “you will have a son. And he, if he continue to live the household life, will become a Universal Monarch; but if he leave the household life and retire from the world, he will become a Buddha, and roll back the clouds of sin and folly of this world.”
But, the prophecy contains nonsense. Shakyamuni did not actually “retire from the world” at all. In the legend of “the four passing sights”, Siddhartha crept out of the enchanted palace of his own conditioned mind on four different occasions with his charioteer and witnessed four sights that moved and troubled him deeply: an aged and frail man, a sick man, a corpse, and lastly an ascetic monk. The spell of his ignorance was broken. As legend gives it, shocked by it all the prince subsequently became dissastisfied with the falsity and phoneyness of the household Disneyland Life that had been created for him within the precincts of the palace. He had been touched by the real world and its suffering outside, and his compassion for that suffering moved him enough to give up his titles, his inheritance, his delusional Disneyland life, and even his family bonds… and eventually even his own “self” or soul.
It’s actually quite nuts to suggest, as this particular legend has it (and as so many people seem to misbelieve) that this renunciation was in any way a renunciation of the world. Quite the contrary. What Siddhartha actually renounced finally (and this confusion about the truth might itself be revealing) was the fake and delusional fantasy of a falsely constructed Disneyland-type existence, or what we would call today “perception management”. For that is what his father the king had attempted with him — perception management in order to keep him within the charmed circle of an illusion of the “perfect life” that had nothing whatsoever to do with the truth or reality beyond the palace walls.
Advertising does this to us constantly. As one Canadian advertising executive put it, advertisers don’t really sell products. What they sell the consuming public is a fantasy about the perfect life. The product they market is merely positioned within that narrative as an essential component of the perfect life. It also creates a “cloistered mind.”
Nothing truly or genuinely new or transformative can enter the cloistered mind. It’s just another aspect of narcissism.
It is notable, in this respect as well, that Luther during the Protestant Revolution sent some 100,000 monks and nuns out of their convents and monasteries into the real world to make their own way, but also to serve as a leavening of society. He established, by that act, a principle that we still hold today — the free choice of profession. These monks and nuns also had to overcome the cloistered mind in themselves by a grand self-overcoming. It was alos the real beginning of that process called “secularisation”, for these former monks and nuns also became activists in their communities, and from their activism came the familiar secular political discourses we know today as liberalism, conservatism, socialism, or anarchism. All these were originally theological and sectarian controversies rooted in contesting interpretations of the meaning of the four Gospels. As long as the controversies were contained within the closed circuitry of the monastic system, they were at best internal heresies dealt with by the Holy Inquisition and the Universal Church and really had no impact on the society outside. The leavening or “perverse outcome” occurred when the monks and nuns were sent out into society to make their own way. The Inquisition followed them into the society at large.
Unfortunately, our present partisan ideologues have all forgotten their original roots in these theological and sectarian controversies, but also as being just different aspects of an interpretation of the four Gospels of one New Testament. The secular political partisan of today, was formerly the schismatic sectarian “controversialist” of the Reformation.
Nothing new can enter the narcissistic cloistered mind that denies the world, unless it come by way of an apocalyptic “shattering truth” that annihilates the tautological enchanted circle of habitual mentation, in which case the shattering truth is very often experienced as being nihilistic, or even as the Devil himself.
Or, perhaps comes “like a thief in the night”.