[I originally wrote most of the strings of text below for the online Art & Monasticism Symposium in 2012 through Transpositions, a collaborative effort of students associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. What follows has been edited since it was first published, for tone as well as content. I used to write a lot about this topic on my blog (RIP otherhood.org). So I may be porting some old posts to this new version of LW.]


Assertion: Monasticism is a recurring pattern in the world's religions. Looking at the things that different monasticisms have in common can teach us how (and how not) to live in communities of shared purpose.

[This word, monasticism, basically means "the way of life of people living in monasteries." And to further tighten down the jargon filter, by monastery I mean the class of objects that includes cloisters, abbeys, nunneries, convents, etc. and related things like ashrams and kibbutzes, but not necessarily all intentional communities. My favorite word in English for a person who lives in a monastery, even temporarily, is monk (which I hereby and for all time declare to be a gender-neutral word for nuns and male-nuns).]

Monasticism := Monks + Monasteries

While there is an ENORMOUS amount of variation and localized ornamentation, this monastic tendency–for serious practitioners of a religious tradition to band together to benefit from living in a disciplined community–shows up all over the place, e.g. in most strains of Christianity and Buddhism.

Why would this be the case? Clearly there are economic efficiencies. It’s easier to survive as a community, in which specialization becomes possible, than alone; some monks are good at holding the big picture, while some monks are better at painting icons, and others are virtuosos at cooking nourishing meals, or farming, or carpentry, or web design. 

There are efficiencies that have to do with spiritual practice as well. It is much easier to hold a daily routine of work and contemplation when you do so with a group of like-minded brothers or sisters. 

And when singing or chanting, of course, it is only possible to make harmonies together (unless you're throat-singing).

Stepping Meta

From this perspective, monasticism starts to look less like something spiritual and more like a type of technology, an arrangement of hardware and software that has arisen in various places at various times to meet certain universal needs—for stable community and material support, as well as the sublime. We need the nectar of transcendence as much as we need more tangible kinds of nourishment, and monastic life tries to provide both.

Like technology, monasticism appears to evolve over time as groups’ needs change, and as social, cultural, political, and ecological climates shift from season to season.

Some monastic hardware & software is better suited for north Africa in the 6th century, while another kind fits medieval Japan after the arrival of Buddhism, and a dozen others are appropriate to the array of niches in today’s postmodern religious world.

Applied, Secularized Monasticism

I've been working with a NON-religious group of misfits collectively known as the Art Monastery Project over the past decade to (begin to) take the source code of this software, the blueprints of this hardware, and apply them to art-making and the creative process (as well as to the pursuit of wisdom and compassion, whatever those words mean).

Our goal, not totally different from that of some other monastic orders, is to cultivate personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, community, and contemplation.

Thankfully for us, most monastic software is open source, freely available to anyone with eyes to see.

And this means that anyone could be doing something analogous but for purposes other than or in addition to art-making [like maybe, oh I dunno... rationality?], using the same source code, for well or ill. If you are, we should be talking.

So how are we doing it? Read on if you're curious about what monastic technologies we have tried using to run our art projects.

Our monastic hardware/software stack

Community, both as a social arrangement and as the physical space that houses it, is one of the biggest pieces of monastic technology.

Yet a monastery, whether Benedictine or Kagyu, is not the same as an intentional community. As a structure in space, a monastery has intentionality designed into every square foot. As a structure in time, a routine that carries practitioners toward greater balance, compassion and wakefulness, a monastery must be flexible and free enough to adapt to changing circumstances and to give monks time to be quiet and still, yet rigid enough to keep monks active and productive.

Thus the ideal monastic structure in space-time is informed by the history of monastic architecture, as well as the routines that have guided monks for hundreds of years.

Discipline is another piece of technology we apply to art-making. At certain times of the year we get up at the same time, work together to sustain ourselves as well as to make art (be it music, dance, theater, painting, sculpture, performance art, code, poetry, prose, synchronized swimming, etc….), and engage in contemplative activities like meditation, chant, and reading together throughout the day.

For the past 10 years, we have run public "artmonk retreats" and private practice periods, as well as laboratories for connecting silent contemplation and creativity, inspiration and expression. We have experimented with asceticism and renunciation, as well as ecstatic abundance ("Everything in moderation, even excess").

We practice various forms of sitting and moving meditation to (try to) bring focus to our minds and give us insights that we can apply to our individual or group creative work. In turn, the process of art-making benefits our progress along our personally-chosen psycho-spiritual paths, which may differ greatly from monk to monk.

At an institutional level, we focus on practice as much as on product. We consider ourselves an alternative form of art institution, and thus prize new ways of thinking about art: as devotion, as offering, as gift, as sacred act, as ritual, as individual expression of the divine, as teacher, as priest, as sacred text, and as sacrifice.

Similarly, we are an alternative economy: we practice resourcefulness and community in order to liberate artists from the prevailing economics of art that tends to turn it into a commodity.

We apply monastic forms of governance to our community living: we experiment with monastic rules and vows. For a few years, for example, many of us took yearlong "Artmonk Vows" to practice things like gratitude, presence, and resourcefulness.

We think about art as a lineage, or as a number of branching lineages, some of which are directly applicable to our vision of personal awakening and cultural transformation. Like other monastic traditions, we experiment with functional (rather than absolute) hierarchies. Each Art Monastery could have an Abbot or Abbess, as well as a spiritual director and an artistic director.

Like many monasteries, we are interested in being both removed from the world and actively engaged to make it better through service and hospitality. We have a commitment to the places we live. Like many traditions, we work with philosophical dialogue and debate to bring about conceptual artistic and philosophical/spiritual understanding.

This process is just a few years old, and we basically everything yet to learn. For example, even though we have occupied a few medieval monasteries in Italy, most of us have more experience with meditation retreats in Zen, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist lineages than with the realities of western monastic life. And while the ideas for much of what we do are borrowed from other monastic sources, they often have to be recompiled from the ground up to be useful and relevant to us. How can we honor tradition, even as we borrow from and adapt it to our unique mission?

These are the kinds of creative problems artmonks love most.


7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:46 AM
New Comment

Interesting stuff.

I wonder why intentional communities are so hot in the rationalsphere lately? Just off the top of my head: 1 2 3 4.

I suspect it's because we're seeing the limits of just improving your rationality individually.

Think of us like teenagers going through phases.

Rationalists seem to like to experiment on themselves, and that's easier to do in a supportive structure of some kind. cf Sangha

If you want to succeed, you need to find the Right Conditions to do so.

I very much like the idea of this, though I feel like I missed something. Was this itself the Open-Source guide, or is that somewhere on your website?

My first impressions on the hardest parts of making a "rationalist monastery": be getting people to voluntarily unplug from all of their input streams, and agreeing on how to run things.

What revenue streams do you guys use to maintain your setup? That seems like a very key practical part of making something like this happen.

Good questions. This was not intended as the Open-Source Guide, but more of an introduction or an outline of what's possible. My own understanding of How to Run a Monastery (Without Religion) is pretty shallow still, so I'm hoping to connect with others that are thinking about these things. I have some other blog posts that I might bring over that get to some specifics, based on personal experience or historical sources, but the Guide is yet-to-be.

"My first impressions on the hardest parts of making a "rationalist monastery": be getting people to voluntarily unplug from all of their input streams, and agreeing on how to run things.

Completely! The coolest and most wretched thing about setting up any kind of intentional community is that you get to choose what the rules are. (First you have to decide HOW to decide on rules, who gets to make what decisions and when, and how to change rules).

One rule could be that:

people have to give up all their input streams

but it could also be

let's all experiment for one year with not using devices after 10pm


no talking between 9pm and 9am; no sex on the Ides of March; no eye-contact when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars; no device-use in the building when dinner is hot

I guess an Open-Source Guide could be more like an API, showing inputs and outputs, and what parameters you might conceive of tweaking, and how that's gone well or terribly for others. The classical model (people of a single sex living together more or less completely cut off from the world) is pretty fucking intense, and there are groups like the Carthusians that take it to incredible extremes, living basically as proximate hermits. Check out Into Great Silence.

My only advice right now is: find people who want more or less the same thing that you want, and take SMALL STEPS together.

Revenue streams

Some facts up front: 1) we've never owned any property, and 2) we've never paid anyone a salary, strictly speaking. These would be great, but we haven't been able to make them happen yet. A corollary of 1 is that we have always either bartered our artistic services for space to live in (e.g. with municipalities in rural Italy who want to do something with their crumbling monastery AND want people to enact artistic events to drive tourism) or rented space to live in. A corollary of 2 is that we have (almost) always relied on people who could volunteer their time as staff, artists-in-residence, work-traders, etc. in exchange for "meaningful experiences," + and sometimes room & board or a plane ticket. The long-term community has been comprised of people who have side-income. Right now we're renting a farm-house in Vermont and running summer programs ("Art Monastic Laboratories" and "Artmonk Retreats").

Financial income to run programming has largely been from:

  • donations from individuals in the US
  • grants from the EU
  • an agriturismo (farm hotel) we ran for a couple years in Umbria
  • money paid for artistic services (e.g. we had a pretty great wedding band touring around central Italy for a while)

We've made literally tens of dollars selling products made by artmonks, e.g. knit objects, paintings, and an excellent (if I do say so) Bay Leaf liqueur called Lauro based on "an old monastic recipe." (I actually met with a liquor-law lawyer to investigate setting up a distillery or an infusery here in CA, but the idea fizzled because I got overwhelmed with the capital needed upfront to start something like that.)

We've brainstormed other cool methods to bring in revenue, including but not limited to a printing press, painting icons, doing "creativity consulting", but have yet to follow through on anything to the point of steady revenue.

One thing I've learned is that people who make a living with "art" tend to have gotten used to running pretty low to the ground. They can turn a food budget of a few euros/person/day into amazing feasts.

Another thing I've learned about self-defined artists is that some of them are very narcissistic, and some of them are self-destructively generous. All told, they make unreliable non-profit administrators.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations" (Orson Wells?) It seems the constraints and discipline of monastic life are allies of your creativity.