Be a Sheltering Monastery – Some Thoughts on Intimacy

Tamil Nadu 2006-7
Tamil Nadu 2006-7

I attended a talk once where a question was posed by the speaker, “What does it mean to live a spiritual life?” I did not like his answer which was either to accept everything or reject everything. But the question is one that I ask myself again and again, and my own answer changes. At the time my answer was to recognize your path when it presents itself to you. The recognition, and possibly choosing being the important part. The path could be anything. Now I’m not so sure. It feels as if it is remaining open to all the ‘what ifs’. Seeing where I might have been closed before. The ‘presentation’ perhaps not as clear as I imagined it to be. It seems that it’s about trusting.

Constant redefinition of the monastery is essential to soul health.

-Linda Montano


Martine Batchelor as a nun
Martine Batchelor as a nun

I recently watched a documentary about a teacher (Martine Batchelor) in the Buddhist tradition. She had been a nun from a young age and then fell in love with another monk at the monastery and left with him to pursue a life as a couple outside. She described her path as going ‘backwards’ to the way that it should in life. There were some interesting bits about them having to learn to be romantic with one another and to learn to engage in those emotions and to choose to be affectionate rather than to remain with any negative feelings that might arise. Anyway, what I am hearing people talk about a lot lately are human relationships and communities, and, the importance of living in community in order to grow spiritually. It occurs to me that an important idea in all of this is of intimacy. It seems that regardless of which path you are walking, there is a real need for a wise view of intimacy, whether you are formally following a path, have renounced the idea of forming ties of a romantic or familial nature, whether you live in a monastery, an ashram, a cave or a condo. I have had opportunity to observe quite a lot, flailing as I have between ashram life and life outside. I have observed struggle with these choices, and I have seen many stumble and create storms within the community by their actions and choices and it feels as if, if we had a very good framework and understanding of intimacy, and the difference between intimacy and relationship or sex or family within the monastic traditions that this could be helpful. Intimacy feels to have potential to be both very human and very spiritual and my best guess is that most of us need it in some form or another.

It is not the path which is the difficulty. It is the difficulty which is the path.

-Soren Kierkegaard

Even the root of the word monastery means to live alone. But we are not alone, we never are. And yet, when we relate with others we learn that ultimately each of us is alone. Clearly, as Linda Montana, one of my favourite performance artists suggests, it can be useful to define what the monastery is for us. And for someone walking a path, this seems important. I also think that there is potential in the definition of monastery to consider the role that we play in others’ lives, and how we relate. I found a quotation, and now it seems I’ve lost it which suggested that we need to “be a sheltering monastery” for another. That reads to me as leaving space for that person, but also being protective of their spiritual needs. A spiritual guardianship perhaps. But it also implies caring. As an example, when we sit together for meditation, it is my duty not to disturb the solitude of another, as well as to cultivate my own mind space. It feels to me as if this sheltering or protection of another is, actually intimacy. A caring presence that allows the other to be free.

“In the monastery of your heart, you have a temple where all Buddhas unite.”


My father bought me Susan Cain’s wonderful book on introversion, “Quiet”, proclaiming, “look, someone wrote a book about you!”. There’s one part that absolutely sticks in my head and speaks to the power of intimacy. She talks about her family life: “In our house, reading was the primary group activity. On Saturday afternoons we curled up with our books in the den. It was the best of both worlds: you had the animal warmth of your family right next to you, but you also got to roam around the adventure-land inside your own head.

"Rope Piece", 1983-1984, Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh
“Rope Piece”, 1983-1984, Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh

I am, of course, just touching the surface of a very deep topic, and one which I think about quite often. I almost don’t know what I’m trying to say, but I feel that it is important to say it! I wonder, if we admit the spiritual necessity of intimacy, whether we can more wisely negotiate, or trust in the variety of paths that present to us. I leave the final word to Rilke:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet





  1. I love that Montana performance piece.. Being tied together for a year. Forced intimacy….I am sure a whole lot was learned in this experiment about eachother and ideas of the self.
    When you have a new baby, especially if breastfeeding, the first year is also like this…. A complete breakdown of individual self/ boundaries/ personal space… A total intimacy on which survival rests. (The hormones help a lot too)
    I do believe there is a spiritual necessity to intimacy, of one kind or another. We are alive in these bodies, and they require touch and closeness in order to be balanced. Whether that is cuddles or hugs or adjustments in a yoga class, or massage… It’s vital. And in some ways disappearing in our world. I’ve seen ( novice ) monks walking holding hands in a charming manner… Even grown men in India in business suits would stroll down the street holding hands some year back ( not sure that this is still acceptable with the westernisation of the ‘East’)
    I know there was a lonely time in my life when I would bump into people – strangers, if there is indeed such a thing- in the supermarket just to have contact.

    1. Thanks for your comments! I agree, I think in certain cultures people seem to enjoy jostling against one another for the human contact. You can see it even in certain parts of Toronto.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s