Monks, Mystics, and Mindfulness

Before the modern era, an autistic child born into a family of peasants would have been put to work on the farm, where there was no need to develop fluent speech or to understand complex patterns of social behavior.  But what if such a child happened to be born into a family of wealthy merchants or feudal lords?  What was to be done with him?

In light of the high social standing of the church in the Middle Ages, I’d speculate that autistic boys from upper-class families often were sent to monasteries.  The culture of quiet contemplation and ritual among Western monks, as established by the Benedictine order, suggests the influence of an autistic cognitive style.  A typical day for a Benedictine monk began with the familiar rituals of communal daily devotions, followed by several hours of individual study and contemplation.  He might then have spent the rest of the day doing manual labor; or if the monastery happened to be wealthy enough to have serfs to tend the fields, his work might have consisted of teaching boys to read and write Latin or copying manuscripts.  It’s easy to imagine the monks who spent their entire adult lives laboring over illuminated manuscripts, with careful attention to detail and an evident appreciation for beauty, as men who had significantly autistic patterns of thought.

Eastern religions also have a strong tradition of establishing monasteries governed by strict rituals and lengthy periods of contemplative study.  Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has a long history of seeking out boys with traits that would today be recognized as autistic—strong interests, precise and pedantic speech, and a fascination with books and learning—to become highly respected lamas, revered for their great knowledge.  Such boys are thought to be the reincarnations of wise religious leaders.

How can this history of autistic presence in monasteries, along with the closely related focus on silent contemplation and ritual in various forms of mysticism, be reconciled with the modern-day observation that autistics tend to be less inclined toward conventional religious belief?  As I discussed in my post last week, the autistic participants in a recent research study were significantly less likely than their non-autistic counterparts to attribute events in their lives to a higher power.  If indeed the autistic mind has a tendency to explain events in terms of naturally occurring processes rather than divine providence, then how did it happen that the monasteries developed what might fairly be characterized as an autistic culture?

A boy taken from his home at a young age and sent away to a Benedictine monastery or a Tibetan lamasery would not have had a choice in the matter, of course, and would have been required to conform to the expectations placed upon him there.  But I don’t think the life of an autistic monk can be dismissed as nothing more than rote repetition of prayers and copying of manuscripts without real understanding.  Rather, I’d suggest that religious belief can be very meaningful to some autistic individuals but that it is likely to have a different focus than the belief structure of the general population.  Autistic spirituality may be more centered on personal experience in the moment, without the need to seek supernatural explanations for why events happened.

Tyler Cowen speculates that the autistic tendency to focus intently on particular objects is similar to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, which entails being deeply aware of one’s surroundings and clearing one’s mind of distracting thoughts.  He gives the example of standing at a sink and focusing only on the water in it, while thinking of nothing else.  Perhaps this is a natural way of calming a mind that otherwise might focus obsessively on mental ordering and classification, he suggests.

This analogy has its limitations, as Cowen himself freely acknowledges.  While autistics often have favorite objects, Buddhism discourages attachment to material things.  And not all autistics feel inclined to commune joyfully with their dishwater.  Still, there may be something to the hypothesis that autistics who are religious believers tend to be drawn toward contemplative mystical or monastic practices to a greater extent than non-autistic believers.  It would be interesting to see more research in this area.

on 06/16/10 in Autism, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Your brevity and clarity speak for themselves, but a next step might be to remind that alongside “sent to monasteries,” we consider that autistics with a sufficient sense of self-direction would also *gravitate* to monasteries. I think too of the anchorites, essentially volunteer shut-ins leading lives more isolated even than monks. I expect they’d have been no more sent to their anchorholds than were our more recent lighthouse keepers and firetower lookouts. My point being that today there are countless lines of work in which countless mostly unsuspecting autistics are over-represented, often to the point that they dominate the ranks — because that work has pulled them there, just as the monasteries pulled them centuries ago when career choices were more limited.

    Also worth considering here is for instance Ovi Magazine’s article The Medieval Monks as Preservers of Western Civilization (, or Thomas Cahill’s How The Irish Saved Civilization:

    “Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.”

    Good to know, but to the extent this history is told and retold and appreciation, gratitude, and respect is directed toward monastic culture with no reference made to the autistic cognitive style’s prevalence among monastics, there remains a misallocation of that appreciation, gratitude, and respect — or, to not be all zero-sum about it: for autistics, payment due still exceeds accounts received.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Very much agreed that there are many people who find themselves drawn to certain lines of work without knowing why; and I expect that’s true of other neurological types as well.

    The mention of Irish monks in your comment made me think of an article I read last year about how people with speech disabilities were regarded in Ireland during that period. They were given more time in court proceedings and were generally well treated; a person who mocked someone’s disability might have to pay a fine.

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