Finding Sanctuary in the Modern World

finding sanctuary in the modern world

‘Sanctuary’ derives from the Latin word sanctus, meaning holy, and originally referred to a sacred place (such as a shrine) that was set apart from the ordinary world. In a religious context, a sanctuary is a place of holiness or safety, although the term is now used to denote any area of safety or refuge. However, a sanctuary doesn’t have to be a holy place or a place where we can hide safely from danger. A sanctuary also carries connotations of being a quiet place, where we can escape the busyness and hectic happenings of life. Being able to enjoy quiet repose is sometimes needed. The benefits of retreating to a personal sanctuary for a while can be subtle but manifold.

Yet, it can be challenging to find sanctuary in the modern world. After all, our culture places a heavy emphasis on being busy. By constantly having things to do, we feel that we must be living life to the fullest and making the most of precious time. Productivity has become the foundation on which we build our self-esteem. It’s become a source of salvation.

The Importance of Taking a Break

The physical environment of the modern world can make it difficult to find sanctuary. Living in a city can be mentally exhausting at times. On a daily basis, city-dwellers may face a barrage of noise, lights, and people, which can be overstimulating and often leads to a feeling of being overstressed, overwhelmed, and drained. This experience is referred to in psychology as overload – and it can be a contributing factor in mental health issues. This is because the stimulating nature of a city elicits the body’s fight-or-flight response (or acute stress response): it’s an ancient, hard-wired reaction that occurs when we’re faced with something potentially dangerous or threatening.

The physiological and psychological changes related to the fight-or-flight response prepare us to either fight an adversary or flee from harm’s way. With city life constantly putting our body under stress, we develop chronic stress, making us vulnerable to problems such as fatigue, irritability, anxiety, depression, and social isolation (we will tend to withdraw in order to avoid the overstimulation of the city). City life can also impact your sleep and cardiovascular health.

One of the most beneficial ways to mitigate these sorts of negative effects is to seek out – and regularly make use of – a sanctuary. And if you can’t find a sanctuary, you should try to make one.

How to Find Sanctuary

A sanctuary is often a personal thing. For example, I have described the gym as my sanctuary because it helps me to ‘get in the zone’ and improve my mental health through focused, strenuous physical activity. However, somebody might find a gym too artificial, busy, and noisy to truly be a sanctuary.

Generally speaking, a sanctuary is where we can unwind, relax, be still, and enjoy a sense of tranquillity. This might take place in a gym or in secluded natural surroundings. I certainly appreciate the latter option and would say that a quiet place in nature is my preferred kind of sanctuary. As a city-dweller, it might not necessarily be that easy or affordable to venture out into the forest or mountains, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the calming effects of nature. Your local park or garden can provide natural sights and sounds to help you break free from the jarring elements of city life, work, and everyday stresses. If you’re already in the city, or perhaps struggling with cabin fever in your home, you could find some respite by making a trip to botanical gardens or to a much bigger green space.

Of course, a sanctuary doesn’t have to be in natural surroundings. It can simply be a place where you feel undisturbed and at peace. As a city-dweller, your sanctuary might be a viewpoint, a library, an art gallery, a museum, a church, or somewhere you just can sit and watch the world go by.

If you are unable to find a sanctuary, you can always create your own. You can think of your bedroom as a sanctuary, as the place you retreat to, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. But a bedroom is not automatically a sanctuary just because the room is yours and you have privacy. Indeed, if your room is cluttered, messy, and dirty, it won’t feel like a sanctuary at all. Your room will become another physical environment which leaves you feeling unsettled.

One way to turn your bedroom into a sanctuary is by adopting minimalism. This involves keeping the absolute bare necessities in a room and doing away with whatever is unnecessary or useless. How we define the ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’ objects and features of a room is, undoubtedly, up for debate. Nevertheless, if we think of minimalism as a movement that promotes the art of living simply, we can at least conclude that clutter and disorganisation run counter to this mindset.

Minimalist bedrooms can be designed and achieved in all sorts of ways. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on altering your bedroom with minimalism in mind. In fact, by making a conscious effort to stop filling your room with stuff, you will save money in the long-term. Most importantly, though, you will be able to relish the personal sanctuary you have created: a unique hideout in a frantic world. 

The Benefits of Having a Personal Sanctuary

Having a reliable sanctuary entails wide-ranging benefits. A sanctuary can allow you to ease your stress and tension after a busy day, as well as give you time for introspection. Whenever I spend time in a sanctuary, like a local park, just sitting and not doing anything in particular, it feels like I am decompressing. The internal chatter in my head slows down and fades out. My mind will reflect the quietude of the surroundings, showing, quite palpably, that you always tend to embody – in some shape or form – the environment in which you find yourself. If you’re immersed in busyness all the time, your mind will also become busy. In order to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed or fatigued, it’s helpful to take a pause in a sanctuary.

I think it’s also vital to underscore the benefits of a sanctuary as a place where you can do absolutely nothing. The Dutch have a name for this lifestyle practice of idleness – they call it niksen. When you’re practising niksen, you’re consciously setting aside time to let your mind go wherever it happens to go. You could achieve this, for instance, by staring out the window or lying motionless on your bed.

Some psychologists believe that niksen, which many people would naturally call “lazy”, “boring”, or “wasteful”, can improve our mental health, as well as (counterintuitively) our productivity. For example, Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, has conducted research showing that the daydreaming and mind wandering associated with idleness “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” And creativity is a central driver of productivity.

Moreover, when we spend time in a sanctuary doing nothing, we are resting and recharging. This will allow us to enter the modern world again with more vitality to get things done.

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