DT-Think Like a Monk

This dharma talk draws on Jay Shetty’s book Think Like a Monk. His personal story is quite unusual. He grew up in a middle-class Indian family in London and was groomed to be successful. At the age of 18, during his first year of college at Cass Business School, he met a monk named Gauranga Das, who had abandoned a high-powered career path to join a service-oriented ashram in Mumbai, India. The monk’s confidence, joy, and inner peace inspired Jay to visit the ashram, where he meditated and studied ancient spiritual texts during summer vacations. To his parents’ dismay, Jay chose not to attend his college graduation or to pursue a job in finance. Instead, he opted to become a monk.

After Jay had lived in the Indian monastery for three years, one of his mentors advised him to shed his monk’s robes and to bring the wisdom of his monastic experiences into the world. Penniless and with no job prospects he returned to London to live with his parents. When he reconnected with business school friends, they complained about stress and unhappiness in their work at large, competitive corporations. His friends convinced Jay to coach them about well-being and mindfulness. He went on to become an internationally renowned corporate trainer, teacher, and creator of the health and wellness podcast On Purpose.

In his book, Jay points to practices in the monastery that continue to influence his daily life and his teaching. He describes how each monk shaves his head and has only two robes, one to wear and one to wash. With no mirrors around, outer appearance fades in importance. The monks wake up before dawn, eat plain, simple meals, go to bed before 10:00 pm, sleep on thin floor mats, and have no access to cell phones, TV, or movies. Freed from usual distractions, the monastics keep silence most of the day to tend to routine tasks and inner life. If they do speak, it is with clear and positive intention. In Jay’s words, “When we tune out the opinions, expectations, and obligations of the world around us, we begin to hear ourselves [and connect to our] core beliefs.”

In their dharma talks, teachers at the ashram distinguish between higher values that lead to happiness and fulfillment and lower values that incline the mind towards anxiety and depression. According to the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, the higher values include fearlessness, purity of mind, gratitude, service and charity, nonviolence, truthfulness, compassion, renunciation, kindness, integrity, and determination. The six lower values are greed, lust, anger, ego, illusion, and envy. Although any of those six can consume us if we’re attached to them, there are fewer of them than the many values that can uplift us.

At the monastery, right speech was a priority. Gauranga Das taught a class called “Cancers of the Mind: Comparing, Complaining, Criticizing.” He assigned the monks an exercise to keep a written log of every criticism they thought or spoke. For each negative judgment about someone, they had to list ten good qualities of that person. This practice of seeing weaknesses in the larger context of strengths helped the monks to view themselves and others as fundamentally good. If they criticized others, they were more aware of negative qualities in themselves. By looking for the good in others, they could see positive aspects of themselves.

Fresh out of the ashram, Jay felt uncomfortable when his corporate friends engaged in backbiting gossip about the misfortunes of other colleagues. He remembered a Buddhist teaching: “Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.” Instead of participating in gossip, Jay would steer the conversation to more wholesome topics. Eventually his friends stopped trying to gossip with him and trusted that he would not speak unkindly about them behind their backs.

In the monastic community, Jay learned to spot his negative thoughts, words, and actions; to stop unwholesome habits; and to swap them for more productive and positive ones. He was in the company of monks who recognize that envy and competition limit their happiness. They embrace Mudita, the principle of taking sympathetic joy in the success and good fortune of others. In their daily lives, they practice forgiving themselves and others.

As Jay says, “Sometimes, when we feel shame or guilt for what we’ve done in the past, it’s because those actions no longer reflect our values …. This is actually good news—the reason we’re hurting over our past is because we’ve made progress. We did the best we could then, but we can do better now.” Once we face the fact that we cannot undo the past, we begin to accept our imperfections and to forgive ourselves.

Self-forgiveness lays the groundwork for the most sublime form of forgiveness: to wish for the wellbeing of people who have caused us pain. Pema Chödrön confesses, “I became a Buddhist because I hated my husband.” After their divorce, her anger and blame about his affair made her feel stuck and miserable. The writings of Trungpa Rinpoche helped her to “become more like a river than a rock.” As she let go of rage and fear of the unknown, she found her true calling as a nun. Not only did Pema forgive her ex-husband, but she now refers to him as one of her greatest teachers.

In the ashram, Gauranga Das taught the monks to face their deep fears from the past—to relive the sights, sounds and smells of what they had experienced. By uncovering, accepting, and creating a new relationship with his fear of humiliation and failure, Jay learned to relinquish what he calls his “fear of fear.” Now he teaches that we fear the wrong things, declaring, “What we should really fear is that we will miss the opportunities that fear offers.”

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker writes about fear as “a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” If we pay attention to what fear can teach us about our values, we can use it as a path to greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives.

Most of our fears stem from attachment and our efforts to own or control material things and relationships. Monks practice accepting that everything is impermanent. Instead of imagining catastrophic scenarios about “what if,” they focus on the reality of “what is.” They are grateful for a few possessions, which they view as borrowed for a limited time.

*Jay recommends an exercise called “Audit your Attachments.” Ask yourself “What am I afraid of losing?” Start with external attachments such as your intimate partner, your friends, your home, your car, your financial security, or your youthful appearance and fitness. Move to internal attachments, such as your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being, your personal memories, and your sense of meaning and purpose.

Imagine changing your mental relationship with your attachments. Once we understand and accept that all things are temporary and that we cannot truly own or control anything, we appreciate what enhances our life without grasping at sustaining it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca noted that, “Our fears are more numerous than our dangers, and we suffer more in our imagination than reality.”

Monastic life taught Jay to deal with adversity—not to judge the moment but to accept the situation as an opportunity to learn what truly matters. As a monk, he learned a simple breathing exercise to calm the body and alleviate fearful thoughts. Let’s try the technique now:

*Close your eyes and imagine a situation that has been troubling you.

Then turn attention to your breathing.

Inhale slowly to a count of 4.

Hold your breath for a count of 4. 

Exhale slowly to a count of 4, and hold your breath for a count of 4.

Repeat this process until you sense your heart rate slow down. Modern monks like Jay understand that deep breathing activates our nervous system’s vagus nerve, which stimulates a relaxation response throughout the body. Controlled breathing shifts from the sympathetic or “fight-flight-freeze” state to the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state.

Recently, I faced a situation in which I needed to think like a monk. Mark and I were serving breakfast to houseguests, when our aging refrigerator melted down, flooding the kitchen. I watched my mind resisting reality and judging the moment as unacceptable.

My thoughts zoomed into the future with worries about seeking replacements for broken parts or spending thousands of dollars to purchase a new fridge. Then I returned to the present moment and phoned our repairman Leonard. While Mark gave our guests a tour of the neighborhood, Leonard replaced the refrigerator’s fan and tinkered with its wiring. Then he removed the circuit panel and sent it away for repairs—a weeklong process.

I transferred spoilable food to a camping cooler, and, as soon as our guests departed, Mark started cooking fish and chicken. Together we began a daily process of restocking the cooler with bags of ice. I remembered how many people around the world have no refrigeration and face shortages of food. Gratitude practice helped me to appreciate what still functions in our kitchen and to be thankful for Mark’s teamwork.  

When I’m dealing with unexpected difficulties, I appreciate daily routines, which ground my body and free my mind. In a monastery, there is regular scheduled time for prayer, meditation, work, and exercise. None of those routines need to become monotonous. Whatever they are doing and wherever they are, monks are trained to be aware of their surroundings. Every day at the ashram, a senior monk challenged Jay and other novitiates to keep their eyes open for something new as they took a thirty-minute walk along the same forest path. No matter how many times they walked that path, they discovered flowers, stones, seeds, and insects that they had never seen before. The monks learned that life is not as certain as we assume and that there is novelty in every situation.  

For us non-monastics, thinking like a monk can help us to establish healthy routines, to pay attention to fresh details around us, to face fears, to simplify our lives, to let go of attachments, and to forgive ourselves for inevitable mistakes. We have time to discuss any responses to Jay’s ideas about how to think like a monk.