Think like a monk, not a monkey
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day
Jay Shetty, 2020
I've always wondered about monks. Monasteries and monks have been around for centuries and are found in many major religions from Christianity to Buddhism. Monks live a quiet life of prayer and meditation and seem to be much closer to God or enlightenment than the rest of us. It would be informative to find a monk who could share with us their experiences and lessons that could apply to the rest of us. We can't all be monks, but we can be more monk-like if that helps us find peace and happiness.
This book is a unique opportunity from a monk who spent time in a monastery and came back into the world to share what he learned. Jay Shetty spent 3 years living as a monk in India, and then left the monastery to become a best-selling author and podcast host. His book, Think Like a Monk, landed on the New York Times bestseller list and his podcast, On Purpose claims to be the #1 health and wellness podcast in the world. Shetty has made his experiences as a monk the cornerstone of an attempt to spread timeless wisdom in an accessible way.
Since the book's publication, Jay Shetty has been accused of plagiarism and there has been controversy where many of his social media posts were taken down. Shetty is a large, popular presence on social media, and it's believable that in the rush to churn out content he may have cut some corners. This book borrows heavily from other people, but Shetty's experiences in an ashram are authentic and that's the best part of the book- where he relates his own personal experiences. So I will overlook the allegations for now because the content itself is what matters.
Shetty distinguishes two mindsets- the monk mind that is calm and disciplined, with the monkey mind, one that is easily distracted and thinking short-term only. We think some 70,000 thoughts a day, and the majority of them are negative ones. The author encourages us to become aware of many of these negative messages with a technique called spot-stop-swap. You need to become aware of the negative message first, then stop it, and then swap it out with something that is more positive and helpful.
The first part of the book is about letting go of negativity and fear, both of which hold us back from our true purpose. To combat fear and anxiety, he recommends breathing exercises where you inhale slowly for a count of four, hold for four counts, and then exhale for a count of four. Living in fear makes our problems follow us and get bigger. Only by accepting them and then addressing them can we move on to our bigger purpose.
The second part of the book is all about finding your purpose, or Dharma as they call it in Buddhism. Your purpose in life can be found by adding your passion and skills (what they call Varna), to your understanding of what the world needs (Seva). When you have purpose or Dharma, you feel alive, comfortable, and awash in life's flow. Not everyone can be a supreme court judge or rock star, but we all can merge our passions and skills to find something that the world needs.
Monks have a different way of dealing with the world, and their dedication to deep, contemplative work is admirable in this age of multi-tasking and shallowness. They work hard to detach themselves from things that blind them or hold them back, and it's easy to see how a larger perspective makes life more purposeful. There are many great examples of what monks do here, like waking up earlier and making the day intentional, rather than turning on the television and checking your phone. That may be my biggest takeaway from the book- start and end your day with quiet, conscious thought and gratitude.
The end of the book is devoted to service- how can we reach out to others. Shetty has obviously taken this to heart as he devotes this book and his podcast to helping and inspiring others. He spends an entire chapter on gratitude, which can transform even the most bitter person into a kind one. Being thankful for your day, your meals, your friends gives us a broader view that overcomes pain and depression.
To reach out, we need to build strong relationships of trust, and most of us are dishonest at least part of the time. We need to work on showing others that we are competent, care about what's best for them, have a strong moral compass, and are reliable and consistent. Exchanging gifts, engaging in meaningful conversation, and sharing food are the three best relationship opportunities we have to connect with each other.
One thing I didn't realize was that monks don't always sit alone in monasteries praying all day. They only do that in the mornings. In the afternoons they reach out to the community to serve, which is the whole purpose of enlightenment and Dharma according to this book. Service could mean teaching, helping with physical labor, or just listening to people's problems and trying to help. It depends on skills, passion, and what the community needs.
I doubt that I will ever spend time as a monk, though a week-long retreat sounds intriguing. The fast-paced lives that we lead don't leave much time for reflection or gratitude. Thinking like a monk sounds like a good thing to try once in a while, and you don't have to give up everything necessarily to do it. I appreciated this book's attempt to show me the world of the monk, though I've heard many of the concepts before. If it makes a few people live more intentionally and helps them find their purpose, it's worth a read.
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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.