Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “The Most Powerful You”
Studies over the years have revealed that monks are the happiest, calmest, and most focused people in the world. One monk’s brain produced the highest amounts of gamma waves—the waves associated with attention, memory, learning, and happiness—ever recorded. But many of us have embraced the belief that we can’t think or experience life like a monk unless we undergo the extreme rigors and sacrifice that we’ve heard monks endure.
Many believe that in order to reach a monk’s levels of inner calm, peace, empowerment and detachment from anxiety, pressure, and deep insecurity that keeps so many of us from thriving—we’d have to give up all our worldly possessions and walk away from our current way of life.
To learn more about how to think like a monk, and why that is deeply important if we’re to achieve a more aligned and truly successful and happy life, I was excited to catch up with Jay Shetty this week and explore how to practically align our “dharma” to our work so we can apply our talents successfully and in a rewarding way, to what we love doing.
Shetty’s personal story is riveting, including why he chose early in life to become a monk himself. It all started at age 18 when his friends pressured him to attend a talk given by a monk. He wasn’t interested at all, but he ended up going, with a promise from his friends to go to the pub directly after. In one interview, Shetty describes that in his teens, he had been was deeply motivated to attend as many talks as he could that were delivered by highly influential and “successful,” celebrated people of all walks, including CEOs, celebrities, authors, and influencers who were famous, rich, beautiful and strong. He wanted to learn all about their secrets to success. But it was in listening to the monk’s talk that Shetty finally felt—for the first time in his life—that he was experiencing someone who was truly happy. He was fascinated and wanted to learn more. From this experience, he studied and lived with the monk for three summers during his college years. And finally, at age 22, he turned down job offers in corporate finance to live and travel across India, UK and Europe as a monk.
Now, Shetty is a storyteller and podcaster spreading ancient wisdom that he’s learned to millions, making it practical, entertaining, and accessible. Since launching his video channel in 2016, Jay has produced over 400 videos, which have amassed more than 7.5 billion views and gained over 37 million followers globally. In 2017, he was named in the Forbes magazine 30 Under 30 for being a game-changer in the world of media. In 2018, he had the #1 video on Facebook with over 360 million views. Jay was on the cover of the November 2019 issue of Adweek and was a People Magazine “one to watch” in December 2019. He also won the 2019 Shorty Award for Health and Wellness.
Shetty’s On Purpose podcast has received 52 million audio downloads in its first year and over ten million views in podcast videos. iTunes named On Purpose in their Top New Podcast’s of 2019 and consistently rank Jay as the #1 Health Podcast.
In his first book, Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day, out this week, Shetty draws on his experience as a monk in a Hindu ashram to show how anyone can live a more meaningful life, with less sacrifice and more practicality.
Here’s what Shetty shares with us today:
Kathy Caprino: Jay, can you share how and why you became a monk?
Jay Shetty: During my first year at college, a friend invited me to go with him to hear a talk that was being given by a monk. At first, I thought, “No way!” I was far more interested in celebrities, CEOS—people who had done something with their lives—than some monk. But my friend kept after me and I finally agreed. As I sat there listening to the monk talk about the principle of selfless service, something shifted in me. I didn’t decide then and there to become a monk, though. For the next few years, during the summers I would stay part of the time at an ashram, studying with the monks.
I bounced back and forth between the ashram and college until it became clear to me that the ashram was where I belonged. It was really the combination of being able to learn and study on one hand, and on the other to dedicate myself to service—to plant trees under whose shade I did not plan to sit, as the monk had described—that appealed to me. I couldn’t think of anything to do with my life that could be more powerful or meaningful than that.
Caprino: What made you want to write Think Like A Monk?
Shetty: The principles and ideas I learned as a monk are much of what I share with others, yet I typically couch them in more modern language and blend them with data and with ideas and opinions from giants in business, entrepreneurs, influencers, and so on. Rarely have I spoken directly about my experiences as a monk, or given details about my monk training. I wanted to create something that dives deeply into all of that. Plus, there’s only so much I can say in a single video or podcast, and the book format allows me to include a lot more detail—more practical steps, wisdom, stories, and science.
Caprino: What would describe as the “monk perspective?”
Shetty: For me, one key perspective that has been foundational is the practice of detachment, which is an essential element of training the mind. When we are detached, we become observers of what is happening in our minds. We don’t just react to situations, but we evaluate them to decide what the right action is. This is one of the reasons monks undergo so many austerities, such as having few or no possessions or fasting—these are ways of practicing detachment. From this place of objectivity, we can more accurately and more vividly perceive the world around us; we aren’t so swept up in the urgency of our attachments.
Caprino: So how can we best incorporate this mindset in our everyday life, especially during times of crisis?
Shetty: A superpower that monks cultivate is to not judge what is happening; we do not label people or situations as “good” or “bad.” There’s a Taoist parable that speaks to this. One day a farmer’s horse runs away. “How unlucky!” his brother says. The farmer shrugs. “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?” he says. A week later, the horse finds his way back with a wild mare and the farmer’s brother says, “How lucky!” The farmer again shrugs and says, “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?” The story continues in this way through multiple events that at first seem good or bad, but are really just life unfolding. The principle is that the farmer doesn’t get caught up in “what if.” He simply lives in the present, noticing “what is.” With the pandemic, we have a perfect challenge to focus on “what is” in each day and each moment without judging it. Typically, it’s our judgments about a situation that cause us the most suffering.
Caprino: Today’s crisis is causing a great deal of fear and anxiety. What does it mean to get intimate with fear and why is it so important?
Shetty: Our typical reaction to fear is to avoid it. Instead, when we stop to acknowledge our fear and engage with it with curiosity, we can see what’s behind it. Then we can either release that fear or we can see what it’s trying to teach us. It’s only when we’re willing to get intimate with our fear that we can gain life-changing insight from it. Otherwise, fear becomes an opportunity lost.
Caprino: You’ve shared that learning to master the mind more important than mastering anything else in your life. Can you explain more on that?
Shetty: There’s a saying in martial arts that where the head goes, so goes the body. In that context, it means that if you physically grab someone’s head their body will automatically follow. But that saying applies to the mind, as well. Monks understand that where the mind goes, so goes the body… and everything else. When we master our mind—when we develop the ability to steer our perceptions—we master our internal states as well, as our external experience of the world.
Caprino: How can we best train our minds for peace and purpose?
Shetty: I think it’s helpful to look at two separate aspects of training—learning and performance. When we meditate, when we learn to make fear our friend, when we practice detachment, these are aspects of training that fall under the category of learning.
Then there is performance, when we must rely on all of these tools because we’re in the game, so to speak. Most people try to change their entire lives in the performance space. Instead, we need to practice shifting to a learning space, where we carve out time for dedicated work on focus, values, finding our purpose. We set our mindsets to learning mode, where we are more open to change and where we tolerate slip ups and mistakes more readily because we know we’re learning. Research from people including Carol Dweck at Stanford supports this idea. Monks have the ultimate growth mindset.
Caprino: Why is it so important to let go of OEOs (opinions, expectations, obligations)?
Shetty: One day during my monk training, one of my teachers took me to a storeroom and showed me a mirror covered with dust so thick I couldn’t even see my reflection. He wiped his sleeve across the mirror, and as I coughed and wheezed from the plume of dirt he’d set loose, he told me, “Your identity is a mirror covered with dust. Clearing it may not be pleasant, but only when that dust is gone can you see your true reflection.” What I refer to as OEOs are that dust, and it’s only in clearing them or letting them go that we can see our true selves.
Caprino: Why is having a daily routine so crucial?
Shetty: Brain research shows that we have something called a default mode where we take things we do frequently and make them automatic. We can capitalize on this when we create healthy, positive routines in our day. Maybe we start going to bed an hour earlier, or if instead of checking our phones first thing in the morning, we develop a habit of getting up and stretching, or listing three things we’re grateful for. When we build these things into our routine, we don’t have to think about them; we start to do them automatically. This sets us up for success throughout the day.
Caprino: Many people have tried to engage in a meditation practice, but struggle to maintain that practice. What can they do differently so they can integrate meditation in different areas of their life?
Shetty: There are many different types of meditation, each of which impacts our lives in different ways. There are meditation techniques to cultivate focus, compassion, loving kindness, gratitude, and so on. There are also meditative breathing techniques, some of which calm our anxiety, some that raise our energy, etc. So it’s important to use the techniques that will create the results you are looking for, and once you have that meditation toolbox, you can pull out whatever meditative tool you need in the moment or situation to support you.
Caprino: How can your advice help leaders in these trying times?
Shetty: Especially in stressful times, people turn to leaders for answers. Some of the most powerful leadership is leading by example. If leaders can train themselves for peace and purpose, if they can demonstrate detachment and not judge the moment, if leaders can uncover the lessons of fear, they not only become adept at navigating their organizations through tough times, they lead by example and become sources of inspiration to those around them. The greatest leaders seek first to lead themselves.
Caprino: What’s the first step anyone could take to start applying your growth strategies tomorrow?
Shetty: Breathe. I know that might sound trite or perhaps simplistic, but it really is the most basic things that can make the biggest impact. First, in the most literal sense, steady, slow breathing calms the nervous system. That helps to quiet our anxiety and fear. From there, we have the space to take a step back and practice detachment—to start viewing our circumstances more objectively so that while we acknowledge our emotions, we don’t let them make our decisions for us. That can start tomorrow, or even right now.
For more information, visit Think Like a Monk, and Jay Shetty.
To build a more impactful and meaningful career, read Kathy Caprino’s new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss and join her Amazing Career Project 16-week online course this season.