The Mistakes the Urban Monk Made

For the past couple of years I secretly envied the monks life – no outside pressures, no bills, no bank accounts, living all day in a state of meditative calm, communing with nature, no stress…

But, with a wife and child, becoming a monk was never an option, so instead I wondered how I could live a monkish life here in the big city. Or at least, a very spiritual life. That, I thought, would certainly lead to happiness, good health, and longevity.

So I gave up meat, and alcohol, and cakes (and even cheese for a while), and tried to be aimless as much as possible, and tried to do more yoga, and tried to cut down on impure thoughts, and rejected materialism and new gadgets, and felt guilty about making money in our business, and stopped reading novels and only read spiritual texts…

And eventually I saw that the result is that I:

Got very thin by giving up so much sustenance at once, mistook ‘aimlessness’ for doing nothing and gave up a lot of my creative outlets, felt bad about my business doing so well, didn’t read any fun books or novels anymore, and generally did NOT end up leading the happy spiritual life I had envisioned!

But it’s hardly a surprise if you look at some of the language I use above! It’s full of ‘tried to’ and ‘rejected’ and ‘stopped’ and ‘gave up’ and ‘guilt’ – how far can I expect to get down the path to happiness if I’m spending all day aimlessly trying and stopping and feeling bad about things!

Over the summer I met a friend who had spent a long time in India, “doing yoga all day long”, living a very spiritual life. Like me, he was now very thin.

He told me he’d taken things a bit too far, and that it had actually ruined yoga for him – he’d overdosed. “It’s a shame really, yoga was the innocent victim in all this”.

Talking to him was like looking in a mirror – he’d taken ‘the spiritual thing’  too far, but now he was back in a middle place. Running an ethically oriented business. Going on retreats just sometimes, but realising that he needed periods without delving too deeply and stirring things up too much – time just to live.

He was studying again, a subject he really enjoyed, making art again too. Eating healthily, but whatever he felt his body needed. He was active, engaged with the real world. Just living! Having more fun!

“Other people are our mirrors, they show us everything we need to know about ourselves – aren’t we lucky to have so many mirrors around!” I have no idea who said that, but I like it.

Looking into the mirror of my old friend, I saw how much this is all about balance, not self-mortification! And how out of balance I’d become in my attempt to be the urban monk…

So instead of trying so hard, I can just get on with what requires less effort. Instead of being aimless, I can be creative. (I spent weeks this summer being ‘aimless’, doing nothing, not being creative at all, just ‘trying to be’, and it nearly drove me insane … and actually did drive my wife insane with the resulting impossible-to-live-with me!)

And “rejecting” material things implies exactly that – rejecting – which in the end is almost an act of aggression! It’s a pushing away, not an accepting. Instead of rejecting materialism, perhaps I can just release or side-step the aspects of it I don’t need.

And feeling guilty about earning money? As our business is ethical and our products make people happy and help them grow, that’s just pointlessly rejecting abundance in life! The same goes for happiness, wellbeing, friends, good luck – if we reject or feel guilty about having a lot of any of these, we are rejecting abundance. But the world is abundant in its gifts, and it seems like a pretty good idea to accept rather than reject them.

Another friend (another mirror!) went to see a doctor who told her, “when you are changing your life, be careful about trying to sign up for the whole pack all at once.” She was warning against trying to tick all the right boxes: yoga, veganism, minimalism, self-sufficiency, low spending, avoiding x, rejecting y, stopping z. Trying to be exactly the right kind of enlightened parents, with only the right kind of friends, the right kind of work, only reading the right kind of books etc etc etc…

How exhausting it is to suddenly get all that right!

But sometimes we need to go to extremes to realise where the balance point is again. I’m sure my friend had to go to India and do endless hours of yoga to find a happy middle place back at home again. And my attempts at being the urban monk have taught me a lot too, namely that trying to be an urban monk while running a business and looking after my family is not good for my health! (Or theirs!)

It’s time to relax, and enjoy life in the middle place again. Time to eat a little bit of the good food I used to enjoy, while still eating healthily. Read some novels, the good ones. Rejoice in how well the business is going. Buy a new camera and not feel bad about it! Get out into the real world again. And be creative.

As for being monk-like and spiritual – that still fits too: far from self-mortification, I think it’s about paying good attention to myself, getting to know myself, being kind to myself. Looking into the others-as-mirrors all around me. Seeing what works, what doesn’t – it’s about learning, readjusting, enjoying life … relaxing, smiling. Following the Middle Way. And from that place, paying careful, kind attention to the world around me again.

“Know thyself”, I’m beginning to see, is perhaps the greatest of all spiritual wisdom. The secret to inner peace, the foundation of happiness.

4 thoughts on “The Mistakes the Urban Monk Made”

  1. As with all things, balance is the (often elusive)key. Striving too hard for anything, even for happiness itself, can strangle the joy out of it. Good luck with your journey.

  2. Nice article Ben. I’m guilty of this ‘eliminating everything bad or unpure in one go’. I set myself up to fail, be stressed or miserable. I think it’s best to gradually add in the good stuff and eventually the bad will get crowded out. Must get around to do this!

  3. @Mary – thanks for your comment, yes, striving usually leads to trouble!

    @John – I think you are already doing it/going along the right lines!

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