Updated: May 2, 2022
I recently finished reading Thinking Like a Monk by Jay Shetty, and it is one of the best books I’ve read. The quality density is extremely high: my notes had over 17,000 words! I’m very excited to share my key learnings from the book and how I’ve applied them in my life. I hope this article will help you attain more peace and purpose in your life.
In our modern society, people are so preoccupied with chasing “happiness”, and their image of happiness is based on what the media shows: fame, money, glamour, pleasure. The problem is, people will just seek more and more of these things, leading to frustration, disillusion, unhappiness, and exhaustion.
If we want to learn anything, we should find the experts. If you want to learn basketball, you learn from Michael Jordan. If you want to learn innovation, you learn from Elon Musk. If you want to learn happiness, peace, and purpose, you learn from monks. In fact, the world’s happiest man is a monk named Matthieu Ricard. He was given that title after researchers scanned his brain and found the highest levels of gamma waves (associated with happiness) ever recorded by science.
Jay wrote this book to help people in modern urban settings live more purposeful and more productive lives. He spent three years living as a monk, and after he returned to modern society, he found that his monk training helped him not just cope, but thrive in the pressures of modern society. Hence, he is on a mission to spread monk wisdom across the world.
Jay explains that most of us have a Monkey Mind, and he wants to help us cultivate a Monk Mind.
The book has three parts: Let Go, Grow, and Serve. We have to first let go of all the unwanted baggage that we inherited from society, which we probably aren’t even aware that we are carrying. After letting go, we have the space to grow ourselves by purifying our minds. Finally, with out growth, we can serve others and the world.
These three parts are divided into 11 chapters, which I will summarize into 11 key ideas. At the end, I summarize the meditation practices that he recommends throughout the book and talk about my own experiences.
Here is a click-able table of contents.
Key Idea 1: Clarify Your Identity
“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”
—Charles Horton Cooley, 1902
The problem most of us face is that we do not consciously and intentionally decide on our values. In other words, we don’t pick what we deem as important. We just accept and inherit what other people around us think are important.
When we live our lives trying to impress others based on values that we didn’t consciously choose, then we will be tired and stressed all the time. Therefore, the first step to thinking like a monk is to get clear on your values.
Once you are clear on your values, you have a compass to guide you towards people, actions, and habits that are best for you. Jay tells us to play the Media Mind Game:
List your values.
Identify the origin of that value.
Reflect on whether or not that value aligns with your true self.
Here is an example:
Jay encourages us to avoid lower values, which demote us to anxiety, depression, and suffering. Instead, we should adopt higher values, which propel us towards happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. He also notes that happiness and success are not values; they are rewards.
After listing your values and identifying which ones are truly your values, audit your life to see if you are living in accordance with those values. Specifically, audit your time, money spending, and media:
How much time did you spend on family, friends, health, and self? Does it match your priorities?
How much money did you spend, and on what items? Do they correspond with your values?
What media did you watch? For how long? Does it match your values?
He then encourages us for one week to be really conscious about making value-driven decisions. For that week, whenever you spend time or money, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What is the value behind this decision?” He also encourages us to surround ourselves with people that match our values.
Clarifying our identity and then living in accordance with it will guide us towards a happy and meaningful life.
Key Idea 2: Reverse negativity with Spot-Stop-Swap
“Petty, negative thoughts and words are like mosquitos: Even the smallest ones can rob us of our peace.”
Jay lists three cancers of the mind: comparing, complaining, and criticizing.
In order to overcome use bad habits, he recommends using Spot, Stop, Swap:
Spot the negative feeling.
Stop to understand what it is.
Swap in a way of processing the feeling.
The goal of spot is to increase our awareness because we often don’t even realize we’re being negative. Notice what makes you negative and how often you are negative. We can list our negative thoughts and reflect on where they came from. When we envy or judge others, that’s often a reflection of our own insecurities.
In the stop step, we need to stop our negative behavior. We can breathe slowly and consciously to assert self-control. Then remind ourselves to speak only what is true, beneficial, non-hurtful, and timely. We need to remember that comparing, complaining, and criticizing will not help the situation.
In the swap step, swap out your usual mindless venting and instead bring in a mindful request. Researchers have found that happy people still complain, but they do so mindfully, whereas those who thoughtlessly vent end up feeling worse. We can be mindful of our negativity by being specific.
For example, let’s say your partner came home late from work and you feel annoyed. First, you spot that feeling of annoyance. Second, you stop before speaking out in annoyance. You remind yourself to speak only what is true, beneficial, non-hurtful, and timely. Then, you swap out the complaint you were going to make and instead make it a specific request that comes from a place of care instead of hurt.
You can say to your partner, “I appreciate that you work hard and have a lot to balance. When you come home later than promised, it upsets me and makes you feel like you don’t care about me. You could support me by texting me as soon as you know you’re running late.”
Another negative emotion is anger, which arises from hurt. People often seek revenge because they think they will feel better when they see the way that person responds. But it rarely turns out as planned, and then you end up in even more pain. We need to use forgiveness to transform anger.
“When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. When you squeeze someone full of pain, pain comes out. Instead of absorbing it or giving it back, if you forgive, you help diffuse the pain.”
If you are angry, Jay recommends writing a forgiveness letter on paper. You don’t actually send this letter to them. It’s a method of working through your anger.
Visualize yourself in the other person’s shoes. Acknowledge their pain and understand that’s why they are giving you pain.
On paper, list all the ways you think the other person did you wrong. Start each item with “I forgive you for…” Keep going until you get everything out.
Acknowledge your own shortcomings. List the ways you feel you did wrong, starting each with “Please forgive me for…”
When you’re done writing the letter, record yourself reading it. play it back and listen to it.
You can even write a forgiveness letter to yourself. Replace steps 3 & 4 with “I forgive myself for…” When we forgive ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes, we open ourselves up to the emotional healing we need.
Ultimately, these negative emotions come from fear and the ego, which the book goes into more detail about later.
In conclusion, we should challenge ourselves to dig to the roots of our negativity, understand it, and be thoughtful of how we manage it. Rather than vent mindlessly, we should spot, stop, and swap. We should observe, reflect, and develop new behaviors.
Key Idea 3: Get intimate with fear, then detach.
“Our fears are more numerous than our dangers, and we suffer more in our imagination than reality.”
We’ve been taught that fear is bad. But fear isn’t bad. It’s a warning signal. We can use fear to develop solutions or we can allow it to overwhelm us and do nothing as a result. It’s all about how we respond to the signal.
People have four emotional reactions to fear: panic, freezing, running away, burying it. These four reactions distract us and prevent us from using fear productively.
In order to use fear productively, we need to
Acknowledge the fear
Rate the fear
Find your fear patterns
Detach from the fear
When we acknowledge the fear, we say “I see you and I’m here for you”. Fear and pain are both asking for attention. Saying “I see you” gives them the attention they need. Second, rate your fear on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being your absolute worst fear. This helps us put the situation into perspective. Third, ask your fear, “When do I feel you?” Get intimate with your fears. All fears come from an attachment to something impermanent, so the solution is to detach from that thing.
For example, a person came to Jay because she was tired of being a lawyer and wanted to do something new, but she was afraid. Jay asked her what she’s afraid of, and she said “What if I don’t succeed?”. Jay wanted to get deeper at the roots of her fear, so he kept asking, “What are you really scared of?” Eventually, she said, “I’ve spent so much effort and energy building this career. What if I’m just throwing it all away?” Jay asked again, and then she said she’s afraid of being seen as anything less than an intelligent, capable person by others and herself. That was the root of her fear.
Once she intimately understood her fear, she was able to work with it. She could detach from prestige and recognize that it comes and goes with time. That freed up energy for her to then go find role models who were former lawyers and successfully transitioned to something new.
Jay recommends us to audit our attachments. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of losing?” Start with the external things like possessions and looks. Then move onto internal things like status and acceptance. Then for each thing, accept that it is temporary and that you can’t truly own it or control it. When we no longer try to control it, we will feel our fear dissolve, and we will feel gratitude and freedom.
To conclude, after we identify the attachment behind a fear and then foster detachment, we can live with freedom and enjoyment.
Key Idea 4: Hone Good Intentions
“When there is harmony between the mind, heart, and resolution then nothing is impossible.”
The Four Levels of Motivation
Whether or not our actions lead to happiness depends on or intentions behind them. The book mentions four motivations: fear, desire, duty, and love.
Fear is being driven by negative things like sickness, poverty, and death. Fear is like a flare that alerts us to a problem, but it is not a sustainable motivator. IF we operate on fear for too long, we will lose our ability to function, or we WILL become frantic or paralyzed.
Desire is being driven by personal gratification through wealth, success, and pleasure. These things are all illusions that don’t truly make us happy. Jay explains that we don’t desire a “thing” in life, we desire the feeling we think that thing will give us. But material things can’t give us happiness. Happiness and fulfillment come from mastering the mind and connecting with the soul.
“Success is earning money, being respected in your work, executing projects smoothly, receiving accolades. Happiness is feeling good about yourself, having close relationships, making the world a better place.”
Duty is being motivated by gratitude, responsibility, and doing the right thing. Love is motivated by helping and caring for others. Duty and love give us purpose and meaning, and they lead to true happiness.
When we are motivated by duty and love, we can better handle stress. For example, a mother can endure late nights planning a birthday party for her child because she gets satisfaction from being a loving mother. But if she has to stay up late for a job she hates, she would be miserable.
The Why Ladder
Jay recommends using the Why Ladder to find out the true intention behind our desires. Doing this requires us to not only think about why we want something, but also who we are and whether being that person appeals to us.
For example, let’s say you want to get rich. Keep asking yourself “Why?”
Why do you want to become rich?
“I don’t ever want to have to worry about money again.”
Why do you worry about money?
“I can’t afford to take the vacations I dream about.”
Why do you want those vacations?
“I see everyone on exotic trips on social media. Why should they get to do that when I can’t?”
Why do you want what they want?
“They’re having much more fun than I have on my weekends.”
Now we’re getting to the root of the want. Your weekends are unfulfilling. What’s missing?
“I want my life to be more exciting, more adventurous, more exhilarating.”
Okay, so your intention is to make life more exciting. Notice how different that is from “I want money.” Although your intention is still driven by desire, at least you now know you can add adventure into your life without being rich.
Jay urges us to plant seeds not weeds. Intentions like love, compassion, and service are like seeds. They can grow into expansive trees that provide fruit and shelter for everyone. Intentions like ego, greed, envy, anger, pride, competition, and stress are like weeds. They might look like normal plants to begin with, but they won’t grow into nice plants after.
Act on Your Intentions
After we plant good intentions, we have to act on them. If you want a nice car, what will it take to get it? Are you willing to put in the effort? Will the work itself bring you a sense of fulfillment, even if you don’t succeed? When we fixate on the outcome, we won’t be happy. When we enjoy the process, we will be happy.
Note that our intentions usually aren’t completely pure. For example, if you donate to charity, your intention might be 88 percent to help people, 8 percent to feel good about yourself, and 4 percent to have fun with other charitable friends. We need to remember that the less pure they are, the less likely we will be happy, even if we are successful.
In conclusion, plant higher intentions like duty and love, then act on them. The purer your good intentions, the happier you will be.
Key Idea 5: Live Your Purpose and Dharma
“Your passion is for you. Your purpose is for others.”
Jay explains that Dharma = Passion + Expertise + Usefulness. In other words, when we use our passions and expertise to provide something that others need, we will have true happiness and fulfillment. Someone people aren’t passionate about their work. Others follow their passions and interest, but no one needs their work. If either piece is missing, then we are not living in our dharma.
"When your natural talents and passions (your varna) connect with what the universe needs (seva) and become your purpose, you are living in your dharma. When you spend your time and energy living in your dharma, you have the satisfaction of using your best abilities and doing something that matters to the world. Living in your dharma is a certain route to fulfillment."
Four Quadrants of Potential
Jay explains the four quadrants of potential that people live in.
Quadrant 2: Good at and love
The goal is to move our time and energy towards quadrant 2: doing things we are good at AND love.
To find out how close you are to living your dharma right now, answer these questions:
Do you like your job?
Do you love your job?
Are you good at your job?
Do other people need and appreciate your work?
Is your greatest skill or passion outside your work? What is it?
Do you dream of making it your work?
Do you think this is an attainable dream?
Do you think there might be ways you could bring your passion to your work?
Write down any ideas you have for bringing your passion to the universe
Quadrant 1: Good at it, but no passion
If you are doing something you are good at but don’t love, you don’t have to make a drastic career change. You can look for opportunities to do what you love in the life you already have. For example, see if you can bring your passion into the workplace, or bring it to other aspects of your life like your hobbies and friendships.
Another option is to find a reason to love your strengths. Think about how it might serve you in the future. We can do job crafting, which is when employees redesign their own jobs in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.
For example, some cleaning staff at a hospital viewed their job as mundane. Others viewed it as deeply meaningful. Why? They talked about providing company for lonely patients, escorting elderly visitors, switching pictures on the walls to different rooms, etc. These were tasks that they took initiative to do, not what was stated in the job description. They thought of themselves as healers and ambassadors rather than custodians. By reframing how they saw their job duties, they found purpose and meaning.
Quadrant 3: Not good at, also don’t love
Avoid this type of work. Outsource it if you can. Maybe you can trade tasks with a colleague. After all, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean nobody likes it. For example, maybe you don’t like Excel work and you are also not good at it, but you are great at designing presentations. Someone else might have the opposite situation, in which case you can help each other out.
If you really can’t offload the chore, then remember that every task is important, and no one is too important to do any chore. For example, at the ashram, Jay had to do all sorts of menial and unpleasant chores, such as cleaning the toilets. It cultivated his humility, and he also used the time to recite texts.
Quadrant 4: Not good at, but love
In this case, you should spend time to improve that skill. You can use your commutes or cooking time to listen to educational podcasts on that subject. You can read and watch videos on that topic every day. Even 10 minutes a day would be 70 minutes a week. You can learn a lot with consistency!
For example, when Jay first started making videos, he lacked video editing skills. So he spend 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, after work learning to edit videos.
Jay explains that there are four Vedic personality types: Guide, Leader, Creator, and Maker. Knowing our Vedic personality type will help us know our strengths and live according to our dharma. Note that no one type is better than other. They are like different organs in a body; they’re meant to work together in a community.
To find out which type is your primary one, you can take this online survey:
Guides are compelled to learn and share knowledge. They make great teachers are writers. They value wisdom more than fame or money. Their purpose can be to use knowledge to help people.
Leaders like to influence and provide. They make good managers and often work in military, justice, or politics. They are led by morals and seek to inspire cooperation and support society long-term.
Creators like to make things happen, and they are good at innovating and networking. They make good marketers, salespeople, entertainers, and entrepreneurs. A good purpose for them is creating products that serve society and the greater good.
Makers like to see things tangibly being built. They make good artists, musicians, writers, nurses, engineers, and cooks. They are good at inventing, supporting, and implementing. They are motivated by stability and security, as well as supporting those in need.
Makers and creators complement each other, while guides and leaders complement each other. When you know your Vedic personality type, you can invest in your strength and surround yourself with people who can fill your gaps. That helps us live in our dharma.
“When you safeguard your dharma, you constantly strive to be in a place where you thrive. When you thrive, people notice, and you reap rewards that help you stay in your dharma.”
Aside from building our dharma, we also need to build our character.
“To build your competence without regard for character is narcissistic, and to build character without working on skills is devoid of impact.”
Key Idea 6: Improve your routines and habits
Jay urges us to intentionally create good habits by using location and time. Specifically, he urges us to take control of the beginning and end of our days with a good morning routine and evening routine. A good morning routine sets us up for success for the rest of the day. The best way to have a successful morning is to have a successful evening prior. The best way to wake up earlier is to sleep earlier.
Morning and Evening Routines
For the morning routine, he recommends:
Thankfulness — express gratitude to someone, some place, or something every day. That includes thinking it, writing it, and sharing it.
Insight — read a book or listen to a podcast
Meditation — spend 15 mins alone, breathing, visualizing or with sound
Exercise — can be simple stretching or a gym work out
For the evening routine, he gives these tips:
The clothes you sleep in need to be different from the clothes you wear in the day because day clothes carry day energy.
Remove small decisions from your next morning by dealing with them now. Every little decision takes away energy. Examples: what to eat, what to wear, what to do.
Go to sleep with good thoughts because the emotion you fall asleep with will likely be the emotion you’ll wake up with.
To help us wake up earlier and make time for the morning routine, Jay gives a two-week plan. In the first week, wake up just 15 mins earlier. Don’t look at your phone right away. Instead, do as much of the morning routine as you can. In the second week, get up another 15 minutes earlier. Now, you have 30 minutes of morning time for your morning routine.
Location has energy; Time has memory
Aside from the morning and evenings, Jay urges us to be more conscious in choosing the locations and timings of tasks during the day because location has energy and time has memory.
In terms of location, we should only use one space for one purpose. For example, the bed is only for sleep, not for electronic devices. The kitchen table is only for eating, not for working. Even if we only have a small apartment, we can designate certain spaces in a room to specific activities.
In terms of timing, we should do something at the same time every day. That will help us remember to do it. We can also attach new habits onto existing habits to make it easier. For example, Jay had a friend who wanted to start yoga, so put a yoga mat next to her bed, and she would literally roll out of bed onto her yoga mat every morning and do yoga.
Ultimately, using location and timing can help us focus. Studies show that people cannot multitask. When people think they multitask, they are actually just switching between tasks really fast. This feels good in the moment, which is why it can be addictive, but it leads to burnout and low productivity. When we have periods of deep focus, we’re not only more productive, but we feel better afterwards.
Key Idea 7: Master the Mind
“For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy.”
—The Bhagavad Gita
We all have bad habits and thinking patterns like anger, envy, greed, fear, and ego. By mastering the mind, we can overcome these. The key to mastering the mind is again, detachment. For example, instead of telling yourself “I am angry”, you can say, “I feel angry” or “There is anger.” Don’t identify with the emotion; observe it.
“At the ashram, I learned something that has been crucial in curbing these dangerous, self-destructive thoughts. Our thoughts are like clouds passing by. The self, like the sun, is always there. We are not our minds.”
The first step to understanding our minds is to simply become aware of the different voices inside of us. The Monkey Mind is like a child that needs attention. The Monk Mind is like the mature adult. Don’t view your monkey mind as an enemy. View it as a collaborator, and then you can move from battle to bond, enemy to friend. The parent mind must give attention to the monkey mind, which is also the subconscious mind.
Our unconscious mind already has instinctive patterns that we didn’t conscious choose, and our conscious mind isn’t awake to make edits. For example, someone tells you, “You look amazing today,” and our subconscious mind instinctively thinks, “No I don’t.”
In order to overwrite the voices in your head, you have to start talking to them. Literally. If your mind says, ‘You can’t do this,’ respond by saying to yourself, ‘You can do it. You have the ability. You have the time.’ Jay gives many more examples of reframing our thoughts more positively:
Instead of saying, “I’m bored. I’m slow. I can’t do this.”
Say, “You are working on it. You are improving.”
Instead of saying “I can’t do this”,
Say, “I can do this by…”
Instead of saying, “I’m bad at this”,
Say, “I’m investing the time I need to get better.”
Instead of saying, “I’m ugly”,
Say, “I’m taking steps to be my healthiest.’
Instead of saying, “I can’t handle everything,”
Say, “I’m prioritizing and checking items off my list.”
Jay then goes back to talking about how detachment is the only way we can gain control of the mind. He gives the example of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which showcases of the joy of detachment. People literally cry with relief after purging possessions because they’ve reduced the number of things they’re attached to.
“Detachment is not that you own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
–Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed
To practice detachment, we can take on temporary challenges and austerities, such as
Giving up TV or your phone
Giving up sweets or alcohol
Taking on a physical challenge
Abstaining from gossip, complaining, and comparing
Meditating in cold or heat
Another way is to use Spot-Stop-Swap:
Spot the attachment. For example, spot when you check your phone mindlessly. Is it out of boredom, laziness, fear of missing out, loneliness?
Stop and rethink it. How much time is your limit for screen time?
Swap in a new behavior. You can either go all-in by committing to a week or month to no social media. Or you can make a small change and build on it. Experiment to see which method works better for you. Then decide how you want to spend your newfound time. For example, it could be meditation, or interacting with friends in real life.
Finally, our minds need daily maintenance, just like how we brush our teeth every day. We should cleanse our thoughts and reframe the ones that don’t serve us. This daily maintenance will make our minds pure and calm and able to grow.
Key Idea 8: Build self-esteem, not ego
“If you are satisfied with who you are, you don’t need to prove your worth to anyone else.” —Jay Shetty
The ego is problematic in many ways:
It makes us liars, which breaks trust
It creates false hierarchies, which creates discrimination and ruins kindness
It creates judgment, which ruins our character
It creates arrogance and prevents learning and growth
When it comes to ego, Jay urges us to start by reflecting on the difference between our outside persona with our true self. To do that, think about the choices you make when you’re alone versus when there’s nobody to judge you and nobody you’re trying to impress. If there’s a big difference, then you need to build self-esteem (true confidence) and reduce ego.
It takes the same amount of energy to feign confidence as it takes to work, practice, and achieve true confidence.
Use this table to build your self-esteem. To reduce ego, we can do two things: cultivate humility and detach from the ego.
Most people remember the good they have done for others and remember the bad that others have done for them. That is the ego at work. To build humility, monks remember the bad they have done to others and the good others have done for them. That keeps them humble and grateful.
Monks also forget the good that they’ve done for others and the bad others have done to them. Anything they’ve given to others was given to them by life. They were never owners; they detached, so they are happy to give it away. They also forgive us because of their kindness and humility.
Detach from the Ego
Remember that you are not your achievements, job, possessions, youth, or beauty. These are all temporary things that will pass. They were given to you, and they will leave. When we truly understand the impermanence of everything, then we will feel liberated and grateful for what we have.
Look for these opportunities to detach from ego:
Receiving an insult – look at the broader view of the person’s negativity
Receiving a compliment – be grateful to your teachers
Arguing with a partner – see the other person’s side. “lose” the battle. Wait a day and see how it feels.
Topping people – When hearing other’s accomplishments, be happy for them and don’t say anything about your accomplishments.
For example, Kalilash Satyarthi is a children’s rights activist who has saved tens of thousands of children. When asked what his first reaction to winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, he responded, “The first reaction? Well, I wondered if I had done enough to be getting this award.” That is humility.
Rather than trying to satisfy our egos, we should be humble and aim for real greatness:
“Real greatness is when you use your own achievements to teach others, and they learn how to teach others, and the greatness that you’ve accomplished expands exponentially.”
Key Idea 9: Practice frequent, specific and broad gratitude
“When you start your day with gratitude, you’ll be open to opportunities, not obstacles. You’ll be drawn to creativity, not complaint.”