Updated: Apr 21
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 happiness 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.” —Jay Shetty
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." —Jay Shetty
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.