Why I Moved to a Modern Monastery (Part 1)
This blog series explores why I’ve chosen to live, train, and work at a monastery, and its broader connections to human development, wellbeing, education, and systems change.
TL; DR: I moved to the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE) because it’s the best environment I’ve found to cultivate the wisdom, compassion, and leadership needed for a life of profound service and joy.
At the start of the new year, I moved to Vermont for a year-long residency at the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE) — a training center that prepares leaders to drive profound social and environmental change. As a resident, I simultaneously work for the education non-profit, currently as a Curriculum Designer and Program Manager for our online course, and undergo a rigorous mindfulness based leadership training. At MAPLE, this dual approach to development is referred to as the integration between Awakening and Responsibility. Essentially, we strive to awaken to our highest potential and to become teacher-leaders that can guide humanity and transform systems of injustice. This is done through a mixture of practices, including deep meditation, social emotional learning, ethical cultivation, vow commitments, peer feedback, sense-making discussions, and non-profit management.
We start early, end late, meditate 3-10 hours a day, and work 6 days a week, year-round — all while being held to a standard of impeccability. This intensity has produced moments of pronounced anguish, where it feels like I can’t go on, and others where I’ve never felt more alive, experiencing life with freshness, awe and clarity. In either case, it’s pushed me to face myself more and more completely. So why would I, or anyone for that matter, subjugate themselves to the monastic life?
The succinct response is, It’s the best environment I’ve found to cultivate the wisdom, compassion, and leadership needed for a life of profound service and joy. This is a bold statement that I’d like to examine closely, especially given that I’ve investigated some of the world’s best educational institutions. This series of posts seeks to do that not only by looking at why I’ve personally chosen to engage in this training, but also by exploring how it relates to the broader realms of human development and wellbeing, transformative education, and systems change.
To kick this series off, I want to share a bit about my own journey because it offers useful context, especially for friends and family who thought I might be going in a different direction, and because it brings more heart to a discussion that should not be explored with mere theory and generalities.
My path to becoming a modern monastic began with an existential crisis — a fairly common entry point around here … I was in college at the time trying to figure out my major, when I was suddenly overcome with just how little I knew about myself and what I was on this planet to do. I felt completely lost. On the outside things were good. I was at a great school, was the captain of the basketball team, had a strong group of friends, an unconditionally supportive family, and so on. But I didn’t really know why I was waking up each morning. I was living on autopilot, continuously striving to get to the next destination without a true sense of meaning and direction. This way of being drove my productivity, and yet it was sustained by the illusory belief that absolute joy was waiting for me at some future moment (e.g. once I found the ideal job, partner, community, etc). The fundamental emptiness of this approach was beginning to reveal itself.
The truth is that this is how the vast majority of us live (yes, perhaps even you). We continuously strive towards goals that appear quite worthy of our time and effort, but after awhile there’s a sense that something is off. Even if we have decent circumstances and an array of pleasures, there’s often an underlying unsatisfactoriness (what we called ‘Dukkha’ around here). Whether conscious or unconscious, there’s a yearning for deeper fulfillment, happiness, and impact.
This internal void sparked a simultaneous quest to understand myself and the larger causes and conditions behind this seemingly universal experience of unsatisfactoriness.
I began this inquiry with a curiosity into the role that education plays in our conditioning. I wondered, if this compulsory system is supposed to help people grow and develop, then why do I, and so many of my peers, feel so lost? It seemed to me that I spent my most formative years in a schooling system that was not only failing to help me show up fully, but also actively perpetuating anxiety, disconnection, and meaninglessness (for more on this topic, check out my previous essay here). The issue of modern education seemed to contextualize the struggles I endured and witnessed around me. Moving closer to the cause behind this unsatisfactoriness brought relief and lit a fire under me to continue to search for truth and resolutions.
Early on, this led me to explore innovative teaching and learning approaches, school models, and entire systems of education. Of particular interest was how we might (re)design learning environments to facilitate the development of wellbeing, life purpose, and the ability to collaboratively address the world’s most pressing issues. Soon enough, however, I realized that my inquiries would be limited if I merely sought inspiration from the existing realm of formal education. Schools seemed to be a promising medium for development, but not where I’d find the deepest insights into human flourishing and change-making.
The word 'education' actually comes from the latin root 'educe,' which means to bring out, i.e. bring out the gifts of a person. So what I was really interested in was the process of bringing out one’s gifts for the benefit of all. This angle enabled me to expand my perspective to look at education in terms of what it means to be fully human, to realize our highest potential, and the implications this might have not just on one’s personal growth, but on the systemic challenges we face.
Looking in this way opened up a new exploration of human development that shifted how I saw the world and the role of education within it.
I began to see that the increasingly complex and catastrophic problems we face are all issues of human development. They are caused by humans and thus need to be resolved by evolving our capacity to perceive, think, feel, and act. Whether it’s the threat of climate change, nuclear warfare, or social inequality, the common thread is that collective human action is behind it. This suggests that each of our personal, relational, and systemic challenges are educational in nature because their alleviation depends on evolving humanity’s capacities, which is a process of education.
As I came to grips with the fundamental role that education plays in my own, others, and the planet’s wellbeing, I became obsessed with understanding, how might we transform education and human development to enable all people to flourish and contribute to a better world?
This question was the impetus behind a fellowship project that brought me to remarkable learning environments across the globe. I got to visit schools, thought-leaders, and ministries in the Nordics, participate in teacher trainings, meditation retreats, and education conferences in Asia, and immerse myself in leadership academies, NGOs, and intentional communities across Africa. The deepest insights and joy, however, came from my time at monasteries. Why? Because they revealed and connected me to the source of what needs to transform for people to flourish and contribute to a better world: the mind.
I had been slowly peeling back the layers of this universal unsatisfactoriness and the social and ecological problems we face until I directly saw that the mind was behind it all. By mind I don’t merely mean what we know through conceptual understanding — what mainstream education targets — but the very “thing” which pays attention, perceives, thinks, feels, relates, and acts. These are all products of mind and they create our personal experience and shared reality. Our mind runs our life, and the collective mind runs the world.
Please don’t underestimate the implications of this profound truth.
Previously I had saw the fundamental role that humanity and its depth of development plays in shaping our world, but now I glimpsed that which makes humans show up in the way that they do. From this perspective, we could look at the aforementioned paragraph in a deeper light:
I began to see that the increasingly complex and catastrophic problems we face are all issues of the human mind. They are all caused by the human mind and thus need to be resolved by evolving our capacity to perceive, think, feel, and act. Whether it’s the threat of climate change, nuclear warfare, the mental health crisis, or social inequality, the common thread is that the human mind is behind it. This suggests that each of our personal, relational, and systemic challenges are educational in nature because their alleviation depends on evolving humanity’s mind, which is a process of education.
The mind predicates all issues, experiences, and creations, and yet time and again modern society focuses exclusively on creating change at the level of symptoms and structures. Shifting laws, regulations, and social systems is of the utmost importance, but we should acknowledge that the mind is what constructs and reinforces them. Without changing the underlying mind that drive our actions, culture, and systems, we stifle any possibility of realizing our highest aspirations and resolving the problems we face.
It took me going to a monastery and practicing meditation for a week in silence to realize the significance of this insight. By training in an environment designed to facilitate the understanding and development of mind, I saw how it shaped, colored, and filtered every part of my experience.
During this contemplative retreat I was stripped of all external distractions and left with just my mind. Meeting it in this way for the first time was a truly horrifying experience. Days were filled with agony as a I struggled to calm and subside its rampant manipulation. Initially I blamed this suffering on the meditation and the surrounding container — saying it doesn’t work, or this isn’t for me — but at some point I realized that I could only attribute this to my own mind. The meditation and container were revealing to me what was always there but that I was too distracted and deluded to see.
Then on the fourth morning my experience began to mysteriously fill with a happiest, clarity, and unconditional love that was unlike anything I had felt before. It was beyond me how this was possible, and yet at the end of the week, I knew without a doubt that it was the greatest of my life. As I continued this mental cultivation in the months that followed, I gradually noticed how I was showing up more and more fully. Not just in terms of my personal wellbeing, but in my capacity to make sense of the world and guide those within it.
After glimpsing the power of the mind and the importance of its intentional development, I committed to a rigorous daily practice and began teaching these tools with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Seeing the continued growth in myself and being able to offer these gifts to others was deeply gratifying, and yet ultimately it didn’t hold the same profundity as my experience in the monastery. I wondered why, and then the pandemic showed me.
For the first six months I was essentially locked up in the room that I grew up in. During that time I noticed the tremendous pull to fall back into conditioned habits and ways of being that would not serve me. Despite my newly cultivated mind, I didn’t have the fortitude to bring forth the same happiness, clarity, and compassion amidst the attractions and distractions of contemporary life. Meditating for an hour-a-day and going on retreats once-a-year without changing my external behaviors and circumstances wasn’t going to cut it I was to truly awaken to my potential. This was the impetus for taking the scary leap of faith to try out the modern monastic lifestyle.
I did not do this to escape from the world; I did this in order to show up fully in it. I left normalcy to take advantage of the optimal learning conditions that I believed a monastery could offer. Thankfully, six months later, I can confidently say that this hypothesis checked out. My joy, care, and leadership have blossomed more in this period than in any other time of my life.
This gradually unfolding journey from existential crisis to now has revealed something truly remarkable: the same mental, ethical, and communal practices that monasteries use to generate meaning and happiness create the trustworthy leaders the world desperately needs.
Seeing things in this way is why I moved to a modern monastery.
I am being given the opportunity to realize the greatest joy life has to offer, to grow into a wise, compassionate, and powerful teacher and leader, and to shape a network of transformative education centers that will truly help people flourish and contribute to a more peaceful world.
This is why I decided to live, train, and work at the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth.
THANK YOU for taking the time to learn about my journey and contemplations on education, wellbeing, and systems change. I’d be delighted to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the next post, we will dive deeper into how this cultivation of mind and heart unfolds . We will explore how it leads to the pinnacle of human development (enlightenment) and why this is not some cultish, non-existent, impossible thing, but rather a fundamental element of personal and systemic transformation. It is through this gradual journey into the depth’s of one’s being that one not only gains insight and joy, but also a reverence, understanding, and capacity to care for all life.