10 Habits of a Monastic Academy

Today’s society is focused on individualism. We celebrate enterprising, unique selves. We associate becoming wealthy as having the freedom to only do what we want to do and only with the people we want to do it with. Hence gated communities, addiction to smartphones, and lack of community.

Recently, I had a conversation with a mindfulness instructor for kids. We are trying to build online apps for other mindfulness folks so they can reach more students with their own online program. She asked whether it would be possible to have each student use the app? We have found that having the teacher and students practice together at the same time as a classroom has the most impact for everyone. People are social creatures and tend to follow along with their peers for better and for worse. So, it’s better to have everyone begin the new habit of mindfulness together before they can do it on their own.

It’s definitely my experience with mindfulness. I practiced in groups for most of the past ten years. Likewise, most good teachers still go to other teachers’ classes. Every good coach has a coach.

The power of groups, group habits, and group schedule is alien to most of modern culture outside of elite group organizations like professional sports, military, or religions.

Living in the Monastic Academy for over a year now, there’s a lot of good habits I acquired on day 1 just because it was part of the schedule. And like those kids practicing everyday together in the classroom, I’ve been practicing these habits until they became natural.

Here, I’m just going to list out ten of the many habits here:

1) Meditation.

Obviously. We practice on average 181 hours every month of formal sitting practice. It doesn’t matter how I feel, we always sit in the morning and evening. And we do one retreat each month. These days, I’m happy to sit in a park outside on my free time rather than busy myself on a screen.

2) Physical Exercise

We have a dedicated morning hour to exercise. I do a mix of body weight exercises, dumb bell lifting exercises, yoga & tai chi movements, and going on hikes. My current benchmark is being able to do 100+ pushups in a given hour along with 30+ pullups. After a decade, I can finally do pistol squats or one-legged squats.

3) Minimalism, Frugality, & Simplicity

A lot of people buy stuff to cope with feeling bad. They call it retail therapy. But we have very little space here for personal items. I sold or gave away most of my belongings including dozens of books and all my furniture before coming here. We don’t have any income and rely on others to decide a lot of things for us. For example, one person here does all the food shopping so whatever he gets is what I eat. Not having to think about it is such a relief. Just accepting what is available is enough.

4) Giving and receiving feedback

Our training is about continually giving and receiving feedback from each other. As a small community, we are always rubbing shoulders with each other in our work, practice, and life. It’s impossible to distance yourself from anyone here. So, you quickly realize the easiest and best way to eliminate suffering is to just give direct feedback and also take in direct feedback without getting uptight about it.

5) Cleanliness and Neatness

We are sticklers for cleanliness and neatness. We consider it a privilege and a honor to be able to live here. We don’t pay rent here. We rely on others to survive and so we don’t get attached to our desks, our beds, or any of our spaces as “mine”. We know that all of it is common property so we always clean and tidy up our spaces. We clean the entire place every day. And if anyone has a dirty space then they get feedback.

6) Circling

Circling is a relational meditation practice between two people or a group. It’s been a transforming practice for me over the last two years. I get to lead at least two nights each month devoted to circling with my fellow monastics. We’ve been progressively going deeper, and it’s very satisfying to lead them.

7) Eating organic, local, and vegan foods

Almost all the food we buy is vegan, organic, and when possible, local. We joke that our food isn’t always that diverse. Often, it’s a soup, rice, salad, and fruit. But, it often tastes much better than restaurant food.

8) Punctuality

We take our schedule seriously. It’s a relief to not have to rely on ourselves all the time but can rely on the schedule and others to keep going. Everyone learns the value of being effective in their work and being on time because it impacts everyone.

9) Wake up Early

Again, the schedule. I regularly wake up before 5am. I almost never sleep in past 8am even back home with my parents.

10) No electronics

We have a rule of no electronics until after breakfast and no electronics starting with evening practice. So, a solid 8+ hours of the day is spent without looking at any digital screen whatsoever.

Two Extras:

11) Get important things done

As a non-profit, monastery, and community, we are always doing many projects. Most of the time, the projects are just beyond our experience, but we learn and get it done somehow. It’s very satisfying to be happy to do the work I’m doing. To feel a sense of purpose such that I don’t get paid anything and still want to do it.

12) Let things go

We practice every evening and retreat every month. It took me a long, long time to being able to continually drop everything and just do my meditation practice. To let things go. To remember the freedom to choose what I concentrate on is more important than anything else. The freedom to choose to stop thinking about something and let it go.

So, that’s just some of the positive habits that come about starting day 1 here. The easiest way to change and instill good habits? Join a good community. Even better, join us.


Some joy is better than none

Sometimes, we all have to do things we don’t like. For example, a business meeting, a car accident, or filing taxes are all annoying but necessary parts of modern life.

Rather than holding tight and pushing through these experiences with suffering, it’s possible to choose a different way.

Recently, I was involved in a meeting that I felt was pointless. I practiced my mindfulness to stay present and relaxed with my experience. I realized that I have a pattern of entering unknown experiences oftne with doubt, skepticism, and impatience until proven wrong. This could mean being with a new teacher, a new practice, or new initiative.

For this meeting, I already had a skepticism and doubt about the topic and facilitator. It was a busy time for the organization with a lot of deadlines and work to be done. I thought I would do far better work on my own than attend this meeting. But I had to be there. So, as long as I stuck to this skeptical view, I was guaranteed to have a bad time. As long as I stay disengaged until convinced otherwise, I definitely wouldn’t have a good time or learn anything.

That’s kind of nice. It’s nice to have a pessimistic perspective on life and then be proven right precisely because I made it happen that way. Destroying things doesn’t really require that much work. But, in the long run, the only joy you feel is the self-satisfaction that life sucks. Not so great, right?

On the other hand, I could choose to acknowledge that I held doubts about this meeting. I doubted whether it would be as good as it should be. But, I had a choice. I could choose to accept this meeting for what it was and try to maximize what value, benefit, and fun I could have with it. The meeting itself was mandatory so I couldn’t walk out without worse consequences. But, I could choose to stay open to exploring the benefits here.

And, I did have a good time. It still didn’t seem like a good meeting in terms of meeting its purpose, but I smiled and laughed and enjoyed myself. It was far better than constantly judging and being unhappy.


Luck: Libertarian vs Communist

What’s the secret behind successful people? How come they are lucky whereas others are not?

For conservatives or libertarians, luck is self-made. They say, we live in the best time in history to capitalize on one’s potential. There’s so much opportunity available with the internet now. To them, luck is a product of hard work and determination. Sure, chance is involved they would concede, but why focus on what you can’t control? You can always improve and lift yourself beyond your current station. Lift yourself up from your bootstraps. This tends to be how many successful entrepreneurs think. Not to mention most people of privilege.

For liberals and progressives, luck is structural. They say a history of oppression has created an unequal playing field that’s reinforced by social, political, and economic systems. Hard work is not enough for oppressed people without the same opportunities and safety net. Privileged classes of people get multiple chances to try again whereas others do not enjoy that luxury. They say we need to make the playing field equal. They say the self-determination myth is just a way to distract people from systematic injustice. Malcolm Gladwell convincingly takes this view in his writings and his podcast.

I’ve been mulling over these two views for years. At the extremes, you have the Ayn Rand individualist self-determination vs Karl Marx’s class struggle. When it comes to making decisions for my own life, I tend to go the self-made mindset, but when it comes to social and political issues, I tend towards the progressive attitude. But, the challenge might be simply seeing both at the same time. Integral Theory you could say.

It’s very easy (and tempting) to fall into the extreme of the self-pity victim mentality where you only blame others or even . You abandon your responsibility for your life by shutting down into just life is unfair. This is one side to avoid.

Likewise, we can believe that anything is possible and therefore any failure is only my fault. This would be extreme responsibility to the point of self-harm and too much harsh self-judgment.

On one hand, there’s an attachment to feeling powerless and thereby skirting responsibility for one’s life and actions. On the other hand, there’s the attachment to an extreme form of self-determination. Both are incorrect.

Originally, I wanted to write about how to develop luck. I argue luck is a practicable skill. This skill is how to take calculated risks well. But, I wanted to cover all of this as the basis first. So, join me again when I go into how to cultivate your luck.


Remember & Choose

Years ago, I attended a Hollow Bones Mondo Zen Teacher Training retreat to learn how to facilitate the Mondo Zen koan process.

Like many pivotal moments in my life, I felt a tension during the retreat around one of the koans. The type of tension where a deep part of me knows the truth, but a protective part of me resists accepting the truth. Once, I feel that tension, I know I’m headed towards freedom, but it’s a difficult ride to let go of that resistance.

The koan goes, What must you do to bring this realization forth right now and at any time in your daily life?

Dear reader, what do you think the answer is?

What’s the vital first step to bringing one’s insights and realizations into daily life starting right now?

Another way to frame this is what’s the first step to starting any change? What’s the first step to recovery? What’s the first step to really practicing a true life?

The answer is rather simple but not easy to practice.

Remember & Choose.

You must choose to live this realization. You must choose to change. You must choose to surrender. you must choose to awaken. And before you can choose, you have to remember your choice, your freedom, your insight.

Many times, people go to the meditation cushion, the gym, or their work expecting change to happen to them one day. But, change is a deliberate process. Meditation is a moment by moment practice just like life.

Remember your freedom to choose to engage in living or stay apart in isolation.

Choose the life you are meant to live. Better to actually choose and find out from direct experience than to just think about it for the rest of your life. More and more, I aim to find out the truth. I would rather die young having found out than to have lived long without ever truly living.

I wrote this pseudo poem on Facebook yesterday as I was facing difficult emotions within myself and just wanted to disengage and run away from the world. I edited it slightly for today.

Remember & Choose.

Remember this original spirit.

Choose to live from spirit.

Remember to remember.

Remember in this moment there is a choice.

Choose to commit to remembering.

Forgive yourself for forgetting.

Forgive yourself for making mistakes.

Remember to choose anew.

Die into the uncertainty.

Choose to let go.

Remember to choose a life beyond comfort & security.

Remember you can ask for a hug.

Choose to ask for that hug.

Remember connection is already possible.

Choose to realize that connection.


Personal Liberation = Collective Liberation

A followup to yesterday’s Privilege, Friendship, Suffering.

The work of addressing the suffering of others is inextricable tied to the liberation of one’s self too. Too often, I think we start this work focused solely on our own healing or helping others. In fact, all the norms we attach to certain identity (masculine, feminine, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, etc) also imprison ourselves. When we label one group a certain way, we are saying we are not that way. We restrict our own freedom and uniqueness when we Other others.

For example, a father may tell his little boy to stop dancing because men don’t dance, only gays and women dance. This boy will forever be restricted from free expression until he heals that wound. As long as that boy carries that stereotype in his being, there will be whole facets of life he won’t be able to explore because he’s worried it makes him look “gay”.

What we find when we start doing this work is that we have been putting ourselves and each other into confining boxes of who we are and who others are.

And, to me, it’s only when we realize the fact that the freedom of others is tied to my own personal freedom that the work of liberation becomes really urgent, really important.

I struggle with this fact. Very often, I see privileged people do this work out of compassion for others. A type of self-centered compassion of wanting to be the “good” one “helping others”. That is fine. Good. But, it doesn’t have the full investment of the person into the work though. It’s still arm’s length. [To be clear, I recognize the areas I still do this too.]

But, when we see that the liberation of others is a must, a need for my own liberation. That my own freedom and being is confined due to the confinement of others. Then the motivation is not just wanting to be the savior helping others but a desperate need to free myself along with others.

Not quite clear, right?

I do this awakening meditation practice for a deeper awakening of myself but also because I care about others.

Most people think a monastery is some sort of sanctuary you go to relax and rest. To find some inner peace because you can’t cut it in the “real world”. Where everyone gets along.

To be fair, that’s why a lot of people look towards spirituality and religion in the first place.

But, that’s not my monastery at all. No one can stay complacent here. People have minor conflicts with each other constantly.

As my life healed more and more, I naturally could see beyond myself and opened up to the suffering of others. I wanted to be of service. But, the deeper I went into relationship and service, the closer I came upon my even deeper wounds. The deeper wounds that limited me from deeper connection and service and joy.

I practice forms like meditation and circling to push me beyond my comfort zone. I want my over compulsive attachments to comfort, understanding, safety, people’s approval, and so on to break forever so that I may be free. So that I may serve others completely. So that I can be free completely.

Both sides of the same coin. To the extent that I can hold spaces of healing for others, I am free to that extent. To the extent that I am free is the extent I can hold space for others.