What we can learn from monks (and nuns) is to live a more simple life. Not so long ago, a good portion of men in England would become monks. Today the numbers of people joining up to become monks and nuns is dwindling so fast, that when the older ones die, we may lose a good portion of our working monasteries and convents. The same goes for Buddhist monks and nuns.
But what we can all do, is to learn from their lives. From the way they routine their days to the food they eat (and at what times), it’s a good idea to try. They tend to be happier and more at peace, than most other people in the world. And it may not be just to do with religion, but more that they are living more akin to nature.
A Day In The Life of a Monk
Here is a typical day in the life of a monk, as told by residents of a Catholic monastery on the Isle of Wight. No-one is suggesting that you live a life to this level of isolation and discipline. But it’s more a case of the old saying ‘shoot for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll hit the stars’. In other words, go for as good as you can, and some of the benefits are sure to make you feel better, after a few weeks.
- Monks rise very early, usually before 5am. They then wash and shave. You could choose to rise a little later than this, but it’s well-known that we are not by nature nocturnal. Try getting up an hour earlier and having a healthy morning routine (shower, exercise, an early morning dog walk, a proper breakfast etc).
- Morning prayers are the first order of the day. You could just get out a nice devotional and spend 20 minutes or so reading it. Or read a chapter of a good book, or meditate. Anything but checking your phone and turning on the news.
- A cup of tea and simple breakfast. How many mornings do you make a proper breakfast? Try a breakfast smoothie, or a cooked veggie breakfast, with a nice pot of real tea. Sit at the table to eat.
- More prayers. This is where most of us will deviate from the monks, You likely are not going to pray several times a day, but you could go in the garden and take in the fresh air, have cuddle time with animals. Take time to just be for a while, rather than always ‘doing stuff’ before your day begins. It’s not even 7am!
- Reading scriptures. Depending on your life, you may then have children to deal with or work to go to. Make it work for you. Tidy up your office, and make a little haven with a book and proper mug, where you can ‘take five’ every few hours. Or find a little spot outside to rest, on your break. Don’t just rush down to the mall to buy a sandwich on your lunch break. If you work from home, take time out every few hours to go for a walk with your dog, cuddle your cat, sit on the verandah and notice the birds.
- Psalms. These are ‘songs of the Bible’. Why not listen to good music, for a few minutes each day? How much good music do you have at home, that you never listen to? Or if you play an instrument, now’s the time for a little practice.
- Work. Most monks and nuns do some kind of work whether it’s gardening, admin work or going out in the community. If you don’t work, could you volunteer? What about taking the time to finally tackle all the clutter, donate what you don’t need, and decorate your house as you have been meaning to?
- Dinner. Monks (both Christian and Buddhist) tend to eat their main meal at lunchtime, rather than in the evening. This is actually much better for digestion. So if you are at home, consider preparing the main meal now. This is also what Italians do. They don’t rush lunch: they close their shops for a few hours each day to enjoy a proper lunch, then have a lighter meal later in the evenings.
- Let your food digest. Have a tea or coffee and rest. There’s an Ayurvedic saying: ‘After lunch, rest awhile. After dinner, walk a mile’.
- More prayer. Take little moments to check in with whatever your faith or philosophy is, so you don’t lose sight of what life is all about. This is where mindfulness is good.
- More work. This is when monks do the laundry and housework etc. Again, mindfulness. When you wash the dishes, wash the dishes. When you do the laundry, don’t spend time thinking about the past and future. Make a real experience: loading the laundry, washing the laundry, drying the laundry, ironing the laundry. Folding away items into cupboards.
- Tea and talk. Whether you are alone or not, take some rest time. A good pot of tea and good conversation, in person or on the phone. Or this is the time to enjoy a newspaper or magazine. Or a little TV if you like.
- More prayers. Vespers is a haunting choir song from Catholic monks. Just beautiful. This is time to listen to music, another walk, prayer or a hobby.
- Study. If you are studying (spiritual study, for exams, for a new career), take an hour or two to do this, to better your life. If you study for more qualifications, you can get a better job. That will give you more free time.
- Supper. Sit down and enjoy a light supper no later than 7pm, to allow food to digest. Then monks have more prayer.
- Compline is the final prayer at 8pm. You could use this time to wind down. Take an evening shower or bath, give yourself a massage, make a herbal tea, and prepare for bed, ready to sleep. Give thanks for the day and turn in. Amen!
St Francis of Assisi
St Francis of Assisi was an Italian bad boy from a rich family, who gave it all up to become the patron saint of simple living, ecology and animal welfare. Fish would leap out of the sea to greet him, and birds would listen to him. Even lambs and wolves would be at peace together in his presence, as in the beautiful image above. Franciscan Media (which publishes books in his name) has 5 steps to live simply, influenced by him:
- No ads. Recycle all ad fliers and brochures. Don’t even look at them. Their sole purpose is to ‘make us think we need things we do not’.
- Cancel subscriptions to magazines that ask us to buy more things.
- Don’t answer emails for ‘time-limited’ offers.
- When about to buy something, think ‘How blessed I am that I do not need it!’
- Seek out books on simple living
They also recommend tithing your income (giving 10% of your income to help others). It used to be to the church. But with recent scandals, it’s understandable why some people feel more comfortable giving to small causes they know and trust. And don’t give if it means you and yours will go hungry (a church that preaches this is irresponsible). Pick 5 to 10 places you care about. If concerned you’ll get harassed by letters from then on, set up a free Charities Aid Foundation Account, to give anonymously. And ensure you make a legally-binding Will, so your inheritance goes to those you love and the causes you choose. Not to the government, who may spend it on weapons and animal testing.
Marvellous Books About Monks
- A Monk’s Guide to Happiness is a book by a man who Buddhist actor Benedict Cumberbatch calls ‘a very generous and kind monk, who writes with the honesty and humour of someone who has experienced the wisdom he shares’. Gelong Thubten offers a warm and engaging book on how to bring meditation into modern lives. A former actor in New York, his search for solutions made him more unhappy until he found himself at a Buddhist monastery, where he became a monk. Learn how to develop more compassion for yourself and others, and bust the myth that you are too busy for meditation.
- Love for Imperfect Things is a beautiful book by South Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim. Learn to be at peace with yourself, so you can help others around you. A Buddhist guide to self-care, this does not focus on bubble baths and self-massage, rather compassion and peaceful relationships. ‘Products labelled ‘limited edition’ are still made on a production line with 100s that are exactly the same: but there is only one you in the world’.
- Zen and the Art of Simple Living is a beautiful little illustrated gift book, with short chapters to live a simple life of inner peace. The gorgeous design is ideal for of all faiths or none, and is accompanied by lovely illustrated by Harry Goldhawk. It’s a real ‘dip in’ book, with 100 snack-size Zen activities to add daily to your life.
- In Search of Buddha’s Daughters is a wonderful book, where a journalist goes off to investigate and meet women who have left behind their lives to become Buddhist nuns. From Nepal to California, Christine Toomey encounters unforgettable nuns who reveal the blessings and perils of becoming nuns.
- Green Sisters is a wonderful book where a scholar meets nuns who are ripping up manicured lawns to grow community food gardens, volunteering in the community, installing solar panels and driving electric cars. The best line is by the Mother Superior who notes that anyone can see the Divine in a potato, could not turn it into Pringles!