What is it about monks, anyway?
There’s something intriguing about those men (and their female counterparts) who dress up in long robes and often live in medieval castles, who seem to not have a worry or care in the world and yet also manage to live such a full life.
Monks are mysterious, intriguing, cool. Then there’s me.
I’m not a monk, in part because I like to do the types of things that you can’t do when you live in a monastery — like go to MLB baseball games. But I can’t help but think about those monks every now and again.
They seem to have it all figured out — particularly in ways I haven’t. They seem to have a singular focus. They know what they are about. And they seem to be incredibly at peace with the life they’re leading.
I want to know their secret.
As luck (fate? God?) would have it, I’m not the only one. A guy named Steve Lawson was similarly drawn to the monastery — not to become a full-blown monk himself, but to figure out if there was a way to take the virtues of monastic life and utilize them for the rest of us. The result of his quest is the Monk Manual, a sort of combo planner-journal for intentional living that utilizes the ancient wisdom of these people who seem to have figured out how to live perhaps better than anyone else.
I’ve taken up Steve’s Monk Manual myself the past five months or so, averaging about 15 minutes or so each day for six days a week, and it’s had a dramatic effect on my life. It’s helped me in three particular ways: living each day more intentionally, being more aware of what’s going on internally, and putting my gifts more often to the service of others.
1. Intentional living, one day at a time
Through daily planning, self-reflection, and intentional prioritization, the pages in the Monk Manual help you to decide what’s most important in your life, commit to it in writing, then go back the next day and evaluate how you did. There’s also weekly and monthly pages to help you do the same over longer periods of time in order to track progress and plan for bigger goals.
The Monk Manual has been incredibly fruitful for me in helping me live more intentionally, and it starts with prioritizing what I want to accomplish each day, even down to what time I want to do so.
It’s helped to switch my attitude toward my to-do list from “Oh, it’d be nice to get around to that, I guess” to “This is the most important thing to do today, and here’s exactly how long I’m going to devote to seeing it through to completion.” Surprise, surprise: through the process, I’ve become much more likely to get sh*t done!
2. Examination of consciousness
The Monk Manual is more than just a planner. One of the most eye-opening parts of this daily process has been the space devoted to reflect on the previous day. There are three sections for journaling under these prompts: highlights; I was at my best when ___; and I felt unrest when ___.
Writing down my highlights come easy enough, for the most part. And I would’ve expected the “at my best” part to as well, except… it didn’t. In fact, I’ve found myself stumped more often than I would’ve ever imagined. It’s led me to believe that my expectations for myself are perhaps too high. This has me trying to be more realistic and patient with my limitations, and more ready to accept the smaller, more ordinary things in life — and appreciate the significance of them.
I did not expect, on the other hand, how much “unrest” I would recognize throughout the day — and perhaps without even realizing it when it’s happening. This has helped me to be more in tune with what’s going on internally, in both my mind and heart, and how it may negatively affect me or others.
I also take this time to think about any sins I may have committed; or the times I didn’t necessarily break a commandment but still could’ve acted differently; or even times when I didn’t act wrongly but still may have hurt others or made things harder on them unnecessarily.
3. Planned giving
The greatest internal growth I’ve noticed has come through the section entitled, “Ways I can give.” I know I can be a self-centered person, but have not always known what to do to remedy it. Having to sit down each day and think about what I can do to help other people — and again, commit to it in writing — makes a big difference in this area. It takes a vague problem and invites particular solutions.
Naturally, as I’m thinking about how I can give, I think about those closest to me. So I once wrote down, “Mass and brunch with Ma.” Often my mom will call or text on Sunday to see when I’m going to church and, if it works out, we end up meeting somewhere and often eating afterward. But sometimes our schedules don’t always align, particularly when we don’t communicate until the last minute. So I thought it’d be good to plan ahead and make sure to prioritize a time that would work for both of us — we ended up going to Mass one Sunday morning and I cooked after.
It worked out just as I had planned, except in one particular way I hadn’t expected: my mom was no-joke absolutely blown away by it. Like she told me multiple times how much she appreciated it, even to the point of asking me something to the effect of, “What has gotten into you?” or even “What’s the catch?” I even heard back from other people about it — because she was telling whomever she could how great it was!
It caught me off guard because, like I say, we’ve gone to Mass together more times than I can count and I’ve cooked for her before on plenty of occasions, so it seemed familiar enough to me. But from her perspective, I had gone out of my way to plan ahead for the whole occasion (which of course, I had) and that made a huge difference to her. And let’s be honest, that probably wouldn’t ever have happened had I not been invited to think about “ways I can give” in the Monk Manual.
Simple yet profound
Each day I find myself looking forward to filling out the Monk Manual, and it’s easier to do and make time for as it’s become a habit. That’s perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole thing: each step is rather simple and straightforward, and can all be completed in five or ten minutes total, if need be. But when you’ve been living a certain way all your life, change is difficult — even when you’re trying to change in simple, subtle ways.
We all want to be more intentional and generous and grateful and thoughtful. But when you’re only living for yourself and lack any standards by which to measure your life, it’s all too easy to let those intentions remain unrealized. It’s easier and more comfortable to slide into unreflective habits that can make us more self-involved. The Monk Manual has helped me take an honest look at my life, and build in practices to make those intentions real.
Perhaps that’s what monks have figured out. They’ve left everything to live differently, with a singular focus toward one particular goal — and everything in their life is oriented toward that goal. The Monk Manual has helped me tap into that genius, to help me to live on purpose. And it’s made a big difference.