People Watching

Every person is a world to explore.

—Thich Nhat Hanh

Monks are often imagined to be hermits, living in isolation, detached from humanity, and yet my experience as a monk has forever changed how I deal with other people. When I returned to London after deciding to leave the ashram, I found that I was much better at all kinds of relationships than I’d been before I took my vows. This improvement was even true for romance, which was a bit surprising given that monks are celibate and I’d had no romantic connections with women during my time in the ashram.


The village of the ashram fosters camaraderie, being there for each other, serving each other. Dan Buettner, the cofounder of Blue Zones—an organization that studies regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives—saw the worldwide need for this kind of community. In addition to diet and lifestyle practices, Buettner found that longevity was tied to several aspects of community: close relationships with family (they’ll take care of you when you need help), and a tribe with shared beliefs and healthy social behaviors. Essentially, it takes a village.

Like these blue zones, the ashram is an interdependent community, one that fosters a mood of collaboration and service to one another. Everyone is encouraged to look out not just for their own needs, but for those of other people. Remember the trees in Biosphere 2 that lacked roots deep enough to withstand wind? Redwood trees are another story. Famously tall, you’d think that they need deep roots to survive, but in fact their roots are shallow. What gives the trees resilience is that these roots spread widely. Redwoods best thrive in groves, interweaving their roots so the strong and weak together withstand the forces of nature.


In a community where everyone looked out for each other, I initially expected my care and support for other monks to be returned directly by them, but the reality turned out to be more complex.

During my first year at the ashram, I become upset, and I approach one of my teachers for advice. “I’m upset,” I say. “I feel like I’m giving out a lot of love, but I don’t feel like it’s being returned in kind. I’m loving, caring, and looking out for others, but they don’t do the same for me. I don’t get it.”

The monk asks, “Why are you giving out love?”

I say, “Because it’s who I am.”

The monk says, “So then why expect it back? But also, listen carefully. Whenever you give out any energy—love, hate, anger, kindness—you will always get it back. One way or another. Love is like a circle. Whatever love you give out, it always comes back to you. The problem lies with your expectations. You assume the love you receive will come from the person you gave it to. But it doesn’t always come from that person. Similarly, there are people who love you who you don’t give the same love in return.”

He was right. Too often we love people who don’t love us, but we fail to return the love of others who do.

I thought of my mother, who would always drop whatever she was doing to take my call. If she were to pick up the phone, the first person she’d reach out to would be me or my sister. In her heart she wanted to talk to me pretty much all the time. At the same time as I might be frustrated because someone wasn’t responding to my texts, my mother was sitting there thinking, I wish my son would call me!

My teacher’s description of the circle of love changed my life. Our lack of gratitude is what makes us feel unloved. When we think nobody cares, we need to check ourselves and realize that the love we give out comes back to us from a variety of sources, and, in a more general sense, whatever we put out will come back to us. This is an example of karma, the idea that your actions, good or bad, bring the same back to you. When we feel unloved, we need to ask ourselves: Am I offering help as often as I ask for help? Who is giving to me without receiving anything in return?


It makes sense that monks look at the distribution of love and care as a network of compassion rather than a one-to-one exchange. Monks believe different people serve different purposes, with each role contributing to our growth in its own way. We have peers for friendship, students to teach, and mentors to learn from and serve. These roles are not wholly tied to age and experience. Every monk is always in every phase of that cycle. Monks believe that these roles aren’t fixed. The person who is your teacher one day might be your student the next. Sometimes the senior monks would come to classes with young monks like us, sitting on the floor and listening to a new monk speak. They weren’t there to check on us—they were there to learn for themselves.


Make a list of your students and teachers. Now write down what the students could teach you and what the teachers might learn from you.


In the ashram, I was upset because I felt my care wasn’t reciprocated. We often expect too much of others when we don’t have a clear sense of their purpose in our lives. Let’s consider four characteristics that we look for in the people we allow into our lives. You’ll recognize these people—most of us know at least one person who falls into each of these categories.

Competence. Someone has to be competent if we are to trust their opinions and recommendations. This person has the right skills to solve your issue. They are an expert or authority in their area. They have experience, references, and/or a high Yelp rating.

Care. We need to know a person cares if we are putting our emotions in their hands. Real care means they are thinking about what is best for you, not what is best for them. They care about your well-being, not your success. They have your best interests at heart. They believe in you. They would go beyond the call of duty to support you: helping you move, accompanying you to an important doctor’s appointment, or helping you plan a birthday party or wedding.

Character. Some people have a strong moral compass and uncompromising values. We look to these people to help us see clearly when we aren’t sure what we want or believe is right. Character is especially critical when we are in an interdependent partnership (a relationship, a business partnership, a team). These people practice what they preach. They have good reputations, strong opinions, and down-to-earth advice. They are trustworthy.

Consistency. People who are consistent may not be the top experts, have the highest character, or care most deeply for you, but they are reliable, present, and available when you need them. They’ve been with you through highs and lows.

    Nobody carries a sign announcing what they have to offer us. Observe people’s intentions and actions. Are they in alignment? Are they demonstrating what they say they value? Do their values correspond with yours? We learn more from behaviors than promises. Use the four types of trust to understand why you are attracted to a person and whether you are likely to connect as a friend, a colleague, or a romantic partner. Ask yourself, What is my genuine intention for getting involved in this relationship?

The four types of trust may seem like basic qualities that we instinctively look for and require, but notice that it’s hard to think of someone who cares about you, is competent in every area, has the highest character, and is never too busy for you. Two of the most important people in my life are Swami (my monk teacher) and my mother. Swami is my go-to spiritual person. I have the utmost trust in his character. But when I told him I wanted to leave Accenture and go into media, he said, “I have no idea what you should do.” He is one of my most valued advisors, but it was silly to expect him to have an opinion about my career, and he was wise enough not to pretend to have one. My mom would also not be the best person to ask about career moves. Like many mothers, she is most concerned with my well-being: how I’m feeling, whether I’m eating well, if I’m getting enough sleep. She is there with care and consistency, but she’s not going to counsel me on managing my company. I needn’t be angry at my mother for not caring about every aspect of my life. Instead I should save myself the time, energy, attention, and pain, and simply appreciate what she’s offering.

We tend to expect every person to be a complete package, giving us everything we need. This is setting the bar impossibly high. It’s as hard to find that person as it is to be that person. The four types of trust will help us keep in mind what we can and can’t expect from them. Even your partner can’t provide care, character, competence, and consistency in all ways at all times. Care and character, yes, but nobody is competent in all things, and though your partner should be reliable, nobody is consistently available in the way you need them. We expect our life partner to be our everything, to “complete us” (thanks, Jerry Maguire), but even within that deep and lifelong union, only you can be your everything.

Being at the ashram with people who weren’t family or otherwise connected to us gave us a realistic perspective. There, it was clear that nobody could or should play every role. Interestingly, a Psychology Today article describes a field study of military leadership in Iraq done by Colonel J. Patrick Sweeney, a psychologist. Sweeney similarly found “3 Cs” of trust: competence, caring, and character. The difference is that he observed that all three qualities were necessary for soldiers to trust their leaders. Military and monk life both adhere to routine and principles, but monks aren’t following their leaders and laying their lives on the line. To think like a monk about relationships, instead of looking for all four Cs, set realistic expectations based on what a person actually gives you, not what you want them to give you. When they don’t have all four Cs, realize that you can still benefit from having them in your life.

And you should be at least as attentive to what you can offer them. With friends or colleagues, get into the habit of asking yourself, What can I offer first? How can I serve? Am I a teacher, a peer, or a student? Which of the four Cs do I give to this person? We form more meaningful relationships when we play to our strengths and, like Swami, don’t offer expertise that we don’t have.

Exercises like the one above aren’t meant to attach labels to people; I’m against labels, as I’ve explained, because they reduce the many nuanced hues of life to black and white. The monk approach is to look for meaning and absorb what you need to move forward instead of getting locked in judgment. However, when we apply filters like the four Cs, we can see if our network of compassion is broad enough to guide us through the complexity and chaos of life.


Pick three diverse people in your life—perhaps a colleague, a family member, and a friend—and decide which of the four Cs they bring to your life. Be grateful for that. Thank them for it.

Even if we’ve got the four Cs covered, we benefit from multiple viewpoints within each of these categories. A mother’s care isn’t the same as a mentor’s. One person with character might give great romantic advice, while another might help you through a family argument. And one consistent friend might be there for you during a breakup, while another is always available for a spirited hike.


In order to find diversity, we have to be open to new connections. Part of growing up—at any age—is accepting that our family of origin may never be able to give us all that we need. It’s okay to accept what you do and don’t get from the people who raised you. And it’s okay—necessary, in fact—to protect yourself from those in your family who aren’t good for you. We should have the same standards for our family as we do for everyone else, and if the relationship is fraught, we can love them and respect them from a distance while gathering the family we need from the wider world. This doesn’t mean we should neglect our families. But forgiveness and gratitude come more easily when we accept that we have friends and family, and we have friends that become family. Feeling connected at some level to all of humanity can be positively therapeutic for those whose own families have made their lives difficult.


When you enter a new community—as I entered the ashram—you have a clean slate. You have none of the expectations that have already built up among family and friends. Most likely nobody shares your past. In situations like this, most of us rush to find “our people,” but the ashram showed me another way. I didn’t need to replicate a family, creating a small circle of comfort and trust. Everyone in the ashram was my family. And, as we traveled and connected with people across India and Europe, I began to recognize that everyone in the world was my family. As Gandhi said, “The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family as one.”

The groups we establish for learning, growth, and shared experiences—like families, schools, and churches—help us categorize people. These are the people I live with. These are the people I learn with. These are the people I pray with. These are the people I hope to help. But I didn’t want to discount someone’s opinions or worth because they didn’t fit neatly into one of these circles. Aside from the limits of practicality, there weren’t certain people who deserved my attention or care or help more than others.

It’s easier to look at everyone as a member of your family if you don’t imagine that it’s every human at every moment. A well-known poem by Jean Dominique Martin says, “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” These three categories are based on how long that relationship should endure. One person might enter your life as a welcome change. Like a new season, they are an exciting and enthralling shift of energy. But the season ends at some point, as all seasons do. Another person might come in with a reason. They help you learn and grow, or they support you through a difficult time. It almost feels like they’ve been deliberately sent to you to assist or guide you through a particular experience, after which their central role in your life decreases. And then there are lifetime people. They stand by your side through the best and worst of times, loving you even when you are giving nothing to them. When you consider these categories, keep in mind the circle of love. Love is a gift without any strings attached. This means that with it comes the knowledge that not all relationships are meant to endure with equal strength indefinitely. Remember that you are also a season, a reason, and a lifetime friend to different people at different times, and the role you play in someone else’s life won’t always match the role they play in yours.

These days, there is a small, consistent group of people with whom I am closest, but that doesn’t change the connection I feel to all humanity. And so I ask you to look beyond the people you recognize, beyond your comfort zone, to strangers and people you don’t understand. You don’t have to befriend them all, but see them all as equal, with equality of soul and the potential to add variety to your knowledge and experience. They are all in your circle of care.


Make a list of the people you have seen socially over the past week or two. In a second column, identify whether the person is a Season, a Reason, or a Lifetime friend. This, of course, is labeling, which I have urged you not to do. We have to allow for fluidity in the roles people play. But roughly sketching the landscape of your current social life can give you an idea as to whether you are surrounded by a balanced group of people—one that provides excitement, support, and long-term love. Now, in a third column, consider what role you play for each of these people. Are you offering what you receive? Where and how could you give more?


Once you have established reasonable expectations from a relationship, then it is easier to build and maintain trust. Trust is central to every relationship. Trust means we believe that the person is being honest with us, that they have our interests at heart, that they will uphold their promises and confidences, and that they will stay true to these intentions in the future. Notice that I didn’t say they are right all the time or handle every challenge perfectly. Trust is about intentions, not abilities.

When an important person lets us down, the blow to our trust reverberates across all of our relationships. Even people with the best intentions change or don’t follow the same path that we do. Other people give us plenty of signs that their intentions don’t mesh with ours, but we ignore them. And sometimes, if we were more aware, there are people we would know not to trust in the first place. Other people’s behavior is always out of our control—so how can we trust anyone?


Trust can be extended to anyone from a taxi driver to a business partner to a lover, but obviously we don’t have the same level of trust for everyone. It’s important to be attentive to how deeply we trust someone and whether they’ve actually earned that level of trust.

Dr. John Gottman, one of the nation’s top marriage experts, wanted to find out what makes couples get stuck in ongoing conflict instead of resolving it and moving on. He examined couples from all over the country, from varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and in a variety of life situations, from newlyweds, to expecting parents, to families where one spouse was deployed in military service. Across the board, the most important issue to all of these couples was trust and betrayal. The language they used to describe their issues varied a bit, but the central question was always the same: Can I trust you to be faithful? Can I trust you to help with housework? Can I trust you to listen, to be there for me?

The couples had good reason to make trust a priority. According to studies by Dr. Bella DePaulo, people are dishonest in one-fifth of their interactions. Seventy-seven college students and seventy people from the community at large were asked to keep track of their social interactions for seven days. They were told to record all of their exchanges and to note how many lies they told. I know what you’re thinking—what if they lied about lying? To encourage honesty, the researchers told the participants that there was no judgment involved, and that their responses would help to answer fundamental questions about lying behavior. They also sold the experiment as a chance to get to know themselves better. In the end, the students reported some level of lying in one-third of their interactions and the community members in one out of every five interactions. No wonder so many of us have trust issues.

We know from our discussion of ego that we lie to impress, to present ourselves as “better” than we really are, but when these lies are discovered, the betrayal does far more damage to both people than honesty would have. If the seed of trust is not planted effectively in the beginning, we grow a weed of mistrust and betrayal.

We aren’t careful with when and how we give our trust. We either trust other people too easily, or we withhold our trust from everyone. Neither of these extremes serve us well. Trusting everyone makes you vulnerable to deception and disappointment. Trusting no one leaves you suspicious and alone. Our level of trust should directly correspond to our experience with a person, growing through four stages of trust.

Neutral Trust. When you meet someone, it is normal not to trust them. You may find them funny, charming, a joy to be around. These positive qualities do not merit trust. They mean you think your new acquaintance is cool. We tend to conflate trustworthiness with likability. In studies examining jurors’ perceptions of expert witnesses, those the jurors found to be likeable they also rated as more trustworthy. We also tend to trust people we find attractive. Rick Wilson, coauthor of Judging a Book by Its Cover: Beauty and Expectations in the Trust Game, says, “We found that attractive subjects gain a ‘beauty premium’ in that they are trusted at higher rates, but we also found a ‘beauty penalty’ when attractive people do not live up to expectations.” When we equate likability or appeal with trust, we set ourselves up for huge disappointment. It is better to have neutral trust than to trust someone for the wrong reasons or to trust them blindly.

Contractual Trust. I derived this level of trust from rajas, the impulsive mode of life, where you are focused on getting the result that you want in the short-term. Contractual trust is the quid pro quo of relationships. It simply says: If I pay for dinner and you promise to pay me back, I have faith that you’ll do it. If you make a plan, you can count on the person to show up—and there’s no further expectation. Contractual trust is useful. Most of us share contractual trust with the majority of people who cross our paths, yet we expect them to trust us implicitly. The heart may want a deeper connection, but we have to be discerning. Expecting more from someone who is only showing you contractual trust is premature at best and dangerous at worst.

Mutual Trust. Contractual trust reaches a higher level when you help someone, expecting they would most likely do the same for you, in some way, at some unknown time in the future. Where contractual trust relies on a specific exchange both parties have agreed to in advance, mutual trust is far looser. This stage of trust is derived from sattva, the mode of goodness, where we act from a place of goodness, positivity, and peace. We all want to get to this level, and good friendships usually do.

Pure trust. The highest level of trust is pure goodness, when you know, no matter what happens, that another person has your back, and vice versa. College basketball coach Don Meyer used to give each of his teammates a blank piece of paper on which he’d ask them to draw a circle to represent their “foxhole.” They wrote their names at the top of the circle, then drew lines at their left, right, and rear, and on each line they had to list the name of a teammate who they’d want in their foxhole with them. Those chosen most often by their teammates were the team’s natural leaders. Choose your foxhole gang wisely.

     If you were to graph the number of people you trust at each level, the result would probably look like a pyramid: a lot of people at neutral trust; fewer people at contractual trust; your close circle at mutual trust; and only a handful at the top level, pure trust.

No matter how dissatisfied you are with your pyramid, don’t promote people without reason. They will only let you down. The biggest mistake we make is to assume that everyone else operates just like us. We believe that others value what we value. We believe that what we want in a relationship is what others want in a relationship. When someone says, “I love you,” we think they mean exactly what we mean when we say “I love you.” But if we think everyone is a reflection of ourselves, we fail to see things as they are. We see things as we are.

Mutual trust requires patience and commitment. It is built on a true understanding of the other person in spite of and because they are separate from us and view the world differently. The way to step back from making presumptions is to closely observe their words and behaviors. When people show you their level of trust, believe them.

I want you to feel grateful for the people you can trust and to feel honored by those who trust you. If you have neutral trust for someone, that’s cool too. Accept people as they are, and you give them the chance to grow and prove to be more. We set ourselves up for long-term trust when we let it evolve naturally.


Relationships rarely get to a point where both participants can say, “I absolutely know this person and they absolutely know me.” Like a curve that continually approaches but never reaches a line, you never get to the point of saying, “I trust them fully, and they trust me fully, forever and ever.” Trust can be threatened in small and large ways and needs to be reinforced and rebuilt on a daily basis.

Build and reinforce trust every day by:

  • Making and fulfilling promises (contractual trust)
  • Giving those you care about sincere compliments and constructive criticism; going out of your way to offer support (mutual trust)
  • Standing by someone even when they are in a bad place, have made a mistake, or need help that requires significant time (pure trust)


Now that we have some tools to assess the roles people play in our lives, let’s look at how we can deepen existing relationships and build strong new ones. Letting go of traditional family roles allowed us monks to broaden our connections with humanity. In the same way, celibacy freed the energy and attention that romantic love had consumed. Before you hurl this book across the room, I’m not recommending celibacy for non-monks. Celibacy is an extreme commitment and hardly an essential one for everyone, but it did lead me to revelations that I’d like to share. Let’s say I did it so you don’t have to.

To stop drinking? That was easy for me. To stop gambling? I’d never done much of that in the first place. And I’d stopped eating meat at sixteen. For me, giving up romantic relationships was the hardest sacrifice. It sounded ridiculous, even impossible. But I knew the purpose behind it: to save the effort and energy that went into being validated in a romantic relationship and to use it to build a relationship with myself. Think of it the same way giving up sugar sounds like a drag—what sane person would want to forgo ice cream?—but we all know there’s a good reason: to be healthy and live longer. When I looked at the monks, I could see that they were doing something right. Remember Matthieu Ricard, “the World’s Happiest Man”? All the monks I met looked so young and seemed so happy. My romantic entanglements hadn’t brought me fulfillment, so I was willing to try the experiment of self-control and discipline.

When I became a monk, one of my college friends asked, “What are we going to talk about? All we used to do was talk about girls.” He was right. So much of my life had been absorbed in navigating romantic connections. There’s a reason we watch countless sitcoms and movies about romance—it’s endlessly entertaining—but as with any entertainment, it takes time away from serious matters. If I’d been dating or in a committed relationship for those three years instead of being at the ashram, I wouldn’t be where I am today, with understanding of my strengths and who I am.

The Sanskrit for monk is brahmacharya, which can be translated to “the right use of energy.” In the dating world, when you walk into a bar, you look around to see who is attractive. Or you swipe through potential mates online without giving a second thought to how much time you spend in the effort to hook up. But imagine if you could buy that time back for yourself, if you could recoup everything you’ve ever invested in relationships that didn’t pan out. That attention and focus could be used for creativity, friendship, introspection, industry. Now, this doesn’t mean every failed relationship is a waste of time. On the contrary, we learn from each mistake. But think of the time around the relationship, waiting for texts, wondering if they like you, trying to make someone change into the person you want them to be. If we are thoughtful about our needs and expectations, our time and energy go to far better use.

Sexual energy is not just about pleasure. It is sacred—it has the power to create a child. Imagine what it can create within us when it’s harnessed. Certified sex educator Mala Madrone says, “Celibacy by conscious choice is a powerful way to work with your own energy and harness the potency of life energy. It can also help you strengthen your intuition, your boundaries, and your understanding of what consent truly means, including how to differentiate what kind of contact and interaction is truly welcome in your life and by your body.” But your energy is squandered when it is spent tailoring yourself to someone else’s ideal or shaping yourself into the person you think he wants or suspecting her of cheating on you. There is so much anxiety and negativity around dating and so much pressure to find “the one”—never mind whether we’re ready or able to settle down with anyone.

Once the element of romantic pursuit was removed, I wasn’t trying to promote myself as a boyfriend, to look good, to make women think anything of me, to indulge lust. I found my connections with female friends—with all my friends—growing deeper. I had more physical and mental space and energy for their souls. My time and attention were better spent.

Again, I’m not suggesting you give up sex (though you certainly could), but what if you give yourself permission to be single, by yourself, able to focus on your career, your friends, and your peace of mind? Minister and philosopher Paul Tillich said, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

I spent three years as a monk, three years developing my self-awareness, at the end of which I was able to ask myself the right questions about a relationship. I may not have spent all of my waking hours in sattva—the mode of goodness—but I knew where I wanted to be and how it felt. I had the opportunity to become the person I would want to date. Instead of looking for others to make me happy, I was able to be that person for myself.


Our increased intentionality gives us a clearer perspective with which to evaluate why we are initially attracted to people and whether those reasons support our values. There are five primary motivations for connection—and note that these don’t exclusively apply to romantic prospects:

  1. Physical attraction. You like what they look like—you are drawn to their appearance, style, or presence, or you like the idea of being seen with them.
  2. Material. You like their accomplishments and the power and/or the possessions this affords them.
  3. Intellectual. You like how they think—you’re stimulated by their conversation and ideas.
  4. Emotional. You connect well. They understand your feelings and increase your sense of well-being.
  5. Spiritual. They share your deepest goals and values.

When you identify what’s attracting you, it’s clear if you’re attracted to the whole person or just a part. In my experience, ask most people what attracts them to another person and they’ll mention some combination of the top three qualities: looks, success, and intellect, but those qualities alone don’t correlate with long-term, fortifying relationships.

Monks believe that someone’s looks aren’t who they are—the body is only a vessel for the soul. Similarly, someone’s possessions aren’t theirs—they certainly don’t tell you about the person’s character! And even if you’re attracted to someone’s intellect, there’s no guarantee it will lead to a meaningful bond. These three qualities don’t correlate with long-term, fortifying relationships, but they do show your chemistry with another person. The last two—emotional and spiritual—point to a more profound, lasting connection—they show your compatibility.


When it comes to the energy we expend and receive in relationships, the focus is quality, not quantity. I often hear from guilty parents (usually moms) that they feel bad having to work long hours and lose out on time with their kids. According to the first-ever large-scale study of the impact of mothers’ time, it’s the quality of time spent with kids, not the quantity, that counts. (That means put away your phone during family time.) I’m not a parent, but I know that as a child, I always felt my mom’s energy. I never measured how much time she spent with me. My mother worked, and as a young child I went to daycare. I don’t have a single memory from daycare—no painful memories of her absence—but I do remember her coming to pick me up. She’d always smile and ask about my day.

This is true in all relationships. Nobody wants to sit with you at dinner while you’re on the phone. This is where we confuse time and energy. You can spend a whole hour with someone, but only give them ten minutes of energy. I’m not able to spend much time with my family, but when I’m with them I’m 100 percent there. I’d rather spend two hours with them, focused and engaged, than give them partial, distracted energy for a whole weekend.

A monk shows love through presence and attention. In the ashram, time invested was never seen as a reliable measure of care or engagement. As I’ve mentioned, after a meditation, nobody asked how long you’d meditated, they asked how deep you’d gone. If you have dinner together every night, great, but what is the quality of the conversation? Think like monks do, in terms of energy management not time management. Are you bringing your full presence and attention to someone?


These days, most of us are losing a battle for our attention. The victors are our screens. The only way to give another person your complete attention for a period of time is to turn off your screens. To give someone in your life the focus they deserve, sit down with them to agree on rules surrounding the phone, the laptop, and the TV. Choose specific activities that will be your quality time, without distraction. Agree to turn off your phones, put them in another room, or leave them at home. This may be a challenge at first. Perhaps conversation will lag, or friends and colleagues will be frustrated because they can’t reach you. Setting these boundaries will establish new expectations on both fronts: Lapses in conversation will lose their awkwardness; friends and colleagues will accept that you are not available 24/7.


Most couples don’t sit down together, draw up a list of values, and see whether they share them. But once we have clarity about ourselves, we can connect with others in a more intentional way. The Upadesamrta talks about six loving exchanges to encourage bonding and growing together. (There are three types of exchanges; each involves giving and receiving, thus adding up to six.) They help us build a relationship based on generosity, gratitude, and service.

Gifts. Giving charity and receiving whatever is offered in return. This seems obvious, or maybe even materialistic—we don’t want to buy each other’s affection. But think about what it means to give to another person with intention. Do you get flowers for your partner on Valentine’s Day? This is a very conventional gesture, so consider whether it is the one that brings your partner the most joy. If flowers it is, did you walk them past a flower shop six months ago to suss out their preferences in preparation for this day, or did you text a secret query to their closest friend? (Both actions entail a lot more intention than just ordering some roses online, though, of course, that’s better than completely forgetting the day!) Is Valentine’s Day the best moment to express your love, or would an unexpected gesture be even more meaningful? Have you taken the time to contemplate what an ill friend would really like? Maybe it isn’t an object but an action, a service, our time. Cleaning their car, organizing activities, helping them with obligations, or bringing them someplace beautiful.

You can bring the same thoughtfulness to receiving a gift. Are you grateful for the effort that went into the gift? Do you understand why and what it means for the giver?

Conversation. Listening is one of the most thoughtful gifts we can give. There is no better way to show that we care about another person’s experience. Listening intentionally means looking for the emotions behind the words, asking questions to further understand, incorporating what you’ve learned into your knowledge of the other person, doing your best to remember what they said, and following up where relevant. Listening also involves creating an atmosphere of trust, where the person feels welcome and safe.


Ideally, you try to do this in conversations regularly, but this time, do it with focus and intention. Pick a moment you have coming up with someone important to you—a friend, a relative, your partner. Maybe it’s a meal or walk you’ll be taking together. During this time, shut off your phone. Give all your focus to the other person. Instead of having an agenda, be curious. If a topic doesn’t emerge, ask them open-ended questions to land on a subject that’s important to them: What’s on your mind lately? How’s your relationship with X? Listen carefully, ask follow-up questions. Share your own experiences without turning the conversation to yourself. A few days later, email or text the friend to follow up

It is also important to share your own thoughts and dreams, hopes and worries. The vulnerability of exposing yourself is a way of giving trust and showing respect for another person’s opinion. It enables the other person to understand the previous experiences and beliefs you bring to whatever you do together.

Food. The world was a very different place when the Upadesamrta was written, of course, and I interpret this exchange of food broadly to mean the exchange of experiences: any tangible expression of care and service that nourishes body or spirit, like giving a massage, creating a relaxing space for the other person in the home, or putting on music you know they enjoy. On a grander scale, my wife left her beloved family and moved to New York so she could live with me—an expression of care and generosity that nourished me more than I can say. Once we were in New York, I introduced her to other women to help her find a community. The experiences we exchanged didn’t have to be perfectly matched—we look for what the other person needs most.

     These six exchanges can be thoughtless and empty, or they can have true depth and meaning. But don’t judge people’s efforts without giving them a chance to succeed. Nobody can read minds. If your roommate or partner doesn’t guess that you want them to organize your birthday party, it’s not their fault. Instead, be clear and honest with them about what you need.


Tell the important people in your life how you like to receive love. When we don’t tell people what we want, we expect them to read our minds and often judge them for failing to do so. This week, be more genuine in asking people for help rather than waiting for them to predict what you want.

  1. Think of a complaint you have about a loved one’s behavior. (But don’t look too hard for faults! If nothing springs to mind, that’s a great sign and you should skip this exercise.)
  2. Dig to the root of the problem. Where is the real dissatisfaction? You might find that your need corresponds to the loving exchanges. Do you want more time to share and connect? (conversation) Do you feel unappreciated? (gifts) Do you want more support? (food or other acts of service)
  3. Articulate it without criticism. Say, “This is what would make me feel more loved and appreciated” instead of “You do this wrong.”

In this way you give a companion a path to connection, which is easier for them and more likely to fulfill you.


The six loving exchanges lay a foundation for any close relationship, but most of us are looking for “the one.” The Harvard Grant Study followed 268 Harvard undergraduates for seventy-five years, collecting piles of data about them along the way. When researchers combed through the data, they found a single factor that reliably predicted the quality of participants’ lives: love. Participants could have every other external marker for success—money, a thriving career, good physical health—but if they didn’t have loving relationships, they weren’t happy.

We all come to relationships with different levels of self-awareness. With the encouragement of online quizzes and dating apps, we list the characteristics we want in a partner—sense of humor, caring, good-looking—but we don’t look at what we really need. How do we want to be cared for? What makes us feel loved?

In How to Love, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.” After the ashram, when I was ready for a relationship (which was not, as some friends assumed, the moment I left), my sense of what I wanted in a partner was steered by self-knowledge. I knew what would complement me and what wouldn’t. I knew what I needed in my life and what I had to offer. My ability to find the right relationship evolved because I had evolved.

As it happened, Radhi Devlukia, the woman who would become my wife, already had this self-knowledge too. Without the need for the same journey I’d made, she knew she wanted to be with someone spiritually connected, with high morals and values. I believe she would have done just fine without me. But I know my life would have been different, full of pain, if I hadn’t taken the time to work on myself before diving into a serious relationship.

According to Massive Attack, love is a verb. Dan in Real Life says love is an ability. The Dalai Lama says, “Love is the absence of judgment.” Love is also patient. It’s kind. And apparently, love is all you need. With so many definitions of love in our culture, it’s all a bit confusing. And I was confused, despite all my monk experience—my self-exploration and intentionality and compassion—when I ventured out on my first date back in London.

I already know I like her. The Think Out Loud group I started in college continued for some years after I left, and I stayed in touch, visiting and lecturing when I came to London. Radhi was part of that community, had come to some of my lectures, and had become friends with my sister. Now people from that community, including me and Radhi, have joined together to organize a charity event against racism and bullying for young kids in England. Seeing Radhi in that context has told me more about her than I would have learned on a dating profile, or even after a few dates. I’ve seen how respectful she is with everyone on the team. She has interesting opinions and cool ideas. I’ve had a chance to get a real look at who she is—anyone can be their online profile for a one-hour date. It may be their best self, but it doesn’t give the full picture.

I still haven’t gotten a full-time job, but I’ve been tutoring to make a bit of money. I’ve saved up a month’s earnings, and I take Radhi to the theater to see Wicked. Then I bring her to Locanda Locatelli, a fancy restaurant that’s way above my pay grade.

She’s polite, but unimpressed. Afterward, she says, “You didn’t have to do this,” and confesses that her ideal date would be going to a supermarket, walking the aisles, and buying some bread. I’m mystified. Who would want to do that?

I hadn’t had any relationships since becoming a monk, and I had yet to reconcile who I was spiritually with how I used to date. I felt like I had one foot in each world. In spite of my monk training, I snapped right back into my old relationship mode—the one where I tried to give the other person what media, movies, and music told me they wanted instead of developing my awareness of who they were. I myself love gifts and extravagant demonstrations of love, and for a while I cluelessly continued to shower Radhi with grand gestures. I got it completely wrong. She wasn’t impressed by any of that. She’s not very fancy. Even after my years in the ashram, I could still be swayed by external influences or my own preferences rather than careful observation of what she liked, but after my initial missteps, I was aware enough to figure it out, and, thank God, she married me.

If you don’t know what you want, you’ll send out the wrong signals and attract the wrong people. If you aren’t self-aware, you’ll look for the wrong qualities and choose the wrong people. This work is what we’ve talked about throughout this book. Until you understand yourself, you won’t be ready for love.

Sometimes we find ourselves making the same mistake over and over again, attracting the same sort of incompatible partners or picking them in spite of ourselves. If this happens, it isn’t bad luck—it’s a clue that we have work to do. The monk perspective is that you carry pain. You try to find people to ease that pain, but only you can do that. If you don’t work through it, it stays with you and interferes with your decisions. The problematic people who emerge reflect your unresolved issues, and they will keep reappearing until you learn the lesson you need to learn. As Iyanla Vanzant said to Oprah, “ until you heal the wounds of your past, you will continue to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex; but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.”

Once you’ve unpacked your own bags and you’ve healed yourself (mostly), then you’ll come to relationships ready to give. You won’t be looking to them to solve your problems or fill a hole. Nobody completes you. You’re not half. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to come to a place of giving. Instead of draining anyone else, you’re nourishing them.


Remember when we talked about the mind, we said that happiness comes when we are learning, progressing, and achieving. And yet as a relationship lengthens, we tend to long for the honeymoon phase, when we were first falling in love. How many times have you been in a relationship, and said to yourself, “I wish I could feel like that again,” or “I wish we could go back to that time.” But going to the same place for dinner or to the place you had your first kiss won’t bring back all the magic. Many of us are so addicted to re-creating the same experiences that we don’t make space for new ones. What you were actually doing at the start of your relationship was creating new memories with energy and openness. Love is kept alive by creating more new memories—by continuing to learn and grow together. Fresh experiences bring excitement into your life and build a stronger bond. I have many recommendations for activities couples can do together, but here are a couple of my favorites, drawn from monk principles.

1. Find new in the old. Remember when, as monks, we looked for a special stone on the same walk we took together every day? You too can open your eyes to the world you already live in. Have a candlelit dinner in the middle of the week. Read a book to each other before bed instead of staring at your phones. Take a walk together in the neighborhood and challenge each other to find a certain kind of mailbox or to be the first to spot a bird.

2. Find new ways to spend time together. A study by psychologist Arthur Aron found that couples strengthen their bonds when they do new and exciting activities together. My wife and I started to do escape rooms together. An escape room is a game where you’re both locked in a room and have to find a way out. The staff gives you a few clues, and you have to work together to solve many steps of the puzzle. It may sound a little creepy, but it’s actually a lot of fun. You get to learn together. You get to make mistakes together. It’s an even playing field when neither of you has more experience or expertise than the other. When you experiment together as a couple, you feel yourselves growing together in all areas of your life. You could even try something really scary together—like skydiving or something else that’s outside your comfort zone. Remember all the benefits that we found in getting close to our fears? Playing with fear together is a way to practice going into your deeper fears, sharing them with your partner, feeling their support, and together transforming fear.

3. Serve together. Just as serving gives meaning to your life, serving with your partner adds meaning to your connection, whether it’s organizing charity events, feeding the homeless, or teaching something together. My most bonding experiences in monk life came about when I took part in collective projects. The horrid two-day train journey that I’ve mentioned. Planting trees together. Building a school. Instead of focusing on the challenges of the relationship, we develop a shared perspective on real-life issues. Connecting for a higher purpose, we feel gratitude and bring that back into our relationship. I know many couples who have met through volunteering, so if you’re looking for a well-suited partner, find a cause that is close to your heart. If you meet through an activity such as volunteering, from the start you already have something very deep in common, and you’re more likely to form a deeper bond.

4. Meditate and chant together. When a couple who has just had an argument comes into a room, you can feel the negative energy vibrating between them. The opposite is true when you and your partner chant together. You are bringing your energy to the same place and feel, literally, in tune with each other.

5. Finally, envision together what you both want from the relationship. When you are aware of what is important to each other, then you can figure out how much you’re willing to adapt. Ideally, each of you is striving to live in your own dharma. In the best of relationships, you get there together.


It can be hard to see clearly when your heart is at stake, but there is one point I want to make abundantly clear: There is a difference between being grateful for what you have and settling for less than you deserve. If we are still listening to our child minds, we’re attracted to people who aren’t good for us but make us feel better in the moment. Don’t wrap your self-esteem around someone else. Nobody deserves verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. It is better to be alone. Nor should you allow an abusive, manipulative, or toxic relationship to transition into friendship. The dynamic won’t change, trust me.

In every relationship you have the opportunity to set the level of joy you expect and the level of pain you’ll accept. No relationship is perfect, but if joy never reaches a certain height, or holds to a low average, that won’t change unless you both put in a lot of work. The same is true for how much disappointment you’re willing to bear. Your connection may get a slow start—it can take a while to know each other—but if it never reaches a satisfying level, you need to decide whether to accept it or move on.

I know it’s not easy. When you’ve spent quality time with someone, when you’ve invested in someone, when you’ve given yourself to someone, it’s so hard to let go. Tibetan Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo points out that we often mistake attachment for love. She says, “We imagine that the grasping and clinging that we have in our relationships shows that we love. Whereas actually, it is just attachment, which causes pain. Because the more we grasp, the more we are afraid to lose, then if we do lose, then of course we are going to suffer.” Ultimately, holding on to the wrong person causes us more pain than letting them go.

The strategies I recommend to overcome heartbreak tie directly to monk ideas of the self, and how we find our way toward peace and purpose. No matter what thought we have, we don’t run away from it. We give ourselves space to assess and make changes. SPOT, STOP, SWAP.

Feel every emotion. It’s possible to distract yourself from heartbreak, but the fix is only temporary. And if you deny your feelings, you end up suffering in other ways. Researchers followed incoming college freshmen to see how well they adapted to their transition and found that those with a tendency to suppress their emotions had fewer close relationships and felt less social support. Instead, think about how the other person has made you feel in this situation. You might want to articulate your feelings by writing them down or recording them. Read what you’ve written and listen back objectively. Do you hear any recurring patterns?

You can also do a question meditation, asking yourself about the loss. We like to replay emotions: how perfect it was, how it could have been, how we thought it was going to go. Instead of reflecting on how romantic the relationship was before it crashed and burned, focus on the reality. What were your hopes for the relationship? What did you lose? Is your disappointment tied to who the person was, or who they weren’t? Explore your emotions until you uncover the root of the pain and disruption.

Learn from the situation. Movies, music, and other media send us limited, often inaccurate messages about what love should look like. Use the reality of the breakup to set realistic expectations about what you deserve and need from a new relationship and remember that yours can be different from the person you broke up with and/or the next person to come along. What was the biggest expectation you had that wasn’t met? What was important to you? What was good in the relationship, what was bad? What was your role in its demise? Instead of exploring your pain here, you want to investigate the workings of the relationship in order to identify what you want from your next relationship, and what you might have to work on in yourself.

Believe in your worth. You may undervalue yourself in the moment of a breakup, but your value doesn’t depend on someone’s ability to fully appreciate you. If you wrap your identity around the relationship, the pain you feel is that you’ve had to sacrifice that part of your identity. If you expected one person to fulfill all of your needs, then of course there is a vacuum when they’re gone. Now that you’re single, use this time to build a community of people with shared interests whom you want to be in your life forever. Make yourself whole. You need to be someone who makes you happy.

Wait before dating again. Remember, if you haven’t healed past pain, you might miss your next opportunity for an incredible connection with an incredible person. Don’t rebound or revenge-date. This only causes more hurt and regret that spread further, a virus of pain. Instead, take some time to get to know yourself better. Build your self-esteem. Invest in your growth. If you’ve lost yourself in the relationship, find yourself in the heartbreak.

The monk way is to build awareness, address, and amend. Either within a relationship or before we enter one, we take a step back to evaluate and make sure we understand our own intentions. Then we can venture into the dating world or return to the relationship with self-awareness and love. SPOT, STOP, SWAP.

    We have turned our attention outward to address the intimate relationships in our lives. Now we come to our relationship with the larger world. I mentioned that at the ashram I felt a bond beyond my ties to my family, a far greater force uniting and connecting us all. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We are all connected; to each other, biologically. To the Earth, chemically. And to the rest of the universe, atomically.” Knowing this, we must look to the universe to find true meaning in our lives.





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