SERVICE: Plant Trees Under Whose Shade You Do Not Plan to Sit



Plant Trees Under Whose Shade You Do Not Plan to Sit

The ignorant work for their own profit… the wise work for the welfare of the world…

—Bhagavad Gita, 3:25

I am a novice at the ashram, and we’ve been dropped off in a village with no money and no food, with the mission to find our own way for thirty days.

The weather is decent, and we’ve been given a warehouse for shelter. We leave our mats there and venture into the village. There are simple huts from which people sell food, spices, and sundries. Laundry is strung between the huts. Most people travel by bike or on foot—some of the children are barefoot.

Untethered, without a plan, the first thing we feel is fear, which provokes us to do whatever it takes to survive. We ask for handouts—people in India are generous and often give bread, fruit, or coins to people in spiritual dress. We visit the temple where pilgrims are given free food called prasad—this is sanctified food that is offered to God, then handed out. Anxious about our survival, we resort to selfishness and hoarding.

By the second week, we’re in better shape. We’ve figured out that we can earn our provisions by offering help to people in the village. We start assisting people with heavy loads or peddlers who could use a hand with their carts. We soon learn that opening our hearts and souls encourages others to do the same. The donations we receive aren’t dramatically different from the ones we got when we first arrived, but the exchange gives us a warm sense of communal compassion and generosity, and I feel like I’ve absorbed the lesson of our journey. We thought we had nothing, and indeed we had barely any material possessions. But we were still able to give people our effort.

However, by the final week, we’re well-fed and secure enough to notice something deeper. Though we had come with nothing, we still had a certain kind of wealth: we are stronger and more capable than a lot of the people in the village. There are seniors, children, and disabled people on the street, all of them in greater need than we are.

“I feel bad,” one monk says. “This is short-term for us. For them it’s forever.”

“I think we’re missing something,” I add. “We can do more in this village than survive.” We recall Helen Keller’s refrain: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” This is, unfortunately, no exaggeration. In India, you often see people with missing limbs.

I realize that now that we have found our way, we can share the food and money we have received with those who aren’t as able as we are. Just when I think I’ve learned the lesson of our journey, I come upon a revelation that affects me profoundly: Everyone, even those of us who have already dedicated our lives to service, can always give more.

These three stages of transformation felt like a microcosm of the entire monk experience: First, we let go of the external and the ego; second, we recognize our value and learn that we don’t need to own anything in order to serve; and third, we continually seek a higher level of service. On that trip I recognized that there is always room to rise, there is always more to give. Sister Christine Vladimiroff, a Benedictine nun, as quoted in The Monastic Way, wrote, “Monastic spirituality teaches us that we are on a journey. The journey is inward to seek God in prayer and silence. Taken alone, we can romanticize this aspect of our life.… But to be monastic there is a parallel journey—the journey outward. We live in community to grow in sensitivity to the needs of others.… The monastery is then a center to come out of and to invite others into. The key is always to maintain both journeys—inward and outward.”


In his lecture at my college, Gauranga Das had inspired me when he said, “Plant trees under whose shade you do not plan to sit.” That sentence captivated me and launched me on a trajectory I had never imagined. And now I have to make a confession. I’ve been holding out on you. We have talked about how to let go of the influences of external noise, fear, envy, and false goals. We have explored how to grow by harnessing our minds, our egos, and our daily practices to live in our dharma. All of this is toward the goal of leading fulfilling, meaningful lives—a worthy path. But here, and on social media, and in my classes, and in every medium in which I teach, I haven’t yet revealed the most important lesson I learned as a monk and one that I carry with me every day of my life. Drumroll, please.

The highest purpose is to live in service.

It’s not that I’ve been keeping service a secret; I mention it often. But I’ve waited until now to talk about the central role I believe it should play in all of our lives because, frankly, I think most of us are somewhat resistant to the idea. Sure, we want to help those in need, and maybe we already find ways to do so, but we are limited by the pressure and needs of our own work and lives. We want to solve our own issues first. “Jay, I’m the one who needs help! I have so much to figure out before I can devote myself to helping others.” It’s true. It’s hard to think about selflessness when we are struggling. And yet that is exactly what I learned as a monk. Selflessness is the surest route to inner peace and a meaningful life. Selflessness heals the self.

Monks live in service, and to think like a monk ultimately means to serve. The Monastic Way quotes Benedictine monk Dom Aelred Graham as saying, “The monk may think he has come [to the monastery] to gain something for himself: peace, security, quiet, a life of prayer, or study, or teaching; but if his vocation is genuine, he finds that he has come not to take but to give.” We seek to leave a place cleaner than we found it, people happier than we found them, the world better than we found it.

We are nature, and if we look at and observe nature carefully, nature is always serving. The sun provides heat and light. Trees give oxygen and shade. Water quenches our thirst. We can—and monks do—view everything in nature as serving. The Srimad-Bhagavatam says, “Look at these fortunate trees. They live solely for the benefit of others. They tolerate wind, rain, heat, and snow, but still provide shelter for our benefit.” The only way to be one with nature is to serve. It follows that the only way to align properly with the universe is to serve because that’s what the universe does.

The sixteenth-century guru Rupa Goswami talks about yukta-vairฤgya, which means to do everything for a higher purpose. That’s real detachment, utter renunciation, perfection. Some monk sects strictly apply this standard to their practices, stripping themselves of material possessions altogether, but in reality the rest of us need to work for a living. We’re all going to end up owning stuff. But we can look at how we use what we have. We can use our homes to foster community. We can use our money and resources to support causes we believe in. We can volunteer our talents for those in need. It’s not wrong to have things if we use them for good.

The Bhagavad Gita sees the whole world as a kind of school, an education system structured to make us realize one truth: We are compelled to serve, and only in service can we be happy. Like fire is hot, as the sun is light and warm, service is the essence of human consciousness. Know the reality of the world in which you live. Know it to be impermanent, unreal, and the source of your suffering and delusion. Seeing the purpose of life to be sense gratification—making ourselves feel good—leads to pain and dissatisfaction. Seeing it as service leads to fulfillment.


Service fulfills us on many levels, beginning with my simple belief that we’re born wired to care for others so service does us good. This instinct is most obvious in children, who aren’t yet distracted by other demands on their time and attention. An image that went viral shows a little girl, probably about two years old, watching a politician crying on Japanese TV. She takes a tissue, goes up to the TV, and tries to wipe away the politician’s tears. Such things go viral because we recognize—and perhaps miss—the little girl’s compassion for another person, even a stranger.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Just as Mandela believed people were born to love but taught to hate, monks believe that we are born to serve, but the distractions of the external world make us forget our purpose. We need to reconnect with that instinct in order to feel like life has meaning.

I have already touched on Joseph Campbell’s concept of the mythic hero’s journey. It is a formula describing the steps that a hero goes through when he embarks on an adventure, encounters trials and obstacles, and returns victorious. One of the key elements of the hero’s journey is one we often overlook—the last stage, which Campbell called “return with elixir.” The hero’s journey isn’t fulfilled until he makes it home safely and shares what he has gained (the elixir) with others. The idea of service is woven into classic story structure as a key part of a happy ending.

Seane Corn is living out the hero’s journey. She made her name as a teacher of yoga asana. She was (and still is) a marquee teacher at yoga conferences and festivals around the world, but at one point in her career as a yoga teacher, she realized that with her platform, she could make an even more meaningful impact in the world, so she shifted her focus to serving at-risk communities. Corn decided to try bringing breath and meditation techniques to those in need, starting with kids who’d been sexually exploited. Then she grew her practice into working with other people society deems as outcasts, such as prostitutes and drug addicts. From that vantage point, she reached back into the yoga community to cofound Off the Mat, Into the World, a nonprofit that links yoga with activism. As dedicated as she is to service, Corn maintains that she gets more than she gives. “Find me someone who has gone to the darkest parts of their own character where they were so close to their own self-destruction and found a way to get up and out of it, and I will bow on my knees to you.… You’re my teacher.”

As Corn found, service gives back to us.

Studies show that when we pursue “compassionate goals”—those aimed at helping others or otherwise helping to make the world a better place—we’re less likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression than when we focus on improving or protecting our own status or reputation. The act of giving to others activates the pleasure center of our brain. It’s win-win-win. This may be why those who help others tend to live longer, be healthier, and have a better overall sense of well-being.

Monks believe that the pillar of service makes our lives better in many ways.

Service connects us. When you serve, it’s hard to be lonely. In most scenarios, you have to go out into the world to help other people.

Service amplifies gratitude. Service gives you a broad view of all that you have.

Service increases compassion. When you serve, you see that the world needs what you have to offer.

Service builds self-esteem. Helping others tells you that you’re making a difference in the world. You have a sense of meaning and purpose.

The ashram is designed around the intention to serve, and it’s easier to live with that as your highest intention when everyone around you is on board. A life of service is far more challenging in the modern world, and we can’t all follow the monks’ 24/7 model, but the monk practice shows us why and how we should adopt a service mindset.


The word seva is Sanskrit for selfless service. The Bhagavad Gita says that “giving simply because it is right to give, without thought of return, at a proper time, in proper circumstances, and to a worthy person, is sattvic giving”—giving in the mode of goodness. Monks are solely motivated by selfless service: to give others opportunities that we had and didn’t have; to better others’ lives and the human condition. We took this mission to heart in small and large ways. Within the ashram, we tried to serve each other every day. Monks don’t make grand gestures. Love is in the small things. If someone was having trouble waking up on time, we’d help them. If someone was working late, we’d save food for them. We are consistent and intentional. We remember that we never know what someone is going through, so we treat them with the gentleness you would give someone who is in pain, with the generosity you would give someone who is hungry, with the compassion you would give someone who is misunderstood.

This attitude radiated beyond the ashram. When we traveled, we always carried extra food with us so that we had some to give away. We weren’t ending world hunger, but to help any hungry person is to water the seeds of compassion.

On a larger scale, we participated in a program called Annamrita, which provides more than a million meals a day to the underprivileged children of India. We often went to Mumbai to cook in the kitchens or to serve food in the schools. The students were given kitchari, a rice and lentil porridge made with ghee that’s considered a staple in Ayurvedic cooking, and afterward they would receive dessert, a sweet rice pudding called kheer. The first time I handed a child kheer, her gratitude was so apparent that I was humbled. It was the same with every child, every time, each face radiating joy. I hate cooking—the hot kitchen full of people, the massive pots to be tended. But the kids’ faces—and the sad truth they told about how rare and special the food was to them—made it easy to feel grateful for the opportunity to serve.

At the ashram, instead of saying “How was work?” we might ask, “Have you served today?” If you were wondering what monk water-cooler talk sounds like—there you have it. Set aside the obstacles for a moment and imagine if everyone had a service mindset. We would ask ourselves new questions: How does this serve a broader purpose? How am I serving the people around me—at work, at home, in my community? How can I use my talents to serve others and make a difference? Remember Emma Slade, who uses her financial skills to serve her charity work, and ask yourself, “What do I know that is of any use?”

We have seen that happiness and gratitude spread through communities. The same is true for service. When you serve, you mention it to your friends. You might bring someone else with you. Someone joins you, and they tell two friends. When you participate in service, you do your part to spread the value of service in our culture.


Think of four to six people you would drop everything to help. How often do you think about these people? Do you ever actually have a chance to show your care for them? Can you start?

Now think of twenty people you would help if they asked. Before you give up, let me make that easier for you. Think of a group containing at least twenty people whom you would help. It might be a segment of your community or a group that a charity already serves. Let’s bring these people into a closer circle of care.

If you don’t know them, research the names of twenty people in this group or find another way to compile a list of at least twenty names. Tape the list to the mirror where you brush your teeth. Now you’ll think of them at least twice a day (I hope!). Observe how this changes your motivation to serve them.

Most people think about just one person: themselves. Maybe their radius of care is a bit bigger, including their immediate family. That’s, maybe, five to ten people worrying about one another. But if you expand your radius of care, I believe that people feel it. If others extend their radius of care to include you, I believe that you would feel it. And what if we dare to imagine that everyone were thinking like this? You would have some 7.8 billion people thinking about you, and vice versa. I don’t see why we shouldn’t dream big.


Out in the modern world, no matter how much we want to help others, we are distracted from the service mindset by the desire to be financially and emotionally stable and secure. If you’re lost and disconnected, your service will be cumbersome and less fulfilling. But when is the time right? Will it ever be right? Internal exploration has no endpoint. It’s an ongoing practice. Your problems will never be completely solved.

Take care of yourself—yes. But don’t wait until you have enough time and money to serve. You will never have enough. There are three simple modes to describe our relationship with money and material wealth. The first is selfish—I want more—as much as I can get—and I want it all for myself. The second is sufficiency—I have just enough to get by. I’m not suffering, but I have nothing to give. The third is service—I want to give what I have, and I want more in order to give more.

Moving from the sufficiency mindset to the service mindset means changing our relationship with ownership—the more detached we are, the easier it is to let go of our time and money.

Some of our trips as monks were pilgrimages to bathe in the sacred rivers. I went to the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Kaveri. We didn’t swim or play in the holy waters. Instead, we performed rituals; one involved scooping as much water as we could into our hands, then putting it back in the river. We took from water to give back to water as a reminder that we didn’t own anything. Charity isn’t giving of yourself. You’re taking something that was already on earth and giving it back to earth. You don’t have to have to give.

Sindhutai Sapkal was married at twelve to a thirty-year-old man. When she was twenty years old, with three sons, nine months pregnant, she was beaten and thrown into a cow shed. She gave birth there, cutting her own umbilical cord with a sharp rock. Shunned by her maternal village, she lived on the streets with her newborn, begging and singing for money. She was struck by the number of orphans she saw and took them under her wing. She began begging on their behalf as well as her own. Her efforts grew, and she became known as the “Mother of Orphans.” Her organizations have now housed and helped more than fourteen hundred children in India. Sindhutai didn’t serve because she had something to give. She served because she saw pain.

In a series of experiments, researchers at University of California, Berkeley, found that people with less money actually tend to give more. In one situation, people were given $10 and told they could choose an amount to share with an anonymous stranger. People who were lower in socioeconomic status were more generous than wealthier participants. These findings are backed up by a survey of charitable giving in 2011, which showed that Americans in the bottom percentage of income gave, on average, 3 percent of their earnings to charity where people in the top 20 percent gave half that—1 percent. (Just to be fair, the wealthy are still responsible for over 70 percent of charitable contributions.)

Why those with less give more may have to do with their exposure to hardship. UC Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner says that people with fewer resources tend to need to lean on others—family members, friends, those in their community—for help. Those with more money, conversely, can “buy” help and are therefore more distanced from this kind of day-to-day struggle. The poor may have greater empathy for others in need. Some philanthropists, such as Oprah Winfrey, have mentioned their own prior experience of poverty as a motivation for giving.

The question to contemplate is: Who is wealthier, the one with money or the one who serves?


I had come to the ashram to serve, and when I was saying my goodbyes, one monk who had been a like a big brother to me took me aside. He said something like, “If your health and being a monk isn’t right for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t serve. If you feel you can serve better by being married or becoming a chef or darning socks for the needy, that takes priority. Service to humanity is the higher goal.” His words reassured me that just because I was leaving didn’t mean my intention had to change.

One can serve with a mix of intentions, broad and narrow. We might do it to be liked, to feel good about ourselves, to look good, to connect with other people, to receive some kind of reward. But if you’re out there helping your friends move, cooking for them, celebrating them, and then you wonder, Why doesn’t anyone come help me? or Why did everyone forget my birthday?—you’ve missed the point. You’re seeing yourself as the giver and them as the receiver and imagining that when service is done, a debt is created. True service doesn’t expect or even want anything in return. Nonetheless, the service itself often yields happiness, as both the Bhagavad Gita and the science show. When I do something to serve you, and you’re happy, I’m happy.

But is service selfish if it brings you joy? Is it selfish if it teaches your children a lesson? Of course not! If a certain kind of giving makes you happy or benefits you in some way, that’s a great place to start. After I left the ashram, I led retreats from London to Mumbai, giving people from the UK and other parts of Europe a chance to serve “midday meals” with Annamrita. One man who came on a retreat with me brought his kids, aged thirteen and fourteen. They returned from that trip having witnessed and felt the gratitude of people who didn’t have much in their lives. The father was thrilled at how transformed his kids were. His trip was not completely selfless—he wanted his children to learn and grow—but it was still the right thing to do. In fact, the learning opportunity he saw for his children is an example of the mutual benefits of service.

The problems that some of us face are mental—anxiety, depression, loneliness—whereas for many of the people in need of service the greatest challenges are more basic—food, clothing, shelter. We can heal our mental challenges by helping them with their physical needs. Service, therefore, is a reciprocal exchange. You’re not saving anyone by helping them—you need help as much as they do.

When we’re in service, we’re an instrument of grace and compassion. We feel this, and sometimes it goes to our heads. But remember that whatever you are giving was given to you. When you pass it on, you can’t take credit for it.


Because service is a natural part of being human, it’s easier than you think. Just serve. We can always, every day—right now!—find ways to serve through what we’re already doing. If you’re a musician, serve. If you’re a coder, serve. If you’re an entrepreneur, serve. You don’t have to change your occupation. You don’t have to change your schedule. You can serve from any situation.

If you look around, you will see opportunities for service everywhere: in schools, at religious institutions, with individuals on the street, charities. There are neighborhood food drives and used costume drives at school. You can run a race to raise money for charity or have a lemonade stand. You can help a friend gather toiletries to send to disaster victims. You can visit a sick or aging relative. If you live in a city, you can often carry your leftovers out of a restaurant and offer them to a homeless person. Those closest to us, and those who have nobody—there are infinite ways to serve. You don’t have to do charity work every day or give away all your money. Simply realize you’re in service and look for how you can connect what you already do to a higher purpose. Just as you bring your dharma to work, bring service to your dharma. It’s about the spirit in which you do the same work. You can either see the world through the lens of love and duty, or through the lens of necessity and force. Love and duty are more likely to lead to happiness.


Over the course of a week, write down every place where you spend time. Open your eyes to the service opportunities by looking for one in every circumstance. Sometimes it is a need that you spot, sometimes it is an existing project you can join, sometimes it is attaching a fundraiser to an activity you already do, sometimes it is a friend’s service effort. At the end of the week, pick the three opportunities that interest you most and reach out to one of them.

Here are some sample places where you can look for opportunities:

  • Work
  • School
  • Social event with friend(s)
  • Online community
  • Religious or other community group
  • Gym
  • Requests for help from a cause you’ve supported in the past


When the monks and I were fending for ourselves in the village, the ultimate lesson for me was that there was always another level of service. This lesson emerged from looking past our own needs to see and feel and respond to the needs of those around us.

I think of compassion as active empathy—not only the willingness to see, feel, and ease the pain of others, but also the willingness to take on some of that pain. There is a Zen story about a young man who is world-weary and dejected. With no plan or prospects, he goes to a monastery, tells the master that he is hoping to find a better path, but he admits that he lacks patience. “Can I find enlightenment without all that meditation and fasting?” he asks. “I don’t think I can handle it. Is there another way?”

“Perhaps,” says the master, “But you will need the ability to focus. Are there any skills you’ve developed?”

The young man looks down. He hasn’t been inspired by his studies or any particular interests. Finally, he shrugs. “Well, I’m not bad at chess.”

The master calls over one of the monk elders and says, “I’d like you and this young man to play a game of chess. Play carefully, because I will cut off the head of the one who loses.”

The young man breaks into a sweat. He’s playing for his life! He plays weakly at first, but it soon becomes clear that his opponent’s chess skills are fair at best. If he puts his mind to it, he will surely win. He soon loses himself in concentration and begins to beat the old monk. The master begins to sharpen his sword.

Now the young man looks across the table, sees the wise, calm face of the old monk, who in his obedience and detachment has no fear of the death that certainly awaits him. The disillusioned man thinks, I can’t be responsible for this man’s death. His life is worth more than mine. Then the young man’s play changes—he deliberately begins to lose.

Without warning, the master flips the table over, scattering the pieces. “Today there will be no winner, and no loser,” he states. The losing monk’s calm demeanor doesn’t change, but the astonished young man feels a great sense of relief. The elder says to him, “You have the ability to concentrate, and you are willing to give your life for another. That is compassion. Join us and proceed in that spirit. You are ready to be a monk.”

There are approximately 152 million child laborers in the world, and Kailash Satyarthi has taken on an enormous amount of pain in his effort to end child labor. In 2016 the Nobel Peace Laureate launched the 100 Million, a campaign to enlist 100 million young people to speak out and act against child labor. In the course of his work he has been threatened and beaten many times. He says, “The world is capable to end child labor. We have the technology. We have the resources. We have laws and international treaties. We have everything. The only thing is that we have to feel compassion for others. My struggle is for the globalization of compassion.”

Like Satyarthi, we are motivated to serve when we think of the whole world as one family. You wouldn’t want your child to be enslaved or your parent to be homeless. Why would you want those hardships for anyone else’s child or parent? If you stay shut in your world and never see how other people live, you’ll never be focused on service. When we bear witness to other people’s pain, we feel our shared humanity and are motivated to take action.

For heroes like Satyarthi and for monks—and ideally for all of us—there is no us and them.


An infinite number of people and causes need our help now. We need everyone in the world to do everything. The benefits to them and us are immediate.

While we should never avoid helping others when we see their need, we can and should develop a sense of what sorts of service we’re best at and focus our attention on them. Choose where to serve based on your own compassion. Buddhist scholar and environmental activist Joanna Macy writes, “You don’t need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love. It is unstoppable, and it is enough.”


One route to service is through healing the pain that we know best. Write down three moments in your life when you felt lost or in need. Maybe you were depressed and could have used support. Maybe you wanted an education you couldn’t afford. Maybe you needed guidance but didn’t have the right teacher. Match a charity or cause to each area of pain. A teen hotline. A scholarship fund. A mentoring program. A politician. Now see if any of these options have opportunities to serve that suit your dharma.

Serving through your dharma, healing the pain that you connect with—this approach is very much in line with the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, which likes to meet you wherever you are and encourage you to reach higher. When I was a monk, I prepared food for children with Annamrita, cleaned temples, always carried food to hand out to strangers, and otherwise served in the ways that made sense for me at the time. Now, with a different platform, I’ve been able to help a YouTube campaign raise nearly $150,000 for the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation of America. On Facebook my community raised over $60,000 for Pencils of Promise. ($75 provides a year of education for one child.) The sense of meaning and gratitude I feel has been constant as my path of giving evolves.

Here’s the life hack: Service is always the answer. It fixes a bad day. It tempers the burdens we bear. Service helps other people and helps us. We don’t expect anything in return, but what we get is the joy of service. It’s an exchange of love.

When you’re living in service, you don’t have time to complain and criticize.

When you’re living in service, your fears go away.

When you’re living in service, you feel grateful. Your material attachments diminish.

Service is the direct path to a meaningful life.


We have explored how to connect to people around us through gratitude, relationships, and service. As we do this it is fitting to incorporate sound meditation into our practice to connect with the energy of the universe.

Sound transports us. A song can take us back to a high school memory, make us want to dance, get us fired up. Words themselves have power—they can change how we see the world and how we grow. When we chant, we ourselves are generating this energy. Sound meditations allow us to connect with our souls and the universe through words and song.

Ancient spiritual texts including the Agni Purana and the Vayu Purana discuss the why and how of chanting, suggesting that the repetition of sound purifies us. The sound is immersive, like giving our souls a regular bath. You can’t put one drop of water on your body and be clean—you have to go underneath the water.

Recognizing the value of sound has carried through to modern times. Legendary inventor Nikola Tesla said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration.” Tesla experimented extensively with machines that created healing fields using vibrations. That may strike you as a bit woo-woo, but modern science is actually resurrecting Tesla’s research on vibrational healing. Modern brain research is also starting to uncover scientific explanations for the healing power of ancient healing rituals, like how repetitive drumming and singing can open pathways to the subconscious.

Monks harness the power of sound by repeating affirmations or mantras during meditation. An affirmation is a word or phrase you want to set as an intention. Virtually anything that inspires you can work. One of my clients says her favorite is: “At your own pace, in your own time.” A friend of mine read a book called Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani and made the title her mantra for a while. I also like: “This too shall pass.” Or a phrase from a poet, such as “Live everything” (by Rilke); a sports quote, like “This moment is yours” (from Olympic ice hockey coach Herb Brooks); a song lyric, like “Brush your shoulders off” (by Jay-Z), something from a movie, like “Woosah” (courtesy of Bad Boys II). Anything that connects you to the energy or idea you want to cultivate in your life can be effective. I recommend adding a mantra to your morning and/or evening meditation practice. It is beautiful to wake up or go to sleep listening to the sound of your own voice chanting.

Where affirmations change the way you speak to yourself, mantras change the way you speak to the universe. Mantra in a deep sense means “to transcend the mind,” and a mantra is a spiritual sound expressing thought and meaning that summons a power greater than ourselves. Mantras can be chanted or sung in unison. We meditate to listen and find clarity. We pray to share and find connection with a higher power. Chanting is both—a dialogue with the universe.

The oldest, most common, and most sacred mantra is Om. In Vedic texts the sound is given many shades of meaning, from infinite knowledge to the essence of everything that exists to the whole Veda. Om also is called pranava, whose meaning can be described as “the sound by which the Lord is praised.” In chanting, om comprises three syllables—A-U-M. In Vedic tradition, this is important because each sound embodies a different state (wakefulness, dreaming, and deep sleep) or period of time itself (past, present, and future). You could say that the word om represents everything.

The vibrations from om have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which decreases inflammation. Vagus nerve stimulation is also used as a treatment for depression, and researchers are looking at whether chanting om may have a direct effect on mood. (It’s already been shown to calm one of the brain’s emotional centers.)

When a mantra is put to music it’s called kirtan, a type of call-and-response chanting, which we often used at the ashram. A similar experience is fans chanting in a stadium—minus the alcohol and foul language. But the atmosphere that can be created has the same feeling of united energy.

Though sound itself is of value, when I temporarily lost my voice for medical reasons, I reached out to a monk teacher. I said, “I can’t chant mantras. How can I meditate?”

He said, “Chanting was never from your mouth. It was always from your heart.” He meant that, as with all acts, what mattered was whether the intention was full of devotion and love. The heart transcends instructions and perfection.


For the sound exercises I describe below, begin your practice with the following steps.

  1. Find a comfortable position—sitting in a chair, sitting upright with a cushion, or lying down.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Lower your gaze.
  4. Make yourself comfortable in this position.
  5. Bring your awareness to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  6. Whenever your mind wanders, just gently and softly bring it back to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  7. Chant each of these mantras three times each. When you chant them, bring your attention to each syllable. Pronounce it properly so that you can hear the vibration clearly. Really feel the mantra, repeating it genuinely and sincerely, and visualizing a more insightful, blessed, and service-filled life.


“I offer praise unto the all-pervading divinity present within every heart; who is the embodiment of beauty, intelligence, strength, wealth, fame, and detachment.”

This mantra has been chanted for millennia by yogis and sages. It is cleansing and empowering, and connects one with the divinity in everything. It can be recited especially when you are seeking insight and guidance.


“The absolute truth is eternal.”

This mantra appears in the Bhagavad Gita. It represents divine energy and invokes powerful blessings. All work is performed as an offering of love and service. This mantra is recited especially before beginning any important work, to help perfect and refine our intentions and bring about balance and wholeness.


“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”

This mantra, popularized by Jivamukti yoga, is a beautiful reminder to look beyond ourselves and to remember our place in the universe.


I hope this book has inspired you, and perhaps you will come away from it planning a fresh start. Maybe you’re thinking about how to change your routines, to listen to your mind in new ways, to bring more gratitude into your life, and more. But when you wake up tomorrow, things will go wrong. You might sleep through your alarm. Something will break. An important appointment will cancel. The universe isn’t going to suddenly give you green lights all the way to work. It’s a mistake to think that when we read a book, attend a class, and implement changes that we’ll fix everything. The externals will never be perfect, and the goal isn’t perfection. Life is not going to go your way. You have to go your way and take life with you. Understanding this will help you be prepared for whatever may come.

There is no universal plan for peace and purpose. The way we get there is by training our minds to focus on how to react, respond, and commit to what we want in life, in our own pace, at our own time. Then, when life swerves, we return to that focus. If you’ve decided to be kind, and someone is rude to you, you know what you want to come back to. If you wake up resolved to focus on your dharma at work, and then your boss gives you an assignment that’s not aligned with your strengths, it’s up to you to find a way to put your dharma to use. When you fail, don’t judge the process and don’t judge yourself. Give yourself latitude to recover and return to a flexible focus on what you want. The world isn’t with you or against you. You create your own reality in every moment.

Throughout this book, we have encountered paradoxes. We talk about getting close to fear to move away from it, finding the new in our routines, having confidence and humility, being selfish to be selfless. We live in a binary world, but the beauty of paradox is that two opposing ideas can coexist. Life isn’t a computer program—it’s a dance.

In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi says, “Never trust [a] spiritual leader who cannot dance.” When we dance, there are no rules. We must be open to whatever song comes on. We have strengths and weaknesses. We might fall, or hesitate over our next move, or have a moment of overenthusiasm, but we keep flowing, allowing ourselves to be messy and beautiful. Like a dancer, the monk mind is flexible and controlled, always present in the moment.


I can think of no better tool to help you find flexibility and control than meditation. Meditation helps you figure out what move to make in the dance. In meditation, we find clarity on who we need to be right now, in order to be our best in the moment. Our breath connects with our minds, our souls are uplifted in song, and in that place of energy and unity, we find answers.

I have introduced you to three different types of meditation, and now I’m going to give you a daily practice that includes all of them: breathwork, visualization, and chanting. I practice some form of this meditation every day. I recommend that you make it the first thing you do in the morning after brushing your teeth and showering, and last thing you do before bed. Start with twenty-one minutes once a day, using a timer to give yourself seven minutes each for breathwork, visualization, and mantra. When you are ready for more, expand to twenty-one minutes twice a day, ideally first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Make sure you always begin with breathwork. Like a warm-up before you exercise, it should not be skipped!

  1. Find a comfortable position—sitting in a chair, sitting upright with a cushion, or lying down.
  2. Close your eyes and lower your gaze. Bring your awareness to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace. It is natural for the chatter and clutter to be busy in your mind. Whenever your mind wanders, just gently and softly bring it back to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  3. Make yourself comfortable in this position. Roll back your shoulders, stretch your neck and body, and find a physical space of calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  4. Now become aware of your natural breathing pattern. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  5. Take a deep breath. Breathe in for a count of 1 - 2 - 3 - 4. Breathe out for a count of 1 - 2 - 3 - 4.
  6. Align your body and your breath by breathing in for the same amount of time as you breathe out.
  7. Do this for what feels like five minutes. At first you might want to set a timer with a pleasant tone to signal that the five minutes have passed.
  8. Ask yourself, “What am I grateful for today?” Breathe in gratitude and breathe out negative, toxic energy.
  9. Now visualize a joy-, happiness-, and gratitude-filled memory. Think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Absorb the love, joy, and happiness. Take the love from that moment and visualize it flowing through your entire body. From your feet, to your legs, to your hips, to your stomach, to your chest, arms, back, neck, and head. Give love, joy, and gratitude to each part of your body. Do this for five minutes.
  10. Ask yourself, “What is my intention for today?” Is it to be kind, to be confident, to be focused? Set that intention now.
  11. Repeat the following to yourself 3 times each: “I am happy about who I am becoming. I am open to all opportunities and possibilities. I am worthy of real love. I am ready to serve with all I have.”
  12. To finish your practice, repeat this mantra 3 times: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu


A novice monk went to his teacher and said, “I’m terrible at meditating. My feet fall asleep, and I’m distracted by the outside noises. When I’m not uncomfortable, it’s because I can barely stay awake.”

“It will pass,” the teacher said simply, and by her expression the novice knew that the conversation was over.

A month passed, and the novice took his teacher aside, smiling proudly. “I think I’ve figured it out! I feel so serene—more focused and centered than I’ve ever been. My meditation is beautiful.”

“It will pass,” the teacher replied.

There is no measure of success, no goal, and no end to a meditation practice. Don’t look for results. Just keep doing it. Practice consistently for four to twelve weeks, and you’ll start to notice the effects.

The first sign that you’re doing it right is that you’ll miss it if you take a break. You only miss a person when you don’t see them. When you eat every day, you don’t think much about nourishment and fuel, but if you don’t eat for a day, you quickly notice the power of food. The same is true for meditation—you have to develop a practice before you know what you’re missing.

The second effect you’ll notice is an increased awareness of what’s going on in your mind. If you meditate and feel tired, you’ll understand that meditation is telling you to get more sleep. Meditation is a signal or a mirror. If you meditate and can’t focus, you’ll see that you’re living a distracted life and need to feel order, balance, and simplicity. If you can’t sit with your thoughts for fifteen minutes, it’s a clear indicator of the work to be done.

The third and most important benefit of meditation is that, though you won’t emerge feeling calm and perfect every time, you’ll gradually acquire a long-term mastery of self. When you drink a green juice, it doesn’t always taste great. A nice glass of fresh orange juice looks better and tastes better. But, long-term, the less delightful green juice will better serve you. When you are adept at meditation, you’ll feel a shift in your general attitude. Your intuition will be sharper. You’ll be able to observe your life more objectively, without being self-centered. Your expanded perception will give you a sense of peace and purpose.


Life begins with breath, breath carries you through all your days, and life and breath end together. Monks try to be present in the moment, but we are always conscious of now and forever. We measure our lives not by how big or small our impact is, but by how we make people feel. We use our time to establish how we will live on, through giving love and care, through supporting, communicating, creating—through the impact we have on humanity.

How will we be remembered? What will we leave behind?

Ultimately death can be seen as the greatest reflection point—by imagining the last moment you can reflect on everything that leads up to it.

Among the most common regrets dying people express are:

  • I wish I’d expressed my love to the people I care about.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
  • I wish I’d taken more pleasure in life.
  • I wish I’d done more for other people.

Notice that most of these regrets address something the person didn’t do. Monks believe we should prepare for death. We don’t want to arrive at the end of our days knowing we haven’t lived a purposeful, service-based, meaningful life.

Think of the topics we’ve considered in this book. In death, you should be fully cleansed, free of what you think you’re supposed to do, free of comparison and criticism, having faced the root of your fear, free from material desires, living in your dharma, having used your time well, having not given in to the mind’s demands, free from ego, having given more than you have taken, but then having given away all that you’ve taken, free from entitlement, free from false connections and expectations. Imagine how rewarding it will be to look back on a life where you have been a teacher while remaining a student.

Reflecting on the knowledge that we will die someday compels us to value the time we have and to spend our energy thoughtfully. Life’s too short to live without purpose, to lose our chance to serve, to let our dreams and aspirations die with us. Above all, I ask you to leave people and places better and happier than you found them.

Working on ourselves is an unending practice. Have patience. A student went to her teacher and said, “I am committed to my dharma. How long will it take me to attain enlightenment?”

Without missing a beat, the teacher replied, “Ten years.”

Impatient, the student persisted, “But what if I work very hard? I will practice, ten or more hours every day if I have to. Then how long will it take?”

This time the teacher took a moment to consider. “Twenty years.”

The very idea that the student was looking to rush his work was evidence that he had ten extra years to study.

As I’ve mentioned, the Sanskrit word for monk, brahmacharya, means “student,” but it also means “right use of energy.” It’s not like once you have the monk mindset, you’ve figured everything out. Instead, the monk mindset acknowledges that the right use of energy is to remain a student. You can never cease learning. You don’t cut your hair or mow your lawn once. You have to keep at it. In the same way, sustaining the monk mindset requires self-awareness, discipline, diligence, focus, and constant practice. It is hard work, but the tools are already in your head, heart, and hands.

You have all you need to think like a monk.


To imagine your own death gives you a bird’s-eye view of your life. Try a death meditation whenever you are questioning whether or not to do something—to make a significant change, learn a new skill, take a trip. I recommend that you always do a death meditation at the beginning of a new year, to inspire new paths in the upcoming year.

  1. Visualizing the inevitable will give you every lesson you need to live a fulfilling life. Fast-forward to yourself at age eighty or ninety, however long you want to live, and imagine yourself on your deathbed. Ask your future self questions such as:
  • What do I wish I’d done?
  • What experiences do I wish I’d had?
  • What do I regret not giving more attention?
  • What skills do I wish I’d worked on?
  • What do I wish I’d detached from?

Use these answers to motivate yourself—instead of having regrets on your deathbed, put those wishes into action today.

  1. Imagine how you’d like to be remembered at your own funeral. Don’t focus on what people thought of you, who loved you, and how sad they will be to lose you. Instead think about the impact you’ve had. Then imagine how you would be remembered if you died today. What’s the gap between these two images? This too should galvanize you to build your legacy.

To find our way through the universe, we must start by genuinely asking questions. You might travel to a new place or go someplace where no one knows you. Disable your autopilot to see yourself and the world around you with new eyes. Spot, Stop, Swap. Train your mind to observe the forces that influence you, detach from illusion and false beliefs, and continually look for what motivates you and what feels meaningful.

What would a monk do in this moment?

When you’re making a decision, when you’re having an argument, when you’re planning your weekend, when you’re scared or upset or angry or lost, ask this question. You’ll find the answer 99 percent of the time.

And eventually, when you’ve uncovered your real self, you won’t even need to ask yourself what a monk would do. You can simply ask, “What will I do?”

Author’s Note

In this book I have drawn from the wisdom of many religions, cultures, inspirational leaders, and scientists. In every case I have done my very best to attribute quotes and ideas to their original sources, and these efforts are reflected here. In some cases I have come across wonderful quotes or ideas that I have found attributed to multiple different sources, widely attributed with no specified source, or attributed to ancient texts where I could not locate the original verse. In these cases I have, with the help of a researcher, tried to give the reader as much useful information as I could regarding the source of the material.





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