The Charioteer’s Dilemma

When the five senses and the mind are stilled, when the reasoning intellect rests in silence, then begins the highest path.

—the Katha Upanishad

It is raining. Though it’s September and monsoon season is over, it’s coming down hard. I really need a shower before morning meditation. About a hundred of my fellow monks and I arrived here in South India last night after a two-day train ride from Mumbai. We had the cheapest tickets available, of course, sleeping in close quarters with strangers, and the bathrooms were so foul that I decided to fast for the entire trip in order to avoid them. We are on a pilgrimage, staying in a warehouse-type building near the seashore. After morning meditation we will go straight to classes, so now is my best chance to shower.

I ask for directions to the shower, and someone points to a wet, muddy dirt pathway through the low shrubs. “It’s about a twenty-minute walk,” he says.

I look down at my flip-flops. Great. My feet will get even dirtier on the way to the shower than they are right now. What’s the point?

Then another voice comes into my head: “Don’t be lazy. You have to get ready for morning meditation. Just go take the shower.”

I duck my head and start down the path. Squelching through the mud, I try not to slip. Every step is unpleasant, not just because of the conditions but because the first voice in my head keeps discouraging me, saying “See? You’re getting muddy on your way to the showers, and you’ll get dirty again on the way back.”

The other voice urges me onward: “You are doing the right thing. Honor your commitment.”

Finally, I reach the showers, a row of white stalls. I open the door to one and look up. Rain pours down from the still-dark sky. There is no roof. Seriously? I step into the stall and don’t even bother to turn on the faucet. We bathe in cold water anyway, and that’s exactly what the rain is delivering.

Standing in the shower, I wonder what the hell I am doing here. In this miserable excuse for a shower, on that filthy train yesterday, on this trip, living this life. I could be dry and warm in a nice apartment in London right now, making fifty thousand pounds a year. Life could be so much easier.

But as I walk back, the other voice returns with some interesting ideas about the value of what I’ve just accomplished. Going to the shower in the rain wasn’t a notable achievement. It didn’t require physical strength or bravery. But it tested my ability to tolerate external difficulties. It gave me an idea of how much frustration I could handle in one morning. It may not have cleansed or refreshed me, but it did something more valuable: It strengthened my resolve.


In the Hitopadeśa, an ancient Indian text by Nārāyana, the mind is compared to a drunken monkey that’s been bitten by a scorpion and haunted by a ghost.

We humans have roughly seventy thousand separate thoughts each day. Ernst Pöppel, a German psychologist and neuroscientist, has shown through his research that our minds are only in present time for about three seconds at a time. Other than that, our brains are thinking forward and backward, filling in ideas about present time based on what we’ve experienced in the past and anticipating what is to come. As Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made, describes it on a podcast, most of the time “your brain is not reacting to events in the world, it’s predicting… constantly guessing what’s going to happen next.” The Samyutta Nikaya describes each thought as a branch, and our minds as monkeys, swinging from one branch to the next, often aimlessly. This almost sounds like fun, but, as we all know, it is anything but. Usually those thoughts are fears, concerns, negativity, and stress. What will happen this week at work? What should I eat for dinner? Have I saved enough for a holiday this year? Why is my date five minutes late? Why am I here? These are all genuine questions that deserve answers, but none of them will be resolved while we swing from branch to branch, thought to thought. This is the jungle of the untrained mind.

The Dhammapada is a collection of verses probably collected by Buddha’s disciples. In it, the Buddha says, “As irrigators lead water where they want, as archers make their arrows straight, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their minds.” True growth requires understanding the mind. It is the filter, judge, and director of all our experiences, but, as evidenced by the conflict I felt on my shower adventure, we are not always of one mind. The more we can evaluate, understand, train, and strengthen our relationship with the mind, the more successfully we navigate our lives and overcome challenges.

This battle in our mind is waged over the smallest daily choices (Do I have to get up right now?) and the biggest (Should I end this relationship?). All of us face such battles every single day.

A senior monk once told me an old Cherokee story about these dilemmas which all of us agonize over: “An elder tells his grandson, ‘Every choice in life is a battle between two wolves inside us. One represents anger, envy, greed, fear, lies, insecurity, and ego. The other represents peace, love, compassion, kindness, humility, and positivity. They are competing for supremacy.’

“ ‘Which wolf wins?’ the grandson asks. ‘The one you feed,’ the elder replies.”

“But how do we feed them?” I asked my teacher.

The monk said, “By what we read and hear. By who we spend time with. By what we do with our time. By where we focus our energy and attention.”

The Bhagavad Gita states, “For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy.” The word enemy may seem too strong to describe the voice of dissent in your head, but the definition rings true: An enemy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something,” and “a thing that harms or weakens something.” Sometimes our own minds work against us. They convince us to do something, then make us feel guilty or bad about it, often because it’s gone against our values or morals.

A pair of researchers from Princeton University and the University of Waterloo have shown that the weight of a bad decision isn’t just metaphorical. They asked study participants to remember a time they’d done something unethical, then asked them to rate their perception of their body weight. People who’d been asked to recall an unethical action said they felt physically heavier than those who’d been asked to recall a neutral memory. Other times we want to focus on something—a project at work, an artistic endeavor, a home repair, a new hobby—and our minds just won’t let us get around to it. When we procrastinate, there’s a conflict between what researchers call our “should-self,” or what we feel we should do because it’s good for us, and our “want-self,” what we actually want to do in the moment. “I know I should get started on that business proposal, but I want to watch the US Open quarterfinals.”

Before I became a monk, my own mind stopped me from doing what I loved because it was too risky. It allowed me to consume a chocolate bar and a liter of soda daily even though I wanted to be healthy. It made me compare myself to other people instead of concentrating on my own growth. I blocked myself from reaching out to people I had hurt because I did not want to appear weaker. I allowed myself to be angry at people I loved because I cared more about being right than being kind. In the introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada, Eknath Easwaran writes that in our everyday swirl of thoughts “we have no more idea of what life is really like than a chicken has before it hatches. Excitement and depression, fortune and misfortune, pleasure and pain, are storms in a tiny, private, shell-bound realm which we take to be the whole of existence.” It makes sense, then, that when the Buddha finally reached “the realm utterly beyond the reach of thought,” he described feeling like a chick breaking out of its shell.

At the ashram, I learned something that has been crucial in curbing these dangerous, self-destructive thoughts. Our thoughts are like clouds passing by. The self, like the sun, is always there. We are not our minds.


As my teachers explained, visualizing the mind as a separate entity helps us work on our relationship with it—we can think of the interaction as making a friend or negotiating peace with an enemy.

As in any interaction, the quality of our communication with the mind is based on the history of our relationship with it. Are we hotheaded combatants or stubborn and unwilling to engage? Do we have the same arguments over and over again, or do we listen and compromise? Most of us don’t know the history of this internal relationship because we’ve never taken the time to reflect on it.

The monkey mind is a child and the monk mind is an adult. A child cries when it doesn’t get what it wants, ignoring what it already has. A child struggles to appreciate real value—it would happily trade a stock certificate for some candy. When something challenges us in some way, the childlike mind reacts immediately. Maybe you feel insulted and make a sour face, or you start defending yourself. A conditioned, automatic reaction like this is ideal if someone pulls out a knife. You feel scared, and you bolt. But it’s not ideal if we’re being emotionally defensive because someone has said something we don’t want to hear. We don’t want to be controlled by automatic reactions in every case, nor do we want to eliminate the child mind altogether. The child mind enables us to be spontaneous, creative, and dynamic—all invaluable qualities—but when it rules us, it can be our downfall.

The impulsive, desire-driven child mind is tempered by the judicious, pragmatic adult mind, which says, “That’s not good for you,” or “Wait until later.” The adult mind reminds us to pause and assess the bigger picture, taking time to weigh the default reaction, decide if it’s appropriate, and propose other options. The intelligent parent knows what the child needs versus what it wants and can decide what is better for it in the long term.

Framing inner conflict this way—parent and child—suggests that when the childlike mind is fully in control it’s because our monk mind has not been developed, strengthened, or heard. The child gets frustrated, throws tantrums, and we quickly give in to it. Then we get mad at ourselves. Why am I doing this? What is wrong with me?

The parent is the smarter voice. If well trained, it has self-control, reasoning power, and is a debating champ. But it can only use the strength that we give it. It’s weaker when tired, hungry, or ignored.

When the parent isn’t supervising, the child climbs on the counter near the hot stove to get to the cookie jar, and trouble follows. On the other hand, if the parent is too controlling, the child gets bitter, resentful, and risk-averse. As with all parent-child relationships, striking the right balance is an ongoing challenge.

This, then, is the first step to understanding our minds—simply becoming aware of the different voices inside us. Starting to differentiate what you’re hearing will immediately help you make better decisions.


When you begin to sort out the multiple voices in your head, the level of conflict may surprise you. It doesn’t make sense. Our minds should work in our own best interest. Why would we stand in our own way? The complication is that we are weighing input from different sources: our five senses, telling us what appeals in the moment; our memories, recalling what we have experienced in the past; and our intellects, synthesizing and evaluating the best choice for the long term.

Beyond the parent-child model, the monk teachings have another analogy for the competing voices in our heads. In the Upanishads the working of the mind is compared to a chariot being driven by five horses. In this analogy, the chariot is the body, the horses are the five senses, the reins are the mind, and the charioteer is the intellect. Sure, this description of the mind is more complicated, but bear with me.

In the untrained state, the charioteer (the intellect) is asleep on the job, so the horses (the senses) have control of the reins (mind) and lead the body wherever they please. Horses, left to their own devices, react to what’s around them. They see a tasty-looking shrub, they bend to eat it. Something startles them, they spook. In the same way, our senses are activated in the moment by food, money, sex, power, influence, etc. If the horses are in control, the chariot veers off the road in the direction of temporary pleasure and instant gratification.

In the trained state, the charioteer (the intellect) is awake, aware, and attentive, not allowing the horses to lead the way. The charioteer uses the reins of the mind to carefully steer the chariot along the correct route.


Think about those five unruly horses, harnessed to the chariot of a lazy driver, snorting and tossing their heads impatiently. Remember that they represent the five senses, always our first point of contact with the external. The senses are responsible for our desires and attachments, and they pull us in the direction of impulsivity, passion, and pleasure, destabilizing the mind. Monks calm the senses in order to calm the mind. As Pema Chödrön says, “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”

Shaolin monks are a wonderful example of how we can train our minds to subdue the senses. (Note: I never lived or trained as a Shaolin monk, although I might want to try!)

The Shaolin Temple in China dates back more than fifteen hundred years, and Shaolin monks regularly demonstrate the impossible. They balance on the blade of a sword, break bricks with their heads, and lie on beds of nails and blades without apparent effort or injury. It seems like magic, but the Shaolin monks actually push their limits through rigorous physical and mental regimes.

Children may begin study at the Shaolin monastery as early as age three. They spend long days in training and meditation. Through breathing techniques and Qi Gong, an ancient healing technique, the monks develop the ability to accomplish superhuman feats of strength and to endure uncomfortable situations—from attack to injury. By cultivating their inner calm, they can ward off mental, physical, and emotional stress.

It’s not only the Shaolin monks who’ve demonstrated incredible sensory control. Researchers took a different group of monks, along with people who’d never meditated, and secured a thermal stimulator to their wrists—a device designed to induce pain through intense heat. The plate warms slowly, then stays at maximum heat for ten seconds before cooling. During the experiment, as soon as the plate began to heat, the pain matrix in the non-monks’ brains started firing like crazy, as if the plate were already at maximum heat. Researchers call this “anticipatory anxiety,” and the monks showed none of it. Instead, as the plate heated, their brain activity remained pretty much the same. When the plate reached full heat, activity in the monks’ brains spiked, but only in areas that registered the physical sensations of pain. You see for most of us, pain is a twofold sensation—we feel some of it physically and some of it emotionally. For the monks the heat was painful, but they didn’t assign negative feelings to the experience. They felt no emotional pain. Their brains also recovered from the physical pain faster than the non-meditators.

This is a remarkable level of sensory control—more than most of us are committed to developing—but do think about your senses as paths to the mind. Most of our lives are governed by what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. If you smell your favorite dessert, you want to eat it. If you see photo of a beach, you start daydreaming about vacation. You hear a certain phrase and flash to the person who used to say it all the time.

The monkey mind is reactive, but the monk mind is proactive. Let’s say that whenever you go on YouTube to watch one video, you end up going down a rabbit hole. You drift from a cute animal video to a shark attack compilation, and before you know it you’re watching Sean Evans eating hot sauce with a celebrity guest. Senses recklessly transport our minds away from where we want them to be. Don’t tease your own senses. Don’t set yourself up to fail. A monk doesn’t spend time in a strip club. We want to minimize the mind’s reactive tendencies, and the easiest way to do that is for the intellect to proactively steer the senses away from stimuli that could make the mind react in ways that are hard to control. It’s up to the intellect to know when you’re vulnerable and to tighten the reins, just as a charioteer does when going through a field of tasty grass.

Any sensory input can trigger emotions—a tempting or upsetting or sad reminder that lures those wild horses off the charioteer’s chosen path. Social media might suck away time you wanted to spend otherwise; a photo might remind you of a lost friend in a moment when you don’t have time for grief; an ex’s sweatshirt might re-break your heart. Within reason, I recommend removing unwanted sensory triggers from your home (or deleting the apps). As you do, visualize yourself removing them from your mind. You can do the same thing when you hit an unwanted mental trigger—a word that you used to hear from a parent, a song from your past. Visualize yourself removing that from your life as you would a physical object. When you remove those mental and physical triggers, you can stop giving in to them. Needless to say, we can never remove all senses and all triggers. Nor would we want to. Our goal is not to silence the mind or even to still it. We want to figure out the meaning of a thought. That’s what helps us let go. But temporarily, while we’re strengthening our relationship with our minds, we can take steps to avoid triggering places and people by adjusting what we see, listen to, read, absorb.

From a monk’s perceptive, the greatest power is self-control, to train the mind and energy, to focus on your dharma. Ideally, you can navigate anything that seems tough, challenging, or fun with the same balance and equanimity, without being too excited in pleasure or too depressed by pain.

Ordinarily our brains turn down the volume on repeated input, but when we train our minds, we build the ability to focus on what we want regardless of distractions.

Meditation is an important tool that allows us to regulate sensory input, but we can also train the mind by building the relationship between the child and the adult mind. When a parent says, “Clean your room,” and the child doesn’t, that’s like your monk mind saying, “Change your course,” and the monkey mind saying, “No thanks, I’d rather listen to loud music on my headphones.” If the parent gets angry at the child and says, “I told you to clean your room! Why haven’t you done it yet?” the child retreats further. Eventually, the child may follow orders, but the exchange hasn’t built a connection or a dialogue.

The more a frustrated parent and petulant child do battle, the more alienated from each other they feel. When you are fighting an internal battle, your monkey mind is an adversary. View it as a collaborator, and you can move from battle to bond, from rejected enemy to trusted friend. A bond has its own challenges—there can still be disagreement—but at least all parties want the same outcome.

In order to reach such a collaboration, our intellect must pay closer attention to the automatic, reactive patterns of the mind, otherwise known as the subconscious.


The mind already has certain instinctive patterns that we never consciously chose. Imagine you have an alarm on your phone set to ring at the same time every morning. It’s an excellent system until a national holiday comes along, and the alarm goes off anyway. That alarm is like our subconscious. It’s already been programmed and defaults to the same thoughts and actions day after day. We live much of our lives following the same path we’ve always taken, for better or worse, and these thoughts and behaviors will never change unless we actively reprogram ourselves.

Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist, decided to busk outside a DC subway station during the morning rush hour. Playing on a rare and precious instrument, he opened up his case for donations and performed some of the most difficult pieces ever written for the violin. In about forty-five minutes, barely anyone stopped to listen or donate. He made about $30. Three days before the subway performance he had played the same violin at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the decent seats went for $100.

There are many reasons people might not stop to hear a brilliant musician playing, but one of them is certainly that they were on autopilot, powering through the rush hour crowds. How much do we miss when we’re in default mode?

“Insanity is doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results.” (This quote is often attributed to Einstein, although there’s no proof that he ever said it.) How many of us do the same thing, year after year, hoping our lives will transform?

Thoughts repeat in our minds, reinforcing what we believe about ourselves. Our conscious isn’t awake to make edits. The narration playing in your mind is stuck in its beliefs about relationships, money, how you feel about yourself, how you should behave. We all have had the experience of someone saying, “You look amazing today,” and our subconscious responding, “I don’t look amazing. They’re saying that to be nice.” When someone says, “You really deserved that,” perhaps you say to yourself, “Oh no, I’m not sure I can do it again.” These habitual reactions pepper our days. Change begins with the words inside your head. We are going to work on hearing, curating, choosing, and switching our thoughts.


Write down all the noise you hear in your mind on a daily basis. Noise that you know you don’t want to have. This should not be a list of your problems. Instead, write the negative, self-defeating messages your mind is sending you, such as:

  • You’re not good enough.
  • You can’t do this.
  • You don’t have the intelligence to do this.

These are the times when the charioteer is asleep at the wheel.


Just as you are not your mind, you are not your thoughts. Saying to yourself “I don’t deserve love” or “My life sucks” doesn’t make it a fact, but these self-defeating thoughts are hard to rewire. All of us have a history of pain, heartbreak, and challenges, whatever they may be. Just because we’ve been through something and it’s safely in the past doesn’t mean it’s over. On the contrary, it will persist in some form—often in self-defeating thoughts—until it teaches us what we need to change. If you haven’t healed your relationship with your parents, you’ll keep picking partners who mirror the unresolved issues. If you don’t deliberately rewire your mindset, you are destined to repeat and re-create the pain you’ve already endured.

It may sound silly, but the best way to overwrite the voices in your head is to start talking to them. Literally.

Start talking to yourself every day. Feel free to address yourself with your name and to do it out loud wherever you’re comfortable doing so (so maybe not on a first date or a job interview). Sound is powerful, and hearing your own name grabs your attention.

If your mind says, “You can’t do this,” respond by saying to yourself, “You can do it. You have the ability. You have the time.”

Talking yourself through a project or task enhances focus and concentration. Those who do it function more efficiently. In a series of studies, researchers showed volunteers groups of pictures, then asked them to locate specific items from among those pictured. Half of the subjects were told to repeat the names of the items to themselves out loud as they searched, and the other half were told to stay silent. Those who repeated the items were significantly faster than the silent searchers. The researchers concluded that talking to yourself not only boosts your memory, it also helps you focus. Psychologist Linda Sapadin adds that talking to yourself “helps you clarify your thoughts, tend to what’s important and firm up any decisions you’re contemplating.”

Let’s consider some ways you can find a new perspective to shift your mind in a productive way.


If you’re like most other humans, your intellect excels at telling your mind where it goes wrong, but rarely bothers to tell your mind where it goes right. What kind of parenting is that?

  • Nothing’s going to get better
  • Nobody understands me
  • I’m not good enough
  • I’m not attractive enough
  • I’m not smart enough

We look for the worst in ourselves and tell ourselves that it will never change. This is the least encouraging approach we could pick. There are three routes to happiness, all of them centered on knowledge: learning, progressing, and achieving. Whenever we are growing, we feel happy and free of material yearnings. If you’re unsatisfied, or criticizing yourself, or feeling hopeless, don’t let that stall you out. Identify the ways you’re making progress, and you will begin to see, feel, and appreciate the value of what you are doing.

Reframe your self-criticism in terms of knowledge. When you hear yourself say, “I’m bored, I’m slow, I can’t do this,” respond to yourself: “You are working on it. You are improving.” This is a reminder to yourself that you are making progress. Build a relationship with that pessimistic child’s voice. Your adult voice will get stronger as you read, research, apply, and test. Turn up the volume on recognizing what your mind gets right. Rather than amplifying your failures, amplify your progress. If you managed to wake up early two days out of seven, encourage yourself as you would a child who was just beginning to make a change. If you accomplished half of what you planned, call it a glass half-full.

In addition to amplifying our growth, we can use “positive direction” to reframe unwanted thoughts. Our monkey mind often creates chatter like “I can’t do this.” This can be reworded to “I can do this by…”

  • “I can’t do this” becomes “I can do this by…”
  • “I’m bad at this” becomes “I’m investing the time I need to get better”
  • “I’m unlovable” becomes “I’m reaching out to new people to make new connections”
  • “I’m ugly” becomes “I’m taking steps to be my healthiest”
  • “I can’t handle everything” becomes “I’m prioritizing and checking items off my list”

Putting a solution-oriented spin on your statement reminds you to be proactive and take responsibility rather than languishing in wishful thinking.

We can take action instead of using words alone to reframe our state of mind. A simple way of overcoming this is to learn one new thing every day. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t need to teach yourself how to code or learn quantum mechanics. You could read an article about a person, a city, or a culture, and you’ll feel a burst of self-esteem. You have something to contribute to the next conversation you have. Even if you just learn one new word… here’s one: the Inuit word iktsuarpok refers to the feeling of anticipation you have when you’re waiting for a guest and you keep going to the window to check and see if they’ve arrived. Just sharing a new word in conversation can bring richness to the dinner table.

Many of the frustrations we endure can be seen as blessings because they urge us to grow and develop. Try putting negative thoughts and circumstances on the perspective continuum. The same way doctors evaluate pain, I ask people to rate an individual concern on a scale of one to ten. Zero is no worries. Ten is the worst thing in the world, something as awful as: “I worry that my whole family will die.” Actually, that’s probably an eleven.

Problems of all sorts can feel like they deserve a ten rating, especially in the middle of the night. Not getting promoted feels like a ten. Losing a treasured watch—another ten. But if you’ve ever experienced the pain of losing someone you love (and we all have or will), the scale shifts; your whole perspective shifts. Suddenly, losing your job is not great, but tolerable. The watch is gone, but it was just an object. Your body may be imperfect, but it’s given you some great experiences. Use the awareness of what deep pain really is to keep smaller disruptions in perspective. And when you must face a truly devastating ten, own it, take the time to heal it. This is not about reducing the impact of all negative experiences; it’s about gaining a clearer view of them. And sometimes a ten is a ten.


Sometimes reframing works best on paper. Imagine a monkey swinging from branch to branch at full throttle. It takes effort to grab its attention and force it to focus. When your mind is anxious and racing, when your thoughts are repetitive and unproductive, when you feel like you need to press pause, take fifteen minutes to write down every thought that enters your mind.

For a study, a group of college students spent fifteen minutes a day for four days writing their “deepest thoughts and feelings” about the most traumatic experience of their lives. Not only did the students say they found the experience to be valuable, 98 percent said they’d like to do it again. But they didn’t just enjoy the writing, it also improved their health. Students who’d written about traumatic experiences had fewer visits to the university health center after the study. The researchers concluded that one of the benefits of the writing may have been helping students render their worst experiences as a coherent narrative. Distancing themselves from the moment in this way allowed them to see the experiences objectively and, one hopes, to conjure a happy ending.

Writer Krysta MacGray was terrified of flying. She tried white knuckling it. She tried logic. She even tried having a few drinks. But every time she knew she’d have to fly, she spent weeks in advance imagining what her kids’ lives would be like after she went down in a fiery crash. MacGray started blogging about this fear as a means of trying to gain perspective, and it was then she realized she was on track to become her grandmother, who refused to fly and missed out on a lot because of it. So MacGray started listing everything she wanted to do in her life that would be worth flying for. Though she hasn’t totally conquered her fear, she did manage to take a bucket-list vacation to Italy with her husband. Writing by itself doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it can help us gain critical perspective we can use to find solutions.

If you don’t like writing, you can speak into your phone, then play back the audio file or read the transcript (many phones can transcribe spoken words into text). Recording yourself puts you in an observer mindset, making you deal more objectively with yourself.

Another option is to simply repeat an ancient samurai saying that the monks use: “Make my mind my friend,” over and over in your head. When you repeat a phrase, it quiets the default mode network—the area of the brain associated with mind wandering and thinking about yourself. The monkey will be forced to stop and listen.


When the anxious monkey mind stops to listen, you can tweak the internal monologue with self-compassion. When anxious thoughts arise, instead of indulging them, we respond with compassion. “I know you’re worried and upset, and you feel like you can’t handle this, but you are strong. You can do it.” Remember, it’s about observing your feelings without judging them.

With my friends at the branding company Shareability, I did an exercise with a small group of teenage girls and their sisters. I asked the girls to write down negative thoughts they had that affected their self-esteem. They wrote down things like “You are scared,” “You are worthless,” “You are unimportant.” Then I asked them to read what they’d written to their sisters, as if it were about them.

They all refused. “It’s not very nice.” One pointed out that it was normal in her head, but completely different when she spoke it.

We say things to ourselves that we would never say to people we love. We all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To that I would add: Treat yourself with the same love and respect you want to show to others.


  1. Write a list of the negative things you say to yourself. Next to each one write down how you would present that idea to someone you care about. For example, these are the negative thoughts the sisters wrote down about themselves along with how they might have presented them to their sisters:

    “You are scared”

    “It’s okay to feel scared. How can I help you through this?”

    “You are worthless”

    “You feel worthless—let’s talk about what you love about yourself.”

    “You are unimportant”

    “These things make you feel unimportant. Before we talk about how to change that, let’s list what makes you feel important.”

  1. Imagine you found out that your child or best friend or cousin or someone who is dear to you was getting a divorce. What is your first reaction? What would you say to the person? What advice would you give them? You might say, “I’m sorry, I know this is a hard time.” Or “Congratulations. I know you’re going through a lot, but people rarely ever regret getting divorced.” We would never tell a loved one, “You’re an idiot. You must be a loser if you married that loser.” We give love and support, maybe offering ideas and solutions. This is how we should talk to ourselves.

We are defined by the narrative that we write for ourselves every day. Is it a story of joy, perseverance, love, and kindness, or is it a story of guilt, blame, bitterness, and failure? Find a new vocabulary to match the emotions and feelings that you want to live by. Talk to yourself with love.


It can be hard to know what to tell your monkey mind when it’s dwelling on the past or spinning into the future. Father Richard Rohr writes, “All spiritual teaching—this is not an oversimplification—is about how to be present to the moment.… But the problem is, we’re almost always somewhere else: reliving the past or worrying about the future.”

We all have happy memories that we enjoy revisiting and painful memories that we can’t let go. But both nostalgia and remorse can be traps, closing us off from new experiences and keeping us locked in the unresolved past and/or the good old days. Just as the past is unchangeable, the future is unknowable. A certain amount of planning is useful and good preparation for the various scenarios ahead, but when these thoughts tip into repetitive anxiety and worry or unrealistic aspirations, they are no longer productive.

Whether it feels like the world’s falling down around you or you’re just having a bad day at work, the challenges to presence abound. Realistically, you’ll never reach a point in your life when you’re present 100 percent of the time—that’s not the goal. After all, thinking about good times we’ve had or valuable lessons we’ve learned in the past and planning for our future are excellent uses of our mental bandwidth. What we don’t want to do is waste time on regret or worry. Practicing presence helps us do as spiritual teacher Ram Dass advised and “be here now.”

When your mind continually returns to thoughts of the past or the future, look for clues in the present. Is your mind seeking to shield or distract you? Instead of thinking about what mattered in the past or what the future might hold, gently guide your mind back to the moment. Ask yourself questions about right now.

  • What is missing from this moment?
  • What is unpleasant about today?
  • What would I like to change?

Ideally, when we talk to ourselves about the present, we look back on the negative and positive elements of the past as the imperfect road that brought us to where we are—a life that we accept, and from which we can still grow. And, ideally, we also think of the future in context of the present—an opportunity to realize the promise of today.


When we talk to ourselves as we would to a loved one, just as when we observe the argument between the child mind and the adult mind, we’re creating a distance between ourselves and our own minds in order to see more clearly. We’ve discussed this approach before; instead of reacting emotionally, monks gain perspective by stepping out of a situation to become objective observers. In Chapter Three, we talked about stepping away from fear, and we gave this action a name—detachment.

The crane stands still in water, ignoring the small fish as they pass by. Her stillness allows her to catch the bigger fish.

Detachment is a form of self-control that has infinite benefits across every form of self-awareness that I talk about in this book, but its origin is always in the mind. The Gita defines detachment as doing the right thing for its own sake, because it needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure. That sounds simple enough, but think about what it takes to do the right thing for its own sake. It means detaching from your selfish interest, from being right, from being seen in a certain way, from what you want right now. Detaching means escaping the hold of the senses, of earthly desires, of the material world. You have the perspective of an objective observer.

Only by detaching can we truly gain control of the mind.

I’ve remixed some Zen stories, introducing new characters so that they’re more relatable. One of them is about a monk who arrives at the entrance to a palace. She’s a known holy woman, so she is brought to the king, who asks the monk what she wants. “I would like to sleep in this hotel for the night,” says the monk.

The king is rather taken aback at this unexpected lack of respect. “This is not a hotel, it is my palace!” he says haughtily.

The monk asks, “Who owned this place before you?”

The king folds his arms across his chest. “My father. I am heir to the throne,” he declares.

“Is he here now?”

“He is not. He is dead. What is the meaning of this?”

“And before your father, who was the owner?”

His father,” the king shouts.

The monk nods. “Ah,” she says, “so people who come to this place, stay here for a while, and then continue their journey. Sounds like a hotel to me.”

This story gives a window into the illusion of permanence with which we all live. A more recent window is Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, the show where Kondo helps people “declutter” their lives, and at the end, over and over again, you’ll see people weeping with relief and joy at having purged so much. That’s because they’ve just dramatically decreased the number of things they’re attached to. Attachment brings pain. If you think something is yours or you think you are something, then it hurts to have it taken away from you.

A quote from Alī, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed, best explains the monk idea of detachment: “Detachment is not that you own nothing, but that nothing should own you.” I love how this summarizes detachment in a way that it’s not usually explained. Usually people see detachment as being removed from everything, not caring. Marie Kondo isn’t telling people to stop caring—she is telling them to look for joy. Actually, the greatest detachment is being close to everything and not letting it consume and own you. That’s real strength.

Like most monk endeavors, detachment is not a destination one arrives at, but a process one must constantly, consciously undertake. It’s hard enough to detach in an ashram, where monks own almost nothing but our ideas and identities. In the modern world we can strive for detachment—particularly when we face a challenge like an argument or a decision—and hope to achieve it fleetingly.


Monks go to extremes to achieve detachment. I don’t expect you to do this, but after we look at how it works, we’ll talk about more practical, even fun, ways to experiment with detachment and the benefits it yields.

Experiments in discomfort—like fasting, silence, meditating in heat or cold, and others we’ve discussed—detach you from the body because they make you realize how much of the discomfort is in the mind. Another way we monks tested our detachment was to travel with nothing. No food, no shelter, no money. We had to fend for ourselves and recognize that we needed very little to get by. It also made us more grateful for all that we had. All of these exercises helped us push ourselves to the limit—mentally and physically—to build resolve, resilience, grit, to strengthen our ability to control our minds.

The first time I did a full-day fast, consuming no food or water, I spent the first few hours feeling desperately hungry. We weren’t supposed to take naps while we were fasting—the point was to have the experience, not to avoid it with sleep. I had to use my intellect to soothe myself. I had to become absorbed in something higher to let go of these hungry thoughts.

As the day went on, I realized that because my body didn’t need to think about what to eat, to prepare for a meal, to consume, or to digest, I actually had more of a different sort of energy.

When we fast, we detach from the body and all the time we spend attending to its demands. When we remove eating, we can let go of hunger and satiety, pain and pleasure, failure and success. We redirect our energy and attention to focus on the mind. In future fasts, I got in the habit of using that energy to study, research, make notes, or prepare a talk. Fasting became a creative time, free of distractions.

At the end of the fast, I felt physically tired, but mentally stronger. In functioning without something my body relied on, I had broken a limit that existed in my mind. I gained flexibility and adaptability and resourcefulness. That experience with fasting bled into the rest of my life.

Fasting is a physical challenge driven by the intellect. Being silent for long periods of time brought up completely different issues—who was I when I detached from other people?

I am on Day Nine of thirty days of silence and I think I’m losing my mind. Before this I’ve definitely never kept my mouth shut for an entire day, much less a whole month. Now, along with the group of monks who joined the ashram at the same time as I did, I’ve gone for more than a week without speaking, watching, hearing, or communicating in any other way. I’m a talker. I love sharing and hearing others’ experiences. In the silence, my mind is going wild. In quick succession I think of:

  • rap lyrics to songs I haven’t heard in a while
  • everything I have to read and learn for monk school
  • how everyone else is possibly enduring this
  • a random conversation I once had with an ex-girlfriend
  • what I would be doing at this very moment if I had taken a job instead of becoming a monk counting down the days ’til I can speak again.

This is all in ten minutes.

In my month-long silent retreat there is no outlet. I have no option but to go inward. I must face my monkey mind and start conversations. I ask myself questions: Why do I need to talk? Why can’t I just be in my thoughts? What can I find in silence that I can’t get anywhere else? When my mind wanders, I return to my questioning.

I find, initially, that the silence and stillness help me discover new details in familiar routines. More revelations follow, not as words but as experiences: I find myself attuned to every part of my body. I feel the air against my skin, my breath traveling through my body. My mind empties.

Over time, other questions emerge: I want to be part of a conversation. Why? I want to connect with other people. Why? I need friendship to feel whole. Why do I feel that friendship as an immediate need rather than a long-term comfort? My ego uses friendship to feel secure in my choices. And then I see the work I need to do on my ego.

Often, in the emptiness, I repeat to myself “make your mind your friend,” and I imagine that my mind and I are at a networking event. It’s loud, it’s hectic, there’s a lot going on, but the only way to build a friendship is to start a conversation. And that’s what I do.

Fasting and the other austerities that monks practice remind us that we can bear greater hardship than we thought possible, that we can overcome the demands of the senses with self-control and resolve. Regardless of their faith, most monks are celibate, eat a highly restricted diet, and live apart from mainstream society. Then there are the extremes. Jain monk Shri Hansratna Vijayji Maharaj Saheb fasted for 423 days (with a few breaks). Sokushinbutsu is the name for a Japanese style of self-mummification practice where monks would eat a diet of pine needles, tree bark, and resins, then give up food and water while they continued to chant mantras until eventually their bodies petrified.

You don’t have to take vows or eat pine needles to explore your limits. Often all that holds us back from achieving the impossible is the belief that it is impossible. From 1850 (when the first accurately measured circular running tracks were made) until 1954, the record for running a mile never dropped below four minutes. Nobody had done it in less, and it was thought that nobody could. Then, in 1954, British Olympian Roger Bannister set out to do it. He ran a mile in 3:59.4 minutes, breaking the four-minute barrier for the first time. Ever since, runners have been breaking subsequent records at a much quicker pace. Once people realized there was no limit, they pushed further and further.

There are everyday people, as well, who use austerities to up their game. People consistently report that experimenting with extremes helps them be more thoughtful and positive in their everyday lives. Let’s explore how you can use austerities to detach.


All of the ways we’ve already talked about training the mind involve detaching: becoming an objective observer of the competing voices in your head, having new conversations with the conscious mind to reframe thoughts, finding compassion for yourself, staying in the moment. Instead of reactively doing what we want, we proactively evaluate the situation and do what is right.

Think of austerities as a detachment boot camp. Disconnect from the ideas that limit you, open your mind to new possibilities, and, like a soldier training for battle, you will find that your intellect gets stronger. You’ll find that you’re capable of more than you ever imagined.

There are infinite austerities or challenges you can try: giving up TV or your phone, sweets or alcohol; taking on a physical challenge; abstaining from gossip, complaining, and comparing. The austerity that was most powerful for me was meditating in cold or heat. The only way to escape the cold was to go inward. I had to learn to redirect my attention from the physical discomfort by talking to my mind. I still use this technique at the gym. If I’m doing crunches, I bring awareness to a part of my body that doesn’t hurt. I don’t recommend this for psychological pain—I’m not a stoic! But the skill of removing yourself from physical pain allows you to tolerate it in a positive sense. When you know the pain has value—you’re getting stronger at the gym; you’re serving food to children on a very hot day—you are able to push yourself mentally and physically. You can focus on what is important instead of being distracted by your discomfort.

We start with awareness. Spot the attachment. When do you experience it? When are you most vulnerable to it? Let’s say you want to detach from technology. Do you use it out of boredom, laziness, fear of missing out, loneliness? If you want to stop drinking, look at the frequency and time of day. Are you using it to unwind, to connect, to reward yourself, or to check out?

Once you have diagnosed the attachment, the next step is to stop and rethink it. What do you want to add and what do you want to subtract? How much time do you want to dedicate to technology, and in what form? Are there certain apps you want to eliminate entirely, or do you want to limit the time that you spend using your phone? For drinking, you might look at whether you think you need to quit entirely, whether you want to experiment with a dry month to see what you learn about yourself, or whether you want to limit yourself.

The third step is to swap in new behavior. There are two general approaches that I recommend—choose the one that best suits your personality. The monk way is to go all in. If immersion and extremes work best for you, you might commit to eliminating social media entirely for a week or a month. Or you might, as I mention above, go on the wagon for a month. If you work better in slow, gradual iterations, make a small change and build on it. In the case of technology, you could limit the amount of time you allow yourself to be online, or perhaps limit, but don’t fully eliminate, certain apps.

Decide how you want to spend your newfound time. If you want to minimize your YouTube time, look for another way to find that relaxation or decompression. Meditation is my first go-to. If you’re cutting back on social media, do you want to spend the time interacting with friends in real life rather than online? Perhaps, as a project, you could select which of those Instagram photos deserve to go in an album or on your walls. Use your found time to fulfill the same need or to accomplish the projects and to-dos that always linger on the back burner.

At first, when we make a change, the mind may rebel. Look for ways to ease the transition. If I want to eat less sugar, reading studies linking sugar to cancer strengthens my intellect and motivates me to persist. At the same time, my wife sets up what I call “The worst snack drawer of all time.” There is nothing “bad” in it, no junk food. My senses don’t have access to snacks. I also look for natural habits that curb my desire. I notice that after I go to the gym, I eat less sugar. For me, going to the gym wakes up the charioteer. Realizing that I turn to sugar to increase my energy and improve my mood, I look for other, healthier activities that have a similar effect.

Once the initial pangs of desire abate, you’ll begin to feel the benefits of detachment. You’ll find new clarity and perspective. You’ll feel more control over the monkey mind, but you will also stop trying to control that which you can’t control. The mind will quiet and you will make decisions without fear, ego, envy, or greed. You will feel confident and free from illusion. Though life remains imperfect, you accept it as it is and see a clear path ahead.


Detachment doesn’t mean we completely ignore our bodies and our minds. The body is a vessel. It contains us, so it’s important. We have to take care of it, feed it, keep it healthy, but the vessel is just a carrier. What it carries is the real value. And the mind, as we’ve talked about, is an important counterbalance to the intellect’s control and restraint. Without his chariot, horse, and reins, the charioteer’s options are limited. She is slow. Or he can’t travel far on his own. Or she can’t pick up a weary traveler and help them on their journey. We do not want to eliminate the voices in our heads or the body that carries them—we just want to steer them in the right direction—but this means the charioteer’s work is never done.

We wake up with morning breath, smelly, tired. Every morning we accept the need to brush our teeth and shower. We don’t judge ourselves for needing to wash up. When we get hungry, we don’t say to ourselves, Oh my God, I’m the worst. Why am I hungry again? Bring the same patience and understanding when you’re low on motivation, unfocused, anxious, or addled and the charioteer is weak. Waking him up is like taking a shower and feeding yourself, an everyday practice.

Matthieu Ricard, “the World’s Happiest Man,” told me that we should cultivate inner peace as a skill. “If you ruminate on sadness and negativity,” he explained, “it will reinforce a sense of sadness and negativity. But if you cultivate compassion, joy, and inner freedom, then you build up a kind of resilience, and you can face life with confidence.” When I asked him how we cultivate those skills, he said, “We train our brains. In the end, it is your mind that translates the outside world into happiness or misery.”

     The good news is that the more practice you have at tuning in to your mind, the less effort it takes. Like a muscle that you exercise regularly, the skill grows stronger and more reliable. If we work every day to cleanse our thoughts, gently redirecting the ones that don’t serve us, then our minds are pure and calm, ready for growth. We can deal with new challenges before they multiply and become unmanageable.

As the Bhagavad Gita advises, “Cultivate buddhi or your discriminating intelligence to discern true knowledge, and practice wisdom so that you will know the difference between truth and untruth, reality and illusion, your false self and true self, the divine qualities and demonic qualities, knowledge and ignorance and how true knowledge illuminates and liberates while ignorance veils your wisdom and holds you in bondage.”

     Our ego is often what holds us back from true knowledge, steering the mind toward impulse and impression. Next we will examine how it influences the mind and how we can bring it back down to size.





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