Nine Powerful Life Lessons From Studying with a Monk

By Robert Piper

When I was 18 years old, I suffered from anxiety and stomach problems. A compassionate physician and practicing Buddhist referred me to a Taoist monk who specialized in meditation and martial arts. I ended up healing myself of anxiety and stomach issues by doing meditation, and went on a great journey of self-discovery.

Here are 9 lessons I learned while studying with a monk:

1. Keep trying until you get it right.

The most important life lesson I learned was trying something three times (maybe even four times) before you stop trying and move on. Also, this monk taught me that, even after multiple tries, you should work on different angles to approach things that are difficult.

If you keep trying, you’ll eventually get where you’re going.

2. The answer to your question is inside of you.

As part of the original monastery training, a monk didn’t answer direct questions from a student unless it was a well thought-out question. A Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”

Some forms of Zen Buddhism use a very similar style of training. An old saying (by Taoist monks) goes like this: “In making a four corner table, the teacher shows the student how to make one corner. It’s the student’s job to figure out how to make the other three.”

They did this because they were preparing a student to deal effectively with problems in the real world.

I traveled to South Korea one time, and I found it fascinating how much you have to rely on your intuition when you don’t speak the native language of a country. I remember one instance, I had trouble explaining to the cab driver where my hotel was, and he didn’t speak English. So I had to get out of the cab and ask several people until I could find someone to tell the cab driver in Korean how to get to my hotel.

In life, whenever we try new things, we have to go into new places with only a small amount of information. The real world doesn’t give us all the answers. The greatest teacher is inside of us.

3. Real wisdom in life comes from doing something and failing.

Prior to starting meditation, I used to get upset when I’d try something and fail.

I’ve been in sales since I was sixteen. I remember going to work and getting so angry with myself because I didn’t get a sale. If I ever got rejected, I’d get upset with myself, and I’d want to quit my job. But I just keep failing over and over—until I became good at it.

I remember, when I first started doing meditation, I ran into several problems. For example, at first it was difficult to calm down; but if you stick with it, its gets easier and easier. I tried for only a few minutes, and then every day, I added more time onto my meditation.

When we struggle, we learn about ourselves and what we need to do to become stronger.

4. When you start to do meditation you recognize the egotistical mind.

Everything in the ego’s world is the result of comparing. I compared myself to other salesmen and would blame myself because I wasn’t making as much money as them.

When I started doing meditation, I began to build separation from this egoistical mind, which is consistently making these comparisons. A lot of us try something and get rejected, so we give up. Even worse, we blame ourselves for a long time and get depressed. When I started to do meditation, I began to identify my ego and was able to build separation from it.

That’s what happens when we meditate: We separate from the part of ourselves that dwells on comparisons, and start learning to live a life that isn’t driven by our egos.

5. We must be both compassionate and resilient.

The monk wouldn’t meet with me to train unless I called him a minimum of three times. I hated this part. I used to call and call and he would never answer. But this is how life is. How many times do you have to call or email someone to get something done in the real world? It’s usually several times.

Most of us blame ourselves when we try once to do something and fail. At the time, I hated this part of the training, but now I think it was the most important life lesson.

There’s a Taoist proverb that says, “Cotton on the outside, steel on the inside.”

It reminds us to be compassionate, but not weak.

6. Patience is a virtue.

The monk always made me wait—and I dreaded this.

For example, when I got to his house to train, he’d make me wait for a minimum of a half-hour, sometimes longer. We’d go out to dinner on Friday nights and he’d show up at the restaurant an hour late.

He’d tell me to meet him at a particular restaurant at 7:00. I’d get there and find out that he wasn’t there. So I’d usually be sitting in the restaurant by myself fumbling with my phone, acting like I was texting someone, while worrying about what everyone at the restaurant was thinking about me.

Keep in mind, it’s not like I could call him; I don’t think the guy ever turned his cell phone on. Then he’d show up at about 8:15 and act like nothing happened.

His first question was always, “How’s your mother and father?” (Of course in my head I’m thinking, “What do you mean, ‘How’s my mother and father?’ I just waited here for an hour and fifteen minutes.”)

But after a few years of this, it never bothered me; and not only that, it spread to every area of my life. Because of this training, I can honestly say that I very rarely get upset about anything. I never get agitated anymore when I have to wait in a long line or when someone cuts me off on the highway.

Patience is the gift of inner calm.

7. Detach from your ego.

At first, it’s hard to sit at a restaurant by yourself. You’re constantly worrying, thinking that people probably think you’re a loser because you’re sitting by yourself. But the reality is, you will never be happy if you care about what people think you!

Prior to starting meditation, I’d get upset over just about anything. Now, nothing really bothers me. Recently, I was in the airport and there was a several hour delay on my flight. I just used that time to do meditation. Ten years ago, I would have become extremely upset. An airplane delay would have ruined my day.

When you let go of your ego needs, it’s easier to accept and even benefit from whatever comes at you.

8. In Taoism, they say, “No self, No enemy.”

It’s the enemy within that causes all of our fears, worries, and insecurities. If you come to terms with this enemy within, it will impact every area of your life. It’s the identification with the “self/ego” that causes all of life’s problems.

How many times do we not go for something because of fear? Think about all the fears that we have conjured up in our minds that stop us from being truly happy. If you can conquer the enemy within yourself, you won’t have an enemy outside yourself.

9. Happiness come from within, and also comes from outside.

I learned this from observing the Buddhist Physician I met. He used to do meditation in his office before he would interact with his patients. He was one of the happiest and most compassionate people I’ve ever met.

By creating happiness inside, he was able to increase that emotional state by spreading it to others.

We must cultivate happiness from within, and work to spread it around to everyone we interact with. The monk used say, “Everyone has a purpose or a mission in life.”

We have to find happiness within, and also find our purpose on the outside.

About the Author

Robert Piper is a meditation instructor & the creator of monkinthecity.com. He studied with a Taoist monk for 9 ½ years & traveled to Asia & Australia in search of other meditation teachers. Robert is currently writing a book on meditation to make it more accessible for stress relief, health & happiness.


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  • Excellent article, and I hope to read your book someday about meditation.

    • Wesley

      Psalms 118:8 – “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” That verse is the very centre of the Bible – it isn’t by accident. You can read a proper book TODAY, not someday… Just be sure that it’s the King James Version.

  • Wesley

    I am somewhat perplexed by parts of this article. I don’t understand how the author can justify being desensitized to the lack of manners shown by the Monk in constantly being late for appointments. This is not a positive thing – in fact, it’s the opposite! I would refuse to be disrespected that way – not because of ego, but because I would not treat another person that way and I believe in treating others as you would like to be treated. For most of us, all we have is this one life – and it’s already short, so why should we be okay with unimportant people wasting our precious time? We shouldn’t be.

    I wonder what the monk would have done had you started arriving 15 minutes later than when he eventually showed up – constantly. Would he turn that around to make it seem as though you’re not interested in ‘learning’ or would he get the message that in life, we’re all teachers and we’re all students?

    I would suggest to the author that there is already a “meditation technique” that is widely known in the world but because it is wholly misunderstood and widely rejected BECAUSE OF EGO, that PRAYER to the one true God is the answer to all of our problems and flaws etc. There is no need to write a book – rather open one – it’s called the Bible and contrary to what science would like us to believe, it hasn’t been proven false.

    Why is it that we do not put any faith in something that comes from God but anything that has been “proven” by mankind is taken as truth? And then we wonder why this world is as messed up as it is… meditation doesn’t solve anything – it’s as useless as pretending to be an ostrich.

    • Maciek

      Truth, the monk was always late and it could be interpreted as disrespectful. But in the context it was meant to be a lesson, to teach patience. Robert (the author) could have chosen many different ways of dealing with this. He could have shown up late himself, using that time to do other things he considered important. He could have left the restaurant before the monk showed up because he was frustrated and felt disrespected, but he would never learn patience this way. He chose to continue showing up on time though he expected the monk to be late, because he wanted to learn to be patient. He even explains later that thanks to this lesson when a plane was delayed a few hours, it didn’t affect his life negetively. Would you feel disrespected by a delayed flight? Would you blame the pilot for not respecting that you need to be somewhere? Maybe, but it wouldn’t change anything, the plane would leave just as late as if you decided to spend that time enjoying an ice cream instead. And why do you say the monk is an unimportant person? Do you consider yourself more important to Robert than his teacher was?

      What is prayer? Is it not a form of meditation involving the supposed communication with God? And not all people pray as communication with God, but rather to pray for their life to be wonderful and for God to solve all their problems. I’m not trying to attack Christianity, but I’m pointing out that prayer and meditation aren’t so dissimilar. If meditation is as useless as pretending to be an ostrich, prayer may as well be pretending to be a koala.

      One final thought. God teaches us to accept everybody for who they are, to live with respect towards others beliefs and values. You claim to be well learned in the bible, but it seems to me that you haven’t yet learned it’s message.

      • Dauinde

        Very well said Maciek

      • Ginger Rain

        On reading your reply Maciek I’d so very much like to know you better. We share similarities. BTW I hope Wesly was able to read your post. I honestly believe he would have gotten something positive from it without his toes being too terribly stepped on. Thanks for sharing your Light.

    • Ginger Rain

      Oh my Wesly… I’m quite surprised you *wasted* your time even reading this article. But maybe sometimes you are ready and sometimes you are not. Good luck with your life,,, and I honestly mean that. <3

    • Joshua Larner

      With total respect, I read your first paragraph and I recommend that you further your awakening. Follow your heart and realise the gaps in your relationships and the negative affects these views will have on your future communications. Your ego is blinding your strategic nature

    • Sarah Lynne Mckay

      So your meditation is prayer. Good for you. I think you should know your favorite book doesn’t like its followers to put others down.
      Your one true God is not the same as some others yet they live on to serve Their God. Too many religious hypocrits out there to believe any of them. Spirituality is necessary to achieve being truly religious. Mind, body, and soul. Maybe one day every soul will have the integrity behind their words and actions that they base on their “religion.”

  • Leah

    I believe in God, I pray to ask for His help and meditate to listen. We are all ONE. Many paths……

    • Derek Stephen

      Believe in yourself, meditate and listen to yourself. The key is in you..

  • loz

    “Everything in the ego’s world is the result of comparing”

    Comparisons and holding preference are what defines consciousness. not specifically ego.

  • Gc

    An old saying (by Taoist monks) goes like this: “In making a four corner table, the teacher shows the student how to make one corner. It’s the student’s job to figure out how to make the other three.”
    It’s Confucius.

  • neha mehra

    first of all the article is so well written that i copied this on my word so that whenever my life gets tough,i read this during my tough time. Second-Every point you mentioned is so true, The worst habit a human has is growing ego,ego doesn’t let you live and that’s worst.I lack patience but now i feel that whatever happens in life is all decided by the almighty and he is doing for our own good. You just need to do your best, find your passion and make a living by doing something good for yourself and for others.Fantastic article,truly loved it

  • Mike

    One thing I have learned being in sales is, Give respect Expect respect. I give people 20 minutes if they are late for an appt.

    As Vince Lombardi said be 15 minutes early.

    Agree on many things but not the time issue the monk had

    • Sannyasin

      The monk did not have a time issue Mike, you are not understanding the point. The monk did this intentionally- deliberately & repeatedly, not to be disrespectful, but to teach a lesson in patience and dissolving of the ego self that becomes angered by such behavior. You would need to become a student of such a master, to fully understand. Otherwise, the ego simply sees it as the monk “having a time issue”.

  • Matusala

    Wow. Great article tnx for sharing and I will read it again and again until I master it. And that monk was great teacher

  • Valerie

    The monk in the photo is not a Taoist monk.

  • borealis

    Lovely article! And I rarely compliment any articles.

  • *bows to Sensei “

  • MinistryofSilly Walks

    Thank you for this article 😀