by Katrin Sturm
Last month, I spent a unique 10 days at the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Signing up for it was not an easy decision to be honest with you, as it meant 10 days without phone network or internet connection and not being able to leave the premises.
It also meant getting up early for a morning meditation at 6.45 before breakfast while remaining silent until after lunch time and two days of complete silence at the end. Buddhist teachings throughout the day, a one hour group discussion with other participants and an evening meditation after dinner would keep me busy during my monastery stay.
The simple thought of it challenged me and thus I decided to go for it!
And after having digested and reflected on this amazing experience, I'd like to share ten of my takeaways with you.
1. Your life is your responsibility. Buddhists believe that there is no creator or God who is accountable for what happens. Your actions are your karma - the virtuous consequence of body, speech and mind. There is no such thing as excuses as we often use them in the modern world. Don't wait for somebody else to change or make things happen. Get out of your victim mode where you simply blame others (or even God) for it. It's up to you what you make out of life! And yes, also YOU do have a choice. Although you might not realise it at this stage... just like me for a long time.
You cannot control what happens to you. You can only control how you react to it.
2. It's all about your mindset. It's the way you react and look at things of what happens to you that counts. As the saying goes, you cannot control what happens to you, you can only control how you react to it. Cultivating a positive mindset also has a positive impact on the people around you and your relationships. It's human to simply focus on the negative - this is how our natural mind ticks.
However, buddhists actively seek to practice gratitude and patience. They are grateful for what they have instead of complaining of what they don't. And the good news is, you don't have to be(come) a buddhist to develop a more positive mindset.
So start today and just take one or two minutes a day to actively think of what you are actually grateful for - instead of what you do not (yet) have or still want to achieve. It helps me to move away from my perfectionist mind and rather look at the bright side of things by developing some patience.
3. Retreat yourself from time to time. Buddha's idea is to practice compassion and become a better person - for yourself and the people around you. Only when you disconnect from the outer world, get away in a calm and peaceful place that allows you to slow down and switch off all your devices, you let the authentic and true self be present and govern.
That way you stay free from external delusions and distractions as well as external influences and triggers (that you might not even be aware of). Silent periods during your retreat can help you deepen your reflections further, but can also be quite challenging for some people.
And last but not least, you will meet like minded people who will support you on this personal or even spiritual journey. In often unexpected ways, that you might not even understand at first - but will eventually change you for the better.
4. Meditating means observing your mind. Meditation is often mistaken for not being allowed to think at all. In Buddhist terms, it is an effective method to calm down your mind and simply observe the thoughts coming and going. Thus, it increases self-awareness and shows you what really matters to you.
When do you stop in your busy life and simply reflect on things and yourself? Purification meditations can also help you to let go of any negative thoughts as well as attachment, anger or jealousy in your life.
I found it quite interesting how my mind developed through all the mediation practice. It felt like sitting in an air control tower 'up there'. In the beginning, a lot of 'planes' (thoughts) would come and go, and as the meditation progressed over time, the 'airport' in my head calmed down progressively. What a wonderful feeling! I now started meditating on a regular basis as it simply makes me a calmer person.
5. Nothing is forever. Buddhists have a very realistic point of view of life and things in general. They embrace the fact that life is endless and can suddenly be over tomorrow. Nobody should take it for granted that we live up into a high age. Death is not a taboo topic in the monastery. It is, on the contrary, very actively spoken about and meditated on in the Buddhist world.
In our Western society, we tend to deny the fact that live is not eternal and that also relationships have an end. They end the very latest when somebody dies. We all live in a re-active world rather than a pro-active one. And we often don't acknowledge that the only constant in life is change actually. The only time we have is now. Not yesterday or tomorrow.
The only constant in life is change.
So be grateful for what you have right NOW. And do not wait to be happy until you get to a certain career level, finally possess that one thing you always wanted to have or whatever might be holding you back from simply enjoying the present moment and be happy.
6. Let go of your ego. A lot of people are too attached to their ego. Buddhism believes that the ego - the "I' - does not even exist. We are only a combination of a body and a mind that was given a label i.e. our name. Not more than that. If you let go of your ego (the 'very personal YOU' within you), one quickly notices that you will not take things that personal anymore. If at all.
We often think that without that job, we are nobody. If we don't get enough likes on social media, we are nothing. I have been there too. Being too attached to my previous role in the corporate world, my mood and life satisfaction often depended on my job and on how much recognition I would get for what I did.
True happiness comes from within.
However, true happiness comes from within and not from the external world. So why prove yourself to others and yourself constantly when you are already enough? Don't worry, it took me a while to get this too including the usual setbacks.
7. Learn how to forgive. Anger is an emotion that we hold within ourselves towards something or somebody. And only when we forgive, this emotion is released within us. This does not even have to involve an active encounter or conversation with the person you might be angry with.
You can simply 'let go' of your anger and decide that you no longer hold on to this negative emotion within you - without saying that the action or behaviour (or whatever it is you are angry about) is or was justified.
Your anger is only blocking you from moving on. We are often not aware of any emotions we might hold within ourselves. Emotions that have been trapped in our body.
Meditation and yoga helps me to become more aware of them and also release them. And yes, also I believed a couple of years ago that meditation and yoga was simply a lot of hokus pokus.
I forgive you if you think the same while reading this as you probably have not gotten to enjoy the benefits of it (just yet) or simply have different values and priorities.
8. Money and material things do not create lasting happiness. When I left on my 6 months trip to New Zealand, Australia and Asia, I was struggling to decide what to take with me in my backpack. Especially not knowing what countries I will stop in on the way back after having spent a vast amount of spring and summer in New Zealand, I had to cut it down to some basic all-rounder clothes. This was by no means a very easy task as you might imagine.
After spending 6 months on the road I finished off with these 10 days in the monastery. Only being allowed to wear loose and simple clothes in respect of the monks, I looked at my backpack at the end of those 10 days - what seemed to be a far too big and heavy backpack with way too many things in it - and was wondering who would ever need all of that stuff in there?
Collect moments not things.
Coming back to Ireland finding all of my stored clothes and things in front of me was purely overwhelming. And it felt strange to wear some of the same clothes again on the 'outside' as you have simply changed on the 'inside'. I quit one of the highest paying corporate jobs last year to start my own business and be able to travel for an extended period of time - and what a rewarding journey this trip was! So make sure you collect moments not only things.
9. It's all about the perspective. Our perception of the world and daily experiences depend on what we actually compare it to. What our body and mind is actually used to. And what we simply value. This became so evident to me again while 'away' and on the road.
You think that a 20 minute meditation is challenging for you and your body? Then first go for a 45-minute one in a Buddhist monastery in a cold meditation hall and you will simply appreciate the 'only' 20 minute one later on in your heated home or yoga studio down the road, like I do now.
And if you have been trekking in the Nepali mountains sleeping in minus degrees cold rooms without electricity and running water, you will not complain about walking on a paved road in a light drizzle in 8 degrees in Ireland when back - as you actually enjoy the fact not having to carry a heavy backpack up a steep and wet mountain path without enough oxygen.
It's the simply things in life. You start to appreciate the real value of them again when coming back to civilisation and the Western world.
10. Nothing is perfect. Buddhism seems like one of the most peaceful religions that is becoming more and more popular in today's world. It is often seen as an attractive philosophy that is gaining more and more attention in the Western World nowadays. And we tend to think that monks living in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal are all highly spiritual people involved in regular and dedicated practice. That everybody is simply happy without any worries or challenges. At least I did. This is simply not the case I had to discover myself.
One of Kopan's Lamas explained that it it's just like a normal high school where people are struggling with the teachings and some also with the monk concept. They don't focus enough or lack motivation as they happen to be there as their parents wanted or even had to send them there. It also has its downsides like other religions where cases of child abuse have come to light over the recent years.
So all the things that distract us e.g. the 'better' life of others, other countries to live in or the newest version of the iPhone simply only look nice at the first sight. The grass always seems to be greener on the other side. But if you look at it closer, there is always good and bad sides to it.
We need to figure out what we truly value ourselves, not others. In the end, it is up to us to shape our very own experiences of life. According to Buddha, we all have one thing in common regardless of age, gender, race or nationality: we all want to be free from sufferings and be happy.
We all try to figure out how we can survive - or live our life to the fullest.
It's up to you how you look at it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katrin Sturm is the founder of The Best Possible You that focuses on personal and business growth.
Katrin is a renowned coach for individuals and corporates specialising in sales and leadership as well as career and personal development. She advises start-ups on their journey to become scale-ups. Katrin also runs retreats with yoga, hiking and mind coaching.