The Monk's Mission
We all want to be happy and we know that meditation can help us. Right? But all the same, many (possibly most) of us struggle to calm our monkey minds. if you are nodding in agreement then it is time to listen to the gentle tones of Tibetan Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten. If you can’t get to hear him speak first hand, his book A Monks Guide to Happiness is now available.
‘Happiness is inside you waiting’ is the phrase at the core of the book and indeed is the essence of Thubten’s mission. “I want to help people see meditation as more than just a relaxation therapy and more a means of accessing our true nature and internal happiness and freedom,” he explains over coffee in Dublin (Thubten was in town as part of Ruby Wax’s How to be Human Tour)
The son of a respected Indian actress Indira Joshi (Eastenders and The Kumars at 42 fame) and an English father who had himself trained as monk in Thailand, Thubten grew up in London in a very open-minded environment, respectful of all religions and experiences. He too started acting in New York City in his early twenties but it didn’t last. “Yes, I had a life, I was having a wild time but I wasn’t happy and I was anxious, stressed and miserable.” So severe was his anxiety that it culminated in a near-death burnout. “Both my parents were Buddhists so when I hit rock bottom in New York and thought I was going to die, the first thing I turned to was meditation,” he explains. “While I had not meditated, both my parents did and I knew the Buddhist path had clarity about how to sort your head out.”
This dramatic wake-up call led him back to the UK, to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland to train as a monk (for one year). “There was no question at the time of my staying any longer,” he adds, wryly. “One year felt quite manageable – not a radical life change really. When I arrived I was so desperate for anything that would give me stability, so I took my vows four days later and of course that year has become life.”
Over the past 25 years Thubten has studied under some of the most experienced Tibetan masters of our time and has spent six years of intensive, isolated meditation retreats, the longest of which was four years long. His work has brought him to the helm of multinationals including Google and LinkedIn, as well as universities, healthcare and movie sets.
He believes that the monks life is all about serving the world in whatever way you can and his medium for doing this is in teaching people how to meditate with compassion. There is a trend in the world of wellbeing for seeking out powerful ‘wow’ experiences that set unrealistic expectations. The more you crave the high, the more you experience the low. “When I started meditating I ended up feeling worse. It was almost like taking drugs for a fast high, I was looking for this in meditation but ended up being more disappointed and miserable. My teacher told me I was creating disappointment through my craving. I was constantly telling myself that I wasn’t getting that good feeling and it was only when I learnt how to stop looking and just accepted that moment in a compassionate way – that it changed, and the irony is that you start to feel a lot better because you are not craving. Much like an addiction, when you go beyond the craving, there is a freedom and you start to relax into it.”
Thubten feels that happiness today is very externalised and everyone is trying to get ‘it’ (the ‘it’ meaning things or situations that we crave so we can be happy). “Currently everything we do offers short bursts of happiness that are neither satisfying nor sustainable and it’s this ‘spiritual shopping’ or ‘spiritual FOMO’ that he wants to turn around so people to start from within– rather than needing to get it from outside. Meditation gives us what we are looking for in the first place – and when understand this should give desire to meditation Within us is everything we need.”
But sceptics (myself included!) question just how we can access this peace and happiness as we juggle our monkey minds? “Here’s the thing,” he explains, ‘meditation is not about stilling the mind or removing the thoughts. There is nothing wrong with our thoughts. People struggle with it because they are trying to clear their minds. It would be frightening and impossible to switch your mind off and why would you want to do such a thing? It’s s about awareness. You can develop awareness of the thoughts while they are happening. But if you understand that it is all about being present and aware and that the mind does become ensnared with thoughts, but you learn to steer your mind back to your breathing, time and time again. This is simple and workable.”
Easier said than done, but it’s the doubters amongst us that this book is written for. “I want to speak to those people who struggle with this and hopefully give them hope by showing them that meditation is not a high, but simply a return to the simplicity of the present moment. It is not a competition, it’s just about being you. And whilst there are many techniques, it is very much about the attitude you bring to the practice.”
Meditation is mainstream now and Thubten sees a move from mindfulness and stress reduction towards real compassion and a connection to the world, which lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. “It’s about interconnection, how we are part of this wider community and must have compassion, so we can find real happiness for ourselves and others.”
A Monk's Guide to Happiness: Meditation in the 21st century is available in leading bookstores and on line £10.00/€11.00
[Gelong Thubten Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne]