“I do believe in simplicity…When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.” ― Henry David Thoreau
Nearly three years ago, I decided to leave my tech startup life and enter monasticism.
I had been connected with a modern monastic institution in Vermont called the Monastic Academy for a few years, and after visiting them many times and connecting deeply with the community there, I finally took the plunge. I shaved my bright pink hair, took vows to follow the five Buddhist precepts, and received my Dharma name, Seishin, in a lay-ordination ceremony presided by Shinzen Young.
I remember standing in my living room with three friends in 2019, trying to explain in great detail why I was choosing to give my life to monasticism. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the right words to explain it to them. “Let’s try something simpler,” my friend said. “Give the first answer that comes to mind – don’t think about it too hard. Why are you doing this?”
I stared at him and sighed as the words tumbled out of me: “Because it’s the only thing that makes any sense, man.”
Then we were all quiet.
The simple answer was the cleanest one, and nothing else needed to be said.
It’s easy to complicate things, both in our regular lives and on the cushion. There are so many choices, so many potential actions, so many things to consider in every moment. What do I wear today? What tasks do I prioritize? What do I put in my video background so that I look more impressive, or attractive, or cool, or nonchalant? Should I change my career? What do I cook for dinner? How do I get in the habit of exercising?
There is a certain kind of baseline anxiety brought on by these constant choices, and I didn’t even realize how much it was in the background of my life until I drastically shifted the way I live.
My life is relatively simple these days. I wake up at 4:30am. I chant for 30 minutes – reminding myself how I wish to live, learning to rouse great compassion, learning to bring great energy to each moment, remembering the strength and perseverance of those who came before me. I meditate for an hour. I move my body for an hour. I eat a simple meal. I work, clean, rest, and lead my monastic community. I end my day with more meditation, and a chant of compassion.
Most days are the same. There are decisions to be made, of course – usually around work, or community needs – but much of my day is already decided for me.
I would not have thought that a rigid monastic schedule would feel freeing – but it does. I’m free of my desperate need to make everything exactly the way I think I want it to be. I’m free of caring if my clothes are attractive. I’m free of needing to rely on willpower. I’m free of endless choices that don’t actually serve me.
It’s simple, and it’s empowering. The more I shed, the more fully I can show up with those I love. The more I simplify my own life, the more powerfully I can help my communities.
It’s unexpected, and it’s life-changing.
When I first began learning to meditate, it felt very important to try many different techniques – to build up a toolbox of methods so I could pull out exactly the right one at exactly the right time. In many ways, this is a good thing. I have no regrets about it. Having a wide variety of tools and knowing when to deploy them is extremely valuable.
And yet, it was when I began to shed this desperate need for the perfect tools that my practice really started taking off.
In our training system, there are two programs: Phoenix and Dragon. Everyone starts in Phoenix – it’s where you experiment, try different things, and get to know yourself. Eventually, you graduate into Dragon; Dragon is the one where you drop everything, stay with one technique, and never stray from it. Dragon is where you get over yourself.
I was terrified when I graduated into Dragon.
You may not be surprised to learn, though, that Dragon turned out to be a lot simpler.
My technique was the feeling of the breath in the belly. Getting distracted? Come back to the breath in the belly. Feeling hungry? Come back to the breath in the belly. Feeling dejected? Come back to the breath in the belly. Nothing is working? Come back to the breath in the belly.
No more complications. No more searching. No more problems. Just come back, come back, come back. Fail again, come back again.
It was here that I truly learned to slow down.
It was here that I learned to open to whatever was happening.
It was here that I learned to stop stretching, to stop grasping, to just be.
Just this breath. (Can you feel it?)
Just this part of this breath.
Just this tiny moment.
Then this one.
Then this one.
Everything else falls away.
Don’t try to understand it.
Don’t try to force it.
Just let everything else fall away.
Come back, come back, come back.
Can you feel it?
Seishin Jasna Todorovic engaged in intensive monastic training under Soryu Forall at the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth, and has done several multi-month solitary retreats. She now runs a contemplative training centre named Willow (http://growingwillow.org/) near Toronto. She believes that emotional healing and deep contemplative transformation are inextricably linked, and she is dedicated to bringing integrated transformational work to everyday life.