Cover photo by Blair Speed
The chimes of my alarm sound. It’s seven. I begin the morning routine: splash cold water on face, brush teeth, feed dogs, start kettle, unfold blanket on ground and sit. I observe the squirrels scurry around in my head: the Planner Squirrel plans, the Nostalgia Squirrel recalls the past, the Dreamer Squirrel surfs the currents of fantasy and drive.
I say my affirmations. I express gratitude for what I have. I envision what I want to achieve. I fold the blanket back up and make coffee.
This is a daily(ish) practice. It’s part of what I call “monk life.”
When I think of a monk, I envision a bald man in a crimson robe sweeping the stone steps of a grand temple situated high in mist-enshrouded mountains. This human is focused on the singular pursuit of achieving enlightenment. His daily actions funnel into this goal. He sweeps the stairs, weeds the garden, chops the vegetables with intention. His pursuit for enlightenment is imperfect but constant.
“Monk life” is a joke I have with myself about the focus it takes to achieve a dream. It’s a term I use to describe the daily practice of staying present with my intentions. I’m not seeking enlightenment, but I am pursing a couple of big goals. I have come to believe a certain level of “monkness” is required to actualize these intentions.
My twenties were a time of figuring out who I want to be and how I want to live. I tried on many lifestyles and uniforms: from a “dirtbag” climber living out of my car to a ski instructor, an adjunct in the university system to an organizer for writing events. These years were vital for self-discovery and refinement in my life.
Some people walk into a career and feel immediately “found.” Other people spend years seeking the work that leaves them fulfilled and sustained on physical and emotional/spiritual levels. The flexibility of seeking meaningful work is both a blessing and, sometimes, a complication of modernity and privilege.
Some feel overwhelmed by all the options and find themselves in a state of paralysis. Others float from career to career, hoping to eventually find that “perfect” job. Many settle into the discomforts and joys of their chosen occupation, embracing the fact work is work, and feeling fulfilled is less about some grandiose sense of achievement and more about the daily recommitment to living with intention.
I believe I’ve found myself in this last group, with writing as my trade, supplemented by teaching gigs and setting at the climbing gym. In the past few years, I’ve learned this basic truth: the achievement of anything, in our careers or elsewhere, is the accumulation of daily effort. It’s about showing up, again and again, to refine the skill set, build upon successes, learn from shortcomings, and nurture goals into realities.
Hence, the “monk life.” My morning ritual is a way I recommit to the goals I have created for my career. I return to the goals at the end of the day. These are techniques I have picked up in the literature surrounding self actualization.
What the hell is self actualization? To me, it means first discovering (and rediscovering, again and again) those two basic tenets of self-awareness: who I want to be and how I want to live. The “actualization” part is doing what I need to do in order to embody this person and live this life, everyday.
There was another basic truth I learned, this one early-on in my twenties: my life is my own. What an obvious thing to discover, and yet it was revolutionary at the time. Often times the needs and wants of others can overwhelm the voice of our true self within. These wants and needs can be cultural projections. More frequently, they come from the people closest to us, and though these loved ones mean us well and want the best for our lives, their versions of an actualized self will most likely be different from our true selves.
When I embraced the fact that my life is my own, I could no longer project dissatisfaction on other people or cultural norms. I was asked to own my life, and in so doing commit to pursuing work that would hopefully create a life authentic to my wants and needs.
After the career-hopping stage, I’ve settled into a job with big projects. As I wrote above, the work isn’t fueled by anything grandiose. It’s about starting the day anew. The ritual of beginning again. The recommitment to intention. And sometimes, reflection and recalibration, knowing there is a time to stay obstinate and a time to let go of what is no longer aligned with the true self.
For a while I thought fulfilling work would be glamorous. I didn’t imagine pulling back the covers when I just want to stay in bed, sitting with myself and practicing patience with my erratic thoughts, pouring steaming water over coffee grinds. Again and again. But these little rituals, the daily recommitment, accumulate into a life.
These are the qualities of the monk life I’m embracing: showing up each day for my self, committing to intention, and learning to stay present with who I am and the life I want. It’s an imperfect process, because I’m an imperfect person. Luckily perfection isn’t the point.
Though we may not live in a temple in a mountain, we do sweep our steps. It seems how and why is the point.