Three Months of Monkhood: How Disciplined Self-Observation Can Make You a Better Person

Adam Novak
21 min readAug 21, 2021

As the vibrations of the gong echo throughout the hallway, I roll over and check my clock: 4:01 AM. It’s only Day 3 of this 10-Day meditation course and it’s already hitting me. Over ten hours of sitting meditation a day in complete silence didn’t seem this challenging while filling out the application, but there’s no going back now. I wake myself up with a cold shower and follow my fellow monks into the meditation hall to continue our work on the cushion.

Like this, I spent this past summer living the life of a monk. I embarked on several deep, continuous meditation sprees with no talking, technology, or anything except the essentials. I spent the rest of my time mindfully and humbly serving at the meditation center to facilitate that same expereince for others (many monks actually spend more time serving than meditating to facilitate the operations of their monasteries). It has been an incredibly challenging yet rewarding experience full of discipline, learning, and growth.

But how did I end up at this Vipassana Meditation Center in the first place?

First, I’ve always been interested in the idea of meditation.

I remember first reading about secluded monks in history textbooks and being fascinated (what kid doesn’t admire Aang from Avatar?). Unfortunately, that fascination didn’t take me beyond posing for pictures with crossed legs until my first real exposure in AP Psychology. Ms. DJ (shoutout to everyone’s favorite teacher) would occasionally lead 15 minutes of guided meditation after the bell rang, and I remember feeling noticeably calmer after each session. I continued to dabble here and there with this app or that YouTube video, but I really wanted to give a trial to a more serious meditation technique.

After first trying Vipassana meditation in the Philippines during my gap year, I knew I had to dive deeper into the practice. I was amazed to find Vipassana meditation centers offering free 10-Day courses all throughout the world, with plenty in the US. So I reached out to every center here in the states and eventually coordinated a summer stay in Delaware.

I also wanted to invest in myself as a person — not just building professional skills but developing valuable interpersonal qualities which too often get overlooked.

We all have a friend or family member who always seems to be unhappy and frustrated, and the surrounding atmosphere naturally gets filled with their negativity. Similarly, we also know people who are so full of kindness and warmth that you somehow feel happier from just being around them.

What if there was a way to become more like this calm, loving and positive person? Religions all over the world each offer their own version of how to do this. But is there not a scientific, non-sectarian practice for this purpose? Just like I can practice my backhand on the courts to become a better tennis player (I still have a long way to go), I was convinced that there must be some activity I could take up to become a more calm, content and patient person.

Lastly, there’s something so exciting about throwing yourself into an entirely unfamiliar environment.

The festivities of a Tambunan wedding ceremony!

A few years ago I decided to take a leave from college to work and volunteer throughout East and Southeast Asia. I saw it as both an opportunity to improve my Korean through immersion, but more importantly to see inside the lives of people with vastly different perspectives, backgrounds and lifestyles than my own. Taking this leap proved to be an incredibly meaningful and rewarding experience, and it only opened my eyes to 1) the incredible beauty, complexity and diversity of our world, and 2) the ability any of us have to explore it — that is, if you’re willing to try.

Coming to this meditation center was an opportunity to experience a radically different lifestyle from what most of us are used to. Instead of passing free time with some entertainment or activity — watching Netflix, reading a book, scrolling through *insert social media app* — you are instead directing your attention within to patiently observe yourself.

What happens when you meditate day-in and day-out for weeks on end? What’s it like to live the slow, ascetic and mindful way of a monk? Only one way to find out.

Sorry what did you just say? “We pasta”?

Okay, so what exactly is Vipassana meditation?

“Meditation” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of practices. Some meditations involve visualizing a figure, repeating phrases in your head, or pondering ambiguous questions known as “go-ans” in Zen.

Vipassana meditation, on the other hand, is all about “observing reality as it is.” It is a practice of quiet and patient self-observation where all you need is your breath.

Vipassana originally spread from Burmese monks about 70 years ago, and since then hundreds of centers have been built around the world. All of them offer week+ long silent intensive meditation courses, with some examples being Insight Meditation Society or Spirit Rock. The Vipassana meditation center I lived at was unique in that it offers entirely free 10-Day courses funded by old student donations. At the end of each course, students are invited to “pay it forward” by giving as they can and as they wish to the next cohort of students.

The Mid-Atlantic Vipassana Meditation Center campus (my home for the summer)

And what about these 10-Day courses?

The daily timetable of a 10-Day Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka.

The 10-Day courses are often called “retreats,” but I feel this word doesn’t give justice to the amount of discipline and effort they require. Each day begins with a 4am wake up bell, only breakfast and lunch are offered, no conversation with other students is allowed, and you’re left to observe your breath for 10+ hours a day. Each aspect of the course is deliberately structured to facilitate deeper meditation — conversations from earlier in the morning would just roll in your head during an afternoon sit, and eating normal, let alone excessive, quantities of food noticeably muddles sharp concentration.

To the surprise of many whom I explain this experience to, not talking with people for 10 days is actually the relatively easiest part of the course. As you meditate on the cushion day-in and day-out, you become aware of your most predominant thoughts and anxieties at the time — quite an uncomfortable process. Usually you can just pull out your phone, listen to music, or call up a good friend to “get your mind off of it,” but these options aren’t available at a serious meditation center. Rather, you work diligently under the belief that that pure, continual observation of the self — without distraction or resistance — is the key to walking away with a lighter and calmer mind.

If you’re doubting how meditation could be difficult or require effort, I challenge you to sit down somewhere with closed eyes and folded hands… and don’t move a muscle for 60 minutes. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. Over the course of the hour, you’ll notice your mind goes two places: either wanting something which is not or having aversion towards which is. You think “I need to get up and go be productive, check my texts, do this, do that… I don’t have this kind of time”… or you want to quit because you’re bored or even agitated towards your own thought patterns or some unpleasant sensation in your body. While the unoccupied mind teeters back and forth between craving and aversion, it has a really hard time just being still. However, throughout your hour sitting there might be some times where you’re purely content in that moment, and afterwards you’ll undoubtedly walk away feeling mentally refreshed and restored. This is exactly what meditation aims to cultivate. As you sit over and over again, you train your mind to do less “craving for what is not” and “pushing away of what is.” You strengthen the balance of your mind by being non-reactive to whatever ephemeral thoughts or sensations arise in the mind or body at a given moment.

In this way, Vipassana meditation is effectively a way to practice patience and non-reactivity. In order to become more patient, you have to practice patience (patience is defined as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”). Samely, in order to become less reactive, you have to deliberately work on not reacting to things which once set you off. As you continue to develop these mental qualities through deliberate meditation practice, naturally they’ll manifest in your personal life, too.

The other fascinating thing you end up noticing is that your own impatience and agitation towards whatever situation you’re in actually creates more suffering for you. The physical discomfort is merely unpleasant until your subconscious mind starts thinking “No, stop this, this is painful” and it immediately morphs into irritating pain. Waiting 10 minutes is a benign activity on its own, but it becomes annoying as soon as you become eager to get up and go. Essentially, your own mental appraisals of outside stimuli can multiply bearable discomfort into overpowering pain. This is exactly how monks are able to light themselves on fire without moving a muscle: with enough training, their minds no longer react with aversion towards even the most intensely unpleasant sensations like their skin melting off.

“Mind over matter” is the motto here; your own subjective judgements ultimately play a significant role on your spectrum of happiness to unhappiness and calm to tension. You are the first to suffer from your own negativity; you are also the first to benefit from your own positivity. As soon as you are impatient or frustrated, you have entered into a tense, unpleasant mental state. It is precisely that state of mind from which complaints and insults flow. No one can complain without being upset in their own head. In the same way, no one can exude kindness and joy without being in a more wholesome and pure mind state.

For this reason, Vipassana sittings should always be followed by Metta meditation, or loving-kindness and positivity meditation (known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training in the academic realm). During Metta, you intentionally roll in thoughts of gratitude towards your past and present circumstances, goodwill for your friends and enemies, and a desire to share whatever merits you have. Just like putting a fake smile on your face can actually make you happier, dwelling in positive, grateful, kind thoughts slowly makes you more positive, grateful, and kind. This wisdom is echoed in the Bible: Philippians 4:8 says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” It turns out we can trick ourselves into becoming more positive by intentionally thinking positive thoughts.

Research corroborates this: a significant proportion of your happiness is in your own hands. An oft-cited model of happiness puts intentional activity at a 40% contribution to happiness levels. While this claim obviously oversimplifies the equation, the takeaway is that we can make significant efforts to change our perception of life in a more positive direction. Looking at the glass half-full might seem like a naïve, overstated ideal, but over time, the habit of looking at situations with gratitude rather than dissatisfaction really makes a difference. I personally have been impressed with how a morning routine of Metta positivity meditation has changed how I look at things in life for the better.

Thoughts are not just random, isolated things which pass through our minds— they’re the building blocks of our greater mental habit patterns. Giving effort to shape those patterns in a better direction not only puts you in a better state of mind now — it makes you more likely to be in that state later, too. Every action produces fruit, and as that fruit is, so the seed will be. Through the patient, non-reactive, self-observing meditation of Vipassana, unhealthy mental habit patterns slowly lose their strength, and through the positive, loving meditation of Metta, wholesome patterns can take their place.

“Ok, I kind of see how the meditation works. Now what are the ways it could make me a better person?”

These are the ways I personally feel changed after three months of a monastic lifestyle:

Change #1: More gratitude and positivity

I’ve already touched on this topic earlier, but this is the single greatest difference I notice. I now feel gracious for things that I never even acknowledged beforehand. I’ve come to see that my list of things to be grateful for extends so, so far:

  • Opportunities — education, travel, career
  • Teachers, mentors, and coaches throughout my youth
  • Shelter and safety
  • A supportive family with only good, loving intentions
  • Physical health
  • Fluency in English, the lingua franca of the 21st century
  • The material abundance we live in today
  • Wonderful, caring friends
  • Inspirational people who are working to make the world a better place (shoutout Andrew Yang)
  • Mind-blowingly advanced technology that makes life incredibly convenient and comfortable (… maybe a little too comfortable)
  • Etc etc

Each item above contains many items within it, but we don’t have the time to go that deep (that’s what morning Metta sessions are for). The point is, when you pause and really reflect on what you have to be thankful for, the list will grow far longer than you could have imagined, and it will leave you feeling so fortunate, joyful, and energized. You’ll want to share your good fortune with others and take advantage of every opportunity you have.

As a young, healthy, privileged, white American male coming from a family who lovingly invested so much into me, I have it about as good as anyone could ask for. Yet for so long I still felt this endless need to chase and do more. No matter how many things I’d accomplished or learned, it was never enough. I didn’t know what it really meant to be appreciative of all that I already had. Patience and loving-kindness meditation has helped me build this newfound feeling of real inner contentment, something which I now find invaluable.

I see this same issue amongst many of my friends here at the University of Southern California. We are living some of the best years of our lives surrounded by awesome people, endless opportunity, overflowing excitement, delicious food, and a beautiful campus. Yet us college students still somehow spend considerable energy complaining about even the smallest annoyances, like how the Parkside eggs were a little cold this morning, or how Professor Rathbun assigned an extra chapter of reading. Indeed, negativity bias is a very real thing, and without intentional effort, it’s easy for the smallest inconveniences to cloud out the countless positives in our lives.

The thing is, these aforementioned circumstances could also be interpreted in a positive way: “I’m so grateful to have a nutritious breakfast on my plate this morning” or “Wow, I get the opportunity to learn so much during my time in college.” One person is rolling in complaints about the quality of the food, while another is smiling for just having a meal in front of them. Personally, all things being equal, I’d rather be smiling.

I view gratitude as a way to extract lasting joy from things in life which have brought brief happiness. Think of some friendship you value or opportunity you’re excited for — these things have certainly made you smile before. But whatever happiness you’ve felt is only a fraction of what is left to be experienced through deliberate appreciation of them. Take a few minutes right now for some gratitude and positivity contemplation and feel the difference yourself!

Change #2: A greater sense of calm and healthier relationship with my thoughts

To preface, it’s important to recognize that there is not a definitive link between meditation and reduced anxiety. While there is plenty of evidence which concludes there is, there are meta-analyses which find that mindfulness meditation does not have a reliable effect on anxiety. Anxiety manifests within each of us in different ways and for different reasons. In the same way, there is correlation between prolonged use of social media & smartphones with heightened anxiety and stress, but to my knowledge, the evidence for a causal link is still shaky.

Living at this meditation center was partly an experiment to see how daily meditation and limited tech usage would affect my mindstate. I had already not used social media for over 2 years, and I can still remember feeling a large weight lift off my mind when I quit (my fomo especially diminished). At the meditation center, though, I didn’t even touch digital technology except maybe once a week or so to communicate with family or plan my return to USC. Furthermore, before going to the center, I had been habitually using my phone for the first 15 minutes after waking up, and that anxious habit was replaced by 60 minutes of calm and patient mental restoration each morning. Well, plus an additional three to nine hours of meditation afterwards.

My personal experience through this trial has shown me that I feel significantly healthier and happier with daily meditation and intentional reduction of my screen & social media time.

Now, there are some points to briefly address. There is minimal pressure, competition and stress within a meditation center, so it seems obvious that someone would feel more calm there than in a Goldman Sachs office or surgery room. However, I have been so fortunate to take numerous vacations full of relaxation and sensory indulgence, and they don’t come close to producing deep contentment like prolonged, disciplined meditation does. A stress-free environment can be a great catalyst for developing mental calmness, but the lack of stress alone does not produce that kind of change.

Additionally, there are other confounding factors of a 10-Day meditation retreat that contribute to the “Wow, I’ve never felt this calm and happy before, it’s amazing!” that nearly every student emerges saying. You’re living an entirely different lifestyle than normal: eating only two (healthy) meals each day, getting good, consistent sleep, temporarily putting aside any unhealthy habits, and accomplishing an impressive task through it all. Then add 10+ hours of daily meditation on top of that! It’s much more than a meditation retreat — it’s like a turn-your-life-around, establish-healthy-habits 10-Day boot camp. The euphoric peace people feel after overcoming it should not be entirely attributed to meditation.

That being said, how exactly might the meditation component contribute to a reduction in anxiety? The essence of Vipassana meditation — accepting the present moment as it is — is crucial in this process because so much of what happens in life is completely outside of our control. By practicing contentment in spite of whatever sensations, thoughts, cravings or impatience arise each sitting, you’re retraining your brain with the wisdom that fretting about things outside of your control causes yourself unnecessary unhappiness. The phrase “Don’t worry about it” evolves from a useless consolation phrase into an ingrained understanding of your psyche.

On another note, as you meditate for longer and longer consecutive stretches, you begin to develop an understanding of the difference between intentional thought of the conscious mind and anxious thought of the unconscious mind. Everyone can relate to enjoying a good meal and feeling full… yet some inner dialogue insists on having one more plate, an extra cookie or another glass of wine. Or perhaps you’re set to workout today at 7pm, and you always feel better after those gym sessions, but excuses to skip tonight start flooding your mind. These are examples of the unconscious, short-term, gratification-focused System 1 thought, and it comprises a much greater proportion of our thoughts than we might expect. Training oneself to recognize these needless thoughts as ephemeral and not coming from your own volition is useful in developing more control over your actions. For example, in one study, individuals who partook in meditation and self-observation towards their desires to snack and overeat reported a noticeable reduction in food cravings. The practice of simply observing needless, unintentional thoughts as fleeting and then not reacting to them (e.g. not getting up to grab that box of Oreos) can help cultivate self-awareness and self-control.

And to be sure, observing thoughts and desires without reacting to them doesn’t make them go away. After recently leaving the meditation center, I am as curious and motivated as ever before. Rather, the newfound mental self-control helps me notice when I’ve entered anxious thought territory sooner than I would have before so that I can steer myself away from it. It also makes me more disciplined with my time, attention, and energy in confidently working towards goals and thoroughly enjoying life with those around me.

Change #3: Improved mental composure and cognitive performance

Meditation is effective in raising your threshold for how much stress and challenge you can handle before reaching your breaking point. In each hour sitting of meditation, you do your best to remain balanced in the face of unexpected, undesirable things happening. Then, off the cushion, bad things tend to not affect you as deep and as quickly as before, and you maintain that balance of mind in the face of rising pressure for slightly longer.

This effect is not exactly the same as the Yerkes-Dodson’s Law depicted in the above graph, but the visual representation is similar. Meditation aims to raise the upper bound of the green region so that optimum mental performance can persist even in times of higher-than-normal difficulty and uncertainty.

Now for some tangible, scientific support.

It turns out that meditation is so mentally beneficial that sleep naturally becomes more restorative, too. Vipassana meditators have been measured to exhibit enhanced REM sleep across a variety of age groups. Improved rest undoubtedly contributes to more wakefulness and concentration throughout the day.

Vipassana meditators were also found to have improved cognitive processing during strenuous mental tasks. Interestingly, there were even significant differences in cognitive processing between novice meditators with a few years of experience and those who had been practicing for over a decade. This suggests that consistent practice of meditation over extended periods of time produces even greater changes in the brain.

Lastly, an 8 week program of mindful attention and compassion-meditation training showed decreases in amygdala activity to emotion-inducing images in non-meditative states. The amygdala is the part of the brain which, among other functions, primarily processes emotional responses. With a less active amygdala, the rational and deliberative prefrontal cortex has more room to take control. This is the science behind how meditation can allow you to perceive and perform at optimum levels while being less affected by feelings like frustration or fatigue.

Change #4: Self-observation expanding into other areas of life

It goes without saying that the more time you spend in a certain mindstate, the more likely you are to naturally revert to it. After countless hours of self-observation while sitting on a cushion, I find myself automatically looking inward in other scenarios too. When conflict arises, I’m slightly better at finding my contribution before casting blame on others. Or, in a difficult conversation, I’ll occasionally notice my quickened breath which helps to hold myself from getting carried away in some momentary emotion.

In this way, meditation is more than just the act of self-observation — it’s a philosophy that places self-observation as a crucial component of resolving conflict, maintaining harmony, and living a happier life.

After three months of living like a monk and countless hours of meditation, I am certainly no saint. I believe myself to have developed the above qualities by just a slight degree. But even the slightest growth is huge. By giving intentional effort to growing in these qualities, you are ensuring that you’re taking the path towards a better you instead of the path towards a worse you. We’re either growing or decaying; rarely are we stagnant. We each must choose for ourselves the direction we want to head in.

Ultimately, if you want to change yourself, you have to work at it. If you want to become a better Violin player, you have to get off your couch and practice Violin. If you want to become fluent in Arabic, you have to set aside time to learn vocab and practice speaking. If you want to cultivate a peaceful and gracious attitude towards life, you must give effort to that, too.

Some reflections as I leave monastic life

Feedback loops exist everywhere in life, and our minds are no exception. As Mike Chmielewski puts it, “Much leads to more, and loss leads to greater loss.” Our present thoughts only strengthen the muscles of the mind to continue thinking that way. It is therefore incredibly worthwhile to consider what kind of feedback loops our minds are in and what direction we are heading.

Balance is also a central tenant of Vipassana and an important value in my life now. I’ve written a lot about the power of positive thinking, but being solely effused in positivity would be dangerous. It’s just as important to maintain a critical thinking lens in order to be aware of downsides and risks. One must find that middle path between the two. You can’t build a well-rounded physique by only hitting chest — you must also build your legs, back, shoulders and arms. Finding the balance in all aspects of life — listening to others and asserting your own perspectives, hard work and self care, tolerance and strong action — is an ongoing and worthwhile process.

Meditation aids with well-being on an individual level, but doesn’t do a whole lot on the societal level. The less-reactive, patient, and self-reflecting attitude can work wonders in improving your thought-process and personal relationships. This is an underrated end goal: what’s more important than living happily and harmoniously with those around you? However, there are many problems which individual practice cannot change and which require coordinated, large-scale efforts. Companies, structures, and organizations aimed at maintaining peace & order or improving the human condition serve an equally valuable yet entirely different purpose than meditation.

This is especially apparent when I reflect on my incredibly good fortune to be able to attend a meditation center for three months. While my classmates from Myanmar watched insurgents burn their homes to the ground and my Russian friend Vlad remained jailed for speaking out in a Putin-led pseudo-dictatorship, I could live in a serene garden of self-improvement thanks to the favorable economic, political, and social conditions of the US in 2021. In other words, greater welfare and stability are a prerequisite to embark on this kind of spiritual journey, and due credit must be given to those supporting structures and the people that make them possible.

Lastly, it seems that many of us, in our efforts to cultivate our professional skills and external image, end up overlooking wholesome interpersonal and internal qualities. Learning how to live in a more peaceful way doesn’t generate revenue or likes, so it often gets pushed to the side. People amass material gain and externally-validated success just to come home and fill the environment with frustration, impatience and complaints. Psychological and relational issues aren’t addressed until symptoms become especially pronounced and it’s too late, ending in a divorce or mental-health diagnosis.

Inner qualities like patience and calmness should not be an afterthought. Mental health is not a problem for a select few but rather a spectrum which each of us lies on and can improve in. Just as we give effort to physical fitness at the gym or academic prowess in the classroom, so should we deliberately cultivate mental fitness, in whatever way works best for each of us.

Final remarks

I am greatly indebted to all those who I meditated and worked with this past summer. The people there were so inspiring with their impressive qualities and great humility. There was Tim’s selfless service in doing the dishes purely because he enjoys helping others, Dr. Jain’s overflowing compassion to the students and volunteers, and Mike and Becca’s rare and admirable harmony as partners who meditate together. I will always look back upon our days together with fond memories and deep gratitude.

I am now confronted with the challenge of integrating my experience from the slow and pure meditative environment into a college atmosphere. While a monk’s lifestyle is not entirely compatible with the ample socialization, academics, and hustle & bustle of USC, I am able to maintain a semblance of the monk mindstate amidst the stressors of day-to-day life. Each morning sitting — an hour of Vipassana and five minutes of Metta — leaves me feeling mentally refreshed and better prepared to start the day.

If I could suggest you, the reader, to make any concrete change in your life, it would be setting up a morning routine with activities that are important to you and which contribute to your well-being. Instead of laying in bed half-asleep, scrolling through Snapchat stories of the parties you didn’t attend last night, or jumping right back into work, intentionally engage in activities that make you healthy and happy. In my case, an hour of meditation, an hour of Korean study, and an hour of physical fitness is the perfect blend. By the time I check my phone and get to work, I’m already off to a great start to my day. Yes, this routine certainly takes effort and discipline, but it’s worth every ounce of it and only gets easier to maintain over time.

I also encourage anyone reading this to join me in trying to be more positive and compassionate in the little moments of daily life. It could be through a morning gratitude practice, writing unexpected cards to loved ones, or vocalizing those compliments you think of but never manage to express. Even the smallest intentions rooted in positivity can add up to make casual interactions more harmonious and enjoyable than before.

After all, you can’t share what you don’t have. Our outward words and actions are just a reflection of what’s inside, so we must start the journey of growth from within. It is first through a commitment to self-observation, self-reflection, and self-improvement that each of us can cultivate the harmony we so desire to see in our relationships, families, and the world around us.



Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology