Not My Usual Choice
Normally, books classified as
'self-help/spirituality' would scarcely register on my
reading radar, and certainly not appeal for holiday reading.
However, in the hectic week before we left for a European
trip, I was in a rare mood for non-fiction, and
as I packed the last items this book caught my eye. It
had been a birthday gift for my husband and after he gave up
on it at about Chapter 2, it had simply sat on the shelf.
I decided to chance it and took it along on the plane.
Part of the attraction, I know, was the intriguing title. What
was a monk doing owning a Ferrari in the first place? Alas, as
I should have guessed, the title is simply a marketing
hook, deliberate in its inaccuracy. It was, of course, the
workaholic lawyer who sold his Ferrari, in the wake of a serious
heart attack that alerted him to his unsustainably toxic
lifestyle. He didn't become a monk until
quite a while later, by which time he had no more earthly
possessions to sell.
A Clumsy Tale
If, back in the mid nineties, you came across The Celestine
Prophecy, another guide to more enlightened
living, you'll recognise the format of The Monk. It
presents a clumsily told tale, largely devoid of plot.
The events covered serve only to take the reader through a
"holistic, integrated set of ageless principles and timeless
techniques to liberate the potential of the mind, body and soul."
(Nothing like setting yourself a stretch goal, you might
In The Monk, Julian, the
hot-shot-millionaire-lawyer-turned-monk, returns to the
USA after three years of esoteric discussions with the "Sages
of Sivana" in a remote and secret location in the
Himalayas. He calls on John, a past protege and
legal colleague, who is amazed at Julian's transformation.
Gone is the pasty, overweight and irascible lawyer and in his place
stands a man in peak health who exudes a compelling combination of
vitality and serenity. The magnitude of these positive changes
commands John's attention and he invites his erstwhile mentor to
reveal the techniques that have clearly put "far more living into
At this point, the book settles into its chief purpose of
educating the reader about the principles and practices of
living more fully, consciously and happily. Julian shares a
strange fable about a lush garden, a lighthouse, a sumo wrestler,
his pink loin covering, a stopwatch, some roses and a
diamond-strewn path. This proves to be a mnemonic to
help remember the seven virtues that the Himalayan sages
supposedly practised daily.
From here, each chapter in the book explores a virtue,
describing its key insights and providing sets of techniques to
bring it more actively into the practitioner's life. Each chapter
closes with a summary page for quick reference. When Julian
finishes explaining the seventh virtue, the book apruptly
Why did I take the time to write this
review? Simply because I was intrigued to
recognise a number of the recommended tools and techniques
found in positive psychology books we've reviewed here at
Professionelle. So, while I can't say with any certainty
that all the advice in the book is indeed to be found in
eastern philosophy, I can say that parts of it are
backed by science and validated by randomised,
double-blind tests. If you're going to invest your scarce time
in trying some of these practices, it's reassuring to know some at
least have legs.
For example, Sharma's 'Opposition Thinking' to help refute
pointlessly negative scripts in your mind is a core technique
advocated by Professor Seligman in his book 'Learned Optimism'
which I reviewed
here in 2007. The last chapter's advice to practise
gratitude and to savour the gift of the present or 'now' are
similarly substantiated in positive psychology. And the extensive
chapter on Kaizen - continual improvement through small,
incremental and sometimes insignificant steps - is a
principle Galia has covered in her review of another positive
psychology book called
What Happy Women Know.
Other concepts that I recognised as good practice and common
sense were the value of reflecting on one's actions and motivations
(self awareness, a recent topic here!), the need to say no to
protect one's time, and the rewards for goal setting.
How to Form a Habit
Julian repeatedly tells John he can achieve significant
improvement in the health of his mind, body and spirit if he gets
into good habits. He refers to the Ancient Ritual of Twenty-One:
"if you do anything for 21 days it will be ingrained as a habit".
One of Galia's favourite positive psychology writers, Tal
Ben-Shahar, also advocated this length of time in his book
Happier - and yes, I've reviewed
that book too! Ben-Shahar doesn't pretend it's easy to
establish new habits which is why he recommends an approach of
creating a ritual: performing a specific actionat defined
times in line with deeply held values (think teeth-brushing in line
with the value of self-respect as expressed through personal
Sharma takes the self discipline route rather than the
ritual one, but I quite liked his analogy that building self
discipline is like adding single strands to a wire rope where each
extra filament makes it stronger. The book uses many
such metaphors and parables and for me they did make key ideas
easier to remember.
By the way, if you were to include in your day all the
regular rituals that the Sages of Sivana apparently practised,
from meditation to physical exercise to reflection and more, you
too would need to retire to a
distant Himalayan plateau to find the time...
A Useful Grab-Bag
By now you may be thinking: the techniques mentioned so far
really don't sound original. And I'd agree. This
book appears to be new packaging around ideas that have
been written about plenty of times before - and not necessarily all
in ancient Sanskrit pages either! Even the back cover blurb says
it's a blend of "spiritual wisdom of the East with cutting-edge
success principles of the West." And of course, we know some of the
tools have graced psychological papers and books.
So, should you bother to get hold of a copy of the book? For all
my earlier grumbles, I would say yes, on balance. The key reason is
that it contains an abundance of worthwhile ideas for
adding potentially valuable new habits to your life, and the book
has a clear structure built around the fable, up to and
including the useful end-of-chapter summaries. If you're feeling in
need of a nudge to reflect, take stock and make small but positive
changes, then you're likely to find something in here that
resonates with you.
You'll also get a refresher on the key routes to happiness which
can be helpful as we rush and juggle our way through life. Again,
Sharma writes scarcely anything that others, like
Ben-Shahar, haven't already but I don't
being reminded about the equal importance of enjoying the
journey as well as the destination, of using my strengths and
talents to do work I have a passion for and enjoy, and of being
grateful for the many good things in my life right now.
Seekers, not Cynics
I would advocate that you pick up this book when you're in a
seeking, rather than a cynical, frame of mind. The style and
content will not stand up to rigorous and critical assessment.
Just grit your teeth at the clunky dialogue and think of it as a
reference book for tried and tested methods rather than as a
source of fresh wisdom.
To my surprise, because I feel I have seen this book repeatedly
promoted recently, The Monk was first published in 1997.
The edition pictured in this article came out in 2004 via a Harper
Collins imprint. It is available, where else, through Amazon.