“How does one begin an email to a monk?” I wondered when I first reached out to master Shi Heng Yi, who belongs to the 35th generation of warrior monks known as Shaolin masters, after watching his TEDx Talk about self-mastery. A joke came to mind once told by a Hindu priest named Dandapani, about someone who asked him whether it was appropriate for monks to use email. He replied, “Yes, as long as there are no attachments.”
Non-attachment is one of the first, and most important, lessons taught to monks. Traditionally, when entering a monastery, everything must be forfeited: contact with friends and family, money and all worldly possessions. That principle has new resonance for many people in today’s vastly altered world, and some see a valuable lesson here for starting the year with a fresh perspective, unencumbered by material things. But I’m not suggesting you go Awol and donate all of your nice things to charity. You can still be mindful while dressed in your Manolos, as long as you recognise that you own them, and not the other way around.
“All material things can be lost and even the healthiest of bodies will deteriorate,” Shi tells me from the office of the Shaolin Temple Europe, in Otterberg, Germany, where he is currently headmaster. He is dressed in a grey robe, his hands clasped together. “If you invest everything in something that, by nature, is unstable, while there is nothing wrong with doing so, you must acknowledge that one day, you will have to let it go.”
According to the non-profit Global Wellness Institute, mental wellness is now a $121 billion-dollar industry. But self-mastery—a commitment to a lifestyle of never-ending self-improvement—is something money cannot buy, and there is something beautifully brutal about the Shaolin way of life, a frightening yet liberating understanding that without external stimulants and things to blame, all that’s left is how well we know and are in control of ourselves.
An unsettled mind is either worrying about the future or travelling into the past, getting lost in thought— Shi Heng Yi