Cover Photo: Marko Priske for Shaolin Temple Europe

They say that learning to master the self is where true power lies. I spoke with Shaolin master Shi Heng Yi, who says the path to being a better you can be as simple as watching the clouds go by

“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.”

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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

“There is only one area of control that is in your hands, and that is what you are carrying inside of you. This is something about you that nobody in this world can access,” says Shi. “Self-mastery is about exploring, observing and learning about exactly this. And once you have that understanding, you can make better decisions and respond to life, and to others, with more clarity and understanding. You can find stillness in an unstable world.” I asked him to give some advice that everyone, even non-monks, can think about to take a first step on that journey.

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Out of the Clouds

Step 1: Clear Your Mind

“An unsettled mind is either worrying about the future or travelling into the past, getting lost in thought. You start to wonder; can I do this? Is this the right path? What will the others say? What if?” says Shi, adding that as a result, “the mind cannot synchronise with your own actions any more, and you become disconnected from the goals and aspirations you set for yourself.”

An important part of self-mastery is learning to observe our wandering thoughts, rather than engage with them. This allows us to move seamlessly through the clutter rather than allowing it to bog us down. Shi likens thoughts to clouds: “Sometimes the sky is clear and sometimes there are clouds. Your thoughts are like clouds; they come and go. But we can get so consumed by our fleeting thoughts and worries that we forget behind them is a clear, blue sky,” he explains. “You are not your thoughts. You are the sky.”

Don't Cheat Yourself

Step 2: Stop looking at hard work as “work”

Incredible physical feats aside, the Shaolin warrior monks view their training as a form of moving meditation; it is discipline, self-control and self-mastery in motion. Relocating to a Shaolin temple might not be an option for everyone, but there are ways to apply aspects of the monastery mindset to modern life.

“You might feel inspired to change your life after reading or watching something, but inspiration is merely a kind of energy—if you don’t take action, it does not stick. It’s best to start with small steps, like taking control of your sleep and nutrition,” says Shi. “If you find you are cheating yourself, or you’re struggling to stay on the right path, find someone to hold you responsible, like a personal trainer.”

At the end of the day, Shi says, “It is about finding something stable for yourself, so that no matter what the circumstances are, you know you can’t get lost or swept away by anything external. Honesty and respect to yourself is essential. Taking care of yourself is a must.“

Your Are What Your Mind Eats

Step 3: Put yourself on a healthier diet when it comes to what you read

“Try to become more aware of what your mind is consuming from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep,” says Shi. “The books we read and the conversations we have feed our consciousness and can shift our perception of the world, and of ourselves.”

The same way a steady diet of junk food can leave us feeling sluggish, uninspired and unhappy with ourselves, excessively scrolling through social media, or “rage viewing” the news can have the same effect on our mental wellbeing.

Says Shi: “If you find yourself constantly feeling anxious, angry or you’re always comparing yourself [to others], then it’s time to adjust your mind’s diet.”

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