The Urban Monk by Pedram Shojai [Book Summary – Review]

Many people have become interested in the old spiritual practices of the East. However, to be honest, we have to support the family, pay the bills on time, and juggle our various jobs. We hardly find the time to participate in a yoga class once every week, let alone go on a meditation retreat for a month.

We have no intention of going all the way to the Himalayas and entering a monastery. Yet if we do not have this degree of dedication, how can we experience the inner peace possessed by the monks residing in the mountains?

By turning into an urban monk, of course! To be someone who integrates ancient wisdom into the urban or suburban life that most people live today. Pedram Shojai is the best mentor who can teach you this.

Shojai used to be a Taoist monk. He is dedicated to helping people live more satisfying lives by using his experience and knowledge of ancient practices. Shojai has helped many people through his Urban Monk podcast, teachings, and books (for example, The Art of Stopping Time). Let these sections lend you a helping hand.

In the chapters below, you’ll learn

  • that chopping wood and fetching water are not merely routine tasks; 
  • the reason why meditation is like an operational system, not a symbol; and 
  • the benefits of learning kung fu. 

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Chapter 1 – Our progenitors can show us how to live more in tune with our needs.

Despite advances in technology, medicine, and living conditions, the people of the modern world are not entirely the happiest or healthiest. We need more time, energy, sleep, and exercise. We are alone, filled with anxiety, far from nature, and filling our stomachs with junk food. But our main problem is that we do not have a real goal.

What’s happening to us? And what can we do about this issue? The short answer is that our way of life in the modern world is not compatible with our needs. To overcome this problem, we need to improve our way of life completely.

Fortunately, we are not obliged to start with nothing. There are various ancient knowledge that we can learn. Although many of these have been handed down to us by the spiritual traditions of the East, some have been inherited from an older source, our progenitors.

Following a specific faith is not the prerequisite for becoming an Urban Monk. Any source of wisdom can be your teacher. Since the ways of living of our ancestors went hand in hand with human needs, it is great to start with them. If our lives were like theirs, we would find solutions to most of the problems in our modern life.

Let’s consider sleep, which is one of our indispensable basic needs. When the sun went down, our ancestors were illuminated by nothing but the soft light emitted by fire, the moon, and the stars. However, the dim atmosphere that emerged was a gift. It set off a host of biochemical reactions that prepared their bodies for sleep.

On the contrary, we modern humans are exposed to the unnatural light disseminated by the light bulbs and screens of technological devices until late at night. This tricks our brain into thinking that the daytime does not end, which causes the secretion of hormones programmed to keep us making it harder to sleep.

Thus, how can we prepare ourselves for bedtime in the way of our progenitors? It’s not hard at all: Turn off your technological devices after 7 pm. If you want to do better, turn off the light bulbs and then lighten your home with candlelight time is great for resting. Additionally, this brings up a broader point: you don’t have to enter a monastery to become a City Monk. Thanks to some honest-to-god but strong tips, you can alter your life without going to the mountains.

Chapter 2 – You need to spend more hours exercising your body, communicating with others, and being pleased with hanging out outdoors.

How to prepare for sleep is only the first of what we can learn from our ancestors. If we take a look at their lives, our Paleolithic progenitors can give us full-fledged training on how to solve many of our modern world’s life woes.

Being alone? They lived in crowded families and groups with close tribal relations. Insufficient exercise? They were chasing animals to hunt all day long, collecting fruits and nuts, walking in forests, climbing cliffs, jumping overpasses, and trying to avoid being caught by predators. Not being in touch with nature? Mother nature surrounded them all day long, and they had to obtain detailed information about their surroundings in order not to die easily.

These activities are almost endless, but you understand what is meant. Before starting the spiritual practices of the East, let’s talk about what else we can do to get closer to our progenitors.

Do not misunderstand the words “urban” or “monk”. Being an Urban Monk does not mean being a city charlatan who sits aside and spends all his time pondering the meaning of life. If you desire to feel inner peace, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of your needs, and for most people, this means more physical activity, communicating with more people, and interacting more with nature.

Our progenitors already met these needs by being hunters and gatherers. However, we modern people need to make a conscious effort. When we are alone, we can spend hours in front of technological devices, sitting or lying on a piece of furniture in unnatural places, without talking to others around us.

Luckily, the activities we can do to get outside, exercise our bodies, and meet people more often are endless. You can volunteer with a local conservation group to restore your connection with mother nature, start a training course to gain survival abilities and knowledge or go camping, fishing, bird watching, hiking, biking, rock climbing, canoeing, etc. You can do a myriad of activities.

Many outdoor activities can double as fun ways to exercise and great ways to meet new people or enhance relationships you already maintain. The only thing that you should do is sign up for an outdoor activity club and invite friends or family to join you on your next adventure or interact with strangers you meet along the way.

Chapter 3 – Being an Urban Monk means being disciplined and consistent, both physically and mentally.

This point may seem vague and complicated to you. You might think that while going outside for exercise is sound wellness advice, it’s not about being a monk.

You may have these thoughts because you are filled with some common misperceptions about what being a monk entails. In ancient times, monks did not stay in their monasteries and meditate all day. Most of their time was spent performing tasks that required physical strength, such as carrying water to the monastery and chopping firewood. Among the Zen Buddhist monks even there was an old proverb summarizing this: “Before Zen, fetch water, chop wood. After Zen, fetch water, chop wood.”

That is to say, being a monk involves many things other than dealing with spiritual affairs. The situation is no different when it comes to being an Urban Monk.

Many ancient Eastern monks practiced martial arts such as tai chi and kung fu in addition to household chores. “Kung fu” means “hard work” in Chinese. It makes sense. Because learning a martial art can be difficult, painful, and time-consuming, mastering it requires discipline, consistency, and persistence. Because you can’t run away from challenges, you must throw yourself into them and embrace them as opportunities to exceed your physical and mental limits. This is the way for you to progress as a martial arts expert.

That’s how you progress and evolve as a human being. The difficult training of kung fu represents the hard work of mastering life. That’s why the monks devoted themselves to this work. Thanks to kung fu, they made a method to create the type of thinking they wanted to perform in everything in their lives.

As an Urban Monk, you can emulate them by learning kung fu, tai chi, or any martial art. However, remember that it is not enough to acquire important self-defense skills. The real trick is to learn to approach every area in life as a full-fledged form of kung fu.

You may be rock climbing, you may be turning off your technology devices at night, or you may be doing nothing but gritting your teeth as you push yourself to finish a grueling task (chopping wood, fetching water). All of these are within the scope of kung fu. The important thing is to embrace the challenges that lie ahead, remember them as opportunities for personal growth and evolution, and devote yourself to the hard work of overcoming them.

Chapter 4 – To evolve your diet, avoid eating quickly and with large bites.

At this stage in your transformation into an Urban Monk, you have transformed yourself from being glued to a modern couch to a mobile individual. Run outdoors and exercise more. You are engaged in kung fu or tai chi. You cut wood and carry water. Of course, you may not do these things word for word, but you gain a more stoic, monk-like mind that overcomes problems and tasks. 

To perform efficiently with all this physical effort, you probably have to eat a healthier diet than most modern people. The food we eat is extremely unhealthy. Foods with little nutritional value have high-calorie amounts. In simpler terms, we overconsume foods that contain too few macro and micronutrients.

How can we solve these?

Unfortunately, most people tend to finish their meals quickly. In addition to chewing morsels incredibly fast, we chew less. Then, we swallow one bite at a time and throw the next one into our mouth, thus finishing the meal without letting the signal about the action we made go to our brain.

If we do not take pleasure in chewing the food and give it time to settle in our stomach, this is a really serious problem because we will not be able to appreciate the blessing, we will not be able to grind it and we will not feel full. Therefore, even though we eat a lot, we cannot get every single essential nutrient.

To put an end to this, chew slowly. Chew at least ten times at a time, maybe even 20 or 30 times. Enjoy the flavors with your tongue and palate. Swallow, stop, breathe, and continue like this until you feel half full. Then wait five to ten minutes to allow your stomach to recover. In this part, you may feel full and finish your meal. Eating more than necessary prevented!

This will help with the calorie issue. As for quality, pick up another wisdom from Eastern spiritual traditions and consume soft and juicy foods. For centuries, most monks have eaten large amounts of soups, stews, and congee (a sort of rice porridge). These dishes, which contain healthy vegetables cooked for minutes at low heat, are loaded with macro and micronutrients that do not have to be digested and are fully extracted.

Chapter 5 – Feeling full of energy is not just about storing more energy, because it also means allowing this energy to move more freely.

If you follow the recommendations we have mentioned so far, you can meet your needs for sleep, physical exercise, nutrition, social relations, and time spent in nature more efficiently. Although this is a beautiful situation from top to bottom, there is an additional problem: Your energy stores will be fuller, which is something that the majority of people in the modern world are already deprived of.

It is no surprise that healthier sleep, more physical exercise, and a better diet can make you more energetic. However, there is another energy booster that has not been given much importance lately: Spending time alone with nature. Whether you are sitting where you are or taking a slow-paced walk, there is something deeply refreshing about being with various kinds of plants and animals.

Although advancing our social relationships can also increase our energy, we must first focus more carefully on the structure of energy to comprehend this.

Energy does not exist from nothing. You must discover a practice of creating it within yourself or getting it ready from outside, and then keep recharging it as you spend it. Sleeping, activating the body, eating, and spending time in nature are four practices to do this. If you want your energy to be sufficient, definitely follow all of these essential ways. Insufficiency of sleep, physical activity, nutrition, or hours devoted to nature will create an energy deficit.

But even if you have a lot of energy to move around, it won’t do much good if it stays trapped inside you. It must move easily to fulfill its duty, and the more fluid this movement is, the more energetic you will be. Physical activities are important because they prevent energy from being immobilized if your body is too motionless. If you are under extreme mental anxiety, feel like you cannot overcome some life troubles, or have emotional wounds that get better in no way, this energy can be immobilized.

These wounds often occur as a result of other people hurting us in different ways, so this is where our social relationships come into the energy equation. In the following few sections, we will examine some ways to clear blockages in your energy, experience less anxiety, and mend the effects of blows from the past.

Chapter 6 – You can make your energy flow more efficient by engaging in qigong, spending time in meditation, and moving.

On the condition that you don’t exhaust yourself unnecessarily, almost any type of workout (any activity that moves the body, such as yoga, walking, running, push-ups, swimming, dancing, lifting dumbbells, etc.) can help you create more energy and stir this energy better.

In addition to kung fu, tai chi, and other martial arts, count all the outdoor activities we mentioned in the sections above. Don’t forget to fetch water and chop wood, too, because chores can be another wonderful way to do physical jerks and get your energy circulated!

However, if you are going to take your energy flow to a higher level, the three things that are essential to do are qigong, meditation, and getting yourself off the couch.

The word “qigong” means “energy work” in Chinese. As its name suggests, it is an ancient form of exercise that involves taking your total energy (“qi”) and doing work with it (“gong”). Exercise involves a combination of movement, meditation, maintaining posture, and deep breathing. Contingent upon the type of qigong exercise you are pursuing, remember this as a method of either nudging your immobile energy or smoothly releasing it from within.

Watch videos online and follow along to see how. Apply for five to ten minutes in the morning, or evening, when you take a break from work or feel anxious. Judging from the author’s experience, this tip can bring about a significant improvement in people’s energy circulation.

However, even if you engage in qigong or a different exercise regularly, if you spend most of the day sitting, this will only get you to a point. If you have something to do on a desk, buy a standing desk so your body will have to stand upright. You can even practice kung fu movements while standing to make your lower body wiggle!

Do not pay too much attention to your body. Remember that the flow of your energy may stop due to mental anxiety and unrelieved emotional pain. Breathing meditation exercises for anxiety can give you some peace. Two meditation exercises can help you with emotional pain. We will focus more on all these exercises in the chapter below.

Chapter 7 – Practicing meditation can be a therapy.

So let’s start with anxiety-reducing meditation.

Sit in a good position, set the alarm clock to go off in five to ten minutes, and pay attention to your breathing. Take air in and let it out slowly through your nose towards your lower abdomen.

Then place your left hand on your left knee and place your right hand on your nose. Using your thumb and forefinger, first pinch one nostril, then close the other, and inhale and exhale alternately from both sides of your nose. Breathe in and out calmly through your left nostril. Then breathe in and out calmly through your right nostril. Do this over and over again.

Your anxiety disappears, right? This is just one of the incredible qualities of meditation, which is a remarkable, albeit wonderful, practice. This can also help you become more intimate with other people and repair emotional pain.

Start the following exercise with a few minutes of breathing meditation. Then focus on your heart and bring your hands together in front of your heart in prayer. Breathe into your heart and feel it begin to warm up. Focus on transforming this feeling into unconditional love for every living being on earth. Feel this love within you every time you breathe in, and mentally spread it everywhere when you exhale.

With every breath, disseminate the love within you to every person, your relatives, your loved ones, your foes, strangers, and those who deserve your forgiveness. Keep opening your love until it embraces the whole Earth. Let him open his arms from the solar system to the galaxy and from there to the universe. Sit with this feeling in your heart for a few minutes and finish the meditation. Take it with you everywhere for the rest of the day. Let it infuse your personality with compassion and help you create more relationships with the people you meet.

This is called heart-centered meditation, and it’s also a preliminary exercise for the final meditation, which is about repairing hurtful issues in your past. First, repeat all the steps we did above. Then, when you feel that deep, unconditional love in your heart, focus your attention on your emotional wound and direct your love towards it.

Watch it being repaired right now. Then imagine going back to the past and healing the wound there, too. Relive the moment you were injured; stop it and let your feeling of love surround all the people involved. Then continue the scene and let it happen as you wish. Let your love be reflected in this image and take its place in your mind.

So now you’re prepared to progress.

Chapter 8 – View meditation as an operating system for your mind rather than a symbol.

Since meditation is a very popular word these days, the fact that it functions as treatment and therapy may be considered old news. However, do not be so sure because even if you know a little about the benefits of meditation, you still have something to learn.

As ideas and practices become popular, they are often oversimplified and misunderstood. Unluckily, this issue is no different in the ancient art of meditation. Most people have a misconception about this, and what is more, even those of us who already do it may end up handling it poorly.

Luckily, a modern metaphor can help us get back on the right track.

Numerous people think that meditation is a practice we do to relieve stress. It’s like clicking the “help” icon on the computer desktop. You refer to that icon when your system is stuck. Then relax and let it do its job. When it’s done, you stop clicking and continue your regular schedule where you left off.

As you can tell now, meditating can be an excellent exercise to calm your nerves when you’re racked with anxiety. But there is much more to its coverage than simply stress-relieving. In addition to its other benefits, it helps avoid being in high anxiety in the first place. To be fully nourished by everything meditation offers, you need to accept it as a system that operates your mind, rather than remembering it as just a symbol. It should become the principal structure that directs the mechanism inside your mind; something that is constantly vibrating behind the curtain.

However, if meditation is an operating system, how do you set it up? Here’s an easy but effective way: Stop at regular intervals throughout the day and ask yourself, “What am I doing now?” Analyze your body and try to understand your feelings and thoughts. When you spot negative ones, do not wrestle with them or try to push them away. Just watch, blow on the,m, and let them disperse naturally. Then continue living your day where you left off.

If you don’t stop using this method in your life, it will become a routine you get used to after a while. At this moment, you will have firmly established meditation as your mental operating system. In the next section, we will see how this can move you towards inner peace.

Chapter 9 – Peace comes from somewhere within you.

Picture yourself waiting in line to pay at the checkout counter after filling your cart at the grocery store. Work stops and goes wrong because there is a problem with the cash register. Five minutes later you are still standing. What would your reaction be to this?

If you’re not much different from most people, you probably feel anxiety. But what if, instead of gritting your teeth, you looked inside yourself and used that five-minute downtime as an opportunity for a quick meditation exercise? If you’ve already established meditation as your mental operating system, you’re fully prepared to do this – easing your anxiety as it ascents, enjoying a few moments of calm, and creating a monk-like mindset in the process.

These are two very distinct ways of responding to and experiencing a situation. However, the message of the story goes further than the checkout counter.

Surely, waiting in line is merely the obvious part. Many things in modern life make people anxious. Many of us find our work the most worrying of all. This is not limited to what is wanted and expected from us. There is a reality that we need them for our livelihood. Thus, a problem at work may seem like a critical issue that will determine your fate.

One of your customers leaves you. Then you fear losing your job, your salary, and your capability of meeting the cost of your living. Survival is at stake for you now, so your body responds to this by secreting stress hormones into your bloodstream in fight-or-flight mode.

In the meantime, your mind continues to relive what happened, solidifying every single thing that went like a disaster. Therefore, you lose your customer both one time in real life and several times psychologically, and all your concerns about your job are once again ignited.

However, realize what is going on here. It is not your customer leaving you that sends you into an anxiety attack. This is what you think in response to that event. And every thought running through your mind feeds from what you recall about the past (losing your customer) or the future that you fancy (losing your job).

For this reason, meditation is a great practice in curing troubles. It helps you bring your attention back to the present. That prevents your mind from getting derailed.

Finally, just as all emotional complexities come from you, the inner peace you desire to feel instead must come from somewhere within you.

Chapter 10 – Thanks to meditation, you can slow down your time and remember your place in the universe.

Even though your trip in these chapters is over, your adventure of becoming an Urban Monk is just taking its first steps. Here, you’ve gotten your energy flowing, your anxiety down, your meditation operating system turning its gears, and your kung fu way of thinking determinedly built. So from now on you’re prepared enough to face two more problems that plague many people in the modern age: lack of purpose and shortage of time.

In this last section, we will cover two final mediation exercises that can help you with these problems.

People often see the reason why they don’t have enough time as their workload is too much. Look, it’s true; we are really busy, and that in itself is a problem. However, the more important fact is that we waste a significant amount of time not only by distracting ourselves with idle activities such as watching television but also by ignoring our experiences. As a consequence, the time we have passed by as if it didn’t exist.

In order not to lose time, we must slow down its pace so that we can enjoy it. Since meditation is all about focusing on the present, it is perfect for this job. If you want to witness its ability to slow down the pace of time in action, this exercise is perfect for you: After sitting on the edge of a river, focus on the sound of the water and let it take your thoughts away. Just like time, realize how it constantly changes and remains constant. That’s the reason why they compare time to a river. Allow 20 or 30 minutes for this exercise to make it settle.

Time is precious to us, and nothing says this more clearly than remembering that death will knock on our door one day. This is the whole content of the last meditation. Shaivism draws on Hindu tradition and is a powerful reminder that our lives are but brief contributions to an eternally vast wheel of life.

Are you ready? Because this can be unsettling, prepare yourself: assuming you die. Now imagine your body rotting away, complete with worms and all the remaining visual details. Watch it dissolve into the soil. Watch the flowers grow in the soil you have now returned to, integrated with, and see the butterflies flying around.

Life continues without you and your time in it is relatively short. Try to take full advantage of it most efficiently.

The Urban Monk: Eastern Wisdom and Modern Hacks to Stop Time and Find Success, Happiness, and Peace Pedram Shojai Book Review

Many personal problems that affect people can be solved by combining some modern teachings and tips with some techniques and exercises borrowed from our ancestors and ancient Eastern spiritual traditions. Avoiding unnatural light sources and doing outdoor activities alone or with other people can help you sleep, do exercises, be sociable, and spend more hours in nature. Kung fu, qigong, and meditation can help you increase your energy, cope with anxiety, get more efficiency from your time, and help you set a goal and pursue it. Lastly, chewing foods more slowly and adding soups, stews, and congees to your menu can make your diet healthier.

Don’t take on more work than you can handle.

When you take your first steps towards becoming an Urban Monk, don’t force yourself to get the job done right away. Instead, take a hack and turn it into “100 days of gong.” That means trying to finish this one for 100 days before starting the next one. The logic behind this is that it takes roughly 100 days to turn a new behavior into a routine, and that’s exactly what you need to do with these tips. If you want the benefits you get from them to last, you can’t try them merely a couple of times; you need to combine them with your way of living for good and all.

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Savaş Ateş

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