Enjoy my interview with Steven Lawson, Founder of The Monk Manual.
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Why did you create the Monk Manual?
I’ve been a student of best practices in productivity, psychology and spiritual growth for quite some time. About two years ago I realized that these three seemingly disparate fields of study all aligned on the central principles that lead to human thriving. When I looked around to see who seemed to be the best exemplars of these principles, I found to my surprise, monks.
Monks operate off of a system of life that has many benefits. Although this way of life seems very different from our own, even alien, I believed that there was a real opportunity to port over monastic principles in their function, even if the external form wasn’t able to be ported over clearly.
Some people see the life of a monk and say that their experience of full being and full doing is only possible because they are free of worldly concerns like mortgages, school payments and debt. Certainly these worldly concerns can make things difficult and it is true that some aspects of monastic life just are not possible for those of us living in the world.
But most of the monastic experience I believe is possible for those of us in the world. We may not have the benefit of the peace that comes from knowing at everyday we have prayer at 5am, breakfast at 6am and manual labor at 10am, but we can get close through intentionality. We can build our own daily practice. We can engage the relationships in our lives like a monk engages their community. We can walk a path that is marked by a dynamic engagement with reality, our work and our God.
What makes the Monk Manual different from other planners?
When I created the Monk Manual I really hesitated to call it a planner. Planners are usually either engineered to help someone organize their calendar or achieve particular goals. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but they don’t go far enough.
The productivity world is often focused on goals, where as our life is really about the process. It’s about being attentive to the process of life and trusting that process. I think we have it reversed when we think that the process is a means to the end which is the goals of our lives. These goals play a role certainly, but it is a well lived life, in the present moment that is the goal.
The Monk Manual departs from conventional productivity wisdom in that rather than focusing on just doing, it focuses on being and doing. A full life requires both.
The way we achieve this is through what we call the PAR Method, short for Prepare, Act Reflect. Through preparation we drive intentionality, then we live out these intentions through our action, then reflect back, learning every day to be attentive to our own lives and hearts.
How do you pray?
For me this is a constantly moving target. I try to be attentive in my spiritual life and at times I am drawn to different practices. Right now I feel most drawn to doing less, and being more. The language of prayer is so personal and so easily misunderstood that at times I can have a hard time explaining my exact experience, but the best way to describe my current practice is to create space. I slow down, I try to let go, and then I wait and listen. I try to practice an orientation of openness and love and God meets me in that space.
Why is silent prayer or meditation important?
There are really two layers to this question. The first is why is prayer important. Belief in today’s lexicon often means an intellectual assent, but belief has traditionally been tied to what you put your faith in. It’s an assent of the heart, more than the intellect.
In this context every person, regardless of religious tradition, belief in God or not, has faith. Everyone puts their faith in something.
I’m convinced that our image of the thing we put our faith in is one of the most powerful drivers of our behavior, perspective and experience of the world. As we learn to see God more accurately who whom God is, we also come to see ourselves more clearly as God has a reflective quality.
Silent prayer and meditation specifically seem to be one of the best ways of clarifying this image. My own experience has been that the only way you can thin the fog and see more clearly is through silence and letting go. When we try to control too much we often get in our own way and stir up the water, bringing up even more dirt and sediment in the water. When we engage in silent prayer and meditation, the sediment slowly falls to the bottom and we can see more clearly.
Who are some of your favorite author(s) and why?
This is a great question and I must admit that I likely would give a different answer five years ago, and will likely give a different answer five years from now.
While working on developing the Monk Manual I felt a close connection with the Catholic monk Thomas Merton out of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. There was a spirit in their writings that seemed to align in a way I’ve rarely seen cross traditional religious boundaries. Although both were grounded strongly in their traditions I sensed a sincerity and empathy to both their writings that was deeply attractive. I came to realize later that they were acquaintances and likely were asking similar questions to the one’s I’ve been asking in this work around the Monk Manual.
How have you been influenced by contemporary or past mystics?
I believe that we are experiencing a very interesting time for religion here in the West. Following the enlightenment our natural stance towards the world has moved the locus of meaning from something inherent in the external world to something that is falls on our shoulders, each of us having to prescribe the meaning of our reality and our world. I believe that much of the anxiety and existential struggle we feel in the West comes from this movement to an empirical orientation of everything. Science is an incredible useful tool and has given us so much, but this empirical focus can only tell us what is, not what should be.
It’s hard for any of us to be free from this paradigm, including our religious institutions. Our faith itself has been tainted by an empirical worldview. We think of truth the way a scientist does, in an empirical way, not like a poet or mystic does.
I believe the truth that is accessed by a mystic runs far deeper. I strongly believe the greatest sources of spiritual renewal reside within the mystical traditions, which offer such depth beyond our flat post enlightenment experience. Mysticism offers a broadening and deepening of the human experience, and there are few things ultimately more attractive than that.
What future projects do you wish to share?
When I was developing the Monk Manual one of my principle struggles was trying to figure out how to translate the monks experience of community. I felt that through the Monk Manual the most I could do was orient people outwards rather than on oneself, knowing that a starting point would be focusing the individual on the relationships in their lives that offer a great source of meaning and learning.
With that said I’m currently working on some complimentary resources to help port over the monastic ideal of community to family life. The family is so fundamental to all of us, and I figure that is a good place to invest and serve.