9 Powerful Life Lessons from Studying with a Monk

“Doing your best means never stop trying.” ~Unknown

When I was 18 years old, I suffered from anxiety and stomach problems. A compassionate physician and practicing Buddhist referred me to a Taoist monk who specialized in meditation and martial arts. I ended up healing myself of anxiety and stomach issues by doing meditation, and went on a great journey of self-discovery.

Here are 9 lessons I learned while studying with a monk:

1. Keep trying until you get it right.

The most important life lesson I learned was trying something three times (maybe even four times) before you stop trying and move on. Also, this monk taught me that, even after multiple tries, you should work on different angles to approach things that are difficult.

If you keep trying, you’ll eventually get where you’re going.

2. The answer to your question is inside of you.

As part of the original monastery training, a monk didn’t answer direct questions from a student unless it was a well thought-out question. A Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”

Some forms of Zen Buddhism use a very similar style of training. An old saying (by Taoist monks) goes like this: “In making a four corner table, the teacher shows the student how to make one corner. It’s the student’s job to figure out how to make the other three.”

They did this because they were preparing a student to deal effectively with problems in the real world.

I traveled to South Korea one time, and I found it fascinating how much you have to rely on your intuition when you don’t speak the native language of a country. I remember one instance, I had trouble explaining to the cab driver where my hotel was, and he didn’t speak English. So I had to get out of the cab and ask several people until I could find someone to tell the cab driver in Korean how to get to my hotel.

In life, whenever we try new things, we have to go into new places with only a small amount of information. The real world doesn’t give us all the answers. The greatest teacher is inside of us.

3. Real wisdom in life comes from doing something and failing.

Prior to starting meditation, I used to get upset when I’d try something and fail.

I've been in sales since I was sixteen. I remember going to work and getting so angry with myself because I didn’t get a sale. If I ever got rejected, I'd get upset with myself, and I’d want to quit my job. But I just keep failing over and over—until I became good at it.

I remember, when I first started doing meditation, I ran into several problems. For example, at first it was difficult to calm down; but if you stick with it, its gets easier and easier. I tried for only a few minutes, and then every day, I added more time onto my meditation.

When we struggle, we learn about ourselves and what we need to do to become stronger.

4. When you start to do meditation you recognize the egotistical mind.

Everything in the ego’s world is the result of comparing. I compared myself to other salesmen and would blame myself because I wasn’t making as much money as them.

When I started doing meditation, I began to build separation from this egoistical mind, which is consistently making these comparisons. A lot of us try something and get rejected, so we give up. Even worse, we blame ourselves for a long time and get depressed. When I started to do meditation, I began to identify my ego and was able to build separation from it.

That’s what happens when we meditate: We separate from the part of ourselves that dwells on comparisons, and start learning to live a life that isn’t driven by our egos.

5. We must be both compassionate and resilient.

The monk wouldn’t meet with me to train unless I called him a minimum of three times. I hated this part. I used to call and call and he would never answer. But this is how life is. How many times do you have to call or email someone to get something done in the real world? It’s usually several times.

Most of us blame ourselves when we try once to do something and fail. At the time, I hated this part of the training, but now I think it was the most important life lesson.

There’s a Taoist proverb that says, “Cotton on the outside, steel on the inside.”

It reminds us to be compassionate, but not weak.

6. Patience is a virtue.

The monk always made me wait—and I dreaded this.

For example, when I got to his house to train, he'd make me wait for a minimum of a half-hour, sometimes longer. We'd go out to dinner on Friday nights and he'd show up at the restaurant an hour late.

He’d tell me to meet him at a particular restaurant at 7:00. I'd get there and find out that he wasn't there. So I’d usually be sitting in the restaurant by myself fumbling with my phone, acting like I was texting someone, while worrying about what everyone at the restaurant was thinking about me.

Keep in mind, it’s not like I could call him; I don’t think the guy ever turned his cell phone on. Then he'd show up at about 8:15 and act like nothing happened.

His first question was always, “How’s your mother and father?” (Of course in my head I'm thinking, “What do you mean, ‘How’s my mother and father?’ I just waited here for an hour and fifteen minutes.”)

But after a few years of this, it never bothered me; and not only that, it spread to every area of my life. Because of this training, I can honestly say that I very rarely get upset about anything. I never get agitated anymore when I have to wait in a long line or when someone cuts me off on the highway.

Patience is the gift of inner calm.

7. Detach from your ego.

At first, it’s hard to sit at a restaurant by yourself. You’re constantly worrying, thinking that people probably think you’re a loser because you’re sitting by yourself. But the reality is, you will never be happy if you care about what people think you!

Prior to starting meditation, I’d get upset over just about anything. Now, nothing really bothers me. Recently, I was in the airport and there was a several hour delay on my flight. I just used that time to do meditation. Ten years ago, I would have become extremely upset. An airplane delay would have ruined my day.

When you let go of your ego needs, it’s easier to accept and even benefit from whatever comes at you.

8. In Taoism, they say, “No self, No enemy.”

It’s the enemy within that causes all of our fears, worries, and insecurities. If you come to terms with this enemy within, it will impact every area of your life. It’s the identification with the “self/ego” that causes all of life’s problems.

How many times do we not go for something because of fear? Think about all the fears that we have conjured up in our minds that stop us from being truly happy. If you can conquer the enemy within yourself, you won’t have an enemy outside yourself.

9. Happiness come from within, and also comes from outside.

I learned this from observing the Buddhist Physician I met. He used to do meditation in his office before he would interact with his patients. He was one of the happiest and most compassionate people I’ve ever met.

By creating happiness inside, he was able to increase that emotional state by spreading it to others.

We must cultivate happiness from within, and work to spread it around to everyone we interact with. The monk used say, “Everyone has a purpose or a mission in life.”

We have to find happiness within, and also find our purpose on the outside.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

About Robert Piper

Robert Piper is a meditation instructor & the creator of He studied with a Taoist monk for 9 ½ years & traveled to Asia & Australia in search of other meditation teachers. Robert is currently writing a book on meditation to make it more accessible for stress relief, health & happiness.

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  • Powerful post here….
    Be compassionate but not weak… my new favorite line! 🙂

  • Meditation is truly a great path to self-discovery. Just learning how to calm your mind can do wonders. Such an insightful post. Love it!

  • Awesome post Robert. Your points about becoming aware of the ego while meditating is spot on. It’s the demons within that create the outer demons.

  • Simply reading about the monk showing up so late, or the plane being delayed so long, made me tense up all over. Obviously, I have some work to do! Patience is important, and when I have moments of patience clarity, it’s pretty awesome; need to work on getting there more often.

  • Lenger Nina

    Beautiful post and exactly what I needed to hear right now! Thanks for sharing your experience and lessons learnt.

  • Ryan

    Robert – thank you for sharing this. I’ve been troubled with stress/stomach issues for about 5 years now. I had my gall bladder removed 2 years ago but that has done little to improve my day-to-day stomach ailments. I have also tried altering my diet, digestive enzymes, etc…

    Do you have any advice on how to get started with meditation for the beginner?

  • Mr. MASCh

    How did you come to study with a monk? Sounds like a huge, huge help.

  • Kneetran

    Thank you very much for this post!!!

  • Tony

    I was late for work this morning, instead of rushing to make it on time, cutting peple off and building a scenario out of nothing. I calmly waited in traffic like everyone else, turns out I was one of the first people at the office anyway.

  • GregRobson

    Excellent post. Loved the start quote and the other quotes in the text. I almost feel like I’ve met the monk myself 🙂

  •  Thank you Glori! That’s a great line!

  •  Haha, thank you Greg!

  •  Tony, I know what you mean, it seems we are always in a hurry.

  •  Thank you!

  •  Start small, work on getting better at it everyday!

  •  Thank you Justin!!!

  • Very true Terez, thank you for checking it out!

  • I’m glad you liked it, thanks for reading!

  • Where would one look for instruction on how to begin meditation? I feel I’ve probably reached the point in my life that I should seriously distance myself from my ego.

  • Delabeaux

    I was just thinking that one of the most difficult things we must overcome in life is ourselves.  This lends credence to that.  Thank you.

  • Merel Zwart

    I used to be driving like a madman until I replaced my modern car for a 25 year old 2CV which couldn’t go faster than a 100 km/h when the wind worked with me. It was a true ‘zen-machine’ and made a lot of people smile along the way…

  • A lovely post.  It is so true that many of us as humans beat ourselves up when we ‘fail’ at something, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to review what we did and learn a lesson from it.  We know that is just of ingrained beliefs and perceptions, which sometimes take longer to unpick.  I am a fan of meditation (although find I have to be somewhere SILENT in order to do it and struggle if there is traffic outside, or kids running past shouting etc so would be keen to get your thoughts on how to meditate with noise around you).  Something you may be interested in which I teach and practise is EFT.  It’s nothing like meditation, but it is a form of using our energetic body to release anger, frustration, worry and so on by tapping on our meridian lines.  I have some information about it on

  • Great story with excellent lessons.

    We are our worst own enemy. As parents we could learn a lot from how your monk taught you 🙂

    I will definitely be reading this article a few more times.


  • Joe

    Awesome article, beginning to end!  Thank you!  I just recently started meditating and while it hasn’t been easy, I’m sticking with it.  Everything you said above is part of my goal and I feel like I’m on the verge of something big.

  • Wow!!! I loved this 🙂 I have to say your life sounds like so much fun! My idea of fun really is hanging out with the monks and learning from them (though I’ve never done this myself). This really made something in side me want to pick up and just go do it.


  • David

    Thank you Robert! You reminded me that we have choices in how we respond to life. When the monk says, “Everyone has a purpose or a mission in life”, what do you think he would say about the purpose of horrible, hurtful, or aimless people? Or is he saying we all have a destiny, good or bad?

  • Great post. That’s awesome you got to study with a monk. I want to do similar one day. I’ve been practicing meditation for about a year now and I absolutely love it.

  • izza24

    Great post! So inspiring! Life is grand 🙂

  •  I see a picture of the Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism in this post..Loved reading it.

  • Excellent post…. Great inspiring…

  • The Anomaly

    Very insightful and filled with Truth.

    Thank You

  • ” Be Kind Whenever Possible…

    It Is Always Possible… ”

             – Dalai Lama  –

  • MrSquooze

    True Buddhism would say if you try and fail it doesn’t matter, as much as if you try and succeed .. Buddhism (for me) is just about trying, being in the moment, the outcome does not matter a damn (equanimity and non-dualism).

  • Winie Ariany

    Thanks for sharing the experience!

  • Thanks for the information.

  • Kathy

    I bookmarked this article 🙂 thank you, all items here were relevant to me this month.

  • Alice

    I completely agree that patience is a virtue and something to be greatly appreciated (last week my tube trains were severely delayed, people around me were getting consistently more annoyed but I just kept calm & went with the flow… it was fine).

    However, I cannot agree that having the monk make you wait for dinner is a good thing. I’m sorry, but lateness steals other people’s time and that’s plain rude.

    I’m all for zen, but you lost a little of your life’s time there. And the monk controlled you by doing that.

  • This is one of my favourite posts I’ve ever read on this site!  Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.  I love these lessons and will definitely take them to heart!  All the best to you!

  • Shweta

    Truly motivating.

  • C

    Really have to say this: great post. And thank you. =)

  • Karina

    Great post! This made me look at things differently. I love “Cotton on the outside, steel on the inside.” Thank you for this post.

  • I had this article saved to read for over four months. It was such as happy gift for the day to finally get to read it. So amazing! I will definitely be saving this to re-read it many more times in the future.

  • Yes it’s true that most of the times we are running for no apparent reason.. 😀

  • GravoisFare

    To constantly keep someone waiting 30-60 minutes is just rude and inconsiderate. Do you now keep your friends waiting in order to “teach” them patience? I don’t understand the lesson. I’m a patient person, but I’m also considerate of others.

  • ee

    helps with my essay

  • Brandon

    I used to drive for a living, very stressful job. People always in a hurry to stop lol They race from one redlight to the next, only to slam on thier brakes for the red light, it used to make me furious, but I realized what is the point, it does no good to rush and be upset, you will arrive at your destination when you get there. Thank You for sharing this with us Robert, Namaste

  • Kristina

    I really wish I could have the opportunity to study with a monk. I feel that the actual experience would be powerful, although, this was a thoughtful and reassuring article.

  • Jsong

    If was his teacher so it’s acceptable.

  • RKslayer

    I loved this article but I still feel lost when it comes to college majors and what I should choose and focus on. I hear that I should just do what I like a lot, but I don’t even know what I like. I am currently a pre-med biology major but I have messed up my grades by bad study habits and time management. I am not even the party animal and do not party. I don’t know if I should continue this medical path or just change majors or transfer into another college.
    I’m already becoming a junior in college…
    I don’t know what to do with my life.
    I do know that I want to make money to give back to family. But I do not know which major or path is better for me. This has been bothering for so long already.. 🙁

    Sorry everyone for this long burdensome message.

  • Jeffrey

    I enjoyed this, thank you for sharing!

  • Adi

    Hey! I just wanted to say that I know how you feel and maybe give you some advice.
    There was a time in my life I thought I also was lost, didn’t know what I like, etc…
    The truth is, there is always something you like. Out of fear, maybe you’ve censored that passion in your head and think that it can’t be a career.
    For me, that was music – I never thought anything can come out of it, but it did.
    Never stop believing in what you like.
    P.S. It’s better to finish your major, just to have a degree. Then you can think of something else. But I advice you not to switch. Practical!

  • Adi

    just for your information, my education is in Psychology, not music 🙂 It is possible 😉

  • manoj

    it is very nice because it great line

  • flyingstreak

    That’s a very good read. I just travelled to South Korea and met with a senior monk, and consider myself quite lucky since he doesn’t meet people. He helped interpret a very strange experience of mine, despite the language barrier. I’ve always been attracted towards Buddhism since childhood so the entire experience felt very complete.

  • Suranjana Bhagi

    Loved each n every word of this very inspiring story.
    Thank you very much!
    Cotton outside….n steel inside!
    Never thought of it…exactly opposite of…an indian proverb which says….we should be like Coconut….hard outside…soft inside!:)
    But…personally speaking… Better to be cotton outside….n……:)

  • Hangover Twee…T’s

    Your Post really Effective. Thank You
    Could you tell some stuff regarding To ‘BE CONFIDENT’

  • AbdulMoeed (RappBoi)

    I have a question. So what Muslims pray 5 times a day which also includes keeping their forehead on ground and is a total kind of exercise is also a meditation to relieve from stress and attain the benefits? Please let me know.

    Because the prayer times are according to the rotation of Earth at respective times and many more detailed stuff.

  • Grant

    Hmmmm…..this is how I think. I’m not sure how I arrived at this point, but I follow and live by all of these concepts. I didn’t realize that I was meditating when I was 6, until I realized what mediation was once I got older.