The thing Tony Lister looked forward to the MOST about the Legendary Spiritual Adventure Retreat in Nepal was the chance to meditate with monks who had dedicated their lives to inner stillness. What he actually experienced was a mirror to his own trauma of a dogmatic religious upbringing that emphasized ritual over connectedness. Come along for the ride on this episode where Tony projects all his shit on these unassuming monks who are just living how they want to live...
It’s another day here at the orphanage.I'm going to talk a little bit about dogma and how it keeps us stuck. There's an order to things around here. I'm going to take a tour of the kitchen.Imagine a concrete house with a tin roof and the little stove in the back that's probably 12x12. On the floor, it's like a clay place where they'll heat up the food and then they'll put the food in these giant vats and feed everybody this way. In big old bowls, everybody gets a scoop on a metal plate of some rice, some potatoes, some sauce that goes on it, some brothy stuff and then some greens that they have with it. I think I'm going to miss my lunch.I'm going to see if I can get someone to score me a lunch. I’m in the eating room. It's in the other side of the kitchen that's probably 20x12 feet and a bunch of little tables packed in here.
I got to be an opportunist here when there's a lot of people eating. The kids do have plenty to eat at this particular orphanage, so it's not me being an opportunist. I would let them eat before me. On the ground, on the basketball court or the soccer field court,we've got the art that the kids did together. There’s this piece of art. We've been having a beautiful time-sharing space with these kids at this orphanage. I was sitting here contemplating my experience. Behind the orphanage is a school for monks. It's this beautiful white building, six stories high and may have a basement too. Outside is this white stucco. It's a big rectangular building like you'd see a box hotel building with a reddish roof and a brown decorated banister along the top floor.
All the windows are surrounded by this beautiful wood trim. Up at this, the school is a dirt field. It's a soccer field. We play soccer there. The kids that are in the monk school came out and some of them played. Some of us watched probably a couple of hundred of these kids that were probably on average between 3 and 4 feet tall because they're little kids. They're like 6 to 10 years old, all dressed as monks. It was like these mini-monks. It was this unique visual experience I'd never had before. I was fun to play with. It got me thinking of something. I want to explore this.I'm not 100% sure if I'm going to publish this. If it gets published, it's because I feel like what I said allows enough room to honor people's personal preferences of belief without being hyper judgmental myself. As I read this later, if I feel like I'm super offensive, then I may not publish this.
I was sitting here and I was recording a message for my children. I was contemplating this experience I had in this temple that I went to. My experience is as I walked in, there were a couple of rows of these benches with tables in front. In the center was an open area and then on either side, there were these benches with tables. There were monks that were sitting on these benches. They had their different places of worship around the room, different statues and things. There were a couple of monks that were like young kids sitting at these huge gongs that were probably 5 feet in diameter. They weren't the metal ones. It was more of a huge drum. Some of them had their symbols and had different little sound-making instruments. The main monk, he was older and a big fellow and had the air of authority in the room. He sat at the head of one of the tables. Another older monk sat across from him with the head of the other row of the tables.
I sat along the back wall and I took in this experience. I walked back to the spot and I had this mantra that I was repeating. I was using my Mala necklace. You go along and you repeat your mantra. You repeat your prayer. I was sitting there and I’ve been asking this question of how do I love myself more? I was aware what I perceive as the problems in my life. Often, it's easy to get into this world going, “I need more money, more stuff, more status, more recognition.” At least for me, that's been easy to fall into my whole life or where there have been places of struggle in relationships. I'm wanting someone to show up differently to make me feel a certain way or I’ve got a certain conflict in my life with someone that ripped us off and created a legal battle. There's this anger and rage that's been going on. I perceive those as problems.
Those are situations. I have five kids and I have a lifestyle that requires money to do what I do. Money is a part of the equation. I have a body and I have to follow the rules of the body to have health. I have to answer the situations in these lawsuits. They're all in my life. What I got clear on was that the real problem inside me was not that stuff. I figured out way more complicated stuff than that. I’ve had way bigger business challenges or relationship challenges than that in the past. The problem is the story inside me that says it's not okay to be where I am or it'snot okay to have the preferences, tendencies, habits, behaviors, desires or results that I have. There's the inner story, this whole thing of saying, “How do I love myself right now? How do I love myself more fully today?” It was the only actual problem because the rest of the stuff was circumstantial.
I'm aware because of the different fluctuations of times in my life when I’ve made extraordinary amounts of money and the times that I’ve made almost no money. More money doesn't fix the inner story that I'm not okay. I thought it would but it never has. It hasn't for any of my clients either. There's this illusion if I could resolve the lawsuits, if I could get additional money in the bank, if I could get some stuff, or if I could have a greater reach with my impact or something external that it's going to settle down that little voice inside that's like, “Who I am, what I am, how I am is not okay.” I got present to that. I'm learning to love me in the moment and going, “This is where I am. I don't like some of this stuff. I don't like the discomfort. I don't like the conflicts. I don't like these other things,but I can love me in this moment.” I'm having this growing and loving experience and I'm asking the universe. I'm counting all my beads and doing this.
To me, the ritual became loaded with power. Rubbing the bead in and of itself and repeating a mantra could be powerless. It could be a distraction. It could be some robotic thing. In that space, it was powerful for me because there was power in the question. I was connecting deeply to me and asking this question over and over. I sit down in this room with these monks and I'm watching this situation take place. I see this older guy, this authoritarian. He's the leader and everybody reveres him,vows to him and acknowledges him. He decides what the next prayer is. They have their prayer cards out there and they're reading. I'm not trying to knock how they do their religion. This is their life. I honor and respect that. This is how they find value in doing their life. For me, I grew up in a dogmatic hyper-religious environment that tended to worship the ritual, that tended to make a big deal about the ritual done the right way or it can't please God, which the resulting message creates this inner world of I never measure up.
I never get my shit together. I never do it right. Therefore, I'm not okay. How can I love myself if I can't get in line with how the ritual must be done? I have this lifetime of unraveling what I watched happening in this room. These little boys were there and they were squirming around. The older people were putting them in check. We're most excited about coming on this legendary mastermind retreat with my dear friend, Gerald Rogers,and the opportunity to co-create the space with him. We were asking, “What are you most excited about?” I said, “I was most excited to come and meditate with monks, to meditate with people who do this all day.” I was excited. I’ve been meditating for years and I was excited to meditate with someone who had been doing this in this way that they had gone deep inside their soul. That's what I looked forward to.
This is so judgmental of me. I sat there and I watched these people. I watched those little boys get trained and I had flashbacks to being 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 years old and having the elders,the older guys hammering down, “This is the way you do it.” That was the culture I was in. Everybody was in it. That was all I saw. That's what I knew.It was like this amazing brainwashing mechanism that our culture does to us.It's easier for me to lay mine out and go, “This was weird.” For those kids,you could say, “I was raised by monk and it was weird. I had to sit and sing these songs all day long in the temple because somehow that pleases God or something.” That's what I'm making up that they're thinking. All of us are raised in a culture or a cult-ture. It may not be as rigidly defined, but we're all brainwashed into how to be. I was in my heart excited to sit in the presence of a being who wasn't distracted by this need to prove, to acquire, to find satisfaction through sex or through experience or through expression in the body or through some sensation or whatever life that I’ve chased.
Somebody that spent their time in this inner work and had gotten past their desires and the distractions and had found this inner peace. I sat in there and I was like, “Shit, this is how I was raised.” I watched the little boys and their instinct was like, “I don't like this.” Something inside was like, “This doesn't fit.” The older guys were hammering it down, “Get in line,” until those little spirits were subdued.They’re like, “I must be like this. I need to be like this to prove something.”I want to reiterate this. We're doing the same thing with social media to each other. We're broadcasting our fake news on social media, the highlights of our life, the cool parts. There's this tendency for people to sit on the other side of the screen and be like, “I'm not good enough. I need to do more. I need to be different. I need to show up differently.” I had this experience of watching. They passed around the food. They brought out the tea and they brought up the bread and naan. There was this flat bread. It's good, especially when it's warm.
I watched all the young boys all of a sudden started smiling. Finally, they can have something that was decent. It was like, “We've been sitting here chanting all day and we can finally eat.” I was so disappointed. I had this illusion that my meditation, which has been this deep dive into how to deal with my inner world and the chatter, chaos,conflict and compulsions that I’ve tried to find in this deep place and that'sit. There isn't some more advanced level. You asked the question, “How do I love myself more deeply?” You sit in meditation and you deal with what's inside.That's it. I put these guys on this pedestal. I'm like, “These guys sit and meditate all day. They must have reached some point of such expansion.” What I witnessed, and this is my judgment, I get it, hear it, feel it and acknowledge it. What I witnessed was that they were worshiping the ritual. They were worshiping the dogma. They were worshiping the steps of how it's done. They were worshiping spinning the wheel.
I don't know what their inner world is like. How can I ever know? We can never know someone's inner world but having been raised in the environment I was raised in and spent all these years unraveling that inside myself. I witnessed that being baked in. This isn't to say that every monk who sits, meditates, chants, and prays all day long isn't having this beautiful inner experience. Clearly, there must be some beauty in this to keep drawing people back into the tradition of the practice and that's where all these religions and worldviews and these ways of doing things.There's beauty. There was this deep disappointment and going, “Maybe what I witnessed in the room was simply the worshiping of a way of life, not of life itself.”
I could be completely wrong. I’ve been so judgmental in my life. It's so easy to do this, but it causes me to question and go, “What are we worshiping? Are we worshiping the essence of life, the celebration of life? Are we worshiping the ritual, the process and the dogma?”They brought me back to this place of maybe the answers are pretty simple.Maybe the answers are as simple as get present in the moment. Maybe the whole thing is learning how to love and if the ritual generates love, if the meditation brings us to a place of love, then let's meditate. If the yoga brings us to love, then let's do the yoga. If the church worship, the singing,the reading of scripture, the following of dogma activates love in us, then let's do that. If the making of the money engages and brings us aliveness, then let's do that. If we got stuck in the rut of worshiping the dogma, then maybe we need to check in.
That instinct that those boys had, the squirminess of going, "This isn’t this way of doing it. This isn't my jive. It isn't fitting for me. It isn't filling me.” They knew it. I knew it when I was younger. I knew it when I was older. There was a deadness to the worshiping of the ritual. I was sitting here thinking about this and I was startled. I had two trips into that. One was when I went in the first time. One is when I created the podcast and I’ve been able to contemplate it since. They were still singing hours later and I was like, “Do they sing like that all day?” Is it a singing of joy and expansion of expression or is it as it appeared? “We're going to go and sit in this room and we're going to sing all day again,” or for however many hours they did. This is what we do to please God. We're going to give up our joy to go through ritual to somehow please some divine being. It broke my heart to witness it.
It was like a kick to the head of like,“Stop putting anybody on a pedestal. Nobody's on a pedestal. Everybody walks it one day at a time. Do your path and figure out what brings you joy. Do it your way. Activate that aliveness in you. Quit looking to somebody else to give you all the answers of the secret wisdom of how to do it.” It was like deeply disappointing and it was deeply life-affirming at the same time. I bring this up because it was an interesting introspective experience with my background and my upbringing and seeing all these things. I wanted to bring up this question in you. What makes you feel alive? What lights you up? What brings you to your center? That should be your space of practice, not your space of worship. The worship should be life itself, in my humble opinion. It's feeling alive and it's feeling love. It's experiencing life more fully and the practice helps get us there. The breathing may help get us to the point of activation and aliveness.
The beads and the mantra may help activate within us the aliveness, the worship service or the practice or the community or the texts. If they bring out the aliveness in us,that's the beauty of that practice. Whatever that is for you, take a look at it and ask yourself, is it bringing you aliveness or is it numbing that life that wants to scream forth from within you and be expressed? I hope this is valuable and dig in. Had I heard myself ask myself this question years ago, I would have told myself to run like hell from me. If this is a confronting question, I get that and I respect that. I encourage you to ask it because on the other side of this question is aliveness and that's worth living for. I look forward to talking to you on the next episode. In the meantime, treat yourself a fantastic day.