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6 unexpected and life-changing things I learned while living in a monastery.

One man explains what it's really like to live in a monastery.

6 unexpected and life-changing things I learned while living in a monastery.

In 2010, a medication-resistant form of epilepsy terrorized me.

Facing the prospect of a near-permanent state of illness, I longed for respite. I needed something — anything — to calm me down.

I had been reading the works of Christian and Buddhist monks for years, but I had never actually visited a monastery.


So I decided in a moment of panic: Why not take a retreat to a monastic community?

I knew there were some monasteries in the U.S. that invited guests to visit, so I contacted a monastery I had been following and arranged for a five-day retreat.

The view from the retreat center at the monastery. Photo by Tim Lawrence, used with permission.

During my first visit, I found myself surrounded by some of the most loving men I had ever encountered. To my delight, many of my epileptic symptoms subsided during my stay, too. I wasn’t cured by any means, but the lack of stress and centering nature of the monastery seemed to temporarily clothe me in a blanket of inner peace that I desperately needed.

And after the first retreat, I longed to have the chance to experience what this monastic life was truly like for more than a few days. After several more short retreats, I came across a program at a monastery in Boston that allowed just that.

With a handful of young people, I prepared to live alongside monks for nine months.

When I walked into the monastery on that first day, I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect. But by the time I left, I couldn't imagine my life without that time spent at the monastery.

The experience both frustrated me and blew me away: It forced me to confront my fears, examine my motivations, and take stock of how I really lived my life in a way that no other experience ever had.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. Living in silence is really powerful.

After the last service of the day, called the Greater Silence, complete silence was observed for 12 hours until the morning. Although the community members did speak during the day, both the monks and residents were encouraged to keep our speaking to a minimum in order to preserve an atmosphere of mindfulness and refuge for both the community and its guests.

Unexpectedly, this quiet is what I have missed most since leaving.

At the monastery, I was more present in the moment. When my dear friend Amelia lost a loved one, I found myself far more available to her. When my friend Daniel and I found ourselves with the opportunity to talk for extended periods of time during breaks at the monastery, we spoke to each other more slowly, and with far more honesty, than we normally would in the outside world.

What I learned is that silence forced me to change because I was actually living differently. I became more confident because I was less inclined to seek out the approval of others through empty words. I also chose my words carefully when I did speak, and I spoke with more authority.

2. I felt less lonely than I thought I would.

I initially worried that being cloistered at the monastery would cause me to be intensely lonely. However, although I was disconnected from the outside world for much of the time, I felt less lonely than I had in the "real world."

Why? I think it’s because the monastic community nourished me and loved me with abandon. The fact that I felt so grounded much of the time was a testament to the power of people actively connecting with one another, with intention.

3. Living minimally was freeing.

I had been living as a nomad with few possessions before I went to the monastery, but I had never embraced anything resembling a vow of poverty. And although I wasn’t obligated to partake in a formal vow of poverty, I still chose to live as simply as possible while I was there.

When you live with few possessions in a sparse, basic cell, your need for "things" dissipates rapidly. You become more adaptable, and you find that rather than trying to attain more, you learn to want what you already have. I found this to be liberating and beautiful.

4. Giving up some personal freedom for the sake of community wasn’t stifling.

In our rampantly individualistic culture, it’s easy to prize personal freedom above all else. Yet when you live in community, the needs of the community are placed above the desires of the individual. This was incredibly challenging and freeing for me because I was often asked to forego some of my own desires for the sake of the community.

I couldn’t dash off whenever I wanted, and I was expected to be present for all community activities, so I had to become willing to sacrifice some of my own selfishness in order to serve my peers. I was a part of something larger than myself, and that meant that I had to shed some of my self-absorption for the sake of others every single day.

5. My appreciation of time shifted.

The writer Sarah Manguso has said, "Time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments."

I never understood this until I saw it in the monastery. In monastic life there’s always a "next thing" — another activity to devote one’s focus to over and over again. Whether I was chanting or eating a meal, I was expected to be fully present there, and then to let it go once it was over. Because the days were so structured, I was forced to become one with the moments I was experiencing; the "next thing" always demanded my full attention.

Time is taken more seriously as a resource in a monastery, which is something I took with me after I left.

6. Most of the spiritual "myths" about monasteries aren’t true.

I quickly found that many of my assumptions about monastic life were wrong. Contrary to what some people might think, living with monks isn’t a series of mountaintop experiences where you’re free to deepen your spirituality unimpeded by the difficulties of daily life.

In fact, the grind of life can be even more present in a monastery because everyone is expected to contribute in a series of repetitive duties. Monastic life is rhythmical, and monks hold that rhythm sacred. All services, meals, and chores are held at specific times with only occasional deviation.

To my surprise, this rhythm served as a great catalyst for personal transformation, though. In monastic life, I was taught not to separate "spiritual" time from "normal" time but to explore the vagaries of my spiritual life precisely when I was doing mundane, trivial work. This turned out to not only be enriching but life-changing.

My moments of greatest peace and transcendence came when I was cleaning out a kitchen or raking leaves or sitting in a chapel, alone, reflecting on my infinitesimal place in the world.

I learned to feel adequate in what could easily be described as an inadequate setting.

The transition out of the monastery wasn’t easy.

I left early because of my epilepsy; the long 16-hour days took a toll on me. I remember going to New York shortly after leaving and feeling a strong sense of panic: I was panicked because everyone else seemed so panicked. Society seemed strained to me, and I had a difficult time adjusting to "civilian life" again.

It took a few months to find my footing and to retain my monastic identity in a world that seems to place so much value on what monasticism has little need for — namely: status, wealth, and success.

But shortly before I left, the wisest monk I know told me something that made me weep, something that I will take with me everywhere: He said that I was a walking miracle.

This stopped me in my tracks because his words showed that he had chosen to love me as unconditionally as an imperfect, fragile human is capable of. This is a rare thing.

Me with the superior at the monastery. Photo via Tim Lawrence, used with permission.

My experience in the monastery revealed more of our human ability to love and be loved than I've ever seen before.

I was forced to evaluate how I related to the world not just for a day, but continually. I didn’t rise above all of my weaknesses or transform my entire life, but that was OK. I am deeply indebted to my fellow brothers and residents for caring for me so thoroughly.

In the end, I found the courage to experience being alive differently. The change was subtle yet profound, and I will carry that with me forever.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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America's ethnic wealth gap is a multi-faceted problem that would take dramatic action, on multiple fronts, to overcome. One of the ways to help communities improve their economic well-being is through financial literacy.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

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Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.