måndag 21 mars 2011

Questions for an Urban Monk

Integral Monastery interviews Tomas Sander 

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Tomas Sander as an urban monk, having spent more than half a decade practicing and studying intensely in a small studio in Manhattan, New York. Or as he'd explain it: “really spending a lot my energy digging into spiritual stuff”. I finally got in contact with Tomas, and was able to ask him a couple of questions regarding this interesting, and relatively unusual, choice of lifestyle.

In the world Tomas Sander is an author, philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist.

Under what years were you an urban monk, if one could describe you as such? For how long?

I have been a Buddhist practioner since 2001. In the years 2007-2009 my practice and inquiry intensified. I used the term ‘urban monk’ sometimes for this later period, half-jokingly. My little studio in the middle of Manhattan felt like a contemporary monk cell to me, that’s how this term came to me.

Could you explain a little about what stimulated you to try out this kind of lifestyle? Would you describe it as a sense of vocation, or as something less lofty?

I had been working with my spiritual teacher, Greg Goode on understanding nonduality. I really wanted to know the truth about the nature of reality. That question drove me. I knew the answer was out there, somewhere, as respected practitioners including my own teachers seemed to know it. I wanted to know it too. Nothing less would do.

During this period as an urban monk, what would a typical day look like? Did you follow any kind of daily routine, as in traditional monasteries, or did you simply take the day as it came? In other words, what were your everyday activities like?

My main practice was reading philosophy, mostly Western philosophy, which can, if engaged in the right way, can also be a path towards realizing emptiness. I am not a trained philosopher, so it took some work for me to get into the flow. But the discovery of new insights was also immensely enjoyable and exciting. I was (and still am) working a full time job in the computer industry, but often work from home. 

My typical day then consisted in alternating between my job duties and pretty much spending most of my other available time reading and studying. On the weekends I was reading most of the day. Realizing on Saturday mornings that I have this free uninterrupted time for practice in front of me felt fantastic. I also met with my teacher once a week and we were exchanging e-mails daily.

If you were to look back at this lifestyle from a third-person, objective point of view, how would you say it differed from your life prior to this period? Any noticeable outward differences, or was it solely an inner, mental shift that took place?

The goal of understanding the nature of reality had become my highest and burning motivation. Thus I did less of other things such as hanging out with friends, going to museums, bars. Spiritual realization had top priority.

What were the best things about being an urban monk? And what would you say were the worst? 

The moments of new insights were wonderful. On the negative side, my life was a bit unbalanced. Spending so much time by myself made me feel lonely at times.

What advice would you like to give to people today who may be interested in the prospect of being an urban monk?

To follow one’s heart with respect to the spiritual practice one is drawn to and to give it a 100%. For me reading and analytical meditation were great, because I am the type of guy who loves that. But for others it will be other types of practice or meditation. Find what feels right. It is important to have a good teacher. Good means here that he should know have a deep understanding himself, have personal integrity and compassion, and importantly he needs to be able to teach.

Nevertheless balance in one’s lifestyle is important. I guess I wasn’t very good at that. It’s good to make sure one’s other needs are met, for example for relationships, fun, creating a fulfilling career and overall wellbeing. It’s an illusion to think that spiritual realization will make these things irrelevant.

Do you have one or two quotes — from books, poems, lyrics — that you really remember as having a profound or transformative impact on you during this period?

Here are a few quotes I enjoy:

"Language is the house of Being." 
- Martin Heidegger 

"All that philosophy can do is to destroy idols. And that means not creating a new one – for instance as in 'absence of an idol'." 
- Ludwig Wittgenstein 

"When neither something nor nothing 
Remains to be known, 
There is no alternative left 
But complete non-referential ease." 
- Shantideva 

Thank you very much for taking time to answer these questions! I really appreciate it.

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