Ten years ago, when I was 25, I hadn’t been on a date — or even considered the possibility of romance — for over three years. During that time, I had served as a Hindu monk, meditating, studying ancient scripture, traveling and serving throughout India and Europe with my fellow monks.
Monks are famously celibate, but celibacy doesn’t just mean you’re not having sex. It means you’re not interacting with other people in a way that could be considered romantic. The Sanskrit word for monk, brahmacharyi, means “the right use of energy.”
It’s not that romance and sexual energy are wrong. But my practice teaches that we all have a limited amount of energy, which can be directed in multiple directions or one. When energy is scattered, it’s difficult to create momentum or impact.
As monks, we were trained to direct our energy toward understanding our psyches, how we see the world and interact with it. If you haven’t developed a deep understanding of your motivations and obstacles, it’s harder to move through life with patience and compassion.
We tried to avoid anything that would distract us from this mission of self-realization, be it video games, partying with friends, or dating. When I returned to London as a monk, one of my old friends said, “We used to be each other’s wing man. But you don’t drink anymore. You don’t hit on girls. Now what are we going to do?”
Becoming a monk profoundly shifted my focus. During college in London, I had devoted so much time to a long-distance girlfriend that I missed most of my classes. Celibacy allowed me to use that time and space to understand myself and develop the ability to still my mind.
I thought I would be a monk forever, but I decided it was no longer the path for me. When I left the ashram for good, I hadn’t watched TV, seen a movie, or listened to music in three years. I didn’t know who had won the World Cup or who the Prime Minister of England was. And, apparently, I had no idea how to impress a woman.
I had forgotten that I shouldn’t even be trying to impress a woman. Just months out of the ashram, I was already snapping back into societal norms of romance, trying to make the best first impression — and failing.
“Do you think they have anything vegan on the menu?” my date said.
We were at Locanda Locatelli, one of the best restaurants in London, but as a vegan, she sounded more worried than excited.
“They’re famous for their fresh pasta,” I said, trying to sound optimistic, but I had signed us up for a special tasting menu and didn’t know how much choice she would have.
“Fresh pasta usually has eggs,” she said, “but we’ll see.”
Radhi and I had been volunteering together to organize a charity event. She thought people should be excited to attend from the moment they left the tube station, so we arranged for a street performer to play his trash can drum by the exit next to a sign for our event. Radhi had been the heartbeat of our team, and I already knew I liked her. Once we had pulled off the event, I started planning this date, booking the restaurant a month in advance.
I had little money — I was tutoring college students — and had taken her to see “Wicked” before dinner. The night was going to cost me nearly a week’s income, and I wanted it to be perfect.
When we slid into a buttery leather booth, I winced; vegans aren’t known to appreciate leather booths. But the lights were low, the ambience beautiful, and I was still hoping to hear how impressed she was.
“The service is amazing, right?” I said. “And this pasta — ”
She smiled politely, but she wasn’t eating much.
After dinner, I drove her home and dropped her off outside her apartment. She thanked me and waved a friendly goodbye, but the evening had fallen flat. Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing.
I had joined the monks because I wanted to find my purpose and serve others. I didn’t leave because I rejected anything I had studied. On the contrary, I left because I wanted to bring what I had learned out into the world.
I was starting to do so now that I was back home in London, delivering small workshops about the intersection of eastern philosophy and modern life for anyone who showed up. But I hadn’t yet figured out how to bring what I had learned to my dating life.
Monks never try to impress anyone. As a monk, you strive to master your ego and your mind. We think love is its own puzzle, but when you explore the dark lanes of your own mind, as monks are trained to do, you develop patience, understanding and compassion toward yourself, which you can then bring to all your relationships. Going through the process of learning to love yourself, as monks are also trained to do, teaches you how to love someone else.
The fancy restaurant was a show-off move. My ego wanted to charm Radhi, wanted her to say, “Wow, thank you for bringing me here. How did you score this reservation?” Instead of what she actually said: “I’d be perfectly happy to go to a grocery store and buy some bread.”
My ego wanted to look good and win her admiration, but it had distracted me from what I truly wanted, which was to get to know Radhi and have her get to know me.
Before I became a monk, my dating habits hadn’t gotten me anywhere. Driven by my insecurity or need to feel valued, I did nice things for women so they would validate me. When I become a monk, I happily left that dynamic behind, but now, out of habit, I had reverted to it.
My monk teachers never tried to impress me and never wanted me to impress them. When I thought back on all I had learned from them, through hours of classes and study and stories, one simple gesture stood out as representative of so much of the philosophy: the bow. When we saw a senior monk, we bowed before them. My teacher always bowed to me in return.
Older than I was, wiser, and more worldly, compassionate and pure, he bowed out of respect and connection. I didn’t have to do anything or be anyone for him to bow before me. Our bows said that no matter who you are, no matter your position or background, you’re never better or worse than anyone else, and you’re not trying to be.
That was the underlying belief I wanted to bring to Radhi, a belief on which I hoped to build our relationship: We’re not here to impress each other. We’re here to connect. To recognize and accept each other. The bow was the greatest lesson I had learned about love.
Radhi would later tell me that her community was concerned about her dating a former monk. Her grandmother worried I would leave her and return to the ashram. Her friends assumed I was against watching TV or going to movies and imagined that all we could do together was sit and meditate.
Even Radhi herself worried that by spending time with me she might be taking me away from my spiritual practice. But monk training is mind training. Being a monk may have closed me off to certain things — I haven’t gone back to eating meat or drinking alcohol, for example — but it opened my mind to understanding and acceptance.
I respected that everyone was moving at their own pace, in their own time. My way wasn’t right or wrong; they weren’t too slow or too fast. I learned to see the essence of a monk in everyone I met. Everyone has a part of themselves that is compassionate, loving and beautiful.
I saw that essence in Radhi the moment we met. She didn’t need to go to an ashram to acquire it. She was more of a monk than I would ever be, and we didn’t need a fancy restaurant to connect. For our next date, I took her to an outdoor ropes course, where we helped each other swing from trees, climb walls and walk narrow balance beams. We were bowing to each other, in our way.
Radhi and I have been together ever since. I brought the lesson of the bow and all I learned from the monks to our relationship, and now I teach those lessons to others. The monks, who say nothing about romantic love, had taught me everything I needed to know about romantic love.