Living with the Monks

What Turning Off My Phone Taught Me about Happiness, Gratitude, and Focus


By Jesse Itzler

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Equal parts memoir and road map to living a less stressful and more vibrant life, bestselling author Jesse Itzler offers an illuminating, entertaining, and unexpected trip for anyone looking to feel calmer and more controlled in our crazy, hectic world.

Entrepreneur, endurance athlete, and father of four Jesse Itzler only knows one speed: Full Blast. But when he felt like the world around him was getting too hectic, he didn’t take a vacation or get a massage. Instead, Jesse moved into a monastery for a self-imposed time-out. In Living with the Monks, the follow-up to his New York Times bestselling Living with a SEAL, Jesse takes us on a spiritual journey like no other.
Having only been exposed to monasteries on TV, Jesse arrives at the New Skete religious community in the isolated mountains of upstate New York with a shaved head and a suitcase filled with bananas. To his surprise, New Skete monks have most of their hair. They’re Russian Orthodox, not Buddhist, and they’re also world-renowned German shepherd breeders and authors of dog-training books that have sold in the millions.

As Jesse struggles to fit in amongst the odd but lovable monks, self-doubt begins to beat like a tribal drum. Questioning his motivation to embark on this adventure and missing his family (and phone), Jesse struggles to balance his desire for inner peace with his need to check Twitter. But in the end, Jesse discovers the undeniable power of the monks and their wisdom, and the very real benefits of taking a well-deserved break as a means of self-preservation in our fast-paced world.


Author’s Note

I lived at a monastery and kept a detailed diary of my time there. The experience greatly impacted many areas of my life in a positive way. Some people who read my first book, Living with a SEAL, emailed me to say they wanted to do my next adventure with me. I would have loved to, but this was a personal journey. I had to do it alone. Plus, I don’t expect anyone to leave their families, their daily lives, and go live with monks. And now you don’t have to… I did it for you.

Removing yourself from the overstimulated world we live in can be difficult. So you must consider the withdrawal symptoms that may occur. Like any activity involving deep thought and introspection, some of the events in Living with the Monks may cause side effects like calmness, being present, and feeling super alive. And those side effects can become addictive, so all readers should take full responsibility when living a more vibrant life.

Some of the events in this book have been recalled from memory and in some cases may have been compressed to convey the substance of what occurred or was said. Some of the dialogue might not be verbatim, and I tried to keep the time sequence of my events in order. That said, it’s possible things occurred either earlier or later in reality than they do in the story.

Roger that.



Before and after.


In the Beginning


Ding—a text alert goes off.

I open my eyes. And with a glance, I check to make sure my wife, Sara, is still sleeping. Check.

It’s still dark out, and the only illumination in our bedroom is my glowing phone.

Carefully I roll over to my right side and reach toward the nightstand to find it.

I need two tickets to the Hawks game tonight—the text says.

I got you—I text back.

As I sink back into bed I pull the covers over my head to eliminate the brightness of my phone. I don’t want to wake Sara. I quickly refresh my email to see what’s come in my inbox during the five hours I was sleeping—too many. I swipe it away. I check the time. It’s 4:53 a.m. I have to get up because I have a workout appointment in seven minutes. SEAL, the man who kicked my ass and lived with my family for thirty-one days, is at my house. And the rule is: If SEAL is at my home, we’re working out.

Two minutes later I check my email again—nothing new.

I swing my legs off the bed and quietly place both of my feet on the rug. My wife’s still sleeping. I slip my phone into the pocket of my shorts and throw on the T-shirt that’s balled up on the floor. I tiptoe out of our bedroom into the long hallway. All four of my children are fast asleep as I pass each of their bedrooms. When I reach the top of the stairs I hear another ding.

I manage to respond to the text as I walk down the steps and simultaneously fire off two emails before getting to the bottom of the stairs. I enter the living room and have one eye on my phone and the other on something SEAL is doing. He’s fussing with the remote trying to turn the television off. He can’t figure out which button to press. He’s mad at the remote and looking at it like it’s a Rubik’s Cube.

I fire off one more email as he spots me.

It’s 4:58 a.m. so I’m early.

“What the fuck is that?” SEAL asks, staring at my hand.

“This? Oh, it’s a phone.”

SEAL takes one more glance at the remote and now decides he’s no longer pissed at the controller; he’s now pissed at me. I can tell he’s getting annoyed—VERY annoyed. He’s staring at me stone faced. He’s not moving—like at all. For a second I think he’s playing some wacked out version of “freeze tag” in his head. He’s as still as a statue.

After about thirty seconds of just staring at me he snaps out of it.

It’s like he was never still.

“Oh, it’s a phone,” he mimics like a three-year-old teasing his big brother. “Oh, it’s a phone.”

He inches closer to me—in my face. I’m not sure why he’s so livid.

What did I do? It is in fact a phone. Right?

“You don’t think I know what a phone is, Jesse? I USE PHONES MOTHERFUCKER. I just used one yesterday. I know a phone when I see one. Oh, it’s a phone,” he says a third time as he bends down to lace up his running sneakers.

“I’m very sorry,” I say, trying to make peace. “I just thought—”


I try to craft an apology in my head. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I truly owe him one.

“Sorry,” I say again. “I just thought you asked me what’s in my han—”

“Jesse, are you committed?”

I’m confused. I’m not sure where he’s going with this.



“I’m sorry,” comes out of my mouth a third time.

“You and that damn phone,” he says. “You need to clear your mind, Jesse. To be committed.”

He’s so angry that one could mistake his “committed” to mean sending me off to a mental institution. But I’m pretty sure he’s talking about making a commitment—to myself. And maybe he’s right. I do need to unplug. But unplugging is only half of a fix—I need to plug into something else—something bigger than myself; a 180, to get uncomfortable again, a self-imposed time-out and find a growth opportunity. SEAL helped me get physically fit and sharpen my mental toughness. But now I need something that’ll help me quiet my mind and create a new kind of edge.

I look back, and SEAL is already holding the front door open for me.

“Let’s go for a run,” SEAL says.

I’m not sure what happened, but it’s like someone flipped a switch and he’s fine again—not mad. It’s like I never even had a phone. As I follow him out the door I fight an urge to check my phone one last time.

A Few Days Later…

I click on a link that a friend sent me—a picture of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist supermonk, pops up on my computer screen. The photo is, well, I don’t know, likeable. But it’s not so much how he looks, which is a pleasant face with protruding ears and a balding head, but the way he looks. It appears like he’s operating on a higher plane. This is what I’m searching for—I need to figure out how to spend a few weeks in his shadow.

I want to live on his monastery.

My wife always tells me I’m too impulsive, that I don’t think things through before taking action, and it gets me in over my head sometimes. Maybe, but I like to go with my gut. And my gut is telling me that he’s my guy. I start reading the article.

It turns out the holy monk (I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce his name: Tic-Not-Han? Maybe? We’ll call him “Thich” for short) lives on the Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center in the Dordogne region in the south of France. He’s a master of spirituality and mindfulness—he trains people to become fully present, which sounds fantastic EXCEPT you have to commit to the place for five years, freeze all of your bank accounts, and you’re not allowed to see your family during the first two years of “monkism.”

I may be able to get over the five-year commitment, but not seeing my family is a nonstarter.

Okay, so his isn’t the shadow I’ll be walking in anytime soon.

Although living with Thich might have been a tad aggressive, I’m not ready to give up my spiritual quest. My life is abundant, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed. On top of electronic and social media accessibility 24/7, there are my four kids and their schedules, to-do lists, businesses appointments, charity events, workouts, and running routines. And somehow amid all of that I have to find time for my loving relationship with my wife. I shouldn’t say “have to”—I want to.

But above all, I want to learn something new. I start imagining how much I could accomplish if I blocked out all of the noise in my head, prioritized my time, and learned to be truly present in the moment. I need a Plan B.

I pick up my phone and speed-dial my literary agent, Lisa Leshne.

“Hi, Jesse,” Lisa says after one ring.

I hear wind whipping against her phone. She’s probably walking her dog, Luna, somewhere in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, because just as she says hello to me, I hear her tell someone that Luna’s a rescue dog.

“I want to live on a monastery,” I say.

“Um, okay,” she responds. “But don’t you mean at a monastery?”

“Either way. I just want to go live with monks.”

“Any particular reason why?”

“I did the physical part. I want to explore the spiritual side. I want better focus. Stronger mind-set.”

“Aren’t there podcasts for that?”

“Perhaps, but I need to immerse myself—just like I did with SEAL.”

And that’s when the idea hits her. She tells me to hold and then patches me in with the editor for my book Living with a SEAL, Kate Hartson. When Kate answers, Lisa tells her I’m on the call.

“I hope you’re ready for this one. Jesse wants to go live with a monk,” Lisa says. “Or multiple monks. And I believe you know some monks who might fit the bill!”

There’s nothing but silence on the line.

Kate must think it’s a terrible idea, but my mind is already made up. I want to do this. I’m waiting to hear her reaction, but it doesn’t matter what she says. I don’t need her to sign a permission slip. I’m locked in.

“I actually know of a monastery where you can go,” Kate finally says.

“You do? Would they freeze my assets, and tell me I can’t see my family for two years?”

“Excuse me?”

“Are they in the south of France?”

“Well, no. The monastery is in upstate New York.”

“Upstate New York? That sounds perfect. Can I go for a couple of weeks?”

“I’m pretty sure they’d be happy to have you.”

“Okay, book it. Two weeks or so, for some personal development. Some me time.”

“Don’t you want to know more about them?” Kate asks.

“Are they monks?”

“Well, yes.”

“That’s all I really need to know.”

If my wife was with me, and she’s not, she’d shake her head and say something like: See what I mean about not thinking things through?

“Okay,” Kate says in a tone that sounds like she thinks I’m a little chemically imbalanced. “But they’re called the monks of New Skete, just in case you get lost.”

An hour later…

I pick up my phone and dial my wife.

“Sweetie, can we talk for a second?”

“Sure, my love,” she says. “What’s up?”


I’m hoping it was fast—fast enough so she only half hears me, except my wife doesn’t have “half hearing.” She has whole hearing. She heard me perfectly clear.

“A monastery? As in MONKS?”

“Yes. As in silence, meditation, and monks.”

I can tell from the long pause that Sara is processing the information. That’s what Sara does—she’s a processor. She thinks things through before making a decision. I, on the other hand, am a reactor. I hear the word “challenge” and immediately react with, “I’m in!”

And in this case, Sara taking her time is justified. Some guys need an excuse to go to a bachelor party in South Beach or a hall pass for a weekend in Vegas. But I’m trying to go to a monastery, which is a lot to process. So before she responds, I follow it up with a kicker to help my cause.

“And it’s going to make our marriage even stronger, sweetie.”

“Stronger?” Sara asks. Then she repeats the word again, with more curiosity: “STRONGER? Explain that one to me.”

“Well, I think it’ll help me appreciate our time together. Be more present. Stuff like that.”

“Jesse, this sounds like an excuse to go run a marathon somewhere with your friends.”

“No, I’m serious. I’m planning on going next month.”

“Then, love, have you lost your marbles? Because there are plenty of other solutions to make a marriage stronger, like maybe we should just go for more walks together.”

She has a point. But this isn’t really about making our marriage stronger.

I need a different angle—quick.

A few years ago I realized I was watching an awful lot of football. College games on Saturday and the NFL on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday were on my viewing schedule. It was excessive. And while I did love watching the games, I calculated that if I kept on that pace and lived to be eighty-two years old, I’d spend (waste) another 36,000 hours of my life watching football. Think about that—watching other people play a sport. It was a wake-up call. So I immediately unplugged the TV and went cold turkey. And right after I made the decision I told Sara that I had just freed up 36,000 hours of my life to use as I saw fit. That’s 1,500 days… four years. So then Sara asked me what I was going to do with all of that newfound free time.

“Some of those hours are for you,” I said with a flirtatious smile. “Some are for personal adventures.”

And right now feels like a good time to pull out the adventure card! It’s worth a shot.

“I’m using some of the 36,000 hours I freed up, sweetie.”

“Really, darling?”

Okay now, don’t let Sara’s blonde, bubbly charm fool you. She built Spanx, one of the most popular women’s undergarment companies in the world, and she did it entirely on her own with $5,000 of savings and no investors. So she can smell when there’s something fishy going on.

“So it’s going to make our marriage better, huh?”


“You know, sweetie? You’re so full of shit, but you’re darn cute. If you want to go live at a monastery, then you should go and enjoy yourself, Mr. Monk.”

Okay then—it’s set. One of my favorite business rules is: DON’T OVERSELL—when you get the order, shut up and leave.

So I respond with, “I love you, dear,” and immediately hang up.

The next couple of weeks are business as usual. Sara is supportive but leery of my plan or lack of planning. She wishes I’d do more research and preparing. But when I’m ready to do something, I don’t let anything slow me down. Ready, fire, aim.

Soon I’m counting days instead of weeks and then hours instead of days. It’s almost go time. The night before I’m set to leave for the monastery, I craft a social media blast. It’s partly a heads-up to tell people I’ll be off the grid for a while and also a request for suggestions for a book or two I should bring. Moments after I hit send, my phone starts to sound like a Las Vegas casino—dings, beeps, and buzzes. It doesn’t stop.

Along with commenting on favorite books—How to Be a No-Limit Person, Mindful Parenting, Man’s Search for Meaning—I get suggestions for blogs on meditation, spiritual guides to follow on Twitter, podcast recommendations, and must-watch documentaries about happiness, mindfulness, and soul-searching.

Everyone has a favorite. The comments keep coming in: ding—beep—buzz.

The responses are passionate and from people who have found a helpful nugget to make their daily lives a little bit better. They’re eager to share—of my 1,000 career Instagram posts it’s the most commented one of all time. As I look at my phone, I realize I’ve hit a nerve. The search for living a more meaningful life is a viral topic. And yet, it seems, at least the way my life unfolds on a daily basis, that we don’t have time for anything that isn’t announced with a ping.

And here’s the thing: Every day, information, news, and entertainment bombard us. It comes at us from all angles, like we’re under attack. We are living in complete information overload. Meanwhile, we’re losing, or have lost, our most significant asset—the ability to think for ourselves. At every turn, we’re told what to do, where to go, and what to like. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook make decisions for us. Alexa, Siri, and Google Home tell us how, when, and where for everything else.

But we weren’t wired this way; it’s more of a learned trait. All of those pings over time have trained us to read and respond immediately. As soon as an email hits our inbox we feel the need to respond right back. It’s gotten to a point that it controls our time. And yet, I’ve always been a guy who relies heavily on his gut. Or at least I used to be. When your combined score on the SATs is 900, you either have a good gut or you don’t go very far in life. And my instincts have served me well, but as my wife always tells me, the only way to be in tune with your gut is to be alone—thinking. I’ve found that if you lose your “gut feel” you lose one of your greatest secret weapons. In fact, in virtually all areas of life—instinct is critical. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the force is always with you. And for me, it’s always guided my decisions on friends, work, and life adventures.

As I scroll through the thousands of responses to my post, I start to get energized.

I know I’m on the right path. The path to the monastery!

I’m in Big Trouble

“He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.”


November 2017—New York City—Eight Months after the Monastery

How do you say I’m fucked in a Zen-like way?

Well, I better figure it out—quick.

I’m not ready for my meeting so I’m rooting for traffic as I zip up Sixth Avenue in the back of a cab. If there’s enough of it then I’ll be so late they’ll have to cancel the appointment. I’m not looking forward to what’s about to happen. But unfortunately every traffic light instantly turns green as we approach it—we keep moving.

It’s been eight months since I left the monastery, and today I’m supposed to deliver a manuscript to my publisher about my monk experience. And I’ve got nothing. I should say practically nothing. I do have my journal with me, notes I jotted down each night in the tiny room (monks call it a cell) I lived in for fifteen days, but that’s it. The taxi pulls over to the side of the street. I pay the cabbie and step onto the midtown Manhattan sidewalk.

A public relations mogul once told me that the key to crisis management is to get all of the bad stuff out in the open and on the table right away. So maybe that’s what I should do with my meeting. I should come clean with my editor right out of the gate: I’m screwed, Kate; I have nothing. Oh, and good morning.

I’m standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Fourth Street when the light changes; the sea of business people who surround me take off like it’s an Olympic sprint. I, on the other hand, am in no hurry to cross the crosswalk to get to Hachette Book Group, my publisher. Perhaps I should lead with a positive and sugarcoat the crisis rule: Good morning, Kate, you look great, did you get a haircut? Oh, and by the way, I’m screwed.

I push the glass revolving doors and enter into the wide-open lobby. There are two people in a heated argument over a food delivery in the building foyer, but no one seems to notice them. Instead, they just swipe their cards on the electronic turnstile and rush to an elevator without buttons. Everyone seems so busy.

I start to make my way over to the front desk.

“Jesse,” I hear behind me. “Jesse, over here.”

I turn to see Kate. She’s smiling and holding two steaming grande Starbucks lattes. I go over and give her a hello hug, careful to not spill the lattes of course. She was the editor on my first book, which exceeded her expectations. And it’s the sole reason she bought the monk book idea. But the window to lead with my bad news has already opened and shut. We walk over to the elevator bank. I’ll just tell her about the book situation when we sit down in the conference room.

The Hachette main desk is on the fourth floor. Kate’s office is on the fifth. We walk up a staircase to an open room that’s filled with editors quietly editing and assistant editors quietly assisting. The cubicles are full of smart-looking people. There’s something very Zen about it. Or maybe it’s just boring. I follow Kate as we snake our way to a windowless conference room.

When Kate slides the door shut it’s like we’re hermetically sealed. She turns to face me.

“I can’t wait to see what you have, Jesse,” she says, smiling.

I manufacture a smile and stare back. Kate’s still smiling. She’s excited to see the manuscript.

“It was a little more difficult than I thought,” I say in a voice that sounds like I’m nine.

Her smile begins to fade… it’s like a half-smile… and there it goes—it’s gone.

“The monks don’t really do much,” I say. “They’re monks, after all.”

“Well, surely you have something,” she says.

“Surely,” I say. “One hundred and fifty blank pages of me being silent.”

Now her smile is a distant memory. I wait for her to say something.

“What happened?”

There’s a certain freedom in being totally screwed. When you’re totally screwed, things can’t get any more screwed up. And in that moment, totally screwed, I find the confidence that only comes with being screwed. I push back on the rolling chair; get real comfortable.

“Let me start at the beginning,” I say. “Like all great spiritual journeys, this one starts on a mountaintop.”

The Visibility from Mount Washington

“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”


January 2017

I have to start somewhere, and well, this seems like the perfect spot. It was about two months before I arrived at New Skete. And I wasn’t thinking about monks or monasteries; no, I was focused on the challenge in front of me—the mountain.

My friend Kevin the cop had mentioned climbing Mount Washington the previous summer in passing, like someone asking if you wanted to grab lunch next week. Kevin’s a police officer in Suffolk County, and at first glance, you’d never guess he’s capable of Van Damme-ing an entire bar full of bad guys. He isn’t all that tall, but he’s beastly strong and fit. But when you get up real close and look deep into his eyes, you can see the extra “screw loose” gene. And yet, Kevin is also one of the most optimistic people I know. He’s positive all of the time; unless of course he’s kicking your ass, but even then, he’s positively kicking your ass.

When he casually threw out the invitation for a new adventure we were at my house in Connecticut. Every year I hold a race called “Hell on the Hill.” It’s a steep grassy incline that you attempt to run up and down a hundred times, but sometimes it includes paramedics. It’s hard. Someone who’s REALLY in shape can do it in two hours and forty minutes. Kevin knocked it out in one hour and forty-two minutes. He won the race and beat me by close to an hour. I was bent over trying to catch my breath when he threw the offer out. I asked him how high Mount Washington was between breaths, he said 4.5 miles in a way that made it sound like a walk through the mall.

Once I caught my breath I asked him if it was okay to bring some friends along. He said sure. So I invited my trainer, Marq Brown, who played linebacker at Auburn and for the New York Jets. He said yes because he’s always down for a challenge. And then I extended invitations to my buddies Adam Hyncik, a finance guy, and Nick Morris who started Health Warrior energy bars, and they both immediately said yes.

I’d never climbed a mountain before so I had no idea what we were getting into, and I knew nothing about Mount Washington. So when Marq asked me where it was, I said, “Vermont, I think.”

It turns out the mountain is in New Hampshire.

Seeing as it was Kevin’s idea, I should have known the climb wasn’t going to be easy. The first hint of how hard it might be came a few days before we were supposed to leave. I received a couple of emails from him. The first one included a packing list: ice axe, crampons (which are shoes with spikes in them), and multiple layers of Arctic clothing. An ice axe? I had none of the equipment, and we were climbing the mountain in two days. What the…?

The second email had one word in the subject line: SURVIVAL. The first thought that came to me was, you mean there’s a chance I won’t? I immediately hit print and put it in in my suitcase. I mean, any email with the subject line SURVIVAL is one that I want to keep.


  • "At a time when stress and burnout have become global epidemics, along comes Jesse Itzler to remind us how important it is to be present, intentional and connect with ourselves and with what really matters. With wisdom and humor, he takes us not just inside the monastery but inside ourselves, toward a life of more stillness, more presence, more patience and more gratitude."—Arianna Huffington
  • Praise for Living with a SEAL:

    It's hilarious!—LeBron James
  • "This is 100% Jesse. Do it differently and you get different results. That's the way he has operated his entire life and it has worked beautifully."—Mike "Coach K" Krzyzewski, Duke Basketball head coach
  • "Jesse is a risk taker and is always trying different things to get better. Plus, he's fun to go out with."—Tom Brady, New England Patriots, four-time NFL Champion, two-time NFL MVP
  • "Most of us go through life on auto-pilot. New day...same routine. This guy beamed a "live action hero" into his living room for 31 days to shake up his life. Sometimes you have to have the guts to do something radical to get results."—Dolvett Quince, The Biggest Loser
  • "Jesse knows what it takes to succeed in business and in life - a Don't Quit attitude! Our US Military embraces that attitude in training and survival, no one more so than the elite Navy SEALs. When my pal invites SEAL into his world, Jesse's life is never the same again! The relationship between these guys is outrageous - it's like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air meets Rambo! But with all the insanity there are strong life messages, hysterical moments, and great lessons to be learned. Like Jesse, this book is a HIT!"—Jake Steinfeld, chairman and founder of Body by Jake
  • "George Foreman once gave me great advice. When I told him my husband ran 100 miles non-stop he said, 'Sara, don't try to understand a man like that. Just love him."—Sara Blakely, Founder of SPANX, Jesse's wife
  • "Living With A Seal is funny and compelling with practical wisdom that leaves the reader feeling elevated and empowered. It also deeply impacted my own personal journey to health, fitness and well being."—Cory Booker, US Senator for New Jersey

On Sale
May 29, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Center Street

Jesse Itzler

About the Author

Jesse Itzler only eats fruit ’til noon, loves Run-D.M.C., and enjoys living life “out of the box.” In fact, he doesn’t even have a box. The author of the New York Times bestseller, Living with a SEAL, cofounded Marquis Jet, the world’s largest private jet card company which he and his partner sold to Berkshire Hathaway/NetJets.

Jesse then partnered with Zico coconut water, which he and his partner sold to The Coca-Cola Company. He’s a former rapper on MTV and wrote and performed the NBA’s Emmy Award-winning “I Love This Game” music campaign and the popular New York Knicks anthem “Go NY Go.” When he’s not running ultra-marathons, eating vegan food or being a dad to his four kids, Jesse can be found at the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks games, where he’s an owner of the team. He is married to Spanx founder Sara Blakely.

Learn more about this author