Meditation leads to sustainable happiness says Gelong Thubten

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Writer Kate O’Brien

Becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 21 was an unusual life choice for an actor living in New York City. Tibetan monk, and author of A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, Gelong Thubten grew up in an open-minded environment, respectful of all religions and experiences. He is son of respected Indian actress Indira Joshi (British soap EastEnders and The Kumars at No.42) and his English father was also formerly a monk.

“I’ve been a monk for more than half my life so whatever went on before then is a distant memory,” Thubten says. “I had a wild time but I wasn’t happy. I was anxious, stressed and miserable.” So severe was his anxiety that it culminated in dramatic burnout. “When I hit rock bottom in New York and thought I was going to die, the first thing I turned to was meditation. While I had not meditated, both my parents did and I knew the Buddhist path could provide clarity on how to sort your head out.”

This powerful wake-up call led him back to the UK, where he trained for a year at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland and become a monk. He says, “There was no question at the time of my staying any longer. A year felt quite manageable, not a radical life change really. I arrived desperate for anything that would give me stability, took my vows four days later––and of course––that year has become life.”

Over the past 25 years, Thubten studied under some of the most experienced Tibetan masters of our time, and spent six years in intensive, isolated meditation retreats — the longest of which was four years long. His work has brought him to the helm of multinationals including Google and LinkedIn, as well as universities, healthcare and movie sets. Along with neuroscientist Ash Ranpura, he collaborated with Ruby Wax on her latest bestselling book and tour, How to be Human: The Manual.

People always ask what daily life is like for a monk, which Thubten finds rather amusing. ”I have taken full vows, I live a celibate, disciplined life, free from intoxicants and I wear robes every day. I pray, meditate and get up early––and yes, I find it tough at times––but that commitment keeps me grounded. I overcome my doubts and fears, knowing that this is what I have chosen to do for myself, and for others. The monk’s life is all about serving the world in whatever way you can, and our medium for doing this is in teaching people how to meditate with compassion.”

Thubten’s mission, ‘Happiness is inside you waiting’ also forms the basis of his book. He says, “I want to help people see meditation as more than just a relaxation therapy, and more a means of accessing our true nature and deep internal happiness and freedom.”

There seems to be a trend in the wellness world of seeking wow-factor experiences that set unrealistic expectations. Thubten says, “Our culture is focused on what we are missing out on, that spiritual FOMO. But the more we crave the high, the more we experience the low. So when do we actually have true happiness?

When Thubten first started meditating, he was after a fast hit, which made him feel miserable initially. His teacher explained that craving creates disappointment. “It was only when I learnt to stop looking and just accepted that moment in a compassionate way that it changed,” he says. “The irony is that you start to feel better because you are not craving. Much like an addiction, when you go beyond the craving, there is a freedom and you start to relax into it.”

To Thubten, happiness today is externalised with everyone chasing things or situations we believe will make us happy. “Currently everything we do offers short bursts of happiness that are neither satisfying nor sustainable”, he says of the ‘spiritual shopping’ he wishes would be replaced with living life from within ourselves. “Meditation gives us what we are looking for in the first place. Within us is everything we need.”

But how do we access this peace and happiness while juggling our monkey minds? “Here’s the thing,” Thubten says, “Meditation is not about stilling the mind or removing thoughts. It’s about awareness. You can develop awareness of the thoughts while they are happening. But if you understand that it is about being present, and accept that the mind does become ensnared with thought, you learn to steer your focus back to your breathing, time and time again.”

Easier said than done, but it’s the sceptics Thubten’s book is written for. “I want to speak to people who struggle with this and give them hope by showing them that meditation is not a high, but a return to the simplicity of the present moment. It is not a competition, it’s just about being you. And while there are many techniques, it is about the attitude you bring to the practice.”

With meditation becoming mainstream, Thubten sees a move towards connection to the world, which lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. “We are part of this wider community and must have compassion, so we can find real happiness for ourselves and others,” he says.

The best way to look after our environment, Thubten believes, is by changing our attitude around greed and connection with others. “If we don’t learn inner contentment, where is greed going to go? We can’t just switch it off, we must transform it.”

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“I want to help people see meditation as more than just a relaxing therapy and more a means of accessing our true nature and deep internal happiness”