Could you live like a monk for a month? In this university class, it’s the final project | CBC Radio

Could you live like a monk for a month? In this university class, it’s the final project | CBC Radio


Professor Justin McDaniel’s course, Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life — affectionately known as “Monk class” — pushes students to live an ascetic life and culminates in 30 days with no speaking, no technology and no touching.

‘Most people are really craving a break,’ says course professor

Jason Vermes · CBC Radio


Two hands on an open notebook with blank pages. The right hand holds a blue pencil as if ready to write.

During Professor Justin McDaniel’s course, Living Deliberately, students must commit to 30 days of restrictions — no talking, no technology and no touching. During the course, the students are expected to journal every 30 minutes. (RVStock/Shutterstock)

Tapestry53:52Monk for a month

Justin McDaniel has taught computer science students who code by pencil, and theatre students who only mime on stage.

Those students took a vow of silence and agreed to disconnect from technology in his University of Pennsylvania class.

McDaniel’s course, Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life — affectionately known as “Monk class” — pushes students to live an ascetic life and culminates in 30 days of total restrictions.

That means no speaking, no technology, no meat or alcohol (unless they kill or make it themselves) and no touching others. Students aren’t even allowed to make eye contact with others. They are allowed to send handwritten letters.

Unlike wellness approaches that emphasize social connection and group activities that are often promoted by universities, McDaniel encourages students to pull back and do less. 

A smiling man poses holding a cup of ice cream in his hand.

Justin McDaniel is a religious studies professor at University of Pennsylvania. Living Deliberately started as a way of helping students understand why people practice spiritual rituals. (Submitted by Justin McDaniel)

“Most people are really craving a break,” McDaniel, a religious studies professor, told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

“They’re craving a break from their cell phones, a break from computers, a break from the need to respond constantly, 24 hours a day. The need to even show up for social events.”

The practices the course requires can make us more present in our everyday life, he says.

Kamber Moss took the course in 2016. He says that it made him not only more aware of the world around him, but of himself.

“You’re removing all of your distractions,” he said. “This is the first time in probably our entire lives where we’re sitting with our own thoughts constantly and uninterrupted.”

Gradual restrictions

The course attracts students from business to engineering and philosophy to fine arts, but only a handful of students are selected, McDaniel said. He typically gets 300 applicants, and between 14 and 20 are accepted after an interview process that asks questions like, “What colour is the carpet in the hallway?”

“There’s no carpet in the hallway,” McDaniel said, noting that it’s about assessing how present a student is in their life.

“Some [students] are very serious, some are very anxious, some are very down, some are very eager to please, some are very rebellious. I want a mixture of personalities and I want a mixture of life experience.”

The course starts off slow.

Students begin with a requirement of journaling every 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they’re doing, they must journal — even a sentence will do. They’re also cut off from social media for the duration of the course.

Eventually, students must follow a strict Jain diet — avoiding any foods that have the potential for life — and are limited to speaking 100 words per day. By the time they reach their 30 days of total abstinence, they have become more comfortable with the mind shift the course requires, another former student told Tapestry.

There’s something to be said for walking a mile in those shoes.– Kamber Moss, student

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, however.

“I felt like a ghost among the living for the first two weeks,” said Carolina Hernandez, a special education teacher in New York City who also took the course in 2016. 

The turning point for Hernandez came during a winter walk — the sun was shining and the wind was blowing, and she could feel it on her skin, she recalled.

“I just start[ed] laughing because I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is life. This is what it means to live,'” she said.

“After that first two weeks, I got so comfortable. I didn’t have to explain myself to people. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to define myself constantly. I just was what I was.”

Smiling woman in a multicolour dress poses smiling.

Carolina Hernandez was drawn to the program as a religious studies major and wanted to experience what draws people into certain spiritual practices. (Submitted by Carolina Hernandez)

Hernandez, who was a religious studies major at the time, said she was determined to take the course during her time at the University of Pennsylvania in order to put into practice what she was learning from textbooks.

“I wanted to really deeply understand why people … go to these lengths for the sake of a belief,” she said.

‘I’m amazed how little it’s a struggle’

In a constantly connected and materialistic world, the desire for a course like Living Deliberately signals a yearning for spirituality, says Jennifer Bright.

“I think that we have become disconnected and our yearning is to be present,” said Bright, an assistant professor of Buddhist spiritual care and counselling at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College.

“We’re always thinking about the past, we’re worried about the future, and so we’ve got a lot of busy-ness with crap we don’t need.”

WATCH | This man went offline for a year. He wouldn’t recommend it:

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Featured VideoAron Rosenberg was inspired by his time as a Vancouver substitute teacher to disconnect for a full year to see how a disconnected life would look. He spoke to CBC’s Stephen Quinn about the experience.

She cautions, however, that a 30-day crash course may not be for everyone — particularly those struggling with their mental health. Instead, a shorter period like three days, or even simply incorporating practices into every day life, might work better.

“Why not start small?” she said. “Maybe when you come home, maybe don’t turn on the TV and maybe go for a walk instead, or maybe journal or maybe listen to some music.”

McDaniel says he’s often surprised at how well students respond to the program. 

Still, students are often emotional throughout the experience — and McDaniel makes himself available to speak with students even during their period of silence — but he says he’s never had anyone drop out once the restrictions begin.

“It’s a struggle for many of them, but I’m amazed how little it’s a struggle,” he said.

“And then I’m also amazed how few students are aching to speak to people at the end. They really don’t want to.”

Selfie with four young adults smiling while inside a building with high ceilings and ornate columns.

Kamber Moss, right, pictured with classmates in Thailand. Students in McDaniel’s course travel to the country at the end of the course. Moss took the course in 2016. (Submitted by Kamber Moss)

When Moss’s phone was returned to him at the end of the 30 days of restrictions, he says he barely knew how to use it. 

“It felt like a foreign object in my hand,” he said.

Now, eight years on, Moss says it’s a challenge to always live in the present and practise what he learned about living deliberately — but nonetheless the lessons stay with him.

“There’s something to be said for walking a mile in those shoes,” he said. 

“Once you’ve had this experience of living a vow of silence without distraction and seeing how your mind and body react … the lens of your life kind of shifts.”

Produced by Sameer Chhabra and McKenna Hadley-Burke


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