Jay Shetty has a story he wants you to hear. He tells it on speaking tours, when people come on his podcast, or when he goes on chat shows like Ellen or Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk. Now he’s written a book – a combination of memoir and self-help advice called How To Think Like A Monk – which begins with the same tale.
Here it is: an 18-year-old Shetty is at Cass Business School in London. He’s obsessed with the rags-to-riches stories of CEOs and self-made entrepreneurs, and spends all his free time watching them give talks at the university. One day, his friend tells him there’s going to be a talk by a monk. Shetty is apathetic, but he agrees to go if his friend promises they can go to the pub afterwards. This monk, a man called Gauranga Das, is the exact opposite of what Shetty values at the time. He’s an old Indian man in robes who has shunned material wealth and status. But his speech is so captivating, his selflessness so life-changing, that Shetty talks to him afterwards, then follows him round the UK on his speaking tour, spends his next few summers in an ashram in Mumbai, and ends up training to become a monk himself, turning down graduate job offers.
It’s a classic origin story – the kind of eureka moment that tech startups like to tell about their founders. And though Shetty isn’t a tech CEO, he’s definitely building a brand. Since leaving the ashram, he’s become a kind of influencer-cum-life-coach who promotes wisdom and self-help advice to 3.5m YouTube subscribers, 6m Instagram followers and a Facebook audience of more than 27m. Facebook is where he started. More than a few of his followers are mega celebrities. He provides much of this advice for free. But he also offers coaching to LA clients, and an online course that costs $390 and comes with the vague promise that it might “increase daily happiness by 60%”.
“I want to help people find stillness, purpose, peace and clarity in their daily life, by adopting the mindset monks have developed over thousands of years,” Shetty tells me over Zoom from his sun-dappled LA bedroom. I can immediately see why people are willing to pay for an hour of his time. Shetty hasn’t lost his London accent since moving to the US in 2016, and there’s something irresistibly disarming about someone talking about meditation and higher purpose in the down-to-earth tones of a Sky Sports pundit. “I want to show people that thinking like a monk isn’t just about being still and calm, it’s actually a lot more about seeing patterns and connections; seeing things in mainstream culture that remind you of wisdom.”
Much of Shetty’s advice is well-trodden and benign. He talks about regular meditation. He suggests using visualisation to help control fear and realise goals. He thinks you should make an audit of your time, spending and media use in order to check you’re prioritising the right areas of your life.
But where Shetty differs is his unusual combination of monastic teachings and embrace of the free market. Shetty tells me he’s committed to the “beautiful theme of conscious capitalism”. He often speaks at business conferences, where he tells CEOs they should only make products they’d let their kids use. I’m not against the idea of a mogul monk. But I do question the idea that we can change our lives simply by changing our thinking or demonstrating compassion. That’s fine for the person whose small gripes are getting in the way of enjoying life. But is it useful advice for the young black man afraid when he sees the police, or someone having their disability benefit taken away, or the sexual assault victim paralysed by their trauma? Are those people supposed to “achieve transformational forgiveness” to feel better?
“That’s beautiful, I love where you’re taking this,” says Shetty. “I ultimately feel like these principles are the guiding principles that will give us the world we want. It’s just that sometimes compassion doesn’t always mean hugs and kisses and embraces. Compassion can sometimes mean having someone learn a lesson. The key to compassion is that it’s for the greater good. It’s being fuelled not by ego or by a trend. Compassion is not just a word to be thrown around, it should fuel the energy with which we do things. Mandela, Martin Luther King – these people were powered by compassion.”
Shetty was not always so even-tempered. He grew up in Wood Green, north London. His parents were non-practising Hindus and Shetty had a mildly rebellious childhood – experimenting with drugs, fighting and drinking too much. “I was lost at that time; I really didn’t know what I valued. The troublemaking wasn’t fun – it was full of fear and guilt.”
When Shetty was 10, his father began questioning his job in the city and experimenting with different kinds of spirituality. At the time, Shetty found his dad’s search for big answers something of an annoying mid-life crisis, but he now feels it planted seeds of interest in alternative lifestyles that flourished after his brush with the monk.
When he returned from the ashram, Shetty moved back in with his parents and lived a hybrid life that combined city jobs and motivational speaking with meditation. When Arianna Huffington spotted one of his motivational talks and gave him a spirituality show on HuffPo, things started to take off.
Shetty’s life since then, at least from the outside, seems like a contradiction. His career is built on sharing concepts of dharma and transformational forgiveness, but he does so by earning a living from YouTube ads and interviewing celebrities such as Khloé Kardashian and Rob Lowe on his podcast. In the book, he offers advice for people who feel they’re spending too much time on social media, and warns against our tendency to “contrive a dishonest version of ourselves in order to appear more knowledgeable”. Yet that’s surely what he’s doing, as a vlogger and celebrity guru. Wouldn’t the monks think he’d got it all wrong?
“The way I look at that is: I came to the understanding that I wasn’t a monk for life,” he says. “Living as a monk was like going to school and the seven years after were like the exam. I’m now living my highest purpose. I use social media, video and content to connect with people, but it was never about getting a million likes. It was, ‘How do I share this wisdom online?’ If you’re a monk or an Instagram influencer, ego is there within all of us, so monitoring your ego and thinking like a monk is what I’d have to do either way.”
But, I say, it can feel a bit rich to hear from someone who has the things many of us desire – money, fame, recognition for their work – that we’ll only be happy if we stop focusing on those things.
“I think that’s the mistake of anyone who doesn’t read the book properly,” he says pointedly, the Zen aura slipping for just a moment. “I’m not trying to get people to shift away from their material desires. If someone came to me and said they wanted to be the richest person in the world, I’d ask why they want it. If it was just to buy nice houses and cars, I’d tell them, go for it, you’ll be successful but you won’t be happy. I’m not limiting anyone’s material desires. What I’m saying is, you’re probably more likely to get there if your intention is more than just the money.”
Shetty makes it clear in the book that he is a former monk. These days he’s married and enjoys a consumerist lifestyle – though he doesn’t drink or eat meat. Does he miss the blowouts of his youth ? “I have plenty of things in my life that allow me to let go: the biggest plant-based burger I can have, for example. My life is thrilling enough that I don’t need to look for any extra thrill. I get such a buzz from telling stories.”
Most people experience Shetty through his social media channels, which are different to the rest of his output. On YouTube, much of his content involves dramatised reenactments of parables – some taken from Hindu teachings, others the kind of bumper-sticker inspirational quotes you might see a relative share on Facebook. His most recent video is titled “BEFORE You Take Your Life For Granted, WATCH THIS”. It’s a saccharine five-minute drama about a girl called Karen who argues with her father about what time she has to be home. She then goes to visit her (young, blonde, beautiful) friend in hospital who has cancer. The dying friend reminds her she doesn’t know how lucky she is. “This cancer is probably going to kill me Karen… you don’t know how to be grateful for what you have!”
These are moral tales told with Hallmark production values. But Shetty’s real-life personality, I tell him, seems completely out of step with the earnestness of his social media channels. I could happily imagine going to the pub with him, whereas the YouTube videos I find humourless and a bit manipulative.
“It’s hard for someone to communicate everything they are in four minutes,” he replies calmly. “Imagine if I had to make a decision about you in three minutes; you couldn’t possibly show me all of who you are. When you see one of my videos, yes, that’s a part of who I am. But that’s just one part. When you listen to the podcast, when you read the book, you kind of get a 360-degree view. Alicia Keys said on my podcast, when I asked her for one rule she would make for the world: ‘I’d want everyone to meet and spend time with someone before they formed an opinion about them.’ What if we just took a bit longer to form opinions about people, and really experience them? How amazing would the world be?”
It’s a polished answer, said with a smile, that flips things subtly back to my prejudices. What does it say about me that I judged him on his videos?
The self-improvement industry in the US is estimated to be worth $13.2bn by 2022. Those kinds of rewards and absolutely no regulation mean that not everyone in the space has the audience’s best interests at heart. Books like The Secret, adored by millions, encourage vulnerable people to “manifest” changes through positive thinking alone which, as the self-help blogger Mark Manson points out, can lead people to “take on risky business ventures or investments, ignore red-flag behaviours from a romantic partner, deny personal problems or health issues”.
How are viewers supposed to recognise what is good advice and what isn’t, in such a bustling marketplace?
“It’s hard in any industry where things get oversaturated,” Shetty says. “But how can a viewer decide what’s right for them? Test it! You may watch something that I put out and think, ‘Jay’s not really for me, he doesn’t speak in my kind of language.’ That’s the beauty of mindfulness being taught by different people from different walks of life. It’s like saying, ‘When I go down the pasta aisle there’s just so many companies trying to sell me pasta.’ Yeah, you’ve got to test them! Choice can be debilitating but that’s because we don’t test things enough.”
Before we part, I want to come back to the issue of the clash between political movements like Black Lives Matter and the wellness industry. I thought his answer was soft before, I say. Structural racism can’t just be “compassioned” away. Can these kinds of philosophies rise to these bigger challenges?
“I have to quote a beautiful statement from MLK. It’s literally the answer to this question. He said: ‘Those who love peace need to learn to organise themselves as much as those who love war.’ That’s the difference. Sometimes when we believe in love and compassion, it leads us to be unorganised because we just think that love and compassion will solve everything. We need sincerity and strategy that changes the world. If someone is sincere but not strategic there will be no change. If someone is strategic but not sincere the change won’t always be for the greater good. That’s the balance that we need. If we get both of those right, wow, the world will change.”
For the first time, I feel like he is offering some truly useful advice. I don’t think I’ll be subscribing to the YouTube channel any time soon, but just like Shetty all those years ago, I do feel a little less cynical after talking to a monk.
Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day, by Jay Shetty (Harper Thorsons, £16.99), is out now. Buy it for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com