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In the spring of 2007, I found myself at a sudden turning point: packing my bags to leave the London apartment I shared with my boyfriend, and moving to a Buddhist sangha (community) house.
That was the first step in finding a greater sense of freedom and happiness—with several twists and turns along the way.
In 2004, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One day, I saw the movie “Love, Actually” and thought that London looked like a great, romantic city—the next morning, I got an email about social work opportunities in London. Within a week, they interviewed me, and I had the job.
My rental apartment came already furnished, and I’ve always been really pared down, so I was mostly just moving clothes. I also travel light—the most precious thing that I have is a paintbrush.
The cost of living is really high in London, and the exchange rate was roughly two dollars to the pound. But I worked for the National Health Service, the government-run public healthcare system, so my paycheck was in pounds and I didn’t need to worry about steep health insurance costs.
As soon as I got to London in 2005, I met my boyfriend. The stars aligned.
Living Not-So-Large in London
In 2006, I moved in with my boyfriend. As an investment banker, he was making much more than I was–about $200,000 to my roughly $50,000–so we split things in proportion to our income, each paying shared bills by a percentage.
Even with our combined salaries, we lived simply because London is such an expensive city. I’d been studying Buddhism for seven years at that point–which teaches non-attachment to material things–so my focus was on those teachings, rather than fancy dinners and other luxuries.
Working for the NHS also gave me perspective: I knew that I was lucky and well-off compared to many other people. And since my boyfriend was down-to-earth, we generally saw eye-to-eye on our lifestyle.
We didn’t agree on everything, however. My boyfriend was wonderful in many ways, but he wasn’t interested in Buddhism. And he didn’t like when I did too many retreats, using my vacation time to travel without him. He would have taken me anywhere in the world–we visited Prague, France and Italy together–but I felt that going on a retreat was more meaningful.
Eventually, he wanted to buy us a big house and take care of me financially, while I stayed home. I knew in my heart that we weren’t meant to be together, but it took a conversation with my Buddhist teacher at a weekend retreat to convince me that it wasn’t right.
When I came home, I broke up with him. It was the first of many big financial lessons that I’d learn: I needed my own source of income. My own sense of self-worth.
I needed a place to stay, so I called a friend who told me that a space was available at a Buddhist sangha house in London, which was owned by a senior teacher and shared by a couple of other students.
I was heartbroken over the split from my boyfriend at first, but I soon surprised myself—I felt much happier. I left a materially comfortable and secure life, but I felt freer and richer in a non-materialistic sense.
I had my own room, a couple other friends there and access to inspiring teachers from across Europe who stayed at the house. I practiced meditation every day and felt transformed.
By the spring of 2008, I was eager to devote myself entirely to my Buddhist practice. I applied for a work sabbatical (my NHS position would be waiting for me when I got back), and went to Dechen Chöling, a meditation center near Limoges, France. I worked as the head of personnel there for nine months until the winter off-season.
I Gave Up Money to Live at a Monastery
When I returned to my social-work job in London, a friend generously offered his apartment in Kensington for £700 a month. This was pricier than anywhere else I’d lived, but it was worth it. I loved being in a nice, central neighborhood on my own—and not depending on a partner.
Before long though, work was getting extremely stressful–a byproduct of helping clients who had personality disorders–and I knew that I needed a break. It seemed like now was the time to take the ultimate leap, and sign up for the year-long retreat that I had been contemplating.
As soon as I knew that I was leaving, I stopped spending frivolously. No cups of coffee. I rode my bike everywhere instead of taking the Tube. My friends started to get irritated with me because I wouldn’t spend any money. I even made my own bread because it was expensive in my neighborhood.
Most of my Buddhist friends thought that this retreat was amazing. My friends who weren’t Buddhist thought I was crazy.
In September of this year, I moved to Gampo Abbey, a Shambala retreat in rural Nova Scotia. You pay $225 to $300 a month for resident’s fees, and work and do chores several hours a day on a very disciplined schedule. In return, you get a bed, food and four to eight hours of meditation practice a day.
There was a honeymoon phase when I first arrived. At the abbey, you don’t think about money or struggling at your job. You’re free from those concerns, and they start to seem petty. All I want to do now is be happy–a different type of happy.
But it can be difficult to live at a monastery. It’s a house of mirrors that shows you the patterns you’re stuck in with yourself and others–you can’t get away with anything.
A New Outlook on Life—and Money
In Buddhism, we talk about searching for refuge in people you want to emulate, instead of material things. You try to connect with what’s most important: a stable mind.
When I leave the abbey, I hope that my new sense of peace will radiate outwards, both in my work and my emotions.
My teacher has talked about the role of money, which he describes as energy. It comes from a lot of effort and hard work, so you should be careful not to squander it. At the same, you don’t have to be so attached to it.
I’m 36 now. I have a small savings of about $4,000, and I’d like to move to New York next, since I have a lot of friends there, and I like living in a big city. I’ll be a social worker, save for retirement and hopefully live within my means. But I won’t get too stressed about the little things. People have all these projects, but I’ve learned that you can nurture things, yet they can still fall apart.
Ask yourself, “What’s the most meaningful thing I can do with my life?” That’s what you should do.
While I don’t have the same kind of financial security that I did five years ago, I’m happier, thanks to my studies, my friends (its own form of wealth!) and all of those things that money can’t buy.
I’ve tried it all, from living in a swank London neighborhood and traveling the world to giving it all up to live in a monastery. I feel richest of all now. Funny that.