Integrating timeless principles with modern research to transform mindsets and organizational cultures

The Second Monk

Two monks are walking to their destination when they come to an unbridged river crossing. They notice the  water is unusually high and see a distressed woman standing at the river’s edge. Like them, she is not able to continue to her destination without crossing the river.

Without hesitating, one monk offers to carry the woman across the river, on his back. The crossing is uneventful, and the two monks continue their journey. An uneasy silence grows between them.

Hours later, the second monk stops walking, turns abruptly to the first monk, and explodes in anger, “We took a vow to never touch a woman. How could you have broken your solemn vow to our order?”  

“I put her down hours ago,” the first monk responds gently. “You are still carrying her.”


Is our own behavior like the second monk’s; do we insist on carrying our grievances? Who suffers when we carry our grievances? If we pick up a piece of glass and then close our hand around it, who bleeds?

The monk story is impactful. A senior leader who had completed my two-day workshop came into the room to greet a new group of leadership workshop participants.

As he encouraged them to use what they were learning, he was walking his talk. At the end of day one of his workshop, he had applied the material, in real-time. He was called to an emergency where others were making angry accusations. He didn’t allow his angry thoughts to take root and create grievances. Instead, he caught himself, solved the problem and avoided a potentially disastrous confrontation with a colleague.

After sharing his experiences, this senior leader eagerly asked the group, “Have you heard the monk story yet?” They had not, as no two workshops are exactly the same. The room began buzzing; they wanted to hear the monk story.

“Why don’t you tell the story,” I said as I gave him the floor. The audience listened attentively to the story well told. When he finished, the senior leader turned to me, genuinely puzzled, and asked, “Why didn’t you tell  this group the monk story?”

“This group is more advanced than yours, so they didn’t need to hear the story,” I joked. The room roared with laughter.

In truth, we all need to be reminded of the second monk. For this senior leader, the story carried one of the most memorable lessons from the workshop: He saw he had a choice; he did not have to take his ego’s thoughts seriously.

Inside each of us live the voice of the first monk and the voice of the second monk. Our power of good decision-making depends upon which voice we choose to listen to.

At this moment, which voice is louder in you?   

Take a moment to recall the last time that you carried a grievance. Perhaps you had spent a day endlessly replaying in your mind an unpleasant encounter with a colleague. At the end of the day, were you were eager to recount your story to a friend, a family member, or whoever would listen?  

Perhaps you woke at 3 a.m., still carrying your grievance.  Did you feel like a victim? Or, did you feel like an heroic figure, fighting for what was right against those who would do you wrong?  Was the “pleasure” of  feeling like a victim worth all the pain that your choice to hold onto your grievance evoked?

The voice of the second monk often becomes so habitual that we are unaware of our choice to listen to its discordant sounds.

Grievances weigh heavy on us. Initially, the victimization we feel is generated through our interpretation of our experiences. Those feelings are perpetuated through our decision to endlessly replay our interpretations. Perhaps you have noticed how seriously you treat your thinking when you choose to carry your grievances and self-affirm that you are “right.”

Like the second monk, the choice to carry our grievances is ours alone. We hear the voice of the second monk and think it is our voice. It is not.

We interpret every situation either through loving eyes or fearful eyes. These two ways of seeing are mutually exclusive: “What fear would feed upon, love overlooks. What fear demands, love cannot even see….What love would look upon is meaningless to fear and quite invisible,” instructs A Course in Miracles.

Here is the good news: No matter how loud is the voice of the second monk, the voice of the first monk is never banished from our minds. A process of change begins as we become aware that we are listening to the voice of the second monk.

This process of change through awareness is enabled when we stop justifying our “second-monk” interpretations of our experiences. Further change is enabled when we don’t judge ourselves for listening to the voice of the second monk.     

In short, recognizing that we are listening to our second-monk voice, we are able to choose again.  By simply noticing our faulty choice, we automatically begin,once again, to identify with our first-monk voice. At anytime, we can stop carrying our grievances; the choice is ours.

If colleagues join us in behaving like the second monk, what type of workplace culture is generated? How much conflict and stress is generated by second-monk thinking? How many hours of ineffective meetings are generated because second-monks are in the room?  How does that impact the organization’s capability to innovate and meet new challenges?

Remember this: We will always experience in our workplace the effects of the choices we have made in our minds.


Would you like to reduce second-monk thinking in your organization? Barry Brownstein’s leadership workshops guide you and your organization to transform mindsets and organizational cultures. Contact Barry.

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