Grit, Glow & Grace: Christina Monson
It is with great honor that I share with you today's Grit, Glow + Grace interviewee: Christina Monson. She is absolutely a woman who shifted the course of my life.
I met her while studying abroad in Nepal in college. She was one of my professors. I remember arriving in Kathmandu with our group of American students and seeing this tall, young, blonde American goddess charging through the parking lot in full Nepali garb, speaking Nepalese with complete fluency.
She totally blew my mind and opened my perspective to how a woman can live in this world. She was unlike anyone I had ever met.
It was Chris who exposed me to Buddhism that became a new path for me in my late teens. It was Chris who helped us process 9-11 as a foreigner abroad, because the planes hit the towers when we were trekking up in the Himalayas, so far away from home and access to media. It was Chris who told me one of the most important gifts of her life was helping her boyfriend die of cancer, holding him in her arms when he'd lost incredible amounts of weight and being there for him in those moments.
She is an incredibly profound woman. I can't wait for you to hear her wisdom...
1. For people who don’t know you, who are you and what do you do? Can you speak a bit about your background?
My name is Christina Monson. I spend most of my time either in Nepal or in California, the Bay Area. I am a Tibetan Language translator and interpreter and a coach. I just finished a week long training in leadership and management skills for a group of thirty-six participants comprised mostly of Nepali and Tibetan monks and nuns. I love to hike, cook, write, and dance.
2. What led you to Nepal? What keeps you there?
What led me to Nepal was a desire to understand the traditions of Buddhism and other religions of Nepal and India from the perspective of lived experience. I wanted to move my understanding off pages of books and into the realm of a felt sense. So I was drawn here to understand my own mind, and the nature of reality.
That drew me here, and that has kept me here for almost three decades. I had the great fortune upon immediately arriving here in 1989 to encounter wisdom teachers who significantly impacted me and changed the course of my life. It was very immediate and very powerful and profound.
I went on a semester study abroad program to get here. When I was looking at programs in 1989 there was no Internet. I have a mixture of pride and embarrassment about this (says with laughter). I didn’t grow up with Internet in that way, so I didn’t know much about Nepal before I came. I had some vague ideas about it. I had seen a film called Benares, City of Light and I was determined to go to India and Varanasi.
Somehow, that was going to be part of what I did here. And I did! I did end up going there. But I didn’t know much about Buddhism in Nepal, I had never heard of Tibetan Buddhism. I had been studying Chan and Zen Buddhism as an undergraduate, so I was involved in Zazen sitting practice and enamored by it. I had no idea about Tibetan Buddhism.
Nepal seemed far for my family when I left to go abroad, though they were supportive. But I sent my parents back my return plane ticket within the first month of being in Nepal and said I’m not coming back. I really did that. I was SO moved from the moment I arrived here. I felt I had come home to a place I was always meant to be. It was very powerfully transformational. My first experience here was not characterized by feelings of bliss and great joy all the time. I was often overwhelmed with many different emotions. It was quite difficult at times.
3. What has living abroad taught you? Would you ever move back to the US?
I am in the process of finding more balance between my time between in Nepal and back in The States. Yesterday I was driving through Kathmandu in a neighborhood where I used to live and the changes in the city have been tremendous.
But on one corner right before you go into the tourist area in Thamel, there’s a beggar. He’s a leper. He’s one of the lepers that I’ve seen that’s in really bad condition, his nose is almost completely gone, his fingers and toes are almost completely gone, his lips are gone. He has been on that corner for 15 years.
And I don’t live in the city anymore, I moved out, so I rarely go by. But the other day I went by there and there he was. And I stopped as I always have done when I see him, and gave him a little bit of money and looked at and spoke with him. I smiled at him and he is always smiling.
So that is a gift that a country like Nepal makes possible for me, personally. There are many opportunities to see how greatly fortunate I am. Nepal inspires me to get beyond myself again and again and again. There is a kind of in your face reality of people who are living in situations in the world that are unthinkable for many. It teaches me about my limitations, my assumptions, and my projections. Journeying far outside of what was familiar to me growing up helped me grow and develop in important ways.
I am immensely grateful to this county and the people here; I feel deep roots. I have friends from many different communities. Nepal is diverse. I now live out of the city of Kathmandu because it is very polluted, but the truth is that I would like to die here. This is absolutely the place I’d like to die. In many ways it is my truest home.
4. How did you connect to your purpose?
So that’s assuming I have a purpose (laughter).
I’m very focused my purpose. I pause because when you first asked it, it had me thinking: have I always had the same purpose and how has that changed over time? And to some extent, that hasn’t changed.
My purpose from when I can remember being conscious about wanting to become directed in what I cared about in this world has always had a theme of contemplative practice. It had a theme of a spiritual life as I have defined and discovered that from myself in the study and context of my own practice within the Buddhist tradition. The central guiding theme of my purpose has been to develop my greatest potential as a human being. And this purpose has evolved for me as my own understanding of my path has evolved.
5. What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the work I have put into training to speak in Tibetan language and translate the teachings of Buddhism as they have been preserved in that tradition. I love the work that I do as a translator and interpreter. I find it immensely meaningful. I hold the relationship that I had with my root guru (Buddhist teacher), which unfolded over twenty-seven years, as one of the most important relationships I’ve ever had in my life.
6. Can you speak about the relationship with the teacher? Why is this so important for Buddhists? What’s the value in this relationship for you?
That is a very profound question. I had a sense that what I wanted to know about myself– how to work with my mind and with my emotions through the teachings and techniques that I had seen and encountered in this tradition – was only going to be possible with a guide.
I had read lots of books about spirituality. I believed that there is a transmission and connection to lineage that was needed in order to bring wisdom alive.
For example, one can intellectually read words that describe the qualities of the nature of mind, about the nature of reality, but when one encounters an individual that has genuine experience through the domain of his or her own practice, then a transmission can occur that transcends just a fabricated intellectual understanding.
So, intuitively I felt that’s why I wanted and needed a teacher. And then when I met a teacher who held that realization, then I knew. Yes. This is a relationship to be cultivated.
7. What do you do to keep yourself grounded? What are your regular practices of self-care?
I do different kinds of meditation. I would say sustaining awarness is an integral daily part of my life. That’s the core. Then if it’s a really good day, I will have exercised, definitely done something physical, a nice walk, some yoga or danced around the house. I would have also spent some time making something delicious and healthy for myself and others. Cooking, putting time and thought and care into food is a self-care practice of mine. And yeah, a warm bath. I am a bath person, so a nice bath is pretty regular in my self-care routine.
8. What is something difficult you’ve been through and how has it shaped you?
Breast cancer. That’s the most difficult challenge that I’ve faced in my life. It’s not over. I think anytime a person gets cancer there is something that changes permanently in terms of looking towards the future with a more tangilble reminder of impermanence.
I’m 5 years past my diagnosis and almost 5 years past the end of my formal intensive treatment. But I’m not even half way through what is a 10-15 year course of ongoing drug therapy that’s been recommended.
It’s real still. The harder part of cancer is the “survivorship” which is the stretching out of the unknown. Not able to answer the question of why did I get this disease then makes it hard to know what to do so it doesn’t come back.
This dimension wasn’t something I thought about right away. This only appeared over time. First, there were so many decisions to be made: what kind of surgery to have, what kinds of tests to have, etc. and what results would come back.
I decided to have a single mastectomy. Then I had very aggressive tumor, so I had chemotherapy. I was 43 when I had my first infusion. That permanently shut down my ovaries, so I went into chemically induced menopause that has been permanent.
So, I was still a young woman and overnight I had incredibly difficult physical and hormonal differences. I went through that process and had a hard time with the hormonal treatments, so then I realized finishing chemotherapy was by no means the end.
Suddenly a longer-term ordeal with my health stretched out before me. So I made a decision to have a second mastectomy because I realized there was no way I wanted to go through the required screening every year, especially living here in Nepal.
So that was a very difficult decision to loose both breasts and all that goes along with that. I’m so lucky because I have an amazing team of doctors, and my family has been incredibly supportive and loving to me throughout this entire process. I chose to do breast reconstruction. Now I feel generally pretty good in my body, which is a great, great privilege that I’m well aware of.
I connected with a group of spectacular women who also dealt this disease and we’ve formed a group to support each other. My mother also went through breast cancer one year after my diagnosis. An unexpected upside has been close bonding with many amazing people that I have met as part of the healing journey. Illness is humbling and it can be a great opportunity to open and grow.
Cancer really did put into perspective that there is no guarantee about longevity. All of my meditation on impermanence and death within the domain of my Buddhist practice tasted very differently when I really consider, okay maybe is this the disease I’m going to die from, and how do I want to die? What’s my state of mind going to be when I die? And what do I really want to bring into the world now?
This experience has significantly changed my life. I recently got some test results that indicated I have a very high risk of distant recurrence in the next five years. Before knowing this, I was ready to quit the drugs I’d been on because of the side effects. But when I heard this news I had to ask myself the question, how much do I want to live? And I DO want to live another five years. So I will continue taking the drug.
9. Who is someone who has deeply inspired you? Why?
I’m very inspired by my teacher and by his teacher. He introduced her to me. Her name is Sarah Kandro. She was a great Tibetan female mystic, an extraordinary and sublime woman. She’s the most prolific Tibetan writer that we know of. We have 7 volumes of her collected writings, which we are in the process of editing to have published later this year.
She lived a life of determination, hardship and great exaltation. She writes just as easily about relationship trouble as she does about the highest levels of realization. And she herself was highly realized and extremely free and exalted in her view. I have been immensely inspired by her story, tand by the fact that there have been so many women who have chosen to prioritize a spiritual life and have done so in all different kinds of circumstances.
10. What is the most difficult decision you've had to make to fulfill your destiny?
I would say it’s more been not one decision, but just staying on course for what I knew I wanted. So, to choose a path that’s somewhat unconventional. That’s been harder at different times.
It’s less hard for me now, but it was harder when I was in my 20s and 30s, when so many of my own friends and made decisions about career or families that I wasn’t making. And so there was a lot of sense of I’m different.
I stopped many a conversation at a cocktail parties:
“So, what do you do?”
“Oh, I live in Nepal.”
“Oh, I study Buddhism (with laughter).” I stopped saying that.
Finally I relaxed from the need to create identities for myself based on what I do, a career, or anything in fact. It took training and concerted effort to let go of being focused solely on an identity as defined by labels and doings, whether they are spiritual or worldly in nature.
My life has not followed a traditional path, if we can say such a thing even exists. Just the other day, I was talking with a service provider from Blue Shield. At some point it came up, “Well, where are you right now?”
I said, “Well, I’m in Nepal.”
“Where? I haven’t heard of that city?” Just this is far and foreign to some. Many people don’t even know where Nepal is. It’s not uncommon. Unless the service provider is next door in India, which happens frequently (laughter)!
11. What is a message you would love for women who admire you to hear?
I have thought about this question a lot. It’s hard to think of one message. I think one message is ASK people that you find inspiring or interesting to do exactly what you’re doing with me now. Share. Connect. Reach out. And don’t be afraid to love more.
And even if somebody feels maybe unreachable because you don’t know them, try. Find their email. Just send an email. Who knows what would come back. Because it’s the way that meaningful connection can happen. Tell people if you admire them and why. It’s a way of giving and receiving love. I believe the world is only better for this kind of exchange.
What an incredible spirit! Thank you, Christina!
Looking for a life-changing experience of your own?
Join Us on Retreat
March 16-23, 2019