When I was in high school, the deepest parts of my heart were inhabited by girls, and by indie rock – playing in my band, going to shows, collecting vinyl, making mix tapes for folks. I was also really excited about drawing, painting, charcoal etching, and wood cuts. I felt sure that, when I “grew up”, I would make money doing something “creative”.
Going to university in Santa Cruz, though, I got all into psychospiritual growth – Buddhist meditation, psychology and therapy, hatha yoga, twelve step programs, communication skills and processing, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass, holotropic breathwork, sweat lodges, encounter groups, men’s circles – and workshops, endless workshops. Exploring, deepening, and expanding the psyche felt more real and more compelling to me than making art or music. In this world, where there’s politics people, travel people, money-making people, creative people, hipster people, sports people – I found that I am a psychospirtual growth person. Over time, it became clear that, instead of an artist, my path was to be a therapist, personal growth book author, or something like that.
I remember one day, Summer of 1991, I was in a state forest in Riverside County for a day of guided rock climbing (which I used to do because it challenged me, and helped me “grow”). There was another guy in the group who had driven a car off a seventy foot cliff two weeks earlier, but his car had been caught by trees, and he had miraculously survived fully intact. His “near death experience” seemed to have smacked him awake, and left him in a profound and deep state; he had a far off yet on-fire look in his eyes, and his voice was calm and penetrating. As the day wound down, after he and I talked for a while sitting on a big boulder, he said to me something like, “You wanna be a therapist, huh? A kid like you is gonna go and give fifty-year olds advice about the deepest truths of life, career, love? My advice for you is, go and live life for a while first. Have some normal jobs, go see the world, date around, dive into the mess and swim around for a few years – *then* be a therapist.” Those seemed like wise words.
There were other people close to me whose opinions I trust who also strongly suggested to me that I do something practical with my life. So, I took my psychology degree, and started managing data for drug and alcohol treatment research. And, here it is, sixteen years later, and I’m still programming computers and managing data, now for a bank. I like programming and data managing. I am good at it. But I notice that, over the past twenty years, I keep doing spiritual / psychological / “transformational” stuff on the side, and that’s what keeps drawing my interest, time, and money.
I also notice that, increasingly over the years, I feel critical of the people who have started making their living as coaches, therapists, and personal growth course leaders who I think are not as good at it as I think I would be, or who haven’t spent the same amount of time building up their background of skills. It’s exactly like how critical I used to get years ago watching indie rock bands up on stage – I’m jealous – I want to be the one up there doing what they are doing.
And, as we all have, there are moments in life where, the opposite of being critical of amateurishness, I am instead moved by the off-the-chain amazingness of what the people around me create. Recent examples include my friends Vibrata and Micah LeBrun‘s paintings, and all the videos I’ve been watching of Alison Goldfrapp live, so sick funky sexy, her voice so piercingly beautiful. I think to myself, what is my art form, how can I deeper join in the human dance, how can I create something beautiful and profound that is uniquely my contribution. And, I think, the answer is, using what I’ve learned to help other people to grow and open, that’s my art form. I’m sometimes blown away seeing other people who have tuned themselves to be instruments of truth – reading the words of Ken Wilber or David Deida, listening to some of my Buddhist teachers, watching my friends Guy Sengstock or Mark Lewis work with people as coaches – I want to do exactly that too.
As most friends know, in 2002, my friend Jerry Candelaria pushed me until I created and started teaching an eight-week introduction to Buddhist meditation class. It took me time to grow into the idea of myself as “meditation teacher”, but, lo and behold, I found that I’m good at it, that people love the course I created, and that I could make (a little) money at it. So, now I’ve taught nineteen sections of it, and people have told me how taking the class has changed their lives for the better. People have told me that, after taking my eight-week class, they have started regular meditation practices, deepened their spiritual path, kicked addictions, one beginner even got so inspired that she ran off to a monastery in Nepal for a couple months. I’ve been on the radio and TV, and have lead meditations at Burning Man, at meetings, at a university “life skills” program, and all over, done private coaching and consultations, and now I’ve been leading meditations every other week for inmates at the county jail. As hard work as it can be, I enjoy teaching meditation so much, it feels deep and alive, and I feel great about the contribution I’m making to folks.
The question came up for me years ago: how can I do more of this in my life? How can I make a living teaching meditation (and doing other things like that), instead of working in a cubicle? The plan that I came up was: start by spending a couple years in Buddhist monasteries.
The main point of doing this (which some friends don’t seem to understand) is that there are things inside me that feel frenetic, tangled up, torn. I feel like these elements sometimes drive me, push me, feel compulsive, make me talk a lot, makes me say “pokey” things, confuse me. It feels important to untangle, sooth, open, and work out some of that before I transition into working with helping people open full time. I believe that I have deep honest strong skills as a meditation teacher and coach, and I feel like untangling some of what is tangled in me will be the missing piece that will multiply by my other skills to increase my effectiveness.
Intensive meditation is the best way I have found in my life to untangle myself, to knead out the knots in my soul. For me, it’s been better than therapy, workshops, yoga, talking with caring friends, or anything else. And, as much stuff as I have worked out on my past three month retreats, I can only guess how liberating it will be, how much deeper I will go, being on retreat for five or ten times that long.
Also, I feel like, as a meditation teacher, spending time in monasteries is like a credential – sort of like getting a master’s degree would be in a more traditional field. Plus, y’know, I just plain ol’ <heart>The Buddhism and The Meditating.
I came up with this “go to monasteries ” plan four years ago, and I wanted to go then, but I didn’t. Why not? Oh, right, that little part about being $40K in debt. I’ve worked steadily since then, earning more each year than I did the year before, and paid off the debt. Some days, I’ve so crazy wanted to up and go and get the hell out of Dodge. But, I kept dragging my ass to the cubicle each morning. And, this Summer, I’ll finally have enough saved to unchain myself from the cubicle (and probably some money left over so I can get settled when I get back).
More than dollars in the bank has been needed, however. There’s been a boldness needed – slamming the gear shift down and accelerating into the passing lane, or leaving the harbor and heading out for the uncharted open seas. It’s like how Jerry pushed me and pushed me over my resistance to be a meditation teacher. I can think of a couple other specific friends who have given me some tough love pushing in the past year to get on with it and make my move; their words have been difficult to hear, but, looking back, it’s been some of the most caring words I’ve gotten from a friend in recent memory.
These days, I feel that boldness : I can’t stand waiting another year, or even another six months, to let my real life happen. I can not stand keeping on living pretty much the exact same life that I did fifteen years ago, programming all week, casual dating and parties on the weekend, chatting with folks about the latest funny and kitchy pop culture memes going around. I’ll be forty years old in a year, I’m losing my hair, I can see li’l wrinkles forming around my eyes and on my hands. They say that most Nobel prizes in the natural sciences are awarded to scientists in their twenties, cuz that’s when people’s minds are the most sharp and able to do something creative and new. My older sister is only eighteen months older than I am, and, about eighteen months ago, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with major life-threatening cancer. The Greek Stoic Epictetus once wrote something like, “Do you know that old age, disease, and death must overcome us, no matter what we are doing? What do you wish to be doing when it overtakes you? If you have anything better to be doing when you are so overtaken, begin on that now.” So, for twenty years now, I’ve been collecting all these plans, visions, and dreams. Time to hit that shit.
So, as many friends know, starting this summer, I am going to ….. go live in various Buddhist monasteries for a while.
Lots of folks have been asking me where I am going to be going while I travel. A couple people have told me that they want to know so that it will make the whole thing more tangible. With other people asking, I appreciate what feels like general caring for me.
Anyway, it’s difficult to answer the question as to my schedule, because so much of it is up in the air. The one thing that I have as firm is September 08 through April 09, when I will live for six months at Tassajara Soto Zen Monastery in rural Monterrey county (with a two week furlough to the outside world for Christmas and New Year’s). I’ve done three ninety-day retreats at Tassajara before (January-April 99, 00, and 03), and, although I probably won’t know many people who are in residence there when I get there, I will be familiar with the general “vibe”.
The big open question for me is what to do after Tassjara. Most likely, I’m gonna jump into the unknown, and go to the birthplace of Buddhism, Asia, in April 2009, and stay there for a while. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know how valuable I’ll find being in monasteries there compared with here, how edible the food will be, how I’ll find the spiritual teachers, if the language barriers will be an issue. I also don’t know if, once there, I’ll just want to spend all my time in monasteries and ashrams, or if I’ll want to take some breaks between intensives to have fun, travel around, sightsee, meet people, and hang out. I do know that I definitely want to spend time in Japan, Thailand, and India, and am also considering checking out Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet, Burma, and Bali.
Either way … I am batshit terrified to leave.
Two of the most breakthrough experiences that I’ve had in my adult life were taking myself to Europe all summer after my sophomore year of university, and, eight years later, the first ninety-day retreat I did at Tassajara. Both times, a little bit before I left, I felt freaked out, and came up with reasons not to do it. These days, when I settle down and am not distracting myself, I am feeling some of the same fear. In the end, with both Europe and Tassajara, I pulled the trigger and made it happen, and that’s what I am going to do now.
I imagine that the texture of my journey will be meditating, chanting, doing manual labor, meditating, sewing lay ordination garments, meditating, and studying some heavy-duty olde tymey Buddhist scriptures (and did I mention meditating?). And, except for breaks between retreats, what I will *not* be doing is going to parties, watching movies or TV or using the web, eating meat, choosing what I eat, getting enough to eat, boozing it up, listening to music, making money, having more than a little time or space to myself, or sleeping more than six hours a night. I don’t really care about any of that, however, it all sounds like fun. There are, however, three things that are freaking my shit hardcore.
The first is physical pain. I am going to prioritize going to yoga classes before I leave, but, if the past is any indication, there’s only so much good that stretching can do. Sitting cross legged on a cushion for an average of six hours a day, and sometimes as many as sixteen, will probably mean pain in my knees, hips, ankles, and back.
Second, I feel like I’m giving up safety and security in leaving the world I’ve created for myself here in SF. I’m making more bank now than I ever have before; corporate database programming paychecks are niccccccceeeee, and they’re predictable. I’ve been a programmer for sixteen years now, and I trust that I can get good-paying, I-can-do-this jobs doing it. And also, after eleven years living in the same spot, my house and my system of living there is my comfortable nest, it’s my sense of HOME (letting go of that may be one of the best things I can do, long overdue, though, a number of guys from my men’s circle have suggested).
The biggest freak out factor, however, is loneliness.
Extended retreats in monasteries means spending most of the day in silence, which means not talking socially, and certainly not touching other people, unless you brush by them in passing or something. And, even during the few hours where the rules say it’s OK to talk, the other monks who I have encountered in monasteries mostly good for small talk about the weather, discussions about Buddhist theory, and occasionally a deep, sincere, and beautiful conversation about spiritual things. But I also believe that many monks have chosen to seclude themselves from the outside world because they don’t have the best social skills, and haven’t fit in so well other places. Although many of my monk friends have worked on deepening and opening themselves, their spiritual work has been so internal, and many of them haven’t done something interpersonal expanding (something like Arete, One Taste, a men’s/women’s circle, or group therapy, or, even something as nonstructured social skills-building as being a member of the Rhythm Society or False Profit). I find that many Buddhists haven’t fully translated internal meditative Buddhist concepts and practices like non-judgmental clear awareness, staying open on the deepest level whatever happens, and letting things be what they are, into interpersonal skills like empathy and giving and receiving authentic communication.
And there are folks in the monastery who might be fun to chat with if I met them in the outside world, but are not available for that while on the inside. There is a saying around the SF Zen Center, that mediation is “mental surgery without anesthetic” – you could say that it is opening up the deepest most suppressed parts of the psyche, so as to shine some healing awareness and love on ’em. The end result is wonderful, it leaves people happier and more integrated than ever before. While going through that process, though, while folks’ minds are all opened up and taken apart for cleaning, people are sometimes touchy and sensitive (when I’m in that state, I call it “feeling like I have no skin”). And I’ve seen fellow monks protect their sensitive state, and show that they are not available for conversation, by being snippy, or going semi-catatonic.
Also, there are practices in Buddhism around what is called “Right Speech“. This most obviously means “tell the truth”/”don’t lie”. But it can also mean, “no idle speculation”, “no talking just to fill the space”, and “no talking about anyone who is not present”. Those are great guidelines, and I’ve learned a lot during the times that I’ve done my best at them. But, y’know, eliminating those three categories alone knocks out a whole lotta everyday easy human interaction. Thankfully, nobody at Tassajara seems to follow them perfectly. 🙂
And part of the loneliness issue may be that it just takes time to fit in with any new group of folks. Going to any new monastery means, dropping in on a group of people, some of who have been hanging out together for a while. And … a lot of it may also just be me. Sixteen years was the last time I went more than two months without having a girlfriend or dating partner in my life, and, when I go away, I will be sitting with myself, just myself, without someone to distract me. Also, as one of my Zen teachers, the wonderful Leslie James, once said to me during an interview, “Hmmm … so you feel different from folks here at Tassajara, a distance between you and folks … is that a feeling you’ve ever had before? In your family growing up, maybe, or at school?” Yes, Leslie. My whole life, thank you.
With all of these factors, bottom line, while I’ve been at the monastery, I’ve usually loved the meditating, the discipline, and the simple healthy goodness of the life there. But I’ve also often missed how I relate to my city friends – I’ve missed the mere ability to just say what’s really going on for me, to get feedback I can trust, to hug massage and touch, to feel comfort and rapport, to flirt laugh be clever and talk shit, and to just plain ol’ chat in a way that feels real. One ten minute phone call back to the city every ten days ends up meaning a lot to me, and letters from the outside world mean a lot to me.
Of the three retreats I’ve done at Tassajara before, I did two of them alone, and one of them shacked up in a little cabin with a girlfriend. And for that one, the companionship meant that the highs were less high (I didn’t expand as profoundly into the raw nonverbal cosmic mystery), but the lows were less low (I had someone to talk to and cuddle with on the occasional days with a little free time). I fear the upcoming loneliness of not having a connection like that.
My teacher Gil told me that I could choose to see loneliness as not a problem. He told me that, if I get lonely, hey, I’ll be in a Buddhist monastery, and it will be an opportunity for me to meditate on loneliness and a longing to connect – to get familiar with it, to make space for it, and maybe even learn how to no longer get caught in it. It’s kinda like how, when living in the monastery, I can never eat enough, and I feel hungry much of the time. But, by fully feeling the sensations of hunger, by feeling the sensations with awareness and allowingness, I have learned how to stop suffering about them – I don’t *escape from* the pain, I *escape into* the heart of the pain, and through it to the other side.
I find my social relationships changing now, months before I leave. Part of me is pulling away and spending even more time than usual alone, like, how people taper off their eating when they are about to do a cleanse or a fast. I’m also being more selective about what people I’m spending time with, prioritizing folks who I think I will want in my life when I get back (which are mostly people who have been my friends for a long time already and/or people I feel are walking their life path with inspiring sincerity).
And then part of me also feels so hungry for connection, honesty, fun, sex, love, social intensity, distraction. It’s like trying to get it all in now before I go and sit by myself in silence, like someone trying to stuff their face as much as possible before starting a cleanse or a fast. I am hoping and trusting that some of my friends will feel a similar desire to connect, and will make an effort to spend some time together before I go.
(And a few friends seem to intend to not miss me at all – they’ve already offered me the hookup to stay at their place, when I am in town between destinations).
On the positive, I can feel something big coming to birth in me. It’s like the first few days when I am at Burning Man each year, as I ride my bike around, and I can feel my animal vitality emerging from my core and shining out, cracking open the shell of suppression and deadness that I usually hold around myself on a normal workday. I feel like my real life is finally starting, like it will finally be possible to live more in truth, depth, realness, aliveness, and doing what I really want to be doing. It’s a cessation of hiding something, stuffing myself down, and waiting.
It’s not an exuberant or “high” feeling, but a feeling of my shoulder finally against the block it’s supposed to be against. It’s like, here comes the real work, all these things I’ve wanted to do some day – time to pick some from the options, and actually do some of them. In Buddhism, they talk about the difference between two types of happiness : piti (rapture, ecstasy, excitement, giddy heart-beating intense pleasure – think of a caffeine rush) and sukha (a calm mellow strong clear alert feeling of peace openness and realness). This feeling of new life feels more sukha than piti.
Being calm makes sense, because I have work ahead of me. The goal is to finally make a living being a personal growth person when I get back, but I want to live somewhere with trees and with low crime. And I eventually want to support a family, buy a house, save a lot of money in my IRA, and the rest of it. All of it means : making money in more-than-hippy amounts.
One seed that just got planted was, this weekend, I had brunch with a friend of a friend who is starting a business doing “corporate meditation trainings” (“to positively impact our health, satisfaction and productivity”). He wants to start co-teaching with me before I leave, and create some projects together as soon as I get back.
I was talking to my mom about it a few hours later. She said to me, maybe you don’t want to be gone for a full two years, maybe some of these business ideas are exciting enough that you want to come back sooner. And I’ve had that thought – maybe I’ll go sit still on a cushion in front of a blank wall for six months, and the message will suddenly come to me, “OK, it’s time to go back now”. Or maybe it will emerge that I am meant to be stay there forever.
As my mom used to say to me when I was younger, there are times when living life is like walking into a fog bank. You can’t see much of where you are going. But you can see the next few feet of the path that you are on. And, after you walk, you can see the next few feet. So, if you just keep taking the next steps in front of you, and you trust in your path, you will eventually get to where you need to get to.
So, that’s mostly where my head’s at these days. Yeah, I’m on a countdown to giving up my sixteen-year career and my eleven-year lease, and doing something that seems remarkable. But that’s not really on my mind – mostly, these days, I’m just getting through my workday, thinking about what’s for lunch and emails to reply to. I have stuff to handle (and city living to do) before I go.