Finding the Middle Way: Going Forth

I can recall waking up for school one day at age seven or eight, going through my morning routine, and complaining to my mother: “I just don’t understand.  If the whole point of life is to go to college, get a job, and start a family, why do I have to wait so long? Can't I just get on with it already?"

Jefferson Elementary School

Jefferson Elementary School

I took up the task with gusto.  A “gifted child” (i.e., good at the things our society values), I was a classic over-achiever.  By the time I reached college I had a career as a professional actor, was trotting up and down Manhattan to auditions, holding down a 4.0 GPA at Columbia University, and smoking large amounts of pot to cope.  Unaware of my drug habit, Mom and Dad were proud, to say the least. And yet, when you “grok” the storyline at such an early age, it’s hard to keep playing the game society tells us will lead to happiness without beginning to discern that something is awry.

I remember sitting on a bench in Riverside Park with a friend, sobbing when the stress of it all finally caught up with me.  My girlfriend had left, and three of my closest, male friends at college had cut off all contact, saying I was so out of touch with myself that they’d never had a real conversation with me. Meanwhile, suppressed anger, pain, and loss from years of being the normal child in a family with mental illness were beginning to surface. In a moment of comforting wisdom, my friend said very simply, “It’s okay – it’s just change.”

With the ground shifting beneath me, I felt like I needed to get far away from everything I had ever known, clear my head and heart, and start over.  I heard about a Buddhist studies program in India, where participants were up by 5:00 a.m., meditated twice a day, and committed to no drugs, sex or alcohol.  My heart leapt inside, “Sign me up!”

 

Anagarika Munindra-ji, Godwin Samararatne, Bodh Gaya India

 

At age 19, amidst the fears and protests of my parents, I boarded a plane for India.  I can recall vividly my first night in the Buddha hall at the Burmese Vihara, listening to Godwin Samararatne speak on the Four Noble Truths.  He invited us to reflect, to study our lives’ experiences, and consider if they all fit the framework: everything passes, therefore nothing satisfies us in an ultimate, lasting way. 

I felt a sense of deep alignment and trust, as if everything in my life were finally making sense.  This was why I was here.  This was why everything had felt so “off,” so confusing my whole life.  These teachers were finally saying what I already knew inside and intuited to be true.  I stayed up late, sitting in the hall, trying to convince my mind to trust what the heart already knew - that I had come home, that I had been waiting my whole life for this.

After the program ended, I stayed in India for another three months, continued meditating twice a day, and sat my first ten-day Vipassana retreat. When I returned to the United States I had long hair, a wild beard, and a deep, introspective gaze.  Despite my noble aspirations, I was fairly unbalanced.  Having tried at first to become the all-American, straight 'A' child actor, I had given it all up and leapt to the other side as a spiritual seeker. As a close friend commented, “You went from being whomever anyone wanted you to be, to trying to find out who you really are.” Still, I was wandering around in a somewhat altered state, quite present to my own moment-to-moment experience, but without much sampajañña – a clear comprehension of the broader context and situation.

It took a few years before things began to come into balance. I went back to school, graduated, sat a few more retreats. Shocked by the news of Godwin’s death, I returned to India at 24 to see my other teacher, Anagarika Munindra. The time together was inspiring and inestimably instructive. He encouraged me to sit Goenka courses, which I did with my habitual striving tendency.  The body-sweeping technique brought up powerful emotions of rage, fear, and helplessness. Months later, tears streaming down my face, Munindra-ji smiled and said with his usual fervor, “When I see you suffering I am so happy for you! You have to enjoy your suffering!” My head spun. I was wracked with doubt, convinced I was failing miserably and doing the practice wrong, yet my teacher was congratulating me? It all felt like too much.

Saying goodbye to Munindra-ji was one of the most difficult things I’d done up to that point, knowing full-well it was probably the last time I would see him. “You will take all your suffering with you,” he warned gently. But he was unavailable to guide me during retreat, and I knew I was too unstable to continue deep practice. I returned to the U.S., unbalanced again, and this time quite depressed.  Having had such difficulty at the Goenka courses, I was convinced that I had failed miserably, could not do the practice, and so was doomed to 'continue suffering in an endless cycle of rebirth.'

After a couple months of therapy, I found a new home and concrete support for my practice on staff at the Insight Meditation Society.  I met new teachers, and sat my first three-month retreat. During those two years, the practice unfolded and I had my first real insights translating the path from concept to living reality. While on staff, I was also diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis.  Once again, life was catching up with me.  An early surgery on my lower abdomen, several rounds of antibiotics in India, and a personality trained to suppress negative emotions all had taken their toll on my body. 

Soon after leaving IMS, I hit a low point.  I had planned a three-month trip to sit at monasteries on the West coast, but my colitis just kept getting worse. I had lost a lot of weight and was passing blood a dozen times a day or more.  Then, I lost control of my bowels while standing in the aisle of a grocery store in L.A. Mortified, I hurried to the bathroom to try to clean myself. Later than night, I recall lying on the floor of a friend’s apartment, alone, doubled-over in pain, feeling like fire was pouring through an open hole in my pelvic floor.  Sitting retreat was clearly not an option. I had had high hopes for my practice, but my body had other plans for me. 

I made my way back to Berkeley to try to nurse myself back to health. A medical Qi Gong doctor told me to stop sitting, saying that my body needed to move. I felt as if the foundation of my being had been stripped away. If I couldn’t sit, who was I? I began to notice how identified I had become with being a meditator, and how I subtly considered myself better than others because I meditated.  I awoke in the morning and for the first time in years didn’t sit. I felt uneasy initially, like I hadn’t done something I was supposed to do. Then I noticed an unexpected and strange phenomenon: I felt free. I felt light and unburdened. I could just relax and look at the trees, take a walk, or have breakfast. Not sitting could be a great teacher!

In my efforts to heal I came across a book by modern health guru, Andrew Weil, that made a strong impression on me. He wrote something to the effect of, “Before we can meditate we need to learn to take care of this body -- how to get enough rest and exercise, how to eat right, how to breathe.” I realized how much I’d been neglecting my body, and that I had been avoiding the backlog of emotions that kept resurfacing every few years. I was firing all engines to transcendence but my body was pulling me back down to earth, letting me know as clearly as it could that there were other, more essential foundations to attend to.

Thus began a slow and steady journey towards more integrated health. I began to do Qi Gong and obtained medication for my colitis. I started seeing a Somatic therapist to heal some of the childhood emotional trauma, and eventually found an alternative doctor who knew how to treat my digestive condition. As with any chronic illness, when met with full awareness and a tender heart, the colitis became an immense teacher. It showed me directly and without question the nature of this body, and taught me care, sensitivity, and patience. Requiring drastic changes to my lifestyle and diet, I learned an immense amount about renunciation, contentment, and gratitude. 

My girlfriend and I were engaged, I had found meaningful work at a Buddhist nonprofit, was teaching Nonviolent Communication, and leading a weekly sitting group. Finally, I felt like I was tasting that mysterious phenomenon called balance!  Eventually, things began to change. The luster of my professional life soon wore off; my fiancée and I fought, and slowly grew locked into a stalemate around our own emotional wounds.

Soon after we ended our engagement, I began to consider ordaining. An old friend at I.M.S. humorously (but insightfully) asked, “Are you sure it isn’t ‘rebound monasticism?’” Two more years passed, two more heartbreaks, and a new series of professional engagements. My heart still yearned for something else. I was supporting myself with right livelihood, enjoying vibrant, spiritual community, playing in a band, and dating, but part of me felt like I was just going through the motions. When I stepped back, the feeling of never being quite satisfied remained.

What does it take to fully understand and penetrate the first Noble Truth? I looked around at the insane pace of my Bay Area life – the long workdays required to meet the high cost of living, and the seemingly endless complications of maintaining a life in modern America. I remembered that little boy at the breakfast table one morning before school, so eager to get on with life. Here I was, many years later, juggling all the right balls, and doing a fairly good job at it. And yet, I asked myself, is this what I really want?

It had been six or seven years since leaving the refuge of staff-life at the Insight Meditation Society, and it felt like time to go inward again.  I completed my professional commitments and made arrangements to take a year-long sabbatical. After returning to I.M.S. for the three-month retreat, I traveled to Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in England where my current teacher, Ajahn Sucitto, was abbot.   

Life in the monastery was simple and supportive. The structure of morning and evening pujas created a kind of “bookend” to each day, in which the shared aspirations of the community were manifest. There was no feeling anxious about what to do Saturday night; instead, we chanted and sat together.  Above all, being with Ajahn Sucitto moved me.  His manner was calm, unaffected, warm, and deliberate. 35 years in robes had served him well. One thing became clear – wisdom and peace don’t just arrive overnight; it takes steady, dedicated, patient work – day after day, year after year. Spending five months with Ajahn Sucitto, I felt incredibly inspired and wanted more.  

I decided to take another year to practice, this time in white as an Anagarika. I’d been following the eight precepts since leaving the monastery, so it made sense to make the commitment more formal and finally give the monastic life a try. Most of my friends and community were delighted to hear the news.

My father, though distraught and a bit confused, offered his blessing, explaining that he could see how much it meant to me, how I was living with integrity, and that he ultimately wanted me to be happy. “You always have my unconditional love, support, and respect,” he wrote in an email that brought tears to my eyes. My mother, however, is a fairly religious Jew, and just barely had been tolerating my involvement with Buddhism over the years. I knew she would be upset, but her reaction seemed as irrational and extreme to me as I imagine my choice must have seemed to her. It hurt to see her in so much pain.

Folding a white shirt that night, my mother still in tears downstairs, I asked myself, “Is this the middle way?” A few days after ordaining, I received an email from her saying that I should not contact her until I had “returned to the real world” and was no longer in robes. (We eventually reconciled some eight months later, our connection deepening and growing through the process.)

The Buddha taught that the Dhamma goes against the stream, against the current of society. I could feel that pressure now stronger than ever, from one of the most central figures in my life. Perhaps shaving my head, fasting after noon, being celibate, and wearing white robes is extreme.  Or, in a society addicted to instant gratification, plagued by depression, loneliness, and isolation, where our sense of self-worth and value is derived almost exclusively from what we do and how much we have, perhaps having a few folks out here living as renunciants and cultivating the heart is an appropriate balance. 

[You can read more about my time as an Anagarika, and my decision to return to lay life here.]

Anagarika ordination, Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery August 2011

Anagarika ordination, Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery August 2011

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