“In its loftiest sense, syncretism is the acknowledgment that a single Tradition runs through and nurtures all religion, all learning, all philosophy. The wise man does not discriminate; he gathers all the shreds of light, from wherever they may come.” (Umberto Eco)
In a manner befitting a spiritual autobiography, I’ll begin with a confession: I feel a little funny writing about myself.
I wonder if the attempt to convey what I’ve discovered on the spiritual path isn’t at odds with itself, since autobiography and spirituality seem to have such vastly different goals. In narrating the thousands of factors seemingly independent of my control that converged to awaken my interest in spirituality, won’t this actually reinforce the sense of “I-ness” these experiences helped to diminish?
Whenever these doubts and reservations assail me, I see why so many saints and sages have remained silent about their inner lives.
But for me, it’s precisely this feeling that there wasn’t anything “I” did to bring this all about (except perhaps to say yes to the process as it unfolded) that evokes a mystifying wonder at the workings of life. It’s this feeling that drives me to give form to something whose essence is actually incommunicable.
The spiritual path is often described as a journey or quest, but for me, it wasn’t so much about “finding” as it was about the struggle to come to terms with my ignorance and vulnerability. The journey depicted in this book is an open and honest account of the costs of trying to lead a spiritual life rather than the benefits; it’s more about what I had to relinquish than what I acquired. To pursue this path, I had to give up so much, most importantly the thought that I was in control and that I could find security in trying to “figure things out.” The tenacious struggle resulting from not wanting to admit this produced much suffering, but it was ultimately purifying since it burned away the illusions that prevented my heart from opening to its full potential. The end result, which was not an end so much as a beginning, was simply opening to the transformative power of love.
I should perhaps also confess that I didn’t want for any of this to happen. At the age of 22, gallivanting on a year long trip around the world, I really didn’t want my life to take a sudden U-turn that would force me to question everything I thought was important and meaningful. I felt quite content in my ideas about who I thought I was, and why it was vital to see as many places as possible. I suppose some might say that the external journey that transformed into an internal one was a way for some deep part of me (what they call ‘soul’ perhaps?) to bring me home. But I can assure you that at the time, the last thing I wanted to bring back from my travels was a burning need to become enlightened.
I didn’t want for any of this to happen, and yet…it did. Childhood friends often ask, how? How could you, the architect of an atheist alliance that sought to “de-convert” your Christian peers in one of the most religious high schools in America, now devote your time to exploring the metaphors used to describe the ways in which the divine (God!) has revealed Himself? And claim that the difference between Allah and Yahweh is the difference between a maison and a house? How could one of the most outspoken critics of religion now thirst for Truth with the same urgency as someone with his head on fire would seek a bucket of water?
I didn’t want for any of this to happen. If I would have known that spiritual practice was a 24-hour a day, 365 day a year job, I might never have signed up; I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have opened the Pandora’s Box of self-inquiry. Yet as frequent and intense as these doubts may be, not a day goes by where I’m not on my knees thanking the Universe (or God, or the Beloved…choose your metaphor) for the path It created for me. I’m grateful that, despite all my resistance and infantile temper-tantrums, life found a way to transform me when simply I opened up to where she wanted to take me.
Everybody’s route to the spiritual path is unique. For me, the first unknowing steps took place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an unassuming American town most people know either for its numerous military installations or the dozen evangelical Christian organizations headquartered there. These influences greatly shaped my early life, mainly by propelling me as far away as possible from the values they embodied and promoted. Love of country, obedience to scriptural authority, along with the good ol’ American tradition of consuming vast amounts of material resources– it just wasn’t for me.
As a teenager, I fought against everything my town stood for. I sported Che Guevara and Lenin t-shirts with pride, and amassed a sizable collection of anti-religious bumper stickers (Militant Agnostic: I Don’t Know and You Don’t Either), pins (Jesus Saves! By using double coupons and shopping wisely), and books. While everyone else around me seemed to think we lived in the best of all possible worlds, I sensed something… missing. I would later understand this feeling of perpetual dissatisfaction was what the Buddha meant by suffering (dukkha), but at the time, I couldn’t articulate exactly what I was angry about, or what it was I wanted. For lack of a better alternative, I took pleasure in what that life afforded- skiing, golf, and cars powered by unlimited, cheap gas. Like a Luddite writing anti-technology treatises on a laptop, I still benefited (and in many ways enjoyed) the system I decried.
The first day I set foot in France at the age of 15, however, I thought I had found an alternative to myopic Middle America. In Paris, I was suddenly surrounded by everything my hometown lacked: history, culture, and true freedom of thought and action. But I knew that even if I wanted, I couldn’t just “sign up” to be French, as though nationality were some sort of gym class. So for nearly a decade after that initial trip, I allocated every disposable dollar to travel, in order to dabble in and fantasize about other ways of life that could never be fully mine. I made half a dozen trips to France and other parts of Europe, went to Mexico twice, and to the Middle East three times. Travel became my favorite drug. Much as I tried to distance myself from the American tendency to need something else other than what I had and who I was, it took me awhile to realize I had simply traded the addiction of acquiring new material things with the need to collect stamps in my passport.
As with all addictions, my tolerance grew over time; I needed more and more to be satisfied less. So after I finished university, I arranged to take an entire year off to visit places I thought would really challenge me. Europe just didn’t do it for me anymore, so I took off for India, where the story in this book begins. Despite nearly loosing my mind in an inebriated haze in Mumbai, I pushed on and eventually made it to Nepal. Amid the breathtaking scenery of the Himalayas, however, I began to doubt about whether traveling could indeed be the adequate surrogate of meaning I hoped. After slowly learning to honor these feelings, I followed a path that led me to a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat where, despite great hardship, I felt I’d finally found a raft to deliver me to a shore beyond human pain and drama, where I could transform everything I didn’t like about myself, and perhaps finally find the satisfaction that had eluded me in every external environment from Colorado onward.
But once again, the nature of being addicted to the need for something more remained, even as its contents shifted: enlightenment now replaced travel as my ultimate aim. It was a natural transition after university, I suppose, to now desire an “enlightenment diploma.” I sought anything that looked like meditation, anything that looked remotely “spiritual”, hoping to find the magic ticket that would end all my confusion and fill me with the pleasure that was sure to come from having actualized the deepest purpose of existence. For over three years, my obsession with reaching this goal of all goals led me not to liberation as I had hoped, but into my mind’s darkest reaches and nearly to the brink of destruction.
I didn’t see that my approach to spirituality was fundamentally ego-oriented, that it was just a glorified attempt to save my own skin. Unaware, I was committing the most subtle and pernicious sin of spiritual pride, “the disease of self-adulation which seeks glory in becoming a Buddha” as the Pranjaparamita Sutra puts it. I even began to write an earlier draft of this book in the hopes of convincing myself I wasn’t as far away from enlightenment as I felt. But by emphasizing the positive, brilliant aspects of my experience while ignoring, downplaying, or falsifying the suffering that permeated even the most ecstatic moments of insight, I only distanced myself further from the Truth I sought.
When the deep anxiety resulting from feeling I was failing the “test” of enlightenment began to surface, and I finally realized my writing contained more about who I wished to be instead of who I actually was, I turned to substance abuse and hid behind even bigger ideas to try and cover up the feeling that I was a “spiritual fraud.” Desperate, I entered a rural Quebec meditation center and sat for ten days. There, after an innocuous memory at a children’s arcade surfaced, years of accumulated fear that I was failing the “game of life” finally gave way to self-acceptance, vulnerability, and tears. Thinking afterward of the Thai monk Ajan Chah’s statement, “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate,” I realized my journey had just begun.
While the original intent of this book was to provide an academic exploration of the ‘sameness’ of all spiritual paths, I soon realized that a more personal tone was needed, since spiritual practice is about the quality of lived, personal experience. I hope that by conveying my experience in the first person you are able to relate to it in a more direct way. This book is part of my journey towards trusting others, trusting myself, and trusting life– a path that I walk along with millions of others likewise committed to making their short time on this precious planet truly meaningful.
I now invite you, dear reader, along for this adventure of the heart.
 The Buddha explains that one should not undertake the path with anything less than this type of urgency.