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I am sitting cross-legged before an odd altar – a hawks feather, animal bones, a meteorite, a power stick and a wooden Buddha. I’m dirty, sore, sunburned, and very hungry. I have been fasting for 3 days on the top of this lonely mountain. Sitting quietly at 12,500 feet in arguably the remotest part of Colorado. No trail took me to where I am now. It is just an hour before my solar return- the moment the sun returns to the same exact location in the sky as the moment of my birth. Not just any solar return. This is will complete my 40th trip around the sun. Before I cross that threshold, let’s discuss how this all began.

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Three months ago, I enjoyed a retreat with my dear dharma friends Peter and Eveline in there hermitage in northern Bali. Often, the three of us would find ourselves in shared conversation after meals or during breaks. At one point, Peter shared his experience of a vision quest in his 40’s, pointing to some of the incredible insights that he received during his time on the side of mountain in Cyprus. The seed was planted.

In ancient cultures throughout the world, Quests were used as doorways to enter spiritual realms. A Quest could take the form of a retreat into nature, a Vision Quest, or a pilgrimage. These extraordinary journeys often revealed sacred visions, personal direction and life purpose to those who pursued them. Western culture has no modern equivalent- so I decided to craft my own quest to seek the ream of mystery and spirit beyond the senses.

Originally I considered a 7-day and 7-night quest, but when an opportunity arose to join a men’s retreat in the days leading up to my birthday, I settled on 4 days and 3 nights, as an extension of the group retreat. I will write separately about the men’s retreat- but for now, know that I departed from that group of men virile, inspired, and open-hearted.

I drive away from the retreat center, send a final text to my sister informing her of my plans shortly before I lose signal. I park my car at 2 in the afternoon at the trailhead. I gather my belongings. It feels odd to fill a backpack for 4 days without a morsel of food. Everything ready, I sign in at the trailhead register. Only 12 entries over the past 2 years. I will be alone, no doubt about it.

I walk excitedly towards the place I had pinpointed in advance, researching between topographic and google maps. I expected about 5 miles of walking and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I walk for a while, my new boots feeling good on the ground. My mind racing from an encounter with a beautiful woman just hours earlier… I hear Chris, my retreat leader, in my head saying – the first tool in uncovering your purpose is to eliminate distractions! Slowly the physicality of the uphill hike with a heavy pack takes over and I return to my breath and the beauty of the surroundings: wildflowers, running streams, snow-laden peaks.

I decide to sit down – I watch a large moose across the meadow, unnoticed for a while. Eventually she catches my eye and jots into the distance. She pauses, looks up, as if to show me something. I follow her gaze upwards. I spy two beautiful rock outcroppings on top of a distant mountain. Something clicks. That is where I must go. Vision quests are all about paying attention to signs – not necessarily planning every detail but trusting your inner compass can be guided by the natural world.

I check my map. A 12,600 foot peak, no trail, and steep terrain leading to its summit. I make a plan, step off the trail and start walking. No coincidence that the men’s retreat was called Ascending the Sacred Mountain. I pass a pile of bones from a recent kill. Another sign. I stow the sacrum, pelvis and a leg bone in my pack. I keep walking ahead…Its getting late, exhaustion is setting in. I can no longer see the top, I’m somewhat lost and disoriented in a forest of deadfall. Should I just stay here? A voice in my head propels me upward. As sunset nears, the trees thin, a herd of elk greet my arrival above tree line. Alpenglow shines in all directions as my destination is reached.

I set my pack down. Its late, I’m exhausted and I decide to just lie down. Reaching for my water, I realize it is all gone. One small but important detail before I fully settle down. I vaguely remember a patch of snow as I first glanced at this peak – I set out in search, luckily discovering it a few hundred feet downhill. Filling my bottles with the snowmelt, I make my way back up, and fall blissfully asleep in the silent dark.

Drop, drop, drop… rain falls, accelerating in intensity. I should have known better – the weather can change up here in a moments notice. I scramble to erect my rain tarp amidst the gusty winds – with an odd combination of stakes, rocks and trekking poles it will work for the night.

In the morning I proceed to officially create my Sacred Circle, a detailed process that I will refer you to the books I used to support my process. It involves setting up a series of rocks and sticks in the cardinal directions, ritually opening and closing the circle, invoking the spirits of the cardinal directions and a few other details. Maybe now is a good place for a disclaimer: If anyone is generally interested in this kind of process, its highly recommended to do your first quest supported by others, not to just strike off alone like I did… Two great resources that supported my Vision Quest are the following books:

1. Quest by Denise Lynn

2. Vision Quest by Steven Foster

Both can help you understand more of the details and guide you to sources that offer supported Vision Quests…

Now the rest of the time up there started to get interesting- as I reflect on those days – there existed an overlapping mix of subtlety, exquisite detail, and magic.  I can continue to write about the details of the outer journey – as in when my sleeping bag was caught by a wind gust and launched over 60 feet in the air, nearly getting stuck on a rock, well out of reach…. but these were minor compared to the inner details that were unfolding.

I examined my life. I looked at my fears and attachments. I offered gratitude, I called for a vision.

I stretched, I meditated, I journaled, I slept, I waited out rain storms.

My friend Peter, mentioned earlier, had suddenly passed away 10 days earlier in a traffic accident in Bali. His inspiration and presence were with me often– he being one of the few people I know who would have also done something as crazy as this. I felt close to him and as if I was supporting his passage with my own process – in addition to offering this quest to all beings, I specifically offered it to Peter.

The second day the hunger really started to set in, and I felt as if I was hallucinating that afternoon. I was called out of my circle for a short period to explore the rock formation around me. I observed the exquisite details of the ancient lichen surviving on stone, I collected what appeared to be a fragment of a meteorite, I stumbled in the awe and beauty of the majesty that was around me, in me, through me. Seeking something from the sky for my altar, I as if by magic a large feather floats from the sky and lands at my feet.

I find myself on a delicate rock outcropping, a few exposed 4th class moves to a seat sitting high over a precipice. I sit on this ledge for hours. It seems the totally of my first 40 years were coming to meet me right then and there. The pains, the joys, the loves, the heart breaks, all of my relationships, all of my missteps, all of my successes, all of my guides and allies and enemies. Right there on that rock. By any imaginable standard I would have appeared mad- sunburned and dirty, screaming and shaking my fists and stick into the air, then laughing hysterically, then crying with gratitude to all and everything. Over, and over and over…  darkness approached and I made my way back to my circle. Two coyotes, as if waiting for me to leave, ascended the rocks and howled into the evening sky.

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The third day I didn’t leave my circle, sitting, sitting, lying, stretching, counting the hours until my solar return meditation.

And now I’m back to the beginning. Its 3:43 on July 23rd, and I complete my 40th year. I meditate another hour to appreciate the power of the hiatus. Did the vision come? Was it too obvious or too subtle to see? Time will tell. A few days later I am still processing insights and moments of reflection from those days.

I planned to spend that final evening in an all-night vigil of sorts – I remember Peter telling me about the Death Lodge practice on the last night of his quest. Where the aspirant builds a circle of stones too narrow to lie down within, and commits to remaining awake until dawn and not moving outside the circle. One spends the night envisioning ones own death and inviting in all of one’s fears and all of ones relationships into that space.

After my solar return meditation, there was a clear feeling that it was time to go. I underestimated the physical exertion of climbing to high altitude and fasting for 3 days. My death lodge will have to wait. I packed up my things and prepared to head back down the trail-less mountainside.

Before leaving, I glanced around in all directions, thanking this mountain and its spirits for hosting me, and inviting me into its womb. What had I offered in return? My mind went to the most prized item in my possession. My yak tooth mala (beads) that I purchased in Nepal 10 years ago and that have accompanied me everywhere since… I slip them off my wrist, offer them to the mountain, turn around and start walking.

An hour after leaving the summit, a dark and ferocious storm rolled in. I had to take cover from hail for a while – at one point I looked back up to see the rock I camped next to being struck directly by several bolts of lightening. I am glad I trusted my intuition.

Absolutely depleted, as darkness envelops the landscape, I put one foot in front of the other until I return to the trailhead and my car.

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Today as I glanced at my YouTube feed I noticed an odd video: Dave Rubin and Eckhart Tolle discussing mindfulness, consciousness, and spirituality as a means to bring balance to one’s life. Huh? I rub my eyes – this cannot be, guys like Dave Rubin focus on political and intellectual issues whereas Eckhart Tolle focuses on spirit and awakening.

Most of you have probably heard of Eckhart Tolle, the famous spiritual teacher and best selling author. However I bet that many of you have never heard of Dave Rubin or his show.

How did I get interested in a guy like Dave Rubin? Well, over the past few years  I found myself increasingly fed up by the polarization of left and right, not just politically and socially but also in the media. Many organizations consider themselves ‘non-biased’ but hold strong ideological leanings – Fox on the right, NY Times on the left, and the list goes on and on.

The icing on the cake last year was observing how so called journalism played a role in the collapse of my yoga school. A number of ideologically charged, biased and slanderous opinions were put forth from reputable news organizations as ‘journalism’. Attention was not paid to details or to facts. Today, simply observe headlines from different organizations referring to the same news events – the bias is already there in the title and headline.

Generally what I see are individuals and organizations lining up along ideological lines – and anything that doesn’t align with their message is considered wrong or even dangerous. The term used for this today is Identity Politics. For many years I considered myself a left-leaning liberal, but I started to notice that the left was taking positions on issues I simply did not agree with. I could no longer easily identify myself along traditional political lines.

The big thing missing in today’s conversation is CRITICAL THINKING. It’s so much easier to repeat talking points or take a pre-defined stance on the big issues. But have you ever actually sat and pondering any of them? Have you listened to alternative view points on big issues like race, feminism, immigration or economics?

I starting seeking alternate voices.  I found them in the so called intellectual dark web or IDW. Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Claire Lehmann are some of the leading voices in this movement. Quillete.com is a blog that publishes articles considered to ‘radical’ for the mainstream media. The traditional media establishment is trying to define this group into neat ideological corners – conservative, liberal, radical, this or that. However they do not form alliances based on their identities or tribal affiliation. They vary in gender, sexual orientation, race, and political affiliation. But they all share two distinct and (now) uncommon qualities. First, they are willing to disagree fiercely, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject worthy of public discourse: religion, abortion, gender identity, race, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Many of the opinions they hold on such topics can sometimes be in contrast with the orthodox opinion of their respective tribe. Second, they are intellectually honest and thus resist parroting what is politically convenient or politically correct.

In essence, they are critical thinkers, not aiming at political correctness. This gets them attacked in the public at large, even to the point of losing their jobs or speaking engagements. Yet, due to the rise of alternate media like YouTube, they have managed to find wide audiences and are being heard. For example, Jordan Peterson has over 2.1 million followers on his YouTube channel. A good introduction to this movement can be found in this video from the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel.

I may write more on this in the future, but to be honest I hesitate and fear posting any political or ideological thoughts online in the current climate – it almost feels dangerous.

Coming back to the beginning – I always saw my spiritual pursuits and my intellectual/political interests as very distinct boxes or compartments in my life, with very little overlap. To see these two boxes come together, really brought a ton of joy to my heart – and I genuinely hope that as part of an overall healing and evolution of public discourse and human evolution we will see more and more of this integration.

Enjoy:

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Now that I have your attention, this post does not have anything to do with sex. Sorry.

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I’m referring to the position of being a missionary, rather than missionary position. First made famous by the Christians, this attitude and practice has long been adopted by many sects, ideologies, and groups to promote their vision and ideals.

Last year the yoga community I was living in imploded after a series of sexual harassment claims were directed at the founder and main teacher. Sadly, this triggered a series of events that dispersed many in the community to far corners of the world.  I observe my friends, many trained in yoga, mediation and tantra for over a decade, attempt with varying levels of success, to build their own personal brands and offer teachings around the world.

I also have this calling – to share, to give back just a small portion of what I have received. I have been examining this impulse closely over the last months and have observed that this missionary energy is well-established inside me too. 

Where did it come from?

One of the great gifts that my yoga teacher possessed is of inspiring others to practice yoga. I cannot tell you how many people took their initial steps on the path of yoga after hearing one of his lectures. In the 500-hr. teacher training program, which I completed in 2013, there were a series of commentaries on the great Bhagavad Gita, specifically two aspects: where:

1. Action is said to be superior than inaction (promoting the path of karma yoga in the world, and teaching spirituality) and

2. Where Krishna instructs the protagonist Arjuna that of all those in the world, those who teach yoga properly are most dear to him.

Inspiring, no?

What is interesting is that my initial background in Zen Buddhism was in strong contradiction to this view. Zen is what you can call a very anti-missionary teaching. Even people who come and knock on the door of the monastery are often turned away or forced to endure some kind of initiation that proves that they are sincere seekers and not just following a fad or looking for food and shelter.

When I look into my heart and question why I want to share, I find two aspects, one is the genuine desire for others to experience the beneficial aspects of the practices that I have personally befitted and observed others benefitting from.

Then there is the shadow side of this missionary desire. The one that seeks to justify one’s own choices, lifestyle and habits by proclaiming it superior to other ones. When we make choices there often residues of doubt, uncertainty. What if I took the other path? And this can lead to a doubling-down on your choice, and missional practices.

Today I decided to actually look-up this statement in the Bhagavad Gita – from Chapter 18, the Chapter on Liberation from Swami Sivananda:

67. This is never to be spoken by thee to one who is devoid of austerities, to one who is not devoted, nor to one who does not render service, nor who does not desire to listen, nor to one who cavils at Me.

68. He who with supreme devotion to Me will teach this supreme secret to My devotees, shall doubtless come to Me.

69. Nor is there any among men who does dearer service to Me, nor shall there be another on earth dearer to Me than he.

While this can be interpreted as those who teach are very dear to God, a critical caveat is made here – that yoga should not be taught to anyone who is not interested in it or prepared for it. Therefore the Bhagavad Gita is not actually advocating a missionary-based approach to spirituality.

This is a work in progress for me – recognizing the world has changed a lot in the last several thousand years since this text was written and the original practices of yoga were unfolding.

I once asked another one of my yoga teachers “Who am I to teach” after completing a training program with him and being a novice in meditation and yoga. His response was “Who are you not to teach?”

My feeling now is that the best path is to continue deepening my own understanding, seeking community and sangha to practice with and within. Foremost a practitioner and student, secondarily a teacher when called upon by the circumstances. Following the impulse to illuminate, not the one to justify or defend.

To be continued…

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Recently I have been spending a fair amount of time exploring the question of meaning – what exactly is it and where do I find it? Why does the search for it feel like such a driving force in my life as well as the lives of those close to me? I’m turning 40 this year. Traditionally this is the time of the mid-life crisis, which essentially is a crisis of meaning. This is naturally coinciding with a rather large transition in my life.   “What the hell am I doing?” and “Where do I find meaning? are constant mental companions.

I read an article this week that focused on some of the cultural shifts in the search for meaning in recent decades. The article is politically charged, however I feel the point the author makes about how the secularization of society along with the rise of individualism has contributed to this crisis:

Liberalism is an existential paradox. By unshackling humans from traditional cultural and social structures, it has freed us to pursue aspirations and experiences based on our own personal interests. This liberation has allowed many to explore a wider range of paths to meaning but it has also unrooted many from the most reliable sources of meaning. It has ushered in an era of individualism. The more people privilege an individual self (a self defined by personal attributes and interests) over an interdependent self (a self defined by cultural roles and duties), the more vulnerable they are to feeling like they don’t matter, that they lack social significance.

I see how this has been, and is still true in my own life. Even when located and rooted in a community, a spiritual teaching, a relationship or friendship that offers meaning, the mind and heart still seek for something better. The fact that we are so aware of other options diminishes the psychological security of the ones we already possess.a-27

One of the challenges I see connected to this paradox is what appears to be a search for the most meaningful pursuits. As if meaning was an objective, quantifiable commodity. It’s not, and never will be. Society may value some pursuits or paths more than others, but fundamentally, meaning is personal and subjective. The rising intellectual dark web (IDW) star and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, claims that responsibility lies in "finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”  There is some truth to this – especially for those who lack any motivation or responsibility in their lives. Yet what about those who do have responsibility already? Family, companies, students? And despite this load, are still are wondering what it is all about? In another context he says:

There is no more effective way of operating in the world than to conceptualize the highest good you can imagine and then strive to attain it. Do you really have anything better to do? If you don’t, then why would you do anything else?

This one resonates with me strongly – it reminds me of something my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi has spoken about on several occasions – in a lecture he asks us to imagine the most perfected human being in the world and to try to envision their qualities. Then he asks us where to find them – and obviously the audience is silent as this person doesn’t exist. The only solution, therefore, is to become that person yourself.  And then he usually says “Do you have anything better to do?”  Oddly similar ideas from two radically different spheres of thought.

No, I don’t actually have anything better to do. Yet now we have another question at hand – what is the highest good or person I can imagine? This where the work is. Peterson will say, don’t wait until you answer this question, your idea of the highest good will evolve and change as you pursue it. I see this is where I get caught up at times. Analysis paralysis, so to speak, again weighing the many options that this time of individualism offers, seeking to step into the most meaningful direction.

When I sit deeply with this question, my fundamental Buddhist vow of living for the benefit of all sentient beings arises. For some years now this has taken the form of becoming a spiritual teacher – guiding others in meditation and yoga. What seemed so obvious for a while now is now not so obvious.  Living for the benefit of others – does this require one to be working directly in a field of service? Teaching, healthcare, therapy, etc.? I’m not so sure any more. I believe there are numerous means to benefit all beings, even if one chooses a life of greater isolation and introversion. (A topic I will explore in a future post).

That’s it for now. Please comment – I would love to begin a discussion on this topic.

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Questioner: I am what I know myself to be.

Nisargadatta Maharaj:  You cannot possibly say that you are what you think yourself to be! Your ideas about yourself change from day to day and from moment to moment. Your self-image is the most changeful thing you have. It is utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of a passerby. A bereavement, the loss of a job, an insult, and your image of yourself, which you call your person, changes deeply. To know what you are you must first investigate and know what you are not. And to know what you are not you must watch yourself carefully, rejecting all that does not necessarily go with the basic fact: ‘I am’. The ideas: I am born at a given place, at a given time, from my parents and now I am so-and-so, living at, married to, father of, employed by, and so on, are not inherent in the sense ‘I am’. Our usual attitude is of ‘I am this’. Separate consistently and perseveringly the ‘I am’ from ‘this’ or ‘that’, and try to feel what it means to be, just to be, without being ‘this’ or ‘that’. All our habits go against it and the task of fighting them is long and hard sometimes, but clear understanding helps a lot. The clearer you understand that on the level of the mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker you will come to the end of your search and realize your limitless being.

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Questioner: All teachers advise us to meditate. Why should we meditate?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: We know the outer world of sensations and actions, but of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness.

Incidentally the practice of meditation deeply affects our character. We are slaves to what we do not know; of what we know we are masters. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious releases energy; the mind feels adequate and become quiet.

Q: What is the purpose of meditation?

Maharaj:  Seeing the false as the false, is meditation. This must go on all the time.

Q: We are told to meditate regularly.

Maharaj:  Deliberate daily exercise in discrimination between the true and the false and renunciation of the false is meditation. There are many kinds of meditation to begin with, but they all merge finally into one.

You may choose any way that suits you; your earnestness will determine the rate of progress.

Q: No hint for me?

Maharaj:  Establish yourself firmly in the awareness of ‘I am’. This is the beginning and also the end of all endeavor.

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For me, Nisargadatta Maharaj is an incredible inspiration. Like many before me, I have been touched deeply by the teachings and insights of this remarkable man.  I am That, a collection of dialogues with his students, is free from cultural and religious trappings. The wisdom he expounds is stripped bare of all that is unnecessary. If we lived in a world were we could only possess a single book, you would surely find a copy of I am That in my bag. I’ve read and reread this book a number of times, and decided this last time to pull out a number of passages that I find helpful for navigating this crazy existence. I plan to share a few of them over the coming months.

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Questioner: At what point does one experience reality?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: Experience is of change, it comes and goes. Reality is not an event, it cannot be experienced. It is not perceivable in the same way as an event is perceivable. If you wait for an event to take place, for the coming of reality, you will wait forever, for reality neither comes nor goes. It is to be perceived, not expected. It is not to be prepared for and anticipated. But the very longing and search for reality is the movement, operation, action of reality. All you can do is to grasp the central point, that reality is not an event and does not happen and whatever happens, whatever comes and goes, is not reality. See the event as event only, the transient as transient, experience as mere experience and you have done all you can. Then you are vulnerable to reality, no longer armored against it, as you were when you gave reality to events and experiences. But as soon as there is some like or dislike, you have built a screen.

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