Part 9: High School: The Ugly Years
My high school years can be summarized as follows: three years of suffering, one year of bliss. The proportions are not unlike life, incidentally!
With the advent of puberty, starting late middle school and high school, came a shift in my life, from being a happy, observant kid into an adolescent boy experiencing deep physical, emotional, and mental suffering.
It began as I started to notice my gradually becoming ugly. I had been a cute kid growing up. Not that I was conscious of it then; I could only tell by later looking at my pictures from younger years. My nose grew bigger, my eyebrows got bushier and more unibrowed, and my hair got messier and more unmanageable by the day. It didn’t feel good looking at the mirror, but I was willing to put that aside and go on with life. What started to ruin my self confidence was receiving comments from others, in my face.
My face must have been changing fast, because I still remember an episode when my friend turned to me, as we were playing soccer in the alley, with somewhat of a surprise and disgust saying, “Why do you look like that?” I started to notice it was not just my imagination that I had become ugly.
My own mom once made a pass about the size of my nose. Once we were having lunch at my grandmother’s and she started telling everyone a story. It was about a relative of ours, who after having visited us had told her: “Hesam used to be cute. Now he is ugly.” Kudos to myself, I remember at that time I had come to somewhat of an acceptance with it. Although it was not easy to hear it, in front of everybody, but I still managed to keep face and say: “She is right.”
I also noticed something significant. The more I was aware of being ugly, the more I was getting uglier. Of course, it was decades later, when I learned about the manifesting power of the mind, that I could explain what was happening. I was manifesting myself hideous.
As the shape of my transformed face shifted, and my facial parts stabilized into somewhat of a sensible proportions, I was greeted by even a greater challenge. This was around the time the “Mr. Bean” comedy series out of UK had just become popular worldwide. People started to notice that my new face reminded them of Mr. Bean. Now everywhere I went, people would call me “Hey Mr Bean!”
It was more than I could bear. One of my relatives, who was many years younger than me, made a point to call me “Mr Bean” every single time she saw me. I was so humiliated and hurt inside, and at the same time angry with myself from being so affected by a fifth grader.
As I grew up more, my appearance became fine, and my confidence was restored. However, the “Mr Bean File” remained my greatest weakness. I don’t know why I was so affected by it; it wasn’t that Mr. Bean had such an ugly face. Yet for some reason, a mere mention of my likeness to him and I would get crushed. My confidence was fragile. My aunt would be having a grownup conversation with me, and all of sudden, she would turn to someone else and say “Look how much he looks like Mr. Bean!” I felt humiliated.
Years later, after having become an adult and having moved to the US with my family, I returned to Iran for my first visit after ten years of absence. I was 29 years old.
Once during the visit, as my grandfather was telling me a story, all of a sudden, as if wanting to touch an old wound of mine, he turned to someone else and said: “Doesn’t he look just like Mr Bean?” I was affected inside, though didn’t show any emotions.
A few years later, on another visit, and on another story, the same exact episode occurred. I doubt at that point I had kept much resemblance to Mr Bean any more. But here it was! Lo, I had learned my lesson. This time, not affected the slightest bit, inside or outside, I just laughed with him. Sweet victory at last!
Sure enough, this recurring event stopped revisiting me again after that day. A few years later, As I came on the spiritual path and became a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, I heard his story of how his guru, Sri Yukteswar, when he was young and under Sri Yukteswar’s care and discipline, would sometimes mock him in front of other disciples. Yogananda explains that his master was preparing him for his future mission. He was going to come to America, during the 20s, where he would be severely tested and harassed by many, as the sight of yogis or even dark skins were practically non-existent back then. Sri Yukteswar had wanted Yogananda to become resilient and untouched by how others treated him.
And so I came to understand, it must have been my guru, long before I knew him, who was preparing me and testing me for my own mission in life, whatever that might be! He must have acted through my friends, my aunt, my grandfather, to give me resilience and unattachment to the opinion of others. To me, only that could explain their out-of-character and incongruent sudden change of behavior.
Part 10: High School: Suffering of Other Kinds
It was during my late middle school and most of high school years when I was getting introduced to man’s oldest companion: suffering. First, it was suffering due to physical circumstances. As I said, I had lost self-confidence due to feeling unattractive, backed by outer confirmations from people in my life.
Much later I understood that it wasn’t my physical appearance itself which was causing me to get confirmations from others of how I felt inside—that I was ugly. Rather, it was the energetic vibrations of what I “thought” and “felt” inside “about” how I appeared physically, which would transmit to others, and cause them to occasionally verbalize it back to me. You probably have observed this for yourself. There are plenty of people who, by the cliche standards of what attractiveness means in this modern time, are quite unattractive. However, I’m sure you’ve met those whose inner strength, positive outlook, and mental clarity and hygiene is so strong, that you’d hardly notice any outer “ugliness”. In fact, those inner vibrations can be so strong, causing others not only to overlook the outer appearance, but even to perceive it as also beautiful and radiant. Some may call this “reality distortion”, but indeed, the truer reality is our energies inside, and thus there’s no distortion. This I experienced, to some degree, at a later time, and I will tell later.
Within a couple of years my adolescent bodily transformations subsided somewhat, and my self-image more or less stabilized. That’s when my experience in suffering shifted into a higher, different gear: of the purely mental kind. I think it was during my middle high school years that I experienced my most psychologically troubled self, in my life so far.
I still cannot explain why I went through the experiences that I’m about to recount. Perhaps it’s normal for teenagers. Or not. I don’t know. First I started to notice people–my schoolmates, friends, strangers, family members—occasionally would be staring at me for longer than what was a comfortable amount of time for me. Was it really happening, or was I imagining? Originally I had suspected it was due to my perceived lack of attractiveness, that they were dumbfounded to behold such a face. But soon I figured it couldn’t have been that, because it continued even during the days I felt confident. Eventually, I started to develop a theory, which soon became confirmed reality as far as I was concerned, that they were amused and troubled by noticing that I didn’t seem to be aware of a “secret code of conduct, not to be spoken in public, and which every parent teaches their child”. Except my parents had neglected to impart it to me. These, I thought, were simple things, like a particular mundane thing to say, or not say, when sitting to chat with a friend, or to know which leg to put on top of which, when seated on the couch, during that chat. I would feel ashamed and at a loss, in front of my observer. In short, my mind was sinking into some deep mental black holes.
Another thing that culminated during this time was a mental condition that probably had roots from much earlier times. From the very first day my mom had remarried, when I was in 4th grade, I had become a “dual citizen”, as I was now part of two households. My first home was with my grandparents, who had raised me and continued to provide a home for me while my parents were gone at work. My second new home was with my mom and step-dad. Originally they lived upstairs in my grandparents house, but soon they bought an apartment some ten minutes away by car. During the day times, after school hours, I would be in my grandparents house. Evenings, when my parents would arrive from work, they would pick me up, along with my little sister who was born when I was 11 years old, to go to our own apartment.
The reality of living in two different households, each with very seemingly different values and dynamics, as you could imagine, eventually got into me. So it was that during my high school years, when I was most sensitive and vulnerable, this feeling hit a crescendo. The slightest things, contrasts between my two households, started to seem highlighted and huge to me. I started to see my grandparents house as the emblem of a calm traditional home, and my own parents’ lives in our apartment as an image of the decadence of modern society by the next generation. In my grandparents, TV was off most of the time. In a tradition that still continues, both my parents liked having the TV constantly on, as long as someone was awake.
My dislike for TV, without my conscious knowing of course, I suspect stemmed from a deep soul knowing. As I was to become a meditator some decades later, I must have intuitively known that TV is anti meditation. While being in a meditative state means pulling away from the delusive sensory world, watching TV, especially when habitual, only hypnotizes you deeper in that delusion. It is for this reason that Yogananda said, “Television has a satanic influence.”
They occasionally spoke English to each other, or mix English words with Persian. Again, my troubled mind was bothered, thinking “That’s how the purity of our ancestral language dies!”
It wasn’t all in my mind. My mom and dad were under a lot of stress those days, mostly from work. The harmony I could feel in my grandparents’ home was at times lacking in my own home. Although I didn’t realize it back then, all I was finding “wrong” with my own home, while “right” in the home of my grandparents, was just an excuse to help an internal struggle and movement in me, that longed for some inner-stability. I was just getting a bit more comfortable with my self-image and personality, and deeply wanted things to go more in that direction. I started experimenting with occasionally skipping going back home with my parents at night, after they returned from work. I found comfort in the consistency of just living in one home, rather than being moved around like a daily-moving gypsy, as my dear little sister had to do.
I remember eventually one day I wrote a letter to my mom. I don’t remember any specific thing I said, just that I explained why I needed to stay with my grandparents and not come home anymore. She was supportive, as she has always been about my life decisions. She agreed, but I’m sure with sadness. As it turned out this was one of those decisions decided by the “the ones above”. If I remember correctly, I did stay with my grandparents all the way to the end of my senior year. As you will read in the next part, this period brought me to place exactly opposite of where I had been. What followed was an experience in inner freedom, though at the time I had no words for it, just a feeling.
Why is suffering part of life? In the Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda reminds us this.
“Suffering is prod to remembrance.”
If we don’t experience it, and stay in a happy place at all times, we get fooled into thinking we have reached the height of our potential. However, unless we’ve become an enlightened master, and have reached Samadhi, the state of Oneness with God, we would be wrong to think so.
Part 11: Role Models
In order to tell the story of how my senior high school year was a complete turnaround from what I had experienced in prior years, I first need to describe my experience with the idea of role models.
A while ago I came across an interview by Sadhguru. There he said,
This idea of role model is essentially from the west. So, a few months ago, I was being interviewed by someone from here and this lady asked me, “Who is your role model Sadhguru?” I said “I don’t roll with models. Such an idea never occurred to me. It never occurred to me how should I shape myself in whose image.” It never occurred because the east is always looking at how to turn inward and discover the deeper potentials in you, never going out to be like somebody else.
An important point the modern mind should begin to cultivate more. At the same time, I feel, just like the desire for human love is born out of an unknown deeper longing to merge back to God the Creator, so is our tendency for admiring what we seek for ourselves in others related to a true divine journey inward. What’s important is, again, to eventually make that bridge from the lower form to the higher, divine one.
During my psychological crisis years in high school, as I have described earlier, I must have been desperately longing for a place of self-identity which I could desire and aspire to. So it was that my youngest uncle, whose name is Hamid, was gradually and silently becoming my ultimate idol. That wasn’t a big surprise. He had the looks, the smarts, the career (an MD in training), the charm, secular, cool gadgets, cool friends, …, everything. But he was becoming my object of adoration beyond what’s normal. Towards late high school years I would go find his own high school photos and try to copy the way he used to dress himself when he was my age. I longed to look as cool as he did. Everything he uttered was gold to me. I felt I had received the ultimate reward whenever he asked me to help him with something and he seemed satisfied with my services.
Of course, what Sadhguru is reminding us above is the danger in making an ego, a personality, rather than a perfected soul, your role model. Occasionally, I would see him act in a manner less than perfect, like getting into an argument with my mom or others, which would really confuse and hurt me. Worst, if he scolded me for something, like that time I was helping him move a desk and accidentally dropped a drawer, I would feel absolutely crushed. I would take it all on myself, because he was the God, and I just the idiot servant. That’s how I felt.
This theme repeated itself many many years later, on the other side of the world. During my graduate school at UCLA, I got affiliated with one of the pioneers in the field of computer science and programming. I started working for him as a graduate researcher and later a full-time researcher. He is quite an accomplished mind, not only a revered scientist, musician, and thinker, he also has a great and fun personality. In the circle of the group of computer scientists that he had gathered around him, which included me, we were really like disciples of a guru. We tried to follow him everywhere. In his presence we were all trying to attune to his thought and consciousness at all times. Every idea he would throw at us we would chase like a dog running after a frisbee.
A few years later, as I was being drawn to spirituality and yoga, and pulled away from my day job of computer science, once I brought up the topic to him just to get his perspective. What he told me in response, at once severely degraded my unwavering loyalty and discipleship to him. He said something along the lines of, “If what they [India] knew the truth, they wouldn’t have been hungry and in the streets.”
Once again, I got crushed. Once again, because I had put my faith in a mind and personality, an ego, albeit a quite intellectually accomplished one. What I understood, but didn’t respond back to him, was that the problem is that we project our own goals on others, and then judge them based on how much they succeed at reaching those goals. But what if those goals weren’t even theirs to begin with?
Despite the hurt, I believe these were stepping stones for me to ultimately direct the object of my discipleship to where it rightly belongs. Some time later I read the Autobiography of a Yogi and soon after became a disciple of the yoga master Yogananda. How’s that different? It can be explained by understanding the meaning of the word “satguru”. A true (“sat”) guru, is not a personality. It is a soul, who has long transcended the ego, and thus is a pure channel for the consciousness of God. Therefore when one looks to a true guru, there is no concern about the danger of looking to someone else as a role model. Because there is no “person” out there, only God. How could God mislead, hurt, confuse, or take advantage of someone? A true guru will always reflect the feeling and guidance of your own higher Self.
But how does one know such a true guru from a thousand other fake ones? Well. that my friend, cannot be intellectually known or explained. It’s an intuitive knowing, felt only through the heart and an internal experience and confirmation. A common misunderstanding is that one can go shop around for a true guru. In fact, it is the guru who will attract the disciple when he or she is ready. That’s the seekers sole job: to reform and prepare.
Next, we’ll get back to my senior year story.
Part 12: 18 in Bliss
1997 found me in senior year of high school—a dreaded year in Iran—because towards the end of it we had to take the infamous nationwide university entrance exams to be able to get into credible public universities. Only the top 0.01%, or whatever it is I don’t know, would be able to get into a university and major of their own choice.
You’d probably want to sympathize with me for having to go through that. Quite the contrary. As it turned out, the year was to bring me not only relief from past years’ sufferings, but even unimaginable experiences in blissful presence.
Of course, it was all by divine grace. In fact, masters tell us that divine grace is always present, but it is us whose heart can be open or closed to that grace, at any given period, or day, or moment, in our lives. Yet I believe that even the event of our opening up to and cooperating with the grace is itself owed to grace. Yes, our own effort and intention is required, but never enough on its own, to draw the blessings and success.
By that time I was only living at my grandparents, which had helped to simplify my life and reduce unnecessary mental and emotional upheaval. Let me start with the shift in what I experienced with my physical appearance. Before I tell you what happened, let’s look at an Indian scripture story, in case you haven’t heard it. I don’t remember it exactly. It goes something like this:
There was a boy who really wanted a pet buffalo. And he was learning meditation, yet he couldn’t. He told his teacher: “I can’t meditate. I keep thinking of a pet buffalo.” His teacher told him: “OK, go to that room and just think about your pet buffalo.” Happily he went on. Some time later the teacher asked how he was doing. He said, “Oh, my buffalo is beautiful. I’m feeding it. I love my buffalo.” The teacher instructed him to keep going. Some hours passed. The next time the teacher knocked on the door calling on the boy, all he heard back was a loud: “Moooo! I am the buffalo!” … He had become the buffalo.
In the last part I mentioned how much at that time I was obsessed with everything about my Uncle Hamid. It wasn’t like I was tensely envious of him and loathing myself every minute for not being like him. I was just a silent and consistent admirer and a keen observer of his ways. I don’t know for how long this had been going on, perhaps for a couple of years. Much like the boy and the buffalo story, presumably from so much dedicated concentration, around the start of my senior year I started to notice, to my own astonishment, that my mannerisms and even my looks started to resemble my uncle. It wasn’t that I was doing anything different, externally, like getting beauty treatments and products or anything like that, other than spending some more time carefully combing my hair. Whatever was happening was mainly originating from inside.
Soon I noticed I was becoming even good to look at! At school, people passing by would make reference to my appearance, like the guy who said, “You used to have a messy wavy hair, how come you have soft hair now?” It was true, I wanted to reply “I know, I wish I knew how!” A relative once commented “how much I looked like my Uncle Hamid!” There.
The law at work was the same as before. When I was feeling ugly inside, others had started to reflect that reality for me on the outside. Now that I had started to think and feel handsome, I started to receive confirmations, in my outer reality and environment, of the same.
So were my mannerisms starting to be reflective of my uncle. I whistled often. Sometimes I sang in the stairways, and it turned out I had a nice voice. I spoke less, but when I did, it was clever and to the point, at least more so than before!
So much preparation was necessary for the university entrance exam. I don’t think it’s quite imaginable in the west that a teenager should be so dedicated to studying. Skipping going back and forth between my grandparents and my parents house was now more legitimized to everybody, because it would save me some more time to study. I even quit going to school, half way into the school year, in order to free up any commuting and unproductive school time for uninterrupted studying.
During this half a year, prior to taking the big exam, I entered into a mental state of being, which I had never experienced.
My days were simple. I would get up, eat my grandmother’s cooking for lunch and dinner. The rest of my waking time was dedicated to study. No house duties. I had made a calendar of what to cover each day. I knocked down sample multiple-choice test after test, reviewed book after book, day in, day out. Sometimes I would go outside to take a short walk in the neighborhood. Sometimes I go to the yard to water the plants.
Soon I noticed a change in how I felt. About everything.
I noticed I was enjoying every moment, the little things. I noticed smallest details, a worm on a tree leaf, the rays of sunlight making an interesting shape on a building, so on and so forth. The very act of breathing was becoming a joy. I was experiencing pure inner freedom.
Looking back I think it was the simplicity of that time. My life had been greatly simplified. One purpose. Nothing else to look to. The tremendous amount of new empty “space” had brought me the joy of being in the present moment. It was deep concentration on the one and only task at hand, and lack of nothing else that was going on in my life. I had one worry in life and that was my task of preparing for the big exam. Absolutely nothing else. I wasn’t thinking “I must bring balance to my life” and add a variety of entertainment, fun, relationships, good other books to read, this or that, to my life. Nothing at all. One thing and one thing only.
“Simplicity”, “one-pointed concentration”. Hmm that sounds familiar…
Oh yeah, that’s the spiritual path! Those are the same keys that unlock the path to enlightenment, to reach God.
The one-pointed concentration on a high ideal gradually releases the soul from the bondage of the ego: the identification of the self as a separate entity, a mind and a body. A similar thing happens in great artists at times, when they “lose themselves”, letting a divine flow bring forth a creation that is decidedly unworldly. In those moments, they have reported an ecstatic experience, in transcendence and bliss.
I think that’s what plagues our modern western society. We all want to have everything, do everything, be everything! That just squashes Joy, which is the thing we’re after.
Let’s go back to simplicity and one-pointed concentration. Yogananda called it “Simple living, High thinking.”
I did well in my university entrance exams, and got my first choice of major to study (Electrical Engineering) and second choice of school (Tehran Polytechnic). However, I soon lost that feeling of presence and joy, not able to grab hold of it again until the beginnings of my entrance into the spiritual path at the age of 33. Not long into my first university year, my parents decided to pack up and move us to US., where I was to restart college and life. Like everybody else, I lost myself in the land of desires and accomplishments, identifying myself with my physical, emotional, and intellectual possessions. Joy wasn’t really a part of it. Long lost. Goal was lost in the name of busyness for the sake of busyness.
One of my sweet memories of that time was a mix tape I had found, with some of favorite American songs of the 60s and 70s. Whenever I listened to this tape I felt my sense of calm and peace more tangibly. For years, even after becoming a resident in the US, I would listen to this, which I had labeled “My Best Tape Ever”, to remember the feeling. As a sample for you, “Bring It On Home to Me” was one of the tracks on it:
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