Part 1: Intro
Two years ago, in another blog series—How I Came to Live in a Spiritual Community in the Northern California Foothills—I told the tale of the events that led me to leave my job and career in computer science, and eventually leave Los Angeles to go live in a spiritual community with a population of 200, in the foothills of northern California. Tonight, two years later, sitting on my bed in my condo on the 36th floor of a residential high-rise in the busy city of Bangkok, Thailand, I decided that it would do me, and maybe some other people, some good to look back and recount how on earth I ended up here.
In the spring of 2015, when I had quit my job with a programming languages research group, a flurry of creative grace was enveloping me. It had been a couple of years of becoming acquainted with the teachings of yoga (outside what one presumes by checking out a class in a yoga studio). I had found a great deal of presence of mind and inner happiness, become a certified yoga and meditation teacher, and spiritual poetry and writings and ideas were flowing through me seemingly seamlessly. Even though I was leaving my academic research work at the top of my career, and a field that has always been mind-candy to me, I had no qualms about it, or any intention of returning to it. A retired programmer and researcher. Sounded fine to me. I had found a better and bigger cake to stuff my face with: Self realization and God.
Part 2: Hard to Dig, Easy to Fill
Things were pretty great up there at my spiritual commune. I spent several months as part of a Karma Yoga program. Living the quiet life in the peaceful nature, doing some cleaning shifts at the retreat, some classes on the teachings of yoga, morning and evening yoga and meditation practice. The good, peaceful, life. I was in joy.
Back then I wasn’t doing much thinking. But a lot of just being. That’s why I was light and happy. The peaceful, simple daily routine had afforded me to be. Others there occasionally spoke of my “natural joyfulness”. Joyful? That’s one word I hadn’t traditionally seen myself having any relations with. If anything, I had always considered myself deep, melancholic. But if I were thinking, if you had asked me, I might have thought I had found it! The golden key of happiness through devotion to a divinity within me and all around, and inner contentment. Happiness through that which is unchanging is itself eternal.
Evidently, however, I hadn’t reached the end goal, but just a short respite. Neither had I acquired the key to enlightenment. I had simply taken a refuge in a temporary place and time that allowed me to avoid any activity that revealed my lack there of!
After several months I graduated from the Karma Yoga program, and began integrating more into jobs at other departments in our commune. Before I knew it, half of my work hours were being spent with the tech department, given my background, where I was to develop a prayer mobile app for the organization. And that’s how cracks began to appear. Big ones. I thought I had left the world of software and programming for good, and here I was pretty excited about getting into mobile app development, using my skills to serve my spiritual community.
One day, as I was working at the tech department office, one of my good friends passed by my desk. But I barely noticed. “Are you OK?!” she uttered. Having previously only seen me while we’re both working at Karma Yoga shifts, I guess she almost couldn’t recognize me, in my state of total lack of presence, fully lost in the mind and the serious “problem” at hand, as I was staring at my laptop screen. “Yeah” I mumbled and resumed my typing. This seemingly small event remained with me, as it turned out to be telling of what was to come for me. The main next challenge in my evolution was upon me.
There’s no falsehood in this statement: Happiness through that which is unchanging is, indeed, eternal. The only caveat is, there’s no guarantee that one’s present attention remains with that which is unchanging! There’s a whole world out there, always calling you in! That’s the predicament of human mind!
Pure presence in the moment, along with the joy that comes with it, do indeed always live underneath our mud of mind and emotional distractions. Alas, it seems like digging through the mud to get to the joy takes a whole lot of effort, while filling it all back up with that mud takes but a few seconds!
Part 3: One Body, One Track
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I hadn’t failed, by losing myself to my work. Rather, I understood, that I was just graduating to the next grade, in the school of personal development, by picking up my life’s work once again. The challenge: reliving the inner calm and joy I had on and off experienced off the job, now on the job. Or to take it to a grander scale: outside the world, now in the world.
Several months ago, before moving to Asia, one day my dad mentioned in passing something about my lacking enough confidence, and how much more could I have done if I had it. I didn’t admit it out loud, yet silently I acknowledged that he was right. As far back as I remember, my shyness and lack of confidence, in social situations, personal relations, and to a lesser degree at my career, have hindered me a great deal, preventing me to realize my full potential.
The thought remained in the back of my mind all the while, until a few weeks ago, when I finally picked up a self-help audio book on confidence. I’ve never been big on self-help books, so this was somewhat unprecedented, and a big step—acceptance. Accepting that, though I hated to admit it, I did lack confidence and that I needed another person to help me with it.
The book starts with an activity to make a list of your goals: “What do you really want?” It was a revelation and an alarm, as I discovered I couldn’t quite put my finger on, or clearly picture, whatever the heck it is that I wanted. I realized, even if I had a genie in a bottle, I couldn’t fucking describe to him what I wanted. I had no clue myself! It’s too fuzzy and unclear. Yeah, I have a vague notion that I want to do well at my job, but if I can’t see what “doing well” really looks like, how am I supposed to manifest it, or get there? Yeah, I do seem to have a desire for a love connection and companion, but I can’t seem to picture it. I do and don’t want a relationship. I want freedom. I want to give and feel love. I don’t want anybody to be in my shit. I want to be alone with my happy self. What the fuck! This exercise was really useful and powerful. I recommend it. It motivated me to at least make an attempt to formulate, a bit more concretely, where do I want to be.
After finding the path of yoga in 2013, going through the motions of hopping on the spiritual path, I quickly lost interest in anything “nonspiritual”. I wouldn’t watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a song, unless it was on a spiritual topic. Moreover, I would sneer inside at all the self-help stuff: money, dating advice, what have you. “I’m above all this crap! After all, I am after enlightenment and freedom! Who cares about this petty worldly stuff.”
This is a common trap that individuals like myself, who’ve “become spiritual” tend to fall into. We begin to view the spiritual journey as a separate track from the ordinary life; that if you want spiritual progress, then you should check out and get off the worldly track, and hop on the spiritual track. But this is complete bull crap.
I began to notice in myself and others around me, a lot of undeveloped aspects, because of lack of practice and ripening in the real world, in the name of a spiritual focus.
The truth is that there is only “one” of us—one body. All the layers of our bodies—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual—are profoundly connected and interrelated, as one being. Only when all our body sheets arrive at a complete harmony and stillness together, as one being, then magic can happen. Only then can the Self be fully realized. Only then enlightenment can be ours.
Can you imagine hearing: “Thus, Siddhartha become the Buddha, the Awakened one. Yet, he was still a little shy around women, didn’t project his voice well in public speech, and had a funny reaction in his stomach whenever a certain villager walked by.” I don’t think so! I think for Siddhartha to have become the Buddha, he had to harmonize and perfect his entire being, every layer of his body, all together.
Now, half way into my home for two and a half years at the spiritual commune, a process had started in me that was bringing my work and attention back to the larger world. I was coming to a realization that there’s no two parallel tracks! There’s a single track. Personal development and spiritual advancement are one and the same. I think we cannot cheat life, by skipping grades. I think we have to become good at this life thing. I don’t think we can say: “Yeah I’m lacking motivation to directly contribute to the world, have a low self-esteem, and don’t seem to get along with people or have much enthusiasm for life. But who cares because all I want is to find freedom and God!” Bull crap! Because, guess what. This is God! Not until I improve myself in all areas, from the mundane and physical to the spiritual levels, will I be able to take steps forward towards my highest potential.
Part 4: Attachment Test, Freedom Prize
Another few months went by. I had now completed the windy year-long procedures that one had to walk through in order to become an “official” resident at the commune, all designed to ensure a good fit for the both sides. It was time to be assigned a full-time job(s), which like anything else at the tiny community, was never an individual decision. I have to share a story about this time.
As I said before, my main contribution had been at the tech department. Now with plans to take the role of the main developer for a new meditation app that was to be made, I was assuming I’ll just be signing on the job automatically. Having been one of the proponents of the idea myself, I was quite excited to get it going. A few days before the end of the previous program I was on, our HR person approached me and wanted to have a chat. She said the yoga retreat could really use a person at the front desk, greeting people and answering phone calls. While I was startled for a few seconds, I quickly noticed a powerful sensation inside my heart: the openness and freedom in realizing that none of us could really know, with certainty, where and what we’re going to be or be doing tomorrow. I felt really free. It felt like a ton of “ideas” and “concerns” where flushed out of my mind, making it empty and free to be present in the moment, simply because they were irrelevant now!
It turned out that it didn’t matter anyway. The next day, after a chat between my boss at the tech office and the HR lady, it was decided that I was needed full-time for the app development. This quick change, and the quicker change back, made me wonder whether, deliberately or not, this had been a test to measure my attachment to my role and job.
While in this case I did well, more often than not I have struggled with this. Here’s what I shared in a post recently:
My whole life, I feel, is a process of “Neti Neti”—Sanskrit for: “Not this. Not that.” Life, it seems to me more than anything else, is one giant devil’s advocate. Whenever I think I’m a big shot, it brings me an experience to feel I’m a nobody. If I feel I’m a nobody, it tells me through some experience that I am somebody. If I ever feel I know something, sure enough it’ll soon bring me to a place where I feel I know nothing. If I ever feel I’m good looking, it makes me feel I’m ugly soon enough. If I agree with it and settle on being ugly, soon I start to feel handsome. If I decide that I’m depressed, it brings me a moment’s experience of joy. If I feel I have found joy, sooner than later it’ll bring me down with something. If I decide I want to be a monk, it’ll tell me to open up to human love. If I look for love, it’ll close every door on my face. If I ever decide that I have found a purpose in life, it’ll soon demonstrate to me that those who don’t think of purpose are the happiest. If I give it up and decide life’s got no meaning but to just be, it’s soon going to tell me I have great work to do.
It is a great leap in personal and spiritual development to ease and eventually drop the hold of our minds about our own self-identities in this life. There’s great empowerment in the embracing of “I am not THAT”, whatever THAT happens to be at this moment. This attitude is by no means a cop-out. Rather, it enables us to do whatever that’s in front of us from a place of full vision and power.
A similar momentous and freedom-inducing event happened to me about a year and half later, at the instant I realized I was leaving my commune soon, not to move to San Diego, California, as I had planned, but Thailand. But I’m getting ahead of myself.