Journey for truth

Reprinted from SN&R, May 15, 1997: From the Cave of Politics to the Sunlight of Spirit

Fred Branfman currently resides in San Francisco, where he directs “For Generations To Come,” a group seeking to help our culture break through its denial of death in a way that will help individuals live more satisfying lives and pass on a stronger environmental, social and economic legacy to coming generations.

I imagined myself happier and more successful than most.

I took pride in what I had accomplished during a 25 year-political career that included exposing the secret U.S. air war against Laos in 1969; joining the U.S. peace movement; promoting economic democracy and solar energy through the grassroots Campaign for Economic Democracy; creating California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1982 State of the State “Investment in People” initiative as director of research; helping develop a key presidential campaign plank, the “Strategic Investment Initiative” for Sen. Gary Hart; and forming Rebuild America, a once-thriving Washington, D.C., think tank.

I believed my life had meaning and purpose. I had tasted many of life’s pleasures: having impact and sufficient money, experiencing satisfying love and sex, living by some of the most beautiful beaches, mountains and deserts of the world, meeting and working with important and interesting people, helping others, and being part of causes and groups larger than myself.

But I decided to quit.

And go on a spiritual search.

My journey was to last five years and include studying with Hassids in Jerusalem and spiritual teacher Laszlo Honti for a year in Hungary; returning to Laos to the Plain of Jars; spending five months in India studying Hindu teachings; and working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. Most significantly, I was to spend six months in silent meditation retreats, including a three-month retreat in western Massachusetts in 1993 that was to change my life forever.

Throughout my journey, I absorbed countless teachings by spiritual folks of every variety, read endless books and tried to be as open as I could be to all: Zen, Tibetan, Vipassna Buddhism, Hassidic Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Much of my time during the search was spent asking people wiser than myself: “What is enlightenment? How does one experience compassion? How does one find meaning in a violent world?”

And I realized I had been wrong about happiness.

I had imagined myself happy—during most of my political career in Sacramento and elsewhere—because I had not known any better. But I came to learn that what I called happiness were experiences—money, power, fame, sex—that had opposites, and often required deep contraction and separation from others to achieve. My “successes” had created an artificial bubble that kept me from truly reaching my full potential.

I realized that what I knew was a tiny portion of what the species knew, and what the species knew was an infinitesimally small portion of what there was to know. And yet I was basing my life on the little I knew.

So I decided in August 1990 to begin living from questions rather than answers, to move from knowledge to mystery. Today, I would not trade one iota of my spiritual discoveries for the most prestigious job, fattest back account, or greatest fame in the world.

I was not happy before, though I thought I was.

I am deeply happy now.

And this is how it happened.

Leaving the village

It was a lovely night in Sacramento in the spring of 1982.

My office had initiated, helped design and lobby through a trailblazing $25 million “Investment in People” initiative that was to have national influence through governors such as Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, and promised to improve education, job training and welfare reform within California. We had, for the first time, brought together dozens of people from administration agencies to work together, and that night we all met for a party to celebrate our success.

Gathered around a piano, we sang songs and laughed uproariously as we told war stories of our yearlong campaign, including the time I had told a colleague out of the side of my mouth that the votes were “in the bag” just before the start of a pivotal state Senate hearing, not realizing that my words were being broadcast throughout the Capitol.

But the few nights of happiness in Sacramento were diminished by what I disliked about it. The fighting and the feuding within the administration, between it and the Legislature, between the politicians and the press. The egos, the concern for personal advancement. In none of the dozens of meetings I attended would anyone advocate saying something publicly because it was the truth. The case was always what we could get away with, what would sound best, what the press would buy.

The strangest thing of all were the events that would occur when someone left the administration. Only in Sacramento and other political cities was it considered normal to hold a “roast,” in which people vied to destroy and humiliate the departing administration member. I remember leaving those events sick at stomach.

Most of all, I didn’t like what Sacramento was doing to me.

To survive, I was becoming as competitive, paranoid, ego-driven as everyone else. And the years following Sacramento, working for Sen. Gary Hart’s think tank (until Donna Rice came into our lives), running Rebuild America, continued the pattern.

But, in August 1986, something happened which I was only to realize years later was a pivotal event in my life. Working at the Hart think tank one day, I received a phone call. And ran out to the airport, jumped on an airplane, flew to Fort Lauderdale, and took a taxi to a small room where a thin, emaciated old man lay in a hospital bed.

My father. Dying.

When I entered the room and he sat up and smiled at me, I experienced a love that I had never known possible. So, too, when he asked for yellow legal paper on his last night on earth and wrote movingly of his love for us and my mother in words that he had never before uttered or written.

When he said aloud for the first time that he would die and my family and I spontaneously went out in the hallway and held each other and sobbed, when I had to tell him the doctor had declined his request to be “put out,” and when his body would convulse horribly as they drained him of fluids so he could stay alive until my brother came from Jerusalem, I experienced levels of pain that I had never before known existed.

And when, finally, on Sunday around 11 a.m. he angrily knocked away the oxygen mask, and for what seemed like hours, I sat directly in front of his great, mustachioed head as he slowly passed from life to death. I moved beyond love or terror to other dimensions of being that cannot be described, only experienced.

I did not understand these other dimensions of being then, nor do I today. All that I know is that there, in that hospital room, they made my previous life seem insignificant. From time to time, I would try to remember Senator Hart, the Strategic Investment Initiative, the world of politics, and how I had ever taken them seriously. I could not.

Within a week or two of my father’s death, however, these realizations receded into the background. I returned to my previous world, trying vainly from time to time to recall what I had experienced in the hospital room. I was once more caught up in the world of doing, achieving, succeeding.

Something, however, had changed.

I needed to understand what had happened in that hospital room so, in my spare time, I found myself increasingly drawn to spiritual books, lectures, audiotapes by the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass, a rabbi discoursing on the Kabbalah, a western Buddhist nun living in the Himalayas. And the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell were to provide a whole new language and set of ideas to process my experiences.


One day I found a videotape that featured a thin, earnest, young man leading a workshop. To my amazement, it was about death. It was the first thing I had come across that seemed to offer direct answers to the questions that had arisen in my father’s hospital room. I had never heard of Stephen Levine, but the tape was the most powerful I had seen. His theme: Death is a teacher, we can only learn to live fully by confronting rather than denying it, and the key lesson is to learn to “be” rather than to “do.”

The tape made it clear that there were answers to the questions raised by my father’s death—but they were to be in the world of meditation, not politics.

I became quite interested in meditation during this period. I began reading about it, listened to Alan Watts’ instructions for doing it, and made some tentative but not very successful attempts to practice it. I wasn’t really getting anywhere, and finally, in December 1989, I decided to undergo full immersion: to enter a 10-day retreat taught by Jack Kornfield, an old friend from Laos, and see, once and for all, whether it was for me.

It was. During my first retreat at the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Mass., I had some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I rarely cry, but during this retreat, I found myself sobbing at remembering my father’s death, things I had seen in Laos, and wondering how, once one starts, one ever stops.

I took to meditation, finding it provided tools to deal with painful feelings, deep experiences of inner peace, aliveness and compassion, new insights into every aspect of my life and, above all, a path to access the Mystery that I had glimpsed in my father’s hospital room.

Despite this, however, I was not yet ready to leave politics. The winter and spring of 1990 were unusually successful: two big conferences that received a lot of U.S. media attention and front-page coverage in Japan; a $100,000 contract with a Japanese publisher; Commerce Secretary Mosbacher endorsement of our proposal for “industry-led strategy” leading to a highly publicized battle with Messrs. Sununu, Darman and Boskin over technology policy; Gov. Clinton agreeing to join our board.

And then my mother had a stroke in May 1990.

Body intact, mind damaged, I decided to spend July 1990 in Florida in a motel by the beach, visiting her for several hours a day, eating lunch, going to movies. During this month, I would walk up and down the moonlit beach in a bathing suit, alone, at 3 and 4 in the morning. I would think of how I live in a planet, one of 10, rotating around a star, one of 200 billion, in a galaxy, one of 100 billion, whose dimensions and purpose my brain would never evolve to comprehend. We could not even see planets in other solar systems or galaxies, let alone know whether intelligence existed on them—and those were just physical facts. How would we ever understand intelligences and consciousnesses far different from our own?

And I would marvel at how I had ever taken comfort from being mentioned in the New York Times, or flattered myself that I might help “make history.” If earth managed to survive human folly, it would last another 5 billion years, 50 million lifetimes, measuring one lifetime as 100 years. Our entire civilization would barely be remembered a few hundred or thousand lifetimes from now, while I would be entirely forgotten with the death of those who had known me.

The remaining years of my life. So short. So very short. And I was going to waste time doing things I didn’t want to do, pursuing goals that I knew deep down didn’t really matter?

To ask the question was to answer it.

One night that month, I awakened from a deep sleep at 3 in the morning, my defenses down. Dimly, I felt a fear of death arising and saw myself begin to push it away. Something in me said, “You have been doing this your whole life. It’s time to do something different. Let it come!” The next 15-30 minutes were among the most excruciating of my life. I felt like I was suffocating, and I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but could not because I felt paralyzed. At times I felt like I was burning alive. But then, suddenly, I came out of it and felt alive as I never had. It was not a thought of “how great it is to be alive!” It was a nonverbal experience of every cell of my body being alive.

The experience was pivotal, though it remains almost impossible to describe in words. Somehow I realized that my sense that “I wasn’t that worried about death” was denial, that horror lurked beneath the surface, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. But most importantly, the experience transformed me on some deep level. Having touched my horror of death, and my love of life, I was no longer willing to live a half-life in politics.

When I left that beach I was not the same person who had arrived a month earlier. I had made two basic decisions.

The first was that I would never again do what I did not want to do, even if I did not yet have an alternative. I would close down Rebuild America, though I had no idea what to do next and little money to do it with. The second decision reflected Siddhartha’s comment to the merchant that he knew how to think, fast and wait. I decided that I would only do what emerged.

It was exactly four years since my father had died.

It was time to begin the journey.

The path to alignment

My former wife used to say that I was the type who, when standing on this mountain, was always looking at the next one. I looked outward for vindication—to others, the media, the amount of money I raised or “impact” I was having.

But now—as I began to spend time in study and meditation—in Jerusalem, Hungary, India, Laos and Massachusetts—I made “going within” my sole psychic focus. This involved such issues as observing my behavior, thoughts, feelings and sensations, learning to decontract in the face of anxiety, breaking through years of denial about my own grief—quite a contrast to my previous focus on understanding the Information Revolution, education, energy and economic policy.

The study and meditation complemented each other. While the greatest breakthroughs occurred in the silence of meditation, for example, they would not have happened without my studies with spiritual teacher Laszlo Honti in Hungary.

Early on, Laszlo said that we were all “little emperors” until about age 3, when society—parents, teachers, friends, mentors, media, leaders—stepped in to tell us how we “should” behave. By the time we were adults, we were all confused, our brains filled with dozens of voices, not really sure what we believed. He invited me to return metaphorically to age 3.

Time and again, Laszlo invited me to be “selfish.” I was stunned by this teaching, for it seemed the opposite of what one expected from a spiritual teacher. I was living with Zsuzsa Beres in Hungary at the time, and had chatted with another woman at a workshop I attended. To test what Laszlo meant, I asked him if being “selfish” meant I should try to have an affair on the side. “I wouldn’t tell you not to,” was his response. I was stunned. What kind of advice was this from a “spiritual teacher”?

By giving me permission to really be “selfish,” however, Laszlo helped me understand that that what we call selfish is self-destructive. Just as an affair would poison my wonderful relationship with Zsuzsa, the pursuit of material pleasures or success at the expense of others was ultimately not in one’s self-interest at all. To be truly selfish was to live at peace, in compassion, nonmaterialistically—the very way the moralists wish us to live.

Other insights began to flow as I re-examined every aspect of my former life. I realized, for example, that my need to work in politics, to “help others,” had been largely driven by ego, a feeling that I didn’t matter unless I could show, at least to myself, that I mattered. I shuddered at how I had been driven by a desire to “make history,” realizing it as the expression of an inner sense of worthlessness more than a genuine compassion for others.

But if I saw through the illusions of the past, what truths could I replace them with? What would bring me happiness?

One favorite teaching of Laszlo was deceptively simple—to include. Walk down the street, eat your meal, wash your face, and include everything, as if it was all meant to be, as if it was exactly what you wanted. Try it. It’s very, very difficult, especially when you miss the bus or cut yourself shaving. But over time, slowly, you begin to shift your focus away from something outside yourself, something that may not be achievable like catching the bus, to something you can achieve, something under your control: like accepting that you have missed the bus. And when it’s your goal, how good it feels to choose to accept.

Another time I asked Laszlo how he would rank in importance various professions—politician, religious teacher, writer, etc. “Gaia is interested in our process, not function,” he said. It made sense. If millions of people pay attention to process—their patterns of consumption, how they treat people and other living things, their own internal level of peace—Gaia will prosper. Far more than leaders we needed people who had achieved inner peace, were not driven to consume, felt compassion. And the place to start was with me.

How I lived was far more important than any position I might hold.

[page] The path to connection

I had always assumed I was a compassionate human being, since my work was devoted to helping others. But many with whom I worked did not share this conclusion. On the contrary, they found me judgmental, critical, hard to work with.

I remembered running into Stephen Levine back in a 1989 workshop. I explained the problem to him that my greatest successes in politics occurred when I was angry. As I grew less angry, I was less successful. If one wasn’t motivated by anger in politics, I asked him, what could the motivation be? “Compassion,” he answered.

I understood feeling compassion for a blind person, I said, but how did one develop sufficient compassion to get out of bed at 3 in the morning to write a political position paper? “Get in touch with your own grief,” he had answered. And how to do that? “Meditate.”

As I entered a silent retreat in Massachusetts, Levine’s words kept moving through me like a half-remembered song. What did it mean “to get in touch with my grief”? I decided I had to find out what it meant, and that I would make it one of the main goals during the retreat. For a while, it was really tough going. For days on end, I would sit there for 10, 15, 45 minutes trying to do so—and fail. Feeling little more than a dull ache, surrounded by a kind of emptiness, coldness, rigidity. I realized that had been the basic pattern of my life. I was locked into a pattern of avoiding pain.

Then, one day, BOOM! Sitting on my cushion, focusing my attention on my pain, trying to grow it, I was suddenly overwhelmed by incredible pain, grief, suffering that filled every cell of my body. And, from that moment on, for weeks, it became my dominant experience. A heavy, intense, overwhelming sadness, depression, pain, would periodically overwhelm me. I had gotten in touch with my grief. And it was now overwhelming me.

Then something remarkable happened. I began to cry and found, after a lifetime of avoiding tears, that I could cry at will. And I made crying, just pure crying, for no specific reason other than to touch the grief within me, part of my daily practice.

And this practice led to a major realization. My whole life, I had thought that what I wanted was to escape this plane of grief and pain to live in a world of light, ecstasy and bliss. And I found, as I got in touch with my grief, that what I actually wanted was to feel both my pain and my joy, but be captured by neither. How ugly to feel bliss all the time—the unbearable lightness of being indeed! How empty to simply feel joy and bliss 24 hours a day in a world of Holocausts, the rape of Bosnian women, the self-destruction of our environment.

And at the same time, I certainly didn’t want to walk around all day feeling heavy, depressed, miserable, immersed in suffering. I found myself reveling in those moments when I could feel the pain, the grief, the suffering, but suspended in a lake of peace, of calm, of light. The metaphor of a stove seemed apt—I would keep the burners of pain high enough to keep me alive, but not too high.

And as I learned to touch my grief on my terms, I also learned the true meaning of compassion. I had always thought of compassion as feeling sorry, or love, or sympathy, for someone else. Now I learned that it was feeling my own sorrow, and then just seeing someone else.

One night, for example, I was thinking of the war in Yugoslavia that was raging throughout our retreat. I had seen a reference to a school having been bombed, children murdered, seen a photo of a father holding his son in his hands. I had felt bad for a moment, then the feeling had passed. This night I spent some time imagining a son of my own. As I meditated, I gave him, in my mind, a name and a face. I played with him. I imagined him eating, asking questions. Then, after some time, I imagined him, my own son, dead. The pain was unbearable, intense, long-lasting. Then I turned my attention to the father in Yugoslavia, thought of him, holding his dead son in his arms. The pain was unbearable, intense, long-lasting. I understood. This was compassion.

I had, I felt, found what Levine had meant. I had discovered how touching my own grief led to compassion. And I had discovered something else: at my best, my relations to others for the rest of my life would also be characterized by this kind of compassion or, to use a better word, connection.

I knew I would not always be able to live that way when I returned “to the world”—past conditioning, the pressures of life, finances, would take care of that. I was no Mother Teresa.

And at least, for the first time in my life, I knew how I wished to behave, what my goals toward my fellow beings were.

It was good to experience connection.

The path to mystery

When I began this journey, my experience was pretty much limited to human purpose. When I thought of the meaning of life, it was in terms of helping other fellow humans. The furthest out I could think was making a contribution to future generations.

Like all of us, I had had mystical experiences where time had stood still, matter dissolved. But it was not until those two days in my father’s hospital room that such experiences were sustained and powerful enough to shatter my previous way of being. If there was a whole world out there beyond human experience and purpose, what was it? I looked and looked and finally met Brahm Chaitanya in the beautiful town of Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was explained to me with awe that he lived in Gangotri, a particularly holy place next to a glacier believed to be a source of the Ganges, a place which was inaccessible to the outside world six months a year.

A tall, bearded man with a booming laugh who spoke the King’s English, Brahm Chaitanya stressed one theme above all in our talks: There existed a realm far beyond human purpose that should become the object of my attention. One day I challenged Brahm Chaitanya on his assertion that he did not fear death. How would you now, I asked, until you faced it? He laughed uproariously, and with even greater excitement and verve than usual, explained that, “Well, I’ve been on a bus that slid nearly over the ledge of a mountain, and I was sitting on the corner and saw right down into the valley.”

And you were completely calm, you felt no fear? “Not at all,” he responded. “I enjoyed the fun, and exuberantly shouted out in joy in the moment.” And he broke into an unusually loud, long and booming peal of laughter. And as he laughed I felt, not understood, that yes, it is possible to live in other realms, realms in which the death of the body, the stuff of ego, was at most secondary.

At such moments of knowing not understanding—walking along the Ganges at sunrise in Benares as thousands solemnly, piously, quietly bathe in the waters they believe to be not merely sacred but literally God Itself, passing burning corpses of people who have come many hundreds of miles to die in God, experiencing the ferocious intensity of feeling in a Hassidic synagogue in Jerusalem, losing oneself in music, dance and the sound of people talking in tongues in a London fundamentalist church—I glimpsed the “realm beyond,” had flashes of my relation to the cosmos independent of my connection with my fellow human beings or harmonizing my own inner drives.

Other realizations occurred to me as well during my time in India. One of the things I most wanted to do there was spend some time in a cave. To find out what it was like. It turns out, though, that this is not so easy, at least if you are a visitor to Rishikesh. The good caves are already taken.

But after many travails, I finally wound up one night in a cave, all by myself, overlooking the Holy Ganges. At first the experience was ecstatic. I took off my clothes and crawled forward into a tiny crawl space, sat up and began chanting loudly. Just as I was beginning to feel one with the sound, however, I heard a voice at the door of the cave. I was terrified. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not alone in the darkness. I discovered in the door a traveling sadhu; I spoke no Hindi and he no English. I sadly gestured that he should move on the village, and found I was no longer in the space to meditate.

No problem. I would get into bed, turn on my flashlight and read the spiritual book I had brought with me. As I did so, I suddenly started to hear noises. I shined my flashlight towards the noise, and there it was! A giant, bewhiskered rat.

A rat, for God’s sake! In the cave with me! At first, I went into denial, reading my book, but soon there were more rats. I was in sheer terror! Visions of rats gnawing at my eyes if I feel asleep entered my mind. As the hours passed, however, I remembered the teachings. Include. Accept. Align with. Somehow I succeeded in relaxing into it, just before I feel asleep. I awoke happy, having survived the night and achieved my goal of accepting the situation.

Later, when I arrived in Calcutta, it was with a copy of City of Joy in my hand. I spent the first few days wandering the giant slums described in the book: tiny, tiny streets that meandered for miles and miles, with hot, tin shacks providing cover to the millions who dwelled within.

I emerged from the slum to one of the most incredible sights of my life: the great Houri bridge at sunset, summing up Calcutta in all its magnificence and horror. This giant bridge is filled at sunset with tens of thousands of people, cars, trucks, cows, goats, bicycles, motor scooters. No lanes, no paths; you just grunt on through.

I volunteered to work at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, where there were three Western volunteers for every dying person. My first thought was whether I would get an infectious disease as I washed the dishes, cleaned up the bloody rags. One day I found myself with one end of a bamboo pole over my shoulders as I and another volunteer carried a large tin filled with bloody bandages, vomit, remains of needles and unnameable disgusting globs of whatever to the dump. As we reached the place, we were besieged by dozens of children and women fighting each other to pore through the garbage for remnants of stuff.

By the end of three weeks in Calcutta, I felt obliterated.

My nerve endings were raw. I had been overwhelmed. I wrote a friend that I had finally realized the true meaninglessness of my existence. The only difference between me and these people were the traveler’s checks in my wallet. I left Calcutta depleted and wiped out. The connection had been broke. And the sense of broken connection was intensified by my return to Laos.

As a younger man, while the Vietnam war raged, I had interviewed peasants from the Plain of Jars in Laos and discovered the U.S. had bombed them for five years while claiming it had never dropped a bomb on Laos. And it was bombing and killing new peasants as I talked with the survivors. I set out to expose the air war, interpreting for journalists and getting stories on TV, sending letters and documentation to Sens. Ted Kennedy and J.W. Fulbright, writing articles, interviewing U.S. pilots and other airmen, and eventually helping lead a campaign to stop the bombing.

But my return to Laos was gravely disappointing. I had believed that the Pathet Lao guerrillas were far preferable to the Royal Lao government the America supported, but the improvement since they had taken power was not as great as I had assumed. There was still enormous corruption and little energy for helping the peasants. Things were just stagnating. All those years spent struggling to end the war, and it had come to this. Sure, it was great that there might be some people alive who might be otherwise dead had we not fought to end the bombing. The Pathet Lao were marginally better than the Royal Lao Government. But beyond that, it seemed relatively little had been accomplished in the long run.

What was the lesson here? Many of my spiritual teachers would say: We need to straighten ourselves out before we can straighten out society. But though I was experiencing, glimpses, getting flashes, I had not yet really understood.

These were the questions whirring through my mind as I entered a three-month retreat in Barre.

[page] Opening the door of mystery

I was unmarried and had no children. My three brothers and a handful of friends were spread around the globe. I had burned most of bridges to my past, and neither wished to nor could go backward. I had five $100 American Express traveler’s checks to my name, and a debt to the IRS that was eventually to reach some $30,000 before I was able to repay it. I had no job, and certainly no promise of a job awaiting me when I left. I knew no one at the retreat, and it would hardly have mattered if I did, since it was to be silent.

While former colleagues were serving as Cabinet secretaries, White House aides and department heads in the new Clinton administration, or serving as senators or representatives, my work was counting out oranges and bananas for breakfast prep the next day. I was in short, at that moment in my life, about as far as possible from the external experiences I had always assumed I needed to be happy.

The retreat itself was no joyride.

The schedule involved waking about 5 in the morning, and sitting and walking silently in alternate 45-minute periods until 10 at night, with breaks for meals and jobs. What was particularly maddening was how they would persist and persist and persist. The instructions are to watch your thoughts, feelings and sensations arise, exist and fade away, and not to get stuck in them. In reality, I found myself totally stuck in my thoughts, going over years of painful incidents from my previous past relationships, re-experiencing bad feelings and bad vibes and past slights that I had assumed were long forgotten.

As time wore on, however, as I grew used to my surroundings, as I developed a daily schedule that included sleeping when my body felt like it for the first time since I was an infant; eating vegetarian food; going for long, daily walking meditations in the beautiful woods surrounding the retreat center; doing daily meditations outside in the sunlight. I found myself growing stronger and healthier—physically, emotionally, mentally.

And then, suddenly, it happened.

It was two months or so into the retreat, 4 or 5 in the afternoon as the sun was setting. As I was doing walking meditation by myself in a large hall usually occupied by several dozen meditators. Walking slowly, step by step, being aware of each movement of the foot, lifting, moving, falling, impact, lifting, moving, falling, impact, one foot, then the other.

It happened.

I cannot say much about the experience itself. It was nonverbal, nonconceptual. It literally cannot be described in words. And even if it could, it is not clear that doing so would be appropriate.

All that can be said here is what happened afterward. In the days and weeks following this experience, the key words I found emerging into consciousness to try and explain to myself what had happened were “happy” and “deep peace.” A shift had occurred. Not a shift from one mood to another, but from one state of being to another.

What struck me most about this new state of being was that I had not really known it existed until now. I kept thinking of Plato’s analogy of the cave. All I had known was darkness. I had not known the sunlight existed. Now I suddenly found myself living in it. I remembered the old monk in Rishikesh’s description of such a shift: “deep sleep with full awareness,” a deep internal peace coupled with a feeling of aliveness in every cell. I wasn’t there yet, and probably never would be. But I had come close enough to be able to sense what the experience was.

From this perspective, I looked back on my previous life with amazement. For one thing, I realized that I had truly enjoyed the external satisfactions that had come my way in the past. And they had never lasted. Now here I was in this retreat, no money, no sex, no drugs, no work, no impact, no fame—and happy in an entirely new way. I mean really happy. And it seemed that my real work, if I wanted to remain happy, was to continue to pay attention to my internal state of being.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the experience was arriving at the door of Mystery. The idea that we humans are not given to truly understand the world in which we live had been a growing theme of my thoughts for many years, particularly since I had looked into the void in my father’s hospital room.

It seems clear that our human brains have not yet evolved to fully plumb either the outer or inner limits of the physical universe. No matter how long we peer into the heavens, for example, we are unlikely ever to know how many planets there are in our own little galaxy, let alone all the other galaxies. And we were even less likely to know which, if any, have life, or the laws by which that life operates and communicates and thinks. And as without, so within. When we finish mapping the human genome, we will have barely begun to understand its component parts, and then its internal workings.

And if we can never fully understand the material universe, how can we claim to understand the world of spirit and consciousness? This experience during the retreat was the first time that I fully experienced this genuine mystery as a felt sense, knew it to be true in my body, in the deepest recesses of my being.

I finally experienced, in short, the world of Being about which I had heard and read so much. I had learned that my lifelong search for “meaning” was just one more trap, a separation from what is, from being itself. I had traveled beyond “meaning” to “Mystery”: an experience so profound that it could not be expressed or explained, only lived.

I was left with a profound sense of awe and humility, a figurative bending of the knee before the awesome power of the universe, a power that I not only did not but could not understand.

Return to the world

At the end of the retreat in December 1993, I was not merely happier than I had ever been, I was in an entirely different state of being. The experience of alignment, compassion and awe before the Mystery of existence gave me a feeling of inner peace coupled with intense aliveness that I had never before imagined possible.

And I had $500 to my name. And I owed the IRS tens of thousands. And I experienced that I would return to “the world.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, I was offered a well-paying job by my friend Ed Miller, the head of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, to promote a manufacturing lab used to teach math and science that we were eventually to bring to South Central Los Angeles.

After paying off my debts and becoming solvent, I realized my place was back here in the cave. I am not able to live in a world of Bosnias, hunger and inner cities without wanting to do something to help. But I do it as an expression of who I am, not out of anger, or a need to justify my existence by trying to “make history.” If I can make a contribution, fine. If not, also fine. Gaia is far more interested in my process than my function, and my greatest contribution is to live as simply and peacefully as I can.

My present work is designing the “Meaning and Mortality” project, which seeks to engage our society-wide denial of death. The project seeks to helps us grapple with meaning in the face of our mortality, based on the overwhelming evidence that working with our long-repressed death anxieties can lead to greater life purpose, aliveness, compassion, creativity, awareness and spirituality.

The years that followed my return have not always been easy.

I have found, of course, that I cannot live from Mystery most of the time. To really open myself up to permanent awe and wonder would make it impossible to function in the world, drive from point A to point B. I often find myself back in a world of answers and newspapers, bothered by people, concerned about money. My biggest difficulty has been continuing to avoid facing painful feelings from childhood, diminishing my relationships with others.

At the same time, however, everything has shifted for me. In the past, problems with money, relationship, meaning, shook me to my core. Today they are just storms moving through, over a lake of peace and calm that is not disturbed by anything.

Yes, I have returned to the cave of public policy, politics, ego and money. But no, I have not forgotten the sunlight of the spirit. It lives here, in my heart, undisturbed by outer circumstances. After a lifetime of searching, I suddenly found my home.

It is a strange kind of home.

No up, no down, no good, no bad. No flags, currency or identities. No life, no death, no answers. Only questions. A world of mystery without the meanings, contours or guideposts I used to need to feel safe.

I feel aligned with the dance of being in my new home. I touch my grief, and thus feel compassion for my fellow beings. And I experience the Mystery of Being.

Above all, I accept and embrace it all. I no longer need a transcendent “meaning” to justify my existence. It is enough to be, in peace, compassion and awe.

And it is good to be.

To be.

No more.

And no less.