Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do…
Sooner or later, we all face the essential question: what is life about?
On the exterior, my life had gone rather smoothly. My family is Indian but I grew up in Uganda, East Africa, which is almost an idyllic place to grow up, if you have money, and we did. Life was very good and easy for the most part: school, lots of outdoor barefoot play, and lots of family activity. The country is right on the equator and Kampala is in the hills and the weather is pleasantly hot.
When Idi Amin took over the country, there was trouble. Many people disappeared; some were publicly executed; daily, there was some atrocity. There was an atmosphere of fear—as if something dire would happen at anytime, and very often it did.
I was twelve, old enough to understand what was going on, but too young to really know the implications. To me, what all this trouble really meant was that I didn’t have to go to school!
We fled—my parents and two brothers and I—with only a few clothes and ended up in a UN refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria. My parents were scared for their children and of an uncertain future. Again, I was old enough to understand the precariousness of our situation, but at 13, I was enjoying the adventure. For the first time, I tasted snow. For the first time, I saw girls with yellow hair!
About two years later, we settled in Connecticut. Life was difficult at first, trying to get started in a new country, but we quickly settled into the American mainstream. I did well at school, went to Uconn, then Johns Hopkins, got married, built a house, worked in a soul-crushing but well-playing corporate career, and raised two delightful daughters.
Depression started to visit during my college years but I did not recognize it as depression. I had fun in my college days: I didn’t have to work hard to get through my classes, there was a lot of drinking, smoking weed, women, some experiments with cocaine and amphetemines, rebellious trouble-making—the typical thing, and so when depression visited I figured I was just a little different from others—perhaps I was just more introspective and sensitive at times.
During a depressive down, just before I married, I considered suicide seriously, for the one and only time in my life. I had read somewhere that many people turn to suicide to get relief from the weight of negative emotions. Death does indeed relieve us of this burden, but we’re no longer around to feel the lightness, so what’s the point? That made sense to me. And so I promised myself that if I ever am in that weird place where suicide is an option, I’ll first clean out all my bank accounts, and go have a big, long party in Thailand, and then we’ll see how it goes. If that happens, you’re invited to the party.
Then, there were 16 years of depression, anxiety, self-medicating drinking and a difficult marriage. What kept me going was my daughters—I was very involved with them and all the PTA and soccer and summer vacations and amusement parks and swimming and pets and learning and playing and the whole thing. It was a grand time with the girls.
The divorce ten years ago was inevitable. It was difficult, but not especially so. After a short time, I had custody of the girls. That too wasn’t especially difficult—both girls are highly intelligent and mature.
When the girls left, one by one, to be on their own, life begin to feel empty and meaningless. Life swung between times of energetic adventure and deadening depression. There were times of drinking and friends and women and travel; and there were times of isolating depression and anxiety and insomnia.
Two and half years ago it all came crashing down. I was exhausted. The thing about depression is when you feel bad, you feel bad, but even when you are out of it and feeling somewhat normal, you still have an underlying fear that at anytime the whole thing will collapse. I was just so very tired of the crash-and-rebuild cycles of depression. And so, not from wisdom, but from sheer exhaustion, I accepted my depression and everything it brought to me.
That’s when change happened.
Depression brings a gift. Depression is the opposite of love; it is a dark, desolate, separating numbness, a living death, but it gives us the enormous gift of allowing a peek behind the ego. It let’s us see that the cause of all unhappiness—all of it—is this underlying sense of unease which exists in most of us. It lets us see that most of us operate from fear, darting about like geckos, trying this and trying that, getting this and getting that, in futile attempts to feel complete. We’re all desperately seeking, but we’re not quite sure what it is that we’ve lost.
The problem is really rather simple. You see, we take ourselves to be a bunch of thoughts and emotions. Try it out. Look for your self. I mean, look inside, and find that which you think you are. Who are you? A name? Is what you do what you are? Are you your past? You’re not your body—many parts of the body can be replaced and the essential you will still keep going. Are you your brain? Are you your mind?
If you look closely, in stillness, you find that what you think you are is a bunch of thoughts. We have come to call this the ego. This is the false ‘me.’ Imagine that. What you think you are does not exist.
My awakening started with an insight I had during a ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. The retreat was yet another desperate attempt to make some sort of peace with depression. In the first minute of the very first meditation session, my mind started screaming. It did not want to face itself. I wanted to flee, but the kindness of the instructors and assistants helped see me through.
This gave me the insight that whatever is wrong, is wrong inside.
And then, slowly, with time and learning and healing, I begin to accept that there is more to me than just thoughts and emotions. Or, less.
Awakening is coming out of the thinking mind; it is releasing all the rubbish that has accumulated on top of your natural being.
What does awakening promise?
Unlike the Law of Attraction, Awakening will not put a Ferrari in your driveway if you just think about it. Religion promises heaven after death. Awakening tells me this is already heaven, and I can feel it if I can release the rubbish. Spirituality promises beautiful fantasies about Truth. Philosophy promises ideas and concepts about Truth. Awakening promises Truth itself.
If you have some years behind you, you have felt pain and suffering. Your package of suffering is different from mine, but it’s always the same in that the cause is the fear of separation. This exhibits as severe problems or just an underlying feeling of unease.
Sooner or later you will come to the essential question of what life is all about. Often it is from adversity that we come to this. Life is not working. Life sucks. Something has gone wrong in health, wealth, or relationships. Often we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, “power through,” and we promise ourselves we’ll do better. We flock to self-help, self-improvement, therapy, distractions, and validations for the ego, a new fad, spirituality, or religion.
But at some point, we sit and look, and we can see our lives run in the same cycles. The future is always a variation of the past. The time is different, the players are different, we may have some wisdom from age and experience, but the drama and emotions are always the same. The underlying feeling of unease remains. Joy is absent.
We come face to face with the illusion of who we are. But it’s delicate thing. We come to these introspective places in our lives and we try to figure it out by using thought and emotion. We can‘t help it. This is our conditioning. We try to fix what is wrong with what is wrong.
All it takes is an inward turning and listening to the Heart.
But in illusion, we don’t know what that means.
The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want.
What I have learned in the last three years is that it is all about releasing. It is about letting go. More about that next week.
For now, it’s your turn. Have you experienced a defining moment in your life? Have you come face to face with the illusion of who you are? Are you able to see that you are not your thoughts or emotions? When you consider that you are not your thoughts and emotions, what comes up? Relief? Or fear and anger?