Transitions, Transformation, Life Changes and Personal Calling. My Journey through Buddhism, Mindful
My personal meaning in life lays in my transition from a secular and hedonistic lifestyle to a life based on Buddhist values. While it is still an ongoing transition for me, I am mostly talking about a period of four years between my first Buddhist retreat and my last day in Israel. The first reference point of my transition, the beginning, occurred when I was twenty seven, on my first Buddhist retreat. During ten days, I made a close acquaintance with Buddhism and meditation, an encounter that forever changed the way I view the world and myself. The second reference point, the end of the transition, happened four years later, on the day of my flight from Israel to America. On that day, I looked back on the transformation that took place since that retreat, knowing that its second chapter awaited me overseas.
I regard the period marked by these two events, as the most important transition in my life. It included many changes that are present in major life transitions as discussed by Bridges (1980): losses of relationships, changes in home life, personal changes, work and financial changes, and inner changes. I experienced losses of relationships including: breaking up with my fiancé and ending many destructive and unproductive friendships. Changes in my home life included moving out of my rented house and moving in with family. Because of this, I experienced decreased domestic tension. Personal changes included a complete transformation in my lifestyle, eating habits and sleep-patterns. Work and financial changes included increased income and a new job in the field of psychotherapy. I was able to save enough money for Naropa’s tuition, and initiate many projects. I started a meditation program in a recovery institution and music programs for problematic youth and psychiatric patients in recovery. Inner changes included changes in self-image and values. I discovered a new dream to become a contemplative psychotherapist. I abandoned an old dream of becoming a famous and wealthy musician for simply enjoying my music career, and most importantly, I adopted a Buddhist meditation practice.
The conscious choice to live by Buddhist ethics and moral guidelines was the most central change. It served as the cause for the majority of all the other changes during this transition. Baumann (1998) lists these moral guidelines:
The reference to ethics can be found in the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, in the Four Noble Truths. The Fourth Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path (aññhangika-magga), includes Right (or Perfect) View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness, and finally, Right Meditation. (p. 123)
The main reason for adopting these guidelines was the strong feeling of truth that I felt almost every time I heard, read, or acted upon those principles. The feeling included relaxation in body and mind, focus, positivity, energy, and confidence. I felt strongly that these guidelines were the right way to live my life. I added positive things to my life during these years. I felt these things were beneficial to my path and congruent with Buddhist views. I engaged with everyday meditation practice, Qigong and yoga, retreats, new people that helped me on my path, and two years of therapy. I also chose to pursue the career of a psychotherapist. In addition to these life changes, I renounced everything that I felt was not beneficial for me in my path, such as the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, caffeine, sugar and any other mind-altering substances. For the first three years of that period, I abstained from any kind of romantic or sexual relationship to explore my mind, emotions and sense of self outside of that context. I ended many codependent relationships that kept me from fulfilling my full potential. The main outcome of these changes was that I have started to accept others and myself as we are, and discovered tranquility and calmness I have never experienced before in my life. All of my relationships, especially with my family, changed from the core. I found patience, understanding, and care for others and myself on levels I did not encounter before.
Suler (1998) explains paradox as a statement or behavior that seems to be inconsistent, absurd, or self- contradictory, yet in fact true. “It thrusts one, literally, into “nonsense” by challenging common sense and violating one’s basic assumptions about reality” (Suler, 1998, p. 321). Paradox came into play a lot during this transition. Paradox can be especially noticed while being in between reference points, and while shifting between the old self and the new self (Jack. M., lecture, September 16, 2014). I was shifting my whole lifestyle and views towards a life based on Buddhist views and practices. Another paradox of my old self versus my new self was that I was seeking pleasure in external things, while after the first meditation retreat I started to seek the pleasure within. In the beginning of those four years, it was only a form of spiritual materialism.
If you are really interested in working with yourself, you can’t lead that kind of double life, adopting ideas, techniques, and concepts of all kinds, simply in order to get away from yourself. That is what we call spiritual materialism: hoping that you can have a nice sleep, under anesthetics, and by the time you awaken, everything will be sewn up. Everything will be healed. (Trungpa, 1984, p. 74)
At the beginning of my transition period, I was hoping and expecting that meditation, retreats, renunciation, and the acceptance of Buddhist ideas would solve all of my problems. I was in love with contemplative practice, and made the mistake of feeding my ego with the notions that I was a constantly improving version of myself. Sometimes I even felt that I was better than others who did not practice meditation. On the other hand, after a long search I did finally find something that worked. After countless books of self-help and various practices that turned out to be just a waste of time, the tremendous power of mindfulness had such an impact on me that it completely changed my life. With time, spiritual materialism started to fade away, and the practice continued with fewer expectations, and less reward for the ego.
I see paradox as the heart of an any transition’s turmoil, which explains the sense of groundlessness I experienced throughout my transformation. A metaphor that comes to mind is that of an onion. I was peeling unneeded layers of myself, which was painful and accompanied with tears, just to find that there is nothing in the core. A revelation that came to me very clearly during one of the retreats was that the “I” is just a process, which recreates itself in each moment. I was stepping slowly on the ground during a walking meditation. I saw clearly how for one moment I was an undergrad student, in the next moment I was a seven years old child, and in the moment after I was the one who was stepping on the ground and watching that process. It felt absurd and funny in a way. It also brought a real sense of relief. Suddenly there was no need any more to take myself so seriously.
Suler (1998) sums up the way that paradox appears in the felt process I mentioned above; “The self-contradiction arising from the action of the self attempting to grasp or reflect on itself may take the form of paradoxical conflict between different levels of self-examination” (p. 321). During that walking meditation, I truly felt this paradox – I was all these characters from the past and the imagined future at the same time. They felt very real, but that feeling lasted only for a moment. One imagined self was constantly replacing the other. The identities felt very real, but I could also see them as they are. They were just a mere a story and did not really exist. My transition was a shift from an old self to a new self. I stopped believing in my identities so much. It also reflects in my dream journal. Many of the dreams that were occurring close to the end of my transition, when I just arrived to the US, were about death. My guess is that it was a reflection of the ending of yet another self.
I have experienced an additional paradox - the joy and sense of liberation I felt were partially due to the lack of the things that I considered enjoyable in the past. I have discovered that abstinence from enjoyable sense pleasures brought me much more happiness than the indulgence. I did not miss meat, sex, sweets, and recreational drugs. I was enjoying my newfound freedom.
Hillman’s Acorn Theory talks about a sense of calling that is pushing us towards our future, to fulfill our destiny. The theory talks about the predetermined destiny, the calling, the acorn, the daemon, and our relationship with it. This relationship can manifest in various forms of acceptance or resistance.
There is more in human life than our theories of it allow. Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this “something” as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am. (Hillman, 1996, p. 3)
That elusive something that Hillman is basing his theory on is exactly what happened to me when I searched online for a film about Buddhism and meditation. At that moment, I felt such a sense of urgency that I had to stop everything I was doing and just acted on that feeling. While I was reading the descriptions of the movies, that sense of urgency intensified. It felt like something was happening, and I was just witnessing the process. Looking back, it seems like I was looking for a specific movie without knowing what it was. When I have found it, I recognized it immediately. I intuitively knew that this was the first step in a series of very important events. The movie I watched, “Enlightenment Guaranteed”, tells the story of two brothers who had trouble in their lives and decided to go on a retreat in a Zen monastery. Through their eyes, I experienced the change that mindfulness and meditation can make in one’s life. As soon as I finished watching the movie, I realized that this was just a preview. I felt extremely focused, activated, and target oriented. I was acting as if I was on autopilot when I started to search for a real retreat.
In congruence with Hillman’s notion that our calling choses us, I believe that the fact that a retreat was opening in just a week from when I was searching for it, was not a coincidence. According to Hillman’s theory, we all are born with a true nature. “The acorn theory proposes and I bring evidence for the claim that you and I and every single person is born with a defining image” (Hillman, 1996, p.3). This resembles in my understanding Chögyam Trungpa’s term brilliant sanity, which is our true inherent nature, the wakefulness inside any of us (Trungpa, 1984). We are all born with a purpose to realize our destination. The terms differ in a way. Hillman talks about a different calling for each one of us, while Trungpa talks about one basic true nature, which we all share. Brilliant sanity is the clarity, which enables us to experience and to see what we see. It is what helps us recognize our thoughts by being mindful. Brilliant sanity is warmth, compassion, our desire to relieve suffering, openness, spaciousness, and the ability to stay with any experience. Trungpa’s brilliant sanity is about our basic goodness . I think that the two theories are not contradictory. Our basic nature, brilliant sanity, is what is driving us, and the acorn, or the daemon is the personal manifestation of it in the world. In my personal transition, I think that this inherent nature, brilliant sanity, is what made me resonate so much with Buddhist ideas and practice.
This inherent desire to relieve suffering may manifested in my decision to become a psychotherapist in the middle of that transition. What made me want to choose a profession that will revolve around the problems of others? When contemplating on brilliant sanity and Acorn Theory, I see them both as the driving forces behind that decision.
Choosing a profession that will deal mainly with suffering is another paradox. If I want to relieve my own suffering, should not I just avoid dealing with suffering? This is where contemplative practice really came into play. Throughout the transition, as my practice progressed, I encountered more frequently the feeling of interconnectedness. On a somatic level, sometimes during meditation it felt like I was in the middle of a huge endless field. I was breathing that space. While that space was coming in and out with my breath, I felt that I was disappearing. On a social level, I started seeing the interconnectedness in action within the dynamics in my family. While I was changing, my family was changing. My interactions with them suddenly received a sense of freshness, gentleness, and compassion. Those qualities appeared from my side and from theirs. It felt like every time I was sitting down on a cushion to meditate, my family was joining me. We were changing together. When I was able to give more space for them, to be more empathic and understanding, they were able to do the same for me. The amount of suffering in our family was disappearing.
One of the main parts in my transition was moving to live with my grandmother. Before that, I lived for more than ten years with roommates or my fiancé. Moving was a temporary solution, which became permanent for the whole four years of my transition. I moved to separate myself physically from the environment, the lifestyle, and the people in my life at that time. I broke up with my fiancé, moved out from the house I was living in with her, and found a real refuge with my family. It enabled me to focus on finishing my Bachelor’s degree and saving money for Naropa’s tuition. It also let me to take care of my dying great-grandmother who lived with my grandmother. Galina, my great-grandmother was a nun. She adopted my grandmother and in that way saved her from the Nazis during the holocaust. The experience of taking care of Galina was extremely hard and at the same time really heart opening. Brilliant sanity, Acorn, and paradox, they all were present during these years. When I was changing dirty diapers for a ninety years old woman, for some reason I was not disgusted. I was happy to serve and help my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. When I was getting up at the middle of the night to the screams of Galina to fix her oxygen mask, I was noticing myself change slightly each time. I was present, less annoyed, and actually happier. I was watching Galina’s life slowly slip away in front of my eyes. My grandmother was doing everything not to let her stepmother to pass away. There was a play of impermanence and clinging to the illusion of permanence. I mindfully observed it while doing my part in taking care of Galina. In return, Galina helped me to let go of my own suffering, in my transition from a self-centered hedonist to a more caring and compassionate being.
One can follow the call that Hellman talks about, or they can ignore it. There is always the possibility of choosing not to connect with your nature (Jack. M., lecture, September 30, 2014). Not everything that I do is a manifestation of brilliant sanity. I have the choice to make the wrong turn, and until my transition, I definitely used this option time after time. It never worked. The shortcuts I took under the illusion that they will bring me happiness only caused me suffering. I believe that the suffering that came each time is life’s built-in mechanism for awakening and pointing to the right path.
Preece (2006) says:
Are we ready and willing to wake up, to let go and open up to our intrinsically fleeting, illusory nature and allow ourselves to change? If we do not do so willingly, that it is inevitable that life circumstances will eventually demand that we face ourselves and shed the skin of our limiting self-conceptions to discover out true nature. Some may take up this challenge, this call, while others choose to do otherwise. (p. 22)
For many years, I chose to do otherwise. During that transition period I have finally took up this challenge, this call. It was the best decision I have ever made in my life.
Sasha Raskin, a therapist in Boulder, provides individual ,family, and couples therapy / counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Sasha Raskin
Baumann, M. (1998). Working in the Right Spirit: The Application of Buddhist Right
Livelihood in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Journal of Buddhist ethics, 5, 121-143.
Bridges, W. (1980). Being in transition. In W. Bridges, Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes (pp. 8-25). Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Hillman, J. (1996). In a nutshell: The acorn theory and the redemption of psychology. In J. Hillman, The soul’s code: In search of character and calling (pp. 3-40). New York: Warner Books.
Preece, R. (2006). Life’s challenge. In R. Preece, The wisdom of imperfection: The challenge of individuation in Buddhist life (pp. 19-26). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.
Suler, J. R. (1998). Paradox. In A. Molino (Ed), The couch and the tree: Dialogues in psychoanalysis and Buddhism (pp. 321-343). New York: North Point Press.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boston, MA: Shambhala.