I was born and raised in Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town just north of New York City. From the time I was born, my father would bring me to meditation retreats on almost every vacation. While at these retreats, I learned many different types of meditation practices and really just enjoyed myself. These meditation practices quickly became a very important part of my life, as I started to do these practices on my own every day when I was six years old. Since I was a young child, and already very happy, I didn’t choose to meditate to try to make myself happy. I don’t know why, but somehow I had a really strong longing to know the truth about life. I knew that what I was seeing and experiencing wasn’t the whole story. So I did these meditative practices because I believed that they would eventually expose this ultimate truth that I was looking for, a concept I often referred to as “spiritual enlightenment”.
The idea of enlightenment became the most important thing to me from a very young age, so much so that every wish I ever made was only to know this truth (except one time when I wished to kiss my teenage crush). In order to progress towards my goal, after college, in addition to my daily meditative practices, I decided to minimize my distractions and spend as much time in silence as I could. I stopped watching TV and movies, stopped listening to music, kept my apartment internet-free, spent most of my leisure time alone by choice, and spent three months mostly in silence on a meditation retreat. Seemingly as a result of all this, my daily meditative practices began creating such intense experiences of happiness that they frequently made me cry. Eventually, I began to also have these experiences whenever I encountered beautiful sights and sounds.
The Result of Achieving My Goals
Besides my goal of enlightenment, I also had many other goals, which often took up a good deal of my time, energy, and effort. I wanted success, wealth, and a job I enjoyed; I wanted to go to amazing parties, to date beautiful women, to prove I was smart, and to see the most beautiful places in the world, and I wanted people to love me. That was what I wanted in life, so that was what I pursued. Somehow, at a relatively young age, I managed to get everything I ever wanted. I was working in a prestigious and high-paying job that I loved as a corporate strategy consultant in London after a stint working on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs. I traveled around the world, saw more incredible scenes of nature than I could have imagined, enjoyed unbelievable parties in exotic places (always sober), dated beautiful women from all around Europe, was later accepted into Mensa, and everyone always seemed to love me. All of this led me to have an incredibly high opinion of myself, and I honestly believed I was the happiest guy in the world.
Yet I still wasn’t content. I had an endless drive to keep improving myself and my situation. I constantly needed to keep myself busy. I was always spending my time, money, and energy searching for more fun moments. I frequently judged others in order to maintain my relative opinion of myself (as smarter, funnier, cooler, and happier than others). I forced myself to play soccer and to go to nightclubs(among other things), even when I didn’t feel like it, just so that I could keep thinking of myself as a soccer player and as someone who is fun. Even though I already believed everyone loved me, I still worried about their opinions of me, because I needed to make sure I maintained or even further improved their opinions of me. I often didn’t do or say what I wanted to do because I was worried about what others would think. All of this prevented me from feeling relaxed, free, whole, loving, happy, or peaceful.
A Big Change in My Path
Then, while at a meditation retreat in India, I was somehow hit with the feeling that I needed to stop my meditation practice and try something new in order to progress towards discovering the truth I was looking for. This was a big shock to me, since I had been on the same path my whole life and it had seemingly given me so much, but I had no choice but to listen. So I spent about five months following my intuition, spending the vast majority of my free time alone and in silence, and often watching videos of different teachers. Then, in the summer of 2009, I ended up at a silent meditation retreat in southern England with one of the teachers I had seen in the videos.
I thought that I wanted enlightenment more than anything else. But what I realized during this retreat was that there was a big fear keeping me from it. I had created this idea in my mind that if I discovered the truth about life, I could lose everything great that I had, as well as the possibility of ever getting anything else that I wanted. Since I wasn’t willing to give up everything I had and still wanted, I kept saying to myself, “I just need to go to a few more countries, date a few more girls, and save up a little more money—then I’ll be ready to give it all up”.
The Big Moment
One day during this retreat, I was walking by myself in a wheat field when I suddenly realized that I had gotten enough of what I wanted in life to truly know that getting more wasn’t going to give me the happiness I wanted. I was done procrastinating. Then a thought popped up in my mind, and it said, “There may not be another moment to give up everything”. In this very moment, when I truly realized that knowing the truth was the absolute most important thing to me and that nothing else mattered, all of my thoughts seemed to disappear. My mind seemed completely empty
Without my thoughts, what remained was a feeling of incredible peace, freedom, relaxation, and openness. It seemed as if I was opening my eyes and looking at the world for the very first time. It was as if I had gone through life wearing glasses with opaque black lenses with only a tiny little hole in the middle to see through—and even that part of the lens had a strange tint that altered my vision. When I lost my thoughts, these glasses came offhand everything was vast, expansive, and spacious. Also, it was as though I had never seen a tree, the sky, or a person before. I had always been paying attention to my thoughts about a tree or the sky, such as what type of tree it was or how the sky then compared to the sky at other times and whether I liked it or not, rather than truly witnessing the tree or the sky itself. I was always paying attention to my thoughts about whether people were smart or stupid, attractive or ugly, nice or mean—or about what I wanted from them and how they were seeing me—rather than just purely seeing them.
Now it seemed as if all of my thoughts were just blown away, nowhere to be found. My mind was open, free, and peaceful. This was everything I had ever wanted.
The Fear Kicks In
Then, a few hours later, a strange thing happened. All of a sudden I began to experience an intense new fear that I wasn’t going to be able to function or do anything at all now that I had no thoughts. Luckily, I was at a retreat where I had access to a teacher who was already enlightened. At the next group session, I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me to come up and sit with her. Half ecstatic, and half incredibly fearful, I said to her, “I have lost all my thoughts! I have nothing left! I am not going to be able to do anything! It is going to be funny at work on Monday!” She responded, very calmly and compassionately, “You have nothing left except for one little story that you’re telling yourself –‘oops, this is too big, I’m scared’. Who knows? All your thoughts maybe back on Monday”. As soon as she said this to me, my fear instantly left me, and my mind was back in silence.
That night, as I lay in my bed, I reflected on what had happened. I realized that my fear had been created by the thought “I am not going to be able to do anything with no thoughts”. I had believed this thought to be true—but now it became clear to me that the thought was actually based on two big assumptions. The first assumption was, “My mind will remain silent in the future”, while the second assumption was, “I will not be able to perform tasks with a silent mind”. However, the fact was that I had absolutely no idea whether either of these two assumptions was true. So I really had no idea whether my thought was true.
As it turned out, this wasn’t just a passing experience. The vast majority of my recurring psychological thoughts vanished in that wheat field, and have rarely attempted to return. These psychological thoughts included almost all of my thoughts about myself, my situation, others, and what others thought about me, as well as my thoughts about the past, the future, and who I might become. Without these thoughts, my mind was left predominantly silent, and I was left in the peace I had always been searching for. That moment in the wheat field marked the end of my search for enlightenment, and the end of my pursuit of happiness.
Since peace and contentment were now my normal experience, any time I felt a degree of discontent, I knew something was off. I now knew that a silent mind left me in peace, so naturally the first place I would look to find the cause of my unwanted emotion was in my own mind. Each time I took a look at my mind while experiencing an unwanted emotion, I could see that I had been thinking a thought or telling myself a story that was creating my unwanted emotion. It turned out that some old psychological thoughts did remain after the initial loss of thoughts, and new psychological thoughts sometimes arose. However, it was usually easy to identify the thought creating my unwanted emotion, because my mind was largely empty, and there were not that many thoughts to choose from.
Once I found the instigating thought, I would ask myself, “Do I know this thought is true?” To my surprise, every time I asked myself this question, either I would immediately recognize that I did not know whether the thought was true, or several reasons would present themselves to show me that I couldn’t possibly know for sure that it was. It seemed this recognition would occur mostly because I had no thoughts about my thought. Since I no longer had thoughts about myself, I was able to look at my thoughts objectively, without any hidden incentives(e.g., wanting to be “right”). As soon as I realized that I didn’t know for sure whether my thought was true, my unwanted emotion would instantly dissolve and I would come right back to my natural state of contentment. On top of that, each time I stopped believing one of my thoughts to be true, that thought would rarely ever return. This has resulted in almost uninterrupted peace and happiness.
The Experience That Remained
I wasn’t unable to function, as I had briefly feared; my mind actually functioned better than ever. Without my psychological thoughts, when the situation called for it, I was able to give my complete attention to the functional thoughts that helped me to solve practical issues such as “How do I construct this chair?” or “What is the quickest way to get to the restaurant?”Because of this, I continued to perform well in my job, using my mind as a tool to analyze numbers, for another year before resigning. In addition, I didn’t have to give up anything that I thought I might have had to. I still traveled, dated, played sports, and went to clubs when I wanted to. I had previously thought that my constant drive to improve myself, my situation, and the people around me arose because nothing was good enough the way it was. But what I realized was that there was actually nothing wrong with me, my situation, or others. It was only my thoughts about everything that made things seem insufficient, making me feel discontent and incomplete. I was only trying to improve everything in order to make myself happy. So, once I was happy, I no longer had this endless need to improve everything about my life. I could finally relax.
Since the thoughts that would normally create suffering and discontent either didn’t arise in my mind or weren’t believed when they did show up, all of my attention remained on the present moment. At work, I never experienced stress or pressure, even when I was behind on a project that had a strict deadline. When my intuition told me that it was time to leave my job, there was no fear, despite not knowing what I would do next. When I left London, there was no sadness, even though I was leaving all my friends behind. After knee surgery, I couldn’t stand or walk for a year without being in pain, yet I didn’t have any self-pity or frustration about it. When I waited with my father in the emergency room for MRIs and CT scans of his brain, I felt no worry about what might happen to him. And when I got the feeling that I needed to write a book, I had no self-doubt, even though I had never liked writing and it had been my worst subject in school.
Because I am present, no matter what my circumstances are, I remain in peace. Enlightenment turned out not to be an achievement or attainment, but rather just the recognition that I don’t know whether the thoughts that arise in my mind are true. In other words, enlightenment is just what remains when we don’t have, or don’t believe, our thoughts: quite simply, the present moment, with nothing added.
Thanks for reading my story! Hope you enjoyed it!