On turning 42a birthday re-assessment
Let me share a self-absorbed story with you, a story with a happy middle.
It is my own private inner story and it takes up decades of my life in just two or three distinct themes, very simple. It has been like a secret I've carried until now, but today feels a good time to share.
Today is a door for me, one of the great, great milestones of my life. A life of youthful optimism, then duty, today freedom.
My great spiritual teacher, the ineffably wise and amazing Swami Muktananda, told me in May 1982 when I asked what to study: Study what interests you! Having no idea what that meant, I decided, within a couple of weeks of my 21st birthday in 1982, 21 years ago, that at least for the time being I would to study things that would be useful to me: languages and computers. Through a consequential but probably harmless misunderstanding, that led me to study Linguistics, which on the one hand I thought had something to do with learning languages and computers (it has little to do with either), but on the other hand led me throughout a decade or more of wanderings, at the very least to a life of studying what was indeed interesting to me. All my efforts in life in both college and graduate school did indeed lead me to carry out his liberating command.
I did, and I do, study, and think about, and work on, what does indeed interest me, and there is no boundary around that definition; I do feel free to pursue what my inner inspiration leads me to. What a gift of many years of my life, that command, which I could not so much obey as come later to understand that it had come to describe my efforts and decisions and path in life.
At the same time I maintained a sense of separation from my life, that though it was punctuated, when luck dictated, by occasional moments of inspiration or absorption, it was the duty and burden of my life to carry out this work of study and career, and that in some sense I was burdened with obstacles to my own happiness, which I myself chose and bore, patiently and diligently, for all those years.
I spent the first 11 years, till 32, energetically prosecuting an academic career as a full-time (amazingly, almost always paid) student and later professor, filling the first half of this dutiful life with intellectual interest, sincere thoughtful conversation, late nights writing, and generally with equal parts of struggle and inspiration. Then at 32 I came to the end of the wide open lanes of that academic highway; a good run while it lasted, but not a good way to pay the rent in the end, and so it was over for me. I might tolerate the politics of academic linguistics if I could make a living at it, but self-respect demanded a change when I couldn't any longer. That tenure-track, publish-or-perish environment combines material poverty with political, hidden, and even contradictory measures of value, so that no-one knows if your work is any good. I still like to read my old work, so obviously I think it is great. But if hardly anyone can understand it, who believes me? But such carping aside, when I had to make a living again, I struck out into a new life, this time one where my value in society was set by human interaction, based on much more accessible and mutually reasonable values. I went into business.
That was another big day for me, almost as big as today. I made myself a deal on September 1, 1993, that my goal, until I turned 40, would be the straightforward goals of business, namely business success, which is measured simply, financially. I hoped that I would be able to achieve in the next 8 years a milestone equivalent to what I sacrificed by abandoning the academic tenure track, namely a level of wealth that would count as strongly in terms of financial independence as academic tenure.
But I was not willing to sell my soul, either, and since I knew that I might not be able to achieve a million-dollar net worth, for example, in any finite period of time, I bounded my ambitions in time: I would spend those 8 years accepting business goals as my own primary goals in life, but then, if I did not succeed, I would put an end to it.
So at 32, I told myself that at 40, I would revert back to primarily spiritual goals in life. That for at least two years I would focus most importantly on my spiritual existence and spiritual development. I would meditate a lot and try to achieve something inside myself that would sustain a sense of happiness and grace. I would turn within, and see what arose inside myself, and I would allow that to grow and flourish and deepen and solidify into a basis, a foundation, a ground on which I would stand for the rest of my life.
I would save those two sacred years, to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I would keep it sacrosanct from the influences of others. Importantly, I would not seek marriage. I hoped that by then I would know what I wanted to do, and so, as I planned, I would give myself full permission to govern my own life completely in my own judgement during those two years (or more) after I turned 40. Though before then I would carry out my duty as I saw it, by age 42 I had better be ready to trust my own ability to lead myself within a sense of freedom, to defend myself, to prioritize my own goals, indeed, to carry myself forward on my spiritual path hopefully with, but even without, the support and validation of those around me.
I wondered if it might not take more than two years to figure it out, or rather if I would give myself the choice even after 42 to continue on a spiritual path rather than to be subjugated to (if such they were) prematurely overcommitted connections to wife, children, job, and unsatisfying, external demands. That's not the only choice, of course. But I hoped for myself that my mature self would be able to give myself the freedom to continue on that spiritual path as long as I might so desire.
I set myself on this path ten years ago today.
The first eight years passed. Of course the millions did not come -- how many are so lucky? But I did start my company and it continues today healthy and growing. A good life is more important than great wealth, and I have been blessed with, okay, I chose, and I am happy having chosen, work that inspires and satisfies as much as it pays the rent. But one has a sense of work being work, drudgery, loss of freedom, in this industrial modern society, and I had that lingering sense too, despite the goodness of my work for me.
So after eight years, I made that lucky change. I stopped prioritizing business above the rest, and meditated a lot more. I gave myself my two whole years of respecting my spirituality and inner freedom. I gave myself time to find enough to feel confident of what is inside me.
Today I find myself at the end of my second 21 years (11 studying what interested me among the things I had thought useful, then 8 primarily in commerce, then 2 in my spirit). My own sense of where I have arrived is subtle to explain.
I feel a sense of fullness, of grace, of both luck and inevitability. I feel loved by my loved ones, by my friends and my family.
I do not feel a contradiction between spirituality in my life and my life; rather a steady diet of spiritual reading, thinking, and meditation, is an important part of my day-to-day activities, not every day, but quite regularly. The contradictions between spiritual life and the life of a householder -- intimate mutual dependency, the upholding of responsibility for sharing work in and out of the home, talking about the spiritual as well as about everything, the give and take including demands for engagement and contact and mutual responsibility -- these are not contradictory to a full engagement in the spiritual path of my life, I believe. Indeed given my temperament of extraversion and of receiving inner motivation from social interaction, and given my painful psychological "schemas" of social isolation, emotional deprivation, social undesireability, mistrust, and so on, a connected loving relationship and social life are clearly important keys to my quality of life and ongoing, long-term happiness. In short, No!: these "contradictions", that I have spent decades watching out for and keeping at bay, I know now I can leave them responsibly behind.
I also do not feel the confusion about what interests me. My level of interest is fairly obvious; I work inspiredly on things that are interesting, and I know that there are many such things in my life, so I do not have qualms about whether I may ever know or find the answer to Muktananda's conundrum.
I also do not feel the burden of duty in studentship or work, which I felt both when I entered into my academic career and also when I entered into my business career. Work and study are now clearly choices for me, not burdens. I have a life that is my own chosen life which contains a balance of work and learning and relationship and home and spirit and friendship, of struggle as well as joy and peace and insight and an inner sense of freedom and grace. A better balance could hardly be asked for, and if I can find a better balance then I am in a position to decide to adjust things, a position of responsibility and ownership as well as of adequate wisdom, I hope, to make things as much better as a wise person could arrange for them to be.
I feel, hope, and believe, having borne these burdens for 21 years between 21 and now twice 21, that the carrying of such burdens is done.
This is solid enough that it is to me more similar to knowledge than to attainment. Just as I know that after A, B, and C comes D, I also know that peace precedes any experience in life, that self-awareness thoughtfully follows it whenever I pay attention, that melting feeling into the void will reliably cycle in there afterwards, and I know that I can stop, abandon ego, and remembering my humble hope, achieve an experience of living grace, just as quickly as a few breaths can expire. I know this simply, straightforwardly, it is simply the truth.
If I can spend a lifetime in remembrance of this knowledge, that alone will satisfy me. That is my desire. That is my intention.
Today is a door from a long life, a full enough life, in search of my true heart's desire. It is a door into another life, whether it is short or long, a new life, in which the grace born of my heart's hope is now known to me as my heart's desire, and is attainable to me in my frequent practice of submission to it.
Today I feel a sense of spiritual satisfaction with the life I find myself leading. I am not focussing on the material conditions of my life; although I love my home and work and cherish their stability and positive development, I could have a different home and work with just as much happiness. I feel loved, supported, and celebrated by friends, family, and fiance Today Doug and Lance and their wives and children came here for a shared breakfast. I had cake, and Merida and Madeline blew out the candles with me, wishing together for a perfect life. I had some exercise, I did some intellectual work, computer programming. I had my cousin Max come to visit from California on his 25-year-old wanderings with a friend and had jewelry show-and-tell and philosophy-of-life discussions with them. I went to eat and had a surprise birthday party with loved ones. One shaved my head, one last time, soft as a baby's bottom, with such love and kindness and heart-felt giving, and said she wished she had done it earlier because it was so fun. I feel so loved.
I have had a few tears of happiness today. Now again, they are welling up. I know that I am, and validate myself for being, a sensitive and emotional man. I have a life that is full of meaning, a life I have created with great love and dedication over so many years, a life that reflects back to me the great respect and joy with which I experience it. I am humbled by the goodness that is here in my life.
I said to Max tonight, who is staying here with me, that while in the past I tried to feel appreciative of small things (that is, often I didn't), today I feel a sense of humility, and I do feel appreciation for all small things. As though my heart has expanded to include my eyes.
It may well be a passing phase, the emotional goodness of a special day in the life of a sensitive, emotional, creative, diligent, intelligent, wise, and not nearly sufficiently humble man. And it may be that I may have to remind myself later of the goodness that I experienced today, stepping through this door, abandoning the last karmas and commitments of my old UnLife, to my true new Life, which begins today. I do feel truly great goodness, and what's more, I am certainly no longer a defenseless child or an uninformed youth, so that I can reasonably hope that I will be capable in this, the rest of my true and wonderful Life, of leading myself wisely to happiness, of choosing wide and clear paths that maintain and grow my peace of mind, my sense of inspiration, and my heartfelt warmth and love, in the practical world and in the world of my inner life and spirit.
Bless me, and bless you, that we may both live in such grace, not just today, but forever.