I was a shy boy, but likeable- in large part due to athletic prowess. Usually you wanted me on your team at recess. My parents worked a lot, often together. I would spend some time at day care or with my older sisters and a babysitter. The only B I ever got in middle school was a B+ in woodshop. I was not particularly gifted with a saw. As I grew up, I became a bonafide latchkey kid. My sisters went off to college, and in all of my insecure hormonality I went to high school. Incidentally around this time I stopped going to church, and starting to use drugs-mainly marijuana- more and more frequently. As I think back, it is impossible to name any single cause of my addiction, but of course there are some identifiable contributing factors.
In high school I was an athlete. I played football, and in my last two years rugby. This was the meaning of my life at that time. I absolutely loved it. It gave me structure, it gave me an identity, it gave me friends, it gave me what I thought were admirers. It just so happens that what I wanted most was to be liked by others, as so much of us do. I wanted to be valued- and part of how I knew to do this was to try to be tough, to show no weakness. In hindsight, I largely see this as a part of male indoctrination. However, I was always so shy and emotionally sensitive, and because I was so ashamed of those qualities in myself I tried to get rid of them anyway I could. Football, weed and binge drinking on the weekends were a perfect combination- for a time.
Somewhere along the line, I found at that I didn’t have to get superb grades in order to get into college. I didn’t need to go to a top college, because really I could get a job after going to any college and make it. That way I could slack off, get stoned, not do homework and still end up with a B average- even if I had to cheat in some classes. I used to love school, I used to love learning, it fulfilled and nourished me in my younger days. My intelligence made me feel significant in class. The same with sports, they made me feel like I was valued by my peers. However, as the weed smoking continued, I settled for what is sometimes called “the fantasy of functionality.” What this means is that I knew I could pass with a B average, and get by. I could compare myself to others who maybe had to really try hard to get a B average, and say that that was good enough. The effect I did not ever see was how many opportunities I gave up to maintain this lifestyle. How many skills I did not develop. I will never know the answer to those questions. I will never know if I could have gone to Stanford, or a school like that had I actually applied myself.
Instead I went to State College-which isn’t a bad thing (no knock on people who went to state!). I look back fondly my two real college years. I signed up as a construction management major, and all I cared about was getting high and getting drunk. At this point I would drink booze like I would smoke weed. Frequently that would get me in a lot of trouble. I wouldn’t remember what had happened. However, perhaps the saddest part is (besides hurting my central nervous system severely and putting myself at risk for a life threatening accident) I was completely inept at making new friends. In my prior life it took no real effort for people to like me, I had a history with people at my school and a number of different groups of friends. In college I came to realize that I was so socially anxious all I could do was gravitate around those familiar to me. Instead of meeting new people and trying new things I got stoned and I got wasted to the point where I could hardly talk to anybody. My world got smaller and smaller as those things became the purpose of my existence. Although plenty of women thought I was attractive, I hardly talked to any because I didn’t even know how to express interest in them. If they expressed interest in me, I would often be so insecure I would simply shut down. I grasped on to any identity of myself I could find, and this led my back to playing rugby. For at least a short while, I felt like I had a purpose again.
I would train almost every day. Stairs, running, weightlifting, footwork drills, speed drills. I needed to perform well because I wanted to matter, I wanted to be valued, and also I was pretty darn competitive. In my second year of college, I started getting noticed as a rugby player. Up until this point I was on the second team. I played an excellent game at a tournament, and I got the notice of my coach, my teammates. Soon thereafter, one of my teammates said, “you know Scott you don’t have to play on B team; you could play on A side.” I felt like I had reached the pinnacle. This is what I wanted; I wanted to matter, to be significant. I wanted to be on A side. Yet at the same time there was something anti-climactic about the whole thing. It felt empty-it felt hollow and in a bad way. As if some part of me saw the limitations of placing so much on being valued in this way. Soon thereafter, I was playing in another tournament. The position I played in rugby is one that focuses on distributing the ball, called “fly-half.” In our second game I would call a play, and I just would not pass the ball. My coach called me over and said “Scott, you have to pass the ball.” I said “I know.” I got back out there, and the next play I called I did not pass. I was dropped on my side, and when I got up I could not hold up my arm. My clavicle was broken. To this day I cannot entirely say what motivated me to not pass. I think I really believed I was bigger than I was. I mean I was usually the smallest guy on the pitch, but I trained so hard and wanted to show how strong and fast I was.
In my time away from rugby, something happened. Some realization of dissatisfaction was dawning on me. Something wasn’t right. First I thought I needed to change schools. Then I thought I needed to change majors. I met with my dad’s friend who is a sports psychologist (he is the founder of the American Sports Institute) and he asked me what I would do with my career if money were not my primary concern. My mind expanded. I think I said something like martial arts. I had never gone so far as to even take a martial arts class! But there was something that that represented to me. He recommended a book by Thich Nhat Hanh: Living Buddha, Living Christ. I must say that reading this book changed my life forever…
I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted and now it was ok to not know (partially because Joel, the sports psychologist, told me the amount of times the average college student changes majors). My mom had always encouraged me to travel while I was young. I was lucky enough to receive some support from my family, financially and emotionally and the next thing you know I had plans to travel to South Africa to be a volunteer wildlife ranger for a year. I would arrive the next August, and it was only January, so I would take one more semester of classes, come home and work for the summer to save up some money, then go. I planned on going for a year.
Around this time was when I started meditating. I had read some more books on Buddhism, and funny enough I actually tried meditation the year before out of the blue as I recall, but I was unable to sustain it. I signed up for an Asian Religions Course, and a Psychology course and decided to leave construction management aside for at least a semester. Early on when I began meditating, I would walk to a nearby creek and sit down next to it. I don’t even remember what I would do in terms of the type of meditation- I don’t think I was very specific. Regardless, I began meditating four or five days a week and for thirty minutes to one hour per day. I would have some extraordinary state experiences, as early meditators often do, feeling never before felt levels of peace and spaciousness. Once I had my first taste of those meditative experiences, I knew undoubtedly that this is what I was looking for. Nevertheless, I would try to meditate in the morning, so that I could smoke weed earlier in the day- because I most often did not want to smoke before meditating.
I quit rugby. I was attending two-a-day practices during winter break, my collarbone still healing, and then I just stopped showing up. I simply didn’t care as much now that I was planning on going away to South Africa. No one knew what happened to me except for my one close friend on the team. I would walk by the rugby field and try not to be seen, mostly because I did not know how to explain what I felt, or what was happening for me. Nevertheless, I was still severely addicted to marijuana and to binge drinking.
With my new classes I felt inspired. I immediately recalled the love of learning I had when I was pre-high school. It was a rush to feel actually engaged in learning again, to actually care. I loved learning about the different Asian Religions, and became an active participant in that class for the first time since I could ever remember. I also took a class called “The Psychology of Prejudice, Hate, and Violence,” and it absolutely shook my world-view. That class inspired me to want to study psychology, and it made me reflect on my own conditioning in a way that I had never done at that point in my life. At some point in the semester, after 4/20, I decided I wanted to try to stop smoking marijuana. My roommates didn’t believe that I could for more than a week or two. I stopped smoking for approximately 3 months, until right before I traveled to South Africa. This is the first time I had quit for that long since I was 15 years old.
When I arrived in South Africa, I did not really know what to expect. The sanctuary I would work for was mostly composed of small game, with some larger antelope (kudu, hardebeast) and a couple of leopards. After they completed the perimeter fence, they planned to start reintroducing larger game back onto the property.
I was rather ignorant to the history of oppression and racism in South Africa. I came from an upper middle class, sheltered life in a predominately suburban white area. The small private wildlife sanctuary I decided to volunteer for was about four hours NE of Johannesburg- it was a dream to be a wildlife ranger. However, there was no way I could have been ready for what I was about to encounter.
Upon arriving on the property, I learned from the other volunteers that “squatters,” lived there. Apparently when the owner bought the four adjacent farms to turn them into a 7,000 square acre wildlife sanctuary, there was a group of people who had “worked,” (not sure what really happened) for one of the previous farmer. Apparently my new boss had a poor relationship with them, and they had been in court about the land on which they were currently living. Simultaneously, I learned that locals were claiming the land of the wildlife sanctuary as their land. Which meant that the South African government technically could have seized the land at any time, and paid some nominal price to my boss the landowner. On top of that, I learned that there were a number of locals who came onto the property, likely everyday, to pick the leaves of an endangered tree because of their psychotropic qualities. Also they would frequently set snares for animals on their paths. As rangers we were meant to arrest them. The people picking those leaves were often very poor which is likely why they were doing that in the first place. They brought pangas, or machetes, but not guns. We had retractable batons, and bear spray, neither of which I knew what to do with. Here I was, a 20-year-old man on some farm in the middle of nowhere South Africa, totally clueless as to the level of racial tension that existed between my boss, the other white farmers, and the local African people. I don’t think I have ever heard such overtly racist comments in my life, as from some of the white farmers there. On top of that, this was a conflict I landed smack dab in the middle of. Due to the color of my skin, and my position, I was now “on their side.”
Did I mention bush-fires yet? In the South African bushveldt there are two seasons- rainy season and red (fire) season. Upon arriving there, I had heard the other two wildlife rangers talk about the horrors of fighting a fire in the bush, but all I could do was say bring it on, because I would have to do it eventually anyways. And, as I came to find out, they were right, fighting fire in the bush was among the most terrible things I have ever had to do.
Two weeks after being on the job, we saw smoke. It was at the very edge of the property, up the most challenging 4 x 4 road that we had. As we approached this road with our quad-bikes, me and another ranger discovered that someone had intentionally put large rocks down to try and block the path from us. To us this was a clear signal that someone had started the fire with intention. I remember hearing stories from my boss of how the government had told locals to “burn” the white farmers out. We moved the rocks, and sped towards the smoke and finally with much anticipation I got my first taste of fighting fire.
For the most part, in the south African Bush you fight a fire by ripping off a tree branch, hopefully one that has many smaller branches and some leaves, and by hitting the fire. Then once you have extinguished one foot or yard of the fire line, you sweep the embers at least a meter away from the burnable grass so that it will not catch fire again. All the while, you are breathing toxic smoke, your lips are becoming split from the heat, and as time goes on your muscles become lumps because of all the smoke you have inhaled instead of oxygen. We did have 20 Gallon water guns, however they did little good against a fire-line that could stretch for kilometers at a time. There was one blower that had water attached to it, which could put fire out quickly, but I never used that and even if I did the problem was the same- a big fire is a big fire.
I must have fought that fire from three or four in the afternoon until 1am. It got very cold in the Drakenburg Mountains of South Africa at night. I rode my quad-bike home exhausted, almost numb, cold, hungry, and scared. The next day we had to take turns being on look out in case more fires started. When I tried to sleep, I remember being woken up by a nightmare of fire.
The fires did not go away. We fought fire on and off for approximately 5 days. On the night of the second or third day, me and another Ranger were stationed on a road, which acts as a natural fire-block. Our job was to not let the fire cross the road. We sat there, huddled up because it was cold, waiting for the fire-line to crawl down the mountain. As it approached, we readied ourselves. We had 20 Gallon water packs and the best tree branches we could find. When the fire line was about 3 meters away from us a very significant gust of wind came down the mountain. The fire jumped straight at us across the tall grass, and we had to run for our lives. As we ran I looked back to see the fire leaping across the road where we were just standing. I bumbled for my quad-bike key, and got on the bike and punched it. Thus far in my life, I think that was the closest to death I have ever been- that I know of.
I was in shock for much of the rest of the night. By the time this fire was over, it burned I would guess 70-80% of the 7,000 square acres. Hard to be exact with the number, also because there were previous fires that season. I remember riding home one night to the ranger station, and looking where there were once acres and acres of tall grass and just seeing black and orange, the glowing embers of burning trees. I am sure those who are professional firefighters have much more experience with this than I do, but it looked beautifully apocalyptic to me.
The good news was that so much had burned, there was no fuel left for fires, thus no more fire fighting. Although, the next week when our neighbors had a fire, we had to help them as they had helped us. After that, however it was a relief to know that that was over for now. I cannot tell you how much of a relief that was. We know here in the states that we have fire fighters die every year fighting fire. I remember hearing, or reading, that during that month 7 or 8 people had died due to wildfire in that particular state in South Africa.
Now that there was no fire, I got to enjoy the finer aspects of being a wildlife ranger namely patrolling, documenting animals, removing snares, and removing old cattle fences. I am not sure I have seen more beautiful country than that bushveldt in South Africa. It was stunning. I would ride my quad-bike on the most magnificent terrain imaginable for such a bike. Sometimes you would come around a turn and a troop of 30 baboons or more would be crossing the road, the Alpha male galloping in the rear looking back at you. After a while I learned how to make sounds like baboons… it was like a bark/yell. I am not sure the technical term.
I could tell more stories about the animals, but I recognize you don’t have all day. However, I will tell you this. One day we caught a khat picker, you know the people who pick the psychotropic leaves of that endangered tree. She was screaming, I felt bad for her. She was a middle aged African woman, and clearly poor. She was scared. I was scared too. We brought her to the local sheriffs department or whatever the South African equivalent is. They would not book her, I can’t recall what he said, but we were being somehow threatened by a seemingly intoxicated off duty police sergeant (he smelt like booze). Undoubtedly, there was racial tension. We were white, none of us South African residents, bringing a poor black African woman to a police station that was run by black African men, for picking leaves from an endangered tree on a white farmer’s land. The sergeant told us he would not take her and told us to leave. He barked over the on-duty police officer, what I interpreted as aggressively. The other officer told us to take her to town, where there was a police station. I had no idea what to do. I was scared. The other rangers were more experienced, and they said we would take her then to the closest police department in town- about an hour away. When we got there, they told us that they could not take her and that we needed to bring her back to the other department, whom they called to inform this. We did, and the on-duty police officer handled us alone this time. I could not help but feel scared, and that I was participating in the enactment of a much larger conflict. In my naïve mind I was thinking, “weren’t police officers supposed to protect us, not threaten us?” In hindsight, I may have a small sense of how many of our own citizens in the US have felt in relationship to law enforcement. It was a terrible feeling.
When we got back to the sanctuary, we told our boss. He said that from now on, we were not to take such Khat pickers to the police, but rather we were to strip them naked and beat them. That way we would be sending a message. He was a veteran of the South African Border War, and had clearly described living with symptoms of PTSD. The looming recognition that I was risking my life day in and day out for an animal conservation cause that could potentially be shut down at any point began to set in. I started realizing that here, in this countryside I was in a battle that I could not win. It did not help that our neighbor told me stories of the locals training highly specialized individuals to use violence to scare white farmers away, and stories of someone’s arm getting cut off. I had heard about previous rangers being threatened by locals, the locals had attempted to block the road and maybe confront the previous rangers (can’t remember whole story). In my mind, the only thing keeping the locals, who knew where I lived, from hurting me or worse is that according to my boss they thought he was a witch doctor, and he put a snake skin in a jar as a type of protective totem in front of our driveway. I don’t mean to say that all locals were bad, trying to hurt me, or had that intention, but in the context of my experience I couldn’t help but think the very worst.
I loved being on the land. It was so amazing to be outdoors all day, riding my quad-bike over the rocky terrain, and seeing wildlife. However at a point about two and a half months after my arrival there, all of the other volunteers left. I was living alone at the ranger station for about two weeks before I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore. I had contemplated leaving prior, but this had pushed me to the brink. My boss lived 10 km down the country road, and at night I would try to watch movies to occupy my worried mind. I was utterly terrified, and I did not feel that this battle was worth risking my life every day for. I felt that I had something else to live for. I had no desire to beat someone and strip him or her naked. I wanted to help the animals there, but this was much more than I bargained for.
My boss actually was away at a vervet monkey sanctuary when I texted his partner at that time (who was also technically my boss- and was on the property) a message saying that I simply could not take it anymore. I left the next day or the day after that.
See, as things progressed at the wildlife sanctuary, I realized that I would not like to stay for the whole year. But technically I was on a 6-month contract. I planned, at the end of my contract to travel somewhere else. My college roommate had said that if he was going to travel somewhere, he would have gone to Nepal, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that before, and although I had already committed to going to South Africa, I thought it was an excellent back up plan for me. I had been in South Africa for about 3 months when I made plans to go to Kathmandu. I stayed outside of Jo’Burg for a week in a hostel. I had ridden the bus from the small town next to the sanctuary to Jo’burg and would ride the train from Jo’burg to the suburb where the hostel was. Before I left the wildlife sanctuary, because I was so afraid due to everything I had been through up to this point and everything I had heard about robbery in Jo’burg, I kept that bear spray attached to my belt as I traveled with my very large travel bags. When I got off the bus and onto the metro train, for the first time in my life I was the only white person in a place full of all black people. I think people around me could tell that I felt scared. You know what some of those folks did? One young man asked me what stop I was getting off at, and helped me identify it. One woman gave up her seat for me as she was readying to leave. And as it was my turn to get off the train, a number of people worked together to help pass my heavy burdensome bag to the exit. I am so touched just writing this.
When I was in Jo'Burg, it felt so nice to be away from those farms. I remember hearing from someone who was staying at the hostel who had traveled in the Congo. She said that she felt safer in Congo- where civil war was going on if I remember correctly- than in South Africa. The owner of the hostel introduced me to marijuana again, as I could not smoke when I was a wildlife ranger. I would drink and smoke with him at night, and just be grateful that I wasn’t on that farm anymore.
While I was there, I made arrangements to volunteer for an organization, teaching English in Kathmandu. I decided to take a few days after arriving there to see some sights; I paid for a tour guide. People were so friendly in Kathmandu. The streets were full of life and color. The traffic took some getting used to, though. Soon after arriving it was my 21st birthday. I am pretty sure I bought a beer by myself, and I know I treated myself to some hashish that someone was selling in the tourist area of Kathmandu, known as Thamel. I smoked a couple of spliffs, and reflected on how grateful I was to be in a new place. I had more hashish, but I told myself I didn’t want to smoke anymore, so I threw the rest away, something most addicts are very familiar with.
Soon thereafter, I moved in with a host family in a village about 10 km outside of the Kathmandu city proper. It took about 45 minutes to an hour to get there on a bus. The family was so sweet. They had two little girls probably age 8 and age 4 or 5. They also had a niece that lived there with them who was 13 or 14. The father was a shopkeeper in town, just a couple of blocks away. They lived on the top of a hill, and there were terraced farms throughout the community. I had wanted to teach at Buddhist monastery, but the coordinator of the volunteer organization implored me to teach in the village because they had wanted a native English teacher so bad. Apparently, most volunteers wanted to go to a Buddhist monastery. So I agreed to teach in the village for two months, then the plan was to go to a monastery for three.
The students in the village were so engaged and sincere in learning English. I had two classes, one was more of a beginner’s class, and then one was an advanced class. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I remembered that in Spanish class in high school, we all got Spanish names. So I wrote out a bunch of English names on the board for the beginner’s class and had them choose names. Most of the beginner’s classes were women probably in the early to mid 20s, some maybe younger, some maybe older. There were a few young men as well. I had some lesson plans that I would work off, but mostly I would improvise. I gave them a choice of what they wanted to learn about. Of course we did grammar and vocabulary. We also watched Disney’s Jungle Book together on my laptop that I brought in. I can’t remember how it happened, but they said they wanted to read some Shakespeare. I think I proposed the idea, I don’t know why though. Shakespeare would not help people with conversational English in the 21st century! Yet, they sincerely wanted to read it. I went to the store to buy Romeo and Juliet, and paid for fifteen or so copies to be made of it at a local copy store inside Kathmandu. We would take turns reading from the book, although I do not think we ever finished. My sense was the students really appreciated it, but I don’t know. I even gave them a grammar and vocab test one day! But I implored them, not to be too hard on themselves.
Meanwhile, sometime after I arrived word got out in the community that I was there. Some individuals wanted me to teach an advanced class. Those students were also so eager to learn. Most of them were probably in their late 20s early 30s and they were men, some of them with families, some of them in school, many had been well educated. They were all so pleasant to be around. Somehow, either I told them or word got out that we were reading Shakespeare in our other class. I really don’t remember how it went down, but this class wanted to read Shakespeare too! Of course we did grammar and other English things. So we got Macbeth, and we began reading. Boy, I didn’t know what I was doing! But again my sense was the students really enjoyed it. In general, the Nepalese people I met there were so genuinely delightful, and appreciative of me being there.
However, after two weeks of being in Nepal, I became ill. Sanitation there is very poor, and the water is very polluted especially in and around Kathmandu. The doc at the travel center labeled it “giardia,” and gave me flagyl. Ultimately, that did not help. After some time, I turned back to hashish to help me deal with my intestinal discomfort. It ended up that I would be ill for pretty much the duration of my time in Nepal. Therefore, I smoked hashish pretty much for the entire duration of my time in Nepal because that was the only way I knew how to cope with my pain, and really again my fear.
When I was living in the village one morning, my host family told me of some dreadful news. Nepal was in a state of political conflict when I was there, and apparently two villagers from opposing parties got into an altercation. Everyone in the village knew both of these people. One of the villagers took a sword to the leg of the other and pretty much cut off this man’s leg. My friend, who was the local doctor, found this man who was his friend and took him to a hospital in Kathmandu. The village seemed to be in a state of shock.
Despite political conflict in Nepal, I never felt myself to ever be in real danger there. Their motto is to treat foreigners like gods, and perhaps the most conflict I had was when villagers would invite me in for a meal and I would decline. This was shameful for villagers to be declined in such a way, but with my health I grew increasingly paranoid about food.
Eventually my time had come to move to a monastery. I had traveled to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, the prince formerly known as Siddartha. But, I did not stay there at a monastery to teach English. Rather, I was placed at a monastery inside Kathmandu near what is known as “Buddha Park,” and close to the holy site of Swayambhu stupa- what is referred to by many tourists as “the monkey temple.” It was a beautiful part of town. Although I was interested in Buddhism, I never brought myself to wake up at 4am, when the monks would begin their daily worship. Those monks must not have slept much, they were always so busy either in puja, or in class, giving them little time to be kids, which most of them were. However, I did get to play soccer with them some time, and also “chungi,” which is like hacky-sack. I thoroughly enjoyed that.
I taught classes for monks from ages 5 to approximately late 20s. In the youngest classes, once the students realized that I would not beat them over the head with a stick, as was common practice from their other teachers, they were pretty uncontrollable. That was the hardest class to teach by far. The other classes, I got to work out of lesson plans from books. Some of the more advanced classes I allowed the monks to pick names, like I had before. I think they enjoyed that. It was so much fun to get to see the monk’s personalities come alive in class at times. From my understanding, many parents in Nepal send their children to the monastery because otherwise they would have little chance of being able to educate their kids simply due to impoverishment. When the kids turned 18, 19, or 20, they had the opportunity to give back their robes.
I knew a monk who had come to the monastery after he was 20 years old or so. He was very sincere, and was preparing himself to go on the three-year retreat that is customary for this sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He would call me “Caire” pronounced “kai-ray,” which apparently was the term they used for white people- that meant “horse.” I never really understood that. But we developed a friendship. He was doing the preliminary practices of ngöndro, which included over 100,000 prostrations. Sometimes I would join him in doing prostrations for 30 minutes or an hour. This was pretty much the extent of my practice at that time. He told me “I think you will become Buddhist” implying that because I was doing these prostrations I could become a Buddhist practitioner. At that time I didn’t really know what I was, except for sick and tired of being sick.
I would circumambulate the bottom of Swayambhu, which was lined with prayer wheels. They called this doing “kora.” At one point all of the volunteers from the organization I was working for met in Thamel. One such volunteer was living at the monastery that was on top of the hill just behind where I was living. He was an American, probably the first American I had talked to in person since I can’t remember when (although I did talk to some Canadians, who are technically American, this whole American word is confusing at times- I mean from the United States of America!). You have to understand something. After living in Nepal for 3 or 4 months, my English was also rather broken. I had picked up some Nepalese, and I began dropping away the grammar of English in order to try to be understood. Therefore, in some ways it was just nice to hear someone who spoke similarly to me again, it reminded me of home, which I was sick for and had been sick for.
It was through this friend that I learned about the California Institute of Integral Studies. A man he had met at the monastery where he was staying had told him about this school that invited spirituality and spiritual perspectives into their studies. I decided that I wanted to go to school there. So in effect, I went half way around the world, to discover that I wanted to go to school at an institution that was just 20 or 30 miles from my hometown in San Francisco. It is funny how things can work like that.
I left Nepal with a profound appreciation of that culture. Nowhere I had ever been had seemed more alive to me. The people in the streets, the colors they dressed themselves in, the chaotic street traffic. Although the pollution in Kathmandu was terrible, the river that flows through the city was basically black and had islands of trash; there was a beauty to it. In the United States we seem to try and compartmentalize everything. In Nepal, you could walk by the holy site of Swayambhu and cremations would be happening out in the open. They did not throw their trash in the ground at a landfill somewhere outside of town, they simply threw it on the ground where they stood, or they burned it.
When I got home I was still sick. I had decided that I wanted to move to Berkeley, because I felt that there was something there for me. After experiencing such culture, I wanted to be in a place that was diverse, and had different cultural opportunities. I immediately began taking summer classes, and in the fall I applied to a Bachelor’s completion program at CIIS. My gut was starting to get a little better, but even then I was perhaps just as or more addicted to marijuana than ever. I got my medical cannabis card, and began to have a small growing operation in my closet. I told myself I would quit when I started at my new program in the winter.
At the orientation for my new program, I was one of the few young males in a very diverse group of people. CIIS is known to welcome diversity, which I to this day very much appreciate about the institution. At the orientation, the only other young white male sitting in front of me turned around and gave me one of those young male type nods. When we began talking, I was able to surmise that this gentleman knew quite a bit about Buddhism. Come to find out he lived in Berkeley as well.
When the semester started, I stopped smoking weed really for the second time since I was 15. The young man I met invited me to participate in a Tibetan Buddhist community in Berkeley, and I began showing up and learning a type of yoga that was involved with this teaching. The next part is hard to explain without sounding too “out there.” I think I had stopped smoking for maybe 3 or 4 months when my new friend and I found a roach of his housemate’s joint on the counter. We lit up; maybe I took one or two hits. What proceeded after that was an effect I had never had from marijuana in my countless times smoking it. I can’t really tell you what or how it happened, but somehow my friend pointed me to a state of my mind where I was totally and completely “awake.” It was as though I could see reality as it was for the first time. Of course that recognition did not last though. But it did give me a reference point. In hindsight, I might say that that was really when I became a Buddhist, although I would undoubtedly continue to struggle with identifying as such for years.
As the months progressed, I started picking up weed again- taking, or stealing more accurately, some from a roommate that had a glass jar full of trimmings. I would not smoke nearly as much as I used to, in fact initially it was once a month, then it became once a week, then it became twice a week, then 3 times, then it became 3 days a week twice per day. It was at this time that I began to be aware of how much shame I would feel every time I would pick up. I grew conscious of how good and open I would feel for just three to five minutes after smoking, and then how dull I would feel after. I think this was the first time I could ever admit that I felt powerless about smoking weed. I was set to graduate this bachelors program, and I had been accepted into a Master’s program at the same school in Counseling Psychology. I resolved to quit smoking weed before that program began. This was the third time I would try to quit for a longer period, and this time it stuck- and my hope is that it will continue to do so.
I don’t want to go on and on about the merits of sobriety, but I discovered that smoking was getting in the way of my development as a human being. It was getting in the way of me finding what I was looking for, which I had a taste of those early days in my meditation. I knew it was an obstacle I had to over come if I wanted to try and be fulfilled in my life. Lots of people will tell you marijuana is not that harmful, and frankly I disagree. With marijuana you don’t know how harmful it is until you stop using it, and you see how it has made your world smaller. It might be the same with other drugs, but with weed you can think you are fine just getting by. Hell I went to a statistics test high once, and I got a B+ on the test, where many of my sober friends scored worse than I! That allowed me to justify my smoking, until one day in the last stint of using I realized that I could not sustain it anymore, that I had been fooling myself. The problem with the fantasy of functionality is that we don’t know what we are giving up to maintain our habits. We don’t know what our potential would be if we removed the substance we have used as a crutch for however long. If you are reading this, I am not trying to convince you about the evils of marijuana, I am just saying I observed my mind and my heart and this is what I discovered. If you smoke, I invite you to watch your mind when you smoke, see how you really feel underneath the high. That is all I will say on that for now.
So after about 6 months into my Master’s program, I was praying for a Buddhist teacher. I had read all of these excerpts on how having a spiritual teacher was so important in Buddhism, etc. The fact was, the community I was involved in was simply so large, I would never get time with the teacher. On top of that, I was having trouble connecting to the Tibetan iconography, and rituals, which really did not make sense to me. One day, I typed “non-dual counseling program,” into Google. Non-duality was one of the main teachings of the sect of Buddhism I was participating in, and eventually I would have to do a practicum as a counselor. I discovered a non-dual teacher/counselor training program- and it was going to start the next month in Berkeley! I could not afford it, but I had read about the potential for scholarship, so I sent an email. Next thing you know, I get an email saying that I should talk to the man who teaches the program.
When I got on the phone with him, there was just this silent spaciousness. He told me, that he felt that I have a good sense of the type of work that he does in the program, and then tells me that his wife and partner would contact me to go over details. When I spoke to his wife, she said that this man had felt a connection with me, and wanted to support me perhaps long term in my development. I didn’t really know what to make of this; I mean it is for sure exactly what I was looking for, but what does one do with this information?
When I completed the 10-month course, this man invited me to continue to participate in that community, and eventually to be a coach in one of his courses. What he taught was not Buddhism in any traditional sense; it was a highly unorthodox approach that was informed by his years of Buddhist practice, and even being a monk.
At one point this teacher invited me to go to Australia, where he lived, to study with him. I was totally thrilled, and had planned on doing so, and of course it made me feel like I really mattered again. Soon thereafter, I found out from an astrologer that I had a potentially negative combination in my astrology chart for the teacher-student relationship. Now, I was never big on astrology, but I thought out of respect for my teacher that I be transparent with him. Ultimately, due to this reality and coupled with chronic health problems that my teacher was experiencing, I did not go to study with him there. At first I was devastated, but over time I came to realize that maybe it was best for me. I had to come to value myself for who I was.
During this time I was intensively training to be a psychotherapist. I was in group therapy one to two times a week, and my own personal therapy one to two times a week, coupled with individual supervision which often ended up being like my own therapy (working on my own issues) and group supervision. My supervisors were trained by the John Bradshaw center in the early 90s so they were very focused on family systems, and twelve-step work. I cannot begin to tell you how much I learned about the psychology of addiction in this time of my life, and the process of being a psychotherapist. It truly was a remarkable learning experience to see myself go from not knowing what I was doing as a therapist, to really helping people start to become conscious of their own pain, coping strategies, and helping them to develop new strategies. Nevertheless, I had always wanted to bring my more explicitly non-dual/ Buddhist perspective in to my work- but I felt like that perspective was although in many ways similar to the way I was being trained, it was also quite different in its enactment.
After one year of training, I graduated my Master’s program. I enrolled in a PhD program in the same institution, focused on transdicisplinary studies- which really means the practice of looking at a problem through different disciplinary lenses so that one may come to a more holistic understanding of that problem. I didn’t want to go further down the clinical psychology track, because I felt that I was getting ample training at my current internship.
I stayed at my psychotherapy internship for one more year. Meanwhile, my doctoral work kept moving towards studying Buddhism in the United States. In many ways, I could tell I was looking for my own identity as a Buddhist. When people asked me if I was Buddhist, I would say “I am neither Buddhist, nor not a Buddhist,” which often they would remark was a very Buddhist answer.
You see, all this time I had been trying to figure out who I was. It was challenging to identify myself as a Buddhist because I had mostly studied such unorthodox expressions and what with my new language I would call “hybridized” teachings. In Buddhism, there is quite a big emphasis that is put on lineage and purity. However, now I know that although many lineages trace themselves directly back to the historical Buddha himself, from a historical perspective this cannot always be validated. Of course my greatest fear is that “I would not be enlightened,” whatever that means.
As I write this I am realizing that I have been in an identity crisis for as long as I can remember. I don’t know who I am. I don’t feel connected with much in terms of a cultural tradition that has been passed down by my ancestors. The things that made my life meaningful in my childhood, while I grasp at them often, simply aren’t present the way they used to be. Often times, I simply feel alone, and isolated. Many of the friends I once knew I have trouble relating to. Many of the people I meet with my interests are much older than I. With all the searching I have done, I really can’t say who or what I am definitively. Although I do have some more labels now. I consider myself a “Contemporary Unorthodox Mahayana Buddhist.” Although it is rather burdensome to say, when I came to this identification I felt a surge of relief. I have a category!
I also can rest knowing that I cannot escape the melding of ideas, cultural hybridity, or interpreting Buddhist concept through my own conceptual lenses and biases. What really matters isn’t what lineage I come from, or how pure that is, but how I put whatever teachings I have learned about wisdom and compassion into practice. I may never know who or what I am, and maybe I don’t need to. What I do know is that what feels the best in my life is when I am able to sincerely appreciate the mystery of presence itself, and to be able to open my heart over and over and over to the intention that compassion be the ground of my every action. However, I recognize this is an ideal. I am not “there,” or enlightened, nor do I claim to be. Some days it is harder for me than others to be loving and understanding.
So I decided to create this blog. If I am to give myself an identity I will call myself a “Buddhamerican.” I think as a Buddhamerican I can appreciate both hybridity and purity. I can recognize that we all have our own paths and that there is still room for debate too. As a Buddhamerican I can see the social issues in the United States and feel empowered to do my best to apply the teachings I have received to make positive contributions in whatever it is I do. As a Buddhamerican I am most interested in participating in and creating cultures wherein the qualities of wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion are seen as the most celebrated qualities that are possible to enact. I believe that we can positively reinforce those qualities as a culture if we choose to. I recognize that what the term Buddhamerican refers to will change over time, because even if I were to copyright the term, I don’t own anything. Rather, I see myself simply as the mouth of an inordinately large cultural dragon. If you are reading this, Buddhist or not, you are apart of that dragon. If you desire to see more wisdom and compassion in the world, you are a part of that dragon. Although dragons are sometimes associated with violence (at least in this culture), this dragon symbolizes the power we have when we choose to take responsibility of enacting wisdom and compassion together. It symbolizes the power of sympathetic joy arrived at through inexhaustible loving kindness. Although I am not always aware of those qualities, it is my experience that they already exist inside of us. We don’t need to try and create or attain them. We just need to notice them, and let them know that they are welcome in our lives.
This is the story of how I came to identify myself as a Buddhamerican.