Search For Wisdom

All my life, I’d been driven to achieve in my work and to be recognized and appreciated for my efforts. Now I’d written a book that was highly visible and undeniably successful, and yet something was still missing. I’d done a lot of good journalistic work over the years, yet somehow it hadn’t translated into a sense of depth, or richness, or passion in my life. Above all, I lacked the experience of meaning—that I was here for some reason beyond succeeding in work and building a comfortable, close-knit life with my family and friends. Both of these were honorable, important goals. They simply felt insufficient.

What I longed for was to feel more at home with myself, more deeply comfortable in my own skin, more connected to something timeless and essential, more real. I was searching for a more complete life, an experience of my own essence, something I came to call wisdom. For all my outer focus, I’d always been a seeker. Beneath the veneer of my smooth-sounding success story and the tough, confident persona I often presented to the world, I’d long felt an inner turbulence and discontent, a muted but chronic sense of anxiety. I sought acceptance and love but easily became angry, impatient, and judgmental. I was often deeply drawn to people, yet I felt myself holding them at a distance or even pushing them away.

However, unlike many Americans, I was never drawn to organized religion as a route to meaning. Born Jewish, I was unable to connect to the rituals and traditions in any heartfelt way. As I grew older, I became increasingly mistrustful of the dogma, hierarchy, and rigidity that seemed to characterize most organized religions. I also viscerally resisted any absolute authority—something I viewed, through the prism of my own experience growing up, as often abusive, narrow-minded, and hypocritical.

Looking back, I realize that I longed for faith, but not at the cost of blindly accepting beliefs that didn’t resonate for me in my own experience.

To a large extent, I placed my faith in two modern American paths to a better life:

The first was success.

If only I had enough, I told myself—enough achievement, recognition, and money, a sufficiently comfortable home, more exciting vacations, a good marriage, beaming kids, a wide circle of friends—then eventually I’d feel satisfied. Ironically, it was by finally realizing this dream that I ran up against its limitations.

I also invested considerable faith in psychotherapy.

I turned to therapy for answers and ended up in a long and traditional Freudian psychoanalysis. However, it finally dawned on me that there was something arid and one-dimensional about my experience in therapy. While the circumstances of my life improved over time, I didn’t feel fundamentally better.

It was in the aftermath of my success with The Art of the Deal that I became interested in meditation. The lure was not spiritual. I’d never been much interested in a practice that seemed so utterly removed from the everyday world. I was drawn to meditation purely as a way to relax. I felt I was living in a state of chronic overdrive, forever hungry for the next adrenaline fix, and rarely able to relax. I started meditating simply to slow down.

To my surprise, the practice of letting go of my thoughts and resting in a place of inner quiet proved both exhilarating and moving. Very quickly, I realized that meditation had practical uses. Learning to quiet my mind reduced my tension, helped me to concentrate better, and made it easier to absorb information.

For the first time, I found that it was possible to get beyond my gnawing everyday concerns and to experience instead a sense of calmness, clarity, and deep well-being. Beyond that, I found myself experiencing a more expansive view of the world that didn’t lend itself easily to words.

There were times, alone in meditation, when I felt more present, more alive, more open, and more connected to others than I ever remembered feeling before.

In these moments I started to apprehend a new sense of meaning in my life—an unmistakable feeling that I was connected to a larger whole. In time, I became convinced that I’d found the answer I’d been searching fo a way to fill up what was missing in my life.

My calling as a writer, I decided, was to literally bring meditation down to earth. I became determined to find an accessible language to communicate the powerful experience I was having.

But something unexpected happened along the way, to my disappointment and chagrin, I noticed that when I opened my eyes after meditation and returned to every day life, I often fell right back into my old patterns. I resumed worrying about problems that had seemed trivial from my meditative stance. The chatter of my mind returned. My impatience flared up.

I found myself looking outward again for approval and feeling a familiar restlessness. I despaired that while I’d undoubtedly glimpsed a better way to live, embodying it in my everyday life was a whole other story. I began to spend time with people who’d devoted many years to meditation, people who had built their lives around spiritual practices aimed at transcending the ego, I saw that they had many of the same difficulties I did. Few of them behaved more compassionately, sensitively, or selflessly than the majority of people I know who didn’t mediate at all. However valuable the perspective of the higher meditative states, they didn’t seem to provide all of the answers I was seeking.

Learning to deeply quiet the mind was plainly one piece of the wisdom puzzle, but it didn’t seem sufficient by itself. The result was that I began to look more widely for wisdom. Only much later did it dawn on me that I was following a tradition that dates back thousands of years: the search for the Holy Grail, for meaning, for the true Self. I also realized that I was seeking a form of wisdom suited to my own life and to the culture I lived in. I wasn’t interested in renouncing my material desires, moving to an ashram, or giving up my professional ambitions. I wanted to continue passionately in the world, but I also wanted passionately to connect to something deeper in myself and others.

I spent four years looking for answers to two straightforward, age-old questions:

Who am I? and
Why am I here?

The book that follows, the story of my search for wisdom, is a work in progress. So am I.

The Heart of Wisdom

Until well into their 30’s, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield lived remarkably parallel lives—both were brought up in liberal, Jewish, East Coast families in the 1950s; both did well in school, went on to Ivy League colleges, and seemed headed toward conventional careers; both became interested in Eastern religion during college, joined the Peace Corps after graduation, and sought assignment in Asia; both ended up studying Buddhism and classical meditation practice known as vipassana—Kornfield in Thailand, Goldstein in India.

They met for the first time in 1974 when each had been invited to teach meditation classes at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado—a summer-long celebration that became the sort of defining event for the consciousness movement that Woodstock had been 6 years earlier for the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture.

Both Goldstein and Kornfield, back from Asia for less than a year and still unsure what to do with the rest of their lives, were thrilled to discover such a receptive audience of young American seekers. Students flocked to their classes in part because they were among the first Western meditation teachers with authentic Asian training and also because each of them had a gift for making Eastern spiritual teachings seem relevant and accessible.

Naropa itself was the inspiration of the charismatic Tibetan-born Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Tinpoche. Trungpa arrived in the US in May 1970 and set out on a lecture tour across the country. As he traveled, he was struck both by the intense spiritual hunger of the young Americans he met and the level of their misunderstanding about the Eastern approach to seeking wisdom. His lectures were eventually gathered in what remains his best-known book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

"We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spirituality," he wrote, "when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism."

Two years after their meeting, Goldstein and Kornfield helped to found the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a retreat center in central Massachusetts. For nearly a decade, they taught together, attracting a large and loyal group of students. Today both remain unwaveringly committed to cultivating awareness and increasing consciousness through meditative practices.

Along the way, however, their paths have sharply diverged. Goldstein continues to passionately champion what he calls the classical Buddhist teachings. "What we want to do is ‘let go’ of everything," he has explained.

Kornfield, who was ordained as a Buddhist monk but went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology, grew to believe that directly engaging and resolving the issues of personality is at least as critical as meditation in the quest for a more complete life. For all the differences that have emerged between them, Kornfield and Goldstein remain bound by shared beliefs that developed early in their lives; most notably, that traditional Western definitions of success and happiness simply are not adequate.

"I didn’t see (myself) being a monk for the rest of my life," Kornfield explained, "but I wanted to do the type of training that the Buddhist monks did to understand at a deeper level the texts that I’d been reading in college and the psychedelic experiences that I’d had." In 1972, after five years in Asia, Kornfield decided to return to the United States. He was determined to work out the stormy relationships with family and friends that he’d left behind.

At the same time, he was intent on continuing to live in robes and shaved head as a Buddhist monk. But within several weeks, Kornfield had discarded his robes and enrolled in a graduate program in psychology at Antioch. He also got involved in his first relationship with a woman since college and began living in a communal household.

Very quickly, he came to a painful and disappointing realization. The deep understandings and the extraordinary states of clarity and well-being that he had experienced in meditation did not translate easily into worldly life in America.

"My meditation had helped me very little with relationships," he wrote. "I was still emotionally immature, acting out the same painful patterns of blame and fear, acceptance and rejection, that I had before my Buddhist training, only the horror was that now I was beginning to "see" these patterns more clearly. I had used the strength of my mind in meditation to suppress painful feelings, and all too often I didn’t even recognize that I was angry, sad, grieving, or frustrated until a long time later. I had very few skills for dealing with my feelings, or engaging on an emotional level, or living wisely with my friends and loved ones."

"I’ve known dozens of meditators who can go completely empty in meditation, into pure void and bliss, but then come back into the world and still act like emotional infants and sexual idiots in their relationships," Kornfield told me. "There has to be a wedding of the personal and the universal. We need to bring our personal lives, the way we treat others and live our lives, into harmony with universal truths. Many people first come to spiritual practice hoping to skip over their sorrows and wounds, the difficult areas of their lives."

Kornfield wrote in his book, A Path with Heart, "They hope to rise above them and enter a spiritual realm full of divine grace, free from all conflict...(But) as soon as they relax in their meditation discipline, they again encounter all the unfinished business of their body and heart. Certainly, I saw this in my own life."

"The real challenge is to bring attention to every dimension of life. Whenever there is difficulty, wherever you are unconscious, you bring your attention there." Kornfield now views even the most profound meditative insights merely as one step on the path of wisdom. "No matter how tremendous the openings and how strong the enlightening journey," he wrote in A Path with Heart, " inevitably comes down, (and) must re-enter the world with a caring heart."


Elmer Green represents another passionate and pioneering voice of the consciousness movement in America during the early 1960s. While Murphy focused on nurturing the human potential and Ram Dass on routes to transcendence, Green is a scientist who has sought to quantify the practical value of meditative states; to prove the inextricable connection between the mind and the body in treating illness; and to provide a measurable technology—biofeedback—for accessing higher states of consciousness.

Together with his wife Alyce, they wrote one of the best books about early biofeedback research, titled The Ghost in the Box. The modern understanding of brain waves includes 4 broad brainwave patterns:

The most common in everyday waking life, named beta, comprises faster brain waves and is associated with active, focused, conscious attention in the world—anything from engaging in conversation, to watching TV. In general, the more logical and deductive the task, the more beta tends to predominate.

At the opposite end of the scale is delta, the slowest brain waves, found in sleep and unconsciousness.

The 2 midrange brainwaves present subtler, more internally focused waking states of consciousness.

Theta tends to predominate only in the period when a person is falling asleep or waking up.

Alpha is a more conscious, aware, and alert state than theta, but is less active and more inner focused than beta. Alpha has been referred to as a neutral or idling gear—a state of quiet relaxation. Most people can produce it, at least in short bursts, simply by closing their eyes. Alpha has a paradoxical quality—it’s a form of relaxed attention or engaged indifference, a sense of being alert and present but nonetheless feeling miles away. Increasing alpha often prompts feelings of freedom, floating and ease, even joy and expansiveness. "But don’t be surprised," a biofeedback trainer explained to me, "if you also experience feelings of fear or sadness or anger." Quieting the mind, he explained, tends to free up whatever feelings lie beneath the relentless mental chatter that characterizes a typical beta-dominated waking life.

"I think this sort of training is just a first step in self-mastery," he explained. "Alpha is finally only an idling state," Elmer Green told me. "It’s ten times better than beta, but beyond a certain level of relaxation, it doesn’t have that much to offer by itself. If you want to truly grow, the only way you’re going to do that is through the deeper state of theta. That’s where you can interrogate the unconscious and even gain the ability to reprogram it. The only true value of alpha is that it’s a necessary bridge between beta and theta."

It was this same insight that launched Green’s research into the unique properties of the theta state in the early 1970s. In reading the Japanese study of the brain waves of forty-eight yogis and monks, Green was struck by the fact that as they moved into the deepest levels of meditation, the dominance of alpha eventually gave way to long trains of theta waves. Zen masters themselves have long described this deep state as one of knowing—having access to some deeper level of truth.

Green next hypothesized that if subjects could be taught to break the typical habit of falling asleep when they moved into theta, they too might gain more direct access to spontaneous knowing. "We found theta to be associated with a deeply internalized state," Green later wrote. "The state of deep quietness of body, emotions and mind...achieved in theta training seems to build a bridge between conscious and unconscious processes and allows usually‘unheard things to come to consciousness."

"It’s as if you have two radio signals," he told me. "One is loud, the other is very soft and faint. To hear the faint one, you have to turn the loud one down. We go into theta to get this loud noise of normal waking consciousness turned off, so we can hear the softer voice underneath. And we do that because the breadth of our consciousness turns out to extend far beyond what we’re usually conscious of."

In 1973, while visiting India to study the brainwave patterns of advanced yogis, the Greens chanced upon a strong anecdotal verification of their assumptions about theta. They were in the midst of running tests on Ram Sharma, a professor of biophysics who had long training in meditation. After hooking him up and explaining the brain waves that they wanted him to produce, he was able to produce nearly pure theta on command, while remaining fully conscious—a feat that few Westerners can match.

When Green asked the professor how he did it, Dr. Sharma explained that he simply dropped into a very quiet state of consciousness in which he had long ago learned that he received answers to difficult intellectual questions he posed to himself. It was a level of mind, he explained, that appeared to know everything.

Green was delighted by this independent confirmation and concluded that theta training could benefit nearly anyone. "It meant," he later wrote, "that the average person, without having to subscribe to a religion, or to a dogma, or to a meditation system, could learn to move into the state of consciousness in which the seemingly infallible Source of Creativity could be invoked for the solution of problems."

"Theta provides a way to walk through a doorway and gain access to the files of the unconscious, everything from the basement to the penthouse," he told me.

"What you do with what you find there is up to the individual. It’s possible to experience deep compassion for others in this state but also to plan the perfect bank robbery."

The impetus to act wisely, Green continues to believe, is contingent on dealing in an ongoing way with the issues of personality that arise. "You can’t take an end run around the foibles and flaws of personality merely by transcending," he explains.

"In the end, you have to deal with ever issue that comes up. There can’t be a single pocket of the unconscious that you are not conscious of. Until you are a hundred percent aware, you can always backslide. There are all sorts of subtle little ego traps along the road, inducing self-righteousness and a lack of humility. To be fully conscious means watching yourself all the time. You have to get your personality together before you can truly get on to your cosmic role."

It is accessing a dimension beyond personal desires and preferences—a higher Self—that is Green’s highest goal. The real value of theta training, he wrote recently, "is the relatively rapid development of a skill in shifting, without years of trail-and-error meditation, into a state of consciousness in which one comes face to face with one’s Self.

This transcendent Being ... is above, below, behind, within, or hidden by the ego.

The True Self ... can be quickly approached if the personality is made silent through theta EEG feedback and at the same time we focus detached attention upward. The Self is always willing to help us, it seems, if we approach it in the right way and make ourselves open to it."

And what exactly is the everyday value of nurturing this transcendent perspective, I asked Green during a recent phone conversation.

"What the work gives you is an incredible awareness and objectivity," he told me.

"You can feel all the mental, physical, and emotional things going on around you and in you and yet not be identified with the individual pieces. The transpersonal point of view literally allows you to become chairman of the board, a position that is necessary to bring together the separate autonomous parts of yourself harmoniously. When that happens, you can turn your attention further inward and become conscious of the higher levels of your own nature—how you fit into the whole spiritual cosmos. We may think we are born to save ourselves. In truth, we are here to transform our nature in order to save the world."

Metta Meditation

Early in my own meditation practice, I had a taste of the experience that Ram Dass described so evocatively. My experience took place in the course of a 5 day retreat held in the mountains of Alta, Utah. All the sustained meditation began to dissolve my usual ways of coping: relentless activity, constant talk, ruminating, regretting, rationalizing, and planning. It’s difficult to evoke in words the blend of grief, freedom from fear, and boundless love that I felt.

Somehow, with my normal barriers down, I gained access to deep emotions that I was not used to feeling. The grief was connected to the burgeoning awareness of all that I’d missed by keeping such a careful distance from my feelings.

The uncharacteristic fearlessness gave me the soaring, spacious sense that anything was possible. And the boundless love was most powerful of all—a feeling of my heart opening to those around me, a rare instinct to reach out and experience the best in people, to let down my barriers and judgments. More vividly than I could ever remember, nonseparateness became not just a concept but something I was experiencing palpably and directly.

The sense of being in my heart more than in my head grew as the days passed. At one point, I mentioned this to Betty, one of the participants of the meditation course, and she suggested a form of meditation that she’d found helpful. Much later, I discovered that her technique was very similar to a traditional Buddhist practice known as metta, the Sanskrit word for love.

In Betty’s version, she first conjured up the image of someone very close to her. Then she imagined herself sending love to that person. Next, she saw herself receiving love from the person, and finally she imagined sending the message "I wish you well." She did this one person at a time, moving from family members, to friends and co-workers, and eventually even to people with whom she was having conflict.

Sending waves of love across the landscape was new territory for me, and under ordinary circumstances, I’d have found the notion silly and even awkward. But by now, I was in my 4th day at the retreat. I felt unusually relaxed, far less quick to short-circuit my experience, and eager to cultivate the open-hearted state I’d first touched earlier.

When I thought of people in my life and simply repeated to myself the phrases that Betty suggested, I didn’t feel much impact. But then I began connecting the exercise more closely to my deepest feelings. I focused on one of my daughters and tried to imagine a real-life situation in which I’d felt great love for her, and then another in which I’d felt especially loved by her.

The more vividly I recalled a scene, the more satisfying the experience. It was harder to send love to some people, or to receive love from them. Often, I discovered, this was because there was some conflict in the relationship that I hadn’t articulated to myself before. In some cases, I discovered that I just didn’t want to send a person love.

This was all occurring in my mind, of course, but it often seemed as if the person were right there with me. When I got in deep enough, the meditation seemed to have a life of its own. I could almost literally feel my heart opening.

After I’d conjured up the people I cared about in my life, I turned to people with whom I felt active conflict. I thought of one person in particular who had treated me with genuine malice and toward whom I felt a great deal of anger. Love was perhaps the last emotion I associated with this fellow. He’d purposely set out to hurt me—unfairly, I felt—and I’d genuinely suffered from the attack.

As I sat trying to imagine a way to experience love toward him, something else came into my mind. I realized how much anger he must feel toward me, or some image he had of me, and what a toll that likely took on him. Since we hardly knew each other, I wondered how much he had projected onto me aspects of himself that he found unacceptable.

Experiencing all this from this point of view suddenly made me feel that his hostility was creating more misery for him than it was for me. I didn't get a sudden urge to invite him to dinner, but I did find myself able to feel compassion for him, even to send him love.

It shocked me to see that a simple change in my own way of perceiving the situation could prompt such a powerful emotional shift. It also showed me how easy it is to get locked into habitual, defensive patterns that diminished my ability to remain open and compassionate.

At first, I was reluctant even to tell this story to friends, because it seemed so soft-headed and improbable. But in time, I realized that I’d made some sort of powerful and positive connection with my former nemesis. From that day on, I never again felt any significant anger toward him. Although we never spoke about my experience, he stopped lashing out at me. As the years went by and I occasionally heard something about his life, I was always surprised to discover that I bore him no ill will and even felt some inexplicable bond—as if the challenge of successfully making my peace with him had given us common ground.

By the time I left the retreat, I was more relaxed, less defensive, and more open-hearted than I could ever remember feeling. I’d experienced a sustained state of consciousness in which the boundaries that typically separated me from others had largely dissolved. The experience of the retreat stayed with me for several weeks.

Over time, however, my ordinary habits and fears began to resurface. Occasionally, I could bring back some of the openness by returning to the metta meditation. Even then, I found a certain resistance to opening my heart so freely. Eventually, the experience in Utah lived on mostly in my memory—a powerful sense of having touched a more essential aspect of myself, inspiring evidence that there is the potential to connect more deeply with others.




What Really Matters - Searching for Meaning in America by Tony Schwartz In 1988, at the height of his career as a journalist and co-author of a #1 bestseller Donald Trump’s, The Art of the Deal, Tony Shwartz hit an unexpected wall. Why did the success he’d sought for so long suddenly feel empty? What was a truly meaningful and complete life? His search for answers took him from a meditation retreat in the mountains of Utah to a biofeedback laboratory in Kansas.



"Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different." -William James




"Look at every path closely and deliberately. Then ask yourself one question: does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good. If it doesn't, it is of no use." - Carlos Castaneda



"I’ve known dozens of meditators who can go completely empty in meditation, into pure void and bliss, but then come back into the world and still act like emotional infants and sexual idiots in their relationships." -Jack Kornfield



"We may think we are born to save ourselves. In truth, we are here to transform our nature in order to save the world." -Elmer Green


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