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.
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.
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
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.
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
I spent four years looking
for answers to two straightforward, age-old questions:
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.
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
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
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, "...one inevitably
comes down, (and) must re-enter the world with a caring
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
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.
tends to predominate only in the period when
a person is falling asleep or waking up.
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
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."
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
"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
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
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
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
may think we are born to save ourselves. In truth, we
are here to transform our nature in order to save the
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Really Matters - Searching for Meaning in America by Tony
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.
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
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
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
may think we are born to save ourselves. In truth, we
are here to transform our nature in order to save the