In looking back over the last eight decades of my life, it seems that I was often searching for answers to questions I had never actually asked. I was exploring things I did not understand. I was seeking—without knowing what it was I was hoping to find. It felt like something was missing and I needed to find it.
It was not always like this. I grew up in northern New Jersey in an upper middle-class family. I did well in school and was accepted into Stanford for the Fall of 1960. I was ready to pursue the American Dream.
But this destiny got derailed at an Easter sunrise service. I was part of a church youth group and we were standing on a bluff in northern New Jersey looking out towards the Manhattan skyline. We were waiting for dawn to break. Slowly a golden light began to spread out over the sky. I stood there transfixed by its brilliance. And that is when it happened.
Suddenly I experienced a throbbing sensation in the middle of my chest. It began softly and continued to grow. The pressure became intense. Never before had I experienced such feeling inside my body. Never before had I felt anything like this in my heart. I thought my heart would burst. I was overwhelmed. And then it was over.
The experience lasted only a few seconds. Its impact lasted a lifetime.
What was that, I said to myself? I had no idea what had just happened. There was no one I could ask. The people in my life would not understand. It remained my secret for years. But somehow, somewhere, I was bound and determined to get an answer. It would take me half a century before I would fully understand.
The pursuit of the American Dream no longer seemed important. At Stanford I started looking for answers. But I faced a dilemma: I did not know what questions to ask. I did not know what I was looking for.
During my sophomore year I traveled abroad and studied in Africa. Back then, Americans knew almost nothing about the African continent, its history or the people who lived there. Africa was called the “Dark Continent”; but the darkness was our own ignorance.
Once there, I looked back across the ocean to America and started to see it as many foreigners were seeing it. I did not like a lot of what I saw. It seemed as if our priorities were out of place. We Americans came across as wrapped up in living the “good life” but were ignorant of the rest of the planet. Americans abroad at this time were often called “ugly Americans,” and I was starting to understand why.
When I returned to Stanford, I had trouble fitting back into my old life. The program which had sent me over to Rhodesia no longer existed. No one knew that I had gone to Africa and no one cared. It was as if it never happened. The only thing that had changed was my inner world, and this in ways I could not understand.
Much of the Stanford student life now seemed superficial. Academically, I did not know where to focus. I had two issues: I was not sure where I wanted to go with my life and I was less sure about where I already was.
The only place I could think to turn to was the church. In the Fall of 1964, I entered the Masters of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I really wasn’t thinking about becoming a minister. The program required that I do field work along with my academic work. Over my three years at Union I was a youth minister for an inner-city church in the South Bronx, a chaplain for troubled youth from the city, a counselor for transient men at a mid-town YMCA and a street organizer in Brooklyn where I checked on people living in derelict housing.
In 1965, after my first year at Union, I re-connected with my high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Bader, and we married. (She has been my constant companion ever since.) Then I took off to Vermont and a ministerial internship in a small-town church. I would be the entire staff for that church for the summer.
My field work jobs were leaving me with the feeling that the ministry was not my calling. But what was? Between my second and third years at Union, I decided to take a year off for some self-examination. I took an internship with the Glide Foundation in San Francisco.
Glide offered me a chance to attend a workshop at the Esalen Institute—a place I had never heard of before. At Esalen, I saw members of our group make extraordinary personal changes—and that included me.
For the first time since my Easter sunrise experience, I felt like I had some direction. At Esalen, I made two basic decisions: I would not get ordained and I would do something more along the lines of what I had experienced at Esalen. But I wasn’t sure what that was nor how I could do that. I returned to Union to get a degree I would not be needing.
After seminary, I landed a job in a new field that was just coming into existence. It was called Organization Development and it gave me an opportunity to learn how people and organizations change and grow together. I was very fortunate to have gotten into this field when I did. The field was so new that no colleges offered degrees in it. In others words, the field did not yet formally exist. And a person like myself, who had just the thinnest experience, might land a job.
In 1971 Elizabeth and I returned to the Bay Area. Several years later we joined a spiritual cult called The Creative Initiative Foundation (CIF). Of course, we did not consider it a cult at the time. CIF was centered in Palo Alto and its members were mostly affluent and well educated. It had groups all around the Bay Area. The leaders of CIF viewed the world as shrouded in “ignorance” and believed that they (alone) could provide the leadership to save it. CIF described themselves as “post-Christian”; they looked to Jesus as a teacher but not a Savior. I was hoping this organization could help me clarify my own ambivalence about my Christian background.
But over the years, CIF devolved into a rigid cult. In 1981 Elizabeth and I realized it was time for us to get out. It was like emerging out of a dark cave and suddenly finding ourselves in a bright, sunny world with nothing to guide our way. We realized that we would need help with our re-entry back into regular society.
Winona Christianson was that guide. Winona, in addition to being our therapist, also lead a weekly spiritual discussion group and I decided to attend her sessions. I was discovering that there was a huge world of spiritual knowledge and practice that I knew nothing about and I was eager to learn all that I could.
During our weekly meetings Winona would tell stories about her spiritual teacher, an older woman named Evelyn Sullivan. She was clearly in awe of Evelyn. One night she said that Evelyn had an opening for another person and would anyone in the group like to have a session with her. I quickly spoke up. I began having weekly sessions with Evelyn who initiated me into the world of energy work
I wanted to learn more. But where can you learn about human energy? One night at dinner, Elizabeth told me about an unusual experience she had had that morning. A woman she did not know came up to her and said: “I think I need to know you”. This woman said she had recently attended Gay Luce’s 9 Gates Mystery School. As Elizabeth was telling me, I felt a rising pressure in my heart. I realized I needed to pursue this.
Mystery School turned out to be 9 weekend workshops, each workshop devoted to a separate energy chakra. The nine weekends gave me a good over-view of our human energy system.
For the next six years Elizabeth and I participated in a year-long training program called Life Energy Fundamentals. This culminated for me in the release of a massive block of fear which I had repressed and which was locked in the tissue of my body. Once released, I felt much lighter, freer and more in my body.
In the 1990s my personal journey took me up to Oregon where I became part of a group that conducted Native American religious ceremonies. Unlike my previously experiences, this was something that I did not want to do. But my inner guidance was insistent in pushing me in this direction. I participated in sweat lodges, sun dances, chest-piercing and my own vision-quest. I came to realize that I was being tested: had I really released all of the fear which had been locked up in my body?
In 2003 the high-tech recession hit Silicon Valley hard. Half of all jobs in high tech disappeared. Work for my kind of consulting dried up like water in a desert. People were leaving in droves. My professional network was gone. Elizabeth and I were at a crossroads. Elizabeth was working as a marriage, family and child therapist at a medical foundation. Her long hours and heavy work load were weighing on her. She wanted out. We could retire, but to do so we would have to sell our house in the Bay Area.
A year later we were living on a farm in central Oregon and growing hay. My professional journey was over. But my personal spiritual journey was about to go deeper.
Over the course of my early life I gave little thought to where my life was going. I was experiencing things. I was learning things. As long as I continued to receive guidance about what to do, I simply assumed that at some point I would understand how everything fits together.
After we retired and moved to Oregon, Elizabeth and I both felt a pull to start a meditation practice. We joined a weekly Zen meditation group and six months later we began attending week-long meditation retreats at the Great Vow Monastery outside of Portland, Oregon. At one of these retreats the idea that I should be focused on becoming enlightened was planted in my mind
I never gave any thought to what life would be like if I did awaken. But if it did happen, I assumed my journey would be complete. After all, what could there be after awakening? And then it actually happened.
I had no idea what came next. Without realizing it, I had been transported from the end of one journey and into the beginning of another.
My teacher Adyashanti once said: “understanding is the booby prize”. Putting this into my own words: youncannot if you haven’t had the experience, trying to understand what it is does not amount to much. Experiencing something makes it real. Science understands this. Most theories have to be proven by empirical evidence before they are accepted as truth.
In the months following my awakening, I found myself in a strange place. On the one hand, everything felt different. And yet everything was the same.
The biggest single change I felt was that life had become impersonal: life was no longer about me. Even if it appeared to be about me, it was not about me. Life just simply is. It is what it is.
What matters is how we respond to life. Are we part of the problem or are we part of the solution? More often than not it is neither of these. Life is never a problem. What we call a “problem” is something another person is doing. We see a “problem” when we do not like what someone else is doing. My awakening experience led me to pull back all of my “problems” I had projected onto others.
Now I was experiencing other people as simply being human. This is what we humans do. We attribute problems to other human’s motivations. And we all live lives entangled in one another’s problems. It is very freeing when we stop attributing problems to others.
This abrupt change is disorientating. We spend our whole lives assigning problems. Then we awaken and this comes to a screeching halt. The result is disorientation. Life goes on as before. Yet everything is different.
Even my physical life was different. I found myself becoming disoriented at times. I felt uneasy in my own body. There were times when I would stumble or trip. I acted like I had Alzheimer’s, which was disconcerting because my mother died of Alzheimers. I am at risk.
My journey had taken a twist. Instead of looking for something, I was now trying to figure out what I had actually found—or at least experienced. Over the next four years I attended two to three retreats a year with Adyashanti. In addition, I attended two more retreats a year with teachers that Adyashanti had given transmission to teach. Each in their own way helped me see my situation a little more clearly.
My writing had become a way for me to work out what I actually understood. At first my writings were basically reiterations of what others had said. Adya especially has a way of saying things that are provocative. His utterings inspired me to try my own hand at clever wordsmithing.
But in time I noticed something curious: I found myself writing about things that none of the teachers had ever mentioned. My inspiration was taking on a life of its own and I was curious to see where it would lead me. If you are reading this, you know the answer.
I felt that a lot of the mystery about enlightenment was undeserved. In part this is the result of people writing about things they have never experienced. Could I make it clearer? I wanted to remove the idea that enlightenment is impossible to achieve. After all, if I can do, so can most other people.
Difficult—yes. Impossible—not at all.
There was a lot I wanted to say. The greatest challenge was finding a framework for saying it all. A friend suggested I develop a website. I liked this suggestion. I liked the idea that anybody could turn on a computer and learn about enlightenment. They do not have to buy a book or attend a workshop. Of course, learning about it is not the same as attaining it. But it is a beginning, and an important one if people now believe that this is something they really can do.
Designing a website turned out to be just as challenging as writing a book. The greatest challenge was creating a framework that made it comprehensible.
I have lost count of how many different ways I have tried to organize this. Each year I took writing workshops at the Tucson Festival of Books. One taught me about the power of story-telling. Another discussed the Hero’s Journey as a framework for a novel. I had found my framework for telling the story.
In 2016 The Story of Enlightenment went online. But more was needed for the website. I wanted articles about what enlightenment is and why it has become such a mystery. Which brings us to where we are today.