Photo by George Lang
Excerpted from Dancing with Life
On the very last day of 1986, soon after my 40th birthday, I did something that many people have since told me they long to do. I completely abandoned my professional identity, with all its security and privileges, in order to devote myself to finding more joy and meaning in my life. It was a good life that I left—some would even say a great one. I was editor-in-chief and chief executive of Esquire magazine, having bought it with some colleagues when it had fallen on hard times and slowly nourished it back to financial health and prominence. I liked what I did, was reasonably good at it, and as both creative and operational leader, I got to do things my way—a rare situation. Through the articles I published and the monthly column I wrote in the magazine, I had a voice in the national debate around social issues relevant to my generation. And as a business leader I got an adrenaline charge from being the underdog competing against much larger media companies and finding creative ways to hold my own.
Although I felt very fortunate to have these experiences, they did not ultimately provide me with a deep sense of purpose. Whenever I imagined spending the rest of my life continuing on the same path toward worldly success a strong feeling of disappointment in myself arose. So to the astonishment of people in the New York publishing community I gave up all that I had accomplished in order to dedicate myself fully to exploring the inner life and to understanding the mystery of this human existence, with all its joyous possibility and its endless suffering.
When I walked out of the door at Esquire, I had no plans. I did not know what city or even what country I would be living in, let alone what I would be doing with my time. Had I known that I would spend most of the next few years living in various meditation centers in rooms so small that I often could reach out and touch both walls, I might not have so cheerfully left my comfortable Manhattan apartment.
And yet I was not completely naïve about such matters. At the age of 23, I had begun a hatha yoga practice in which I learned to put my body into various poses and to hold them for long periods of time. I soon added the breathing exercises called pranayama, and within a year, a meditation practice. By the time I turned 26, I was doing yoga for at least an hour and a half each evening. In fact, I became so immersed in my practice that I came close to withdrawing from the conventional world at age 30 to live in an ashram, but then I backed out at the last moment due to what I call a “failure of imagination.” I couldn’t see how my life would unfold once I became a renunciate. I also hadn’t surrendered that dream many young people have to test themselves in the world—“to run against the fast horses.” So I chose to continue building the publishing company I had started in graduate school. Groping for a way to challenge myself led me to purchase Esquire, a magazine that I had always admired for its literary quality and hip style. I hoped that I could continue my spiritual development while testing myself.
In my naïveté I had not realized when I bought Esquire that it had lost most of its readers as well as its advertisers and was practically moribund. I worked incredibly long hours, seven days a week, under great pressure to keep the magazine going when no one believed it had a chance of surviving. During those early years at Esquire, I lost the momentum of my spiritual practice. After a while, despite my best efforts, I could not access the impulse to do yoga or meditate. Perhaps this was due to my conflicted feelings about not pursuing the inner life full-time. Or perhaps it was because I misused certain yogic concentration and breathing techniques in order to energize myself to work ridiculously long hours. It was a painful and humbling experience to go from having such a strong practice full of ecstatic states to being someone who could not even make himself do a yoga pose. I felt exiled from my own heart.
After three years and nearly going bankrupt twice, Esquire’s circulation and advertising finally started to grow and it became clear to me that the magazine was going to be a success. It was a satisfying and confirming moment after so much doubt and stress. So imagine my dismay when, only a few nights later, while sitting in my apartment editing manuscripts, an unnamed but very disturbing thought started rushing through my body with a buzz as it tried to voice itself into consciousness. I knew that I did not want to hear it, but I also knew that there was no stopping the undeniable realization that I had come to a turning point in my life, that despite the excitement and ego satisfaction of my job, I could not stay in publishing any longer. I had to follow my heart, to surrender myself to a calling—what traditionally would be referred to as a spiritual calling, but I could not identify it so clearly at the time. I could only describe it to my friends and advisors as an intuitive knowing, very strongly felt in my body, that I must engage in an exploration of the inner life.
How I resisted this urge—not just that night, but for several years afterward as I tried various plans to have my cake and eat it too. I delegated more responsibility for the business to my colleagues; I hired a private yoga teacher; I went on two- and three-day self-retreats. But my life never coalesced into a unified experience around a sense of purpose. Thus, I had a real dilemma because I was and remain a very practical person (to this day, many of my friends refer to me as “the practical mystic”). I did not relish abandoning everything I had gained from years of hard work and going off into some unknown life without a plan.
But there was no denying the call. The end finally came while I was sitting in a Magazine Publishers of America board meeting. I suddenly realized that if I did not act right then I might never leave. My mind was calm and very clear, and I finally knew what I had to do. I excused myself from the meeting, went to a phone, and called an investment banker. Six weeks later, the magazine was sold and I was gone!
Stunned by the suddenness and seeming irrationality of my decision, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker all assigned writers to find out what had gone wrong. Was there a financial scandal? Did I have cancer? There had to be a reason for my behavior. They couldn’t imagine why I’d just walk away. But none of the stories were ever published. One reporter confided that when he turned in his piece, the editor told him that she could not publish it because the story was too boring! None of them realized that it was not a personal story of loss or tragedy, but a far greater story of forsaking the pursuit of money, power, and glory in order to seek out a more meaningful life, something that many others in my generation would soon be doing in their own style.
Leaving Esquire so abruptly was disorienting initially because I no longer had a defined role or an identity in the world. When I interacted with former colleagues they treated me as though I’d had an unfortunate accident. I had no simple explanation to offer people when they asked what I was doing, nor did I want to proclaim that I was undergoing some noble quest when I had no assurance that I wouldn’t change my mind any day! I was repeatedly tempted by opportunities to get back in the game that were quite appealing, especially those in the nascent world of internet media. These offers were attractive because, on one hand, what was I going to fill my time with? On the other hand, I knew I had bought my time back from the marketplace at a great cost and that gave me the perspective to repeatedly say no.
As I embarked on my new life, the teachings and meditative practices of the Theravada Buddhist lineage, the so-called “forest tradition” or “tradition of the Elders,” became my primary practice. My first significant teachers were Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, who along with Jack Kornfield are the three Westerners considered most responsible for bringing these teachings from Thailand, Burma, and India to the U.S.
Because I had worked so intensely in the life I left behind, redirecting that energy into an intense meditation practice was relatively easy. However, sitting long hours day after day without moving was quite painful, until my body finally started to adjust. Plus, I was impatient. I did not necessarily think I was practicing the right way, and I craved more action in my life. But the pain and emotional turmoil became grist for the mill as I continued my exploration.
I spent much of my time either in meditation centers sitting long silent retreats or practicing on my own. I also became interested in the body-mind connection and studied aikido and somatic healing techniques. Also, because of my past, a number of individuals who were leaders and who were struggling with questions about what to do with their lives began to seek my advice. I gradually evolved a system to help them sort out their priorities, which I ultimately called “life balance work.”
One day after I’d been practicing vipassana for seven years, I received a phone call from Jack Kornfield, the founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He asked me if I would like to become a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and participate in the three-year teacher training program he conducted. I was surprised by his offer, as I had not once thought about becoming a full-time meditation teacher. After telling Jack I needed to think about it, I went to see him a few days later and explained that while I was honored by his invitation I didn’t think I was the right person because I had not spent years studying in monasteries in Southeast Asia. Jack laughed and said that it was when people acted like it was about time they had been chosen to teach that he worried about their readiness. Although I still wasn’t sure teaching was my calling, I was attracted by the opportunity to be part of a community of fellow seekers and was excited about learning from the senior teachers. It also offered a structure for my life, which I had been living without.
I now travel throughout the United States leading silent residential meditation retreats of varying lengths, usually with one or more co-teachers. I also teach daylong retreats and have a weekly sitting group. I’ve written numerous articles on the wisdom that is contained in the Buddha’s teachings, including a regular column for Yoga Journal. As it has turned out, teaching the dharma is the most satisfying activity I had ever done in my life.