The Blog

The Selfistry Guide: A Peek

From the Selfistry book …

The way of self-knowledge.

I spent my thirties sitting on a meditation cushion determined to bring about an inner shift that would finally make me happy.

Here’s what I mean by happy.

I do not mean the fleeting emotion that’s dependent upon ingestion of a substance, acquisition of a shiny object, or involvement with a particular person or place. When I speak of happiness, I’m referring to the sense of peace that can come with simply being alive — knowing who we are and why we’re here, regardless of external circumstances.

Most people don’t use the word happiness in this way.

For many, the definition is more reflective of what I actually wanted back when I was in my twenties and began my search. I wouldn’t have said I wanted a sense of inner peace. I wanted to be happy — as in feeling good all the time. Energized. Constantly excited about my life.

That never happened.

My years on the cushion are what brought me to the clarity that happiness is best defined as an emotional state that comes and goes — just like sadness. I don’t have anything against it. In fact, I quite enjoy feeling happy.

However, once I saw that happiness was unsustainable for long periods of time, it became clear that what I was really seeking was peace of mind — a deeper and enduring sense of ease and joy. I was longing to inhabit a state of being that is unshakeable by life’s ever changing conditions, capable of informing my daily decisions, and useful for guiding my overall life direction.

It’s fair to say that, rather than seeking a happy life, I was actually seeking a meaningful one. Realizing this was a huge relief. Finding what I was searching for, however, was not so simple. Or easy.

When I was growing up — in the sixties and seventies — how to access inner peace wasn’t taught in school or discussed in my home. What constituted a good life was not mentioned beyond the subtle — and not so subtle — suggestions that an enviable life depended upon external matters such as physical appearance, social status, and financial success.

Though this ignorance about something so essential to being human plagued the entire society — with its significant and enduring consequences, our family didn’t know what we were missing. We thought we were living a meaningful life.

This is some of what our lives looked like.

We stopped paying attention to our vital bond with the natural world and instead ate processed food and watched nature shows on TV.

We allowed an infatuation with our intellect to eclipse any other way of engaging the unknown, and we relegated religion to a cultural identity — casting aside its essential spiritual contribution to human life.

As immigrants escaping persecution, my ancestors got wholly swept up in the American dream and the western world’s drive for dominance — personal, national, and global. They passed these values onto me — and to all of Gen X, Y, and Z — via a persistent injunction towards progress.

From a young age, the path to my happy life was clearly laid out for me. College. Career. Marriage. Kids. But something never felt quite right about it all. I had no idea what the root of my discomfort was or even how to talk about it. It was as if I couldn’t see the whole picture — which included who I was capable of becoming and what life was really all about. A piece was missing.

This is some of how I felt.

It annoyed me that grownups said one thing and did another. I couldn’t reconcile this contradiction and was uncertain of who to trust.

It troubled me that my grandmother rarely smiled and never talked about her feelings. I sensed her sadness as possibly my fault.

When my uncle died suddenly in his thirties, I felt buried by a blanket of heaviness I couldn’t shake off.

I was totally confused about sex.

I had nobody with whom I could talk to about any of this. Either I was approaching the wrong people with my angst, or very few actually knew what the hell was going on.

I started to feel especially disillusioned once I went off to college and could see that it wasn’t solely in my personal sphere that things were amiss. I noticed gaping holes and incongruities in the social and political structures all around me. I began to feel certain that the pathway prescribed for me — chasing the American dream — might actually lead not to a quality life, but likely only to more chasing.

My distress came to a head when I found myself unintentionally pregnant at the age of twenty-two.

The pregnancy was a radical wake-up call, bringing my uncertainty about everything into stark view. I was devastated by the situation and agonized over the choice I had to make. I did not feel ready to become a mother or to commit to a long term relationship with the father, and I was equally distraught by the alternative: ending a life.

I struggled to keep it together.

The hardest part was the loneliness I felt. I still had not met someone with whom I could talk deeply about all the ways I felt lost and whose counsel I could trust. I solicited advice from close friends and from my parents, but their suggestions reflected what felt like their own unresolved confusion. For example, having a child at twenty-two — while not yet married or out of college — was not in line with what my parents had hoped for me. Yet they did expect me to become a mother. Their advice was therefore tentative and noncommittal.

Among my peers, abortions were a fairly common occurance. Ending a pregnancy was viewed as no big deal — a liberating option for a sexually liberated woman. The psychological impact of the experience was never addressed. I’m not sure why I didn’t consider adoption. I suspect that, on some level, that option felt untenable. Either I birthed and raised my child, or nobody did.

In the end, the choice was mine alone to make. Feeling ill-equipped, rushed, and unsupported, I made my decision.

A few years later, still impacted by the pregnancy — simultaneously relieved and heartbroken by my choice to end it — I began in earnest to search for a way out of what had spiraled into a relentless depression that included fantasies of ending my life. I knew that, in order to not give in to my despair, I’d have to find a way to make sense of everything that had happened. I couldn’t pretend the abortion never occurred and pick up where I left off pre-pregnancy. I had to figure out how to want to live again. In other words, I had to become the person I hadn’t yet met — somebody who actually knows what the hell is going on and is at peace in a mad world.

Though consumed with doubt, I made a calculated decision to trust that the answers I sought were out there. I simply needed to dedicate my life to finding them.

I then stepped into what I intended to be a one-year sabbatical — taking time off from my teaching job to focus solely on figuring out where and how to go looking for the wisdom I sought.

That year turned into more than ten.

Spending the first year living simply, quietly, and close to nature — pausing any focus on my career or a romantic relationship — was deeply therapeutic for my body and psyche. I had time to slow down and feel my grief rather than attempt to get over it. I had time to read books from beginning to end, taking notes and researching sources — rather than trying to absorb deep material by reading a chapter during my lunch hour or before bed. I was starting to feel like maybe I really could find my way. So when offered the opportunity to be financially supported and to remain on sabbatical indefinitely, I took it.

At that point, I could have chosen to continue my quest within the context of a normal life so as not to disrupt my career momentum or my prospects for available partners. I also considered leaning in the opposite direction and heading out on a pilgrimage to find a shaman or a guru in a foreign land. However, upon seeing the benefits of simply taking time to be fully present with myself and my questions, I thought it much more advantageous to settle in right where I was and devote myself to a robust curriculum of self-directed learning and rigorous practice.

I honestly didn’t anticipate that I would be immersed in this phase of my journey for more than a decade. I thought another year, maybe two, would suffice.

But these things can take time.

During that decade, I studied numerous belief systems, ideologies, and philosophies. Gleaning from what I learned, I also practiced a variety of methods for transformation and spiritual realization. I strove to become what I was seeking rather than solely learn about it. So rather than merely educating myself on the various views of the meaning of life, I chose to engage in the ways and practices of the mystic. Instead of relying exclusively on scholarly perspectives, I chose to meditate on original texts from many of the world’s religions, taking into consideration their historical context in order to determine for myself how well their teachings applied to my current life.

I hiked solo in the wilderness, listening to the whispers of the wind while tracking the seasons through the changing flora and fauna. I taught myself to garden and learned the language of soil and seeds. I managed to chop firewood without hurting myself and pour concrete without giant lumps. As my studies deepened, I began to design my own rituals and create ceremonies that offered a space for my heart to sing and cry. I picked up needlepoint as a creative exercise and baked bread from scratch. I opted for long hot baths to soothe my fear and despair. I spent thousands of hours in silence, contemplation, prayer, and meditation.

As my path of discovery was self-guided, it had some unanticipated — if predictable — pitfalls. For example, having a living teacher nearby to suggest a course correction in regard to any ascetic practice — yoga, pranayama, meditation, fasting — might have shortened the time I needed to yield a beneficial outcome, while also preventing potential harm. Lacking such a teacher, it probably took me longer than some to realize the benefits of my meditation practice. And a good teacher might have been able to prevent the chronic neck injury I sustained from doing shoulder stands.

However, despite the damage done to my body and mind through practicing an austerity incorrectly or enacting a method that simply didn’t yield the anticipated results, the value of encountering such dead ends on my own and having to figure things out on the fly brought a quality of embodied knowledge that has proven to be highly stable and beneficial.

In the end, the upsides of being on my own proved more valuable than the downsides. I accumulated a wealth of knowledge, gained a deep respect for self-discipline, developed an ability to trust myself, and grew the willpower to stay the course no matter what.

I also found the answers I was seeking.

My discoveries ultimately led to the creation of Selfistry, which I formulated approximately ten years after ending my retreat. It took a good part of that ensuing decade to integrate myself back into the world and, from there, to weave all I had come to know into an offering that made sense and could be shared with others.

I’m fairly certain that most of us long for what I was seeking: the definition of — and the way to live — a meaningful life. I suspect it’s a piece of what makes us human. I also imagine that many of us have an experience on par with what the pregnancy was for me — a wake-up call that shakes us to our core; a moment when we realize we are not living our best life and everyone we turn to for guidance disappoints. I like to believe that the entire world is experiencing one of those wake-up calls right now in this lingering pandemic.

I also suspect that when good guidance does come along there’s a way in which our whole being recognizes it. It’s like being reminded of something we already know — like discovering a secret that was tucked away in a pocket we hadn’t checked in a long time.

If even one element of this book helps even one person find their way to remembering the secrets to living a better life, then it has served humanity well.

However, as you read on, please know …

Selfistry does not deliver any absolute truths about the meaning or purpose of life. It merely creates the conditions for you to sort that out for yourself. Through all my years of study and practice, much to my surprise — and delight — I discovered that, when it comes to living a meaningful life, the fundamental guiding principles have not changed over time. They just tend to get buried now and then. The principles are simple and trustworthy — presented afresh here in the Three Realms of Selfistry — and accessible to all.

I’ve done my best to articulate timeless teachings in a way that will hopefully make sense to people born and raised in this era — offering insights well suited for the troubled times we live in and tools well adapted for the modern person who may not feel they have the time or need for such “spiritual” matters.

Let me also be clear on what else Selfistry is not.

Selfistry is not a prescription for self-improvement in the ways we see it represented across most of our media channels today.

Self-improvement as presently marketed and sold in the mainstream in the west is more akin to a fad than a movement of substance and enduring character. The industry feeds on a fixation with imagined outcomes and glorifies a persistent drive to go after unrealizable goals — always keeping the consumer coming back for more. Much of what is presented as self-care or self-help actually produces an unhealthy self-absorption, encouraging a drive for pleasure or achievement at the expense of others as well as the expense of one’s own inner peace — if not explicitly, then certainly implicitly.

Though there are, of course, exceptions — and even evidence of a changing tide in certain areas — we would do well to slow down and take a closer look at what’s really being promoted and who really benefits.

In contrast, and as a welcome antidote …

The way of self-knowledge, as Selfistry views it, means becoming aware of where we’ve been misguided around what constitutes a meaningful life and resetting our compass in the direction that will grow us into the kind of humans we long to become — and the kind the world needs. This means taking a sober look at ourselves, successfully drawing out the innate potential in each of us, amplifying our sameness while celebrating our uniqueness, and unleashing our essential contribution to the well-being of all.

The good news is you do not have to go on retreat for ten years in order to accomplish this. I did that so you don’t have to. It would suffice to consider deeply what you find written here and then carve out some dedicated time within the life you already have to put your attention on rebooting your inner operating system.

I understand that for some it may feel counterintuitive to focus on oneself when others are struggling and the world is reeling from so much uncertainty. It’s true that many are in dire need and numerous local, national, and global systems are unstable or collapsing. It’s also reasonable that we would attempt to fix what’s obviously broken out in the world rather than address the murkier concerns of what’s needing attention inside ourselves.

However, by prioritizing an earnest self-reflection, we really do become better able to manage the challenges in our lives, while simultaneously gaining clarity on how best to impact the greater web that we’re part of. Over time a sense of ease and joy emerges and maybe the whole world is revived.

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