Berlin, 2003. I got an internship at a television news program. As usual during my excursions to journalistic reality at that time, I felt ignored, under-challenged and too shy to speak up. One day, I was asked to help a disabled employee to go to the restroom and, well, help her do her thing. Feeling a little overwhelmed my answer came quick: “I’d rather not do that“. I immediately felt that this reaction was horribly wrong but I also felt put on a spot: Is it morally right to expect an intern to do that? Or was it more morally wrong to say no?
If my internship career in that newsroom had not been at an end already: Now it was. I was told to stay in the planning department for almost the rest of my stay, writing appointments in Excel sheets, and I started searching for journalistic things to do on my own. I do not know why but I decided to attend a spiritual seminar in Berlin and wrote about it. Well, I didn’t have no clue of nothing and wrote, what I regarded as a realistic report on the experience, with a (rather hidden) notion of questioning. And I was so naive as to hand in my article to the teacher, the “guru”, before offering it anywhere. He freaked out. He swore at me on the phone. “How could you dare…!“ That was my first – and for a long time my last – touch with spiritualism. Well, maybe it was esotericism. Anyway, lesson learned. Don’t mess with people who search for enlightenment. Still, I was defiant. I thought: What do „Om“ and „Hocus-Pocus“ do for the world if they cannot even stand the questions of a journalism student? Today, I can horselaugh about this incident. Back then, I crept back to my desk at the television station, writing appointments in Excel sheets. Finally, I collected paper: A written confirmation that I had spent two months at one of the leading news media in Germany. What a nonsense. How much time did I waste in my twenties? With not been taken seriously in internships, with collecting certifications, with situations I just endured and waited for them to be over, and all these numerous hours hypnotized in front of the TV.
The Art of Non-Conformity
Chris Guillebeau warns you about avoiding life by not living it at ease but according to norms and expectations. He advises you to candidly learn for yourself and not for others. He claims: 80% of his time at a US university was useless because he was occupied with pleasing others and passing seminars to collect paper. Or as Bob Dylan put it: “A college is something similar to a home for the elderly – but with the difference that in college more people die”.
Guillebeau’s book came out in 2011 – and I wish I had read it back then. It probably cuts your way to the life of your dreams short – cold-shouldering expectations from the outside world. He sketches out a plan how people can act non-conformly, thus conformly with their true self. Guillebeau praises radical goal definition. That sometimes includes radical isolation because people or things might hold you back from your top priorities. Radical goal definition always includes making lists of what you want to do the following year, in five years and things and experiences you want to have had before you die. For some reason, I do not like the five-year category. I can rather define my next year or my life goals – why plan for something in between?
Life does not spin around you and only you, Guillebeau says, so imagining yourself in a hammock for the rest of your days is probably not what makes you content. If you want to change your life, change the world and make enough money with it to survive, ask yourself several questions:
Which needs of others can you fulfill?
Who sees you as a leader? (“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”, John Quincy Adams)
What annoys you if you think of the world of today?
How can you make the world a better place?
What is your unique contribution?
A simple but very inspiring thought is Guillebeau’s list of things you do not need. He claims you can live on 100 items altogether and invites you to declutter your life, get rid of unnecessary stuff and time-wasters such as most of the meetings, TV and e-mails. Do not measure your work in hours but in what you have actually produced. Collect real experiences and sensations. Say yes to everything you like and that leaves the world a legacy. Say no to useless routines. Leaving behind a legacy – that sounds like aiming too high to me. But Guillebeau argues: It is not. The enemy is comparison though. Do not compare yourself to what somebody who is younger, older, more experienced, more attractive – whatever – has achieved. Compete only with yourself.
According to Guillebeau, you do not need…
years of preparation
What you definitely need is: passion, a vision that breeds a concrete task, answers (what do I expect from life and what can I do for others?), engagement and persistence. Be active instead of inactive, that gives strength and confidence. The author, for instance, once decided to write 1.000 words a day. There will always be naysayers who will try to lead you astray. Do not let them! Enjoy being the underdog: act funkily, act free-spiritedly. Do not postpone all gratification, allow yourself good things on the way.
Is it time to move on? This is probably a very common question I asked myself a hundred times, on different occasions. Guillebeau’s advise: If you get cynical about what you do, it might be time for something new.
If you meet Buddha, kill him!
I came across another book by chance, written by a German traveler, Andreas Altmann, whose name was dropped at nomadweek. Since I like provocative headlines, I did not have to poke for long and ordered “Triffst du Buddha, töte ihn”! I was just amused by the title but soon, before reading, I realized: This is in fact a Buddhist thought. If you ever met Buddha and took him for your one and only mentor, your God, you lose your openness, your inquisitiveness, your questioning because you think: “Well, here he is! I was right.” But it is not about worshipping somebody but embody the underlying way of living, acting, thinking. “Kill” your imagination of a higher perfect being that tells you what to do. It is all in yourself.
Buddhism is not a religion. Buddhism does not promise you heaven or hell or hope. It just promises you the present. Because everything that is in the past is over. And everything that is yet to come will be impermanent. Buddhism does not expect you to believe in a certain kind of story. We are not dependent on a gracious deity but on ourselves in the now, on our souls, on our wisdom.
Altmann wrote a book I wish I had written. It sounds authentic, it is full of subtle humor and sarcasm, it is impudent, and he shows a sensitive power of observing India. Although I missed out on taking the train there, Altmann’s description is so vivid, that you immediately want to be in his picture. “There is no hope for people who leave India without a whole bunch of incredible stories”, Altman says, “India pampers you”. Still, some bodies only change locations, their world map gets another pin, but they never really travelled. Even spiritual tourism can be empty. Altmann visits a temple where relics of Buddha are supposed to lie. There are other travelers and a nun talking to them about the history of the temple. They are present but many are not “present”. One plays with his smartphone, another one checks his watch and the third is occupied with a beautiful Indian woman passing by. They pretend spirituality (what for?). Altmann expresses what I have felt many times: Scenes like that are depressing. Why? Because everything seems alike, not of higher importance, nothing is spectacular enough to truly fascinate us.
Free fall and 120 km/h in a rollercoaster – peanuts
I had a similar experience in an amusement park. People rush out of a rollercoaster that just accelerated them to 120 km per hour and they run to the next “big thing”. No time to pause: How do I really feel? What did I just experience? Round the corner there must be something more. Others walk around between sugar candy and chairoplane as if somebody forced them to have a good time. And now they have a hard time having a good time. “Anyway, we are here for the kids”. But where are they really? Beaming yourself mentally into the next adventure, the next appointment, the next day is a theft. You steal yourself the very moment. Thus, I also missed out quite a lot of things (still do, but less, I hope) just happening in front of my eyes and ears. I even did things just to talk about them afterwards, which is insane. Others daydream their day away – reliving the past or foreseeing an unknown future. Altmann looks into this mirror (the “others”) and determines: I do not want to zap through life. I want depth and devotion, sensuality and exclusiveness, awareness and intensity – even in the tiniest moment with the most trivial activity. Maybe, if you live like this your quest for meaning is naturally over because it is all just there.
The author is a realist, a bon vivant it seems, but still he is searching for answers not smaller than: What is Buddhism? Who am I? What will Vipassana do to me? He never loses his critical stance and he does not take himself too seriously. Nevertheless, he encourages you: Ten days of silence, meditation and abstinence are doable. (Well, he cheated a little but how can pen and paper be cheating?). For ten days Altmann has do adapt to the basic rules of Buddhism: Don’t harm a living being (so: eat vegetarian), don’t steal. No sex, no lies, no drugs. The introduction video starts, and the founder of the Vipassana centers himself greets his disciples. Altmann comments on that with one of his many poetic sentences that light up your mind: “Goenka starts speaking and warm honey floods the room. He has a wonderfully benign voice”. He explains the first step of the Vipassana technique: sitting upright and still, eyes closed, and breathe. Observe, become aware of your breath at the tip of your nose – what sounds like a safe trip to going mad is in fact a powerful tool, Altmann discovers. The pain while sitting with crossed legs for hours, the shortening reaction, the turbulent thoughts and longings you try to suppress – mindful breath can tame this chaos. If you are healthy and if you do not just try to run away from something. Vipassana is for the ones “who have already fought their biggest fights” and are strong enough to dig deep. Vipassana is a quest, not an escape. You cannot just flee from everything because it does not suit you or you feel like the world has played pranks on you. If there is a notion of escape, fine, but escape needs an aim and, in this case, it is you. Better be warned and curious. It is a hard way to get through the clouds but – as Pema Chödrön (!) says – the sun is always there. Touch your thoughts like clouds and let them pass. Meditation is not contemplation, it is just being. When was the last time I just “was”?
The sweet poison of not wanting anything
Altmann claims: All the struggle, all the confrontation and disruption, has astounding effects. You lose greed, you bear yourself. Sitting in silence, meditating even for minutes, makes people actually more beautiful, graceful, attractive. You not only center yourself and your mind but you gain something that magically invites others to turn to you. How worthwhile! You react with (more) warmth, compassion, thankfulness and equanimity – even in a world of busy-ness, driven by outcomes and performance, in a world that can’t stop talking.
Buddhism does not make you a saint but a rebel. Question everything – especially your point of view, look closely, become aware. Buddhism claims there is no “self”, no “ego”. A theory, that Altmann challenges. There will always be ego, he says, and there is no need to get rid of it but just prevent it from becoming too loud or a monster. I find this one of the most controversial issues: Do we have to let go of ego to make this world a better place?
Lose yourself to find yourself
Eckhart Tolle says: Yes, we do. Ego in his definition is dysfunctional, attached to forms and thoughts, and loosing itself in it, continuously striving for more, defending things and hanging on to them. Ego equates having with being and believes that you are saved by doing. It lives through comparison and role-playing. But how others see you, is not who you are. The underlying emotion of ego is: fear. Fear of being nobody, fear of pain, fear of death. The ego accumulates to feel complete, but it never does.
Some years ago, I read Tolle’s plea to “live now”, a bestseller about mindfulness. Although I had a slight idea what he was trying to tell the world, I had doubts and put his book on the shelf and his words in my subconscious. With “A New Earth” it was different, it raised a storm. I even felt compelled to send it to the White House – no matter whether Donald Trump will ever read it. If anybody around him (or – to be more modest – anybody anywhere) gets hold of the book, it might make a change. I had to read it with a marker, afraid of not being able to relocate all my favorite parts. There are too many to repeat them here (and yes, this post is a long read ;)), but I want to list some inspiring thoughts.
Spiritual power does not arise from what you do, but how you do it
There is no ego in telling the waiter that your soup is cold and needs to be heated up – if you stick to the facts, which are always neutral. “How dare you serve me cold soup…” – that’s complaining. There is a “me” here that loves to feel personally offended by the cold soup and is going to make the most of it. (I know my “cold-soup-incidents” pretty well – and they never ever did any good.)
The quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people, or situations (oh, I am fast with that), the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you. (Perceiving without naming)
When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. (…) Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen.
You cannot become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge.
Allow life to be the dancer and you to be the dance
If you are not in a state of either acceptance (It is what it is), enjoyment, or enthusiasm, look closely and you will find that you are creating suffering for yourself and for others. If you can neither enjoy or bring acceptance to what you do – stop!
What the future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now
When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life. As the Roman philosopher Tacitus put it: The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
Whatever you fight, you strengthen. Whatever you resist, persists.
In form, you are, and will always be inferior to some, superior to others. In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization.
There are three words that convey the secret of the art of living. Being one with life is being one with now. You then realize that you don’t live your life, but life lives you.
The ego’s unconscious core feeling of “not enough” causes it to react to someone else’s success as if that success had taken something away from “me”. (…) In order to attract success, you need to welcome it wherever you see it. Include others, don’t exclude.
There are three ways in which the ego will treat the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy.
Alienation means you don’t feel at ease in any situation, any place, or with any person, not even with yourself. You are always trying to get “home” but never feel at home.
Whatever you think people are withholding from you – praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on – give it to them. You don’t have it? Act as if you had it, and it will come.
To be in alignment with what is means to be in a relationship of inner nonresistance with what happens. It means not to label it mentally as good or bad, but to let it be. (…) Once you have decided you want the present moment to be your friend, it is up to you to make the first move: Become friendly toward it, welcome it no matter in what disguise it comes, and soon you will see the results.
Most people’s lives are cluttered up with things: material things, things to do, things to think about. Their lives are like the history of humanity, which Winston Churchill defined as “one damn thing after another”.
As long as you are unaware of Being, you will seek meaning only within the dimension of doing and of future, that is to say, the dimension of time. And whatever meaning or fulfillment you find will dissolve or turn out to have been a deception. Invariably, it will be destroyed by time. Any meaning we find on that level is true only relatively and temporarily.
In the end, books cannot teach you anything. They can only be a trigger to see the bigger picture and try out something new. The experience itself is the best lesson. Take surfing. First of all, become acquainted to frustration. A lot of frustration. Don’t be afraid to fall. If you fall, the water catches you. Be patient. Honor your teacher but leave him soon and practice on your own. Let many many waves pass. Observe. Wait for the right one to come. Decide and do not have second thoughts. If a wave is too big for you, you will swallow a lot of salty water and get swirled. Pause. Make your way back to the blue water. If that doesn’t feel right, stay in the white water. If you get a perfect wave and the perfect moment, you actually do not have to paddle so hard. Or as an adorable couple (hugs to you, Kate and Andrea ;-)) in Portugal taught me: “It is not rocket science”. Truth. Life isn’t rocket science if you choose peace over drama and stay humble.
Albert Einstein said: „There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I just try to do more of the latter.