My first encounter with the illusory self happened while brushing my teeth in the bathroom as a curious five year old. Looking at my reflection, I instinctively pointed and said, "that is not who I am." I knew then, for the first time, that I was not the image in the mirror. My mother -- who was to become my primary spiritual teacher -- told me, "You are right, the face you see in the mirror is not who you truly are."
"Who am I, then?" I asked.
"That is what you must come to know," she said.
The seed of my search had been planted.
Throughout my childhood, my mother and I had many conversations about spirituality, meditation, and life's deepest mysteries. Until her death in 2004, she would insist, "We too easily fall prey to our own self-deception. To know who you truly are, you have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself."
"But how do I know what is true and what is not?" I asked her many times.
"The answer," she always said, "is found inside your own experience. It's a matter of listening to the part of yourself that always knows."
But wisdom did not come easily.
Blood and Sweat
At the age of 13, I began intense physical training in wrestling and judo. The sensei at my local Japanese Cultural Center taught me a simple form of meditation (informed by Zen Buddhism) to help bring body and mind into harmony. I would kneel in stillness on the judo mats and perform all of my moves in my mind; visualizing each detail of the complex throws, foot sweeps and chokes. This, along with the hours of demanding physical exercise, helped me channel my raw adolescent energy into something constructive anf fulfilling.
However, after six years of competition, I began to see how many martial artists concealed deep emotional pain and fear of intimacy behind their toughness. During sweaty matches, I would often feel my opponent's suffering hidden behind their physical prowess and technical skill. My coaches would scream at me to "get aggressive, be fierce, and attack!"
But I often hesitated.
This hesitation cost me many matches. Although I loved the intensity and presence that competitive martial arts demanded, something about forcefully dominating another person – even within the rules of the sport -- felt unwholesome to me. I noticed myself becoming guarded and calculated in daily life; sizing up situations to asses the risk. I started to relate to the world as an opponent and life as a battle to overcome.
Deep in my heart, I felt that something was amiss.
The College Years: Turning to the East
Spiritually disenchanted and physically injured — with two broken ribs, dislocated joints, lower back pain, and numerous soft tissue injuries — I walked away from martial arts and turned to yoga and meditation. In college, the injuries from competitive martial arts, as well as numerous life-long health conditions, fostered a burning desire within me to learn how to heal my own body. Dissatisfied with the unsuccessful treatments I received within the conventional system of medicine, I began an in-depth study of holistic healing methods: Ayurveda, Yoga Therapy, and Classical Chinese Medicine. By applying the principles of these ancient wisdom traditions, I was able to mend my injuries and transform my health.
Beginning in my 20s, I traveled and studied under the tutelage of many eminent teachers of Daoism, Buddhism, Yoga, and Chinese Medicine in India, Nepal, China, Tibet, Thailand and South America. I trained with dedication on my personal quest for healing and understanding, going on extensive retreats and practicing traditional methods of yoga, qigong, and meditation.
Once, on a trip home, I casually asked my mother why she did not follow a particular tradition or have any spiritual symbols or artifacts in her home. "I don't need techniques or special items to remind me of what is naturally the case all the time," she explained to me.
At the time, in my mother's kitchen, I was blinded by dogmatic attachment to my developing spiritual identity. I egoistically judged her, thinking she was not sophisticated enough to understand the complex philosophy and symbolism of Asian spiritual traditions — mantras, yantras, mudras, deities, ancient texts in Sanskrit and Pali. Im my cloud of self-absorbed ignorance, I had believed that I had become "more spiritual" than her.
Her simple response took me a long time to grasp.
After a few more years of intensive practice, I met with an unforeseen turn of fate. I traveled to California to attend a weekend yoga workshop with a visiting teacher from Europe. At one point during the class, participants were asked to find a partner for a specific series of exercises. I walked directly to Revital and said, "Would you like to be my partner?" As our eyes met, a shared moment of recognition occurred. "Yes, I'd love to," she said. Neither of us could have imagined in that initial meeting what such a "partnership" would eventually become.
Years later, we both recall that day: "It felt like coming home."
Called to the path of a solitary yogi, I had always felt that marriage and family life were not important to me. Revital shared a similar sentiment. As a yogini, meditation practitioner, and Classical Indian dancer, she lived in India for many years and dedicated much of her time to inner cultivation.
At the time of our meeting, I lived in Arizona. Revital in California. Over the next year, we traveled to visit each other every three weeks. As our relationship deepened, it became clear that something more was developing. We decided to get engaged and go on extended retreat together in India to further our practice.
During our time in India, we arranged to get married at a small rural ashram where the sadhu (hermit-yogi) that I was studying with lived and practiced.
Once the word got out that a couple from the USA was to be married in the traditional Vedic way, hundreds of people came from neighboring villages to attend the ceremony.
In the months to follow, Revital devoted her days to studying Odissi Indian Dance, while I stayed mostly in my hut near the ashram practicing yoga and meditation.
One day, in middle of my morning meditation, suddenly, the entire bottom fell out of my sadhana (personal practice). Everything stopped and I beheld my own secret agenda with crystal-like clarity. I could no longer chant my mantras or perform the visualizations and complex breathing exercises I had been instructed in. Body and mind seemed to disappear, and the personal game of spiritual grasping was destroyed, utterly lost. My identification as a yogi, my and position in the classical lineage of yogic teachings, dissolved in that instant. The entire construct of my fabricated self-image was shattered.
For what seemed like an eternity, there was only vast open space, luminous and clear.
I immediately understood that many of the yogic practices I had been dedicated to were merely expressions of this game of avoidance; attempts to escape something disappointing and unconformable inside myself. I saw how the entire enterprise of ambitious spiritual practice was based in a set of erroneous assumptions — what I later came to call the Cosmology of Insufficiency — and that I must find a way of self-cultivation that is straightforward, safe, and effective.
With this, I traveled North to the Himalayas where I took my mala, loincloth, deer skin, and all the sacred articles I had received from my teachers, and placed them in the Ganges River. On my knees in tears, with great appreciation for my teachers and all I had learned, I knew that I must, once and for all, let go of the orthodox traditions I had studied under.
It was time to forge my own path.
This was at once liberating and terrifying.
Upon my return to the USA, I understood that I had fallen prey to spiritual escapism. Blinded by a hidden agenda to rise above ordinary life and attain something transcendent, I had invested everything into the path of a yogi. I could perform elaborate yoga postures, advanced breathing techniques, and could willfully still my mind in meditation. But it was clear to me that I had attained nothing more than a spiritual ego, a new type of façade. This, I finally understood, was the self-delusion my mother warned me about in my childhood years. Yoga was my life and livelihood. I owned a bustling yoga studio in the center of town, presented classes and yoga teacher training programs in 15 countries, and had written widely-referenced books on the topic.
Yet, when I was brutally honest with myself, all of this had become a form of avoidance and fantasy. I came to describe this life-shattering event as the Great Disillusionment.
After disillusionment, I entered into a period of deep self-reflection. One double-question continued to stick in my mind like a thorn: "What am I running from? What am I chasing?"
I pondered this question intensely, using self-honesty to penetrate further and further into my own direct experience. I then beheld the fundamental predicament: the assumption of a separate self and the intuitive knowing that this fabricated self is not what it appears. "How absurd!" I thought, "I've been both running from and chasing the same illusive truth.”
In a burst of uncontrollable laughter, I realized that the very thing I had desperately tried to avoid is exactly what I had been looking for. For me, this marked the end of spiritual seeking.
The night before my mother's passing, I finally came to see that her simple wisdom had touched the peak of the mountain and contained the essence of all that I had been in search of. Open-heartedness, fearless love and relentless self-honesty were the core of her message to me; three things she humbly embodied until her last breath.
I had finally realized that life is inherently complete, in need of no exotic adornments or special attainments. I discovered that the secrets of healing and awakening were already and always present within the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. It was simply a matter of releasing the reactive habits of grasping, resistance, and self-delusion.
My practice became nothing more than abiding in constant intimate relationship with the living moment.
My mother’s words, “The answer is found inside your own experience” had finally hit their mark.
I understood that the ego-based spiritual search is a form of exotic escapism, and that many aspects of the old spiritual systems — transcendentalism, extreme physical practices, and the sticky guru-disciple relationship — were no longer appropriate or effective for modern people. A universal approach was needed, free of dogma and the limitations of culture; one that begins with a clear understanding of inherent wholeness, then cultivates self-healing and awakened living in all Nine Spheres of Life.
For the next decade, living with my wife Revital and raising a daughter, I developed, tested and distilled a direct method for our troubled times. This set of pragmatic tools and teachings centers around a model I call the Nine Spheres of Life, and eventually came to be called the Clearbright Way.
When I am not teaching, speaking or writing, you'll find me in the family garden, out on the trail backpacking, or inside a quiet teahouse practicing traditional Chinese (Cha Dao) or Japanese (Chanoyu) tea ceremony.