A few years ago I read the book Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. The story follows the lives of two childhood friends—Narcissus, who chooses the path of renunciation as a monk, and Goldmund, who seeks out the wild and sensual path of a wandering artist-romantic. In the end, it was not entirely clear to me who lived a more fulfilling existence.
I have grown up the son of a meditation teacher. (My dad, James, is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center.) Though I always had a close connection with my dad externally, as a child and on through middle school, I wanted no association with anything even remotely Buddhist. I was embarrassed by my link to Buddhism because it wasn’t “normal”—especially when my friends would come over and see all of the strange statues inside our house. However, during my freshman year at Berkeley High School, my wavering self-esteem and sense of alienation led me to participate in a Sunday-night meditation class for teens. It was a catalyzing experience that got me involved with and interested in the Dharma.
Since then I have had a few powerful tastes of the freedom that the Dharma offers. Particularly transformative were the three and a half months I spent living in Bodhgaya, India, in a Burmese monastery, participating in the Antioch College Buddhist Studies Program. This was followed by a monthlong vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock. In both of these carefully structured environments, for the first time in my life, I was a part of communities in which everyone was on the same page; everyone was doing their best to keep good sila [ethical conduct] and observe the Five Precepts.
When I was in Bodhgaya, I had the unique opportunity to shave my head and don the saffron robes of a Burmese-style novice monk. Though this was set up to be only a weeklong experience, it introduced me to a new, weighty feeling of responsibility for my actions: no eating after noon, no serving myself food, no being alone or physical contact with a person of the female gender, no singing, no music, no running, no raucous laughter, no abstract or “wild” body movements. . . . It was a dauntingly long list.
Living under these and other such major and minor rules of conduct from the Theravadan vinaya, I had plenty of things to complain about. However, for all the whining I did, I was surprised that I did attain uncharted territories of peace and satisfaction. Simply put, all the ethical rules and decisions had already been made on my behalf. Thus, during the rare moments that I was able to surrender to this rigid structure, I experienced a delightful spaciousness—an absence of the cyclical mental chatter that constantly frets about whether or not a girl likes me or which shampoo is better for my hair—the infinite number of personal concerns and everyday dilemmas.
Similarly, while I was on retreat, silence made things a whole lot easier. All I had to do was sit, walk, eat, do my yogi job, listen to the Dharma talk and take my rest. Things were straightforward. This is not to say that I was not ever bored out of my mind! There were many such difficult periods, but as the retreat continued, an unmistakable sense of well-being arose from my knowing that, at least for this period of time, I was engaged in a clean lifestyle that didn’t make trouble for myself or others.
Fast-forward to now. These experiences are over and there are no limitations on anything in my life. I have the freedom to eat whenever I want, be alone with girls, listen to music (which has been most likely illegally downloaded), and enjoy all the other creature comforts I fantasized about during those periods of deprivation. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that something very precious has been taken away from me in this transaction.
I am back to being twenty-one-year-old Adam who goes to school at Evergreen State College and is once again surrounded by an entirely different peer group—one that shares little or no notion of the Five Precepts, meditation or Dharma. Away from those carefully protected Dharma environments, I find myself cast back into the riptides of peer pressure and American consumer culture. Once again, my sense doors are wide open and reactive.
Typical scenario: I walk into the REI outdoor store looking to purchase a simple warm hat for winter. Then, in the space of an instant as I encounter the multitude of clothes, jackets and wilderness goodies, all mindfulness and discipline fly out the window. I find myself burning with desire, wanting everything I see. As I gaze down the aisle at the thermal liner shirt rack, desire becomes specific and takes control of my awareness: “If only I had this ultralight, fast-wicking, sleek black Under Armour shirt, then I would really be happy.”
Simultaneously, a counterargument arises: “You really believe this thing is going to ‘do it’ for you?” Indeed, a part of me does find this logic irrational, but most often the wanting is persuasive enough to carry me away. Being a psychology student, I often find myself engaged in trying to appease these inner shouting matches (also known as “cognitive dissonance”) by creatively self-justifying and inventing reasons why I absolutely need this one extra item. “I’m a jogger . . . Under Armour is essential for keeping me dry and comfortable on cold days . . . it looks great . . . and it’s twenty-five percent off.” In this way, I unconsciously do my best to minimize all traces of inner tension or consumer guilt as I firmly inch forward in line to the checkout counter.
At college my internal conflicts take a different form. In many ways the Evergreen student body is a great match for me. The people here are very committed to environmental consciousness and sustainability, which has had a positive impact on my decisions concerning consumption. However, the place definitely has its wild side. Many students could be described as “psychedelic vegan anarchists.” Got the picture? You don’t have to look, listen or smell far to encounter drugs on campus—mostly pot, alcohol and psychedelics—and it’s tricky for me to figure out the degree to which I want to be a part of “the scene.”
The Fifth Precept tells me to abstain from intoxication that leads to heedlessness. I wrestle hard with this precept, mainly because I reject the black-and-white notion that all substance use is bad. Speaking honestly, I think that on occasion, in a sacred context and with sacred intention, certain mind-altering substances could have healing and liberating effects on the mind and heart. Would the Buddha have disagreed with that? Also, in practical application I find that the Fifth Precept can often have intense polarizing effects on my mind. If I decide to abstain when I’m in a room full of pot smokers, then a half-second later comes this holier-than-thou attitude where my mind fixates on judging everyone around me as deluded hippies lost in fantasy. Another thing that arises is a feeling of embarrassment when I think I am being perceived as trying to be a grown-up or pure or whatever the story line happens to be. And aren’t these supposed to be the best years of my life? Shouldn’t I be enjoying outlandish adventures and explorations without the sense of guilt that has been informed by Dharma?
Whichever way I go on the drug issue, I often end up feeling a sense of isolation. Either I am creating a division with others by abstaining, or I am disregarding the refuge of a clear mind, which leaves me feeling guilty. Where is the liberation in all of this? How does a young person go about living the Middle Way?
At the heart of these life struggles is the difficulty and loneliness I feel from being disconnected from an understanding sangha and supportive Dharma environment. Feeling “cut off from the source” I often find myself tactfully switching social roles and tailoring aspects of my personality to meet the perceived expectations of my college environment. However, in moments of clarity, I see that there is not much freedom in the pursuit of impressing others.
So as long as I am trying to be Narcissus the renunciate or Goldmund the sensualist, I miss the point: true freedom comes from within.