Now, tell me - if given a choice, which of the following would you choose:
An immense suitcase overflowing with profound wisdom teachings that would lead to enlightenment?
Or would you choose a small purse containing all that is necessary to become rich and famous?
Honestly, which one would you choose?
For the longest time, I convinced myself that I would choose the suitcase.
I chose it because it felt good to say, ‘I’m above all that base, materialistic fame shit - and all you peons going for it are deluded as hell.'
I chose it because it felt nice to think I had already figured it out.
And it even gave me a spiritual hard-on to think that, one day, *I would become a monk. *
If existence is nothing more than suffering, of a perpetual sense of dissatisfactoriness; of being bound by inescapable realities of time, death, of being separated from loved ones and seeing everything we build fall apart…what act are we capable of doing that isn’t just a colossal waste of time? That isn’t squandering this ‘precious human life’ that we have no way of guaranteeing in the next life? Or even guaranteeing tomorrow.
I never really had a rebuttal to the whole 'Four Noble Truths' line of reasoning. There’s just not a lot of wiggle room to justify doing anything that’s not directed at figuring out how to get out of this cycle of suffering. They say that madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. It's difficult to not see humans in that light.
For years, I kept telling myself that when all the causes and conditions came together, I’d finally do it. I’d even publish an extended note on Facebook, declaring my weariness with the ways of the world. Shave my head, become a filmmaker in robes, and get attention just because I'm a charismatic, white Tibetan monk. Maybe I’d even get to write bestselling books on happiness, like Matthieu Ricard, while touring the TED circuit.
(I love Matthieu by the way.)
Life would be real. Finally, I'd don the robes, free myself from all of life's distractions - Spotify, Netflix, the next Murakami novel - and enter into an intentional community where everyone is aligned in the same direction. I'd take three year retreats while living a simple, idyllic lifestyle in the Himalayas until, driven by an insatiable desire, I'd realise the nature of mind and the rainbow body at the same time and life would be glorious.
Except, my life wasn’t.
It was just so…
Living in a self-centered melodrama entitled ‘how bad I am’.
I couldn’t have a drink or masturbate without my superego chanting - ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ‘You shouldn't enjoy this…’
Unlike shame, neither of these feelings pushed me in a direction towards growth. Instead, I became stuck in these cycles, feeling powerless to do anything about it.
Holding onto these fantasies also gave me a license to be unhappy with the status quo. You might know the conversation: 'If only I were...then everything would be amazing."Monk was that for me - the highest form of mental masturbation.
Last week, I received useful feedback that helped me see how all of this self-deception just ate away at me. At a leadership training, people were asked to give me feedback.
How did they see me - HONESTLY, no sugar-coating, no forced sandwiching positive with negative feedback? What did they feel when they experienced me in their lives?
What I heard:
“Showing up with energy that’s just so draining for everyone else.”
“Only seeking attention and praise.”
The compassion and honesty that others showed to me helped me see that, contrary to my own self-view, I wasn’t this calm, open, compassionate walking, almost-there Buddha that I puffed myself up to be. Instead, in my own self-deception, I’d been weighing people down, creating more distress than joy, more anxiety than ease. Emotional contamination is a real thing, by the way.
And, that evening, it finally hit me -
I hated who I was.
I hated that I couldn't be this effervescent ball of joy, compassion, courage and everything that I knew to be valuable and true but just couldn't embody because of all these inner obstacles that I couldn't see - or at least pretended I couldn't.
This wasn’t the first time that idea had dawned to me. I knew at an intellectual, self-deprecating way that, 'yeah, I'm not good enough.'
This time, it felt more like I’d entered a sensory deprivation tank, where everything external to me kind of just faded into the distance. And all I'm left with is a mirror. No more thoughts. Just raw devastation that evoked memories, memories of events where I’d learned what love meant: pleasing people, receiving praise. Love meant validation. And in the absence of that validation, I simply wasn't worthy.
If I'm honest, HONEST - I'd choose the purse. Not that I don't value wisdom, that I don't actually take joy in doing spiritual practice.
But I'm just not at that level of the suitcase. I don't have a voracious appetite for transcending all of this. I still love dancing in my room naked while listening to David Guetta and Steve Aoki. I still love getting lost in a Murakami universe. And you better believe that I love having scorching, kinky sex.
And yeah, if someone one day discovered my music or writing or cast me in the next season of Master of None, I'd take it in a heartbeat, because, deep within my subconscious, I still carry this fixed belief that fame is happiness. (Intellectualizing it and pointing to all the examples of people who are famous and miserable doesn't help - beliefs are emotional and can't really be reasoned with.)
Each of us, I believe, has our own version of the suitcase and purse. An idealized self and a self that's always falling short. And in between those two selves is a gap that never has been and likely never will be closed (unless you're Pope Francis or Barack Obama).
I know now that I can't rush towards the ideals - even if I know them to be morally desirable. Constant denial and pretending just to be seen to be 'good', ironically, didn't help. It just deepened my self-deception. It means that everyday I show up, I show up as the image I want to project - and hide all those negative beliefs that I think I actually am.
Acknowledging the gap between my suitcase - the Buddhist view that I know to be true - and my purse - the me that craves for attention - is the start of a real path. A big part of spiritual growth is learning how to stand in this gap and embrace the accompanying ambiguity.
It means I can be free of that superego, free to live, to create joy and really start to live the questions.
(Note: The above clip is taken from the film Samsara by Pan Nalin, an incredible film about the struggle to be honest on the path to enlightenment.)