When were you first exposed to dharma?
I encountered spiritual practice through reading BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga when I was 18 and immediately trying a number of the forbidden pranayama techniques that he described in the back of the book, because of course this is what you do when you’re 18.
For whatever reason those breathwork techniques caused a full-blown kundalini awakening experience. This was very difficult to handle. I connected with my dad’s yoga teacher basically to help me cope with what was happening, which she did. I began practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga with her, but she was also a student of Shinzen Young. So this was not the “Dharma” proper, as in a Buddhist lineage, but rather the living tradition of awakening as it’s expressed through many forms. Several years later in college, a friend of mine took me to Rinzai Zen Monastery called Dai Bosatsu Zendo in Upstate, New York. After this, the Buddhist and Yogic frameworks have sort of been wrestling for control of my practice… I’m really a hybrid practitioner in this way.
What I resonated with about Zen was the elegance, the toughness, and the Bodhisattva principle. There were some folks at Dai Bosatsu who made a deep impression on me. I could tell that something very powerful was happening there that I needed to understand and be a part of.
What are some of the challenges that you have experienced on your journey?
The main thing for me has been panic. Ever since I was in college I have had panic attacks and occasional severe anxiety. I’ve gone to the ER many times for this. It’s always about the fear of death or my body failing or imploding somehow.
I recently had to leave a monastery largely because of this. Now I’m working with an excellent Chinese Medicine doctor in my area. I’m learning that this path really isn’t just about how much you sit or the rigor of your daily schedule… It’s also how you hold your practice and your life. It’s how you treat your body and others. It really is. What you do yourself or others comes back around, even if you do it in the name of the “Dharma,” awakening or whatever.
A strong, healthy, integrated identity is incredibly important to provide a foundation for the deeper aspects of the path. In some ways I jumped in too deep too quickly, so I’m sort of in a chilling out and healing phase right now. Focusing on asana, metta practice, mantra, and learning about ayurveda and Chinese Medicine.
How has the path manifest in your daily experience?
My experience was that the path took me over completely basically immediately. It was immediately life or death. After that first awakening experience, it was clear that resolving this and coming into the right relationship with this new energy that was moving through my system was the only thing to do. This is a blessing and a curse. You can’t ignore it.
Some intuition in me came alive that is far smarter than me, and I am basically just trying to follow that and hanging out for the ride. I’ve still messed up a lot of things since then and there’s clearly a lot more work to do. But generally, I feel like mostly what I’m doing now is just riding this wave of intuition that came alive then and has been growing for as long as I’m practicing.
During the remainder of my college experience, I began doing a lot of work to make these practices more accessible to other young people. At first, this was through helping to organize a student meditation group. Doing my senior year, I started building a nonprofit organization called Dharma Gates to open pathways into deep meditation practice for other young people. Since graduating, Dharma Gates has continued to grow. This work and my own practice have been the two focus points of my life. So my work and relationships at this point are basically all about Dharma. It’s a bit myopic honestly but feels right. It’s like I’m being sucked into a (wonderful) black hole that I can’t escape.