Autobiography Part 1: "Something (Rather than Nothing)"

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My original practice style was ordinary American life. I grew up in a secular Jewish, upwardly mobile middle class family, 2 generations removed from Ukrainian immigrants between the wars. The ethics I absorbed from this upbringing – to honor the Golden Rule and try to not hurt anyone – have worked out fine.

From my family, culture, and sub-culture, I didn’t find much satisfaction when looking for a big-picture goal or life direction. Mostly it seemed that people lived for the sake of getting nice things, situations, relationships, etc. All that’s fine, but a bit thin, in light of the great mystery of existence that was constantly staring me in the face.

I didn’t quite have words to express the vastness of the mystery I'd been sensing since the beginning. Years later, I encountered iconic philosopher/scientist Gottfried Leibniz asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and I felt an inner, “Yeah, that's what I’ve been wondering!” But as a child, I got hardly any support for engaging my big questions. No one else seemed to consider them very important, so I put them on the back burner till my late teens.

I’ll mention tangentially that my family did seem to have goals and direction that worked for them, but I couldn’t quite relate. My parents considered it of utmost importance to raise a family, to leave a mark on the world beyond their own lifespan. OK, but isn’t that just postponing the inevitable? Maybe leaving descendents means you “live on” after your individual body dies... but before too long, the sun will explode or something and the planet will get burnt to a crisp. Let’s not be dishonest by pretending that there’s any way to avoid total extinction.

Similarly, my parents cared about being part of the continuing story of the Jewish People. That has even less resonance for me. Even if my grandfather’s grandfather wore a certain type of hat and sang songs in a strange language, where was the meaning of doing the same things myself?

In college I naturally gravitated toward Psychology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. That was something; it was cool to read the great Western philosophers express my mystery in clearer language, and especially cool to realize that people who asked my big questions were taken seriously in this world. But my professors themselves didn’t seem to spend much time and energy looking into the nature of the self and all that. They seemed to think the pursuit of these issues ran into a dead end centuries ago (Leibnitz died in early 1700s), and the profs spent their days trying to get published papers that quibbled about linguistic nuances. Any academic pursuit of Truth still felt terribly lacking.

I was 18, a freshman at Yale, when I encountered Swami Muktananda and his “Siddha Yoga (SYDA)” organization and community. One big pull was finally connecting with people who took the big questions of existence seriously, seriously enough to affect their lives.

Honest to God, I’m trying to be brief here. But the arc of my practice kinda encompasses my whole life; this story may take a couple more postings to get through. In upcoming entries, I’ll blog about the plusses and minuses of my time in Yoga ashrams, how I eventually left the ashrams, encountered Zen, and how a week-long Zen retreat profoundly affected my perspective on the whole journey.

(Originally posted at