New horizons, and new eyes.
“The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Brunch in LA. Celebrities and we little people are all scraping our plates together. Hungover or half asleep. Sharing stories like old war buddies.
Last weekend I shared a few laughs, and a mediocre vegan pancake, with gentleman who teaches at a top business school and speaks around the world. He coaches Navy SEALs, FBI hostage negotiators, and top executives at Google.
He also writes best selling books and teaches our nations smartest students. Oh and he has directly influenced global business culture for over a decade. And and and.
First of all, this guy is Batman. Second, the only question I had after hearing about him talk was: “how did you manage to make a life like this? It’s like out of a book.”
“Easy,” he said. “It happened in Afghanistan, on Christmas Eve. The day I hit rock bottom.”
“It was a grueling two-day bus trip, inhaling dust across the entire length of the Middle East. The bus rumbled along from one warlord’s territory to the next, and as we pulled into Kabul, rain began to fall.
I was dimly aware of feeling dizzy as I stepped off the bus and into the mud that passed for a street. ’Hotel?’ I asked the driver, and I followed the arc of the man’s finger to a set of low-slung buildings nearby.
With the rain soaking both me and my backpack, I made my way to Kabul’s version of skid row, and checked into a cheap hotel. I got the last available bed for fifty cents per night. It was a cot in a hallway surrounded by a soiled sheet as a makeshift curtain. I put my gear down on the cot, drew the soiled curtain closed, and headed back outside to find dinner.
My dizziness increased with every step.
Before I had gone more than fifty yards, I blacked out.
“Easy. It happened the day I hit rock bottom.”
I collapsed in the middle of the street, and when I came to, I was lying on my back in the mud, looking up at a ring of curious faces forming a tight circle around me. A man in a dirty Afghan army uniform bent over, hands on knees, and peered into my face. A young boy offered his hand to pull me up.
I was sure I was going to vomit, but I managed to get to my feet.
It isn’t often that you know exactly— to the second— when you have hit the bottom of your life. But I knew, on that rainy Christmas Eve, that I was at the bottom of mine.
If you had told me that night that I would one day graduate from law school near the top of my class, clerk for a federal appeals court in Boston, and become a professor of law, ethics, and management at a leading national school, I would have laughed and then punched you in the face.
But something shifted in my life that day.
I had pushed myself to my psychological and physical limits and had ended up alone, filthy, sick, and no closer to finding my direction than I was a year earlier.
A sense of deep despair crept over me.
As I lay in my hallway cot that night, the status quo of my life finally became intolerable. I did not know what sort of change was coming, but I knew that continuing to travel aimlessly around the globe was not going to solve my problem.
And then something happened.
I got a midnight visit from two European teenagers. They poked their heads around my curtain and offered a brown paper bag with the words “Merry Christmas” written on it in crayon.
Inside were two fresh-baked cookies and a tangerine.
“The hard-to-face fact of life.”
They left this gift along with some literature by their prophet, a man named Moses David. They also left behind, as I wrote later that night in my journal, a vivid impression of what life looks like when it is motivated by a sense of purpose rooted in deeply held beliefs.
The apocalyptic teachings of Moses David did not win me over. But the power of these two young people’s beliefs— no matter what the content was— set me thinking.
They had traveled the same roads as I to the same backstreet hotel in Kabul. We had shared something on a Christmas Eve. Only I was in a pit of despair while they were cheerful, energetic, and generous. Why the difference?
The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.” That night two random teenagers had managed to catch me just as I was falling into a very dark place. And they, quite unintentionally, lit a small spark of hope, kindling a desire to look inside myself and see if I could discover a point of view I could believe in and call my own.
The next morning I was still sick, but I woke up with the sense that today would be better than the one before it. I was no longer interested in the stark, beautiful mountains that surrounded the city. Instead, I was looking inside for a hint as to who, exactly, was looking out at those mountains.
It turned out I had “Hep,” hepatitis, and it took me a few weeks to get my health back. After I was able to travel again, my journey changed to a more focused quest for inner experiences. Making my way through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan and India, I learned contemplation techniques at Hindu ashrams and finally took up residence in the Kanduboda Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. Under the patient guidance of a wise monk there, Venerable Seevali Thera, I sat and walked through eighteen-hour days of insight meditation, coming to some deep realizations about perception, the nature of beliefs, change, suffering, and death. I also saw how distressingly easy it was to get caught up in the bustle of day-to-day striving and forget everything I had learned. Slowly, I began to understand myself, my family, and my emotions more clearly.
I had learned to watch and observe the moment-to-moment parade of impulses, insecurities, memories, plans, fantasies, and fears that made up my mental reality. The “self” inside me that did that observing was something different from— and stronger than— the thoughts, insecurities, and fears themselves. Ironically, an obscure Middle Eastern religion that teaches there is no self had helped me to find my identity.
Finally, I had come to terms with a fundamental, hard-to-face fact of life. I understood that suffering and death are not exceptional conditions that afflict the unfortunate. They are the essential challenges around which every worthy life is built.
And that principle has guided my life from that day until now.”
When he finished talking, I just sat there. “Ok people have to know this story, I have to put it on the internet.”
He laughed. “I put it in one of my books, just copy it from there.”