Part 1: The Illusion of Success and Descent into the Jungle
As a child growing up in an agnostic household, I never could have imagined that my life would have led me down the path that it has as a healer, and yoga and spiritual teacher. It would have been almost unfathomable to me (and likely just about all of those around me) actually. While today I still have plenty of human flaws and in many ways epitomize the archetype of the “wounded healer”, the journey I have been led on has also been one of true transformation and miracles.
My childhood was what I would have considered to be a very normal childhood by Western standards growing up in the suburbs in New Jersey in the 1990s…Maybe the most unusual thing in it was that I had siblings three years younger than me who were triplets. Other than that, I had what I considered at the time a very normal American middle class upbringing. I spent my summers in the park and at the pool, watched a lot of Family Matters and Full House, and played and watched a lot of sports.
I grew up in a household with loving parents who both possessed a strong set of moral ethics. My Mom was (and still is to this day) a big animal lover. She adored being out in nature and around animals, particularly horses. My Dad graduated from Harvard Law School, and was (and still is) one of the smartest people I have met. My Dad passed on up on numerous opportunities in his career to make significantly bigger incomes in favor or taking much lower paying jobs as a lawyer and later on in the non-profit sector to help promote and protect the rights of Native American indigenous people. It was this belief my Dad imprinted deeply within me by his actions, that it was more important to do something good for the world and meaningful than it was to make money or achieve great status, that always stayed in my mind and heart even in my most materialistic phase in my early twenties. That ultimately led me (as well as my deteriorating health) to start looking for answers and solutions to life’s biggest mysteries and that saved me (though not without an extremely difficult transition) when I was hitting rock bottom in the material world in my early to mid-twenties.
So as very well-intentioned and moral as both my parents were, when it came to the topic of God, the general teaching I received was “You’ll find out when you die, worry about that then and just live your life now.” As I already said, my Dad was a very smart man, and I saw no reason to believe that there was something else possible. After all, how could there be? Everybody who did believe in God seemed to have very different beliefs…every religion seemed to think their religion was the best, that they were the right ones, the elect chosen few who were “saved”. Furthermore, a lot of the teachings seemed to have a lot of stuff in it that was straight out of a nightmare…A lot of the people who were religious to me seemed to not care about things you would think God would care about, like the well-being of the Earth and environment or caring for those in need regardless of class or race. Others committed horrible crimes or even things like genocide or mass murder in the name of God.
My parents taught principles of equality, justice and fairness, open-mindedness, and non-bigotry. The huge irony of all this is that my Dad spent huge amounts of time and energy in his life preserving Native American culture, rights, and protecting Native American sacred sites (he was one of the main people responsible for preserving The Medicine Wheel, a very sacred site out in Wyoming as protected land). So while my Dad was highly ethical and noble and on some deeper level must have been called to see the beauty and importance of these ancient cultures enough to make a career out of helping them, on another level he was definitely not really a big believer of God or the afterlife. Few if any of the reasonable people I met in my life directly would seem to be deeply into spirituality, and of the religious people I did know (or perhaps better put looked at and judged selectively from afar), they did not seem by action to actually want to make the world a better, kinder, more tolerant, and just place the way my Dad did or connected deeply to Nature the way my Mom did.
Rather, it seemed they were more concerned about their beliefs and espousing a particular point of view that served their religion even if it sent the rest of the world to Hell, all in the name of a “loving” God that to me from afar based on the stories I heard just seemed quite judgmental and with a bad temper. “If there is a God, these people don’t know Him” was probably my general assumption. I always felt there was a God but was unsure and would have labeled myself as an agnostic…The term “mystic” was not a part of my vocabulary as of yet. Psychics were viewed as weird entertaining fraudsters, deeply religious people were viewed as people who had so much fear and judgment that they would rather live life in the box of a narrow and restrictive belief system and who followed morals (sometimes) by the fear of a punishing God rather than their own in-built conscience and desire to make the world a better place. The medicine men and Indigenous ceremonialists my Dad (and on occasion my whole family) would visit quite regularly as part of his work were a little too out there for me with my mainstream Western upbringing to understand and seemingly superstitious. Medicine men and women were viewed as a primitive relic, albeit well-intentioned form of ancient Western doctors.
In short, I had been indoctrinated into a world view of religion and spirituality being an inferior pursuit to people of high intellectual ability. All evidence to the contrary was either not presented to me, did not come across the mediums of knowledge I was receiving, or maybe I was automatically dismissing on the rare occasions it was without deeper investigation. The evidence of there truly being a God, such as the reports of thousands of near-death experiences, the numerous studies done demonstrating the effectiveness of prayer and energy healing, or the fact that there are a few high level yogis and mystics in the world who can manifest miracles, live on little (or no) food and live off of subtle energy, or who claimed to have direct experiences of God I had never heard of.
One of the few times I was introduced even remotely to the possibility something else might be possible was when I went to a Ba’Hai meeting when living in Albuquerque with my family in somebody’s house when I was thirteen. It was a very different view of religion that they talked about than any I had heard, and I remember there being talk of some video about somebody having a near-death experience and going to Heaven. It sounded nice and I liked how the Ba’Hai tried to reconcile and bring the religions together, rather than the normal competitive model of most religions. But we only went once and never went back to that group of Ba’Hai’s, so it made a lasting but only faint impression on my consciousness at the time.
Other evidence, such as the thousands of awe-inspiring and confirmed and in many case miraculous beyond explanation near-death experiences that one can read online now on sites like near-death.com or NDERF I was generally unaware of. Psychedelics were viewed as mind-altering drugs that worked by changing neurochemicals in the brain, not as portals to spirituality and other realms of consciousness. It was like there was some sort of iron curtain up to this whole world of spirituality I am now immersed in that prevented me from seeing the other side. It was not until I got very sick in my early to mid-twenties, started to read books The Art of Happiness series interviewing the Dalai Lama, and then ultimately ended up in the jungle for at first a night, then a week, and later on a whole month taking ayahuasca that I began to deeply question this worldview.
When I was in my late teenage years I had discovered the game of poker, or more specifically No Limit Hold’Em. What initially started out as at least a fun social hobby started to become more and more of a serious and full out endeavor in my life when I realized I had a natural talent and ability in it and started to make at first hundreds and later thousands and tens of thousands of dollars playing both online and in live games. Poker for me at the beginning was an absolutely fascinating and amazingly engineered game. The strategy was both simultaneously very intellectual and psychologically challenging at the same time in a way that made it extremely appealing. Even better, I could be my own boss and work whenever I wanted. Ironically, I was not naturally a person who liked the sensation of gambling for big sums of money on one level, I found it very stressful, but on another level I found myself increasingly addicted to it.
By the age of twenty four and twenty five, I was living in London for a full year in an internship program in business, but in reality I was almost just going through the motions with that…I already realized shortly into the year the corporate world was not for me and I was focused more on poker and other aspects of my life. The last year in London of my poker career I made around the equivalent of $65,000 (41,000 pounds) in around 500 hours of live casino play, or around $130 per hour on average. On one level, it seemed like a dream job: 1.) No boss and no time schedule and I could work whenever and wherever I wanted just about 2.) There were casinos all around the world where I could make money or online (I played both but preferred playing live because I had become quite skilled in emotionally reading people), so I could travel with virtually no limits, 3.) ) I got to make money off a lot of rich businessmen and bosses and successful entrepreneurs in the middle to high stakes games I was playing in, which to my ego felt super satisfying as I already had developed something of a disliking of the corporate world and the game fed my competitive streak, and 4.) I was making good money (and the trend was that every year since I was nineteen I was making more and more money overall and per hour).
So in many ways it seemed like it was almost like a dream job for me at the time…except for some issues I could have ignored (and for a while did) but ultimately ended up (very fortunately) not. These were:
- I found the gambling part of the game to be quite stressful, as in the long-run good players will make money but there is a huge variance in poker and in the short and at times even medium term winning players can have some streaks of prolonged bad luck. This stress and unpredictability was exacerbating some significant health problems I was already having at the time (a little more on the health stuff in a bit)…
- I noticed my mindset was becoming increasingly dog-eat-dog (i.e. a mirror of the corporate world I already strongly disliked)…While I was always competitive as a kid I also had this very compassionate side…But as I played more and more poker with the aim of just making as much money as I could at my time on the tables, I noticed some of that compassion was starting to leave. There were several times I would witness either people who clearly had no business gambling money that they could not afford to lose nervously gambling money that was needed to pay their rent, or in one or two cases maybe even needs as basic as food for their kids…Many more times on a regular basis I would witness players who were clearly addicted and miserable who were losing players who attended these live games regularly. Some of them were hopelessly bad players who threw thousands of dollars down the drain routinely and they were clearly there more because of an addiction they had been long enslaved to than any real joy or happiness the game was bringing them (truth be told, if you spend a lot of time in a casino and notice the people who are there regularly, many of them look like quite miserable people, including the “winners”)…From an afar perspective, if I was watching a documentary on these people or their lives, it would have come across as tragic. Yet, when one of these hopelessly addicted, depressed seeming, poor poker players sat down at my table, my internal reaction increasingly was one of, “Yeessss! Easy money”…I didn’t care if these people were throwing away money they could not afford, or much worse throwing away their lives (and their souls)…My bank account was likely going to see some growth from it and that increasingly became all that mattered to me. But truth be told, I do not think this fact would have bothered me much (as it does not most poker players on the surface), except that:
- Largely because of the beliefs my parents (and most importantly, the actual actions of my Dad) which they instilled in me as a child, which I already mentioned earlier, I had this nagging belief which surfaced persistently that I should be doing something with my abilities that actually helped to make a positive difference in the world rather than just make as much money as I could.
- Increasingly everything in my life (including poker, but especially the other stuff compared to poker) became less and less satisfying to me. The first three were all on some level gnawing at me on the inside, but the one that really made me question poker the most was this last one. I remember listening to an interview at one point of one of the most respected and well-like professional poker players in the world, Phil Galfond, who had made millions of dollars by the time he had reached his mid-20s from poker, and he was asked if he was more happy after discovering and making so much money from poker, and his reply was something along the lines of that he felt he had actually been a little more happy before he found poker and made millions playing it. Now this was a guy at the pinnacle of the profession, so that was a big warning signal looking back externally…After I quit poker, I remember reading that the dopamine spikes in the brain from gambling are significantly stronger than that of sexual orgasm and actually close to on par with cocaine. So if you spend hours everyday playing and gambling for large stakes of money, eventually two things happen: 1.) You need to gamble for larger and larger amounts of money to get the same feel good effect, and 2.) Your neurochemical reward chemistry gets thrown way out of balance and everything else in life becomes increasingly uninteresting and unfulfilling…Nothing else other than gambling gives any real sense of even a bit of fulfillment, and the beauty and joy of being present for the simple things in life (which is where true happiness is actually found) continuously diminishes over time.
Backtracking a little bit, I started to have some physical health issues early on in my life. When I was nineteen I took Accutane for some pretty minor acne and it caused major problems with my liver to the point where I stopped enjoying alcohol less and less because it was so tough for me to process that the negative effects progressively began to outweigh the positives. I only took the Accutane for one month instead of the prescribed five months because I recognized I was having some pretty dramatic health stuff that even then I realized was not in balance or good. Years later I found out there was a big lawsuit for people who had developed health problems from taking Accutane. I never joined the lawsuit even though I probably had a good case if I wanted to as I remember before signing up for taking Accutane it already was a bit controversial and not considered totally safe, so I felt it was not quite right to sue when I already knew there was a risk before I took it. That being said, what I learned later on in my quest to regain my health is that almost the entire pharmaceutical industry is based off of a few “principles”:
- They are selling drugs that are meant to deal and mask only the symptoms of diseases and imbalances, not actually address the root cause of the issue. This causes a band aid effect and keeps people needing to keep coming back for more and creates dependency rather than actual healing.
- The vast majority of active components that actually work in pharmaceuticals are actually found in natural plants and sources in nature. They then take a part of the medicinal plant that works and add a bunch of other synthetic chemicals that end up causing a lot of unwanted side effects. In traditional healing systems like Chinese medicine or Ayurveda, certain herbs and plants themselves are understood to have vast healing effects (that go deeper to the root since nature provides antidotes to any poison that is created naturally), and great care is given to actually extracting and using the medicinal effects in a way that maximizes actually the restorative and healing effects. The pharmaceutical industry true experts know this but they make drugs in the way described so that they can get exclusive patents, which leads to the third and fourth things on this list:
- By having a patent (and social proof in society), they are able to charge huge sums of money for drugs that mostly just mask symptoms rather than addressing deeper causes of health issues, have far more negative side effects than many natural healing herbs and medicines have, and create dependency and long-term addiction at times in themselves.
- By adding a lot of synthetic chemicals and substances to get a patent, a lot of these pharmaceutical drugs end up having a long list of side effects that are often not insignificant and at times straight up dangerous (i.e. with the Accutane) for people’s health. Many of these side effects could either be avoided or greatly minimized by actually taking natural herbs under the guidance of somebody who has studied various natural systems of healing that have been implemented successfully
So basically what I am saying if you are reading this is by and large (I am not saying there are no exceptions but this applies to the vast majority of these companies), is that the pharmaceutical industry is largely a fraudulent industry based on maximizing profits rather than actually helping people. Many well-intentioned people even working inside the industry are still not awakened to or informed about this (or it is too tough to face so people are in denial).
So at age twenty five, after years of my physical health getting worse and worse (I thought I had Lyme disease at the time as my energy levels were lower and lower and I had a lot of congestion in my head to the point where I never felt clear-headed), I hit my materialistic peak in my life up to this point and simultaneously my emotional and physical health and well-being lowpoint. My brokerage account had swelled up past $100,000, I was making good money, and I was nearing the end of my internship which would allow me to live wherever I wanted in the world with financial freedom and not needing to be in the corporate grind. Yet, interestingly enough, even with all these seeming advantages many people would likely be quite envious of, I felt miserable and that life as I was living it was not really worth living much more. My physical health was really wearing on me, but even more than that was this emotional emptiness and lack of satisfaction with almost everything in my life (other than the bit I still derived from gambling). My ability to connect to people in an open-hearted, genuine way had seemingly evaporated from years of wearing various masks at the poker table and had spilled over to basically every area of my life. I felt lonelier than ever, and the idea of being happy seemed like a fantasy.
So at age twenty five in the summer of 2012 with my health and wellbeing in the gutter and my internship in London coming to an end, I made a very bold decision: I was buying a one way ticket to Iquitos, Peru to live indefinitely without electricity in an isolated hut in the middle of the Amazon jungle where I would take ayahuasca under the guidance of a native Shaman indefinitely until I either got better physically and emotionally healthwise or I would die trying…