Imagine if you had the opportunity to live on an isolated mountaintop and meditate for three years. You had no cellphone, no email, or news from the outside world. For three years, all you had were ancient texts and the opportunity to meditate deeply.
What would you discover? And what would you want to tell the world when you came out?
In 2009, I made the unusual decision to sell a company I had built for 12 years, donate nearly all the money, and give away my possessions to undertake a three-year meditation retreat.
It wasn't because I was unhappy or unsatisfied with my life or work. That's not my story. You could say the reason had more to do with the New York City subway: When I looked into the faces of people rocking in those big boxcars, I saw how tired and unhappy too many people were. For years this gnawed at me. And honestly, the better my own life got, the more I wanted to find deeper answers that could help more people.
Please don't imagine I was some major captain of industry. That wasn't the case. I ran a six-person branding and advertising agency in NYC that specialized in small and midsized businesses. Most of our clients were family-owned companies. My team and I looked into the eyes of the people we were helping and could see the difference we made in their lives. For me, a boy who had driven a city bus to pay his way through an in-state college, the boutique agency and a Manhattan doorman apartment over-looking the Hudson was more than enough.
But for every person I helped succeed, I could still see countless more that I didn't know how to help, and particularly with the bigger questions of life beyond material success. So I decided to seek something deeper.
Before I took off my custom tailored suit, I wrote everything down I knew about marketing in a book called The Perfection of Marketing which one reviewer was kind enough to declare "Marketing Book of the Year." I did a round of publicity including a national interview on Fox Business, who thought I was thoroughly ridiculous to step away from a successful business career to go meditate with monastics and Buddhist lay people. Then I closed that chapter of my life.
What I should tell you is my three-year retreat wasn't completely a leap into the unknown. For almost 12 years, I had been studying the classic Tibetan Buddhist curriculum at night and on the weekends, leading something of a double-life: hard-working business executive by day and spiritual student at night.
Meditation had been a tough habit for me to pick up in the beginning. Much of my first year, I would lay in bed in the morning, looking at my newly purchased meditation cushion, wishing I could be a meditator. So I've been there. I know what that is like.
But once I learned analytical meditation techniques, problem-solving techniques called che goms in Tibetan, I started to get little glimpses of wisdom. Then I was hooked. So much so, that I only missed a handful of days meditating over 10 years in NYC, no matter how many sirens and jackhammers tried to stop me. (Note: ear plugs help.)
My mind felt good. Really good. My ability to understand complex issues accelerated. But what I really wanted to know is how far could an ordinary westerner like myself go, and a New Yorker at that, if I devoted myself fully to the path of meditation? Could I find something that would really help people with the bigger problems we all face? So that's why I went into long retreat.
I wish I could tell you that retreat was all hearts and flowers, but that wouldn't be the truth. There was difficulty, distress, and distraction numerous times over the first year. But I kept on mission to try to develop meditative stillness in the hopes that I would find something that would be truly beneficial for everyone.
Mostly, I had to dig deeply to face my character flaws, address my shortcomings, and all the times I had hurt people through just plain selfishness. It was a gory process. You have to learn to forgive yourself, just as much as you have to learn to forgive others. Eventually you learn how to separate the stories that flash in your heads like summer thunderstorms from the innate purity that is at the heart of everyone.
What you need to know is this. The transformations of heart and mind described in so many ancient meditation texts over the past 25 centuries are achievable for everyone through simple cause and effect.
Our minds aren't fixed in stone. We are unlimited in our potential. If we use time-proven techniques to create happy states of mind we achieve happiness -- again, through simple cause and effect.
How will your journey of transformation start? The same way it does for everyone, with the wish for something greater. Just for a moment, raise your aspirations a little higher than you normally do with this simple 2 and a half minute meditation.
Meditations like this are known as result meditations. You picture the end point to speed your ability to get there. Every journey starts with a sincere wish. Remarkable transformations are possible when you start tuning your mind to where you really want to go.
I certainly don’t believe that everyone needs to do a three-year meditation retreat, but you’ll be stunned at how much more happiness you will create in your life with smallest bit of daily meditation effort.
Note: This article was originally published by HuffPost in the Life Section.
James Connor is a life coach at GoBeyond.org, where he uses Buddhist methods to help people solve life problems.