Good in the beginning; hard in the middle; good in the end 

Jaran de Los Santos Olsen

 

I grew up with quite a strong desire to be best, to be right, and with a preference for the concrete, definable and measurable. Looking at the state of the world, I often felt a disappointment with humanity. This, I think, gave me the feeling that being an average human being won’t do… In my teenage years a desire to be of great benefit to the world started forming, but I had little clue what that would look like in practical terms.

 

Good in the beginning

When I was 18 I stumbled over a book by the Dalai Lama (The Art of Happiness), and was deeply struck by his message of compassion, and suggestion that what we all really search for is inner happiness. I was puzzled that nobody had told me these things before – as they seemed so important and meaningful, yet obvious once stated. A marked shift in my life happened, from pining to help the world to realizing I had little to offer if I didn’t even yet hold the key to my own happiness. For the next couple of years my interest kept growing through reading and practicing the teachings. I even had a pretty visceral recognition of the not-self reality of all (one could think that I had completely overlooked this part of the teachings – taking the rest of my future journey into account).

Being someone with lofty ambitions, I started considering becoming a monk, as I hoped that kind of life could take me to the goal quickly. I left for Thailand in 2003 and headed straight for the International Forest Monastery (Wat Pah Nanachat) – my impression was that it was the real hard-core place to go if you were a serious practitioner.

 

Hard in the middle

It seemed like a near perfect place for practice: You got your own little hut in the forest with an adjacent walking meditation path. The teachers talked from their own experience about the states of mind that I had been aiming for, but had had little luck with achieving. In a community in which everyone is pulling in the same direction. No responsibilities. No distractions. Nowhere to go. All the time in the world. I thought: “Now, nothing stands between me and the jhanas (which I was particularly obsessed with at the time), I just have to put forth the effort and then I’ll get them (and then everybody will be really impressed with me…). I even made deadlines for myself; “I’m gonna get jhana before my anagarika ordination… before my novice ordination… my bhikkhu ordination…”. I thought all the obstacles had been swept aside, but little did I realize that I was the biggest of them all.

I put forth tremendous effort, in all kinds of way, but all the time with this same gaining idea. My head was constantly churning with thoughts, and the jhanas just seemed increasingly more distant and unattainable the harder I strived. The moments of peace and contentment that I (actually quite frequently) experienced was belittled, as they weren’t what I was after. I dismissed the various insightful experiences I had as a result of contemplation in much the same way. Inevitably, I grew increasingly disillusioned, doubting my own abilities, doubting the meditation technique, doubting whether I had found the right teacher for me, eventually doubting whether jhanas exist at all. My fruitless chase after these mental absorptions in the end led me to doubt the core of Buddhism, and was instrumental in my disrobing after 6 years in the robes. Leaving the monastery felt partly like admitting defeat, admitting that I was incapable and mediocre – states of mind not easily accepted by my competitive and ambitious character.

Upon returning to Norway, I studied psychology, got married, became a (bonus)father. As a monk I had pushed myself to extent that I was pretty fed up with formal meditation, and did little of it for many years. The more contemplative aspects of practice however, followed me like a shadow (such as noticing impermanence/insubstantiality, how identification and grasping leads to unsatisfactoriness, etc.).

 

Good in the end

After having worked as a clinical psychologist for a year, I started a specialization program in Emotion focused therapy, and through that came to realize that the way I had been handling emotions all my life had been quite maladaptive. I realized that I had been so focused on shoulds and coulds and ideals, that allowing myself to be the way I am had been sacrificed in return. A transformed understanding of vulnerable and ordinary aspects of myself led to a deeper acceptance of all of me, my strengths and weaknesses and ultimately also of my immediate experience of the world around me.

A year or two ago I felt the hibernating seeds of spiritual motivation inside me again beginning to germinate, and fortunately, this time around my attitude towards it was wise, patient and embracing enough to let it sprout in its own pace. My newfound openness and acceptance allowed me to understand the practice, the teachings, myself and the world in a fresh way, and I discovered the reality that had been hiding in plain sight everywhere all along. As the American nun Pema Chödrön said: “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are.”

picture of author in robes
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