A Year of Turmoil
I fell off the map last year. My mostly regular updating of this blog and about my work in India and Africa, all of a sudden, stopped. Updating at my self-help blogs, Moving Toward Peace and Daily Remindr, also came to an abrupt halt for months. I've been so disoriented and off center, I couldn't authentically stand behind much creatively, so I stopped creating.
Only vaguely and anecdotally have I publicly shared about the difficulties I experienced, and of consequently being on something of a hiatus. I knew the time would eventually come to bare all and let my friends and people who've been following my work these past few years know, exactly, what's been going on.
This long post is my attempt to clear the air and begin anew. I invite you to sit back and take the journey with me through it. I think the themes I relay here are universally human, and you just might get something personally beneficial.
Above is a painting of Pluto by Agostino Carracci. Astrologically, a friend of mine told me I've been under the influence of a "Pluto-Square-Pluto" transit, which he described as one of the most internally trying transits there is, similar to a Saturn Return.
Pluto, to the best of my understanding (and I hope the astrology won't lose you, I find it helpful information during times of crisis or transition), represents a psychic surgeon of sorts.
He shows up in your life to investigate the very foundation of who you are. He looks high and low, in the deepest corners of our unconscious mind, for untrue beliefs we are holding about ourselves, as well as psychological and/or emotional patterning no longer serving us.
When found, in sudden, dramatic, and destructive ways they will be purged, which can result in any number of crises, such as job loss, the ending of a major relationship, a health crisis, and so on. I can just about put a check next to all of those boxes.
It's tough love. It's a controlled demolition of a building with a faltering foundation so that a new, stronger one can be built in its place. It's a powerful disruption of your status quo so you can take time out, learn, grow, and move into a new chapter of your life.
Things first started faltering like this late in 2013. I was living in India at the leprosy community and remember the day clearly when I was approached by one of the leaders of Manav Sadhna (the NGO that originally connected me to the community, who sponsored my business visa, and much more) who effectively said, "We need to talk. We don't know what you're doing."
My heart sank. It sounded like I was in trouble. And I should say my connection to and respect for Manav Sadhna, the Gandhi Ashram (where it's located), its staff and partner organizations is of the utmost. Manav Sadhna welcomed me with open arms in 2011, supported me throughout my journey at the leprosy community that year, and gave me a profound, life changing education about how to serve in underprivileged communities and simply be a better person. To think that I might have done something to jeopardize this relationship was, at the time, frightening.
Here's some of my background story. My parents divorced under intensely grievous circumstances right before I was born. I was raised by a single mother and do not have any brothers and sisters. Neither of my parents remarried. My relationship with my dad, Al Lowman, was not good, as he was never really around or available since he was so focused on his business.
My dad was a well known and successful literary agent (and former Madison Avenue "ad man") who represented #1 best selling authors like Marianne Williamson, Diana Ross, and Suzanne Somers and lived a glitzy life in New York City. Since he was constantly being pitched to, he developed a knack for filtering out non, as he would probably put it, "A-list material." That, regrettably, included many things I would tell him enthusiastically, such as becoming an EMT and joining a volunteer fire department when I was in High School. He'd quickly forget and it would kill me when I had to remind him.
These influences have made me very sensitive to issues of loss in relationships and, as I painfully found out this year, developed in me an unflattering need to prove myself to others in an attempt to be recognized as somebody who is valuable, if not special.
* * *
In 2010, I was living in Santa Barbara, California working a part-time job dreaming of a freer, more expansive life than just paying the bills to get by.
The year before, in 2009, I was invited by a friend, Dr. Lori Leyden, to travel to Rwanda in Africa to work with a number of traumatized secondary school students who survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. That incredible trip set my life on a new course. I decided there that I wanted to figure out a way to do humanitarian work of this kind full-time, as I enjoyed being overseas and seeing how the medicinal skills I had developed over the years could be put to use, successfully, to help people in need.
I traveled to India for the first time in 2009 after finishing in Rwanda and visited Manav Sadhna briefly to learn about their Seva Café project, with the idea of potentially starting one in Santa Barbara after my return. I never ended up doing that but that brief visit to this special place on Mahatma Gandhi's main ashram residence in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, introduced me to something I didn't know I was looking for in the US—a community (a country, even) of like-minded people, with a shared set of values, dedicated to service as a path of spiritual practice or sadhana.
For the majority of 2010, I was involved in a fundraising campaign with Lori to build a community center in Rwanda for the orphans we had come in contact with, which, if successful, would have had me living there year round as a Managing Director. In anticipation, I gave up my apartment, many of my possessions, and was committed to leaving the US and starting a new life to do work that I resonated with.
We didn't reach our fundraising goal. In October or so of that year, I found myself at a fork in the road. I could either find work in the US (I looked into the Air Force and Wildland Firefighting) or figure something else out. I felt desperate. I knew life could not continue as it had been and my options seemed limited.
I ended up getting in touch with some people at Manav Sadhna I had met and asked if I could come to spend the year in India, as I knew they welcomed foreigners to volunteer.
They said yes. I quickly sent out some emails looking for the funds to make the trip possible and just as quickly, was given everything I needed by a family foundation in Connecticut—a supportive member of which, who I didn't know so well at the time, just happened to be on my somewhat eclectic and small email list.
I booked a one-way plane ticket on British Airways, made more cuts to my possessions, put a few boxes in storage, and arrived in Ahmedabad on the 8th of January ready for a new life.
From there, I proceeded to have an amazing year living and working at a leprosy community that I connected to with all my heart and soul, a community that became and still very much is home, where many residents, especially the kids, became family.
I don't remember when exactly, it was about June of 2011 — halfway through that first year in India — I developed a story about myself that I started sharing in project updates and in person. A story, admittedly, I was proud of.
It was a compelling one actually, and had to with the unconventional path I took after a life-altering visit with an Ayurvedic doctor in London in 1999 and how that eventually led to what I felt was my "life's work" serving in the field as I was.
I made it sound like I had accomplished something special. I would talk about being in an effortless flow, which was rooted in a commitment to "serve humanity," and how that created a scenario where I didn't have to worry about survival needs. In a word, I thought I had found freedom.
It wasn't that this story was patently untrue. It was the presentation behind it — the intention — that was problematic. My ego was involved and unknowingly and unconsciously, I was trying to get the world to see that I was a "somebody." This came through in my writings. In my demeanor. In my speech.
I started many successful projects at the leprosy community and became very popular with the people. This too boosted my ego and reinforced my story.
I didn't humble myself enough at the time to realize that a lot of the success and popularity I had was a direct result of a mentor, Jayeshbhai Patel, one of the founders of Manav Sadhna, who constantly shined light on me by talking me up with other volunteers and staff, and talking me up in the community during his many visits.
Jayeshbhai has a lot of influence given his family history, status, and the level of respect he has earned for being a genuinely incredible human being, who has impacted the lives of thousands and thousands of people around the world through his wisdom and love, which he shares selflessly and generously.
If he shines light on you, you will grow. No question, the work I did in the community was solid but it was doubly amplified by Jayeshbhai's wholehearted endorsement.
He believed in me, and I knew it. It meant a lot — too much, probably — considering I've never really received that kind of attention from a male figure who has captured my heart as he has. In a way, he was like the dad I didn't have growing up.
I have made a commitment to service. I have made a commitment to get to know the truth of who I am, this is and has been my sadhana for many years, and certainly was what drew me to Manav Sadhna and the Gandhi Ashram, where such practices make up their DNA.
Egoic personal stories and the false sense of pride, these are not sustainable in the pursuit of Truth. As Sri Yuktsewar, teacher of Paramahansa Yogananda said, "The hard core of human egotism is hardly to be dislodged except rudely. With its departure, The Divine finds at last an unobstructed channel." Emphasis mine.
I was, without knowing it, inviting a tidal wave.
After wrapping up in India in 2011, I spent about seven months living in Nairobi, Kenya doing similar work at a school serving poor children from a slum area and then three months in Rwanda, back where the journey started in '09, working again with the orphan survivors of the genocide I had gotten to know on previous visits. 18 months, non-stop, in the field.
At that point, I felt I had a lot to share with others about the kind of lifestyle I had adopted, as well as some of the unanticipated and miraculous results of the project work I was involved in. I returned to the US, went on the road for four months with a slideshow presentation called Effort Less, and traveled to around 17 cities sharing with audiences large and small, including some middle school classrooms.
Looking back, I can see how much my affiliation with Manav Sadhna assisted this speaking tour, since many of my hosts, though not all, were connected to the organization in some way. Yet still, that sense of personal achievement ran strong when, instead, I needed to be seeing myself as a humble member of a collective.
Checking Intentions Part 2
Toward the end of the tour, I found myself in a similarly anxious position as I was in 2010. I didn't want this journey I was on to conclude, as that could mean going back to the life I used to live of working and paying bills—a life, I thought, and had been enthusiastically telling others, was over. At the same time, my options again seemed limited. It's not like anybody was calling me, beckoning me to come back to any of the communities I had lived in overseas.
I ended up making a big mistake, which didn't register as such at the time. Without consulting any of the Manav Sadhna leaders about what a potential return to the leprosy community would look like, I assumed I would be welcome to come back to continue with the work I started, and hastily went about securing another year-long business visa and funding, and finally, booked a ticket.
Why did I assume? Because of the welcome I received the previous year, the successes, what seemed like Jayeshbhai's endorsement, and the family relationships I established at the community. I felt as if I had found my tribe and that I was an esteemed member of it.
In retrospect, I realize further conversations needed to happen with Manav Sadhna for much needed mutual understanding and agreement.
I was too scared though, at the time, to confront any other possibility than that of continuing on with this "magical" lifestyle I thought I had achieved. As before, elements of desperation were motivating me. Something, eventually, would have to give.
Arriving in India again in January of 2013, I found a warm welcome, and had no reason to suspect anybody had any problem with me being there. I moved back into my old room at the leprosy community and went to work.
With helping to inspire a youth leadership movement, facilitating the construction of a beautiful community garden, and leading a somewhat controversial yet successful educational program just for girls, it was another incredible year. In addition, I presented to an audience of 1,000 people and shared the stage with Jack Kornfield at the Sounds True Wake Up Festival in Colorado, successfully raised $20,000 to build a school in Kenya, and got engaged to be married on Christmas Day.
I was really happy and thought everything was coming together (be careful when you think that's happening!). But. Problems, starting as small swells, would soon become crashing waves.
On the one hand, Manav Sadhna and I started growing apart, which had a lot to do with Jayeshbhai stepping away from the organization as an experiment in what he called, "detachment." He rarely visited the community and we connected only a little about community matters. My experience of Manav Sadhna — my host, project partner, and visa sponsor — subsequently, was much different.
Without him, there wasn't anybody shining light on me, making me seem bigger than I actually was. I experienced a certain silence, which I interpreted as lack of care, when I shared about my activities with others at the organization who weren't nearly as connected to my work as Jayeshbhai was, which triggered my issues of abandonment and caused anger.
It got to a point where I stopped communicating altogether, and was completely on my own in the community, which caused confusion and some degree of turmoil there about what I was doing and why. People at Manav Sadhna, understandably, thought I was minimizing them and that I was ungrateful for their support. Things were really mixed up between us.
On the other hand, was my marriage engagement, which turned into a profound source of stress and heartache for reasons I won't go into, and radically diverted my energy and focus away from dedicated spiritual practice and service, to more material matters.
Not only was that difficult and confusing for me personally, since I had been living and presenting myself as a kind of monk for the past few years, it was difficult and confusing for those around me — especially in the leprosy community — because I was not as available, acting erratically and, at times, inconsistently with my values, and perhaps in ways that were offensive to the culture's values around male-female relationships (just speculating on that one but I wouldn't be surprised).
Putting everything into perspective, these were all relatively minor and contained issues that didn't affect my work and nobody gave me reason to think anything was amiss, yet I felt a constant sense of shame and that my reputation was being harmed.
I feared I had lost irreversible standing in my tribe, a tribe which I had attachment to, thinking its support was critical to my sense of belonging and success in life.
It's easy to see now why I was pulled aside that one day and asked about what I was doing and why I had gone off on my own. That was the conversation that needed to happen before I even got on a plane to return to India.
While this talk helped, it didn't resolve the tension that had developed. I continued on at the leprosy community because I was in the midst of wrapping up one final program with the Dream Class girls.
My relationship with Manav Sadhna grew even more strained, particularly after a small fundraising campaign I did for a leprosy patient, which we had disagreement about. Troubled by this and by the problems I was having with my then fiancée, Smita, I grew even more distant and withdrawn at the community. My heart was heavily burdened.
One morning in March, I woke up to realize I no longer belonged in the community, backed my bags, and went to stay at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, a partner organization to Manav Sadhna (where Jayeshbhai is the Executive Director), that I connected to first in 2011 and then more deeply in 2013. It was an abrupt, unceremonious ending to 14 months of full-time work.
Jayeshbhai was more than peripherally aware of everything that was going on and in a few sit down talks we had, likened what I was going through to tilling soil to prepare for a new plantation (remember Pluto?) and told me, "don't worry." He remained understanding, loving, and supportive throughout the whole ordeal and for that, I am grateful.
Death in the Family
Smita and I traveled to the north of India in May to travel around and, at least we thought, find somewhere to have a private marriage ceremony.
We wound up at the ashram of one of my closest gurujis, Sri Anandamayi Ma, near to the Ganges river in Kankhal, a small holy city just outside of sacred Haridwar in Uttarakhand. We had been having difficulty for most of the trip and on one fateful evening, had a terrible verbal tussle, which caused us both to look into ways of returning home independently of one another. That seemed to be the last straw for us.
While looking at return flights, I received a message from my aunt in Tennessee informing me that my 90-year old grandmother's health had declined and she was being moved into hospice care. I called immediately, spoke to my uncle, who gave the phone to my ailing grandmother. "Granny..." I said, "please hang on. I'm coming."
Smita and I smoothed things out. Six days and 10,000+ mi. later, I arrived at the Nashville airport, met my younger cousin, and proceeded to the hospice to find myself with the rest of the family, standing next to my frail grandmother on her death bed. We were all with her each day until she passed peacefully, with courage and dignity, on the 29th of May.
After her memorial service, with no work to return to overseas and no home or life of my own in the US, I moved in with my mother at her new home in the Hudson Valley of New York, where I have been living since June in a state of ongoing retreat.
Dark Night of the Soul
Smita returned to the US shortly after I did and went back to her home, not too far away, in Maryland. We tried to make things work over the months that would come, but were not able to. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, we officially called it quits and now no longer really speak. Another death in the family.
All the relationship difficulty and challenging inner turmoil I've been experiencing— true to the essence of Pluto — has given me an incredibly valuable opportunity to reflect on and be with, in solitude, all that you've been reading about, particularly some of my intentions for going overseas, the identity I developed, and that sense of desperation I mentioned (which had a lot to do with my hasty marriage proposal).
I discovered there's been a void inside I wasn't fully aware of, likely stemming from some unresolved dynamics in my history. It's a void I've not been wanting to face or feel fully. A weakness, you could say.
I've come to see it caused me to expect the fruits of labor without doing the hard work of planting roots. It caused me to want to be seen as somebody special and successful, without having the appropriate achievement or authority to demonstrate that.
I've been looking for connection and love in a way that didn't require much from me emotionally. I've been hiding behind a mask with a questionable answer to the eternal question, "who am I?" I thought I knew but Pluto, thankfully, proved me wrong.
This is not to diminish or negate any of my experiences or messages of the past few years. That's really important to me because you might have been involved with my projects, financially or otherwise, or got inspired during the Effort Less tour.
The majority of my intentions were, no question, honorable and coming from the right place. The relationships I established were genuine and from the heart, and the work I accomplished was real.
It's just that these lurking, unconscious tendencies were casting a shadow over what was good and pure and would, eventually, tear the building down. This void needed to be healed before continuing to move forward on the path.
New Year Resolutions
Though not out of the woods yet, I sense the major "surgery" is over. Whereas before, I was so disoriented and disconnected, I couldn't imagine there being a future for me — "am I going to die?" I wondered, at times — I am now starting to receive new inspiration and creative ambition.
I've been humbled and some dense fog has been lifted from my eyes. I feel different. I don't know exactly what comes next, though I am starting to plan a brief return to the field this coming April (there are some loose ends to tie up and rough edges to smooth out), but I do know whatever it is, is going to be coming from a more grounded place, without the anxious need-to-prove-something motivations I once had.
My resolve is to simply be myself without any of the "spin" I was putting on that. To share factually, as I tried to do here, and let you make an interpretation vs. trying to be the teacher and inflate my ego. To work harder at serving others through my writing by putting their needs in front of mine. And to move slower, without the rush of trying to achieve a pipe dream, but to continually plant seeds, let them take root, and allow any fruit to come on its own.
My biggest insight has been this. I'm not a bad, unworthy, weak person, though I certainly entertained my fair share of these thoughts. There is no such thing. I am essentially a good person who made some honest mistakes, as a result of carrying some potent impurities that were rising to the surface to be released.
I still feel as if I'm in an "effortless flow," that this dark passage, with its fair share of grace and beauty, has been part of the journey, and that some crossing over has occurred and is firmly cemented, which means life probably won't go back to just surviving but will be lived in service to what is being asked of me, whatever that might be.
It has been therapeutic for me to write this article and it comes as a relief to, finally, let you know what's been going all this time while I've been in retreat. Now, maybe, you have a better understanding of why I suddenly disappeared and maybe you know me a little better than before. I hope so.