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My Spiritual Path

This has been my quest for self-knowledge, self-transformation and meaning

Sunset in Arches National Park.
Sunset in Arches National Park. Photo by the author.

I started developing my philosophy of life when I left Christianity when I was 15. That was not an easy decision. Spain was still under the National-Catholic dictatorship of general Franco, my father had a prominent government position, and I had spent my childhood being indoctrinated by the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei.

I call my philosophy of life “inner work”, because I see as an active, ongoing process of self-discovery and self-transformation. Some people call that a spiritual path. I used that in the title, but I understand “spiritual” as a quest for meaning free from supernatural beliefs. I discarded those during the crisis that led me to leave religion, committing myself to a view of the world based on evidence and rationality. Still, I felt a strong drive towards mystical experiences. I believed that I could achieve some kind of illumination - Nirvana, Satori - that will open my eyes to the hidden meaning of the universe and, therefore, to my life.

It started with yoga practice when I was in college. Pretty soon I had my first mystical experiences: an upward flow of energy inside my body accompanied by feelings of elation and revelation. They left me befuddled, trying to explain them in a scientific materialistic way.

I found guidance in Siloism, a school of spiritual and political ideas that grew in Argentina and Chile out of the teachings of Gurdjieff, Buddhism, Krishnamurti, Robert Desoille and spiritual schools from all over the world. The Siloists were left-leaning politically. In fact, many of them had to leave Argentina and Chile and take refuge in Spain because they were prosecuted by the dictatorships that had taken over those countries. It was exactly what I was looking for: humanists who believed in finding rational explanations for spiritual experiences. They showed me that the mystical experiences I had could be reproduced with a particular type of meditation. They also made me write my biography and showed how to interpret. With them, I learned and practiced the directed daydreaming technique of Desoille. Their practice consisted of exercises done in group that challenged me physically and emotionally. At the same time, they taught me an interesting vision of consciousness and the mind that laid the basis for my learning of neuroscience.

Disagreements with the direction Siloism was taking led me to abandon it and to start practicing Zen. I got in touch with disciples of the Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru, who had moved to Madrid after the death of their teacher. Soon I got a job in a pharmaceutical company in Paris, so I had the opportunity to practice in the original dojo of Deshimaru in that city. Then I came to the USA as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington, DC. There I continue to practice Zen under the guidance of Eido Shimano Roshi. He taught Rinzai Zen, while the Deshimaru disciples taught Soto Zen, so I learned from both traditions. Upon my return to Spain in 1989, I officially became a Zen Buddhist.

At the same time, my scientific career had led me to become a neuroscientist. It was not an easy path. Disappointed with the poor state of science in Spain, I moved back to the USA with a job at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. That didn’t work out very well, and I ended up becoming faculty at UCLA.

All the time I was trying to understand myself with the combination of neuroscience and the inner experience provided by Zen meditation.

In 1991, I got married in two ceremonies, one Jewish and the other Zen Buddhist, officiated by Mirei Piault, a disciple of Deshimaru with whom I had started my practice. In Los Angeles, I went to retreats directed by Maezumi Roshi. However, Zen practice was losing meaning for me. I continued calling my myself a Buddhist in the secular sense proposed by Stephen Batchelor. In 2016, while attending a meeting of the Mind & Life Institute in San Diego, I decided that my ideas had become too different from Buddhism to continue calling me a member of that religion.

Several other things had become part of my spiritual path. Back in 1986, when I first came to this country, I had discovered the rich BDSM community in the USA. I was trying to understand some dark sexual desires I had felt since my childhood. Practicing BDSM and polyamory were unexpected sources of self-knowledge. They helped me to understand the traumas of my childhood and to grow emotionally. It complemented Zen to help me find my inner center of gravity.

Speaking of gravity, another source of spiritual growth has been rock-climbing, a sport I started practicing in Spain when I was 18. Living in California provided many great opportunities to grow as a climber. Together with other outdoor sports - free-diving, skiing, kayaking, cycling - it put me in touch with my fear and taught me self-reliance and love of nature.

I started writing in 2010. Well, truth be told, I did some writing before that, but it was that year when I totally fell in love with the novel I was writing. I would come home after a long day of work at the lab and sit down at my computer until the wee hours, unable to part company with my characters. They were parts of my subconscious that came to life to speak with their own voices of things I had lived through. On weekends, I would forgo climbing and diving to explore the next steps in the plot.

I retired in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting. I still do some science work, but just as a volunteer. The bulk of my time is devoted to developing my writing career. What motivates me to write is that I don’t want the things I have learned through my life to die with me. I found that writing fiction is a wonderful way to explore my inner world. Writing about science and philosophy lets me test and develop my ideas.

One of the most important things I learned is to not just have a series of ideas, but a practice that involves my emotions and my body. It’s not good to live inside our heads. Meditation, yoga, climbing, BDSM and polyamory created challenges that made me grow emotionally, tested my self-knowledge and brought me out of complacency. Only by training at the different levels of being it is possible to achieve a true self-transformation.

For me, everything starts to come together in a harmonious understanding of the world and myself. I don’t claim to be illuminated, but I am happy with myself and everything I have learned. My main challenge these days is to find the new steps I want to take before I inevitably run out of time and die.

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