HowI Got This Way

Gerry Kopelow

This is the true story of a question asked and answered over a period of some forty five years. The very first conscious thought that I can remember is: “Why am I unhappy, and why are the people around me unhappy?” Starting at age three or four I undertook an ardent, non-stop search for the answer.

I was born into a lower middle class Jewish family. They were performance-oriented, materialistic security-seekers, they had big expectations of children, and they were entirely secretive about the past. Like many Jewish families most of our European relatives had been killed during the war and the survivors in North America  were badly traumatized. Since I didn’t knowall this when I was small, the past was a riddle silently bestowed upon me. It was my nature just to absorb these things without complaint. I was a very benign little boy. I did not blame the world for my unhappiness, but I was extremely motivated to find a reason for it. Why this was so I have no idea, except to make the assumption that there must have been a strong karmic proclivity at work.

I went to school and I did what my parents told me to do for the first few years. As soon as I could, however, I diverged from my parents plan and undertook pursuits that seemed to me both relevant to my basic inquiry and also culturally worthwhile. I became an artist, I became a musician, I became a scientist. I was a smart kid and excelled at everything I turned my hand to. I used to enter science fairs to earn money: My summer job through highschool was working at the Physics Lab at the University of Manitoba. I taught myself classical guitar and went to Spain a couple of times to have instruments made for me. I took up photography and by the time I was eighteen, I was the youngest person in Canada to have received a Canada Council grant. That was more than thirty years ago. As this is being written, I am fifty-one years old.

My aggressive cultural pursuits provided moments of joy, but no answers. I believe I was blocked from extracting or receiving anything particularly illuminating from Jewish tradition simply because all the beings around me were so deeply involved in suffering. It hadn’t helped them and so I reacted against it.

I did very poorly academically. All through high school I watched every late movie every night. In the morning I would go to school, take the desk farthest away from the teacher and put my head down and sleep. And in the afternoon I would read. The school library had a collection of impressively bound volumes called The Great Books of the Western World and over a period of a couple of years I worked my way through them: Nietzsche, Freud, Plato, Descartes – lots of serious stuff. Even though the ideas were intellectually dazzling I did not find in them what I was looking for. The question remained stuck in my mind: “Why am I unhappy and why are the beings around me unhappy?”Grade Twelve French was my downfall – I actually failed high school.

Almost by accident the answer began to unfold through art. Back in grade eight I was such a solemn little guy that a kind teacher was moved to try and cheer me up. She was a photography enthusiast and so, after a couple of false starts with other diversions, she handed me her camera and said, “Try this maybe, you’ll like it.” And I did.

The first few frames that I took were quite artful. My abilities developed quickly. Soon I was regularly extracting photographically interesting configurations from the events unfolding around me. In fact, I worked at photography so intensely that two technical constraints inherent in the process began to shape my consciousness, my way of being in the world. First, I developed a keen interest in sharpness and detail and so had to learn to hold the camera really steady for long periods of time. And second, since I was making photographs of people in real-life situations I had to develop quick reflexes and very sharp observational skills. By virtue of these two techniques I was moving inexorably toward meditation and mindfulness, neither of which, of course, I had ever heard of.

In the service of art I developed phenomenal concentration and the ability to hold my body absolutely still. I was obsessed with capturing the ‘decisive moment’. Several years of diligent work brought this state of affairs to a very high pitch, and I experienced a breakthrough while shooting a portrait of a couple of friends. During that particular decisive moment I fell into a state of total absorption. I set the camera aside, struck by the realization that it was possible to fully experience reality without the use of a machine. My life as an artist ended at that exact moment. I was nineteen years old.

So I started to inch toward enjoyment of simply being alive. Nevertheless, the power of cultural conditioning and the fear of failure can seem like irresistible forces; after some heroic remedial efforts I got myself into university. It was the time of Flower Power and I was a hippie, living with friends in a communal house. There was sex, drugs, and rock and roll; experiencing experiences rather than undertaking intellectual disciplines was the order of the day. These pursuits provided some memorable moments of joy as well, but still no answer to the big question. I was becoming impatient.

I began to think that if relief from suffering was not available through artistic, intellectual, or hedonistic means perhaps it would yield to straightforward mechanical intervention. I made a list of troublesome elements in my life, and resolved that one by one, I would either fix or eliminate them. Since I’d always disliked being overweight, I started with my body. I began a fast of Biblical proportions- six weeks, water only, plus daily exercise. I lost 100 pounds. It was an amazing episode.

After a couple of weeks without food the body becomes quiet and cool. Physical activity is possible only by animating the appropriate muscles through force of will. Since this is hard work, staying very still all the time seems like a good idea. I quickly learned that when the body is not busy with digesting food or moving about, consciousness becomes free to pay exquisite attention to whatever is of interest. Hot pursuit of photographic truth had brought me very close, but now I was able to become totally involved in the present moment. Much to my delight, I discovered that the consequence of this kind of intense concentration is bliss… life is very rich under intense scrutiny.

Naturally I wanted to sustain that state of sharp observation and the blissful feelings that were associated with it but I found that every time I took a breath the effort and the movement pulled me away. In order to maintain concentration I worked to make my breathing slower and smoother. After a couple of weeks of training the motion of my lungs became nearly imperceptible and was no longer a problem. Surprisingly, the resulting increase in sensitivity revealed the action of my heart to be just as annoying as uncontrolled breathing had been. The sensation of each pulse as it moved through the body pulled me away from awareness. With a little experimentation, however, I found that there was a certain spot between the in-breath and the out-breath through which I was able to gain control of the heartbeat and make it slow, steady, and quiet as well.

Afew days later I was sitting on the sofa in my parents house, a guest at the birthday celebration of one of my siblings. I must have looked fairly normal sitting there doing my deep breathing since none of the forty or so people in the room took any notice. All of a sudden I realized that with no special effort I was following fifteen different conversations simultaneously. I had entered samadhi, a state in which consciousness merges with the object of its attention. I had investigated art, science, and the the philosophy of the Western World, but had never encountered anything like this. Of course, I was completely ignorant of what I later found out to be esoteric systems of spiritual development that had been around for thousands of years.

A week later I became sick with an ear infection but, by this time I felt I had found my answer. The pain associated with the ear infection was not an issue, because my concentration was so strong that I could just ignore it. In fact there was no suffering of any sort. A friend in medical school dropped by to make sure I wasn’t about to drop dead: He told me I would likely get meningitis and die unless I did something. Despite my blissfully indifferent state he talked me into a course of antibiotics. Shortly after I slowly got back into eating. To my dismay, returning to the world was accompanied by a receding of the blissful states I coveted.

A small book about Hatha Yoga appeared in our house and I realized that I had been trying to reinvent a very ancient wheel. I decided to try and re-experience blissful consciousness by way of health and strength rather than self-denial and mortifications. I becamea student of both the physical and mental yogic practises and became sufficiently adept to teach. All in all I spent ten years trying to maintain what I thought were highly desirable states of mind, and succeeded, to a degree. One can experience these states fora time but it takes great effort, great concentration, and perfect circumstances. That&’s why monks live apart from the world. Renunciation is not intrinsically a more evolved form life, it’s just a life style wherein fewer buttons are being pushed. One is able to concentrate with greater ease.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not maintain blissful states all the time. Eventually I came to realize that there was a fundamental suffering embedded in bliss – the knowledge that sooner or later, bliss will end. All things are impermanent.

Around this time I first encountered my teacher, a Buddhist Master known as the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche. Buddhist philosophy is based on the notion that wholesome mental states are achievable through training, through mental development,through concentration. The mistake that causes suffering is trying to sustain things that are by their nature unsustainable. Everything in life is absolutely variable, absolutely impermanent. There is, or course, nothing wrong with aspiring to experience happiness, nothing wrong with aspiring to experience joy. The mistake is to try to grab on to wholesome states and to struggle to maintain them, regardless of circumstances. That’s the fundamental Buddhist view.

So I have my answer. Under my teacher’s tutelage, I shifted my practices to the ones that are recommended in the Buddhist meditational traditions. I work to develop the strength to focus my mind on wholesome states, and to develop the equanimity to calmly abide when wholesome states prove elusive. Now I teach others how to do the same. The last several years have been very productive and very enjoyable.