Adventure, Ask Me Anything, Personal Development, The Great Adventure

Why Didn’t You Lose Your Mind and Go Nuts Being Alone?

Photo by Evan Mitchell

I just received another great question from Pixi. She asks:

“You have mentioned in blog posts about how being a fellowship of one wasn’t super awful, you met a ton of cool people along the way, and how you found friends and supporters all along the route. But I am interested to hear more of your internal process on that front. If you want to share… What was it like doing it on your own when you had planned to have people?”

I think loneliness is normal when wandering. For those of us who have never fit in it’s even more pronounced—even among our friends or loved ones we feel alone. So the journey can be intensely lonely at times, but it will eventually show you your role in life. Your purpose.

That sense of purpose is a big part of why I didn’t feel so alone on this trip. I will admit that when I first found out it was just me, in Saltillo, I was worried. I had been pretty miserable bicycling Texas on my own. I expected it to be a repeat of that, hard days and lonely nights. But a lot had changed since Texas.

For one thing, by the time I started the Mexico leg I had a very clear idea of my job in life: I’m a writer. When you know your purpose it’s easy to feel like you have a place in the world, even if you’re alone or don’t fit in. And writing gave me a lot to keep me busy. Nights that might have been “lonely” for others often involved drafting road logs or outlining short stories. If anything, I felt like I didn’t have enough writing time.

The surroundings were also different. Texas is boring. It’s essentially one endless plain of cookie cutter towns. But Mexico is beautiful. Every town in Mexico has its own unique character that’s different from the next place down the road. I had a sense of discovery every day. It’s not that there were no repetitive or difficult parts, but I could always look forward to something new up ahead.

(It helped that I was a successful freelancer now, and stayed in cheap hotels every night. Basic comfort makes other hardships easier to endure.)

Last, I just had more confidence. Early in my trip I struggled to know that what I was doing was important. I looked outward for affirmation from other people, as if people joining me would mean the trip was worthwhile. But that’s not really where meaning comes from. Before the Mexico trip, I proved that I could attract lots of interest and excitement—14 fascinating people wanted to come along, and countless others helped support it. But by then I didn’t really even need anyone else’s affirmation. It’s my journey and I’m doing it for my own reasons. Whether others join doesn’t change that.

Within about a week after Saltillo I was having fun and knew this was going to be a good trip. I never seriously questioned it after that. I knew my purpose, and with a purpose nothing feels overly hard.

At least, that’s my experience.

Have a question? Ask me anything. 

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Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.

Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.

3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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Andre Sólo, Personal Development, Travel

The End of a Beautiful Relationship

It feels weird to post this. I used to make fun of blogs because of this. Who the heck shares their whole personal life online? Do they think anyone cares?

It turns out sometimes people do care. About a year before I quit my job and started traveling, it was clear that a blog was both the best way to chronicle the journey and a good start to a life as a professional writer. Rogue Priest has been both, and for some reason it’s caught on. Every day hundreds of people read what I’ve written here, and some of you have become regulars, acquaintances, even friends.

Still, there are topics that feel weird to put out in public. Like relationships. I don’t care too much about my own privacy: if something in my life makes an interesting story, I’m happy to share it. But with a relationship, my comfort alone isn’t enough. The other party has to sign off too.

My girlfriend of the past year—let’s call her Anita—did sign off originally. After we met in New Orleans she asked if she could come along on the last 80 miles of my Mississippi bike ride, all the way to the end of the road and, it seemed when we got down there, the edge of the world itself.

The road to the end of the Mississippi. Photo by André.

The road to the end of the Mississippi. Photo by André.

Those three days not only cemented my respect for Anita, they sparked the beginning of a passionate relationship. The trip meant a lot to us both, and Anita was happy for me to blog about it. She even wrote her own account that I published here on Rogue Priest. I asked how to credit her, and she said to use her full name. We added a link to her professional website.

It was the first of many times that Anita appeared on this blog. With her permission, I wrote about our travels together and occasionally shared her guest posts. This had an unexpected effect: readers loved her. If this blog is the story of my journey, then its main character suddenly had a love interest, and people liked that. (So much so that when I continued on to Texas, Anita already had a standing invitation to visit from my kayak mentor—before I’d even met him.)

And that’s why I feel I should probably make this public: I’m single now. Anita and I broke up several weeks ago, peacefully but sadly. This isn’t something I would normally announce to the world, but since she’s unlikely to appear in any more posts I figured some explanation is in order.

I think it’s fair to say that the last year with Anita was, to date, the great love of my life. Of course, I’m a terrible judge. Like most people I think every love is the great love of my life. But usually I can see through that afterwards, whereas even now, looking back, I still view this relationship as different. It was the happiest I’ve ever been.

That’s not to say it was the easiest relationship. Not by far. My previous girlfriend in Minnesota was loving, encouraging, easy to get along with, and an unrelenting supporter of my work and journey. We didn’t argue much and when we did I felt heard. With Anita, on the other hand, we butted heads constantly: two stubborn, dominant, independent people who are used to getting our way. But I was happy. Perhaps, just like I quit a stable career to travel the world, I just do better with a relationship that challenges me.

I don’t really know what’s next for the Rogue Priest as far as love is concerned. I recently read Niall Doherty’s wonderful Cargo Ship Diaries, in which he writes that he refuses to start a long term relationship until he’s done traveling. I can see the allure: the first leg of my journey, up until I met Anita, was a free-wheeling period of short flings. It was fun. I guess I could go back to that—after all, I wouldn’t be the first adventurer to sleep my way across a couple continents.

But the truth is I believe in love. I believe in enduring, meaningful love.

In a different book, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes that true love is a love that will wait, that will withstand even the long journey to follow one’s dreams. For a time I chased Coelho’s vision of abiding love. But truthfully, I’m not sure I want a love that will “wait.” I’m not sure that’s even healthy. I really dream of the woman who will be at my side while I adventure, the two of us adventuring together. Sometimes it’s her journey, sometimes it’s mine, sometimes we might even go apart: but what we both want is to wander, and to have a wandering companion.

I have faith—a wounded, messy drop of faith—that somewhere out there I can find a love like that. A love that spans the world.

Until then, my only project is to make myself into the man she deserves.

So, there you have it. An oddly personal post about events that most people wouldn’t even discuss on their Facebook page. But I think it’s right to record these things. I write about all sorts of people I meet on my quest, often very candidly, and it’s only fair to turn the camera on myself once in a while.

Thanks for reading. And “Anita,” if you’re still subscribed to these posts: this song’s for you. I’ll never forget you, baby.

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Andre Sólo, Favorites, Personal Development, Spanish, Travel

Inviting Others to Name Me

Photo by rytc, original art by Monseiur A.

Every adventurer needs a great name.

I believe that your identity, your persona is largely tied to how you call yourself, and how others call you. Names have power, they say—the power to define. In my country we’re almost universally defined by others, with names assigned at birth. While it’s normal to choose a form of that name that “feels” right (Andrew, Andy, or Drew?), it’s uncommon to use a name of your own choosing.

But there can be great liberation in doing so.

As Lady Gaga famously said, “When I wake up in the morning, I feel like any other insecure 24-year-old girl. Then I say, ‘Bitch, you’re Lady Gaga, you get up and walk the walk today.’” And I don’t doubt that the people around her react differently to the entity Lady Gaga than they would to Stefani Germanotta—the name she’s carried since birth.

My own identity has changed over the years. I vacillated from “Drew” in college years, to “Andrew” in the hope of sounding more professional, then back to Drew as I sought to make a fresh start, to break free of the work-laden, unhappily married man that Andrew had become.

It worked.

Since starting to publish my identity morphed again: my friends still call me Drew, but it’s common for them to refer to me personally as Rogue Priest or simply Rogue. “Alright Rogue Priest, what are the plans tonight?”

This delights me, but it’s not the only new direction my name has to take. I’m on assignment in a Spanish-speaking country, and promise to be in a good seven more before this self-created Adventure concludes.

Know any native Spanish speakers? Ask them to say “Drew.” Try “Andrew” too if you want.

I discovered this glitch on my first Mexico trip in 2006, back when I was still rocking Andrew. Nobody understood my name, despite my enthusiastic attempts to learn me llamo. It was like white people trying to pronounce long Indian names.

I would encourage any Indian (or any other minority in the US) to wear their names loud and proud, without any concern how hard it is on whitey. But I also respect how hard it is to fit into a culture with a name no one can pronounce, and as a white American I’m on the other side of the privilege waterfall.

I have a greater duty to adapt to my host cultures because the default circumstance is for them to cater to me—to an unfair degree.

So I’ve long toyed with using an adopted name while abroad, and on this trip I’m testing it out.

Soy André

The problem is I didn’t know what that adopted name might be. My parents chose a name I happen to adore (after vetting such options as “Chester” and “Wynne”). Andrew comes from the ancient Greek word for “man.” It signifies the virtue of manliness: a quality every man was supposed to strive to possess, comprising bravery, strength, and judicious aggression to one’s enemies.

I’m not a big fan of patriarchy, but in the search for heroism that virtue is one that every woman or man should keep in mind.

The Spanish form of Andrew is Andrés, but for years I thought it was André—and I like that better. André is simple and strong.

Plus, it equips a certain mystique. André is correct in French, but not in Spanish or Portugese. That means that while the name is easy to pronounce for new friends I meet, it will sound unusual, maybe even exotic. If there’s any quality I exemplify it’s unusuality.

From Day One here in the Dominican Republic I’ve introduced myself as André. Occasionally someone will unconsciously add the “-s”, but mostly everyone has understood it and (perhaps because it’s uncommon) remembered it easily.

Like Madonna Or Something

That leaves Jacob, my surname. I have no desire to change my surname, being proud of a lineage of strong, determined and clever Jacobs who stretch back through Pittsburgh to Germany (and my Kings, Forkinses, Hesses too).

But I don’t feel particularly connected to Jacob. And while I have no intention of changing it, I think I’ll stop using it for a bit.

That puts my name as simply André —.

Going by a single name can seem dramatic. Last time I tried it out was with my trusted oracle, Melissa Haney. I could hear her giggling as she tweeted, “The @Rogue_Priest sends me mail from just ‘Drew’ like he’s Madonna or something.”

But, you know, I don’t really mind dramatic. I do things full-way, the way they ought to be done, the way giants would do them, or as near as I can get.

But going André-only has a greater benefit. In real-life interactions, using just one name practically begs people to add another. By going as André I invite others to name me, to narrate exactly who and what André the philosopher-adventurer is.

Where “André Jacob” simply sounds like a multicultural train wreck, “André —” easily becomes “Andre the ___.”

This puts us back where we started, with other people defining who I am—but this time on my own terms. By choosing André I set the stage for who and what I intend to be: a traveler from faraway, and one who stands for something. How people fill in the blank will reflect their culture (which I’m visiting) as well as my actual deeds and how well I live up to my search for heroism.

Of course, I don’t expect grand monikers. How people complete my name will be partly under my control, as I choose to use the versions that make me smile and not the ones that seem mean-spirited. But it’s also beyond my control, and I expect the blank in “André the ___” will change many times depending on who I’m with and what I do.

Ultimately, my sobriquet might come more from practical necessity than anything else:

“What’s your name?”

“André.”

“André what—?”

Only André.”

But then, André Sólo doesn’t have a bad ring to it.

Think this name will evolve the way I hope? Please leave me a comment below and tell me: how would you fill in “André the ___”?

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Personal Development

How to Live in a Monastery

My house was gone and I needed somewhere to live. I wanted to save money for my travels—even a studio apartment was pricey. So I went to a monastery.

Since then that post has become one of my most popular ever. Apparently a lot of people want to live in a monastery. I get an email a week asking how. So here it is: if you’re wondering how to get started living in a monastery, this is your guide.

The monastery where I lived in Minneapolis.

1. Are You Religious?

I moved into a Buddhist monastery even though I am not Buddhist. However, I am a priest of another religion and I have respect for Buddhist practice. I was able to hold conversations about meditation, chanting and other techniques and trade thoughts with the head lama.

You don’t need to be an advanced practitioner, but if you want to live in a monastery for free you should think about why. Monasteries exist to create a supportive environment for the religious practices of the monks or nuns who live there. They may have other missions as well—charity work, teaching classes—but at a minimum they support individual and group religious practice.

Are you religious? Are you part of their religion? If not, why would you live there?

If you’re “spiritual but not religious” you may not have a place in a community of dedicated religious clergy. Monasteries aren’t hostels; while they perform a lot of charity work to help outsiders, bringing in a roommate who doesn’t support their shared beliefs is hard on the whole community.

Maybe you can still find a place in a monastery regardless of your beliefs. I did. But the most obvious way to live in a monastery is to become a monk or nun.

2. Ask

When I decided to approach the monastery, I did it with a clear proposal for how I would earn my keep.

In my case, I already knew the head lama from my past interfaith work, but we were by no means close friends. I wrote her a formal letter pitching my idea. I sent it more than two months before I needed to move (don’t rush it!). I waited about a week, then called the lama and left a message saying I’d like to follow up.

You can see the actual letter here, but here are the highlights:

  1. I explained my situation and made a clear request. I didn’t seem needy or desperate.
  2. I established a clear timeline for when I’d be arriving and when I’d be leaving.
  3. I offered a service of value to the monastery.

Of these, the last point is by far the most important.

3. Offer Value

I believe this is the only reason that I, as a non-Buddhist, was allowed to move into a Buddhist monastery. Maybe if you’re starving they’ll take you in out of kindness, but if like me you’re just some kid looking for a free room—you need to give back in some way.

The services I offered were circumstantial. They were based on what I’m good at doing, and on what  they needed. I had already done my homework and seen that the Monastery had a bad website and no social media presence. Since they acted as a meditation center for the greater Minneapolis area, that was a problem (and it was one I could solve).

What you offer might be very different. Maybe you know that your monastery wants to put in an organic garden, and you’re good at landscaping. Maybe you’re a roofer and they have a storm-damaged roof. Maybe their office is a mess.

The point is to make a useful offer: don’t offer to organize the office and answer phones if they already have an administrative assistant on staff.

(Offering general labor is fine too—“I’ll spend this many hours a week doing whatever needs doing”—but I’m convinced that’s less appealing than offering a specific skill. The monks all pitch in for random unskilled work; more hands may not be needed.)

One word of warning: Decide how much time you’re willing to give. In the business world, work-for-lodging is always bad for the worker—if it was cheaper to pay you a wage and charge for the room, that’s what they would do. In a monastery there may be a purer intention, but non-profits are always starved for help and often work volunteers relentlessly.

Know your boundaries and offer a fixed number of hours per week.

4. Meet

If your offer is appealing you’ll probably be asked to come in and meet in person. Most people don’t accept a roommate sight-unseen, and many monasteries won’t either.

Being asked to come in and meet doesn’t mean they’ve accepted your request. Put your best foot forward, but be transparent: they’ll see the real you soon enough if you live with them.

At my meeting with the lama, she:

  • Wanted to know more about my travel plan and why I was doing this
  • Asked me to justify my proposed social media work, and wanted to know how it would benefit the Monastery’s mission
  • Proposed other projects she would want me to help with in addition to the work I had offered

But this is a two-way interview. I also asked questions about the rules of the monastery and what it would be like to live there. I needed to know that I could come and go at my own hours, that it was understood that I was not a practicing Buddhist, and that we had the potential to be mutually happy roommates.

5. Negotiation

I had expected the monastery’s goals to include increasing attendance at the meditation classes, and attracting more newcomers. This was not their goal at all—recruitment just wasn’t a priority for them.

I did make a case for how social media would still be useful, and ultimately the lama agreed with me. But the value of the social media work was less, and she asked me to take on other projects as well. I had to consider this carefully, go back to my own boundaries (remember that warning above?) and told her yes, but with very clear limits on how many hours I would put in. (One afternoon per week gardening.)

She also wanted me to pay $50/month toward utilities. I considered this fair and accepted. Since I wasn’t charged rent, I still consider that I lived there for free.

6. Monastery Rules

Ask about the rules of the monastery and which ones you, as a lodger, have to follow. For instance, if the monks are vegetarian are you allowed to eat meat, or not? If they have a communal cook, are you allowed to eat the food or are you on your own? What behavior expectations do they have?

Ask specific questions about potential problems. I told the lama I am not a huge drinker but I do like to relax with a drink in the evening. If she came down to the kitchen one night and saw me drinking a margarita, would it be a problem?

“I’d probably ask you to make one for me, too.”

I lucked out because this monastery was small and easygoing. As long as I was respectful I could pretty much do as I pleased. I didn’t have to follow their diet code and there was no curfew or lights-out time.

But if there was, I would respect it.

Even though you’re an outsider, not a monk, it’s completely fair to tell you to follow the monastic rules. If the monks have an early pre-dawn prayer hour, yes you do need to be silent in your room by curfew. If they are sworn off alcohol, it is rude—maybe even downright mean—to pop open a beer in front of them.

I wouldn’t expect to have sex in the monastery, by the way.

In Western monasticism, the Rule of an order is the definitive feature uniting their way of life. In Buddhism monastic rules exist to help limit attachment and craving. Either way, house guests who don’t follow them create a roadblock for everyone.

If you can’t follow the rules, don’t move in.

A Perfect Life

The reason I offer so much caution is to help you make the best arrangement possible. If you follow the advice above, you’ll maximize your chance of being accepted and create a sustainable situation.

Life in the monastery was really idyllic. There were tough moments (I’ve scaled a monastery wall in a thunderstorm and picked a lock to sneak in) but also great ones (I’ve high-fived a lama). One night I made dinner for the whole group of us and served it in the garden with a bit of wine. It’s one of my fondest memories.

My life at the monastery was extremely low-stress. There were day to day tensions, like dealing with a very sick cat or defending my time boundary on how much gardening I could do. But I was with peaceful people who led a simple life. I had no money concerns and I could spoil my friends while paying down my debt. It was relaxing to wake up there, and relaxing to come home.

The greatest experience was seeing how human these practitioners are: a lama is a human being. Many Buddhists never see that.

I gave up that peaceful life for one of risk and challenge. I prefer to struggle for greatness, to make love to the world, to love her as she is. The monks may inherit the earth: today it’s for those who struggle.

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

I’m launching a group bicycle ride across Mexico with some of the most fascinating adventurers in the world—including beginners and experts, 20 year olds and 60 year olds, women and men. You can help out & join us from home every step of the way: The Fellowship of the Wheel

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Adventure, New Orleans, Personal Development, The Great Adventure

The day I had nothing left

New Orleans began in crisis.

I had spent everything. I had rice, beans and two empty rooms in the poshest hood.

Here’s how it happened:

October. I was making great money. On the road I had almost no living expenses but I still worked 3 days a week. I arrived in NOLA Oct. 17.

November. After an exhaustive two week apartment search I knew I had to either pay big or live in squalor. I signed a $1,000 a month lease on Rogue Chateau. I tried to scale up my client work but the opposite happened. I had less work coming in every week.

December. Disaster. Savings spent, no paying work—plus morning terror. I was going to miss my rent. I was done.

That was the last time I blogged about money issues—which is a little unfair to all of you. What happened in December and how am I doing now?

When I realized I was failing I felt paralyzed. But I made myself take steps anyway to try to pull out of the crash. Some steps worked and some didn’t, but I’m glad I acted.

This is what I did:

1. Exit plan

This was the most important thing. If you get committed to a plan it’s easy to think of it as all or nothing. It would be hard to be more committed than I was to wintering in New Orleans and practicing Vodou. But I was running out of money and had no local safety net. I might have to leave.

I have fond memories of two nearby hosts from my journey South: Jimmy in Natchez and Carla & Ryan in Vicksburg. I contacted each of them. I asked if I would be able to rent a room from them for a fair rent (much lower there than NOLA) while I saved up money. They were all agreeable.

This one step made everything else easier, because I knew I had a backup plan.

2. Keep pitching

Even though I was getting no response or negatives from potential clients, I still made time to pitch more every day (more than 160 total). It got depressing but prospecting has a low success rate and you have to ask a lot to get that one crucial yes. As it happened none of these pitches resulted in the immediate income I needed, but some later became regular clients and made the subsequent months much easier.

3. Current clients

I also reached out to my existing clients and offered to do extra work at a bulk rate, or pitched them on different projects. This got me a few smattering of assignments right away and led to more work down the line.

4. Be honest

I didn’t ask anyone to float me. I didn’t even ask my parents. But I was very honest about the difficulty I was facing. This led to several friends and readers reaching out to me with offers of paying work. At least two of those projects became reality and were a win-win for everyone involved.

5. New lines of work

One friend reminded me that I have all the skills necessary to build basic WordPress websites. Many people wouldn’t want to try a new venture when they are in the middle of facing bankruptcy but what did I have to lose? It was unnerving to dive into a new line of work but I did it anyway. This led indirectly to a major freelance gig right away and several web design projects since then.

6. Never said no

If someone asked if I do kind of work I immediately said “yes.” It didn’t matter if I had never done it before—if it’s even remotely within my skill set I said yes. Freelancers need to be flexible. I had plenty of free time and no other work coming in; worst case scenario I would have to spend long hours teaching myself new tricks in order to complete a project.

7. Used my free time

With no work I used my free time to produce creative things. The biggest complaint my friends hear from me is “I never have enough time for all my projects.” On the gallows it’s strangely relaxing and easy to work creatively. I produced short stories, book outlines and lots of visual artwork in this time.

8. Collaboration

I reached out to people I respect and admire. I pitched two musicians on a collaborative project (I have never worked on anything musical before) and one accepted. That’s in the works right now (so you’ll see it in, like, 8 years). I also reached out to two authors and pitched collaborating on books. Both said no but I’ll probably write one anyway. I worked on trying to create a portal for Afro-Caribbean religions on a major religion website (executive editor not interested, wth?). I pitched a TV show to a producer and I also pitched a vlog series to a Vodou priest. Some of these will never see the light of day but it brought an infusion of creativity and ideas from new sources whom I would never have time to scheme with if I was working.

9. System D

I sat on the street with artwork and sold it to passersby. I squatted on the sidewalk and painted little panels where people could see me at work. I walked into shops and asked if they wanted to sell my work. I sold things on Craigslist. I hustled.

10. Investors 

I said above that it’s inappropriate to ask your friends for charity. That’s true but it’s wholly appropriate to ask them to invest in something that will pay off. (There are rules. Only ask friends who actually have spare income; give them a professional pitch; make sure they will benefit from it; treat it like a real business. This is not your own money you’re dicking around with.) I had a whole website I pitched one friend on. Again most people said no. But it did lead to getting a grant to write about Celtic polytheism, and eventually I will create up to three books on that topic thanks to that money.

11. Generosity

I had almost nothing but I still bought cups of coffee at the coffee house in order to use their wi-fi. That’s more than a lot of people can afford. So I started tucking $1 bills into my back pocket to give away to beggars and gutter punks. When you need to pay a grand in rent losing a few $1 bills is not make or break. Likewise I would drop a dollar into the hat for musicians and artists on the street and always tip my barista. That is not charity, it’s just good manners. (If you don’t tip your barista you need to think about some things.) I added value to my own life by contributing to others.

12. Magic

I am a magician so it would be stupid not to enchant for money. I created a spell card and tucked it into my notebook that I always have with me. That same week things started to turn around. That could just be coincidence. I want to be clear that with 17 years of magic experience I have no idea whether magic really works or not, and any magician who says they do is lying (to themselves or you). I think it’s good to add magic to your strategy but don’t bleed your last drop for it. That’s why we’re doing Magic to the People.

13. Roommate

Not everyone has something they can sell but in my case I had half a cottage. I meant to live there alone and use one room to host travelers. Wealthy Rogue in another universe can do that. I also worried about what kind of person I would get as a roommate and whether it would be enough extra income. But these are all defeatist fears. “Roommate wanted” would not fix things on its own but as part of the strategy it saved my life. And I ended up with the very best roommate a guy could ever ask for.

Things I would have missed if I fled New Orleans.

Things I would have missed if I fled New Orleans.

14. Friends

The roommate also widened my network of friends. Previously my local friends were all from the Vodou community or a few artists I had met. My roommate opened me up to a whole other circle of friends on many walks in life. “Networking” is a fancy corporate word for being friendly and helping the people around you. I networked my ass off and now I have some of the best friends in the universe. They all contributed to my sanity, my happiness and my life.

15. Adventure

The keystone of my recovery was the attitude and lessons I got from the road. I have faced giants and ogres, the street I do not fear. I have slept alone in the rain, I have collapsed in the sun, I have picked myself up because no one was there to grab.

Life is good today. I drink good coffee and love good women. Another day life will sting and burn. I drink the hemlock right with the ambrosia. This is my world and I love her, I hold her close, who else is there to love?

My actions weren’t perfect. When you are anxious the mind races and you go in a million different directions. 15 directions in my case. For better advice you might like a piece by James Altucher called 10 Things You Need To Do If You Were Fired Yesterday.

Tomorrow I will tell the exact same story as today except different.

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Personal Development, Religion

Why I’m Not Vegetarian

I told her the tortillas had no eggs in them. Then I realized that was only a guess on my part. What if I was wrong? She didn’t seem too sure either. But she reached for a tortilla.

She explained why her Vedic diet disallowed meat.

“Is it the same in your religion?”

“No,” I said. There are similarities between Hinduism and Western polytheism, but that isn’t one of them. “We believe it’s natural to eat meat.”

We stopped dating.

Photo by OvO, original art by Andrew Bell.

Vegetarianism is billed as a moral choice. It’s not.

If your religion says to be vegetarian, you have my respect and support. But this is like keeping Kosher or Halal: it’s based on customs or rules, and it’s not morally better. There is nothing particularly meritorious about killing more plants and less animals.

All living creatures want to survive. They will fight for their lives. This is true from the smallest microbe to the oldest oak to our fellow mammals. We all take from other living beings in order to survive, and all of us seek to avoid being killed in turn.

Plants do it too. They release chemical signals when they’re under distress, to warn other plants. Those other plants adjust how they use their resources to try to survive whatever killed the guy next to them. No one wants to die.

This is not to say it’s unethical to eat plants: it isn’t. But plants too struggle to avoid harm and death, and in their own way they fight it. Is there “fear” or “pain” in that? We don’t know. But no matter how we source our food we will have to kill our fellow living beings.

This is natural, and it’s right.

Humans are evolved to eat a small amount of meat in a primarily fruit and vegetable diet. I was vegetarian for many years until I went to live with hunter gatherers. I had no choice but to eat like them. One day I ate fly eggs, another day I ate a turtle foot. Most days it was greens and nuts. I learned three things:

  • Reducing my intake of carbs did more for my health than years of vegetarianism
  • A small meat intake had important and positive effects on my body
  • It is possible to treat animals with reverence and respect even when killing them

When I returned to civilization, my old all-vegetarian diet seemed as contrived as a junk food diet. It was only possible because of a huge amount of staple carbs, and because of highly processed foods.

But there were at least two other reasons to be vegetarian: animal cruelty and the environment. I take these seriously. If you pride yourself on eating meat I sure hope you’re buying organic and free-range. Treating animals humanely is not only more ethical, it also mitigates the most serious environmental harm that large-scale meat operations wreak on the environment.

Nowadays less than 10% of my diet is meat. Eating too much of it has serious health risks; it’s as unnatural as vegetarianism. Most of the time I find myself not wanting meat at all, but the occasional urge signals something from my body and I trust it.

It was easy to become vegetarian. It neither improved nor ruined my health. Going omnivore was harder, because we’re given an inaccurate message that it’s wrong or unspiritual.

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