What is the 'Real World', Anyway?

04/06/2009 11:28 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Imagine if, like Rip Van Winkle, you fell asleep last fall and awoke, six months later, to find the world in disarray. This is what happened to me.

I spent most of the last half year on meditation retreat, partly in the States and partly in Nepal: no phone, no Internet, and no news of the global financial crisis. When I emerged, I knew that I was different; you don't spend six months in silence without undergoing some powerful personal changes. But I had no idea how much the rest of the world had been transformed as well: bank failures, a global recession --you wouldn't have believed it six months ago, and I barely believe it now.

Since coming back, some of my friends have asked me what it's like to be back in the "real" world. Short answer: whatever the real world is, this one isn't it. My months of solitude were far more "real" than the abstract complexities of bank bailouts, mortgage crises, stimulus plans, and the endless and contradictory yammering of the pundits.

I was not born a Buddhist monk. I went to Yale Law School, and have founded one successful software company and two successful nonprofit organizations. I've been a law professor, raised millions of dollars in venture capital, and worked on Capitol Hill. So I am quite familiar with the ways of the financial and business worlds. But returning from retreat, this so-called "real world" looks to me like a house of cards, none of it as real as the truths I learned on the cushion. (More on that next time.) Of course, real people are really hurting in this financial crisis. But the mass media's conversations, prognostications, and comments on the comments of commentators seem full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The "real world" is air.

Coming back to this "real world" has helped me feel better about my own choices. Many times on retreat I wondered how I ended up this way, sitting in silence for hours at a time, while my friends were raising families and making millions. It's not easy being a Yale-trained lawyer and giving it all up to ponder the four noble truths and the meaning of life. Should I have stayed a law professor? My friends are interviewed on network television -- should I have chosen that path instead? Wouldn't that a bit more, well, credible?

No. As I emerge from six months of retreat, the phony credibility of the so-called "experts" is more transparent than ever before. These people have no idea what they're talking about; they're doing their best, but most of what they have to say is just guesswork propped up by the phony credibility of money. They dress better, and they earn so much that they've come to believe in their own authority. But our whole system of valuing -- who's knowledgeable, who's not, who's "serious" and who isn't -- has no connection to reality.

It's as if the entire world has become one of those ubiquitous HSBC bank ads. First the Man in a Suit is Credible, and the Man in a Robe is a Flake. But now the polarity is reversed. A phalanx of incredibly wealthy and smooth-talking bankers, insurance agents, corporate executives, and lawyers have completely screwed up the system they're meant to be preserving. This isn't a case of a few bad apples; this is an entire system whose fundamental premises seem flawed, unexamined, and now in danger of collapse.

To be clear, I'm not sounding any call for any alternate economic system. My point is only that the people we generally regard as the most knowledgeable, the most competent, often have absolutely no idea what's going on. Oddly, I've emerged from my retreat more confident in ever that the true light lies within, and that it's wrongheaded to place trust in the wealthy and powerful people whom all of us assume to have some sort of right answer. They have no answers at all.

Another lesson I've learned as I've re-immersed in the "real world" is how much of our time is spent thinking about money, and how much money shapes the way we interact in the world. As soon as I left retreat, money -- which had been utterly meaningless for several months of spiritual life -- defined everything. Where I sat on an airplane, how thick the mattress was at my hotel, how I was treated by airport personnel. And it was everywhere in the media: on the news, of course, but also in commercials, films, entertainment news, everywhere I looked, money defined the terms of engagement.

And yet, while most of us would agree that a healthy financial status is necessary for life in the world, surely few would maintain that it is What Really Matters in life -- right? As the so-called real world swirls out of control, many of us find ourselves reaffirming the actually-real values of love, peace of mind, compassion, and wisdom. Personally, I find myself turning inward, not because it's more cozy, but because it's more true.

We think that we need that pleasure/car/success/cave/woman/man/ food/pride/land/religion/value/achievement/ bank balance/spiritual attainment/house/dress/ prey/status/superiority/amusement in order to be okay, to be happy, to be complete. We think this because we are bred to think it, because the animals that don't think it don't eat, reproduce, or run away from predators.

But we are wrong. We don't need any state of mind, religious salvation, monetary gain, power, or even love to be happy; we need only relinquish the sense of need itself. Think about it: when you get what you want, you stop wanting. So what you really want is not to want. So why not cut out the middle man and just stop wanting these things in the first place?

The "real world," of course, tells us the opposite: we should want, and try very hard to get, as much as possible. Now, the bubble of desire has burst, and people are really hurting. Yet maybe there's an opportunity here: to question the "real world" and remember the alternatives. Maybe, amid all the sound and fury of the economic carnival-grotesque, there is a voice -- or perhaps a silence -- which tells a different narrative, usually drowned out by the megaphones of the powerful, yet ultimately one of greater reality.