I’ve known for a while that I’m rather lost. Not totally lost — but still, kind of lost. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going or what path I’m on. I would say that I have been kind of lost for about three-and-a-half years. It’s a stage of my life.
Recently I have come to think of my conscious life as having been in four stages so far.
The first stage of my conscious life was from about age three or four to age twenty. In a nutshell I guess you could call that stage my conscious childhood. I wasn’t doing so much deep questioning of myself, my family system or my surroundings. I was more or less accepting the distorted reality my parents presented as fact. And in this I was stable. I was fairly confident about what I knew. I had enough money — because my parents supported me. I was in school throughout. I never really loved school but, due to lack of experience, accepted it as inevitable. And although I did a lot of growth during that first stage, in some basic way I was essentially the same person throughout. And I also considered myself basically normal. In fact, I really wanted to be normal then. It was a goal. After all, I was trying to follow the model of my parents. And even if I was in some ways different from most others, it was during that period that I was by far the most normal I would ever be in my life.
The second stage started in the summer of 1992, when I was twenty. I was traveling in Wyoming, alone, by bicycle on a summer vacation from college. I had taken an adventure for myself because I somehow had realized that I was stuck in my life and was hungry for more. Yet I was having no fun at all on the solo bike tour, so I ditched the bike and started, for the first time in my life, hitchhiking. I hitchhiked for a few weeks around Wyoming, Idaho and Montana — and during that short time something shifted in me. In my consciousness. Something profound. Something opened up. At the time I called it an enlightenment, because I had no better word to describe it. It was like I woke up. And in that waking up, I realized that I was alive, that I was not the person I’d long since thought I was and that I had an ability to see things differently, deeply differently, from everyone else I knew. I didn’t know what to do with this new ability, this new vision. I thought that maybe I should start a new religion — even though I didn’t really believe in God. I actually never had believed in God, or at least in any kind of conventional god, and I still don’t know that I do. But I knew that something profound was bursting out of me, out of my mind. But what to do with it? I really didn’t know.
That stage, that second stage of my life, lasted for seven years. Seven long years. During that stage I also now see myself as having been basically lost. Yet at the same time profoundly found — not lost. It’s weird to describe in an accurate way. I wasn’t so stable during those seven years. I often wasn’t rooted in any specific place, in any specific relationships, in any specific job, in any specific career. I traveled all over the world a few times. I did a ton of hitchhiking in different countries. I did a lot of different work. I had romantic relationships with all sorts of different women. I basically took profound distance from my parents at different points. I finished college, even though my major of biology became stale and irrelevant to me. I played a huge amount of guitar. I did a huge amount of journaling. I bounced around a lot of friendships. I often had no friends. I was depressed at different points. I was lonely at different points. I sometimes had a lot of fun. And I had a deep, nagging longing for something more. I knew something profound was waiting and wanting to come out of me, but I didn’t know how to bring it out. I still had all the vision of my initial hitchhiking awakening, and in fact my vision only grew. I nurtured it through self-examination. But it didn’t bring me the instant bliss I might have hoped for or even expected when I was in Wyoming. But it did bring me a strange sort of inner comfort that rarely left me — a connection with some deep part of my inner self. I had a love for myself deep down. And an honesty that came and never really left. But I didn’t know how I fit into this world. I often didn’t know what to do with myself. I wrote three travel novels during that period. And I wrote quickly — because when I got the inspiration to create I found that the words and the ideas came pouring out. I wrote a lot about my hitchhiking and my experiences in different parts of the world, because somehow writing about it in semi-novel form helped me make sense of it. I also had fantasies of getting published and becoming famous, as I hoped that would save me from my lostness. But on a deeper level I wanted something more. And somehow I just kept the faith, some deep inner faith, that something more, something new, something special, something deep, something stable — something meaningful — would come of it. I probably would have given up and accepted an easier, more normal life of the variety of my college friends had I been able to find it, but that wasn’t a possibility for me. My awakened vision kept me on my lost path. And at many times I really was lost. I lived with my mother for two years of that period, crashing on her couch. I couldn’t get my books published. I grew a scruffy long beard and didn’t wear deodorant too often. And I sometimes felt pain and fear when I thought life was passing me by. It didn’t seem fair or right, but I didn’t know what to do to rectify the situation. So I just trodded on forward, somehow believing that something better, some resolution, was to come.
And then, at age 27, I entered my next stage of life. At that point I was going every day to Al-Anon, the 12-step group for families of alcoholics, as my mother had been an alcoholic in my childhood. I found comfort there — and some new friends. And one day, some months into my Al-Anon time, I had a profound revelation — I don’t mean this essay to sound New Age or spiritual, but I’m just describing my life as I experienced it — that I wanted to become a therapist. And suddenly — and I really mean suddenly — everything became clear to me. I wanted this. So I applied to grad school — social work school — got in, took out the loans, started a couple of short months later and became a therapist in New York City right away. And I loved it. My revelation, or realization, or whatever you call it, was very accurate. Doing therapy was the perfect choice for me. I threw myself into it with everything I had. I became stable. I got sick of Al-Anon and left. I found work I loved and believed in. I lived, ate, breathed and dreamed therapy and healing and self-healing all day, every day. I realized that my seven years of so-called lostness and searching, from age twenty to twenty-seven, formed a profound base of experience from which to work. Much of my personal experience, both the adventure and the misery (because some of it really had been miserable), had universal applications. I found that I could relate to a very wide variety of people who came to me for help. I formed a strong client base, I earned the respect of my supervisors and employers (even if I rarely felt that respect for them), I got hired for good jobs and eventually I branched out on my own and went into private practice. I had my own private therapy practice for nearly eight years. And I loved it. It was basically everything I was looking for. I learned a huge amount about myself and others. I got a very broad and also very deep grounding in human psychology. I got a great chance to be useful. I read a ton, and also wrote a ton. I journaled like mad throughout my whole period of being a therapist, this third major stage of my life. I consider this a stage of life in which I was not lost. I was clearly very goal-directed. I knew what I wanted and I knew how to get it. And I got it. It was in many ways a wonderful period of my life. I started my website and started sharing my raw point of view with the broader world. Also, during this time I was celibate, I didn’t drink alcohol, I didn’t smoke cigarettes, I saw very little of my family of origin and I didn’t do drugs. For two years of this period I didn’t even masturbate. All of this taught me a huge amount — about myself, about pure me. I also lived in only two different places during this whole ten-and-a-half year period. The last six of it I had my own apartment. I was very stable. I hardly even left my neighborhood in New York City. What was the point? I had everything I wanted right there.
But toward the end of the ten years I started getting restless. I was losing my motivation to be a therapist, for a variety of reasons. I was no longer learning as much from my work, which was becoming routine. The lessons that therapy could teach me at this point were lessons that I had already learned. I made a film a few years before the end of the ten-year period and it started to do well — and bring in money from a different source. It also opened me up to a much broader group of friends and allies. And then at some point I realized that I needed to quit being a therapist and let my life go free again. I didn’t, however, close my therapy practice immediately. That took more than a year. But then I closed it. And I sold or gave away almost all of my belongings. And I gave up my nice New York City apartment, which was just a rental anyway. And I went on the road. This began the most recent period of my life.
My life in the last three-and-a-half years, my fourth stage of life, has not been exactly stable. Internally I am stable in some profound way — a stability that has not weakened since my initial awakening at age twenty. But my external life has been all over the place. My mission, once again, has been shifting and often unclear. Yes, I’ve made three new documentary films during this period, and they’ve done well and have allowed me to travel all around the world. But somehow I just don’t feel they’re my real and deepest calling in life. I feel I’m meant to do more. So I’ve been searching — both inside myself and outside myself. I’ve re-opened myself to romantic connections with women. It’s been new and lovely and innocent, yet more mature and grounded than anything I experienced in my twenties. I’ve also loosened up with myself around drinking and cigarettes and drugs. Not that I do any of them too much (for instance, right now I’m not doing any), but I’m not particularly restrictive with myself. I’m just letting myself explore. And test the waters of having fun. And I’ve actually had a huge amount of fun these last few years. More fun that I had during my time as a therapist. There can be a lot of fun in the freedom of lostness. Even if sometimes it’s been tough.
So to bring my life up to date, these last couple of weeks have been tough. I got back a few weeks ago from a three-and-a-half month journey to Europe and Turkey. I was traveling, I was doing film screenings, I was giving talks on psychology, I was meeting up with so many interesting people, I was having some free adventure, I was swimming in rivers and seas, I was learning and speaking a variety of different languages and I was exploring myself. And now I’m back in New York City, at least for a little while. I sell enough of my DVDs to make a living, so I don’t have to work a regular job — though I also don’t have to worry about supporting an apartment or a car or a family, so my expenses are minimal. So basically I am free. Free, but without a clear, clear mission.
Yet deep inside me I feel — I know — that that mission will come. Having been through seven lost years in my twenties, I am more confident than ever that this deep thing that I feel brewing inside me is going, at some point, to manifest. Somehow I just feel that that’s how life works. And when it does manifest it’s probably going to catch me off-guard, just as did my revelation many years ago that I wanted to become a therapist, or my hitchhiking “enlightenment” in Wyoming. I now know with confidence that if I put in the hard work of studying myself, grieving the traumas of my childhood and being true to who I really am — exploring new, wild paths but continually reorienting myself toward truth — that these stages of life can change very quickly. When I quit being a therapist and left my apartment my whole life changed in a matter of days. I literally left one stage and entered another, never to go back.
But I cannot say that it is easy to be lost. Often when I travel — and I travel a lot nowadays — people tell me, “Wow, I wish I had your life.” In a way I understand them, but in another way I find that my life, this rather lost life of mine, this period of uncertainly and unsureness and searching and adventure and instability, demands a lot of sacrifice. I don’t think most people would really like my life that much. In this past trip to Europe I had one change of clothes and slept in more than forty-five different beds — well, not beds, because sometimes I slept on the floor, sometimes I slept on buses or airplanes and often I slept on couches. And over the past few years I’ve slept outside a lot — and even a few nights in an old mining cave in Sicily. Just me and a lot of bats and insects.
It’s also a sacrifice to have my friends — new friends and old friends — spread all over the globe. I experience a lot of goodbyes these days. And also a lot of hellos. I’m constantly meeting new people. I am very open. My friends come of a wide variety of ages, races, sexual orientations and mother tongues. What they share is gentleness and kindness — and curiosity. Those are qualities I value highly. I have friends who are small children just out of toddlerhood and older people who are ill and preparing to die. I have welcomed people of all religious persuasions and political philosophies into my heart — and I try to learn from everyone. I have my own point of view on most things, but I am not so fixed or rigid that I lose my openness to what others think. It’s been a hell of an education.
I have also stayed away from my family of origin. That has been vital for me. Somehow, in this deeply transitional time in my life, I need to be away from them. I need to experience life without their influence. Although I will not deny that they gave me a good start in life in some ways, in other ways they really twisted my childhood, thwarted my growth and stymied my perspective. They hurt me badly. Some part of me, some not-quite-healed part of me, is still a child underneath all my adult maturity, and their influence would throw me off-course again. They are still toxic to me. So I stay away. Firmly. And that is a relief, especially because in stages past I often felt guilty for taking such distance. Now things are simpler for me — because my vision is clearer. In the present-tense sense of things, I do not feel they are my family. My family now are the people I choose to be around. These are the people whom I love and who love me. I am grateful for this. As a child I did not have the freedom or skill to find these people and develop relationships with them. My family didn’t provide me those templates. I had to learn that on my own, the hard way.
Yet sometimes now I am lonely. Sometimes I have no friends around me at all. Sometimes I just wander around unsure of what to do. Thankfully this doesn’t happen too much. And not nearly as much as it happened when I was in my twenties. Then it was often very painful for much longer periods of time. Now I have a lot more going on, and I am grateful for that. Loneliness, as motivating and perhaps occasionally necessary as that can be, is not something I seek out. I much prefer not to have that feeling. But if I have to choose between being lonely and occupying myself by doing the wrong things or being around the wrong people, I’ll take loneliness. I learned that lesson a long time ago.
But when will this stage end? I think about that often. Frankly, I’m not sure. When I quit being a therapist I thought privately to myself that I’d give myself three years away from a regular, normal, super-structured life. I’d saved some money so I knew that if I budgeted well and continued to sell some films that I wouldn’t be desperate for money for a little while. And I’ve gotten two filmmaking grants in the last three years, so that’s really helped. Also, I worked in Alaska for four months at a cool program called Soteria-Alaska — and got a great learning opportunity there. But that was short-term. And really was part of my life wandering.
So what’s next? I don’t know. On the three-year anniversary of my quitting therapy I realized that I still had no intention of going back to a stable life. That was about six months ago. Instead I thought to myself, “Well, I think I’m going to re-up and give myself another three years — if, that is, I need it.” I’m willing to continue being lost until the next big thing manifests from within me. I’ve had some opportunities to get good, stable, long-term jobs. But I’m not into it. I’m not ready to commit. Not even desirous to commit. I really think I need to be lost — and to have the courage to let myself be here. To not fight it. To just enjoy the ride. I’m not particularly concerned with status. I got enough of that as a therapist and it’s just not that important to me. I find it much more important to be true to my heart. Right now it’s like I’m floating down a fast river, and I’m just letting myself. The river is more in control than I am. A few months back when I was in Switzerland I went swimming in the Rhine, and that was a very powerful river. Its current really flies. Its image sticks in my mind.
My whole life is like that now. I’m letting the current of my days and months carry me. I have some ideas on what might happen to me in my future, and actually I’m very curious about how it’s all going to manifest — because I know something is going to manifest. I have ideas of writing more books, making more movies, doing video or audio podcasts for the web, reaching a much broader audience with my ideas and having more and more fun doing it. I remain very unhappy about the state of our world — in terms of the horrors I see our human species doing to our planet. I see us destroying the environment, poisoning the land and air and water, becoming more and more overpopulated and committing abuses on our children, the most vulnerable of our species. I feel I have to do something to change all this. But what? How to really change things in a deep, broad, profound, significant way? I’m not sure yet. I see myself at some point really being willing to put my shoulder to the wheel and devoting myself to long-term projects that accomplish this. Just not yet. Because I don’t know what to do. But someday. Someday I feel it will happen.
In the meantime, I’m just growing. And growing. And experiencing. And testing. And collecting data. And learning. And helping myself become stronger and healthier and wiser. Right now, in this stage of relative lostness, that is my calling.
Daniel – I really appreciated this. You’ve led a fascinating life thus far. What really struck me is this idea of just needing to be lost, and the irony of that being a transient calling. I have a felt very lost for a long time. This article has helped nudge me further to the “next stage”, which I know I must step into.
It seems that you wish to have a broad impact on our world and what a great platform you have to do just that! One could say you were born at the perfect time in history.
I love all of your material, thank you so much for your work.
Reading this now I think you might be in a place not as lost as nearly a year ago Daniel.
Being lost is beautiful, complete surrender allows us dive down to the bottom, be still, we are thrown out by the wave and storm, with a gem.
Just thought of a book — After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Not a big book. Please check it out if you are interested.
thank you Vivienne—
This experience is one I also identify with…there is the feeling of assurance that mingles with each day as I continue to devote myself to my own personal healing experience. Who can doubt the unique trail that is ours will continue to unfold out of us…if we choose not to abandon our own lives and actually keep on living it.
You’ll come up with something good. I know it and look forward to seeing it.
Daniel, just read this and let me Tell you that I feel the same. I had my revalation with 21 and I am 27 now and just about to finish a become meaningless college major like you did in the past.
Now I don’t know what awaits me in the new city and the new path I will go on. I just know that the major and profession I choose now is something I felt extremely comfortable in the past. So to bring back meaning and gratitude and happiness back into my life I will embark on this track now. Most of my friends, like you describe it, have stable jobs now, some are still traveling and that’s what I want to do again as well.
The last years back living with my parents have been an extremely lost period in my life. I tryied lots of things. At one point I thought I could be a successful entrepreneur and become a millionaire one day so I can travel the whole time 🙂
Not knowing that the things I need to do for making that real go against my deep inner beliefs.
Right now, not having to go to college regularly because I have finished all if my courses is difficult. Having no steady schedule anymore is tough.
I relate to what you wrote.
thanks Brian. wishing you the best!!