Students Speak


28, from London, England

The Alchemist: A Jewish Parable

The formula was simple: a nice Jewish boy growing up in London completes college, obtains a degree, finds a job, an apartment, a girl, and settles down. I was on track, and indeed it all came rather easily. My parents were proud and were threatening to publish adverts in the local Jewish press about how wonderful their son was doing. London life and its parties were fun – life was everything the brochure said it would be.

However at some point, when you are sitting at your desk in a distracting office job, you are forced to ask (or at least you should ask) questions like "Why am I sitting here? Who am I working for, and how are they benefiting?" Unfortunately everyday when I was checking out the latest addition to YouTube, I was also attempting to answer such questions.

The answers of course were less than satisfactory. I was working in the media industry, making money for a large brand that would invest that money in more advertising, misinformation, and under-selling the smaller home-grown competitors out of their monopolistic market place. It wasn't long before my boss saw something was up and uttered the immortal lines "well if you would rather be somewhere else, you should quit." With that, I left. It was laughably dramatic. Jerry McGuire himself would have been proud.

In hindsight I had always put emphasis in being truthful. I knew there was more to life than making money for a faceless corporation. I was clearly not meeting my potential of what I could accomplish and who I could be in this short life. It was time now to check out what that potential could be.

I confidently bought a round the world ticket and set off to where any young Jew would go to find meaning: Asia. On the way I spent 4 months learning to surf in Durban, South Africa, as an old friend was teaching English there. The Indian Ocean was warm and dolphin friendly, and its sun and pace of life was ideal in toning down my hyped-up, intense London attitude.

I made my way to India where I immediately understood what being a Westerner was all about. More than anything, being in such a dramatically different environment teaches you exactly where you have come from and what opportunities you have had. I was introduced to the concept of "personal space" (or lack thereof), and enjoyed what the American's would probably call "the 10 cent All You Can Eat Buffet". However, never before had I experienced such warmth and hospitality in people – all from those who materially had nothing. In such situations I would often feel guilt and awe, although I eventually got used to it and learned to appreciate it for what it was: people enjoying acts of giving. I will never forget a malnourished old beggar asking me, a white, well fed, wealthy tourist for a penny. I smiled superficially and said no, but he responded with the warmest, most genuine smile I had ever received. I rarely said no to such deprived people again.

This ancient land has had an incredible history (which the British did well in almost destroying); however it is so rich that the myths still penetrate even its most remote corners. Tales of old saints from the Himalayas and loving yogis create a romantic picture of what spirituality could, and should be. I read the books and, along with the passing Israelis, attended a bunch of ashrams and silent meditation retreats, understood mind control, and attempted to find out if this was the path for me.

It may astound most readers how difficult it is to simply sit quietly and focus the mind. It certainly amazed me how inherently busy my mind was, and how difficult it was to focus on the present moment, without seemingly irrelevant thoughts of past events or future plans coming in to distract me. Indeed any Westerner inevitably has a very busy mind, full of useless facts, images, Mariah Carey lyrics, Michael J Fox quotes, Simpson's jokes and anti-capitalist statistics.

Once these voices had been tamed, there appeared a subtle silence that helped me be more present and content. The meditation definitely served an important role, and gave me a new appreciation for the world around me, whilst enabling me to be more present within my environment. But something was inherently missing. Where was the intense joy that I had experienced elsewhere? Would a spiritual path mean no fun and no joy? And more relevantly, I had got to know my mind: it craved to utilize its intellect for a real purpose, to embrace discussions about the magic of life and all the details that lurked within. Clearly my destination had not yet been reached.

I met some magical people on my journey and spent some time following the Mayan calendar – an ancient calendar following the sun and moon, showing that �time is art' and helping one to experience continuity in the moment. When I related this to an old Jewish friend who had recently become religious, he sighed: "You're such a Jew!" he said accusingly. "You're looking everywhere for answers and spirituality except for where you're from." A strange comment I thought, and continued on my quest.

I spent a great deal of time in Thailand where I was introduced to the rampant hedonism offered by the perpetual party. Travelers and tourists representing the entire western world would enjoy the fun, hedonism and relaxation which covered miles of Thailand's picture perfect beaches and equally beautiful women (although I could never be too sure of these friendly but gender defying people, until it was too late).

The hedonism was fun and the beaches were serene, and it was a great way to waste away the days; but a greater good was calling. I still had not seen how I could utilize my busy mind and my intense craving for discussion of larger concepts and paradoxes that seemed so evident to me. Why would no one argue these points with me? Most people only seemed to have half answers, or just a straight forward seemingly self-destructive apathy.

My adventures, jobs and quests took me to various places and cultures, encountering coincidence after super-natural "coincidence", such as running into friends I had bumped into a continent before, which only served to fire up my quest for truth that much more – through Laos, New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka. Why was I experiencing such magic, and why had it become so effortless to manifest an inspirational and empowering "coincidence"?

Eventually I found myself in Vietnam, as one of my old multi-national media employers, knowing I was in the area, offered me a job in Saigon. It seemed like a good idea, and I began a short contractual post. The city was dirty and the people were unfriendly – nothing like the neighboring Thailand.

Feeling fairly downtrodden, one Friday I went for a walk and saw a sign reading "Beit Chabad". I wandered in and the familiar smell of baked challah and chicken soup put an instant smile on my face. I was warmly received by a young Rabbi, and we proceeded to discuss the beauty of the world, and how it all related to me. His English was limited so he chose to direct me to a program that existed in Israel to answer these elementary but important questions that I had. In the mean time I borrowed a couple of books to whet my appetite.

In this journey I could see ahead of me a deep appreciation of life, of love, and probing into discussions concerning truth and honesty. I soon made the leap to Israel and found many others with identical questions. All of us had different perspectives and differing backgrounds, but then we all had similar aspirations; those of truth and of not accepting second best in life. It suddenly became so obvious what my old Jewish friend was alluding to: I had been born into a way of life so deeply steeped in history, culture and spirituality that was to fit my persona like a glove. My innately busy mind was to be quenched through Torah and its ancient commentaries, whilst my spiritual desires soon found their home in Jewish meditations and discussions. But why had it taken me so many years of searching, only to find what I had been looking for buried deep within the oldest, most intricate culture of all?

The answer of course, is that it was up to me to find this out for myself. And just like the old Jewish parable (popularized in Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist), the elixir was where my ancestors had left it, waiting for me at my home, where I should have begun my journey all along.