Sofa Enlightenment (2013)
Sofa Enlightenment – How I Traveled the Spiritual Circus and Ended Up Finding Peace
Robert Broughton (1948–)
This edition published on
20 March 2013 (first edition)
Protected by copyright
#14 – The Slow Climb Out
Uncertainty and anxiety, my ever present companions, still plagued me. Slowly though I was beginning to get an inkling that my struggle was part of a metamorphosis. I reflected back to when I was about twelve years old and remembered a small, skinny encyclopedia salesman with thick glasses and an equally thick Hungarian accent who knocked on our door one night. My father opened the door a crack and pretty soon we had books and brochures spread all over the living room floor. Somehow, we were all entranced by this shy awkward man and his encyclopedias and we bought them that very night, something my father would never normally do.
After much consideration I was ready to become a full-time salesman. Franz, the sales manager who was my new boss, had warned me that the change from part-time to full-time selling was quite a challenge and that many people couldn’t manage the uncertainty of "commission only" work. "You’re only as good as your last sale," he would say.I finished my last week at the hospital, and the next Monday ventured out for my first night of full-time selling. One of my appointments was at a lawyer’s house in a wealthy new residential development. I sat and chatted with the lawyer and his wife while they had a barbecue on the patio of their house, feeling instinctively that if I simply talked with these people long enough, eventually they would sign up. I ate with them, drank beer, and we gradually bonded. After about two hours I simply said, "Now, let’s get this business done." At this point I felt like one of the family. I gave them the price, and with only a moment's hesitation they signed up. This was a large house and I fully expected some price negotiation, but there was no bargaining and the deal was quickly closed. When I got home and worked out my commission I was astounded as it came to four hundred dollars! This was as much as I had made in a whole week at the hospital.
Franz was jubilant when I delivered this contract. As he was going over it the top salesman in the company walked in and Franz said to him, "Have a look at this." This fellow was a Scotsman named Les in his mid-fifties. Franz had told me that Les, now in semi-retirement, had once owned his own factory in Scotland. I feared and envied Les. He was the top money earner in the company, and a couple of times I’d approached him and asked if I could get a few tips on selling. He always put me off with casual remarks like, "Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it." Les was playing his cards close to his chest and I was certain he had many trade secrets. He seemed to have no interest in being friends with me at all and in this cutthroat atmosphere it is possible he feared me as much as I feared him.
When Les saw the large contract I’d brought in he exclaimed, "Hoots, mon. I’ve never made a commission as big as that myself." Then he walked out. I eagerly gathered my leads for the next day and set out to close more deals. I got my first rude awakening when I went home that night empty-handed after four bruising presentations. The same thing happened the next night and then the next. Something was drastically wrong and I began to panic. Franz’s self-fulfilling prophecy about what happened to people who went from part-time to full-time was turning out to be true. The rest of the week I didn’t make one sale.
Franz, although initially supportive, now began to eye me warily. Les’s numbers, however, were as impressive as ever. I suddenly became paranoid and accused Franz of giving me leads that were junk whilst feeding the good ones to Les. He simply shook his head and said: "No. All leads are the same. Once you get in the house it’s up to you."
The next couple of weeks my sales were sporadic and I began to doubt my decision to leave the hospital. Out of curiosity I phoned up a couple of the customers to whom I’d made losing presentations. I waited until a few days had gone by to make these calls. On a number of occasions people told me they had bought from a rival company. There were three or four other companies that were our competitors and one, Cool or Cozy Insulation, seemed to be consistently beating me on price. Also, customers often said they preferred their salesmen.
Franz began to rant and rave against this company and instructed me to disparage them to any customer who was going to get a bid from them. He was clearly worried, seeing them as a real threat. Many nights I’d come home and sit at the dinner table talking to Rob about how I'd lost deals to Cool or Cozy. Rob suggested, "Well, why don’t you go and work for them?" The thought had crossed my mind also, but I resisted, saying: "No. I can’t do that. I can’t be seen to be jumping from one company to another in this industry, it would bad for me." I had never been comfortable with change and risk, but now it was obviously time to move beyond these limitations if I did not want to suffer a setback. Still, somehow I was not able to go with the flow that life was suggesting.
So I put off what obviously had to be done for as long as possible. It wasn’t much longer before things came to a head between Franz and me. At the end of each week he would point to the figures on the board. Les was selling about six thousand dollars a week worth of product compared to my two thousand. An ultimatum was given: "We can’t keep giving you leads if you don’t come back with sales." Something was soon going to give. I hung on as long as I could, and then one day the ax fell. Franz called me into his office and said, "I’m sorry, we can’t go on with this arrangement." I tried to persuade him not to fire me, to give me another chance, but he was adamant.
I knew immediately what I had to do. I got into my car and thirty minutes later pulled into Cool or Cozy’s parking lot. I walked into their offices and asked to see Barry, the manager. He asked me to come into his office and explain my situation. I told him I was a great salesman but needed to be supported by a better company with better prices. After listening to Barry extol the virtues of his company, I understood the rivalry that existed within the industry. It would be a great coup for them to steal a salesman from Franz. Barry shook my hand and said: "You’re with us now. Here are your leads for tonight." He handed me three appointments and with a pat on the back wished me luck. The next day I presented Barry with two contracts, and he was over the moon. "Here are some more for this evening. Go out and do it again," he said.
I could now feel the glow of success beginning to envelop me and was ready to rise to the occasion. I was getting another bite at the cherry. The question was, could I sustain this or would it be just another flash in the pan? This time, however, something was different and I began to sell consistently, my paycheck growing week by week.
Whilst there was tremendous competition amongst the salesmen in the company there was also a strong camaraderie, and when someone began to do well he was encouraged by the others. The team spirit was tremendously supportive, and my sales went through the roof. I began to regularly bring home paychecks of two thousand dollars or more, and Rob’s eyes began to bulge. One night he said, "Hey, do you think I could try this too?" "Why not? Come down and talk to Barry as soon as you can," I replied. Soon enough Rob was an insulation salesman too, and he quickly proved his mettle. It wasn't long before he was depositing large paychecks each week.
As each day went by, I gained more confidence. I completely forgot about my spiritual seeking and plunged into the material world. My journey now resembled that of Hermann Hesse's "Siddharta." Hesse read the story of Buddha’s life and created Siddhartha, a spiritual seeker who, after years of intense seeking, abandons his search and becomes a merchant, accumulating vast wealth. Hesse's story ends with Siddharta eventually abandoning his riches in old age and finding enlightenment by the side of a river.
Like Siddhartha, I was now beginning to find material success, something that had always eluded me. I had set my spiritual quest aside, but the years of mental discipline and endurance required to be a monk were serving me well. I was drawing upon some wellspring within me that enabled me to go from one house to another, night after night, and give the same presentation fresh, as if for the first time. It is extraordinary what can happen when someone first tastes success, something akin to what surfers probably feel when riding a great wave. An abundance of energy suddenly surfaces that was never felt before. I also realized that my Buddhist training had had elements in it that were now helping me to sense and intuit situations.
Rob had gotten into real estate some years earlier and began suggesting that I look around for a property to buy. This seemed like a logical next step, and after some searching I settled on a nice two-bedroom apartment in a complex on a hill overlooking Fremantle. I moved in and set about redecorating with new paint, carpet and furniture. I traded my old Renault in for a Nissan 300ZX sports coupe and rounded the whole picture out with a new wardrobe of clothes and a brand new Fender guitar and amplifier to keep my musical skills intact.
Siddhartha had seduced the beautiful courtesan, Kamala, and so it was appropriate that I would discover Katrina, a very attractive Anglo-Indian woman, working at the hospital. She had been a virgin before starting at the hospital and had fallen madly in love with one of the doctors, who had relieved her of her virginity and then moved on to his next conquest.
Although Katrina had previously already shown a willingness to risk it, I was still surprised on our first date, when in the parking lot of the movie theater, before we’d even bought tickets, she placed her hand on my groin. The foreplay continued during the movie, and back at my place we closed the deal. Katrina’s ardor cooled when she realized a white picket fence and children were not on my agenda. I then had to use my newfound sales prowess to coax her into my apartment. After a few months of hoping our relationship would develop into something more permanent she was ready to move on, eventually finding the husband she longed for.
Although I was mastering material abundance, intimate relationships were still a barren landscape to me. Transforming this desert into a paradise of fulfillment was going to take quite some work. After four years of Buddhist monastic life I was very much out of touch with the "normal" mode of relationship, and I felt the need to go through an intense period of reorientation. But many people I was meeting in my new life were struggling with relationship in their own way. A divorce was becoming a standard part of most people's lives, it seemed.
Despite my uncertainty my metamorphosis was now well underway and a new identity was emerging. The stage appeared to be set for me to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of years of dysfunctional living. Although I was now experiencing the first glimmers of hope I was still scared, scarred and alone. Settling into my new apartment I’d come home in the evening and indulge in time-worn distractions such as TV, magazines or chatting on the phone.
One night I’d gotten home late, and as I sat in my living room I heard a sound from the schoolyard next door. The balcony of my apartment overlooked the school and the sound was like a hammer loudly beating on metal. I went out on the balcony and looked across the floodlit school courtyard. I could now tell the sound was coming from behind one of the classrooms and, realizing someone was probably trying to break in, I decided to go down and investigate. I walked a short way along the street and then down a flight of stairs that brought me into the school and suddenly caught sight of what was going on.
A gang of boys, whose age ranged from about twelve to fifteen, were trying to break open a roller shutter with an iron bar. Hearing me walk across the courtyard they abruptly turned and faced me. The leader was a large boy, almost my own size, and even though he couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen he called out to the others, "Let’s take him!" They began running towards me and I quickly turned and ran as fast as I could back to my apartment building. They hadn’t seen where I’d gone and within seconds I was watching them, unnoticed, from my balcony. The whole gang then piled into two cars and screamed away.
I phoned the police immediately and within minutes they were on the scene. I told them what had happened and then went back home. As I sat on my sofa thinking everything over I realized how foolish I’d been in going to investigate. It gave me a shock to suddenly realize that somewhere in my subconscious I may have been attracted to the possibility of violent confrontation. It was a great lesson to see how I had unwittingly created a potentially dangerous situation for myself. It seemed there were still traces of my old self-destructive tendency that had not yet been fully released.
As the months rolled by, I maintained impressive sales figures. Continuing at this rate would see me paying off my mortgage in two years. I was beginning to think like a true capitalist. By now I’d abandoned all notions of traditional spirituality.
One night though, an experience occurred that completely redefined my notion of reality. On this particular evening I decided not to indulge in the usual distractions. Instead I sat quietly on my sofa not doing anything at all, only being aware of my breathing, my body, various sensations and sounds. As I sat quietly, I was suddenly aware of a stillness and quietness that I couldn’t localize as being either within me or outside of me. I sensed a great presence and became very attentive to it. My attention shifted from my thoughts, which now began to recede to the periphery of my consciousness. Simultaneously, I realized that my body was beginning to relax without me doing anything. I was riveted by the serenity and beauty and felt quite content to sit and just let it be. I sat fully immersed in this state for about an hour. I then got up, went into my bedroom, lay down and went to sleep.
When I woke up in the morning, the experience had vanished and I set about my daily activities as usual. However, I couldn’t help but reflect on what had happened the previous night. That evening when I returned home I sat on the sofa again and waited. Sure enough, after a few minutes, the same thing began to happen. Again the same stillness and extraordinary feeling of non-localized presence. I sat for about an hour, but this time got up and decided to take a walk outside. I noticed that when I got up, the experience began to recede. When I returned from my walk I tried to figure out what exactly was happening, but then stopped and laughed. Thinking about it would only get in the way.
This was the grace I’d been seeking all these years. It simply "was" and it was futile to try to contain it within the reference of my mind. It was outside of that. After searching for this experience and having it constantly elude me I’d abandoned all hope of finding it, and "it" was now finding me. Now, each night when I’d come home, the same spontaneous arising of grace would occur. Soon it began happening during my activity as well. Sometimes when I’d be driving my car, sometimes even in the midst of closing a deal, this "presence" would envelop me. Whenever the grace receded I would be plunged back into the static of thinking and the pain that accompanied it.
The mountain of pain I’d been dealing with was beginning to be blasted away, and again I asked myself, "Why is this happening now when I am not looking anymore?" After so many years of struggling hard to find it, I saw the answer. Spiritual seeking is futile. It’s a form of ego attachment. You must drop it before your true nature is revealed. It now seemed that any attempt at meditation was a waste of time and effort. This raised an interesting question. If anyone asked me about meditation, what would I tell them? Don’t bother doing it? Again it became clear to me that the process of seeking, and then of abandoning seeking, was absolutely necessary. It certainly was in my case.
A radical transformation of my consciousness was now occurring spontaneously, and it probably would not have happened had there been no intention on my part. I also saw the necessity of crisis in my life. A transformation of consciousness does not happen to the mass of humanity. Usually people seek their contentment and fulfillment through material acquisitions and relationships with other people. I understood the natural order of these things, but they were no help in bringing a person into the state of grace.
Another insight I gained was how much I’d avoided the world of people and things, even whilst being in it. I remembered reading a book by the American Guru Bubba Free John in nineteen eighty, in which he suggested posing the following question to oneself: "Are you avoiding relationship?" At the time it struck a deep chord in me and now I saw why. Instead of turning and running I now accepted each challenging situation as it came along and plunged myself into it. Really connecting with people in everyday life had given my life a new kind of presence and vibrancy. But I also gave myself time, usually a few hours each day, when I’d just sit quietly doing nothing. When my mind was active, questions would arise: Where was I going? Who was I? In stillness and quietness these issues simply weren’t there and had no relevance whatsoever.
The Cool or Cozy insulation company decided to open a branch in the city of Adelaide, which is on the southern coast of Australia, about five hundred miles west of Melbourne. Another salesman and I were recruited to head up the new branch, and as employees we were also offered the chance to invest in this new venture. I bought sixteen and a half percent of the company for thirty-two thousand dollars. The plan was that this new venture would make me wealthy and free of any financial concerns for the rest of my life.
Arriving in Adelaide I soon discovered we’d seriously underestimated the size of the market. Also, a deep recession was now beginning to bite very deeply into the Australian economy. Everywhere throughout Adelaide there were office buildings with "For Rent" signs on them, and I had to work much harder to maintain my sterling sales figures. My daily immersion in spontaneous meditation was invaluable to me at the time.
I had turned a corner, a very important corner, but there was still much work to be done. When not experiencing the divinity of meditation, my mind would often return with full force. In those times I was severely tested. After years of success it now seemed possible that failure could happen. I sometimes felt panic rising up but was always able to bring new vigor to my work. Without fail, within a day or two, I’d find myself blessed again. I now began to have great trust in the future although I couldn’t see exactly where it was taking me. My daily immersion in pure being assured me that everything was as it should be.