A gay child in an atheist family
As a little kid in Croatia, I wasn’t good at running, jumping, physical things. I’d always much rather be with older people.
When I was nine months old my parents had a very serious car crash. I was separated from my mother for a time; I don’t know whether this was the cause, but from the age of two until I went to school, I suffered tremendous separation anxiety from my mother. And then at seven years old I had a terrible shock when I realized that I’m mortal. My parents were both atheist, and my path to becoming a scientist was my feeling that this was a rational way to get control and make sense out of life.
Education went well for me. For my parents, being stupid was the worst crime that you could commit. On the other hand, they placed no value on emotions. To gain my parents’ approval, the only way was to excel at school, and so I did. I never really got on with schoolmates and avoided bullying by not drawing attention to myself. And then, in the seventh grade, I realized I was gay and that was even more isolating. I handled it by staying at home and studying harder.
The university years
Once I got to university I made friends with other geeks, but there was always this question of, “Boris, why aren’t you interested in girls?” Still, it took me a long time to come out. I had my first sexual contact with a man only when I was 37 years old.
The only reason I dealt with this was incredible loneliness. I was single while studying at a research institute in Germany, and also when I came over to the University of Manchester. When I began working at the University of Oxford, I became a professor of computer science—my dream job. My career was on the way up. Nevertheless, one day, I hit the bottom. I realized if my isolation went on like this for another year, I’d blow my brains out.
Fortunately, I was on a project that had me in Barcelona for three months, and that’s when things began to change. There was a gay man in my company. It was also a common sight to see openly gay people in the street. By the time I was back in Oxford, I was ready to meet someone. I got into a three-year relationship with a very nice person. This was wonderful, but it also allowed me to see all my dysfunctions playing out. I started therapy.
The process of therapy made me realize I was absolutely riddled with anxiety. I knew I couldn’t carry on like this. I read a book about mindfulness and began to practice meditation, and I immediately felt some relief. The realization that it’s fine to simply feel what you feel and that you can allow yourself to experience emotions without trying to wish them away was incredibly powerful.
First encounters with meditation and Daizan
I encountered Zenways meditation and mindfulness practices at the university and quite soon met Daizan. It was immediately obvious that this meditation stuff had tremendous potential to change lives. My response was, initially, to feel a lack of self-worth, to feel that this was one more field I had to try to excel at. It took a long time before I got to realizing I could just be me.
On the other hand, I immediately felt quite a lot of physical benefit from meditation. I’d had a problem with severe stomach cramps. One time, I began to meditate and told myself it was fine to experience this pain without wishing it to go. After about 10 minutes the pain dissipated completely, for the rest of the day.
I was very ambivalent about the forms of the Zen practice—the incense, the gongs, the strange people. It felt foreign to my atheist background, but at the same time, I felt challenged by it—a challenge I had to respond to. So I was feeling my way forward with this and signed up for a Zen retreat with Daizan.
It was hell. Three days of pure anxiety. It showed me that I’d had this level of anxiety underlying my life and now there was no avoiding it. I also saw how much judgment I had. I felt resentment towards people I saw as doing better than me. The whole thing was just so uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that this was what I needed. I saw that I couldn’t live with this level of anxiety in my life underlying everything. I faced it and it started to shift.
Insights from my second retreat
I realized that I needed to pursue this more, and signed up for another retreat with Daizan. One thing that was tremendously helpful was reading a book called The Self-Illusion: Why There Is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, by Bruce Hood. The book outlined psychological research showing that we’re not a fixed entity with a centralized control point, but are actually much more malleable and changeable than we seem.
I saw how the little intimations I was starting to get through my practice were actually squarely in line with science. On my second retreat, this dimension came into sharp focus. It became vividly clear to me how everything is relative, how we use one word to define another word, that reality isn’t in this world of words, that there’s actually nothing we need to know. It’s hard to explain, but so much fear dropped away and I felt euphoric. Since then, I’ve been able to face the future much more freely.
I saw how the little intimations I was starting to get through my practice were actually squarely in line with science.
This sense that there’s nothing to know has continued to deepen. A couple of months ago I saw how my mind constantly tries to analyze and dissect things, and thus gain a sense of control. In science we try to do this, and it’s clear to me how this project is useful, but through that route we’ll never get to the bottom of things, because we’re always looking at things from the outside. And the deeper you go, the more the ground you’re standing on starts to shift. Some of the scientists I speak to consider the Big Bang to be the basis on which everything stands, but it’s clearly not. So from that point onward, the sense grew that while it’s OK to try to understand things, this is no way to deal with your fears, feel safe and conquer life.
Instead, I’ve found that life happens and all you can do is be it. One thing I discovered in meditation is how much I have this drive to escape what’s happening around me—to be the safe observer who’s not actually committed to the moment, who has no responsibility.
I’ve found a strong connection between my relationship to my body and my relationship to life in general. I now know what people mean when they talk about “energy” in the body and in the world.
For me, the antidote to my sense of separation is embodiment. In meditation, when I bring myself back to my body and don’t separate from whatever’s arising, everything’s actually fine. I’m gradually bringing this full involvement into my life, my relationships and my work. Whether what’s happening is “good” or “bad,” my role is simply to show up and not try to escape.