Sangha Spotlight: Alan Robbins
AN INTERVIEW WITH CLEAR LIGHT SANGHA MEMBER
Alan Robbins OF ST. LOUIS, MO
Clear Light Sangha: “Alan, please tell us your story.”
Alan Robbins: “Up until age 7 I lived in the Bronx. I have many memories of that. My cousins lived in a nearby apartment building. My room looked over The Harlem River to the island of Manhattan. I could watch the boats go by. When I was seven we moved to Long Island; the suburbs, the American dream, that whole thing. Both of my parents were atheistic Jews, culturally Jewish but not religious at all. I remember maybe twice going to the synagogue for Passover. I didn't have any spiritual training or even inclination.”
“Between my junior and senior year in high school I learned programming. Then I got into a technical college at Stony Brook, New York. I was in college for seven years including a break in which I drove across country. That was an exciting time; taking a year off, living in Los Angeles, having a girlfriend for the first time. After finishing college, I was a research assistant for five years for a marine research center back in Stony Brook.
In the research center where I was working, each professor; the chemical oceanographer, the physical oceanographer, the biological oceanographer, etc. they all had different perspectives. I had an idea to bring together these different perspectives in a computer system. So, I brought my idea to Berkeley in San Francisco in 1978.
I petitioned Berkeley to audit classes, to just go around and take whatever class I wanted to take as an interdisciplinary graduate student. I presented it to the dean of the graduate school and he said, ‘Yes.’ I did that for three years. It was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot.
But the idea didn't gel. I understood that to accomplish this at the University, I would have had to put together a committee of professors who would spend time with me in something that was out of their discipline.
After spending a couple years going back-and-forth from work in Stony Brook and school in Berkeley, I decided to get a corporate job, a commercial job. I had run out of money.”
“I got a job with Fluor Engineers, which are builders, contractors in the Bay area. They're pretty big in the mining and petroleum industry. I was lead engineer right away. It was a good thing I had taken a lot of computer science because at that time, the engineers didn't have a lot of computer science. They were playing around on the computer trying to get their ideas working but they had no background in computer science.”
CLS: “So that was pretty cutting-edge, then?”
AR: “As far as computers were concerned I was always cutting-edge. During my 40-year career, I always stayed on the cutting edge of things and got good jobs because I took the initiative to learn my craft. I ended up at Amazon for the last 13 years of my career.”
CLS: “Are you retired now?”
AR: “Yeah, I've been retired for about six years.”
CLS: “What was your job at Amazon?”
AR: “I was a principal engineer mostly in the infrastructure area. I ended up building cloud systems. It's like the plumbing of these big computer systems. It's really incredible how all of these things work; all the layers of abstractions. It's incredible. It's just a phenomenon. That whole thing. And I was a part of it. I'm always amazed at what actually can be accomplished and is working as well as it is. Although it might all fall apart tomorrow, who knows.
After retiring, I thought I was going to build this computer system as a philosophical expression. You could call it sacred geometry, if you will. I had the strong inclination for a while to build it.
Anyway, I found myself sitting again.”
CLS: “When did your spiritual journey begin?”
AR: “I first started sitting when I was in my 30’s, after I stopped going to Berkeley. I had a friend who first led me to Berkeley, who I also had my first spiritual connection with back at Stony Brook when he introduced me to the Gnoses. which was the first spiritual statement that somehow rang true in me.
It was something about the nature of reality. I got none of that out of my traditions or, you know, the Christian stuff. I always thought the Christian stuff was really weird!
But something rang true and I made a connection with this guy. And he was going to go to graduate school in Berkeley and that's how I got to Berkeley.”
CLS: “So there was a spiritual component to how you got to Berkeley?”
AR: “Yes, there really was a spiritual component. So somehow, he had found this guru in the Bay area. I think he was actually living in Los Angeles by then but he said, ‘You know there's this guru coming up to the Bay area. Why don't you go see him, he's pretty cool.’ So, I went to see him. He was American. He was really a powerful meditator.”
CLS: “So, you met this guru, tell me about that.”
AL: “It was all new to me. He gave Dharma talks and meditation. It was based in the Hindu tradition. He was a student of Sri Chinmoy who was Indian and he was kind of a guru type. It was the age of gurus. He didn't really teach meditation he just sat and he said, ‘Let go.’ And he was a very powerful meditator. He was really good at getting people to his things by putting up posters all over the place. And getting students to work for him. He was called Atmananda when I first met him then he changed his name to Rama. He was this tall, lanky Irish guy. Anyway, He was really good at bringing people in. We had hundreds meeting weekly at theaters, auditoriums… hundreds… You know, 500 sometimes.”
CLS: “What were the elements that were involved? Were there mantras or any of the other kind of Hindu techniques?”
AR: “It was kind of a mixture of Hindu, New Age, Carlos Castaneda; he kind of mixed those elements together with a very contemporary kind of language.
I did that for a while and then he decided to move to Malibu and he said, ‘Anybody who wants to stay with me, moves to Malibu.’ And I thought, ‘OK, I don't know…’ I quit my job and moved to Malibu. Then a year later he moves to Boston. By this time, I have a new job in Malibu. I was really, really not sure of this move but I did it. I moved to Boston to follow this guy. A couple hundred people moved with him.”
CLS: “Wow! This guy had some dynamism!”
AR: “He had the power. And part of his teaching was teaching the power… like Carlos Castaneda. Which is the way of power, right? Someone described him as an occult master.”
CLS: “What kind of powers? What kind of siddhis?”
AR: “He said he could walk on water.”
CLS: “Did you see him do anything extraordinary? Was there any kind of proof?”
AR: “I never saw, but people saw. But I know that his meditation was strong and people could learn just by sitting with him. Anyway, I got a job in Boston which was a good job and almost as soon as I got my job he said he was moving to Boulder! This guy was just shaking off anyone who was not totally, totally devoted. He continued to do that from what I heard. But that was the end of it for me. I just decided this guy was wacko. I had a good job in Boston and I just stayed there. It was about 1985.
I had an apartment on Beacon Hill. I could walk cross the park to Charles Hill to Cambridge. The job was interesting, I was learning skills.”
CLS: “Were you still sitting?”
AR: “No, I stopped all that. I just threw away anything that had anything to do with all of that… all the tapes, all the pictures, everything. I couldn't sit because it would all come back.”
CLS: “Were you angry about it?”
AR: “I don't know. That's a good question. I don't remember myself being angry, I just remember thinking that's the end of that. Maybe I was in a little bit of shock over it, I don't know. I did my job. I had fun doing that. Walking to my job. Shopping in the city. And then somehow, I got a job offer back in the Bay area.”
“I got a job in Silicon Valley. For several years, I worked at a job in artificial intelligence. That's where I met Andrea who I later married. She was work working at the same company. She moved to another company and we started dating. I moved in with her back to Berkeley. Six months later the company I work for offered me a management position in England, heading up their technical services division throughout Europe. They were expanding. That same week Andrea let me know that she was pregnant. Which was a shock.
So, the following week I asked her to marry me and within two months we were living in England. Both of my kids were born in England. We were there for 2 1/2 years. That time was all about work, being in a different culture and being a dad.
It was in south of London, halfway between London and Brighton. It was interesting, I learned to play snooker.
Before my second son was three months old, the Silicon Valley company that I worked for suddenly went bankrupt. And left us stranded with two babies 15 months apart.
So, this was in 1990. The host company offered me a job back in the States. Luckily, we had bought a house in Seattle (that’s another story) and so after three months they flew us back to Seattle.”
CLS: “So, then, you did the whole family thing, living in Seattle. Were there any spiritual interludes?”
AR: “Just that the kids went to a Waldorf school so I was introduced to Rudolph Steiner and his work and I found that very fascinating. I spent some time there and did eurhythmy, The dance form.
My wife was fascinated, too, so we had something in common with that. However, her approach was very different than mine. She didn't like the fact that Waldorf schools didn't really teach any cognitive skills until about the third grade. So, then they started going to regular public schools. That's why we moved to Mercer Island which is this island in the middle of Lake Washington. A bedroom community, you commute to do everything.”
“I had a couple of interesting jobs. And a start-up attempt which broke us again. Then I got a job at Amazon that saved our butts. That was in 1998. When we had the first meeting of all the engineers in the company, the entire engineering team all fit in one conference room. The next week that could not happen, we expanded so fast. So, I lived through an incredible expansion. I participated in all aspects of the technical development.”
“When I turned 60 I remembered something that I had heard in my 20’s that struck me. I heard there’s a tradition in India that the householders, when they reach the age of 60, turn their attention from the daily life to spirit. That kind of struck me. That made sense. And so, when I turned 60, I remembered and acted on that.
I had just started a big project at work. I was the leader of that, it was actually my project. So, I worked for another two years and once that project was in a place where I could hand it off I said, ‘OK, it's yours now.’
My kids were both in college then. I just knew, it was in me that I had to leave.
I think I went to my first Burning Man that last year at Amazon. That kind of sealed it for me. I needed to transition to another phase of life.”
“So, I retired and I found myself sitting. For me there was this spiritual thing, I call it devotional, a devotional impetus arising in me. It was the first time I really sat since the guru 30 years earlier. It was sort of spontaneous. And I just started making up practices. At some point, I realized I didn't know what the f**k I was doing. Ha ha ha! So, I went to my computer and started looking at spiritual books. This book by Tenzen Wangao Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddha, fell off the proverbial, virtual shelf.”
“I need to mention one thing in terms of spirituality. I think my first real spiritual experience was reading Ram Das's Be Here Now around 1975. I would say it was the opening of the spiritual portal for me. It really did take me totally. And reading Tenzen Wangao’s book took me in the same way and I recognized that. So, I looked him up and I saw he was having a three-week retreat at a retreat center in Virginia. I signed up for it and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing? Diving deep into Bon Tibetan religion! It's nuts!’ But I did it. The Bon is the indigenous Tibetan tradition. The book spoke to the fact that the Bon has shamanistic, Tantric and non-dual aspects to it. That all interested me but the non-dual totally took me.
So, that whole three weeks was on Dzogchen. That was the beginning of my spiritual education. That was an incredible three weeks. My roommate was John P. Milton. He has the Way of Nature retreat center in Crestone, CO. He invited me to a retreat he was doing. From Virginia, I went to my second Burning Man. Afterwards, I visited a friend in LA and did two Ayahuasca ceremonies.”
“After the second Ayahuasca ceremony I remembered that John P. Milton was doing a retreat so I looked it up and it was happening two days later. I thought, ‘Can I drive from LA to Crestone in two days? Yes, I can.’ Driving into Crestone after two days on the road and I saw these beautiful rainbows flying over the town. And I thought, ‘What's happening here? What is this telling me?’ Ha ha Ha. I was totally at home.”
“I did a 12-day retreat with John which included being connected to nature. He has training in the ways of North American native traditions as well as Taoism. The second part of the retreat is solo time up on the mountains, in bear country for six days.
After that, I had to go back to Seattle and finish things off with my wife. We agreed to sell the house but she needed me to move my stuff out. I moved back to Crestone.”
“I was introduced to Sharon on 12-12-12. I started going to her satsangs and retreats. I started quickly shedding all kinds of stuff. The person I was when I first came to Crestone is gone. It's been an incredible experience. Sharon's teachings have changed my life. I have no question about that. They continue to change my life in an unfolding, amazing experience. I couldn't ask for a better teacher. Not a guru, but a friend. And a teacher. It's just so unusual. I'm so lucky, so blessed. To be given all the gifts I have been given. They keep being showered on me continually. I’m quite in awe at the whole process of existence. I came with a lifelong depression and all kinds of stuff. Now I can live life. It's just happening. It's amazing. It's fun. And it keeps changing. What's next? I don't know.”
CLS: “It's great to look back and see how everything is divinely orchestrated. One thing leading to the next and preparing the way.”
AR: “And yet you don't know, you don't know what you'll be given.”
CLS: “Since then, you left, correct? You don't live in Crestone anymore?”
AR: ”Yeah, I left Crestone to be with Cats in St. Louis. I met her at my fourth Burning Man. I was living in Crestone for a few years, studying with Sharon while getting my divorce.
I know that to do it, you have to do it... it has to be your primary focus. I've been someone who has mastered single focus, long-term. It's so hard for me to get my focus initially. It takes a long time. But once I'm focused, I stay there. Sitting, after a while, came very easily to me. It's not hard to sit. I don't have to discipline myself to sit. I don't schedule it, or say, ‘I have to sit every day.’ None of that. I sit when I have the opportunity to sit. I sit a lot. It's always a fascinating journey. Every sit. It's still unfolding. Wonderful. Amazing.
CLS: “Well, that feels like a good place to stop. Does that feel like a completion? Is there anything else you'd like to add?”
AR: “Sharon is a jewel. She is a fantastic role model for us all. Because she is an ordinary person, not like it a guru. She is leading the way for us all. She's just a fantastic role model ... wherever we get to, we are just a person. Not a big deal. And Nate, also. Nate's voice also rises in me sometimes, ‘Yeah, baby!’ Ha ha ha!
It's the true direct teaching that transforms. That's what Sharon teaches. And I'm so honored and thankful for what she does. And who she is. We are very lucky, I think.”