From Casino to Monastery: A Story of Finding Oneself
My name is Martijn and I’m a 22 year old student at the University of Amsterdam. I’m studying Beta Gamma which is an interdisciplinary study that combines physics, mathematics, philosophy, sociology, politics, psychology, economics, earth sciences, biology, chemistry and astronomy. I don’t think I would have known that all these branches of science (or life itself) were so interconnected if it weren’t for BG. This also tells you i’m interested in a very wide range of topics. However, I got sidetracked when I discovered the phenomenon of online poker. I was always interested in games and was brought up playing a lot of typical Dutch card games like Klaverjassen and Toepen. I liked the idea of figuring out how to win. A good friend of mine introduced me to poker (and also to HE, thanks Steve!) and I was hooked immediately. I was 18 at the time and back then you could win a few pennies with no investment of your own (freerolls) and after a few months I started winning more and going to college less. I started living in a student ‘poker’ apartment in Amsterdam, and as we discussed different game theory strategies and decision making psychology, our knowledge and skills increased. You can learn so much about human behavior if you just stop for a moment and observe. Of course we also had to study ourselves. How can I stay disciplined? How can I deal with emotions when I just made the right move but still lost? As an 19 year old kid I suddenly had a lot of responsibility towards myself, and as I was rising the poker ladder I had to find more solutions for obstacles on the way. The biggest obstacle was my own ego, that voice in your head that says you should have won or should be better.
From that moment on I started to win more online and slowly made the transition to live tournaments all over the world. I had my greatest achievement in the World Series of Poker 2010 main event in Las Vegas where I finished 102th out of some 7400 poker players. By now, my life consisted mostly of playing big tournaments online or in the big casinos. I had a wonderful 4 years where I experienced everything I ever dreamt off; lots of free time, financial independency and cool parties all over the world. I felt like the guy from the movie ‘21.’ I had finally made it! But somehow I had a feeling that within myself nothing had really changed much. Poker is the art of seduction but if you don’t watch out, it seduces you. A lot of players made it big, but even more went crashing down. Accomplishing irrational dreams no matter what seemed part of being a poker player, thinking ‘I just need to make a big score.’ Holding on to delusions is addictive behavior and once I was in Vegas for three weeks I was fed up with the phoniness of popularity, status, money and quick fixes to satisfy the hunger for ever more of the same. I stopped, paused and reflected. I was at a beautiful place surrounded by people that had made it, by western standards. But the funny thing was, they didn’t seem much happier than people who had less, in fact, they even showed more neurotic tendencies and addictions than anyone else. I didn’t want to be like that and I felt I was more than just a poker player. With ups and downs I climbed the mountain of self-knowledge.
A couple weeks before Vegas I went to the psychologist of my university because at one point I started to think about what I wanted to do with my future. What do I want to accomplish and why? From there on I quickly went to ask myself about the meaning of life. What makes my life meaningful? What is my place in cosmos? I couldn’t figure it out. I started reading a lot of psychology, sociology and philosophy to find some answers but in the end I only found more questions. Reductionistic, scientific realistic and nihilistic views are prevailed in the science literature of today and I wondered, if I was reduced to mere chemicals and neurons in my brain then why should anything matter at all? As Daniel Pinchbeck puts it better in words than I ever can in his amazing book ‘Breaking open the head,’ I spent so much time contemplating the meaninglessness of existence that I sometimes felt like a ghost. I was stressed out, depressed and felt lonely. At this point I was reading a lot of Alan Watts, one of my favorite philosophers who was influenced by eastern knowledge. At that same time the psychologist I was visiting recommended a book by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun talking about difficult moments in life. To be honest, I didn’t understand much or anything, too much Buddhist terminology and a bit ‘out there’ for me as a rational, scientific atheist. But some chapters made a strong impression on me and it stuck with me. The goal after Vegas was to get to know my emotions better and as a male poker player I was king in repressing or denying them. How could I overcome fear if I didn’t even want to face it? I was watching Google self improvement talks and they were all talking about meditation, self awareness, empathy and mindfulness. That was enough science and empirical evidence for me to give it a shot. Within a week of practice the depression was gone, I could handle the stress and I felt more connected to everything. I had found a wonder drug.
Now, how did I end up in a Nepali Monastery for a month of Buddhist lectures and meditation, totally sealed off from the rest of the world? Well, I just took the plane! I watched ’7 years in Tibet’ and was so moved by the nature of the Himalayas and the culture that was so other worldly to me I just had to go — the urge was too big. As Lao Tzu taught me ,“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” And so I took my first step. I went on Google. Within an hour I found a month long Tibetan Buddhist/meditation course in Nepal and I booked it. I also found a 10 days trek through the Himalaya under the guidance of a Tibetan Lama (Guru) Geshe (Buddhist degree, takes at least 12 years). When I arrived in Nepal, I was culture shocked. The reality of the state of this planet hit me right in the face, no matter where I turned my head to. Poor people begging for money or jobs everywhere, extreme pollution, water and electricity shortage and a western influence that just looked weird. Imagine a dirt road with garbage and people staring soullessly and the only color in the street is an advertisement of a happy, too perfect face with too perfect teeth and skin holding a Coca-Cola bottle saying you should enjoy life. It definitely put things in perspective. I took this impression with me to reflect during the trek and it was amazing, I have never seen such beautiful landscapes in my life; sub tropical forests with white peaks of the Himalaya. Breathtaking, especially at high altitudes! With the morning meditation, evening Buddhist lectures, long walks and the best company I could ever wish for, I felt better than ever. And at 4747 meters (15,574 feet) I was High on Existence ;)
This positive feeling stayed with me till the day I went in the monastery, and there it even grew stronger. The travelers’ vibe of Kathmandu was alive and buzzing, people from all places and of all ages. Just meeting so many different faces made the trip worth it. In the monastery I gave up sex (personal record!), drugs and alcohol for a month. I woke up at 6 a.m., meditated 2 hours a day, had buddhist lectures for 4 hours, chanted for 1 hour, joined a discussion group also for 1 hour and I got to know Qi Gong and Yoga. In the middle of the month we had ‘fun’ week: nine days of eating one meal a day, no perfume and starting at 5:30 a.m. I also tried to do the whole nine days in complete silence. I failed miserably. You can probably tell by now I like to talk. The silence was definitely the hardest thing I ever tried. I learned so much in that month, mainly concerning the rehabilitation of all social impulses.
I hope I left out enough that you’re still reading this, so much more happened between these lines. My first shroom experience, contacting Jordan to collaborate on HE, deciding not to buy any shoes this year and much more. I’m determined to add as much as I can to the amazing work Jordan already has already done for HE and bring everyone to a higher existence!