Why? He shares his story with momlogic.
In December of 2010, airline pilot Bill McMichael will go on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Arizona where he cannot speak for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. He has two kids -- ages 7 and 9 -- and will not be able to speak to them, either. We sat down with Bill to find out what inspired him to go on this journey.
Momlogic: Why did you decide to go on this retreat?
Bill: It's been a long time in the making. I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism in college, and graduated in 1988 from the University of Virginia. There, I took a couple of courses in Buddhism, and some of it really got my attention. In my late 30s, I really started to get into it. I guess I've known for about three years that I wanted to do the retreat.
ML: How old are your kids?
Bill: I've got two kids -- Will is 9 and Claire is 7. It's going to be very hard leaving my kids and leaving my job. This is what triggered my divorce, essentially. The toughest thing is definitely leaving my kids. But the goal is going to be more valuable than anything I could give them in the next three years.
ML: What is the goal?
Bill: To be able to grasp the direct perception of emptiness. Once it's all said and done, I hope I'll learn enough to teach my kids to do it themselves. It's possible to reach heaven before you die. In Tibetan Buddhism, we call this enlightenment. If I can accomplish that and give them that, that's way more than being able to play baseball with them, etc.
ML: How does your ex feel about this?
Bill: Well, like I said, it triggered my divorce. But my ex-wife is a great mother. And that is a huge part of the reason I can do this -- my kids have got enough money, and they've got a great mother. I'm in a great position to do this. I'm not guaranteed a tomorrow -- none of us are. The time is now.
ML: Do your kids understand why you are doing this?
Bill: We talk about the philosophy all the time at home. They understand karma. But when I dropped Claire off at school the other day, I told her 'I'm going to miss you,' and she said, 'You're not going to leave on your three-year retreat, are you?' I assured her that when I do leave, it will be a much bigger deal than that!
ML: Has it been a hard decision for you to do this?
Bill: About two and a half years ago, I was sitting in class and realized that I was going to do it. Since then, I never wavered. Yes, it's been difficult. I basically had to dismantle a life -- nice wife, nice job, great kids. But I know the sacrifice will be worth it.
ML: So you're quitting your job?
Bill: I'll ask for a leave of absence when the time comes, but I may have to quit. I am using my retirement money to fund child support for three years. When I get out, I may be able to teach.
ML: How often will you be able to see your kids on the retreat?
Bill: The problem is that when you're communicating with people on the outside, your mind is leaving the retreat. It's distracting from the meditation goals you're trying to achieve inside the retreat. There has to be a minimum amount of communication. Two to three times a year, they will be able to come visit. We won't be able to really talk. The only time you can speak on the retreat is to say prayers. But they will be able to talk to me.
ML: Do you do mini-retreats to practice?
Bill: I do retreats in my apartment in Chicago and elsewhere. When I'm in retreat in Chicago, my kids talk to me and I write them back notes. I just finished up my sixth retreat a few weeks ago. The retreats last from 10 days to a month. It's exactly like training for an athletic event.
ML: Does your family support this?
Bill: I don't know if my parents really understand it. It's too different, too new to this country. I wouldn't really say they support it.
ML: What about your ex-wife?
Bill: I wouldn't say she's supportive of it, but we have a good functional relationship. There's no drama there -- we didn't really fight. As I got more into Tibetan Buddhism, we grew farther and farther apart. She's Roman Catholic. But I'm very happy for my kids to go to church on Sundays. It's not like you have to give up Christ to study Buddhism.
ML: Thanks for sharing your story, Bill. Do you have any final thoughts to add?
Bill: During the Iraq war, there was a point where over a four-year period, the average soldier had been away from home for two-and-a-half years. Our country does support parents leaving their children for long periods of time if they believe in the cause. I've just got a different cause.