Introducing Bill Duane – An Unlikely Path to Buddhism

by | Mar 3, 2024 | Blog

Bill Duane is a dear friend of mine, and here’s his story of learning Dharma and entering the gates of Buddhism.

Here’s what he says about himself: “Bill Duane is a 16-year practitioner and tech person, mostly in the Vipassana tradition, lately been seen with Tibetans.”

Read more about his recommendations of Buddhist communities in our Community Page.

But first, here’s his story.

Bill’s story

I didn’t want a religion – the opposite, actually. I just wanted to not feel anxious and angry all the time. 

I grew up Irish Catholic in New York and New Jersey. In my teenage years I became disillusioned with that and decided that as a rational humanist, kind atheism was the path for me. No need for fairy tales and rituals to lead a good life. I learned that keeping options bottled up was a good way of keeping strong and rational. (I think a lot of people misinterpret stoicism like this.)

However, I had always been an anxious kid, worried by well-meaning cops who came to visit my school to tell us harrowing stories of kidnapping, which according to them happened with alarming regularity. I was also a very curious kid and these twin desires to be safe and explore were in constant tension. This led to my “life engine” being based on navigating the world while avoiding fear and shame. That kind of engine is a strong one. It helped me succeed under trying circumstances and was pretty interesting, everything a do or die effort and, as I got older learning new ways of not letting emotion get in the way. 

Fast forward into my thirties and had good success at work and had developed a lot of stress management skills. Unfortunately they revolved around bourbon and cheeseburgers which, in the language of my profession, does not scale. 

This all came to a head during a period where I had been managing projects and teams during Google’s hypergrowth period. And then my dad died. I ended up in a bad place and on medical leave for a week. Around this time I attended a talk at work by Philippe Goldin, then a professor of neuroscience at Stanford on the neurobiology of emotions. He taught that our internal experiences of fear and anger were the result of a nervous system optimized for survival and not happiness and humans and the descendants of nervous monkeys. Your chilled out monkeys tended to not make it. This was a revelation – that my internal experience wasn’t magic or witchcraft, but a process that could be understood and even “managed.”  This opened up the door towards turning my curiosity towards my suffering to understand it and ultimately make friends with it. Philippe mentioned that one could change the structure and function of one’s brain by doing mental exercises in a process called neuroplasticity. And, that meditation was a way of activating neuroplasticity. 

Up until that point, I thought meditation was for other people, hippies with a drawer full of crystals and chakras. But, after taking Search Inside Yourself and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction I learned that you could learn meditation without ritual and woo. This was an amazing help. But, at that time, secular mindfulness was pretty shallow and I was curious to check out the “source code.” So I started checking out Buddhist meditation centers and teachers, maybe like you’re doing now. I sampled the buffet for a bit then settled on Theravada-derived American Vipassana as my initial path. For me, the fit of less ritual and integration with psychology and science was a good fit. Years later, I had some experiences that made ritual and devotional practices seem like a good fit, so shifted to Vajrayana. 

I hope your journey of exploration is fruitful and healing!

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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