As I sit in Panera to interview Maximilian Damien Chan (C ‘24), I think about our initial exchange on Instagram, when I messaged him to set up an interview. I look back at his response, his slightly perplexed, but amused: “Hey Ariella! That’s so funny you’re interested in writing an Ego piece when the direction my life is heading in is to not have an Ego :) I’m interested!”

For sophomore and newly decided religious studies major Max, meditation has been a new solution to an old problem. In talking about his recent major switch from neuroscience to religious studies, Max recounts, “I was just doing [neuroscience] and I felt like I was in a desert, trudging along gasping for water, and there’s no water anywhere—just a torturous journey.” Meditation has helped him figure out what he truly loves: breaking down his ego and discovering the intentions underlying his goals and ambitions. For Max, this included reevaluating his plan to become an entrepreneur while studying neuroscience and electing instead to major in religious studies, his true calling.

A few months ago, Max burst onto the Penn extracurricular scene by starting the Penn Yoga and Meditation Community. Their Instagram boasts nearly 400 followers, and advertises events such as group meditation sessions and hapé ceremonies. I ask Max about how the club started, and what meditation means to him. I’m expecting a story of the stress and anxiety all Penn students face, or a practice employed since childhood and adapted to fit college circumstances. What I’m not expecting, however, is the story Max tells me. “I am so lucky to have had a pretty bad life prior to this year. I look back and I’m so glad it happened.” Utterly at ease, he continues, telling me about difficult past relationships and strained family ties.

“People knew me because I had a 21–step plan to becoming a legend … every single day I was obsessed with planning my future, and I only realized after that the reason I was doing it was because I was trying to escape from the present and past,” Max says.

Finding himself at an all–time low last summer—in an abusive relationship and numbing the pain with substances—Max describes how an out of body experience led him to book a flight to Florida to attend a meditation retreat. After that, his life was changed. “For the first time in like four years I smiled for no reason. Just because I was happy. I think I healed right there,” Max says.

Max enrolled himself in a meditation course when he returned home, and when he got back to campus in the fall, he brought his newly found practices with him. He began meditating on high rise field, where he would attract looks from passersby. Before long, people began to join him—those he knew and those he didn’t. 

That was when he decided to start the Yoga and Meditation Community through a carefully thought–out marketing strategy. “I’m very proud of this. I was so passionate about it, so I made a list of all the people that I knew at Penn. I asked each one of them to share the first two posts of the club. I asked the original team members—only six of them—to share it as well. Within the first few days we gained 250 new members because of just mass social media, GroupMe, Instagram and anything you can think of,” he says.

Since then, Max has organized a large variety of group events and hopefully an upcoming group trip to a meditation retreat. Max, attentive to all details, carefully curates the experiences, choosing the location, candles, smell, size of the room, and seating arrangements carefully. He leads the attendees in meditation, then encourages them to share.  He asks them to talk about their weeks, their feelings, the last time they cried—all prompts to help attendees better understand one another and themselves. 

As the interview winds down, I rattle the ice at the bottom of my coffee cup and ask Max the question I’ve been itching to ask since he’s sat down. After a conversation about ego, ambition, truth, and passion, I ask Max his take on “Penn Face.” He sits back, pondering the question.

Ambition, Max explains, can be fueled by two things: passion and ego. Passion–fueled ambition is people doing things because they love them—they want to work hard, help people, and genuinely love what they are doing. Ego, on the other hand, drives ambition because people want things. They want to be recognized, they want to have nice cars, nice clothes, and get more girls. Ambition fueled by ego means you’re attached to what you’re becoming, and not focused on what you’re doing. You do not live in the present, but rather the past and the future, which don’t even exist yet.

“The ego always comes about because you're dissatisfied with the present moment,” Max says. “But in truth,” he continues, “Ego stems from a place of inferiority or insecurity. That's where evil comes from. If not, you just do what you love. But if you're worried if you don't feel good enough, then you get an ego of whatever it is that you don’t feel good about.”

And suddenly, the cheeky answer I received from Max when I first reached out makes total sense.