Mindfulness and meditation are all the rage these days.
From trendy yoga studios to corporate retreats to the cover of Time Magazine, people are turning to the contemplative arts to escape the relentless hustle and distraction of life in the 21st Century.
It’s ironic, but despite all of our modern convenience, we’re more desperate than ever to relieve our stress, regain our focus, find our center, and remain present in the moments that truly matter.
Even science is getting in on the action.
New studies are released every week, and the benefits of meditation are proving to be as diverse as our imaginations…
Healthcare practitioners are prescribing contemplation in lieu of excessive medication.
The U.S. military is exploring new treatments for soldiers with post-traumatic stress.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are looking inward to gain an edge on the competition.
It seems that whatever it is we seek, we’re told that meditation is the answer.
But while mainstream meditators pursue relaxation and productivity, a new generation of spiritual seekers has gone in search of something else…
For those who feel that there is more to the world than what we see, the contemplative arts are a gateway to a deeper reality—to a life of freedom and wonder and possibility, and to inner peace and self-expression.
The hype is legit; consciousness is the key to all of these experiences (and more).
But there is no magical, “mindful” state of awareness that will deliver all of the diverse benefits we seek.
And striving to attain one just makes meditation tedious and confusing—and much smaller than it should be.
On the one hand, the explosion in popularity has been a good thing.
It has introduced millions of people to the practice of meditation—including many who would never have considered it before things went mainstream—and a lot of lives are genuinely better for it.
On the other hand, it’s also created one hell of a mess.
The spiritual landscape has become a din of a million conflicting voices…
Each and every one insists that they are walking the best available path…
Every sacred path follows the biggest, longest and most enlightened lineage…
And every last lineage is clearly more spiritual than any of the others.
And then there are all the gurus… the ones who aren’t just walking the correct path, but have supposedly arrived at its ultimate destination.
They hoist themselves up as divine role models, and promise that if you show reverence, and do exactly what they say, then someday (maybe), you might become just like them—as if that was somehow a good thing.
It’s enough to turn some people off of a spiritual path before they even start.
And those of us who do decide to move forward are forced to begin our journey with a slew of questions that we aren’t remotely equipped to answer…
How do you choose a path? How do you select a practice? How do you learn to meditate?
Do you just sit, and relax, and try not to think? Or quietly observe your thoughts when they arise?
Should you be present and connect with your environment? Or direct your attention inward?
Eyes open, or eyes closed? Focus on your breath? Feel into your toes? Say Om, or stay quiet?
Do you have to make funny shapes with your fingers?
And what the fuck is with all the smugly delivered paradoxes and cryptic mystical jargon?
It’s no wonder that people are confused. Everyone has an opinion, and there are nearly as many ways to meditate as there are people meditating.
But you have to start somewhere.
So you begin by making one of two decisions:
Either you look for a spiritual tradition that embodies your worldview and values, and dedicate yourself to that path.
Or you branch out and explore several options, and then cobble together a practice from the pieces and parts that resonate.
In other words, you either choose the best path—or you choose the best path for you.
Either way, you’re screwed.
If you opt for a traditional tradition, then you wind up with all of the familiar problems: outdated worldviews, institutionalized values, practices that are riddled with superstitious leftovers, and so on.
On the upside, if a path has been worn smooth by the slips and stumbles of a thousand generations, at least you can avoid some of the pitfalls—and you can take comfort in a lineage if that appeals to you.
Of course, the time-honored path may not be the best way to get to where you’re going…
(Nobody follows the Oregon Trail westward anymore.)
But established is established. And if you can find a tradition you like—and don’t mind putting 10-20 years into the process—you will likely end up at the traditional destination.
Nowadays though, more and more seekers choose the à la carte approach to spirituality.
After all, if you can meditate in many different ways, and if different ways work for different people, then the answer appears obvious: just explore all the options, and adopt the ones that feel right.
It’s a great way to stay true to yourself as you build a practice and begin that fabled journey of a thousand miles…
It’s also a great way to shoot yourself in the foot before you make it past the mailbox!
Using your intuition to begin a spiritual practice is like using your intuition to begin a fitness regimen.
Without understanding any of the underlying anatomy, you wander around the gym, try out a few exercises, and then pick the one that feels good.
Your “intuition” tells you that you’ve made the right decision…
But did you really?
If the exercise feels good, then chances are that isn’t what you need to focus on.
And the more you focus on it, the more lopsided you’ll become. (Kind of like the guy with the one big arm in that M. Night Shyamalan movie that nobody liked.)
Worse, if it feels really good, it’s probably because you’re overdeveloped in that range of motion.
And that’s probably because you’ve been using it your whole life as a defense mechanism…
The Train(wreck) to Enlightenment
Have you ever had a dysfunctional friend who became even more dysfunctional after taking up a spiritual practice?
Who loves to talk about how evolved they are, but their life is always a disaster?
Now you know why.
Nothing feels safer or more affirming than slapping a big, sacred seal of approval on your defenses.
It’s called a spiritual bypass—and it’s so pervasive in today’s do-it-yourself spiritual culture, that it’s essentially the norm…
But let’s say that you manage to avoid the bypass. You pick a path, or you pick a practice, and you set out on your journey.
Initially, the energy is high. You feel excited and hopeful. You’re discovering new things. And you can’t wait to meditate every day.
But eventually the momentum starts to fade.
Meditation gets tedious.
Sometimes it feels like your practice is really helping—and sometimes you wonder if you’re just wasting your time. But you resolve to see it through…
All those folks on the traditional paths say that it can take years to reach enlightenment; that this is just what a mature practice feels like.
So stick with it. Have patience. Keep on meditating, and eventually you’ll get there.
Because that’s the recipe for enlightenment… repeat the same action over and over again, while waiting for a different result.
(That is the recipe for enlightenment, right?)
And on top of all that—the worst fucking thing, is it still feels like something is missing!
You don’t even know what it is, but you can feel it… You know there’s something more.
But wasn’t that why you took up a spiritual practice in the first place? To fill that gap?
And yet, here you are…
You dreamt of exploring other worlds, of discovering a deep and soulful peace.
You yearned for transformation—for freedom of action and expression…
Instead, you’re in a grind…
Putting your time in on the mat.
Chopping wood. Carrying water.
Sometimes at peace. Sometimes mindful.
Often, not so much.
So what happened to the grand adventure?
What happened to freedom, and to everlasting enlightenment?
Was that all just wishful thinking?
Well, yes and no…
It’s okay to seek new landscapes—and to aspire to reach enlightenment. And it doesn’t need to take you 10 or 20 years to get there. (If it does, it’s because your practice is incomplete.)
But if you really want to attain your dream, then you need to let go of your limiting beliefs and quit striving to attain it!
Sorry… I couldn’t help myself.
This isn’t the part where I unleash a torrent of paradoxical New Age bullshit on you.
The solution is simple and direct and completely within reach. But it is going to require some adjustment.
At the heart of all of this confusion and conflict and tedium is the belief that there is an ultimate “mindful” or “enlightened” state of being at the apex of a spiritual practice.
We hear stories of great masters and mystics attaining exalted states of awareness. We hear about formlessness and inner peace and nondual unity, and we want to experience these things for ourselves.
And even if we don’t consciously think, “there’s a single ascendant state of being that will relieve all of our suffering and solve all of our problems forever,” we still structure our spiritual practice as if there was one.
We get caught up playing the attain and retain game.
The desired state is different for different people—connected, creative, loved, present, peaceful, ego-free, compassionate—name an outcome and there is someone who is trying to reach it.
The practices are as varied as the practitioners.
But, whatever the destination, the motivation is always the same:
Get there. Stay there.
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And that’s the problem.
Attaining and retaining any state of consciousness is a pointless and detestable endeavor.
It isn’t spiritual. It isn’t freeing. It isn’t evolved, or deep, or profound, or insightful.
It doesn’t matter how rapturous or enlightening a state is when you first attain it. In the long run, retaining it is nothing but a stilted, lifeless rut.
Everything grows. Everything changes.
So if you want a life of wonder and depth and possibility, then you need a practice that will help you on your way—wherever your journey may take you.
Think about it… What good is a map that only gives you one destination?
How can you explore new worlds if you never venture into the unknown?
How can you connect, and grow, and aspire to more, if you’re never willing to change?
Why would a rigid, static practice ever result in a dynamic, fulfilling life?
A truly empowering practice is never motivated by attaining and retaining a “spiritual” state of being. It is never about holding fast to one side of a polarity.
An empowering practice is about every state of consciousness.
It’s about every option, every action, and every destination.
A truly empowering practice is about freedom of choice, and freedom of motion.
It’s important to remember that meditation is not an end in itself. It’s not a destination.
It’s an action, a technique, a set of instructions.
What good are instructions that always recommend the same course of action, regardless of the circumstances?
It’s like always choosing to turn the same direction while driving a car… You can veer left at every intersection if you want to, but it isn’t an effective roadmap. And you’re just going to go in circles.
This is where attain and retain leads you.
It doesn’t matter which path you choose—always left, always right, always straight ahead—every path has its proponents.
You’re always going to get the same result: tedious, rigid, unfulfilling circles, and a periodic glimpse of your intended destination, forever in the distance.
True freedom means choosing in the moment—not choosing for all time.
It means making your decisions based on the circumstances at hand—not based on the dogma of some esoteric tradition.
It’s about having the confidence and capacity to go wherever you choose, whenever you choose, for whatever reason you choose to go there.
Even when your choices temporarily move you away from what is traditionally considered spiritual.
So, back to my bit of New Age drivel…
If you really want to attain your dream—then you really do need to let go of your limiting beliefs.
Meditation can help take you anywhere you want to go.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for enlightenment, or inner peace, or just more productivity at work.
If the experience involves being conscious, then meditation can help… but not if you spend all of your time sitting cross-legged and trying to abide in the present moment.
Meditation isn’t just about being. It isn’t just about presence.
Diehards and traditionalists will revolt, but it’s time we stop obsessing over where we are, and be “mindful” of how we got there…
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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