Mindfulness as Religious Experience

Discovering spirituality is like finding a beautiful secret city within yourself.

“Mindfulness is observing that there is nothing that is in excess. When seated in pure meditation, we let go of ‘body and mind’, abandon ‘delusion and enlightenment’. We are unchanging, immovable, unwillful, impervious.” 
—Master Keizan

Getting to the bottom of what makes the ego tick is no small task. Sometimes it truly feels bottomless. To test this, I like to advise people to try a simple exercise. Write down a goal or something you want. Then, like an annoying little child, start asking yourself, “Why?” Keep writing your answers down, line by line, and watch the rationalizations for your behaviors grow less and less rational. Because ___, because ____, etc. If you do this thoughtfully, you eventually reach the absurd foundation. You will recognize that your thoughts aren’t as concrete as you think they are. In fact, very rarely can thoughts be trusted.

Let’s do it:

  • I want to make enough money to retire comfortably at 35.
  • Why? So that I can have free time to do whatever I want.
  • Why? So that I can feel fulfilled and like I’m not working all the time.
  • Why? Because when I’m working I feel that I’m missing out on life.
  • Why? Because work is work, and life is life! They’re separate.
  • Why? I don’t know, that’s just the way things are.
  • Why? Because people have decided that’s the case.
  • Why? Because… Uh… I don’t really know?
  • Why? I really can’t think of a reason. Fear, I guess. And laziness.

You get the idea. The way towards mindful living is to zoom out enough to put conceptual thoughts in perspective. For another example, let’s look at science as a whole. Science can solve a lot of problems in the material world. It usually runs into a brick wall when it tries to solve spiritual or existential problems, however. That’s because even if science can send us to the moon, cure cancer or create the computer, it still rests on a foundation that is not the deepest truth. It rests instead on the observable truth. It can explain the benefits of meditation on the brain, but it can’t fundamentally explain why.

In terms of spirituality, if we rely on the observable truth we become arrogant. We believe ourselves to be right and righteous just because we “won’t believe it til’ we see it.” What happens, then, when we feel feelings we’ve never felt before? What happens during meditation when we go into a deep state of contemplation and completely new understandings of life emerge? These can’t really be observed, let alone explained. They’re left to the individuals who experience them.

This is life beyond the ego. When you sit and see beyond the simple mind that’s always trying to explain away everything and rationally solve every problem, you recognize the essence of things. The essence can’t be read. It can’t be explained. Teachers can lead you to it but can’t actually make you understand. It’s an essential practice in that it comes entirely from within. You are responsible.

The ego often says this too, “I am responsible.” Responsible for what? The ego does this to convince itself of its own importance. The true self, though, the self that you uncover during meditation, is completely beyond this. It has no need for responsibility, causation, or understanding. It simply exists, still like a lake that contains no fish. Like Lao Tzu said, “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear?” Everything we think is the mud. Concepts are the mud. The clear water is the depthless essence beneath every idea and thing.

This is the value of what is sometimes referred to as “religious experience”. Customs, traditions, ideologies— these all just serve as mere signposts guiding people towards the ‘light’. The ‘light’ is not God, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or whatever— the light it that ethereal experience beyond all comprehension. It’s not great or evil or anything, it just is. It’s what you experience when you meditate, pray, love, or reflect, but you can’t pin it down. It’s what you feel when you experience profound beauty or profound sorrow. It’s the deep current of movement inside you that will never be explainable. When we train ourselves to be able to access it and let it wash over us, we experience life beyond simple thoughts and explanations. We experience the deeper life, the life of the spirit.

A 240-page collection of my writings is available here.

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