As modern Westerners who practice meditation, we have a truly bizarre mishmash of spiritual traditions at our fingertips. There’s the traditional Buddhism of the Pali Canon, the no-frills iconoclasm of Zen, the self-sacrificial Tibetan death worship, the hippie-dippie New Age solipsism, the scientism of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, the borderline-cultish aspects of Transcendental Meditation, Yoga and health food. It gets a bit overwhelming— and a bit confusing.
Most confusing is the conflict that emerges between the modern spiritualist idea that we should cultivate mindfulness, and the Zen dictum that the purest mind is no-mind. How can we be both mindful and ‘non-minded’? How can we lose ourselves in our meditation practice, and then reassert that lost self onto our daily experience so we can rehearse or reenact the transcendence we experienced in isolation?
The answer is that, well, I don’t know. This is one of the first questions that has emerged in my practice that truly confounds me. I think it’s worth stepping back and realizing that one’s individual practice is personal, and doesn’t have to confine itself to what one reads or even what one believes. In fact, having such a breadth of spiritual philosophies at our disposal does us the disservice of making us think we have to accept everything labeled as ‘spiritual’.
Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This is how we should approach spiritual writings. They are little bursts of fire that kindle our practice. They can move us and inspire us. But if we accept them wholesale, we become mere ideologues and dogmatists, albeit extremely confused ones.
Similarly, we should approach our own thoughts with this same curiosity and skepticism. What we believe is more likely to be untrue than true. It’s always evolving according to experience and whim. When we take our mindfulness too seriously, we begin to take the mind itself too seriously, and prevent ourselves from experiencing that transcendence of mind.
The gurus, specifically the extremely successful ones of the 20th century (Tolle, Osho, Chopra, Maharaj, Adyashanti, etc), will have you believe that nothing is wrong with life, that we invent our own problems. They say we are perfect as we are, life is perfect as it is, etc. But is life not inherently flawed? These gurus are telling us to accept everything, but we’re not naturally prone to live as they think we should. Hence, isn’t something wrong with us? I think yes, something is inherently missing in the human being; that’s what we wander around searching for in its multitudinous forms throughout our lives. Life is not as it should be, or could be, and that’s alright.
We shouldn’t pretend to be OK with everything all the time; that’s something idiots and cult members do. What we should do is recognize that we have the cure to our own ailments within ourselves, and respect this gift. Life isn’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. But there is no ‘perfect’ in nature’s vast machinery; we invent perfect, and we invent our own inferiority. We invent the idea that the world is ‘broken’ and then invent the ideology we think will ‘fix’ it. But ware blessed with self-awareness; we can use it to be mindful when we want to, and to transcend the mind altogether when we want to. We don’t need to let the fundamental paradoxes of life drive us crazy.
Ultimately, the lesson isn’t to follow credo X or give up Y, but to be kind to yourself. It doesn’t matter how often you meditate, or how chill you are, or how many spiritual books you’ve read; you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to think, “Life sucks,” or “Life is meaningless”. And if you can remember this simple approach of self-kindness and self-acceptance, it makes the dark truths of life and living more tolerable. We can accept our lot as strange, confused and dissatisfied creatures without pretending we’re something else.