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The spirit does whatever it wants with you
reflections on 12 years of on-and-off meditation practice
Here is one dramatically oversimplified way you can characterize a kind of spiritual path.
You enjoy meditating. At some point, during your meditation, you bump into this thing, this fundamentally different way of experiencing reality. It almost feels as if you were in a thick forest your whole life, and then you burst into a twilit clearing. It’s not your normal painful way of being, which is so grippy and harsh. It’s more expansive, more lush, more beautiful. You hear that people call it Spirit, or Awareness, and that sounds really cool.
You’re not the only one who knows about this. A lot of people access it in prayer, for example. And most people are comfortable with brief glimpses of this thing, knowing it’s there, communing with it occasionally. But you really crave it. You want more! So you become an effective seeker of this thing. You learn how to access it in more situations—when you’re driving, when you’re cooking. More and more, you can do this neat mental gesture, where you surrender what feels like a “small” self into a “big” self.
And then, one day, you notice that you’re more Big than Small. Like, most of the time, you feel a sense of expansion, ease, comfort with the flow of the universe. Maybe it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a boundary between you and the world anymore. People around you notice too, they say things about how you’re more present than you used to be. And you’re like, okay, good, we’ve got something here. This is working! Now I am Good at Meditating!
But you notice that there are still places in your life where you feel Small. And you would like to feel Big, all the time, you want a permanent infusion of the Spirit. So you go looking for that.
Right around here, things start getting really weird. You notice that Spirit, or Awareness, is what’s happening when you release your compulsive need to protect yourself from reality with thinking and planning. Like, there is this part of your brain, this scared animal part that says, “I need to be judging everything right now, or thinking about how to guard my reputation, or planning for some weird fantasy of how the future will go, or I will die.” It’s not exactly the inner monologue, but it drives a fair amount of the inner monologue. And when you relax that part of you, and accept, for a moment, that the universe is much larger than your judgements, and will continue with or without your consent, Awareness happens.
That’s not the weird part. What’s weird is that Awareness doesn’t feel like “you.” Like, it’s definitely not the bundle of stories, ideas, and emotions that you were calling an identity. It’s more like there’s a river, and your identity is an attractive piece of foil bobbing on the river. And, more and more, your consciousness feels more “river” and less “foil."
At this point, what are you doing when you’re meditating? It’s not totally clear that “you” are doing anything. You are just sitting down and letting Awareness wash over you. You are being meditated by space and time, which appears to be unraveling you at a fundamental level. You’re just surrendering “you” so that something larger can take over, something that is beyond understanding.
By the way, this whole time, you’re still working, living, making good decisions, making bad decisions, and, overall, acting relatively sane. Your personality is about the same as it ever was, although you are maybe 15% more serene. You tell people that meditation is fundamentally altering your consciousness. But this creates the expectation, in other people, that you would need to be different for this to be the case. Like, if your consciousness is fundamentally different, why can’t you fly, or read my mind?
So you decide to mostly keep to yourself about this—perhaps, for a long time, it is the thing that most concerns you, but you talk about other things, most of the time. You do end up yammering about it, a lot, but the exterior yammering is actually a small fraction of the interior yammering.
More and more, it feels like what you once were is disappearing, dissolving into Awareness. You are chill about this, because you now realize this has been happening for years, with no apparent deficits in your normal functioning, besides a few afternoons where you had to take work off because reality felt too strange.
But you still notice that there is some part of you that’s not fully surrendered to this thing. Somewhere inside you, you are still Small. And you reject that—you want to be all Big, all the time. What else do you need to do? What other fancy meditation crap is required? For thousands of hours, you fret about this, reading one meditation book, and then another, believing in this Enlightened person’s opinion about what’s really going on, and then another. All in search of the Secret Technique.
And then, one day, you realize: oh, there’s no secret technique. There’s no secret anything. The question itself is what’s stopping me from fully embracing reality. I’m not seeing what’s already there, precisely because I’m searching for it. The last distortion I’m placing between myself and the Spirit is the urge to see it. The search is the final problem, that little nagging mental process that says, "not here, not this, surely not this."
In this deeply relaxing, deeply humiliating moment, you realize that the searching voice is, itself, made of Spirit. Your whole stupid personality with its dramas. Your feelings of being pathetic and alone. This thing you were trying to escape: that’s what you were looking for. There was nothing else to begin with.
This realization brings this part of the search to an end, although it takes some time for you to really come to grips with it—that you do not get special powers, that all of your spiritual exploration, so far, was just a struggle to realize that there’s no question, so you don’t have to answer it. You kept telling people that you weren’t hoping for special powers, but deep down, you totally were.
The boundary between “meditation” and “life,” at this point, ceases to make sense, since your experience is always what you’re looking for. During everyday life, you are deeply in contact with Spirit, but now there’s no sense of escapism, no sense that you’re touching something exotic. It’s still deeply beautiful, but it’s utterly normal: it was always this way, there was no other way it could be.
As for meditating, when you were doing that before, you were just trying to look for something else, some other place to go. It’s clear now that this was never possible, and you’re not interested in trying anymore. You still sit down and do meditation-y things, because they have predictably interesting effects on your consciousness, but the basic project feels different: it’s not searching frantically for safety, it’s more like exploring the wilderness, which is home, and has always been.
You feel a deep sense of peace and gratitude, which you hope lasts for a long time. It might not. You’re just an animal—maybe you’ll get a brain tumor or chronic pain and you’ll stop feeling this way. Apparently, forgetting your nature is an inextricable part of your nature.
Somehow, this peace exists in non-contradiction with your full personality getting somewhat stressed out about your professional life and taking care of the garbage in the yard. In fact, somehow, taking care of the garbage in the yard now seems like the real quest, the really interesting dilemma.
There was nothing to learn, but you really needed to learn it—you, in particular, were just that oblivious. Also, you can’t take credit for it, because you didn’t do it. You had no choice.
People ask you if they should meditate sometimes, and you’re like, “I like it. It is somewhat complicated.”
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