I wonder how often the person we are is the person we aspire to be?
Many of us strive to create a life and an expression of ourselves we can be proud of.
But what if we can’t?
And what if our sense of wellbeing is bound to the degree to which we are or aren’t that person?
I’ve had times when I thought I was on the right track, or at least facing in the right direction. But recently I’ve had to admit to myself: things are not going all that well, and this is a patter.
This wouldn’t be so bad in itself. Of course we all have setbacks, we all struggle from time to time, and we all experience moments when life seems to turn against us.
But what if this experience is pointing to a deeper, more painful truth? What if the state of things now is an accurate indicator of the state of things to be?
Right now I’m facing the reality of mounting evidence that I don’t have the character or aptitude to be that person to which I aspire.
It’s hard to take. I’ve based most of my adult life on a sense that we can evolve, that we can overcome adversity, that with hard enough work, or by taking a risk, our efforts shall be rewarded.
That’s a narrative we’ve been fed often enough — from the American Dream, to my daily Facebook feed of coaches and influencers. But what if it’s just not true?
It’s a tough pill to swallow for anyone who aspires to something greater than where they’re at right now.
Hard work doesn’t always pay off. Usually you won’t get that break. Maybe you don’t have enough resilience to keep going. Maybe you don’t have the patience to become a master. Perhaps your lack of mental health will sabotage everything you try. Illness or injury might scupper your dreams.
I don’t mean to bring everyone down. Promise.
I actually think there is a deeper lesson here, one we’d be wise to learn.
Though we’re often told to have courage and go for our dreams, what if the greatest courage is found in accepting everything as it is right now?
That includes the things you’re ashamed of. That includes all your failures. That includes the things you may never have. That includes the sadness all of this entails.
Surely the bravest, most incredible thing anyone can do is to simply to accept things as they are.
Then what does that feel like? It hurts, right? But look a little closer. Try. What if you could accept it all? Now how does that feel? And where can you go from here?
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” ~ Seneca
If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
Ok it’s about time somebody said it. There is way too much stupid, weird and wishy-washy language banded about in spiritual circles. So much in fact that I don’t like to use the term ‘spirituality’ at all. Its useless to me. Wasted. Irrelevant.
It’s so easily associated with so much stuff that is lacking in critical thinking, removed from reality and alienating to people not participating in the ‘spiritual’ arena, what ever the hell that is.
Yet, at the same time, we also understand the term ‘spiritual’ to indicate the highest of human qualities. It implies wisdom, depth, and compassion. A commitment to something larger than oneself. The great men and women of our time are often said to have these qualities.
I lament the fact that the word ‘spiritual’ has so many uses and meanings. I’m sure many people who would benefit from engaging with practical teachings about the mind and how to live a meaningful life are put off by a weird world of tarot, angels, mediums and astral realms.
Walk in to a bookshop and go to the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that some of these things might have some value, and could be really interesting to explore but can’t we just use another name for them please? ‘Spiritual’ language, while perhaps sometimes inspiring, often just isn’t applicable to the reality of our daily lives, and frankly it’s often embarrassing to use the ‘S’ word.
Frequently its vocabulary serves to reinforce a framework and perspective of the world that is akin to religion: long on preaching, short on relevance, and all too often requiring belief in something that may or may not exist.
Of course spirituality in its broadest sense is about many things, and many interpretations of these many things. For me though, what I wish the core of spirituality came down to is this: developing compassion for ourselves and others through gaining insight into the nature of our minds.
I think it is important to define spirituality in these terms because in doing so we get down to what is most universally applicable and important. We make it secular in nature and more relevant to those who might benefit from its insights but have no time or interest in fluff. We strip away all the indulgent and seductive aspects of spirit and make it human again. Apposite and of use, right now.
What greater ideal could there be than to be at peace with our experience of the world? And what is it that filters our experience of the world and determines the quality of our mood and perception of ourselves and the world? Mind. So it strikes me that if what we truly want is to be content and live well, we have to start with our mind.
This definition of spirituality is essentially an enquiry in to the nature of who we are and how we work at the most practical level. It’s a secular definition that should alienate less people and could apply to everyone.
It brings us together, ‘spiritual’ and ‘not spiritual’ folk alike, demonstrating that these definitions do not really exist: we all want to make the best of our minds and our experience of reality.
It’s all spirit and no fluff. It requires no belief in anything you can’t see or can’t prove and it’s concerned with our real lives, right now.
We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.
1) Meditate first thing in the morning
It’s a simple truth for most people that meditating first thing in the morning is easier. You might be tempted to leave it for later in the day but meditating in the morning means you’re working with a more rested and empty mind.
It also means you set yourself up well for the day – the commute to work will not be so bad and you won’t be such a grumps in the morning. Hell, you might even feel really happy!
2) Start doing yoga
The whole original purpose of yoga ‘back in the day’, was to prepare the body for meditation. Despite involving just sitting on your ass, you might have noticed that meditation can actually be physically quite demanding, with aches and pains a real distraction.
Yoga is the perfect compliment to meditation because it opens up the hips and strengthens the core, meaning you can sit for longer without pains creeping into your neck, back, knees, shoulders, and wherever else.
If you currently sit in a chair, you may find that yoga can help you transition to sitting in a half or full lotus position, perhaps facilitating a deeper experience.
3) Don’t get attached to notions of good or bad meditations
This is a biggy! It’s easy to think that meditation should be this or that. Especially if we read books about spirituality or blog articles by meditators, it’s easy to think that we’ve failed if we don’t experience oneness, bliss, love, light, enlightenment, energy flows and other such clichés.
This is not what meditation is about. Meditation is about the practice of observing and allowing the contents of your awareness. If you simply do this you’ve succeeded. It doesn’t matter if you feel grumpy, tired, hungry, sexually aroused, harassed by your thoughts, or united with the supreme godhead, meditation is about observation and letting go. Simples.
4) Go on a retreat
Going on a meditation retreat might seem a little intensive but it’s a great way to discover the power of meditation. When I attended my first ten day silent Vipassana retreat I was amazed how positive the affects were.
I felt more creative and inspired than ever. I was happier and more relaxed. I felt more positive about the future. Sure, the long hours spent meditating might involve a bit of discomfort but the potential ROI is big.
5) Listen to a guided meditation
If you just can’t get into it and you’re frustrated by your wondering mind, don’t worry. This is all part of the process at certain stages. Having said that, you might find it helps to gain some extra direction through a guided meditation or a binaural beats sound recording, rather than just meditating in silence.
This is how I started, and though I discarded these tools after a while they helped to first get me into my practice.
6) Go to a local meditation class
Forget books and talks, there’s no better way to learn how to meditate than to meditate. Going to local classes exposes you to different styles of meditation, forces you to actually do it, and connects you to other meditators.
You never know, you might even find some of them are nice people who become friends and motivators for your practice. At times for example, I’ve really enjoyed going to Buddhist classes as the teachings about the mind are just so bang on. See what’s happening in your town or city and sign up to an introductory course.
7) Wear earplugs
This might not sound like the most profound piece of advice you’ll hear about meditation but I promise it’s a good one. I only started doing this recently and I wish I’d done it sooner.
The world can be a noisy place sometimes, with cars, noisy kids, domestic disputes and refuse collectors all doing their best to ruin the morning peace. There is an argument for being as mindful as possible while you meditate to this soundtrack but there is also a lot to gain from meditating in peace and quiet.
Find some decent foam earplugs and discover how much deeper you can go. This is also a godsend for meditating travellers on the move, who never have to worry about another crowing cockerel again.
8) Swim, shower or drink coffee beforehand
Meditating when you are sleepy can sometimes be frustrating and counterproductive. If this is a problem, do something to wake yourself up first, particular if you’ve just been sleeping. I always jump in the shower before meditating but coffee (don’t listen to your ‘coffee is bad for you’ yogi friends) and exercise will also do the trick. Swimming is particularly refreshing if you have access to a nearby pool.
9) Set your alarm clock early
If you’re not sure how to fit meditation into your busy routine, I have a simple solution: set your alarm clock early by the amount of time you intend to meditate for plus ten minutes. It might sound like a sucky thing to do but you’ll soon get used to it, and the energising affects of meditation first thing in the morning will give you back the rest you missed.
I used to recoil at the thought of such a thing but now cannot even consider leaving for work without getting my fix.
10) Try different styles of meditation
There are many styles of meditation out there, and while no particular one can be said to be the best, there’s sure to be a style that just works better for you. If your current practice is not really doing it, try some others. It could be just the refresh you need. I found moving to an open meditation instead of concentrating on my breath did wonders. Don’t endlessly try different styles though, find what works for you.
11) Meditate everyday
Whether it’s for three or 30 minutes, the benefits of meditation stack up the more you do it. Short on time? Woke up late? Doesn’t matter. Just do what you can – a little is better than none.