When I was a young boy growing up in a christian home, my mind was already ultra curious about the bigger picture. I was told that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus would go to hell. I would ask, “but what about the people in the Amazon who never even hear about Jesus—do they too go to hell?”
By age 12, I intuited a picture much bigger than christianity; but, I was also intrigued by how seriously so many people took their Christian beliefs, as well as other religious and philosophical positions.
I was determined to be different.
In the course of my ongoing self-growth work and spiritual practice, there’s one quote I come back to time and time again.
This quote is at the core of all my offerings, from meditation to coaching to being a friend. It captures the whole journey so beautifully, concisely and simply. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s my life philosophy. Here goes:
“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
About midway through my time in Myanmar, I was on a bus sitting next to my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. In the background was the cacophony of talking voices, traffic horns and music blaring from cheap speakers. It was very different from my quiet monastery. While I tried my best to stay aware, I was easily pulled from my meditative state.
I turned and asked him, “Sayadaw, do you find all this noise and activity distracting?”
“Not distracting,” he said in his broken yet clear English, before adding, “awareness is always there.”
Around that time, I was very closely observing him. I knew his teachings, but how did that translate into how he lived? How was he while conducting a group interview? While eating? While casually talking? While on a bus? Continue reading
Even though there’s a number of skills involved with meditation, the most basic marker of successful meditation practice is the extent to which you can be continuously aware.
Meditation is a skill like any other skill. Just like most kids who first try and ride a bicycle aren’t very good at it, so too are most people who start meditating not very good. However, with time and diligence, a person gets increasingly proficient.
In educational circles, there’s this thing called competence theory, which does an excellent job of describing the stages of skill acquisition. Here’s the four stages and what they’d look like for the most basic meditation skill.
1) Unconscious Incompetency
Most people who’ve never engaged in body or awareness practices are at this stage. They don’t really understand the difference between present moment awareness and non-present moment awareness.
When they start meditating, they either don’t get what they’re supposed to do (pay attention to my body sensations? Huh?), or they just sit quietly ruminating and think they’re actually meditating. Generally, they have no idea how scattered their minds are or how much they’re enslaved to their impulses and emotions. Continue reading
I’ve never been stuck in quick sand, but as a child I watched enough cartoons to know it’s not exactly a pleasant experience. You’re literally stuck.
While you may never be strolling the dessert and fall into a pool of wet sinking sand, you just as much as myself and everyone else will regularly face inner quick sand—places where we get stuck.
Maybe it’s a bout of anxiety or having to do a bunch of things you don’t like. Maybe it’s low motivation or hearing some bad news. So when you’re stuck in your quick sand,
What to do? What to do?
Imagine for a moment we pixelated your self-structure, like an old school television—not just one coherent picture, but 1,000 little colored pixels that make up the screen.
In your self-structure, some pixels are your good qualities, such as kindness or patience. Some pixels are your “difficult” qualities, such as depression or self-judgement.
For a lot of my life, I had trouble falling asleep at night. I would usually lie there for 30 – 60 minutes until my thoughts slowed down enough to allow me some sleep.
It wasn’t just at night. All day long, the thoughts in my head went on and on and on. I had difficulty paying attention to lectures or reading books without lots of mind wandering.
At the same time, I became very skilled at analysis and articulating myself. People always said I was very thoughtful and discerning. This felt good to hear.
In other words, I became very good at thinking, but I paid a price for it—not being very present in other aspects of my life.
I often wondered if there had to be this trade off. Couldn’t I be both good at thinking and present in my life?
One approach to spiritual practice is to tune into your “high-road” vision—your deepest aspiration for your life. From there, you begin to explore what obstacles are preventing you from living that vision, and removing them one-by-one until your life is your vision.
Say your vision is to live creatively, simply and soulfully. After many years of trial and error, you’ve found your calling through playing the violin with a modern twist. You are good at what you do. However, you still have a lame day job, a few destructive habits, a difficult relationship with anxiety, and some bad relationship patterns you can’t seem to break free from.
There are two basic flavors of life-changing insight.
Firstly, there are the spiritual insights, which always pertain to something about the eternal present. Maybe it’s perceiving the sacredness of all things, awareness splitting off from the ego, or dropping into a boundless love.
Secondly, there’s the human insights, which refer to meaning, purpose and choices. Maybe it’s figuring out your life’s calling, realizing it’s time to leave a job, or understanding the meaning of your friend’s death.
In either flavor, the insights happen totally unpredictably—some call this grace. Maybe it comes through a peak experience in nature. Maybe through a profound absorption in song or dance. Maybe through the deep stillness of sitting meditation. Or, maybe through nothing special, like cleaning the bathroom sink.
Lately, I’ve been playing around with shamanic journeying. Mostly just in my own house, while listening to recordings. In the past, I’ve done them in a group setting while a shaman filled the room with sage and steadily thumped on a drum. A fun experience, for sure. However, more than the fun, I’ve been particularly excited about comparing and contrasting the different methods of mind exploration.
In relation to mindfulness meditation, one big similarity is that they are both founded on a certain degree of mental stability or non-distractedness (aka samadhi). If a person intends to do some mind exploration, but is just lost in a sea of compulsive thinking, they won’t get very far in either. However, if they can take even a baby step beyond that, they’re in for a real treat.
As for the core difference, mindfulness is interested in the nature of experience while shamanic journeying is interested in the content of experience. Let’s unpack both of those interests.
I really like to meditate. It’s the most important thing I do every morning. If I have a few minutes (or an hour) free at some point later in the day, my default is to be still and meditate rather than look at a screen or a book.
Part of my natural enthusiasm for meditation is that I’ve logged well over 10,000 hours, and now I’m actually pretty good at it. However, this hasn’t always been the case. For a long while, I sucked pretty substantially.
My first experience with meditation was a semester-long course in college named, Meditation and Relaxation. Once, the teacher had us take deep, conscious breaths, counting one on the inhale, and two on the exhale. We were supposed to see how high we could count before we “blanked out,” got distracted, lost in thought, or forgot to consciously breath or keep counting. I usually couldn’t make it past five. My record was around ten.