Looking back at age 19, when I was ‘surfing the webʼ for free texts on meditation, I could have never imagined the extent to which it has become accepted into popular western culture. I remember sitting on my mattress with my eyes closed reciting my new mantra, worried someone would come in and see the strange boy doing weird things.
I had been reading Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg and delving into the west coast of the 60ʼs. Leary, Watts, HST, Keasey and Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It felt like as a collective they had hit a nerve and would change the world, but the world had just swallowed them up, outlawed their visions (and substances) and moved on.
I loved it and, as I tend to do, started trying to emulate their lives. One aspect of this was meditation and mindfulness. I sure as hell did not become enlightened. If anything I did better at mirroring the worst aspects of their influence (half of that list died untimely deaths due to alcohol) but I did find some benefits from my early limited exploration of the practice. Over the years I have returned to it, in small doses, usually at times of stress or turmoil, thinking it might be a bandaid for much larger issues. The thing with mindfulness practice though, itʼs just that, a practice.
There is a Zen Buddhism saying that I have always loved:
Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood and carry water.
The root of many of our problems in the west can be found in that simple phrase. We tend to seek things for the ‘outcomeʼ. When I was sitting down on my mattress in 2001 focusing on my breath, I was not embarking on a lifelong journey of practice. I was hoping for some euphoric, transcendent experience that would take me away from the realities of my existence. We treat money, sex, fame, food the same way. For example:
Before getting rich work hard. After getting rich buy yacht, date Brazilian supermodel, cruise the Amalfi coast with a galley full of cognac.
From an early age, our culture instils in us the notion that things are always going to get better and bigger and faster. As a 10-year-old you knew, beyond doubt, that your computer or video game console could double in speed, power and amazingness every year. We grew up expecting the world was just built that way.
School taught us to crave rewards – the high school I attended, one of the ‘bestʼ in the state championed grades above all else. It lauded itself on the ‘outcomesʼ of its education (a High Tertiary Entrance Ranking) rather than the education itself. My year 12 history course may as well have been titled “How to score 95% plus in your Modern European History Exam”. The modern, western human struggles to understand the reality of having to carry water after enlightenment, surely someone else will do that once you have become a bodhisattva? No?
Amongst this mentality though, Mediation, Mindfulness, Yoga and Health have become mainstream. All the cool kids are meditating. Every personal growth, self-help and business book on the shelves lauds its powers. Calm was the biggest app on the market last year. Amongst all the modern noise are we really craving stillness, or are we looking for another quick fix, a fad diet for the mind?
I canʼt answer that – hopefully, it is more than a passing phase and the west starts to embrace a more thoughtful, holistic approach to being. I would be interested to see the analytics on Headspace. I would assume that their retention rate is pretty low. Sign up, take two, three sessions, gram it #socalm and six months later stare at the $19 bill on your Apple account with mixed feelings of pride and shame.
Itʼs like the gym. You know you should go. You know you feel better when you do, but cʼmooon I have better things to do tonight! Practising mindfulness is probably harder than physical exercise though, especially in 2019. Our levels of distraction and the demands on our attention are higher than they have ever been in human history. When was the last time you went for a walk without headphones in? The last time you took a shit without your phone? God forbid!
I am a terrible hypocrite and as much as I love the essence of carrying water after enlightenment, in my heart I know I am dreaming of that yacht and all that cognac. So for the past few months, I have gone back to the practice. Not trying to reach Nirvana but just taking a few moments each morning to sit quietly with my breath and try and cultivate some stillness amongst all the distraction. If it is not something you have ever tried, it is worth grabbing Calm, Headspace or 1 Giant Mind off the App Store and giving it a whirl.
Expect nothing and you might just find something.