At a certain point, after years of resistance that led to suffering, I had to admit that this is it; there is nothing in this life that can compare with the self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy that is sustained by a rigorous meditation practice.
This point arrived for me in late 2002, after I had already spent seven or eight years consciously “seeking enlightenment” one way or another.
The question of “enlightenment” is perhaps fodder for another article. My point here is that the quest for a nebulous goal called “enlightenment” is a familiar thing for many of us, and the journey usually entails all sorts of starts and stops and diversions. There’s lots of conflicting information out there, and most of it does not lead to succor; it leads to more neurosis than we began with. This is the morass into which I descended during the above-mentioned seven or eight years, leaving me (metaphorically) quivering in a corner, totally baffled and lost.
During those seven or eight years, having already experienced ecstatic phenomena for which I had no explanation or guidance, I meditated (in a floundering sort of way) here and there. I attended satsang and met online gurus, while working at a metaphysical bookstore that allowed me to read widely and deeply into various spiritual traditions.
Having earlier obtained certification as a Jungian Archetypal Psychotherapist, there was a nagging sense that I should be seeking more credentials in order to work as a therapist. Or, I should be getting published and building some sort of identity as this or that sort of healer. Always, there was a belief that something was being avoided, which meant that there must’ve been something wrong with me, since I could not find within myself motivation toward fulfilling some sort of role in the world.
Instead, I stayed in my cave, venturing out every so often to attend a talk by a traveling teacher. I engaged with my wife in long talks about the nature of enlightenment, the result of which seemed to render any sort of action in the world moot.
Lethargy and stasis set in.
Working unsatisfying jobs for too little money continued. I reminded myself that, at least I could pay some bills, keep a roof overhead, put food in my belly, and still have plenty of time and energy for a spiritual pursuit.
* * *
In 2002 or so, I finally received meaningful guidance that spoke directly to the difficulty I’d been having in finding an identity in the world, or in choosing a direction that would be acceptable to the beliefs and conditions under which I’d been operating all my life. This competent guidance gradually let to a rigorous daily practice that, once adopted, has been my strength and stability ever since.
I turned 40 that year, at which time a firm conviction arose that said, “For better or worse, this is who I am, and this is who I will be until the day I die.”
During the intervening seven or eight years, a gradual deepening of self-acceptance has occurred.
This self-acceptance is of the nature of surrender.
This surrender is of the nature of realizing that the expectations I’d previously carried in life — many of them involving livelihood, home ownership, eventual retirement and so forth — meant nothing in comparison with the self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy that had saturated my entire being as a result of rigorous daily meditation.
It’s not that the elements of these expectations have been rejected out-of-hand. It’s just that I’ve had to admit that these are not (for me) valid pursuits in and of themselves. They represent “nice things,” but their arising will result from a natural expression of something true and authentic within me — or they will not arise at all. This is the knowing that finally dawned on me.
* * *
As time has moved forward, a new and pleasantly unexpected phenomenon has begun to emerge.
This phenomenon is of the nature of an opening heart, and it creates a life-motivation based on reaching out to others and helping to meet their interior needs, using whatever gifts I may possess.
* * *
There remain issues of financial viability, for myself and my family. There remain questions about the future and my participation in it. I do not deny the need for money in this world, nor the requirement for a certain level of material “security.”
The important event, in my view, is that self-acceptance as a contemplative — and the surrender it entails — has opened me to a peace, ease and contentment that was not possible before.
To the extent that I continue with my daily contemplative practice, combined with an ongoing willingness to engage others from this perspective, I understand at a very deep level that a profoundly appropriate existence is being sustained and matured, slowly but surely. This is no experiment; this is simply how it works.
* * *
My advice to others who struggle with a tension between contemplative values and worldly values naturally follows from the experiences described above.
A dedicated, rigorous and skillful contemplative life may not be for everyone. But for those who, like me, literally have no choice in the matter, I can suggest that surrender is the path of least resistance.
Structure your life around your practice, and don’t be afraid to give that practice several years to embed itself into the fiber of your being.
This restructuring around a contemplative practice will (depending on your present circumtances) possibly produce conflicts and disillusionment in the workplace and/or in close relationships. Prior to complete self-acceptance as a contemplative, there will likely arise the urge to ditch your practice in order to “fix” the turmoil and chaos of your life. You will find that such an effort to “fix” things only leads to more suffering, as your energy is being spent on diversionary pursuits. When push comes to shove, stick with your practice — it will prove itself to be your most loyal ally, your truest benefactor. Let the rest change or fall away as it will.
I am not saying that you should quit the world in order to starve in a cave (as opposed to a street corner). I am, however, suggesting that if you have truly arrived at a profound insight into the fact that you are a contemplative before all else, you will eventually need to put a rigorous and skillful daily practice (including meditation, mindfulness training and study) at the center of your universe, allowing everything else to conform to it. This process is liberating, and it will simplify your life in ways that you may not have thought possible.
At some point, in answer to the question, “Now what?,” it will become apparent that yours is a valuable, worthy and noble existence. This does not mean that you are better than anyone else, nor does it promote an egotistical sense of spiritual superiority, as ecstatic meditation consumes all of that in a “slow burn” of transformation. The inner work that you do is something the world needs in myriad ways. It will dawn on you that you have certain innate gifts, some of which have already developed in ways that you’d previously discounted. Opportunities will gradually emerge that challenge you to use these gifts, and a genuinely altruistic motivation will develop within you.
This motivation will emerge from a place of love and gratitude, such that it becomes important to avail yourself to others who desperately need your support and assistance.
When (after perhaps several years of individual practice — who knows? — no pressure!) you begin to respond to the interior needs of your fellow human beings — many of whom are drawn to a more contemplative existence within an alien and difficult material reality — the universe will support your unfoldment, despite individual conditioning that says it won’t.
This process unfolds gradually according to a particular person’s varied qualities. No single blueprint applies to everyone.
The important thing is to examine yourself with ruthless honestly. Have you approached life from an inauthentic perspective imposed on you from without? Has this perspective led to suffering and anxiety as the years roll by, producing in you the terrible sensation of having “missed the boat?” Has this perspective led to a belief in personal failure?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then perhaps it is not you who has failed. Perhaps it is an inauthentic set of beliefs around your purpose in this world that has failed you.
And if this is the honest truth, I would invite you to accept yourself and your lot in this life.
I would invite you to embrace the contemplative in you, and to make a firm decision to honor it for the rest of your days — to honor it by building your life around it, trusting that this firm conviction is but the beginning of a life that has always awaited you.