by Michael W. Taft
During the “Calvin and Hobbes” part of childhood, I had a very clear career goal. My grade school teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and the other children raised their hands, saying things like fireman, doctor, and archeologist. I, on the other hand, ardently desired to become a Viking. I was convinced that by becoming a Viking, I would live my happiest and most authentic life. The books about Vikings in the library were disappointing in their details about how to become one, but they contained lots of great pictures of ships, helmets, and badass axes. I would sail the seas with the wind and saltspray in my face, doing, uh, exciting stuff.
As I grew up a bit, and gained some knowledge about the world, I got more insight into how things worked. It became obvious to me that a career path as a Viking wasn’t really what I wanted—and was impossible, to boot. Despite the fact that I had been in love with my seafaring and pirating dream, the loss of it wasn’t a sad or tragic moment. In one way of looking at it, however, this new knowledge (ship)wrecked my dreams. But more deeply, it was just a matter of seeing the world more clearly.
Something similar is going on with meditation practice. When people begin working with me as a meditation teacher, I often jokingly tell them something like, “meditation will wreck your life.” And while I’m saying it in a spirit of fun and amusement, the message itself is completely true: Meditation will wreck your life. It is absolutely guaranteed to uproot outdated beliefs, reengineer your viewpoint of yourself and the world, maybe even shake you to the supposed core of your identity. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature of the practice. It is, in fact, its purpose.
When done correctly, meditation is about utterly changing your relationship to yourself, your world, your beliefs, and your god(s). If it’s not doing that regularly and predictably, then you are either doing it wrong or not practicing it enough. Meditation transports you into the heart of the unknown, the core of the mystery. If all it’s doing is shoring up your old viewpoint, belief systems, and preoccupations, then you’re only getting a sliver of the actual benefit available to you.
It’s the revolutionary aspect of meditation that often gets lost, obscured, or forgotten in our current upbeat embrace of mindfulness in the culture. Mindfulness is touted as a tool that will help you relax, concentrate, innovate, and achieve your goals. And it’s quite true that it will do all those things effectively. Mindfulness works. The part that gets left out of the discussion, however, is that if you practice it more than a little bit, it may equally well make you question your goals to the point where you completely reevaluate them. You may even abandon them. You may leave your relationship because you realize it’s dysfunctional beyond repair. You may quit your job because it becomes obvious that it’s toxic. It may result in the loss of friends or in moving to another state or country.
Like any useful tool, meditation is powerful, and in some ways that makes it “dangerous.” Meditation is terribly uncomfortable for people who believe that they already know the truth about the world. Or who believe, period. But that is really the whole point of the practice. In the end, it will show you a much clearer picture of you, your life, and the world around you. And you may suddenly realize that you don’t want to be a Viking anymore. And, while in one way of looking at it, that might seem sad or tragic, in my experience it’s one of the most beneficial things that can happen to you. You become disillusioned in the most positive sense of that world. The old structures of your life fall away. It’s happening to me every single day.
After each deconstruction comes re-construction. An experience of each moment that is radically fresh and new. From the deepest places inside a true aliveness bubbles up that moves you and moves through you. It is wild and passionate and incredibly gentle. It communicates your values, desires, and dreams and follows them with a spontaneous, open ease. You realize that it’s not the certainty that brings the true joy of living, but the uncertainty. In a way, it’s like sailing out over an unknown ocean. Life itself becomes a create your own adventure book.
So, if you don’t want to change anything about your life, I wouldn’t recommend meditating. If you are certain that life is just the way you believe it to be, or are too brittle or complacent to have your boat rocked, meditation is definitely a bad idea. Then again, it may just be the best idea you ever had.
photo by Nick