Meditation and mindfulness practices are no longer strangers to the West. In fact, with the overload of apps, books, seminars, retreats, and life coaches, the meditation industry is said to have grown to become a billion-dollar industry in developed economies.
In this day and age, it is not uncommon for progressive Silicon Valley companies to offer employees wellness days and encourage them to be more present and mindful in order to deal with workplace stress.
But a lot of the hype around meditation is superficial. The real and honest value of exploring meditative practices is to lead a spiritual life — not in any dogmatic sense, but in the sense of leading a life of rigorous introspection. After all, our minds are *all* we have: and observing them is of exceptional significance. Consciousness and it’s contents are at the root of everything in this world — pain, suffering, happiness, fulfillment, innovation, science, art, culture, and music. Consciousness is the one thing in the world that cannot be an illusion.
So how can one live life without studying the very nature of one’s mind? In New York Times bestseller, “10% Happier”, author Dan Harris highlights the importance of doing just this.
Alan Watts & Zen in the West
Today, we have no shortage of authors and thought leaders in the space of mindfulness. Some have taken elements of it from its mainstream manifestation in the West, while others have studied the tenets of Zen and Eastern Philosophy, where the acquisition of wisdom and introspection of the mind and of the human experience is prevalent.
Perhaps the most significant figure in recent history to have brought ideas from the East into the West is Alan Watts. Watts delivered mind-blowing lectures to his students in New York on the concepts of Zen and Vedanta, many of which can be found in playlists such as these.
In an effort to encourage his students to find meaning in daily life, to not take life too seriously, and to suffer less, Watts was pivotal in helping the West embrace mindfulness and Zen. On Meditation, Watts said:
Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. And therefore, if you meditate for an ulterior motive — that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your character, to be more efficient in life — you’ve got your eye on the future and you are not meditating!
The Mind in Neurotic Trance
Most of us go through life being in a sort of neurotic trance.
In his book, Dan Harris describes this experience as having a “voice” in our heads that never shuts up. Our inner dialogue, as Harris astutely points out, is spontaneous, continuous, chaotic and colors the entirety of our conscious experience. It is this dialogue that gives rise to the illusory sense of “self” that is responsible for all our suffering.
Though at first, it may appear counterintuitive to think that the self doesn’t exist (you might be thinking — what is she on about? of course I exist. I’m right here), there are many remarkable philosophers and neuroscientists such as Sam Harris (of no relation to Dan Harris), who help readers see that the self is, in fact, an illusion.
We all have the sense that there’s a ‘self’ bobbing at the surface of consciousness that is somehow responsible for our conscious experience, and that dictates everything we do. This sense of self lies in the rigid belief that most people have that there is an “I” who is responsible for and has control over everything that happens in life. This “I” has certain tenets of identity that are important to it: and that the external world is expected to view as important as well.
But this is an illusion. When we truly look for the self, it is nowhere to be found. In fact, many things occur simultaneously and spontaneously in the space of conscious awareness without any help at all from the “I” that we deem so important. Consciousness is happening prior to everything in this world: and without the ego’s knowledge at all.
Meditation is the practice of looking for the self and continuously failing to find it. Many people who have had deep psychedelic experiences will describe a similar loss of sense of self — and therefore feel a sense of oneness with everything else in the universe, including nature and other people. Once the self is identified as an illusion, this can bring great relief to our lives. The moment one learns to recognize thoughts as mere appearances in consciousness, and not identify with those thoughts, one is no longer lost in thought and therefore suffers less.
This is not to say that thoughts are not important: thoughts lie at the core of everything we remember about the past, do in the present, and hope to accomplish in the future. The key, however, is to learn that the next thought appears in the arena of our consciousness just as the next line arises in a movie we choose to watch.
In many ways, we are not the actors in the film, but the audience watching the film of life play out.
Shame, Embarrassment, and Other Workplace Struggles
Bring to mind a tense situation you recently had with a colleague.
Most of us run into such issues on a regular basis. How did you react? What were your initial, spontaneous assumptions? What mechanisms did you use to defend and protect your sense of self and your ego? Did you point towards the wrongness of your colleague, or did you contemplate sullenly over the unjustness of your situation?
What I like about the way that Dan Harris has written “10% Happier” is that he brings to light a lot of the embarrassing situations he himself would run into in the workplace that were the root cause of his suffering: getting snappy with colleagues, having his boss tell him that people dislike him, comparing himself to others, and obsessing over his appearance as a news reporter.
These are all relatable struggles for many of us. This is the sort of trance that most people are in without even realizing it. Harris, like a few others, was lucky enough to stumble upon the practice of deep introspection in order to improve the quality of his daily experience.
Initially a skeptic himself, Harris explains to the reader the multiple start-stops of meditative practice that beginners struggle with, as well as the frustration and lack of will power to sit still for moments of time that most people who have never meditated before experience. Then, after one pivotal retreat, Harris recognized that though mindfulness could not solve all of his problems, it does make him 10% happier.
The Impermanence of All Things
Through Zen, we learn that nothing in life truly lasts.
Harris, at some point in his life, realized the impermanence of all things. As he rightly points out, nothing lasts, including us. We will all eventually die. The only thing that matters is how we live our daily lives, and of what service we are to others (whether that be our loved ones or the wider community).
The root of lasting fulfillment, therefore, is to achieve a visceral understanding of impermanence: this is the wisdom of insecurity.
For Harris, among other things, it was the fear of losing his hair, which by his accords would make him an unlikely candidate for future success in the TV News Reporting business. It would mean the end of his career.
But our careers — like all other things, including material goods, our loved ones, our health, our bodies, our minds, and consciousness itself — are things that we and everyone we know are bound to lose at some point. A typical individual in the corporate environment often carries the same internal dialogue: what sort of marketable skills do I have? Why didn’t I get the promotion this year? What exciting future prospects does my career hold? How can I find fulfilling work? What’s next for me?
Because of the sense of self and our egos, our minds are constantly agitated, and never at rest. Our egos are responsible for comparison, suffering, feelings of inadequacy, yearnings, and desires for future states that do not even exist yet.
Does Ego (and therefore Competitiveness) Serve a Purpose?
As Harris suggests, those of us in competitive industries might wonder about the role the ego has to play in giving one the ‘edge’ to succeed in the workplace.
We often think that by losing our egos, we’re losing a part of ourselves. In actuality, we’re gaining a lot more insight, compassion, attention, and fulfillment that has the happy byproduct of making us better at everything that we’re doing in the present moment.
When our egos are at play, we lose control over what we really and truly have: which is the present. In the process of hoping for the next career move that will make us happy, the next promotion that will allegedly fix our issues, or any other future prospect of food, weight loss, or relationships that we think will make us happy, we miss out on the wonderful things happening in the present state of consciousness.
Moreover, what we fail to realize is that even when we achieve all of the things we desire, the happiness is momentary. Impermanent by virtue of simply being an appearance in consciousness, the high of happiness, accomplishment, and the acquisition of material goods will undoubtedly pass. Think about the last promotion or job you got: how long did the high last? How quickly did suffering and insecurity creep its way back in into the narrative of your life?
Neuroscientist Sam Harris aptly describes the experience of becoming aware of one’s conscious experience as “waking up”.
What “10% Happier” does is point to the importance of this process, especially for those of us who think we don’t need it. Ultimately, if everything in life stands the risk of being lost, what should we do? How should we live it?
Is it possible to be happy prior to acquiring everything else in life? Is it possible, then, to be happy even after losing everything? Ultimately, this is the question that every one of us ought to ask and answer. And if we look close enough, we’ll learn that the answer to these questions is “yes”. Adopting eastern philosophies intellectually, and practicing mindfulness allows us to see that prior to creating a sense of self and ego that experience life, there’s a deep sense of intrinsic well-being that most of us are fortunate enough to have throughout our lives.
So, do it. Start by reading this book. Download that meditation app. Read about these concepts. Learn about what the eastern mystics have to say about enlightenment and everything in-between. Don’t live a passive, ordinary, life dictated by the monkey mind. Instead, live a life of rigorous introspection.