Reflections on 26
July 30, 2019
I turned 27 last week, and I figured I'd do some reflecting. It's been an important year.
I started year 26 of my life in the middle of a silent meditation retreat in Spirit Rock and soon followed it up with the 3-month retreat at Insight Meditation Society. In a way, I see this past year as "the 3-month retreat and the integration after", and it appears that all those retreats kicked off a process that I'll be integrating for the rest of my life. In the past year, there's been a noticeable transformation in my subjective experience, and the best way to describe it would be to say that I've been letting go.
When I started my intense spiritual quest at the beginning of 2018 and scheduled a year's worth of retreats, I had a burning desire to find out what enlightenment was, and if it was real, to attain it. This desire manifested as me working my hardest during the meditation retreats to attain deep states of concentration and have mind-blowing insights. I sat with the purpose of progressing in meditation so that I can get closer to awakening.
During the three-month retreat, Joseph Goldstein, one of the first American vipassana teachers, had a Q&A session during which he said that "there is nothing to want". I had come across this teaching many times before and had always struggled with it. This time was no exception. Wasn't it a good thing to want enlightenment and seek it wholeheartedly? Also, how could you not want anything, including enlightenment, unless you were already enlightened?
Over time though, teachings of that sort suddenly started making sense and the seeking energy that had driven me completely dissipated. This is one of those things that you can only really understand experientially, not intellectually, but I'll explain some of what changed in my conceptual understanding. Suffering arises from attachment to desires, not the desires themselves. It might seem like a trivial distinction, but the way that you relate to your desires makes all the difference. I think a lot of the confusion arises from the breadth of words like "desire" and "want", which don't distinguish between scenarios of wanting without being attached and wanting while being attached. Imagine the difference between wanting to drink water out of habit versus wanting to drink water because your throat feels parched on a hot day. You "want" water in both cases, but the energy behind the wanting is completely different between the scenarios. In short, desires become problematic when you develop attachments to them.
In the case of meditation, I had been attached to the outcome of the practice. If I didn't reach a particular state that I saw as "better", I considered my meditation practice a failure. But as the attachment to progress fell away, the feeling of seeking something also disappeared. I don't doubt that there's a lot of territory I have yet to explore and much more progress I have yet to make, but now it just feels like I can let the process happen on its own rather than trying to get something to happen. Before, getting lost in thought meant that I was bad at meditating and that I needed to develop my skills and progress to the point where my mind was absolutely clear. Now, getting lost in thought just means getting lost in thought. The thoughts simply come and go, and I'm not bothered by them because they don't change the inherent openness of awareness itself. I've found that I can accept that progress is possible without trying to force the progress to happen. And in a funny way, letting go of the attachment to progress actually feels like immense progress. The teachings I had struggled with had been pointing at something profound: It's not about having any particular experience but changing the way you relate to experience itself.
This practice of just accepting things as they are has also affected my life outside of meditation because after a while, the line between "meditation practice" and "everything else" disappeared and all of life just became the continuous practice of meditation. As a result, I find myself mostly resting in the sense that everything is perfectly fine, or put another way, that nothing really matters. I want to carefully explain that though, because "nothing really matters" or "there is nothing to want" is also how depression is often described. The way that this shows up for me is not a sense of hopelessness but rather a sense of freedom and ease, where life appears as a playful dance. A helpful metaphor by Adyashanti, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, is to picture someone playing a game of Monopoly. Imagine that they think their life depends on winning the game. They fret over every move and suffer every time that they land on someone else's property and have to pay a fee. But if they realize that it's just a game, their perspective on the game suddenly completely changes. It doesn't matter whether they win or lose — it's simply irrelevant. They can continue playing, but they're no longer attached to the outcome.
I'm not exactly sure how this shift in perspective happened, but the falling away of attachments seems to have resulted from what I see as the two major movements of spiritual practice: letting go of control and letting go of identity. The first movement comes from recognizing that everything is simply arising and passing away without any control on my part, and the second movement comes from recognizing that there is no "me" that is separate from everything else. The two movements appear to be deeply interconnected in that one naturally fosters the other. When faced with them, the only sane thing I could see left to do was to fully surrender and let go of any attachment to control or identity. In doing so, I found that I could simply trust and let things unfold rather than try to make things happen all the time. It feels like I've gone from driving and meticulously trying to control my life to simply riding in the passenger seat and letting life drive itself. It feels like existence is expressing itself through me rather than me being an entity that exists separately from everything else.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I want to clarify that I'm not in some perpetual psychedelic experience constantly basking in radiant ecstasy. Everything I described above feels absolutely ordinary. I'm not spontaneously bursting into tears of joy while eating lunch due to the beauty of the oneness of the universe — I sit there and chew my food like everyone else. But now, there's no internal resistance to simply being ordinary because life is already inherently extraordinary.
For most of my life, I had been entirely focused on becoming: I wanted to become successful, I wanted to become interesting, I wanted to become someone great. But over this past year, a new orientation has taken root: Can I stop becoming and just simply be? Can I just rest as the space in which everything arises? Can I be perfectly comfortable being as I am rather than always trying to become something other?
One of the misconceptions that I held when getting into meditation was believing that having insights would automatically work through all of my conditioning and that my personality would become a pristine bundle of charisma, compassion, and joy. I thought that meditation would eliminate all of my shortcomings and bad habits. But I've been learning that in order to fully accept reality as it is, I need to embrace my humanity as well. I'm not perfect, nor will I ever be. I might still get annoyed at my parents or feel awkward in social situations. I might still occasionally find myself binge-reading One Punch Man until 4am wondering what the heck I'm doing. And that's perfectly okay. It's all just life doing its dance.
If you're the ambitious type, parts of this might sound kind of terrifying and even undesirable. After all, if everything is perfectly okay all the time, wouldn't that mean you'd lose the drive to become better and do great things with your life?
The way that I see this now is that having goals is fine, but becoming attached to them and staking your well-being on the achievement of future goals is to miss the point. After all, what's the point of achieving a goal? We strive to accomplish our goals because we think that doing so will make us happy. But if you can learn to be happy right now, independent of conditions, does it matter whether you achieve some arbitrary goal you set for yourself? As paradoxical as it sounds, the only goal that seems to matter is getting to a place where goals no longer matter. You can play Monopoly, but it's crucial to realize that it's just a game.
That said, this is an area that I'm still actively exploring. For most of this year, I had a really strong aversion to setting goals entirely because it felt so contrary to just letting everything be as it is. But going that far might not be necessary. Goals are undoubtedly useful tools for setting intentions and orienting oneself in a particular direction, and I'm working on learning to set goals and hold them gently so that they don't turn into attachments.
Given that these shifts in perspective are quite new (it hasn't even been a full year since I entered the 3-month retreat), many of these insights feel like they have a lot of maturing to do. I still have moments where my old perspectives pop up and question how I see things now: If I stop caring about success, won't I end up dying lonely and broke in a ditch somewhere? How do I know that I won't change my mind later on and regret simply letting things unfold rather than trying to make great things happen like everyone around me? Is it possible to let go of too much? Am I sure that I know what I'm doing?
The only one of those questions that I can answer with confidence is the last one: I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know how long this perspective will last or how it may change over time, but that's perfectly okay, too. I can rest in this uncertainty knowing that the most important thing is to be honest with myself and continue being earnest in my exploration. After all, life seems to be less about finding the answers and more about living the questions.