At one point, meditation focused on the expansion of the self. Today it is packaged as a tool to fix everything.
“The attempt to satisfy greed is like drinking salty water when thirsty. When lost in greed we look outward rather than inward for satisfaction, yet we never find enough to fill the emptiness we wish to escape. The real hunger we feel is for knowledge of our true nature.”
— Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
When systems come along that encourage people to shed objective interpretations of truth in favour of moral and ideological relativism, it’s dangerous. If this sort of framework falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to justify needless suffering and degeneracy among the powerful. I’d like to explain how I believe this has happened with mindfulness in popular discourse. Some of the most popular meditation apps and services have turned mindfulness into a product, selling it to consumers as a band-aid for their problems. How did we get from Lao Tzu’s “the world is won by those who let it go” to “meditate and get rich”?
We can look to Silicon Valley for the short answer to the problem. Americanised Zen has its own roots in the Californian counter-culture; it took a leap of faith to embrace Japanese esoterica just two decades after WWII. People in the establishment weren’t interested. So Zen became a hip and rebellious thing to do for a while. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs did it. Alan Watts preached to cultural high-priests from his houseboat in Sausalito. Steve Jobs “found himself” in LSD, India and DT Suzuki before founding one of the largest corporations in the world. The Beatles learned transcendental meditation before becoming billionaires. Eastern spirituality was reserved for a truly stylish elite; it was a way of signaling one’s embrace of an exotic foreign culture while simultaneously embarking on a self-beneficial spiritual quest. What more could a hippie ask for?
Fast-forward 50 years – former hippies rule much of our strange world. The cultural climate in the world of technology is the establishment; the five largest tech companies are responsible for most of the world economy’s growth. Those youthful ’60s rebels are now nearing retirement age as CEOs and policy-makers, while younger CEOs inherited their parents counter-cultural values, using them to shape the world. And the culture they birthed contains within it certain elements of its own past. Tech culture emerged from ’60s counterculture, but those progressive ideals are no longer hip or edgy. They are the establishment, and they’re a lot more consumer-friendly than they were in their infancy. Enter stage left: meditation for the masses.
People find it so difficult because they use it as a tool to solve a problem. This is a fundamental misconception. Our obsessions with our careers, possessions and achievements come from the spiritual vacancy left by modernity. Only by loosening our grip can we understand ourselves.
Today, meditation is sold to consumers in a truly bizarre way. It’s touted as a productivity aid, an eye-opener, a self-medication for anxiety and other tech-induced ailments. Hedge fund managers use it to curb their stress. Programmers use it to focus. Celebrities use it to solve the inevitable spiritual crises in their hyper-materialistic lives. And, as always, the masses have followed suit. In short, it’s sold back to people by the very cultural forces responsible for making them so maladjusted in the first place. For this reason, meditation-as-product, or meditation for the sake of a material goal, will always fail. And it does, for a lot of people.
Meditation for the confused is like drinking salt water when you’re thirsty. People find it so difficult because they use it as a tool to solve a problem, and that isn’t what it’s for. It’s like trying to drive a couch; you can try but it just won’t work. Meditation only becomes “useful” once we let go of its usefulness entirely and do it for its own sake. This takes practice, but that’s what spirituality is: a practice.
It’s better to be aware of this than to pretend that meditating with a goal in mind will ever be anything other than misguided. The benefits of mindfulness come from learning to let go, not from learning to grasp and cling more deftly. This is a fundamental misconception, the result of people being told that meditation will fix things in their lives. That’s our modern Western cause-and-effect logic talking; it has nothing to do with spirituality. Our obsessions with our careers, possessions and achievements, in fact, come from the spiritual vacancy left by modernity. Only by loosening our grip can we understand ourselves.
In an odd inversion, meditation starts solving our problems once we stop trying to use it to solve our problems. It’s paradoxical, sure, but it’s true. This is because most of our problems exist in our own heads. We look in the world for solutions when the solutions exist within us. And that’s all we’re doing when we practice mindfulness. We’re listening to ourselves patiently and gently, letting everything come and go. The answers emerge over time. It’s not a task to be completed, but a process to participate in.