Meditation is not a life hack

Today I listened to the New York Shambhala Center’s podcast, Meditation in the city. The episode was “The Householder Path”, a talk by Susan Piver.

At the very end of the talk, in response to a question, she said,

“Meditation is not a life hack. It is not a self-improvement technique. It is a chance to hop off of the self improvement treadmill […] of wanting to read everything and become a better person, and be super fit, and be richer, nicer, taller, shorter, whatever… there’s constant exhortations from our world to become better. As if who you were right now was not good enough. […] And we could even take our meditation practice on as a way of becoming better. A better leader, a better person, have better brainwaves, whatever it may be. But if you can let go of that, and we all have reasons to take on meditation and that’s fine to have those reasons, but if you could let go of those reasons while you practice, and just practice, it will help enormously.”

I’d like to expand on this idea and explain why letting go can help, and why we at Shambhala Centers have a fundamentally different view of meditation than those who are teaching meditation as a mindfulness technique or a way of self-improvement.

We see confusion about this at our Shambhala Center, as more and more people hear about meditation as a life hack, as a way to make themselves better. Many people come to us and say, “I am stressed out at work. I get angry easily. I get frustrated. I hear that meditation will help me concentrate better, that it will stop me from feeling so all over the place, that it will allow me to be calm and peaceful. Please teach me how!”  They are seeing meditation as a way to improve themselves, like there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed.

That is a natural way to feel, when this world we live in is increasingly chaotic and filled with pressure from all sides. Of course we feel like there is something wrong with us when we are being told this from all directions! When you are stressed out or sad, it is easy to feel as though that is your own problem that you need to solve. If only you could stop being stressed out, you would be a better person. You are looking for a technique that will remove the stress, or give you control over your own mind. You have a measurable result that you are looking for, and if you reach that goal, you will be better.

You may see some meditation articles online that talk about controlling your breath, maybe even literally counting how many times you can breathe in and out without losing concentration. This technique involves holding very tightly to being mindful. You are either being mindful, or not being mindful. If you find yourself not being mindful, then perhaps you feel bad about yourself. You weren’t concentrating as hard as you should be. You didn’t do a good enough job. Maybe if you keep doing it, you will get better, but right now you’re really bad at it.

However, the Shambhala view, and really the Buddhist view, is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you. You have, inside you already, a fundamental nature of goodness, of kindness, of wisdom and of strength that you can touch and feel directly in meditation. You can, at any and every moment, feel these qualities within yourself. By connecting to, and directly feeling your own true nature, over and over and over again, you begin to become it.  You begin to see yourself as a good person, a person who is already strong and kind, and does not need to change anything. You begin to see this very moment as a good moment that does not need to be changed.

You are paying attention to your own wakefulness instead of your lapses in concentration. Your mind may wander, but that moment when you realize that it has wandered is a wonderful opportunity: it is the moment in which you can connect. You can relax and feel your own body, breath  and mind fully, right here, just as you are, instead of beating yourself up over a wandering mind. There are of course many nuances and layers to this type of meditation, but the basic premise is that we are flipping this idea of self-improvement on its head. You do not need to improve anything, you can simply connect with what is there already. You can wake up to your own basic nature of goodness, to the magic of now, to the world around you, and see how wonderful it is!

This meditation is not a technique to remove stress or to improve concentration. There is no measurable result that you are looking to achieve. You do not start your meditation session with a goal, and then beat yourself up if you don’t reach the goal. As Susan Piver said, it is an opportunity to jump off that treadmill, to let go of it completely.

This meditation inevitably results in a feeling of compassion towards others, in more patience and attention to your life.  You will notice changes, but not because you have improved yourself, and not because you are any different- it’s because you have woken up to your own nature, you have finally let go completely.

The self-improvement type of meditation is disconnected from the rest of your life. It’s like looking at meditation as exercise for your brain: you do it for 10 minutes a day, or maybe 20 minutes, and slowly your concentration improves or your stress drops as a result of what you did for that 20 minutes. You don’t need to think about meditation for the rest of the day, because you’ve already taken care of that task- now you can focus on your job, or your family, or whatever, just as though you ran around the block or lifted weights.

In Shambhala, you see your whole life as an opportunity for meditation. You are not meditating to improve your life. Your life IS meditation, your meditation IS life. You are connecting with the world around you and the people around you and your own brain every second of every minute of every day- you’re doing that already, whether you meditate or not, whether you realize it or not. By seeing meditation as a path to waking up to yourself and your world, you are able to work with that when you are doing the dishes, when you kiss someone you love, when you are alone and sad. You are able to see the magic and opportunity in every moment and it becomes a natural extension of your more formal meditation sessions, instead of just the things that happen after meditation.

As a Shambhala Center, we provide a community where you can explore these ideas and see what it means to trust this principle of basic goodness, both in yourself and in society.  Just as an individual can reach enlightenment, so can society, and it is this principle of enlightened society that Shambhala is especially interested in. By helping people to connect with their own basic goodness, we inspire and encourage a community of people who can work, play and enjoy each other on the basis of their mutual trust in their own basic goodness.

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