“Man Describes How Meditating Made His Life Hell” – a catchy headline in a world where mindfulness meditation is beginning to get traction from Silicon Valley conferences to boardrooms, to the backrooms of churches somewhere in Bumblefuck, middle of nowhere. Of course, someone had to ride the “dark side” meme eventually.
And yes: Meditation can make your life hell.
The spiritual path is not one without perils. If you are not willing to face your deepest horrors, you might want to stick to a less reflected life… like, kinda like, go shopping, watch some TV, join a political party, or chose a church or cult that requires blind faith.
There is a dark side to Meditation. You don’t hear much about that side, though – which is a pity. Many of the “spiritual” people I know stick to unicorns and daisies (oh, and rainbows). Most “spiritual” teachers and programs don’t advertise that you might have to face your darkest demons, climb out of holes of despair, and waver on the brink of insanity. I guess it doesn’t sell so well…
Spiritual, Holy or Numinous?
In general, when people talk about “spiritual” they often associate enlightening, wonderful, blissful experiences; a sense of union with everything, the connectedness every one of us yearns for in the isolation of awareness of self, of “I”.
As a meditator, I have to say my world overall has become more wonderful, blissful and it is easier to feel connected. But the more bliss you are able to experience, the more blunder you have to be able to transcend. The “Holy”, that which we perceive as bigger than ourselves does include both sides of the coin. There is no light without the dark.
In his 1923 book “The idea of the Holy“, Rudolf Otto coined the term “numinous” to describe the encounter with the “divine” in a more neutral fashion than “holy”. He argued that when using “holy” we tend to neglect the experiences of the “Mysterium Tremendum”, the mystery that makes us tremor – shiver in terror.
After over 25 years of studying yoga and various esoteric systems from East and West and having used almost every opportunity to push my consciousness, widen my lens of awareness and capacity to pay attention, I have to say many of the resulting experiences were less than pleasant:
It wasn’t even as much the purposeful work like the Bon meditations where I imagined my body ripped to pieces or dissolved in acid, the six hours of tensed muscles in a hot desert riding out a San Pedro lesson on frustration, or that near death experience akin to Dante’s inferno with screeching demons coming at me that seemed plenty real at the time. It was more often the other side of life that really shifted me.
Everyone grows – whether they want to or not
Many “normal” life experiences spur some of the largest growth and transformation: job loss, lack of money and existential troubles, divorce, illness, death of a close one, general loss of meaning… In these “Swamplands of the Soul” as James Hollis calls them in his book, we find the most growth. And this happens to everyone at some point. In a way, everyone is on a spiritual path and our external world is simply the reflection of the process. We change all the time, but only occasionally fully transform.
Die before you die
Transformations are experiences of death. Our old self dies an often slow and painful death and we find ourselves in purgatory before our new self has the opportunity to come through the birth canal amidst painful contractions in order to be born. It is not a cakewalk. Many people transform only a few times in their lifetime, but when you chose a transformational lifestyle, a quest toward the most growth you can achieve in one physical body, you will push to die as often as you can before you eventually do so physically.
If that sounds like too much to take on, you can use meditation merely as a tool to increase your awareness and attention, your ability to focus, your overall neurological performance. There are plenty of studies that show the benefits of meditation. You can use mindfulness training completely outside any “spiritual” context even. But sooner or later it will get you. A friend of mine once told me that it is impossible to read esoteric books and not pay the price eventually. I was much younger then and wasn’t really sure what he meant.
Years later, I understand. Everything we do has consequence and once we enter the path toward self-awareness, we will become aware of self and will have to face not just our own personal programming, but that of our families, our personal DNA, and eventually even that of our entire cultural and species context. The funny thing is that everyone alive is on that path, whether they know it or not. Engaging in meditation simply accelerates the process and provides keys to the lessons along the way.
One “spiritual” lesson is that when you do eventually decide to consciously ride down that road, then don’t blame the horse if things go wrong…