Useful Concepts – #4 – Don’t Change Your Life, Use It!

Guess who had the following reading list:

  • Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass
  • Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunriu Suzuki
  • Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
  • Cutting through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa

Yes, it was Steve Jobs, sometime in the seventies, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. Isaacson tells us this, not least because it provides the intellectual – or maybe better spiritual – background for the minimalist aesthetics of what was to be Jobs’ global brand.

That spiritualism though was messy, often troubled and occasionally troubling compared to the clinical and secular mindfulness approaches we are more used to these days.

And yet… the teachings of the babas and zen masters, the Tibetan monks and Indian yogis of the seventies are the ancestry of today’s mindfulness practices. I was interested in what had been cleared out over the decades in order to get to 21st century Western approach to meditation, so I went back to Jobs’ reading list.

Baba Ram Dass was originally a psychology professor called Richard Alpert. Coming, in his own words, from a “Jewish, anxiety-ridden, high-achieving tradition,” he suffered stomach problems every time he had to lecture, despite having been through five years of psychoanalysis, and he lectured five days a week. That was before he experimented with LSD, went to India, found a guru, got his new name and returned to the USA to teach the spiritual wisdom of the Buddha, the Tao, Hinduism and Jesus.

Chögyam Trungpa, on the other hand, was born into a lineage of important Tibetan spiritual teachers, destined to be a monk and abbott but later decided to be a lay teacher. He fled Tibet when the Chinese took over, and moved first to India, then England, Scotland and the United States. In England and Scotland he fell out with another Tibetan monk, and according to one source, groped a Buddhist nun, claiming that “he had women since the age of thirteen.” He was an alcoholic who was left partly paralysed in a car accident after passing out drunk at the steering wheel. The meditation centre he was running attracted the attention of the police for drug use. In a famous controversy, he presided over a party where he decided that everyone should strip naked. When a visiting couple made it clear that they didn’t want to participate in these revelries and retreated to their room, he encouraged others to knock down their door, drag them to the party and strip them forcibly.

Clearly, meditation teachers were different then from the mindfulness teachers we are used to these days. Today’s purveyors of meditation practices are more likely to come from the mental health establishment than suffer mental chaos. They could probably set up a randomised, controlled double-blind study to demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness sooner than they could organise a naked drinks party. And they’d be more likely to create an app or some websites with guided meditation sessions than travel around the world seeking the status of a revered baba, guru, tulku or rinpoche.

But among all the chaos, Trungpa said and wrote some brilliant things about meditation and spirituality. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a fabulously written warning against phoney spirituality and overly self-satisfied meditation efforts:

“Self-deception is a constant problem as we progress along a spiritual path. Ego is always trying to achieve spirituality.”

And the useful concept of this blog post comes from something he says in that same book that was on Steve Jobs’ reading list. Trungpa says:

“Generally we prepare too much. We say, ‘Once I make a lot of money, then I will go somewhere to study and meditate and become a priest,’ or whatever it is we would like to become. But we never do it on the spot. We always plan too much. (…) We want to change our lives, rather than use our lives…”

And this is a great distinction: Change our lives, use our lives. Literally, all of the self-help literature tells you it can change your life. Titles like “Change your Life in 7 Days,” “Change Your Life in 15 Minutes,” “Change Your Diet, Change Your Life,” “Change Your Language, Change Your Life” abound. But, of course, these books don’t actually change your life. The focus of “change your life” tends to be on wanting to be richer, healthier, more beautiful, happier, have more friends, more love and so on. It tends to be on outward things, material things. It tends to be on what we have. Self-help literature tries to sell simple routes and shortcuts to getting more.

“I want to change my life” focusses on what more I could have, “I want to use my life” on what more I could do or be.

“Change my life” focusses the mind on a future state when I can be happy. “Use it” focusses it on what I can do right now.

“Change my life” focusses the mind on what life, the universe or others could do for me. “Use it” focusses on what I could do for myself, the universe or even others.

“Change my life” focusses on what we lack and are missing out on. “Use it” focusses on the opportunities and innate talents we’ve been given by virtue of having a human life.

This question “how can I use my life right now” might distract from “how do I want my life to be different” for long enough to actually generate some insight into what we could do that would really change lives – ours or those of others. And so using our lives, paradoxically, might just do more to actually bring change.

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