On the third session of my most recent six-week meditation workshop, a man I’ll call Richard raised his hand – it was clear he was very eager to share. Richard was a confident, accomplished man in his late sixties with a firm handshake and a resolute eye. He was the perfect combination of focus, fearlessness, willingness, and wonder – the ideal meditation student.
“You know Peter,” he began, “I just really want to thank you for what you’ve taught us. I’ve never meditated before in my life. I didn’t know the first thing about any of this stuff, and it’s been amazing.”
“I’ve spent my whole life getting things done and being very successful. I’ve led companies, I’ve built things, and I’ve traveled all over the world. By most measures, I’ve been very successful. But now I know something was missing. Ever since the first session of this meditation workshop there’s been a shift. I was always really good at playing a role, but I didn’t know who I was. I never even thought about it. But now that I’m meditating every day, I’m coming to know someone I’ve never even considered – the real me.”
Everyone in the room leaned in.
“Let me tell you just one story about a meeting I had. I met this man through a mutual friend. He’s a very wealthy, very powerful guy. In the past, I would have been a little intimidated, but for some reason, I wasn’t. We got to talking about a business idea I had, and he was interested. So he invited me up to his Orange County office to discuss it. When I drove up there, before I went in, I sat in my car and meditated – you know – like you taught us, the body scan, the deepening, slipping beneath the thought-stream and shifting our identification to the inner witness, the whole thing. And it was amazing. Our meeting was scheduled for thirty minutes, and we talked for two and half hours.”
“How did it feel?” I asked.
“I was so calm, so peaceful,” he said. “Free.”
“How would you have conducted the meeting before you’d learned how to meditate?”
“The old me would’ve run that meeting very differently. I wouldn’t have had any of that stillness inside. I would have pushed my ideas on him, hard. I wouldn’t have heard a word he said. I would have been racing inside, and scheming and planning. It would’ve been about closing the deal, no matter what. But instead, I saw him as a person, and we connected on a very human level, and from that relationship all of the details just fell into place. Instead of the heavy burden of having to force everything, I trusted the stillness. Suddenly, everything became effortless and easy. Creativity was happening without my interference. Instead of making it happen, I was watching it happen.”
You could’ve heard a pin drop in that room. Everyone knew exactly what he was talking about – the mysterious way that meditation leads you to a place where solutions and connections rise freely on their own out of the depths of your own experience, solutions and connections that your surface consciousness simply cannot muster on their own. Some call it intuition. Others call it divine intervention. And others call it spiritual realization. Whatever you call it, it works.
A week later I was having lunch with my friend Swami Harinamananda, the resident monk at the San Diego Vedanta Monastery. Hari is young, warm, kind, brilliant, and movie star handsome. We were swapping origin stories about how we’d found ourselves in these curious lives, he a celibate Hindu renunciant and I a married householder, writer, and teacher. We’d ended up in such different places, but in many ways our paths were the same. We were both first-generation Americans – his parents were from India, mine from the Netherlands. From the outside we had been reasonably accomplished and competent young men, but inside was a different story. We’d learned how to play the game, how to fit in. But behind the mask swirled a sea of doubt and tempestuous emptiness. I sought refuge in grad school to become a philosophy professor. After he finished grad school and spent some years in the professional world, he sought refuge in a monastic order.
One day he went to see his swami at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood.
“I had known the swami my whole life,” he said. “He had always been such a kind and loving teacher. There was just something about him. When he walked into the room, you could feel his presence. I was about to pour out all of my questions, my doubts, my confusion. But he just looked at me, and instead of solving my questions he dissolved them.”
Hari paused. The other patrons in the mostly empty Thai restaurant receded into the distance. The air carried a faint electric charge. The colors got brighter, deeper.
That’s it, I thought. Not solved, but dissolved.
The Katha Upanishad calls it “spiritual osmosis.” When wisdom simply becomes you. Not as conceptual thought, but as wordless awareness. It feels like it comes from outside of you, from another person, and in some ways it does, but really, it rises up from the one ground of being which we all are. Plato was right. Wisdom is recollection. But sometimes it takes a meaningful encounter with another to shake us awake to our essential nature.
This is why guided meditation is so important. Of all the spiritual and philosophical practices in the world's wisdom traditions, meditation cuts through illusion the quickest. Study is wonderful, devotion powerful, and selfless service essential. But meditation, even in the early stages of practice, parts the curtain that hides us from our essential authenticity. Meditation doesn't deliver you to exotic modes of transcendent consciousness. If anything meditation leads you around and back to the miraculous ordinariness of your own life. Through tears of recognition you realize that this is what you've been longing for – to feel finally at home in your own skin and in the heart of this beautiful world.