February 07

Stop Seeking: Paradoxes of the Spiritual Path

Jay Michaelson

1. Stopping Seeking Takes Seeking

My new computer desktop catches attention sometimes. "Stop seeking," it says in large white print, surrounded by black. This, perversely, is the point of the spiritual search: to learn to stop seeking. But not in the way it seems.

Stopping seeking actually takes a great deal of effort, because human beings are genetically and environmentally conditioned to seek all the time. Every moment, most of us are thinking about the future or the past, chasing something pleasant, or trying to avoid something unpleasant. Sometimes we're just clueless. And once in a blue moon, we're sameach b'chelko, happy with what we've got. But usually, in ways so subtle that they escape attention, we're seeking something.

For example, as I write this on a train, some people are reading (seeking distraction, information, entertainment, etc.), others are trying to sleep, others are talking - all of us subtly looking for something. So ordinary it goes without saying, and of course nothing wrong with it, except that seeking necessarily involves a little bit of suffering. See what happens if you seek distraction but can't find it. Or what happens when you can't sleep. Or can't get your work done in the way that you would like. And, for me, even when I do get what I want, there's the potential for suffering when it's taken away, or when it doesn't fully meet my desires. Or when, having enjoyed it once, I want to taste it again.

Seeking also necessarily privileges something which isn't here (i.e., that which is being sought) over that which is. From a religious perspective, if “that which is” happens to be What Is, that is, YHVH, the Divine, well, that's quite a shame: God may be everywhere - but how often can I say hineini, here am I? From a non-religious perspective, it's obvious that life is more worthwhile when you're there to enjoy it. How many times have we all eaten a meal and barely tasted the food? Let alone had sex while worrying about how it's all going.

To "stop seeking" is thus to start living. Naturally, searching, wanting, needing, and righteously arguing all have their place, but the processes of waking up, drinking more deeply from the well of life, and pursuing the mystical path are all about slowing down the seeking and inserting more and more pauses in the mind's relentless, evolutionarily designed efforts to search for that "something else" that is going to bring happiness.

Paradoxically, to stop seeking also requires seeking, because it takes effort to be effortless. Once in a while, we are forced to stop seeking, as in peak experiences of amazement or delight or danger. And sometimes life is so pleasant - holding a baby, relaxing after sex, eating a gourmet meal - that seeking stops on its own. But most of the time, to learn to stop seeking requires some kind of work - in particular, a search for the ways in which seeking is still going on, and the ways it can be, if not stopped, at least relaxed a little bit. This "search for non-search" could be as simple as remembering to relax or as life-altering as having kids, or meditating, or religion. But what it really is about is the purification of the present moment from desires or fears of other ones. It’s about showing up.

2. Seeking to Stop Seeking Can Stop Stopping-Seeking

Of course, there's always a catch: in this case, at least three of them. First, seeking ways to stop seeking can become, itself, a narcotically addictive search. Comparing this meditation technique against that one. Searching for ever-more-transcendent peak experiences - "well, I did really forget myself and stop seeking last time, but I'd like to do it even more." Falling into the trap of thinking that it's the particular way of walking that matters on the journey, instead of showing up for every step of it. Talking about meditation instead of doing it. And, despite oneself, turning the whole thing into a goal-oriented process with goals and accoutrements. It's said that spirituality can turn into a kind of narcissism, but narcissism doesn't quite capture the angst of unbridled self-reflection. After all, Narcissus just saw his beautiful reflection - in meditation, you see an ever-more-clarifying picture of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus endless self-reflection can end not in clarity and calm, but neurosis and paralysis.

Second, there is what Trungpa Rinpoche called "spiritual materialism," in which the path to non-self becomes instead a path of gratifying and pleasing the self. Yoga, meditation, prayer, entheogens, energy work- all of these can easily become about enriching, enlarging, and serving the self, when they are meant to do the opposite. Spirituality can become an a consumer lifestyle, and a way of enhancing, relaxing, and generally pleasing Me - witness the success of the ego-empowering Kabbalah Centre, and the promises of eternal youth from some of today's most financially successful institutions. Even a sincere motivation for learning can becomes twisted: the search for occult, hidden realities can lead to both surprising truths about subtle energies that otherwise escape our notice - or a great cosmic treasure hunt, in which the goal is to know as much esoteric nonsense as possible.

Third, and most familiarly, because spiritual practices bring about highly pleasant mind states, and among the most indescribably beautiful sensations I have ever experienced, they can spoil precisely what they are meant to enhance. Give me more of the mind-blowing contentment, bliss, and sensations of unity I feel on meditation retreat - the regular pleasures aren't enough. Like a connoisseur of wine no longer being able to enjoy ordinary merlot, I only want the extraordinary stuff. Thus the practice of waking up to ordinary pleasure can undermine exactly that.

In all three of these cases, the search to stop seeking becomes, itself, a search with goals. It's tough, because, as goals go, bliss, contentment, and the deepest joy I've ever experienced are pretty good ones - and my experience is that meditation brings them about. But that is one of the paradoxes of the spiritual path: like love, you only truly experience it when you're willing to let it go.

3. Stop Seeking for a Reason to Stop Seeking

There's one final way that the search for not seeking itself becomes a search, so insidious that I and many other contemplatives still wrestle with it all the time: the search for a justification of the search itself. Naturally, since spiritual practice takes a lot of time and effort, and since it gets sneered at by many smart people, those of us who do it spend a lot of time explaining why it's so important. Not just something we want to do, and not just something which helps life be a little juicier, a little more meaningful - but really Important. Thus one hears all the time that "the purpose of our being here is to awaken to who we are," or that people who aren't "awake" aren't truly happy. Nonsense. That's just the New Age version of Jews thinking they're the Chosen People, or Christians thinking that only Christ can save you. The fact is, we spiritual seekers want to be doing what we're doing. That's it. We notice that it brings us more happiness, more joy, more equanimity, and we want that. Maybe we're just more dissatisfied than other people. Maybe we just like new mind states. But the rhetoric that "what I want is the most important thing to want" is just odious, no matter how soothing the voice that says it.

I've come to a place in my meditation practice where I'm okay with saying that it's just my preference to do it. And I understand that, for many people, a less-reflective life is simply more enjoyable. I look at my friends who used to argue about Hume or Kant, Proust or Thomas Mann, but who are now quite obsessed with putting their baby pictures on Flikr - and they seem perfectly happy living a more or less conventional life. Perhaps they're too busy to question the meaning of it all, or perhaps they no longer want to, now that non-rational answers to those questions are right in their arms, or needing a diaper change. In an exchange with my editor here at Zeek, he had occasion to say, as he reviewed my latest round of religious self-questioning, that "one reason why I am so much happier now that I was a few years ago was that I'm a) too busy to do much contemplation and b) 'settled.' I picked a city, a partner, and a level of religious observance and declared to myself 'here I am.' It works most of the time."

There was a time when I would look down on this kind of "settling," either blaming it for all the unconscious evil we do in the world, or castigating it in the name of Socrates. But no longer. I do still think that some degree of "afflicting the comfortable" is necessary to keep us honest - without some way to disturb the calm of a peaceful, bourgeois life, it's quite easy to be ethically irresponsible and spiritually somnolent. But there are many ways to do that, and many comfortable, settled people who are, after all, quite responsible and awake.

Nor do I buy into the myth that meditation is really for everyone. For many people, the resistance to meditation does indeed come from fear - fear that can be productively lifted through meditation. But for many others, it's just not of interest. On the contrary, I sometimes wonder why it's even for me. Why am I not simply satisfied with the ordinary, un-enhanced, un-mindful pleasures that most people seem perfectly content to enjoy? Yes, at the extreme, such a lifestyle is a degraded form of human existence: draining away in front of the television, marching from mall to SUV and back again, being programmed by the vulgarities of pop culture. But that's just the extreme, and a bit of a cliché in any event. Usually, life provides its roller coaster of pleasures and pains no matter how prosaic the daily routine. Some are too intense, others are too dull. But some are quite nice. What's so bad about that?

Although there are plenty of possible answers to that question, I think searching for one is just the kind of "seeking" that the spiritual search is meant to arrest. Why do we contemplatives need to explain why everyone else is not a contemplative? Why can't we admit that we're on the spiritual path because we want to be? Because it's what we like to do? Personally, I find meditative practice leads to more enjoyment of the simple pleasures of my home, my lover, my career. But I also find it interesting in and of itself. Exploring ideas, refining the mind, and learning the subtleties of attention and desire are not, for me, stages to go through until I "find myself." I find them interesting on their own. Isn't that enough?

Now, it's also true that I am just the kind of person who likes to explore, explain, and articulate. As Alan Watts once asked rhetorically, "Why not sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of 'things taking their course' that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses."

That effortlessness, that justificationlessness - that's the ticket. If I keep trying to justify my search for not seeking, the stories will never end. "Maybe I do dislike my ego more than some other people do. Maybe I was just raised neurotic, and so spiritual practice is more important for me than for other people. Or maybe I just can't figure life out, dammit, and am too weird to be successful like my more mainstream-writer and lawyer friends." Now, in the life that I have chosen - "integral" on good days, "fence-straddling" on bad ones - some of this "bad" seeking (comparing, striving, demanding, berating) is inevitable. It's hard to cultivate enough ambition to succeed but not so much that success becomes the only goal, and competition the only way to achieve it. It's also hard, having given up a lucrative mainstream career, not to look at my peers who stayed on the straight and narrow, and flourished. So... stay with me... I'm learning to stop seeking the reason why I'm seeking to stop seeking.

See, isn't spiritual life fun?

4. The Kicker (God)

Most of the wisdom of "stop seeking" comes from the four noble truths of Buddhism, which boil down to the observation that suffering exists because of clinging/seeking/wanting/thirsting, and that it can be ended by learning to stop seeking so much. What's great about the Four Noble Truths is that, now that the Buddha said them, they seem intuitively correct, and, more importantly, can be tested in a relatively short period of time. But there is one final element, which might just be - in Joseph Goldstein's words - the kicker.

Stopping seeking is more than just good for you, in the way that flossing is good for you. It is the only way to turn down the incessant demands of the ego so that it's possible to identify not with the ultimately unreal "small self" created by the illusion of interior consciousness, but with the greater processes of which each being is only a part. This is the Buddhist teaching of anatman (non-self), the Vedanta teaching of tat tvam asi ("you are that"), the Chabad teaching of acosmism: that what seems to be "me" isn't really me at all. Sure, I seem like "Jay" most of the time, especially when "Jay" wants something. But when I look at this personality closely, I really do see how all of its myriad pieces come from somewhere else: my upbringing, or my education, or wherever. "Jay" is really just a bundle of these other things, a temporary one at that, and a bundle which, on its own, never actually does anything; it's always one of the other things. A tactic I learned as a child; a talent I was born with; a way of speaking I picked up along the way. Each act, each decision, and each preference is ultimately ascribable (and, on a quiet retreat, observably so) to one of these sticks in the bundle. So what is so important about this "me" that needs to get fed, and that thinks that if it doesn't get what it wants, the world is somehow in disarray?

The "me" is a phenomenon, but not an important one, and it is possible to stop identifying with it so much... by stopping seeking. And then the "non-seeking, non-desiring mind" (in Zen teacher Genpo Roshi's words) can actually be revealed for what it is: sufficient, blissful, ever-present, enlightened. And not "me." If you've never actually experienced that mental space, where you really don't want anything, this all probably sounds quite vague. But if you've been there, you know it transcends words.

Even in talking about the "non-seeking, non-desiring mind," however, there's a bit of seeking, of justifying, involved. Am I, at such moments, really in touch with Kosmic Mind, Brahman, God, or whatever? Certainly, it makes sense on paper: if the self is an illusion, a phenomenon that only exists when seen from a certain perspective, who is doing all this knowing, if it's not "Jay"? And it also does feel that way, as if the quality of the universe's knowing is present in my own, miniature knowing as well. It feels quite certain indeed. But then, we feel certain about a lot of things that turn out not to be true. Which is it - cosmic consciousness, or a nice bit of relaxation?

What I've found, lately, is that the claim to cosmic consciousness is itself a form of seeking. As if it's not enough that meditation makes me happy and opens my eyes to pleasure and pain - it has to also take me to God, which is somehow more present when I'm relaxed than when I'm stressed out. As if "God," rather than simply experience or insight, is somehow necessary for the deal to be worth it - and that God has a certain flavor, which is exalted or great or wise. As if something has to be holy to be worthy.

Whereas, when I'm able to sit back and let be whatever will be, then real receiving (kabbalah) can take place. Then God, in the sense in which I understand the term, really does show up - precisely because I'm not looking for God, labeling an experience as God, or in any way claiming something is or isn't God. This is not the God of special mind states, particular revelations, or spiritual "holiness" in the way that makes you want to wave your hands in the air, but the omnipresent God - the one who shows up not because God wasn't there before, but because I was looking somewhere else. And so, as one of my teachers once said, stopping the war has no limits. Again I relearn and relearn and relearn: Stop looking somewhere else for God. Really - stop looking in every way. Stop seeking.



Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek. He is the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice. Jay will be moderating a discussion on whether the Torah can really be used as a basis for liberal values on Febuary 20.