“I’m feeling…” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Centered and resilient.” Everyone smiles and nods approvingly. The man next to her, with his hair in a bun and an om sign tattooed on his wrist, takes a moment before speaking, choosing his words carefully. “I’m feeling grateful that I could share this space with you all and engage my body and mind in this way.” Everyone smiles and nods approvingly. My eyes cannot roll back further in my head. Now it’s my turn to share. Instead of telling the truth, that I’m choking on bullshit, I give a similar response: “I’m feeling peaceful and present.” Everyone smiles and nods approvingly.
Prior to sharing our feelings, we’re scattered around the small, mostly bare studio, which is sparsely decorated with succulents and figurines of Narashima, Ganesha, and Buddha. We’re bending our knees, bouncing up and down, while the instructor is screaming at us: “You have stuck energy that needs to be unstuck! You need to bounce! You’re stuck! Stuck! And don’t forget to breathe, please! You’re stuck!” She calls this exercise “meditation.”
It was kind of fun doing this bouncing thing. I got a good laugh out of it, even though I paid $20 and it was not actually meditation as advertised. I couldn’t help but notice a jarring similarity between a New Age hippie telling us we need to be unstuck and a Christian preacher telling us we need to be saved. The only difference is that one uses pseudoscience to defend herself and the other uses an ancient misinterpreted text.
I remember once hiking with one of my best friends, Heather. After fifteen minutes of climbing the steep incline, we arrived at a bench, the first resting point and landmark, overlooking the Greater Los Angeles Area. “This view!” she exclaimed. “I’m going to do a sun saluation!” Watching her spread her arms and perform this act over the city, I thought, “What is the difference between this sun salutation and Christians doing the sign of the cross?” It isn’t any different, just a new generation of followers participating in ancient rituals. (For the record, I totally love Heather and support her journey. These are all observations, not judgements…okay, maybe a little.)
In the past couple years, spirituality has become super trendy, but it’s no closer to the mark than before. The symbols and language have changed, but it’s just old ideas repackaged and mass-produced for millennials, available to purchase at Lululemon and in the gift shop at SoulCycle. Boutique yoga studios and energy healers have replaced churches and priests. Mandala tapestries are the new Last Supper paintings. Gratitude beads instead of prayer beads, lotus flowers instead of crosses, “namaste” instead of “amen,” and The Universe instead of God. Different, but the same. We think we’re more enlightened now because we’ve updated the vocabulary, but there hasn’t been any fundamental shift in our shallow, materialistic, competitive culture. As Alan Watts wrote, “Egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed.”
I grew up in a strong Catholic household with eighteen years of Catholic education. Instead of making me a devout follower, it had the reverse effect. I rebelled against the rote and the unquestioned traditions, which seemed distracting to me and irrelevant to what was actually important at the core. I always found myself wondering: What does any of this have to do with God? Why would God care if we did X, Y, or Z? Like many of my peers, I was agnostic for many years, turned off by anything resembling religion. It wasn’t until much later, through reading various books and practicing meditation, that I understood real spirituality, not as a mental concept or supernatural belief, but as an experience. Ironically, it was an institution that helped me come to this conclusion.
I’ve been frequenting the Shambhala center for about a year now, but I didn’t embrace it right off the bat. My initial hesitation was that it seemed too much like any other organized religion. For instance, people bow when they entire the Shrine room, the main space for meditation. At the center of the room is basically an altar (though they don’t call it that) comprised of various holy symbols (but they don’t call them holy): a crystal ball, an apple, a bowl of water, a glass lotus flower, candles, incense.
Everything about it was very structured: Thirty minutes of sitting meditation, where we’re told to sit with our spines upright and heads slightly lowered, followed by ten minutes of walking meditation, where we’re instructed to hold our hands a certain way and walk at a certain pace and direction. We ended with a group recitation of the scripture (except they don’t call it scripture).
But once I got over my knee jerk opposition, I realized that structure can actually be good and necessary for efficiency. They walk in the same direction so they don’t bump into each other; they hold their hands so they don’t need to think about what to do with them. There’s a practical reason for most of what they do. The other stuff that I’m not into—the chanting and the bowing—I just don’t do, and nobody cares. Nobody cares if I show up just once every six months (cause I’m sailing the world. Holla!). It’s not a religion; it has nothing to do with doctrine or moral superiority, nothing to do with getting into heaven or earning positive karma points. The Shambhala community is made up of normal people who want to be more present in their day-to-day lives and have deeper, more authentic relationships. (I’m not trying to convince you to visit, I’m just sharing my own experience. If going to church infuses you with positivity and makes you a more loving person, that’s amazing!)
The primary purpose of the Shambhala center is to join other people in practicing meditation. Meditation is not about prayer or positive thinking, but about quieting your mind so you can dive deeper into the Now. Eckhart Tolle explains it all clearly and thoroughly in The Power of Now, but this one line sums it up nicely: “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.” Everything else, past and future, are constructions of the mind. And that’s not a woo-woo belief, it’s a fact.
I do value beliefs and recognize their importance. I’ve written about this before, how what you believe determines what you’ll accomplish. On a secular level, beliefs are the foundation for success and self-actualization. But in terms of spirituality, whether it’s deities, past lives, reincarnation, the resurrection, the holy spirit, spirit guides, chakras, or karma, I have no use for them. I’m interested in a fun, surface way, like I’m interested in astrology or The Real Housewives, but I consider it occult, not spiritual. Real spirituality is free. Real spirituality goes beyond symbols. I don’t judge or knock anybody else for believing in the metaphysical or magical if it gives them a sense of peace or purpose. But for me, those kind of beliefs primarily serve to strengthen the ego. “I’m a really spiritual person,” I always hear people say. They use it as an identity. I love when people talk about being on a “higher frequency” or a “higher level of consciousness”–and then add, “But it doesn’t mean I’m better! Everyone’s on their own journey.”
Real spirituality is the experience of all that is, here and now; paying attention to what goes on within you and around you in the present moment. When you enter this space, for however long, the ego does not exist. There’s no conflict between spirituality and science; spirituality is the experience of science, the physical natural world that we are intrinsically connected to. It’s being aware of your thoughts, your breath, the sounds you hear, the sensations you feel, and realizing all of that is one happening, and understanding through experiencing that you are that happening. Tolle talks about how you can’t understand it mentally unless you truly experience it for yourself. Einsten said, “All knowledge is experience, everything else is just information.”
Awareness. Consciousness. Presence. Being. These are different descriptors for that moment of awakening and acceptance to all that is and all that ever was. The other stuff, beliefs, information, identity, is simply ego. I’m interested in experience. I’m interested in killing my ego. Clearly, it’s not going well.