When 2015 dawned, I thought it would be a great year for total liberation. Specifically, mine. So I committed myself to becoming a hardcore meditator.
I found a teacher, became a one-on-one student, and began doing at least 90 minutes of Vipassana a day. It was rough. I’d been an underachieving Buddhist for a long time and the total immersion was a shock. I told myself to tough it out; I told myself it was get enlightened or die tryin’.
I chickened out after six months. My practice got to a point where I dreaded the cushion and the highly rigorous meditation technique. After years of laziness, I was suddenly overwhelmed and my life went sideways. I tried to get way too serious, way too fast.
But it wasn’t all tragedy and callow grabs at enlightenment . . . mostly, but not entirely. There were white-knuckle moments of transcendence, too, along with bedrock calm and brain-dissolving bliss. None of that shit lasted, but it was there. My suffering was definitely dented. So I decided to keep at this meditation business. Just maybe . . . relax a little.
I wouldn’t have kept doing this stuff if it hadn’t generated positive results along with asinine stories about my ineptitude. Slap the “shallow American” label on me, I don’t care. I’m in this to crack the code and dunk my face in reality; to kill the Buddha on the road, bang life right in the gall bladder, and wake up from this wretched dream we’re all having. I’m a modern spiritual antihero and I may be doing it dirtier, scarier, and weirder than the next guy, but I’m getting it done.
More or less. Maybe I don’t follow all the instructions word-for-word but this is an adventure, right? Do you want to plod across terrain worn smooth by a billion sandaled-feet shuffling toward beatification or do you want to crash through the wilderness with a machete hacking, frothing, and yelling—and maybe contracting some tropical fever?
Sorry. I made that about you. I’m just pointing out that, while I don’t quite have an approach nailed down, or an orthodox itinerary laid out, I’m still rocking full-tilt-boogie on this path. Sometimes I need a double shot of Pappy to get my bearings but I’m committed to the light. I’m hammering on liberation’s door and it has to respect at least my tenacity if not my actual methods.
I may not be in the Hardcore Dharma movement anymore, but there are many aspects of it that I look back on fondly. Even though it wasn’t the best fit for me, I got a lot out of it. Since my last piece was dedicated to all the mayhem it caused in my life, I thought I’d go the other way this time. Here are five things I really miss about being a hardcore meditator:
1. The Structure
I do about as well with a regular schedule as Smokey did catching the Bandit. I’m opposed to getting up at the same time every day, going to bed at the same time every night, and watching TV shows at their regular times. Adhering to a rigid routine leaves me no room for improv, no space for flow. Also, no excuses for slacking.
But with hardcore meditation, I discovered a third option. I’m sure most grown-ups have known about this option for quite some time, but I’m a bit late to adult life. It’s possible to put the skeleton of a schedule into your life and build around that. Instead of having a rock-solid regimen and never deviating from it, a framework will let you work with the necessities while still juggling everything else.
Mind. Blown. Once I realized I didn’t have to sit at precisely 10:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., I was delirious. As long as I got in at least two, preferably three, long meditations, it didn’t really matter when they occurred. Some people thrive on structure; I thrive on chaos. Or at least exist in it.
I don’t work the same hours every day and I don’t have the same times off each week. I can’t commit to a meditation group that meets every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Sometimes I’ll be there, sometimes people will be going “Hey, where’s that suave, cool sumbitch with all the tattoos?” Then disappointment reigns. It’s cruel.
Instead, I built a ridiculous, leaning tower of load-bearing responsibility. It wove crookedly through my life, but it was there. My commitment was at bare minimum 90 minutes of meditation per day. And not nine 10-minute segments, either. That was cheating. Two 45-minute sessions.
I usually tried to work in a third session as well. That made everything insane, as I think I’ve mentioned before. But once I learned how to scam the system, it added much-needed structure to the frolic of my capricious lifestyle.
Related: Bartending While Buddhist on Cinco de Mayo
Let me give you an example of how a typical day might have gone. I’m an avid disc golfer because, even at 41, I enjoy being made fun of by the cool kids. I often play after work if I’m on the day shift, or before work if I’m on the night shift.
We’ll assume I’m doing a day shift, which means I would need to be there at 10:30 a.m. In the service industry, 10:30 a.m. is equivalent to 6:30 a.m. for the normal working world. Everyone looks slightly surprised they actually made it to the restaurant. It’s nothing but bloodshot eyes, muttered complaints, whiskey breath, and Red Bull consumed intravenously.
I’m a restaurant veteran so I’m usually in pretty good shape. It may be early but I’m basically the general of the hungover army. Which is a bit like being the spokesperson for a group of hoboes. The honor is somewhere south of dubious, is what I’m saying.
Still, the idea of getting up extra early to meditate was repugnant. It made me cry some into my pillow. But my rules were serious, and if I wasn’t going to hit the cushion before work, I’d have to do it after. Twice.
I would muddle through the day shift knowing that as soon as it was over, I’d head home to sit. Then I’d do whatever the hell it is I do for the rest of the afternoon and evening and sit once more before going to bed.
But if the weather was nice, I’d often get it into my head that I wanted to go play disc golf after work. I certainly couldn’t tell meditation to sit and spin, so I had to work around it. Maybe I’d rush home after work and get in a 45-minute session before disc golf. Maybe I’d go play and then meditate directly afterward, knowing I had to put in another session in a few hours before I went to bed.
Skipping a single session was not an option. If I was too outright lazy to do it before work, I knew damn good and well I’d have to make it happen later. And it had to be shoehorned into a life in progress. I learned to weave my schedule around those ironclad sits and in so doing, created a fluid routine that held up under pressure.
2. Teacher Contact and Support
I didn’t go into this battle alone. Hardcore Dharma folks are often solitary practitioners out in the wild. They don’t always have physical sanghas to call home, so they frequently rely on the Internet for support. I was no different. I found a few places online where I could ask my half-formulated questions and absorb some level of warmth and camaraderie.
But I needed more. One thing I don’t believe the modern mindfulness movement stresses enough is the inherent danger of this path. Whether for stress relief or enlightenment, whether the approach is secular or religious, serious meditation can tear the lid off all the shadowy, pain-soaked horrors nibbling around your psyche and turn them loose to wreak nasty havoc. Without the guidance of a dedicated teacher, practitioners too often find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island fighting for survival.
No way I was going Robinson Crusoe on this thing. I explored Hardcore Dharma’s online waters until I found a good teacher who dealt with students via Skype and allowed students to pay what they could afford. And what I could afford, as usual, was shit. With my white trash money obstacle out of the way, we got down to business.
I met with my teacher once every week or two to get this thing done. If there was an element missing by not being actually at the feet of the person instructing me, I honestly didn’t notice it. It felt like this guy was right in my living room helping me along and pulling me out of all the disasters I blundered into. And they were plentiful. I meditated like Rocky boxed: mostly just absorbing the blows, picking myself up off the mat, and shoving my bloody face back out into harm’s way, snarling incoherencies at the crowd.
I’d spent a lot of time wandering the blasted apocalypse of dharma and meditation practice in Kentucky. Almost always alone, I was a Mad Max sledding psychotically through the Bible Belt, usually wondering when Thunderdome was going to snatch me up and body slam my Buddhism in the mondo cage match.
So much of my learning and techniques came from books and the Internet, I was never sure if I was doing anything right. Even more than right I was constantly worried about proficiency. Was I progressing? Were my mind and heart changing for the better? Trapped inside your own constant thoughts and habits, it’s hard to tell if practice is helping. I didn’t want to waste years of my life doing something I’d read in a book only to find out I’d misinterpreted the instructions and was now a Dark Lord of the Sith or whatever.
Having a good teacher radically changed all that. Any question that occurred to me I would send off in an email and I’d have an answer by the end of the day. Since I was doing an aggressive form of Mahasi Sayadaw’s noting practice, it was simple, if not perfectly precise, to gauge my progress. When we hooked up over Skype, I would meditate while noting out loud rather than in my head. My teacher would watch and listen closely and be able to give me advice and instructions based on which particular turn of the path I seemed to be navigating.
It may sound goofy, like remote enlightenment, but it was efficient. My teacher was a highly realized person, which I easily understood from the first time I “met” him. He radiated (digitally, at least) calmness, warmth, peace, humor, strength, intelligence, and ease. It just rolled off him, across thousands of miles, and directly into me.
His support was absolutely critical. Not just due to his perspicacious guidance, but also because he truly seemed to emulate what I wanted from the practice. I was face-to-face with someone who had done what I was doing, and he was a walking endorsement of the beneficial results.
3. Sense of Commitment
This entry will be short because there’s really not a lot to say about it. However, it was one of the most important parts of what I was doing and probably the aspect that I miss the most.
After years of gallivanting around various Buddhist paths—a dabble here, a quick lick to get the flavor there—I was finally committed to something. I’d made a decision. It felt like I’d shrugged Mara’s devious arm off my shoulders and was stretching out under the sudden lack of weight.
I’d put all my worries down. Was this the right style for me? Would I be okay without a physical sangha? Could I work this into my schedule and stick with it? What if there was a better approach? An ultimate approach that would transport me to liberation in the wink of an eye? Maybe I should go back to Zen, really give that a try. Or Shambhala. Maybe they were different now and I’d really like …
NO. Enough with the chatter and fear. I shoved it all aside and jumped right in.
The sense of accomplishment was dizzying. I know what you’re thinking: that this wasn’t much of an accomplishment. But for me, it was a milestone. So much of my time had been spent searching instead of practicing, waiting instead of sitting, reading instead of doing. No more.
The commitment was an amazing new core in my practice. I’d been doing mental noting meditation for awhile with no supervision or real structure. I was just a freelance enlightenment artist putting in some mild work for mild results.
But now I was part of something. I had responsibilities. Most of them to myself, certainly—stick with the practice, get it done everyday, increase sitting time, study the suttas, keep striving, raise the intensity—but also to my teacher. I had to schedule and show up for meetings as well as work a little extra to make the money to pay him. I also couldn’t let him down. I don’t mean disappoint him: that was a foregone conclusion. I was going to disappoint him. But I couldn’t ignore his advice, shirk his instructions, or be lazy. He’d made a commitment, too, to teach me. I had to do my best to be teachable.
It was fantastic to feel this dedication spread through my life. It was the solid steel at the center of everything I did. I’ve never been a good joiner; I tend to get fed up with organizations. But I felt like I’d joined something without actually joining. I was deeply involved with a secular spiritual path, probably the most important thing I’d ever do, and I was alone without being alone. There were so many others on the same path, guiding me, walking beside me, but I was still out there by myself. My commitment linked me to them; my dedication was shared between thousands of others.
It was a powerful thing. I miss it a lot.
Related: White Trash Buddhist
4. It Was Starting To Work
This one really isn’t a surprise. Or maybe it was a surprise to me, a pleasant one, because I’m dumb. Or lack faith. Either way, I woke up one morning and realized hardcore meditation was working.
The Hardcore Dharma movement is goal-oriented. There’s none of the “strive without striving” that Zen uses to head-butt you in the gonads, hoping set you free. There’s none of Dzogchen’s resting effortlessly in rigpa where there’s nothing to be done. Hardcore Dharma is about sweat, massive effort, and measuring the results of those efforts. It’s as much mental fitness as it is spiritual practice.
Physical fitness can obviously be measured. If you go to the gym and lift weights, you’ll become more muscular. Hopefully not in the massively gross, bulgy-vein way. You’ll lose weight, which you can verify with a scale, and gain muscle, which you can verify with, like, a tape measure, I guess. Or a girl’s hand wrapped around your biceps, I dunno. But you can see your progression, and feel it, too. Your body feels different. More limber. Harder. Stronger. The results are evident.
I wanted a Buddhist path where the results were evident as well. Hardcore Dharma dispenses the modern notion of downplaying one’s spiritual accomplishments and discusses all that right out in the open. Are you a stream-entrant? A once-returner? Ooh, a never-returner? That’s badass.
This model is off-putting to some folks, and downright burning anathema to others. Many see this as reducing the spiritual path to a series of cold, logical steps designed to generate specific outcomes. The last specific outcome, of course, being enlightenment—or maybe insanity if you do it wrong.
Even if you’re not into whipping out your liberation and letting someone else see how you measure up, there are other ways to notice the fruits of practice. I started seeing them in daily life.
I’m sure my loyal reader(s) remember from my last piece on hardcore meditation’s downsides that there are, well, downsides to this. Sometimes even physical ones. I spent some time being nauseated by my sitting practice. I would just sit on the cushion, sweating like a fur-coated pimp in the summer, while my stomach and mind churned and boiled.
That didn’t happen every time. Usually when I was approaching a particularly difficult stage or had uncovered some prime evil my mind had kept to itself for years. The sessions were intense, no doubt about it, but they were starting to produce positive changes.
The gap was the first thing I noticed. Something would happen that usually provoked a specific response in me. A driver would run a red light and nearly kill me, or a pair of customers would order a virgin daiquiri, two straws. Both produced the same level of rage at the same rate, which is instantaneous.
But instead I’d notice the gap—the space between stimulus and response. Before the blistering, mind-erasing anger, there was a pause. I’d never seen that before. And the longer I practiced, the wider that gap got. Pretty soon, I actually had a choice. I could hop the gap and embrace the fury, or I could rest in the gap and never touch the fury.
This didn’t work every time, but it was shockingly noticeable. Even more noticeable was the lifespan of thoughts. Because noting practice makes the meditator so intimately familiar with their thoughts and feelings, it becomes easy to see them come and go. They pop up, drift along, and then vanish. Just like Britney Spears.
It became normal for me to see a thought or feeling jump to the forefront and clamor for attention and be able to simply watch until it died. I could identify them more quickly and let go of my involvement with them more completely.
Again, none of this was constant, but it was a tangible, positive result.
5. Feeling Like I Was Getting My Shit Together
The structure, the teacher support, the deep commitment, and the tangible results all combined to make me feel like I was more at home in my life. Not more in control, necessarily, although I was in more control of myself. But more like I was comfortable with myself and optimistic about existence.
Since I discovered the dharma and realized that it saved my life, I’ve been interested in dedicating that life somehow. It turns out that role may simply be “stupid storyteller,” which is fine. But I’ve also considered the idea of being a teacher or a guide on this path. Obviously the biggest obstacle to me realizing that dream was always my lack of dedication to a specific style of Buddhism and the immersion in practice it would bring. But Hardcore Dharma started me down that road. I was told by my teacher that I could be authorized to teach when he saw that I was ready.
That was a big step in feeling like I was getting my shit together. I’ve always wanted to write, and I started out writing fiction. It’s deadly hard to make your entire living as a fiction writer. It’s pretty much Stephen King or nothing. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. It’s also very hard to succeed solely as a nonfiction writer, but there are way more options. I never thought I’d be writing for Tricycle, but here I am, much to the chagrin of nearly everyone involved, I’m sure.
Hardcore meditation got me to the point where I felt like it was all coming together. I could become a teacher as well as write about Buddhism and practice. Surely the combined income from those two things would be enough to constitute a decent living as well as allow me to quit the service industry.
In addition, I just felt more at peace with everything. The practice was evolving me into a well-balanced human being. I could take the bad with the good, get over the bad faster, and not cling to the good as tightly. I was more relaxed and cheerful, calmer, and more agreeable.
Everything changes, though. Hardcore Dharma turned out to not be quite what I was looking for. But I’m still thankful I got so close and happy to have gone through it. It was much more overwhelmingly positive than it was negative, a fact that’s often belied by my focus on pessimistic experiences. I’m not done yet with either seeking or writing. My path to enlightenment is out there. I’ll find it. And my path to fame and glory as the world’s most dangerous Buddhist writer is also out there. Take cover.
[This story was first published in 2015]
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.