Who are you and what do you do?
I design and teach meditation-related curricula, both online at 10% Happier, and in-person at various venues around the world. I do this on my own, and – more fun – with various collaborators in my network of consciousness teachers and researchers and weirdos. I also write and speak about how different practices seem to work, what they suggest about the nature and scope of the human mind, and how to regulate the damn thing so you don’t go insane.
How did you get into this?
By accident. I used to work as a journalist for CBC Radio’s The Current and Ideas. I got interested in the science of consciousness, and started producing radio documentaries on the subject. I wrote articles for The New York Times, The New Scientist, Discover, The Walrus, Readers Digest and others. Two of these pieces – one on animal consciousness, another on psychedelics and the mind – won gold medals at the National Magazine Awards.
In the early 2000s I began working on a book about waking, sleeping and dreaming, eventually published as The Head Trip (Random House, 2007 – see reviews). As part of that research, I began attending meditation retreats.
I was the anti-Buddha: distracted, anxious, filled with gnashing self-criticism and compulsive over-thinking. Insights emerged, for example, about the way my furious strategizing cut me off from simple human connection: ‘You don’t actually have conversations with people – you have conversations with yourself.’ I do not. ‘You do – often about what to say to the people in front of you, who are apparently trying to have a conversation.’ With me? ‘With you.’ And so on.
I began to observe these and other ridiculous and sometimes quite agonizing neuroses, including my boom-bust mood swings and embarrassing low self-esteem. I would like to say these are all cleared up now, that meditation has bequeathed me with perfect mental hygiene. Alas, not true. So I decided to become a teacher!
This happened at the urging of Shinzen Young, with whom I have been studying since 2008. Shinzen is also an over-thinker, so there’s hope. His nerdery is cross-contemplative and involves differential equations and a thrillingly precise meditative phenomenology. In this sense, he is a Hubble telescope for consciousness. The fact that he likes to drink Diet Coke and watch mixed-martial arts in his dirty undershirt while he guides people in meditation over the phone obviously sealed the mentorship deal for me.
In 2011 I founded The Consciousness Explorers Club, a practice think tank and community hub. Our motto is “being human takes practice.” The idea from the beginning has been to explore what a genuinely pluralistic and humanistic path of committed practice looks like for the 21st century. One that includes fools and neurotics and the defiantly unenlightened of all persuasions.
Throughout this period – almost ten years now – I’ve been working on a book about the full spectrum of meditation experience, from the ordinary to the cosmic. I’ve interviewed dozens of practitioners at all levels of practice, and worked with hundreds of students and mental health professionals. I’ve learned many things about the kinds of challenges and experiences that can happen. I’ve also learned that trying to write a 500-page tome on the nature of the mind is a terrible way to address over-thinking. Thus I may leave the book for our future robot overlords to complete.
When you do this work you very quickly realize that many people are grateful for the opportunity to talk about their experience. Especially so-called “spiritual” experience.
We have a big taboo around this in the intellectual West. We worry that if we accept that someone had such and such an experience, then we also have to accept their interpretation of that experience. This leads into the fraught territory of competing world-views and culty belief systems and I guess people worry it’s a slippery slope from there to having hot wax slathered over their nipples by a priestess in a cowl.
Which obviously sounds awesome so I’m not sure what the problem is.
When you say “spiritual” I imagine you with a bouffant Vidal Sassoon hairdo and a pirate shirt.
I use spiritual as shorthand for questions concerned with being and belonging.
Meditation can get extremely big-picture. In different ways, it plays at the mutable boundary between self and world. Even if you get into meditation for stress reduction, if you practice long enough sooner or later you bump up against your own weird existence, an encounter that can be thrilling, and terrifying, and baffling, and everything in between.
What kind of practices do you teach?
Anything that helps people live with more perspective and fulfillment and meaning and sense of humor and less of the shitty opposite of these things. A lot of them are guided meditations and life practices inspired by Buddhism, particularly mindfulness. But I try to learn from other traditions and practices too, so I explore movement practices, psychotherapy practices, relational practices, art practices, music practices. Absurd practices. Some are described here.
Contemplative traditions obviously don’t have a monopoly on human flourishing. In the secular West a lot of our understanding about how to live well comes from art and story (to say nothing of parenting). Many domains of human life can be approached as a practice. The key is do the experiment. Don’t just read about a practice – try it, see how it works for you. Commit for a while.
Isn’t it important to choose one path or technique and stick with it?
I think so, at least for a certain period. ‘One thing at a time’ is an excellent motto when it comes to making adjustment to the many moving parts of the human nervous system. Otherwise how would you know what was having what effect? Having said that, it’s also healthy to explore other paths, especially once you’ve neurotically screwed up the old one.
I once heard Shinzen make a helpful distinction between people who are naturally “poly-spiritual” and others who are naturally “mono-spiritual.” The first navigate different teachers, traditions and approaches and find complementarities – a single jewel with many facets. The second do the same and find conflict and disconnection.
I happen to think that in the secular West, a pluralistic philosophy will make contemplative practices accessible to the largest number. Yet – if I might nerd out for a moment – it also points to an interesting paradox.
The effectiveness of any teacher is partially related to their ability to communicate – and embody – what is “fundamental” about experience. This is the magical oneness part, the mystical juju. When you plug in it’s like you become a local gravity well of present-centered common sense, the same present-centered common sense available in theory to anyone.
The body equivalent is “the zone” in sports or music or performance: something clicks, and you’re in the slipstream. Mind, body and world all line up in a fulfilling and coherent and often beautifully intimate way. However you describe it, these experiences of unity are healing both for yourself and, it seems, for the people around you. The inability to recognize and celebrate any of this, by the way, is in my view the single greatest tragedy of secular society (although I also agree with critics of religion that the whole thing can lead to absolutism – see The Promise and Peril of Spiritual Belief).
So there is a fascinating question here about how we square these experiences of oneness with the obvious fact that we also all see the world through our own unique perspectives and conditioning. Can this oneness thing and this manyness thing both be true? And how much of our experience of self and world is actually shared, vs individual only to us? I love these kinds of questions and have written about them a bit from the perspective of animal vs human minds.
This stuff matters, because the path you choose shapes the kind of reality you experience. That’s why the pluralism is so important. It gives us a way to do the rounds of the community, so we aren’t trapped in our own separate reality Facebook feeds.
That’s also why I think teachers should own up to their unique derangements. We need a diversity of nervous systems to be maximally helpful to each other. My ADHD and high sensitivity and mood swings are some of what I struggle with, thus (in so far as I’ve learned useful things about them), they are what I’m most able to help others with. I’ve never struggled with serious depression, or numbness, or psychosis, or racial discrimination, or extreme poverty, or a million other challenging internal and external conditions.
The teaching principle here is the way we once met – and continue to meet – our own struggles is the most powerful thing we have to share. Whatever configuration of stress and confusion we’re in right now is the configuration we’ll be most able to help others through in the future. Because it’s our actual experience. There’s no substitute. It becomes the basis of our compassion.
You got all religious there.
The word is “soteriological,” which means you want to save people, like a religious nut – or a doctor or NGO. Practice messes with your neutrality. People get helped by meditation, or psychotherapy, or Tony Robbins tutorials – whatever it is – and suddenly, without ever having set out to, those same people become activists for that technique or tradition or path. The language shifts from descriptive to prescriptive. And who can blame them? It’s like finding a cure for cancer and not sharing it. Of course, unlike a hypothetical cure for cancer (or maybe NOT unlike it), when it comes to the mind, what works for one person may not work in exactly the same way for another. So again, you need that diversity of perspectives.
I also think it is important to speak openly and honestly about both the benefits and the challenges of practice, as you’ve experienced them. That way people can make their own decisions.
Can you say more about these challenges?
A period of difficulty seems to be part of practice for many people. It may be a natural part of all growth (I write about the different “terrains” of practice here). I’m most familiar with mindfulness or Buddhist insight meditation. In that practice, I have noticed in myself (and others) growth in two “directions”: out and down. I’ve grown out in terms of my sensitivity and discernment – I feel and see more. And I’ve grown down in terms of my capacity to stand firm inside that feeling and seeing. Or at least, that’s the horizon line to aim for.
The growing out part isn’t always pleasant. You see things you’d rather not see: patterns of resistance, fears, your various embarrassing qualities. Basically all the ways in which you’ve been acting like an idiot. You also notice the crappy way people treat each other and the planet, and how agonized a lot of people are. The situation can get very porous and ouchy. In rare cases, a practitioner’s boundaries can blow right out and they end up in a bad kind of noself experience. I’ve written about this version of the “Dark Night” here.
The above insights can obviously be de-stabilizing. You grow out faster than you grow down. The hope is eventually the downward growth catches up and your new sensitivities get integrated and you can learn to stand in the middle of life like a samurai, minus the hideous grimacing.
But everyone is different. For some people mindfulness meditation is a walk in the park. It can also lead to some quite strange and unexpected alterations in consciousness.
Any last words?
Like a million others, one of my heroes is the American psychologist, philosopher and mystic William James. James made a famous distinction between the “once-born” and the “twice born” religious temperaments.
The first, he said, had temperaments “organically weighted on the side of cheer.” It’s easy to be spiritual for the once-born – everything is peace and love and Jesus riding a surfboard on a stream of Mountain Dew. These are lovely people with buoyant dispositions that are a pleasure to be around.
Twice-born temperaments, on the other hand, are more complicated. They can’t wave-away the world’s manifestly unfair distribution of hardship, and they’re generally unable to accept so-called “unseen realities” on faith alone. Their journey into spiritual feeling is more hard-won, the result of a lot of agonized fumbling and confusion. Eventually they are born – reborn – into an inheritance they were unable to see the first time around.
This is how it happened for me. I was an atheist for a long time. It was only through meditation and the study of consciousness that I began to orient to the possibilities of Spirit.
Spirituality begins and ends in consciousness. Although it’s hard to imagine from the other side, it can be as simple as choosing to be meaningfully connected to the world. Anyone can make that choice, and there are great practical benefits for doing so.
James made it; his choice was the root of his pragmatism, the school of philosophy he helped create. He did it with eyes open to life’s paradoxes and challenges and gifts. To be twice-born is to find your way into a genuinely mature and humanistic spirituality.
It is my privilege to connect to others in this way, and the focus of my life’s work. That, and hiding my gas, for dairy does not agree with me.
“To talk with Jeff Warren is to be exhilarated. His intelligence and openness are such that you yourself feel a hundred times more intelligent and open. He performs a kind of compassionate magic. He gives me hope.”
– Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone
“jeff warren my new BFF. he has ADD too. he explained things on my inside as being all stirred up & shit, And I have to let the sediment settle, similar to snow globe after being shook. after all these yrs w/ various doctors, therapists, instructors, medications, trials&errors, practices, etc this motherfucker jeff was able to sum up yrs of unsuccessful attempts, and make me tangibly able to BEGIN to letting myself relax. such a liberating feeling eh. there’s more but I lost initial focus of msg.”
– Jeff McParland, author of this msg