Who are you and what do you do?
I research, write, and teach different meditation and personal growth practices. I do this on my own, and – more fun – with various collaborators in my network of teachers and researchers and weirdos.
I like to explore consciousness – the mind part, the body part, the social part, the cosmic part – and use what I and others have learned to help people live more fulfilled lives. I try to do this in a way that’s rigorous and skeptical and fun. For examples, you can find my guided meditations on this site and on the 10% Happier app, you can hear me talk about these and other subjects here, and read about my teaching style here.
Most recently, I co-authored a how-to meditate book with Dan Harris and Carlye Adler called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. The book ended up touching on my own personal challenges with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). So yeah, I am also an ADD meditation teacher, which sounds like the punchline of a joke.
I live with my wife in Toronto.
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 and others. Two of these pieces – one on animal consciousness, another on psychedelics and the mind – won gold medals at the Canadian National Magazine Awards.
In the early 2000s I began working on a book about the science – and inner experience – of waking, sleeping and dreaming consciousness. The book was called The Head Trip (Random House, 2007 – see reviews). As part of that research, I began attending meditation retreats.
Meditation did not come easily for me. I was and am a distractible, impulsive, over-thinking, teeth-gnashing worrier. I would much prefer to think about all the things that could happen in meditation than actually do the practice. Nevertheless, as I learned to sit with myself, I began to get insights – 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 learned to observe these and other ridiculous and sometimes quite agonizing neuroses, including my boom-bust mood swings and embarrassing low self-esteem. In the observing, they became less acute. Parts of them even disappeared. I would love to say 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 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 (CEC), 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 inclusive path of 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 extraordinary. I’ve interviewed dozens and 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.
That’s the main summary. If you feel like continuing to read, I over-explain a bunch more stuff below.
OK. What kind of practices do you teach?
Some are described here. Anything that helps people live with more perspective and equanimity (see “How Zen Masters Die“) 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 at the CEC we explore psychotherapy practices, relational practices, nondual practices, body and movement-based practices, art practices, music practices, and – not infrequently – absurd freakout air-guitar practices.
That sounds helpful.
Eastern traditions 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 (and rock and roll, and gardening, and punching shit). 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?
Sort of. ‘One thing at a time’ is an good 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 and techniques, especially once you’ve neurotically screwed up the old one. It’s also smart to balance mind practices with body practices.
Shinzen once made 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 geek out for a moment – it also points to an interesting paradox at the heart of world spirituality.
Oh boy, here we go.
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 aliveness. This shift is palpable, it’s real – in fact, as an experience it feels more real than anything else.
The bodily equivalent in sports or performance is “being in the zone.” Something clicks, and suddenly you’re in the slipstream. Mind, body and world all line up in a fulfilling and coherent and often beautiful way. These experiences of unity are healing, both for yourself and, it seems, for people around you, because sometimes we can get pulled right into the vibe of it.
If it sounds like mumbo-jumbo that’s only because we have no language to talk about spiritual experience in polite society. I think the inability to do so is one of the great tragedies of contemporary secularism. Although I also agree with critics of religion that the whole thing can lead to fundamentalism – see The Promise and Peril of Spiritual Belief.
Ok. So what’s the paradox?
Well, one paradox is how can something feel or be more real, when everything is always already real? It doesn’t make any sense.
This is the worst About Me page ever.
And then there’s the question of how to square the authority of these oneness experiences with the obvious fact that we all obviously have our own different perspectives. I’ve written about this a bit regarding animal vs human minds.
I am trying to figure out how I got on this webpage. It’s like I’ve been here forever.
These questions may sound highfalutin, but I think they matter now more than ever. The techniques and path we choose – like the media we consume – shape our minds in very specific ways. And our minds, in turn, shape the kind of world we experience. Look at how messed up things are in America right now. There’s no common narrative.
This is why pluralism is important in the big picture. It IS the big picture. Pluralism is not about one view trying to dominate another. Rather, it sets us up to humbly engaging with many different views. We learn to do the rounds of the community, instead of being trapped in our own separate Facebook feeds. From here we’re in a better position to act and collaborate.
This is also why I think teachers should own up to their own individual derangements. We need a diversity of nervous systems to be maximally helpful to each other, with no story about one kind of nervous system being the “right” kind. My ADHD and high sensitivity and mood swings and existential desolation and mild OCD are some of what I struggle with, thus – insofar 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 psychosis, or racial discrimination, or extreme poverty, or a million other challenging internal and external conditions.
The way we meet our own struggles is the most powerful thing we have to share. Whatever configuration of pain 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.
Actually there’s a better word for it: “soteriological.” It means you want to save people, like a religious nut – or a doctor or NGO worker.
That’s because practice messes with your neutrality. People get helped by meditation, or evolutionary psychology, or Tony Robbins tutorials – whatever it is – and suddenly, without ever having set out to, those same people become activists for that technique or view 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. You were helped, so you want to help everyone else, the only way you know how.
The problem is, 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’s 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’ve written about the different “terrains” of practice here). I’m most familiar with mindfulness or Buddhist insight meditation. In that practice, there seems to be growth in two “directions”: out and down. We grow out in terms of our sensitivity and discernment – we feel and see more. And we grow down in terms of our 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 painful. 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 destabilizing. 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 (in their way), 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