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Better than meditating: Alternative routes to an adventurous and rewarding inner life

Inner-life alternatives from a confessed non-meditator

Is it sacrilegious to say that I find meditation boring? We all know there are countless benefits to meditation, to sitting in silence, stilling our internal dialogue and paying non-judgmental attention to all that arises. I have a terrible admission to make: this highly-touted activity can tend to put me to sleep. I’m not suggesting there’s no value in taking time out, turning your attention inward and developing a neutral and calm observer self. On the contrary, I agree with all the evidence that this is a wonderful ability to cultivate. But then, once you can calmly observe your inner world, what next?

Personally, the idea that we passively detach from all that we find inside is what does not sit well with me. I know there is more to it than that, and that meditation is part of a rich spiritual tradition. More power to all of those for whom it has been tremendously helpful. However, I secretly think there are many of you who are just like me, who start to get fidgety when we sit still for too long simply watching our breath and labeling thoughts as they arise. The good news is there is so much more in there. Meditation is a place to start, but once you can sit still and listen inside, there is an entire inner wilderness to explore.

Meditation as a “leaping-off place” to more

The good news is there is more you can do than sit there passively observing. Once you can observe yourself from the inside, it can be a leaping-off place leading to an inner world that is rich, fulfilling and highly entertaining. Imagine closing your eyes, and having ready-made, fascinating, emotionally-laden content designed just for you, delivered to your mind’s eye every night. The fact is, this is already happening in your dreams. And one of the doorways to the wild, fantastical world of dreams is through meditative states.

For all of you who have tried to sit and found it too difficult or boring, my sense is that you can persevere… but if you have not been inspired to stick with it, it’s really useful to have a path towards something more. There are many avenues in the internal contemplative space that are as richly rewarding as meditation that are also wilder, and to me, more interesting. I have cultivated two alternative ways to access inner life: through dreams and the body.

Accessing the wildness of our dreams

Our dreams are ready-made highly personalized nightly movies filled with scenes that haunt us, scare us, thrill us and have the power to lead us directly to an authentic experience of ourselves and our connection with forces greater than us.  If, like me, you want a rich inner life that has more spark than the quietude of meditation, spending time with dreams is a far more active thing to do. In fact, Carl Jung, who pioneered techniques for the exploration of our dreams called it active imagination, quite a different animal from passive observation. Through active participation in our dream world, we can go deep, discover much about ourselves personally, and then journey further into the transpersonal dimensions of dreaming.

What people often tell me when I talk about the power of dreams, is that they don’t dream, or more accurately, they don’t recall their dreams. There are many things you can do to remedy this, more than I have space to go into here. You can check out my brief video on the topic, check out my course on exploring your own dreams, or sign up for a free video series to get you started on how to recall and begin to understand your dreams experientially.

Accessing inner life through the body

If, despite your best efforts you can’t really recall dreams, there is also another way to access the finely-detailed tapestry of imagination. You can you can enter into a rich level of experiencing through your body via an established and wonderfully gentle technique called focusing. This simple practice, developed by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin, includes the value meditation brings to us in the form of an ability to step back and observe our own foibles and our restless minds in a friendly (or at least neutral) kind of way. And it goes beyond self-compassion, guiding us to align with the flow of our natural embodied growth process, bringing us closer to our authentic selves, bringing just what is needed in this moment and the next.

Focusing begins like meditation, with inner observation, but it offers further steps. It is lighter than meditation, more like a conversation with our own bodies and our intuitive selves. It connects us with inner aspects that we so often ignore in our outer-directed, sped-up world. To learn it from Gendlin himself, I recommend his audio book, Focusing. (Warning, his soothing voice can make you sleepy!)

Stepping away from outer-world focus brings true satisfaction

Contemplative practice is the beginning, a leaping-off point to exploring what our body knows. Focusing opens the door to a rich, intuitive world. My sense is that as a culture, we tend to be too focused on the outer trappings of life. In the process, we are missing out on the incredible value of the inner life. Part of the reason people who have tried to meditate get so bored may stem from this pervasive outward focus, from our shortening attention span as we have become accustomed to a constant bombardment of information and entertainment. Compared to this, just sitting quietly may seem uninteresting.

But when you turn your attention inside and pay attention to your dreams or to the information that arises from your body, you access a rich vein of experiencing that can rival, and maybe even surpass, the flow of media that comes at us from the outside. The information deluge from the outside world is enticing but addictive, and ultimately not healthy for us. In particular, too much time spent on social media leads to a tendency to compare ourselves to others, increasing other-directedness and dissatisfaction.

Inner attention, on the other hand may be more challenging but ultimately, it creates deep, lasting satisfaction with life. Its rewards are not the sort of cotton-candy, feather-light happiness that evaporates as quickly as it arrives. Instead, attending inward engenders the deep satisfaction of knowing who you are in this world and what you truly value. So if you’re like me and have had trouble sticking with meditation, I invite you to explore other ways to tend your inner life. You can cultivate a deeply satisfying inner life through dreams and the body. You may even find that these paths to your inner world take you on a wild and fulfilling adventure.  

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