When I was a young adult, I attended a three-day workshop with the hope that it would transform me and my life forever – and that afterward, everything would be awesome. My low motivation, my lack of a girlfriend, my wayward mind – all were going to be fixed and I just had to pay $299 and show up.
There were some eye-opening processes and some intense bonding with my fellow participants, but all along I kept thinking, “This isn’t doing it. It’s not fixing my problems.” The first day passed. The second day passed. By the middle of the third day, I was getting anxious that the whole thing would soon be over and I wouldn’t get the transformation I was expecting.
And then it hit me. I raised my hand and the facilitator, who would be my teacher for the next few years, pointed at me and asked, “Yes?”
“Um . . .” The words were still forming in my mind. “So, I’ve been following along all weekend and, well, really expecting that this training was going to change me and make everything better in my life. But I think I was wrong about how it works. I have to actually do something. Like, use these tools, and want something different – more than I want to keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them. And then I need to keep working at it. Maybe for the rest of my life?”
He gave me a significant look. And with a twinkle in his eye, he simply said, “Yes.”
What I said might not strike you as revelatory, and it certainly wasn’t the quick fix I hoped for. It was actually the end of quick fixes. But everything did change after that. It was a lesson I’ll never forget.
Some years later, I was reading a great spiritual book, feeling very open and connected to Spirit, and quite like something good was about to happen. Then I came across a passage that basically said, “life is meaningless,” and even though it wasn’t a new idea for me, I found my mind latching onto it and spiraling me into despair.
Several dark months followed. Then I saw an announcement that a teacher named Adyashanti, whom I had long admired, would be leading a spiritual gathering in Portland. I decided to attend. It was held in a large church, and I was surprised that a couple hundred people were already there when I showed up. I took an uncomfortable folding wooden seat in the back.
He started speaking. Deep stuff. But I was chilly and sleepy that day, and being so far from the stage, I felt disconnected. It was hard to focus. Wondering if I was going to get anything out of this, I began to gaze at the frescoes and stained glass windows, tuning out his voice.
Then he spoke three words, and it was as if the whole room was gone except him and me. “Life is meaningless.” Huh? Why did he say that? What did he say before that? He continued, “It’s a very different thing to understand a concept intellectually than it is to discover it through experience. When the mind is exposed to an idea like “life is meaningless” and latches onto it, you might feel sad or helpless. But when you discover it through direct experience, it’s the most liberating thing in the world.” It was as if the second installment of my previous lesson had been delivered.
Fast forward a decade. I was writing a book – The Well Life – with my wife. We were introducing some big concepts, and I realized I needed to back up and attempt to convey the perspective I had gained through these lessons. I opened a new document and wrote, “A Few Words on Digesting These Concepts.”
And here are those words:
Certain in-vogue concepts can sometimes make our “bullshit meter” go off, and this makes us hesitant to share them. They may be perfectly valid ideas, but their popularity seems to dilute their value. As a principle becomes widely recognizable, it’s common for people to believe that their intellectual understanding of it is the same as an experiential understanding. “Oh yeah,” we think dismissively, “I know about that.”
In an age when profound spiritual truths from traditions around the world are easy to come by on Facebook, this shallowness is an insidious trend. Besides the missed opportunities caused by our believing we understand the impact that embodying a concept would have on us simply because we know what the words mean, there’s a related belief that contributes to stunted personal growth: that valuable concepts should produce change in us, or that, in order for a teaching to be valid, it should be revelatory. This rarely happens, of course. Occasionally, a person who is completely ripe for an idea and totally open to it will happen upon the idea and it goes deep. Just through the encounter, they have a life-changing “aha!” moment.
Don’t wait for aha! moments. It’s best to treat them as a fantasy. The information in this—and any—book is highly unlikely to cause the change you desire. We often secretly hope this is how it works, and when it doesn’t we discredit the information and/or its bearer. Usually, the bearer should be let off the hook, because any smart teacher knows that this isn’t usually how learning occurs. Making new information work for you is a process of assimilating it, applying it to your own situation, and consistently using it. It’s like building any skill. In the same way that reading about pitching a baseball isn’t going to cause you to become a great pitcher, reading about psychological health isn’t going to automagically produce psychological health.
In applying the concepts we present for promoting change, it’s important to remember that you’re up against habits of behavior and thinking. It’s likely that you’ve thought the same negative thoughts thousands of times. Breaking habits is challenging. Therefore, whatever approach you take to replacing them with new ones, you must practice consistently. Practice doesn’t happen while you’re reading a book. So, if you finish reading a personal-growth book and then go on to your next book without a period of focused practice, you can expect the book to have little positive impact on you. We repeat: Don’t expect an encounter with a valuable idea to produce a revelation in you. If you’re like us, you probably don’t actually need to find more, new, and better ideas—you just need to practice what you’ve already learned. You’d be much better off choosing a single book or teacher and spending a year or more working on the teachings they present before moving on to acquire more ideas.
I hesitated for a moment before publishing this blog, because it’s not likely to help us get more copies of our book out into the world, but I’m a big fan of full disclosure and I felt it begging to be shared. Reading the words above probably didn’t give you the experience of living these ideas, but a seed was planted and I believe the experience is on its way.
Dr. Peter Borten