In the early 2000s, I was on a quest. I started telling the story of that quest in a previous episode. I had discovered Ken Wilber’s work, which describes altered states of mind and advanced stages of human development, and I was on a quest for technology—in the form of meditation instructions—that would help me actually attain those states and stages. I wasn’t seeking a spiritual teacher or a spiritual community; I was looking for a good how-to book.
I had some high standards for the book I was seeking: it had to contain instructions on how to use meditation to attain the advanced states and stages Wilber had described; it had to be based on a contemplative branch of one of the major world religions; it had to be written by someone with good credentials; and it had to be clear and detailed enough to be used effectively without any additional guidance. Today, I believe many books may be available that meet these standards, but this was in the mid-2000s, and my options were more limited at that time.
My book search turned out to be quite challenging. I quickly discovered that there was no standard model of contemplative states and stages and no standard terminology, either. Each of the major world religions, each of the branches of those religions, and each of the teachers within those branches seemed to have different ways of thinking and talking about how meditation can be used for spiritual development. Everyone had their own jargon and their own maps, and it wasn’t clear how these maps lined up with Wilber’s map. It wasn’t even clear whether these contemplative paths led to the destinations that had been described by Wilber.
One book looked promising, but it’s meditation instructions were written in cryptic metaphors; I got the sense that the book’s author had actually obscured his message intentionally to prevent people from using the book without the guidance of a teacher. Another book looked promising, but it was written as an extremely detailed intellectual argument that was hard for me to make sense of. Another book was easy to understand but lacked enough detail to be actionable. Another book had plenty of detail but not enough focus; it was a thick tome containing dozens of esoteric meditation practices compiled from various sources. I spent about a year working my way through that one before realizing it wasn’t getting me very far.
After several years of searching, I finally found a book that really resonated with me. It was by a contemporary author, not someone long dead. It was about that author’s own perspective on meditation; it wasn’t a compilation of other people’s ideas and practices. It was written in clear language, not cryptic metaphors or riddles. It contained practice instructions, not intellectual arguments. And, best of all, it was thin! It wasn’t an endless tome. I was starting to have the sense that whatever it was I was seeking through meditation, it was something simple—not something complex. Because of this, a thin book really appealed to me. I dove into the meditation practices in this book and found them really helpful.
Technology and Do-It-Yourself Awakening
Meditation manuals like this may not seem very high-tech, but they actually are a form of instructional technology—and the meditation instructions they contain are a form of technology, as well. There’s a wide range of technologies available that can support your spiritual journey: instructional technologies like books, apps, and online courses; feedback technologies that give you feedback about your state of mind or stage of development; and state modification technologies that actively alter your state of mind. (I explore this topic in more detail in a previous episode at jacobgotwals.com/technology-for-awakening/.)
Contemplative technology invites a do-it-yourself approach to awakening. When practical knowledge about awakening is packaged in relatively inexpensive, accessible technology, this makes it possible for independent-minded people to use powerful tools for awakening—while being less dependent on spiritual teachers and communities. Perhaps at no point in history has so much contemplative technology been so easily accessible to so many people. For those of us who enjoy independent study and practice, and for those of us who are willing to experiment and discover what works for us, now is an exciting time to be a spiritual explorer.
While a completely do-it-yourself approach to awakening is certainly possible, it’s not necessarily the most effective or efficient way to go. By the nature of the awakening process, we’re often called toward experiences we don’t fully understand. (I explain why at jacobgotwals.com/the-call-of-awakening/.) Remember how hard it was for me to find a good meditation manual? It can be hard to find appropriate technology to help you accomplish something when you don’t fully understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish! Often, seeking support from others can save a lot of time and energy. That’s certainly been the case in my spiritual journey. Of course, finding the appropriate people to seek support from can be challenging, too.
A completely do-it-yourself approach to awakening may not be the safest way to go, either. There are risks associated with the use of technologies related to awakening, and you shouldn’t take a do-it-yourself approach to awakening unless you’re willing to research, understand, and assume those risks. Even technologies that may appear relatively harmless—like meditation—carry physical and mental health risks, especially when they’re engaged in intensively. The more challenges you’ve had with your own physical and mental health, the more important it may be for you to seek expert, professional guidance from a variety of sources.
I’m pretty independent-minded. Much of my spiritual journey has been focused on a do-it-yourself approach, and I’ve benefited greatly from having access to a wide range of technologies. I’ve mostly had positive results from this approach—with a few temporary unpleasant experiences here and there. My physical and mental health have generally been pretty good, I pay close attention to the feedback my body and mind give me, and I use caution when I experience physical pain or emotional disturbance; I believe all this has helped keep me safe on my spiritual journey.
Getting back to my story: after finding that meditation manual that appealed to me, I worked with it for a few months and experienced some positive results. But soon, I was no longer content with this book. The practice instructions it contained had given me a taste of something I’d been seeking—but now, I wanted more. The teacher who’d written this book hadn’t published much else, so I decided to shift my focus. Before, I’d just been seeking effective technology; now that I’d found some technology that really resonated with me, I decided to go straight to the source and seek a relationship with the teacher who’d created that technology. I’ll have more to say about that in a future episode.