Updated: Sep 11, 2021
I had a weird moment this week when something I’ve known for a while became suddenly, startlingly clear.
Here's the background: I’ve been working on a meditation practice for years in a very on-again/off-again sort of way. This past year, though I’ve been trying to do it every day. I started with 10 minutes and am slowly working up to longer stretches (no need to be impressed, my record without falling asleep is about 25 minutes). I’ve tried all sorts of meditation styles and have had a hard time finding one that consistently works for me. I can honestly say it has helped me in my journey toward healing and wholeness, but I have not had any particularly life-altering experiences while meditating.
Here's what happened this week: I was reading yet another psychology/spiritual book this that talks about all these amazing things meditation can do for your life. Out of body experiences. Miraculous healings. Altered states. Transcendental understanding of the universe. Mystical experiences with the oneness of life. In frustration, I thought, “what in the world am I doing wrong? Everybody says this is possible but I have never once experienced anything like this!”
Suddenly I heard the voice of Martha Beck (one of my favorite authors) say in my head, “Really? Does EVERYBODY say that? Are you sure?”
Well, that made me pause. DOES everybody say that? Does everyone who meditate have a mystical, magical experience at some point? Are there people who never have something like that happen? Why doesn’t anyone talk about that?
Well, duh, you might say. Of course the stories you hear are from people who want you to know the peak experience you might have through meditation. Especially authors, YouTubers, (social) media personalities, and more. They have a vested interest in telling you the best possible results from the program/technique they are pushing. They want to inspire you to try. They want you to buy their products to help you get there. They aren’t going to tell you about the people who have a lovely time meditating but never had anything noteworthy happen.
All true and good thoughts. My point here isn’t to hash out the merits of meditation (although I do believe there are many that don’t include magical, mystical experiences) but to delve into this concept of the “everybody” by which you judge your ideas of how life is supposed to work. The basics of what I want to share are from Martha Beck’s excellent book Finding Your Own North Star, but I add my own thoughts to it as well.
The fact is that we both do and believe a lot of things based on what we think “everybody” else does and believes. “Everybody” dresses this way, eats that way, believes this will bring them happiness, or thinks a certain practice will make them successful. “Everybody” wants to do this over the summer, or sets goals that way, or has specific daily habits. “Everybody” may have thoughts on how you look, how you act, what you should watch on TV, or what you should do with your free time. “Everybody” actually has a lot of power over your life. My “everybody” informs what I think about mediation, how I should be running my business, what I should be doing with my life post-retirement, how to respond to Covid, and SO much more. Your “everybody” likely advises your life in other ways. They create the expectations by which we live our lives and expect the world to work.
What Martha Beck points out is that your “everybody” isn't actually everyone in the whole world but is a smaller group of people created one of two things. “Everybody” might actually be a figment of your imagination. It could be a group that doesn’t actually exist or represent real people. The other option is that it might really be made up of a select group of key people and their opinions that you generalize to represent a large cohesive “everybody.” This select group might be family, friends, members of your religion, your social media circle, a few people from work, or even those five kids from high school that hated you.
Here are a few examples of a select group generalized to the whole:
Everybody says I talk too much. Does everybody really think that? Or are your siblings the only ones who have said that? And was it only that one time 20 years ago?
Everybody believes that doing _____ is a horrible idea. Does everyone think that, or just the two friends you had lunch with last week?
Here are a few examples when everyone is actually no one:
Everybody thought that my presentation was horrible. Who said your presentation was horrible? Can you actually name one person?
I can’t possibly wear clothes from a thrift shop, everybody will think I’m a loser. Have you actually asked anyone if they wear thrift shop clothes and what they think about it? Do you actually know anyone who would say you're a loser for wearing them?
“Everybody” is often the stand-in for a fictitious expectation you have in your head that may or may not actually represent reality. Your “everybody” is totally different from my “everybody” and may even change based on the topic/belief at hand. The opinion of “everybody” often stands in for social mores or beliefs about how we think we should act. This can be good and bad. For instance, if you believe that “everybody” says that stalking your former partner is a bad idea, that might keep you from doing something you will regret later. However, if “everybody” believes you are too old to start a business at the age of 40, that might keep you from pursuing a dream.
This imaginary “everybody” can keep you stuck mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and energetically. It can create a lot of unnecessary suffering in your life. If your “everybody” believes that getting therapy is akin to throwing money down the toilet, you may end up suffering for years with unresolved trauma. Your “everybody” might believe that the only way to deal with your pain is increasing doses of medication because alternative health options are too weird.
The problem here is that you are making decisions, holding onto beliefs, and living your life based on a completely fictitious framework of reality. Even when that framework obviously doesn’t fit you or is causing you suffering, you cling to it tightly believing that it is the right thing.
So what can you do?
Essentially you need to free yourself from the burden of believing and doing what “everybody” else thinks you should believe and do. The first step is realizing that “everybody” doesn’t actually exist. The second step is identifying who is in your imaginary group of “everybody” and then actively finding other people who don’t fit into that group. What do they think? Do they believe something different? Finally, you can use these new views to help you make different choices than you did before.
So here is how this went for me this week:
“Everybody says that meditation is the way to mystical, magical experiences! What am I doing wrong? Why have never once had a single magical moment? Arghhh!”
Step 1: “Hold on. Does everybody actually say that? Is that even true?”
Step 2: “My everybody is made up of authors who write about meditation and want me to try meditation and buy their products. Of course they give me the best stories of what is possible. Maybe not everybody who buys their products has these magical experiences."
Step 3: "Let me go read some book reviews or talk to some real people and find out what their experiences have actually been.”
Step 4: “Now that I have a more realistic view, I’ll stop expecting meditation to be magical and mystical and just let it be what it is for me. It can just be a really good time to get quiet and let my body talk to me.”
Thus my angst over expecting meditation to be something it isn’t is eliminated and my suffering is over.
Is it always this easy? Probably not. But in this case it was and I am grateful for that (and I got a blog post out of it- so it was a double win!).
Are you struggling to break out of some box, some belief, some pattern in your life because “everybody” thinks that is the way to live? It sounds like it is time to examine your imaginary “everybody.” Challenge yourself to name people who are part of your “everybody.” Then go out and find other people who don’t fit into that group. It is time to break out and listen to those other opinions and ideas. Suddenly, your concept of what you believe, think, and are willing to accept as possible has opened up. Now you have space to change and grow. Now you have the opportunity to choose your own way of being in the world that is not mediated by an imaginary “everybody.” That, my friends, is the beginning of freedom, of healing, and of wholeness.
So if you feel stuck this week, ask yourself if an imaginary “everybody” is holding you back!