An Interview with Jay Michaelson, Author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (North Atlantic Books, 2013)
What inspired you to write Evolving Dharma?
This is really the book I wanted to write right now. I wanted to tell the story of a phenomenon that is rapidly changing the Western world – the mass adoption of meditation – but I also wanted to tell it from a personal point of view, about my own winding road in practice and how it’s impacted my life.
It’s corny but I really do think that contemplative practice may change the world. I don’t know of a better way to help us become better animals than we might otherwise be.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Meditation is not religion, not spirituality – it’s a technology of upgrading the mind that can enrich one’s life, including one’s religious life. We’re used to the idea of physical fitness. Time to get used to the idea of contemplative fitness, and practice at least as diligently.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
I excerpted pieces of my own retreat journals in the book, and had more in there originally. Honestly, though, it was too corny and too mistaken to leave in. Most beginning practitioners go down a lot of blind alleys, filled with mistaken notions about the purpose of practice, the signs it’s going well, and what to do next. At least I know I did. So I cut out a few of the more embarrassing bits. And left others in.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
For meditation “outsiders,” it’s that you need to be a hippie to meditate.
For meditation “insiders,” it’s that you’re not supposed to make progress in practice. I understand why this idea was once useful, and it’s true that meditation is not really about getting anywhere or accomplishing anything. But, and this is an important but, it is possible to get better at not getting anywhere.
All the Asian contemplative traditions have notions of a path, of development, of a dharma that evolves over the course of one’s practice. Yet in many streams of Western Buddhism, this idea was not just lost but deliberately omitted in translation.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
The truth is, there are a lot of same-old, same-old Buddhist books out there, aimed at Boomers and festooned with inspirational cover art. There are also a lot of whiz-bang, hype-filled books on neurodharma seemingly aimed at the business-book crowd.
Rather than go for mass market on this one, I wanted to write the book I wanted to write, for my circle of serious-practitioner friends, intelligent skeptics, and pragmatic contemplatives – all of whom are either Gen-X or millennial, and none of whom have any patience for either of those sets of cliches.
Are you hoping to inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
I’d love for a smart, cynical reader to say “hmm, I guess meditation isn’t just hippie indulgence after all,” and for that reader to consider doing something that makes the world a better place – starting with their mind.
I also hope that people who have been doing some meditation already read the personal, developmental chapters and decide to go for some more hardcore practice themselves.
What alternative title would you give the book?
It’s funny, this one was called Evolving Dharma from the start, despite the fact that it’s not the catchiest title I’ve ever come up with. I was thinking about Practical Enlightenment, but that sounds a little pretentious.
How do you feel about the cover?
I’m taking the fifth on this one. The cover art by Cryptik, a California-based street artist, is awesome.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
One of the models for this book is Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, which is one of the few books to take the developmental path seriously, and which also has an awesome title that is itself a powerful lesson on the dharma.
I also have been rereading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart which is radical and wise, with not a bromide in sight. People think of Ani Pema as sweet and cuddly, but that book kicks your butt.
What’s your next book?
It depends on fate! The book based on my doctoral dissertation, “Jacob Frank: The Great Jewish Heretic,” is under review at an academic press. And a proposal for another more mainstream book on LGBT issues, What is Homosexuality For? is under review as well. Or I may get my poetry manuscript in shape so it jumps ahead of both. I’ve got stuff to keep me busy.
This interview was originally printed in Religions Dispatches on October 2, 2013.