Can You Be Both Ambitious and Enlightened?

Dr. Jay Michaelson sits down with ABC News' Dan Harris for his livestream show.

ByABC News
March 23, 2016, 11:53 AM

— -- To say that Dr. Jay Michaelson is an ambitious guy would be an understatement.

Check out the resume: Michaelson is a lawyer, a rabbi, a legal/religion columnist for The Daily Beast, an LGBT activist, a professor, and an author of six books.

Yet despite his staggering number of day jobs, Michaelson has also found time to intensively practice meditation. In fact, add another job to the resume: He’s also a meditation teacher.

And not only does he practice and teach meditation, he says he’s had experiences of enlightenment, or “awakening.”

He’s not boasting, though. In part, Michaelson’s mission is to knock enlightenment off its pedestal.

“The truth is that, again, I’m just early on, on the path, and I’m still fully captive by the same forces of greed, hatred and delusion as everyone else, even if I’m 25 percent of the way there that means I’m 75 percent not there, so that’s the truth,” he said. “I’m still a baby at letting go.”

Michaelson sat down with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his livestream podcast show, “10% Happier with Dan Harris,” to discuss his experiences.

During their conversation, Michaelson discussed how it’s possible to have great highs and lows as you go deeper into the practice. Even if you taste enlightenment, Michaelson argues it doesn’t mean you won’t feel sadness, anger and depression. In fact, he says it’s healthy to experience these difficult emotions.

“I don’t think we would want to have this existence in which we don’t feel pain.... I wouldn’t want to live that way,” he said. “Maybe it would be better to just not be affected by anything, but it’s not an aspiration of mine. I don’t really know people who are like that, who are just colorless and bland, those aren’t my role models. My role models are people who really are engaged in the world and in relationships with others and with their family members.”

Michaelson said it’s possible to “co-exist” with these difficult feelings without being completely consumed by them, especially in times of great pain and suffering.

People would ask me shortly after my mom died, you know, ‘How are you doing?’ and I would say, ‘I’m doing really badly,’ and that’s fine,” he said. “And it was fine. First of all, it felt good to feel bad because it was coming from love. But what am I supposed to be feeling? Yeah, it feels terrible. It was really rough, and that’s fine. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

So is it possible for the rest of us to get enlightened? Yes, he says. But here’s the thing: It usually takes time -- a lot of time. Michaelson had his experiences while on silent meditation retreats for months at a time.

“The truth is these were monastic practices,” he said. “They were for monks and nuns, and you can’t actually have it all, and it may just be that your karma with, again, with your causes and conditions with your family, your job, your profession, maybe not. There are teachers who say you can get to these levels in daily like with a certain kind of intensive practice I didn’t do that, it was easier for me to unplug and go away for a while.”

But that doesn’t mean basic, daily meditation isn’t worth pursuing for the rest of us.

“I think all of us who are involved in fields where we try to compete and get ahead, there’s that voice that kind of says, ‘You suck, and you’re inadequate, and you’re whatever,’” he said. “So that voice comes along and it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s that voice. That’s a stupid voice,’ and it’s not even stupid, like pushing it away, it’s like, ‘OK, there’s that voice’ ... it’s installed, it’s not getting out of me for the rest of my life, but it’s not like I really believe it.”