The Consciousness Explorers Club meets once a week in the living room of a four-bedroom Victorian in the heart of Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. It’s a spacious room, with high ceilings and walls covered in large tapestries, one of which depicts a tiger. The floor is a sea of oversized throw pillows. The members of the club—a couple of dozen show up on a regular basis—do not, upon first glance, look like the wild-eyed psychonauts the name of the organization might conjure. Several members of the creative class—the filmmaker Ron Mann, playwright David Young, journalist Marni Jackson and novelist Christine Pountney—are occasional or frequent attendees, but there are also students, doctors and scientists, most dressed in clothing that would not be out of place in a yoga class. The average age is probably 35. Every Monday, the club meets for a 40-minute guided meditation (a $10 donation gets you in the door), and then, after a tea break, to discuss topics that range widely, from childhood to urban stress. These conversations are called “collective wonderment.”
The club was started a year-and-a-half ago by Jeff Warren, a Toronto-born journalist, meditation teacher and the author of 2007’s The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. In that acclaimed and amusing book, which the San Francisco Chronicle described as an “Oliver Sacks essay turned inside out,” Warren systematically charts 12 different states of mind, from lucid dreaming to trances, using himself as his primary guinea pig. Before writing The Head Trip, Warren, a lithe, compact 42-year-old, studied literature at McGill and worked as a producer at CBC’s Ideas. At school, he was, in his words, “a disregulated partier,” and it was only after he developed ADD in the wake of a massive brain injury—high on psilocybin mushrooms in his final year, he fell 30 feet out of a tree—that he became fascinated by what he calls “all these flavours of consciousness that people aren’t really aware of.”
One of the flavours that most intrigued him was at the centre of many meditative practices—what he called “a raw, undiluted substrate to conscious experience that forms the backdrop to everything else.” Warren began to dabble in Buddhist meditation toward the end of the decade it took to research The Head Trip. The techniques—which, through extended periods of contemplation, simultaneously develop both detachment and a heightened awareness and sensitivity—helped relieve his chronic neck pain (Warren spent three months in a brace after his accident) and provided a sense of emotional ballast. The immersive intimacy of a week-long retreat in Scotland in 2005, however, was even more epiphanic. Warren realized that meditation was “a dignified attempt to come to grips with being human with the resources you have right there. Not depending on some guru, or some drug, or some psychotherapy. Just a very simple technique that, repeated again and again and again, will eventually change the way you relate to the world at the deepest level.”
Buddhist meditation (as well as other contemplative practices, like Transcendental Meditation) has beguiled North Americans since the beatniks. In the last decade or so, however, it’s become undeniably mainstream. Many progressive companies now provide training in mindfulness, as do hundreds of hospitals, and Buddhist meditation retreats are the new spa getaway. Meditation has become a kind of cure-all, in fact, shown to alleviate depression, improve academic performance and dull pain. But Warren was less interested in meditation as a relaxation and self-help technique; for him, it was the key to understanding how thoughts, emotions and sensations truly function and a method to improve how they function.
As Warren points out, Buddhist monks have spent more than 2,000 years studying their own brains and behaviour. And in the past decade or so, scientific interest in meditation has boomed. In 2000, there were two U.S. National Institutes of Health-funded mindfulness studies; in 2008, there were 128. “Interest has exploded in clinical and applied psychology,” says University of Toronto psychology professor Michael Inzlicht, “and also more and more with cognitive scientists. Meditation’s been shown to be effective in clinical treatment. We know it works and now we want to know why it works.”
Warren wanted to know why it worked too. He was fascinated by the potential cross-fertilization of science and spirituality (neither of which alone were sufficient, he felt, in accurately representing the world). In 2008, after having attended dozens of retreats, spoken to several teachers and read “a tonne of books,” he met Shinzen Young. An American meditation teacher, mathematician and linguist, Young had studied with Sasaki Roshi, Leonard Cohen’s teacher and, at 105 years old, the world’s oldest Zen master. Warren is staunchly anti-guru, but Young became, at least, a life-altering mentor. Warren calls Young a “Mendeleev of the mind”—referring to the creator of the periodic table of the elements—and Young has in fact created a system of 13 meditation techniques that synthesize several contemplative techniques (mostly Buddhist), while largely stripping them of their religious content. Briefly, the techniques consist of different ways of mentally “noting,” or acknowledging and focusing intently on a sensory event (your breath, an emotion, or even a car alarm going off outside your apartment), and then observing that event until it disappears. The techniques are simple, even dry, but the potential benefits enormous: a reduction in mental and physical suffering and an increased sense of fulfillment.
Warren now teaches those techniques himself several times a week, in workshops that typically last seven weeks, and which cost almost $400. (His modest income also comes from speaking engagements and journalism—he’s a regular columnist at the online magazine Psychology Tomorrow.) In casual conversation, his mind can seem like it’s elsewhere, and it often is. When he teaches, however, he’s irreverent and charismatic, and his workshops lack the solemnity typical of many meditation halls. (On his website, he says he will “help you . . . stop acting like a shit.”) “You don’t have to have some kind of secret New Age habit,” he says. “You can enter into a juicy, joyful spiritual practice and keep every bit of your scientific rigour. You don’t have to be so open-minded your brain falls out.”
The novelist Barbara Gowdy started meditating with Warren in the hope of reducing the debilitating back pain from which she suffers. To a skeptic like her, his jargon-free approach was irresistible. “He reminds me of a young Ram Dass,” Gowdy says, referring to the renowned American guru. “He could be a cult leader if he wanted. But he’s too kind and open. He genuinely wants to help.”
Warren now plans to move the Consciousness Explorers Club out of his living room and turn it into what he calls a “21st-century community centre,” where meditation enhances and encourages social justice, activism and creative innovation. (And fun—the club also now hosts a monthly dance party at a Kensington Market bar.) “The whole point of this is first you work on yourself,” he says. “But you do it so you can be more efficient at helping others.”
Late last summer, Warren sought to increase his own efficiency by spending a month in a straw bale house in Alabama, meditating alone for 18 hours a day, under the supervision of Daniel Ingram, author of the infamous Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. That arduous experience, which Warren chronicled in the New York Times, will become part of his next book, about his own rocky path towards enlightenment. “I don’t know anyone who’s satisfied with just clocking in and out,” he says. “There’s a hunger for meaning. There’s a demand for people to manage their own minds because of the pressure of technology. All this stuff is happening. How do you begin to direct this energy? How can you take that and bring it to people in a way that’s fun?”