The takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.
First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.
This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.
After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.
In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!
Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.
This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality. He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?
Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?
There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.
I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?
Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.
Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.
The dark night is a series of insights in meditation also known as the “dukkha nanas” or “knowledges of dissatisfaction” in classical Buddhism. They are a series of stages where the meditator gets a good hard long look at suffering.
It is not fun.
There is an aspect of the dark night that I want to highlight because it is very important. It happens to everyone and is not discussed often. And it is this: once you see dukkha in yourself you begin to see it everywhere.
You can hear the sadness and anxiety in other’s voices. Feel the anger and cynicism in humor and sarcasm. See the ceaseless restlessness in body language. Read the guarded disappointment in the set of faces passing on the street. See the constant craving for escape in just about every behavior.
The deep dissatisfaction and restlessness that is embedded in everyone’s lives jumps out in sharp clarity. It is not just in the people you encounter either. You can hear it in music, see it in art, feel it in the layout of offices, and recognize it as part of normal life, from the highest expression of humanity to the lowest depths of depravity. Dukkha is there. You can’t avoid it. It is not just something you see in your meditation, it is something you see in the world.
There is a scene in the latest Cosmos series that really stood out to me, because it captures what this is like. It portrays the experience of Clair Paterson, the scientist who, while trying to determine the true age of the earth, accidentally discovered that lead from gasoline is everywhere, and it is poising people. *Click the picture above to see the video.*
Imagine what it must have been like to be him. You analyze the data, crunch the numbers, and come to a shocking realization that literally no one else on the planet knows – there is a toxin covering every surface. It fills the air, and is probably in all the food. What would it be like to make such a discovery?
Even though it is not fun to discover dukkha, it is important. In fact, I’d say that unless you really soak up the truth to be found in this insight, then real wisdom – reality-based, non-superficial, knowledge about the actual state of affairs – is not possible. Additionally, developing deep compassion is difficult without seeing dukkha up close and personal.
Like Paterson, you will feel the urge to do something about it. Not just for yourself, but for others. This is how compassion, a deep and universal form of compassion, can arise. You realize that everyone is struggling with the same problem in different ways.
You see that dukkha is everywhere, and for this reason, seeking for happiness in things soaked in dukkha just won’t help. This is how wisdom arises. Why obsess over the small stuff? Why spend time in distraction? Once the meditator sees the truth about dukkha, then a clear sense of what is and is not important arises.
The bright side of the dark night is the development of compassion and wisdom. These are impossible to imagine without a deep insight into dukkha. So while the dark night is not fun, it is worth it for the transformation that it can bring.
If you think that you may be in the dark night, please contact a teacher. For more information, you can contact the author directly. Don’t be shy. If you are in the Dark Night, reach out.
If you begin to wake up, you will become frustrated.
I know that sounds strange. Let me explain.
One of the side effects of the insight path is that, in the language of the Visuddhimmaga, you begin to see “what is the path and what is not.” In other words, you can intuit what leads to realization and what is a distraction. You can see much more clearly what is skillful and what is BS, and the problem is this: there is a lot of BS. Not only that, but people are deeply attached to it. They are righteously, emphatically, evangelically attached to it. This isn’t really a problem for you – until you start to wake up. Then you can clearly see all the tragic ways that people keep themselves in the dark. You desperately want to do something about it. But you can’t. It is deeply frustrating.
Below is an email I received from one person who had just such an encounter. I get emails like this regularly, and thought this one was a pretty good example of what it’s like to run face-first into what Bill Hamilton called the “mushroom culture” (when meditators are kept in the dark and fed shit).
For context, the writer recently finished second path, and is cycling up to third, so he is speaking from a place of genuine wakefulness.
I subbed in for my wife last night at a class she was taking at our local Zen Center (of which we are both members, although I almost never sit with the group), where they are studying Chogyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Man, it was frustrating.
We’ve discussed before the differences between Zen teachings (open, honest, steady as you go) and those given by the pragmatic dharma folks that I’ve experimented with (Mahasi Sayadaw noting technique, map- and goal-oriented). And, personally, I think that there’s much to be said for recognizing that different techniques and approaches may suit different personalities, yet still lead a seeker to similar realizations.
The funny thing, as I’ve mentioned before, is how Zen’s “drop your goals” and “stop trying” mentality really resonates for Theravada practitioners working up to “third path” in the Sayadaw model. It’s the path where you learn to give up the path. That’s the path where you start to intuitively understand, at a very deep and very fundamental level, that all experiences really are marked with dukkha.
But it’s one thing to see directly that there’s nothing you can actually do to accomplish a goal that will provide you with the experience of permanent bliss and satisfaction and entirely different thing to hear some Zen teacher say that and then accept that as your intellectual understanding of the thing.
The frustration last night was realizing that many of those in the class — even long-time Zen practitioners — simply had no idea what they are doing. If you try and talk technique or methods for figuring it out, they bristle. A woman last night literally took issue with the term “technique” (in a discussion concerning how to drop the “watcher,” which I pointed out the Zen koan “Who am I?” and other self-enquiry techniques are designed precisely to get at). She said — and most of the class agreed — that the term “technique” made it sound like you were doing something, but there’s nothing you need to do, because you cannot achieve enlightenment, it’s just a thing that happens.
Fair enough, but nobody understood what that means. Nobody got that you only realize that there’s nowhere to go after trying to get somewhere for a really long time and failing miserably over and over again and seeing how it feels. It was, instead, this dogmatic adherence to the Zen “no goal” view, without having any clue what it meant. The clear impression from the class discussion was that having a non-dual experience was essentially unattainable. (“The class spent some time discussing ‘what it would be like if you could drop the watcher.'”)
Indeed, it was almost as though there was some sort of taboo associated with even saying that you want one of these peak experiences — like, if you admit that you want to have the non-dual experience, then you won’t have it, ever.
Here was my response:
This sounds like an episode of star trek where they confuse a supercomputer with a logical paradox.
There is nothing to do to become enlightened and any attempts to do so will fail – now go get enlightened! What a disempowering thing to believe.
It seems like, from your description, that they are confusing thinking like an enlightened person with being an enlightened person. From the awakened perspective it sure appears as though there is nothing to do and no one to do it. But if you take that perspective before you’ve actually experienced at least one path moment, then it is crippling.
It’s as if they are pilots stuck on the runway because they only read accounts of how to use auto pilot. Why would it be necessary to do anything? According to the autopilot instructions there is no pilot. There is nothing to do. Nothing to control. Just let go. And if someone points out that they are stuck on the runway because they are acting like they are at 10,000 feet when they’re not, they get offended and think it’s crazy talk. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
The Buddha himself was very clear about striving for enlightenment. On the night of his enlightenment he was working so hard that he described himself as running with sweat with his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth with effort. Over and over again he essentially said “go for it!” liberation is real, it’s available if you just do the work, and even an ordinary person like you can do it. It is a mystery to me why he would tell people to practice like your hair’s on fire if any attempts to become enlightened would fail. He didn’t think that, and he said so over and over. He didn’t hedge on that. He didn’t take it back. He made it one of the steps of the eightfold path, and “strive on with diligence” was the last thing he said before he died. Could he be any clearer? You have to try, and try really hard, otherwise nothing will happen.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
The takeaway: This book is about the struggle of a guy trying to figure out what is real in the world of pop-spirituality. The good news is that he found it. The bad news is that he had to search through loads of woo-woo to finally discover what it is. This is a good book for teachers, advanced students, and people deeply involved in meditation communities to read, because it is a reminder that the people who show up, get involved, and commit to the work have had to put up with a lot of stupidity before you ever see them. They deserve a lot of respect.
Dan Harris is not an awakened master. In fact, he is about the farthest thing from an enlightened person that there is, and he’d be the first to admit it. An avowed atheist and skeptic, he’s turned off by the spirituality and oddball ideas associated with meditation. And in my opinion that is why he is the perfect person to write a popular book on meditation.
First the background: Harris is a news reporter, and the book opens with an account of one of the worst days of his career. Maybe one of the worst days of his life. He is reporting live on Good Morning America, one of those upbeat morning shows where the news is mixed with cookie recipes, dancing pop stars, and lots of weather reports for places where you don’t live. On the morning Harris describes, viewers from all over the country are eating cereal, drinking their coffee, and waking up while watching GMA, when he has a full-blown panic attack live on the air. A racing heartbeat, gasping for breath, inability to speak – the whole embarrassing thing unfolds in front of approximately five million groggy-eyed viewers just before they head off to work for the day. For a reporter, it is the stuff of nightmares.*
The reasons for the attack are numerous and make up an interesting biography in the first couple of chapters, but what is most interesting is what happened next. He goes on a search to change himself, and it turns into a kind of postmodern spiritual journey: a spiritual journey by an investigative journalist who investigates all things spiritual for a national news outlet. How meta can you get?
If you meditate, then the basics of his search will probably be very familiar to you. He reads self-help books. Then he stumbles upon Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the other Oprah Book Club gurus. He goes from books to talks. From talks to meditation. And so on. It seems to be the trajectory many people follow in the west. Step one: read the books. Step two: listen to the teachers. Step three: try it for yourself. Step four: repeat.
But here is the unique thing about Harris’s story, he is in a position not just to read the books, but to interview the authors. Harris goes on a bit of a mission to investigate the gurus and see who they really are. He clearly has a spiritual yearning, but his reporter’s instincts give his investigation a clarifying effect that is missing from other “spiritual journey” biographies: he can easily see what is BS and what is not. And there is a lot of BS. He sums up the problem he encountered perfectly in the opening chapter:
Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem. Largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.
He gives a frustrating account of his interview with Tolle, who has a way of producing loads of what Kurt Vonnegut would call “foma,” sayings that are harmless but essentially meaningless, only to suddenly say something so true, clear, and powerful that it shocks you into amazement. The effect is short-lived, because more foma quickly issues forth. Harris senses that Tolle is on to something, but he can’t put his finger on what it is and can’t get any meaningful advice from him on how to find out for himself. He drops him for a time, but he makes a reappearance later in the book.
After Tolle he moves on to Chopra, who comes off horribly in the book. Chopra is not so much a spiritual guru as a business guru, a salesman, and he is a glutton for fame and attention. Harris is restrained and polite in his skepticism, but clearly after spending time with the blackberry-addicted, media-loving, savvy businessman that is Deepak Chopra, Harris feels less than inspired.
But luckily, that is when he runs into Mark Epstein. Epstein introduces him to Buddhism, the mindfulness movement, and the world of people associated with insight meditation.** It is touch and go, and the mindfulness people don’t seem that much better than Tolle or Chopra at first. But over time he comes to see them as more real and less obsessed with fame. The fact that they make no weird claims about quantum vortexes, the law of attraction, or awakening hidden energies doesn’t hurt. Epstein and many others seem like ordinary people who discovered an extraordinary thing – meditation actually works when you know how to do it. But still, the world of mindfulness and Buddhism has its fair share of sentimentality, if not outright woo-woo, and in this respect teachers like Tara Brach do not come off well in the book.
Despite his skepticism, he begins meditating and discovers, like so many millions, that it actually works. But he is frustrated by the dissonance between the weirdness of the culture surrounding meditation and its incredible down-to-earth practicality. As he puts it:
I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.
In the end of the book, Harris does not become enlightened. As far as I can tell, he has only begun his practice. This is not a book about the joys of finishing the path, or even of being on the path, but rather the relief of finally finding the trailhead. It is about the frustrations of finding real information despite the wall of white noise that is modern pop spirituality. The thickets of new age confusion that one can get caught in are on full display in this book, and Harris, with his investigative journalist’s eye, describes just how awful they are for someone starting their search. And while this could give the book a cynical tone, the overall feeling is hopeful. Harris does find the trailhead. He finds a practice worth doing and is excited to demystify it for other newbies. From what I can tell he has not yet experienced the first big mystical breakthrough, what is called the A&P, but if he keeps meditating I’m sure he will.
I’m looking forward to that book.
*The way the other anchors and the corporate folks respond to his panic attack is amazing. It makes one question the stereotypes about those involved in the news media.
** It’s an odd coincidence, but I ran into Harris at this point in his journey. We attended a dinner together and though we didn’t get a chance to talk I kept wondering why he looked so familiar. I assumed we must have skyped about meditation at some point so as I was leaving the dinner I waved at him and said “sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk.” Now I understand the look he gave me, which at the time I thought was “I’m sorry too,” but in hindsight must have been “who the hell is this guy?”
The takeaway: This is not light reading. Venture into this only if you are serious about understanding what the Satipatthana actually says. Otherwise, read the more friendly summaries. Or just read the sutta itself, which is here.
Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization is not one book, it’s two. The first book is in the text, and the second is in the footnotes, which sometimes take up half a page. Both books are full of detail. Both books are a challenge to the lay reader because the writing is scholastic, abstract and filled with exotic terminology. But it is abundantly clear that in both books the author knows what he is talking about. If you are serious about knowing what is in the Satipatthana, this is probably your go-to book.
Let’s back up a moment: what is in the Satipatthana Sutta that it merits a whole two books? The Satipatthana is a discourse found in both the Majjhima Nikaya and Digha Nikaya (two of the root texts of the Buddha’s original teachings) and it is special because it gives amazingly clear meditation instructions. A surprising fact about the original discourses: there are not many places in them where the Buddha gives nuts-and-bolts meditation instructions. The Satipatthana is unique among them because it stands out as the clearest, most complete, and the most unique to the Buddha’s teachings. So if you want to do “Buddhist” meditation, you can’t go wrong doing what is in the Satipatthana.
Another reason to study the Satipatthana is that after giving the meditation instructions the Buddha tops it off with a big promise. At the very end he explains that if anyone does this kind of meditation day and night diligently for just two weeks she can expect to reach awakening (stream entry). Think about that. If you get it together enough to put all your energy into this meditation for about the length of an average vacation, you can awaken. When he calls it the “direct path to realization” he is not joking.
Now, most of us, myself especially, cannot keep up the level of intensity he is describing for that long. This kind of meditation can wear you down. So two weeks of nonstop mindfulness is, well… aspirational. No problem. The Buddha adds that if you keep it up at a more moderate level you can expect awakening in 7 months to 7 years. That’s not very specific by modern standards, and some people might balk and putting in work on a such an open-ended project, but when you consider what is being promised, it is well worth the effort. So the Satipatthana sutta is especially interesting to folks who are ready to get serious about their meditation and see if awakening is real.
The Satipatthana translates as the “Foundations of Mindfulness,” and it is considered the source of what is now commonly called “insight meditation.” The sutta lays out two broad ideas: first there is a special technique of meditation invented by the Buddha (mindfulness), which one then applies to four categories of experience. Hence the “four foundations of mindfulness.”
The technique described in the sutta is to get focused, build some concentration (how much is the source of a lot of debate), and then to turn attention to ordinary things. And when I say ordinary I mean very ordinary. Itches. Sounds. Pressure. Mental images. The constant channel surfing of the body and mind in all their busy activity. What do we do when we look at these things? We simply “know” them. That’s it. That’s the technique. This is the counterintuitive part. He’s not advocating doing anything. Just “know.”
This is so simple it is mind-bogglingly hard to understand. We want to do something, change something, create something. But no. The Buddha is saying clearly over and over, just know what you are experiencing in your body and mind right this instant. That’s it. That’s all. Just do that and keep doing that as long as you can.
For anyone experienced in the natural sciences this should sound vaguely familiar. Consider how Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Or how natural scientists of all kinds study the behaviour of complex natural systems in their native environment. The very first step is to simply immerse yourself in the system and watch. That’s all. Don’t interpret. Don’t interfere. Don’t test. Don’t theorise. Simply watch.
The Buddha is explaining how to conduct the data collection phase of naturalistic study.
Everything that is called “insight meditation” today flows from this simple technique. Whether it is noting, body scanning, open awareness, or any of the other dozens of ways of doing insight meditation, they all are different ways of simply getting you to immerse yourself in the mind and body and then observe without interfering. The technique is simple moment-to-moment data collection.
So what do we collect data on? In the sutta these are the four foundations. To return to the Jane Goodall analogy, imagine that she were to sit with a pad and paper with four columns on it while watching the chimpanzees. Each column represents a different category of behaviour she wants to watch for, and each time she sees one she simply makes a brief note in that category. In this kind of meditation we are instructed to do something very similar. This is where Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization really shines. The author gets into the nuances and subtleties of the four foundations in a way that is intriguing. It turns out that there is a lot of information packed into the sutta, even though is is relatively short. If you like deep study into Buddhist theory and deconstruction of language, then you will love this book.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the four foundations here, because obviously you would need a whole two books to do cover everything, but there is one aspect of the four foundations that I love and it is hard not to share. It’s also one that really confuses people. So please excuse me for geeking out for a moment.
The first three foundations are straightforward. They roughly correspond to the body, the mind, and how you react to the contents of the body and mind. But the fourth foundation is my favorite. It is also the least understood. It is often translated as “mental objects” or not translated at all and left as “dhammas” with a small “d.” It always strikes people as a bit strange because it doesn’t fit at all with the first three, which are pretty intuitive.
The fourth foundation contains things like the five hinderances, the seven factors of enlightenment and the five aggregates. The reason I love this foundation is because it shows the Buddha’s humanity. This is what I call the “kitchen-sink” foundation, because it seems like it is the one in which he threw everything else that he couldn’t fit neatly into the first three.
Let’s return to the Goodall analogy. Imagine that on her pad the first three columns had items that any person would recognize as relevant for animal behavior, such as “feeding,” “sleeping” and “mating.” But then in the fourth category she had a wide-ranging list of things to watch for that were unique to chimps and were part of her theory of chimp behavior, such as “hierarchical posturing,” “selective grooming,” and “sharing resources.” You couldn’t really study chimpanzees without watching for such things, but they don’t fit neatly into the most basic categories. That is exactly the case with the fourth foundation. Anyone can easily watch for body sensations, mental activity and reactions, but there are subtle and important things occurring that are part of the natural behavior of the body and mind. They don’t fit neatly into the first three categories. And if you do the meditation long enough you are bound to come across them. That is the fourth foundation.
Overall, I would recommend Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization for two kinds of people. The first are those who are true hardcore Buddhist geeks (if you listen to the podcast of the same name you are likely in this category). The kind who know the original Pali words for things, and consider studying the Visuddhimagga to be a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The second kind of person who would get something from this book are those who have been doing insight meditation for a while, and maybe something is starting to happen. Maybe you have had some unusual experiences, or something deeper seems to be working. You are becoming more serious about insight meditation and want to learn more about it from an in depth analysis. If that is you, I don’t think you can get much better than this book.
There is this phrase that is used in Buddhism to denote when big changes happen: “a turning of the wheel.” It’s always struck me as a little cryptic and eerie-sounding. Wheels, after all, don’t care what they run over. But it fits when things in Buddhism start to change as though something large and outside of anyone’s control is on the move. Now might be one of those times.
The first turning of the wheel happened when the Buddha gave his initial instructions to a group of close friends. The second and third had to do with the expansion of those original teachings to include Mahayana concepts. These days there is a lot of talk that a fourth turning may be coming soon, and much speculation about what it would look like.
People who are into this sort of thing (I’m looking at you, Integral folks) are excited about how technology, neuroscience and the internet are all converging on meditation in a way never seen before. And I think they may be on to something. A big change is coming, but I actually think it already came and we missed it. Or rather, we are only now beginning to feel it. Because when you step back and look at what is going on, one of the biggest experiments in history is already well underway.
Like any good experiment, this one has mostly to do with the numbers. Consider that during the lifetime of the Buddha he taught large gatherings of people just about every day for forty years. Historical records are sketchy, but if we are very generous and grant that he taught an average of 100 brand new people every day of those forty years, then he reached around 1,500,000 people directly in his lifetime. That is about the population of Phoenix.
Fast forward to today. Approximately 31 million americans meditate every day. That’s right. Every day in the US more people are meditating than he could have reached in twenty lifetimes. The equivalent of four New York Cities. While global estimates are not available, it is not unreasonable to believe that there are more people meditating every single day than were alive on the planet in the Buddha’s lifetime.
Even stranger is the fact that this all happened in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. It is reasonable to think all those new people meditating gradually built up in a nice predictable sloping graphed-out line over centuries. But no, as is usually the case, things aren’t reasonable. Just consider that it wasn’t that long ago in the west that meditation was a fringe activity restricted to beat poets, hippies, and other creative riff-raff. But that creative riff-raff went on to invent ipods and run countries. And so now meditation is about as mainstream as little league and pizza. Meditation’s growth in the past half century has been astonishing. It went from something artists did alone in the woods to something written about alongside the recipes in the Ladies Home Journal, and all that change happened in about the same amount of time that it took the Buddha to reach those 1,500,000 people.
All experiments start with parameters, and that is the first parameter of this experiment: a sudden, and massive, increase in scale. A vast new sangha has been created in a flash. We have little information about it, but we can be sure it is very different from the sanghas of the past. So let’s call it the “beta sangha.”
The second parameter has more to do with quality than quantity. Who are all these new people in beta sangha? We don’t really know for sure, but what is clear is that the betas are nothing like stereotypical meditators of the past. It is now normal to hear CEOs talk about mindfulness. Celebrities, pop stars, and even presidents talk breezily about their daily meditation practice. Soldiers are taking audio instructions for meditation on deployment. Children are learning meditation in grade schools. Corporations are starting to give employees meditation breaks. Hospitals, social workers, and school counselors are teaching people how to to meditate. I could go on.
The world of meditation has not simply increased in population, it has dramatically diversified. Not only are more people meditating than ever before, wildly different types of people are meditating. The ultra religious and the hardcore atheists. Business folks and spiritual people. Conservatives and liberals. To say that meditation has become inclusive would be an understatement. And that is the second parameter of the experiment: people who never would have meditated in the past are now doing it in large numbers.
The third and final parameter is, I’ll admit from the start, a little heretical. It has to do with the quality of the meditation being done. In the world of religious Buddhism it is often thought that things have degenerated over time. That the teachings have become weaker and less effective. But is that really the case? If you think of the Buddha as an omniscient conduit of perfect information then it is perfectly reasonable. But if you take him at his word, that he was just a normal person who woke up, then he was a person who made a discovery that has become the foundation for further work. He was the Galileo of awakening, and since his time an army of forgotten meditation experts and engineers have moved from handmade telescopes to Hubble Deep Field Imaging. The last two turnings can be thought of as sudden leaps forward in the the work of successive refinements in the technology of awakening discovered by the Buddha. If anything, the technology has become more powerful, simpler, and easier to learn.
By the time the betas emerge in our century there are literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of extremely powerful meditative techniques that people can learn in a very short amount of time. The technology of awakening is now so powerful that if an average person commits the same amount of time and energy to meditation that they do to getting a college degree, they can experience profound change, and awakening is certainly possible. That is the third parameter of the experiment: the opportunity to awaken in lay life is greater than ever.
So when we put all the parameters together, in context, the experiment looks like this: we have recently moved from a point in history in which meditation was the lifetime task of a few elite dedicated monastics living in special conditions in relatively remote areas, to a globalized interconnected world filled with many millions of diverse people using very powerful meditation techniques every day in their normal lives. The people carrying out this experiment surround us. Ringing up our groceries, delivering our mail, making our laws, telling us the news on television, learning in our schools, and raising children at home. Beta sangha is a colossal and diverse new group, with no particular lineage, no particular faith, and even no particular interest in the religious and cultural aspects of meditation. They love meditation. But in a very real way they could care less about things like a fourth turning, and they are the ones most likely to deliver it.
Nothing like this has ever happened.
With more diverse people using powerful meditation techniques an interesting new paradigm emerges: a full curve. There is, and probably always has been, a bell curve of meditation. On one tail of the curve are people for whom meditation has meant becoming a little more relaxed. In the large middle are most people, for whom there is both relaxation and some insight, a glimmer of awakening. And at the other tail are the people who have taken it very far and some who have awakened. And at the farthest end are the outliers. The Dogens, the Milarepas, and Mahasi Sayadaws. These are the folks who have an uncanny talent for taking meditation to a far and deep place. In the past they have all been monks. But with the emergence of beta sangha this is about to change. The curve has recently flooded with millions of lay people. Some of them will have exceptional talent. A handful will see into the deepest insights discovered by past masters, and perhaps farther. The future outliers will probably be schoolteachers, mechanics, or bus drivers. We are quickly coming to a time when the most profound wisdom will come from the most unexpected sources.
The past turnings of the wheel had to do with the qualities of the teaching in some way, such as the meaning of “emptiness,” or whether “nibbana” was outside of day-to-day life. But the next turning will be less about the qualities of the concepts and more about what I call “the qualities of quantity.” The sheer force of numbers will shape the dharma to become more egalitarian. More open and easier to understand. To use a phrase from the world of technology, it will become more “user-friendly.”
I would expect that if beta sangha creates a fourth turning it will not give us a new insight into anything like emptiness. Instead of a new insight, we will get a new attitude. A more playful attitude. A lay attitude. An attitude about meditation more comfortable in jeans than robes. An attitude that recognizes wisdom without taking itself too seriously. It will be an attitude that rejects mystery, secrets, and ritual. It will be extremely pragmatic and intolerant of hierarchy. In short, if a fourth turning is coming, it will likely knock the dharma off its pedestal and bring it closer to daily life. A fourth turning will not be about getting a higher teaching. It will be about getting real.
Predictions like this are likely to be wrong. There is so little to go on. The bulk of this new sangha still hasn’t made their particular thoughts on the matter very cogent. Indeed, they’ve only begun to clear their throat. I am eager to hear what they have to say.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.
This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization of non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.
But then Ben Affleck happened.
When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.
But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.
The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.” What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.
What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.
Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.
And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.
While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.
One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”
If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.
It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.
Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?
In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.
But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.
The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.
From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.
So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.
Note to the reader: I’ve been planning to do reviews of dharma books for some time now and never quite got around to doing so. But recently I was sent a copy of this book to read with a request for my impressions about it, and that seemed like a sign to start. This is the first in a series that will proceed in no particular order and will cover everything from core texts (I plan to dive into the Visuddhimagga at some point) to far less traditional texts (expect reviews of lots of sci-fi). I say all this to make this point: I take requests. If you have a dharma (or somewhat dharma) book that you would like my take on, let me know. If you are really eager for me to review it, you can send it to me. Contact me directly for more information.
A scene from the Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong stands out as emblematic of the book. Ji, a Chinese Zen monk with a fondness for rice wine and trouble, is about to be jumped by a gang of Chinese officials who are furious at him for thwarting a scheme they were cooking up. They pounce on him and start pummeling away only to find a minute later that they are beating one of their own. Ji is off to one side. He’s drunk (all the stories involve a lot of wine) and says something impetuous, so they jump him again and once again find that he is resting nearby while they’ve been beating each other. Soon the whole gang of angry bureaucrats (who must have had very different jobs in ancient China compared to today’s paper-pushers) are dazed and bloodied, having taught themselves a good lesson. Ji never swings a punch. In the end he goes off with them willingly to meet the big boss, and his next adventure takes off from there.
This scene shows so much of what makes Ji fun to read about: he is an enlightened monk who breaks all the rules, dives right into the thick of samsara, and somehow watches it all from a distance, coming away clean while seeming to go along with it all, going from one adventure to the next.
Until I read this book I’d never heard of Ji Gong, but I knew about him, because he’s become an archetype in Buddhist literature. He’s one of the original Zen mad monks, and his legend has created a whole style of Buddhist story that survives to this day: the dharma bums of ages past. There is little that is known about the historical Ji Gong, the actual man who was born sometime around 1130 CE, and the tales about him have clearly been honed and stylized over time to be as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible, but I’d like to think that the real monk was something like the mad monk in the tales.
The history of the actual (and fictional) Ji goes like this: he studied in one of the largest monasteries in China, the Lingyin (which is still around), but he basically flunked out. His monastic sect was spartan and orderly, and Ji just couldn’t get it together under the pressure. His teachers gave up on him, expelled him from the order, and he, in modern parlance, became a free agent. Monks like him made a living in ancient China mostly by doing what we would now call magic. They cast spells, banished ghosts, created special magic items, granted special wishes, and so on. Ji started wandering from town to town, plying his trade, and this is where the story of the real Ji fades into the legend and little is known beyond the adventures we have preserved today, which are pretty fun. They’ve even been made into a Chinese movie, which I hope to find a translation of soon.
You’d think that with a setup like this, the story of Ji would follow the ancient formula found in so many Buddhist stories and he would become a kind of superhero monk. Discovering his powers and enlightening everyone while saving kittens stuck in trees, and being perfect in every way (I’m joking, but just barely). But according to the legend, Ji spent most of his time getting drunk and rowdy in wine shops and the seedier parts of ancient chinese towns. Unexpectedly, this does little to get in the way of his awakening, because outside of the confines of a rigid monastic system he flourishes, becomes enlightened, and begins dispensing wisdom in the most unexpected places. He eats meat (a scandal at the time), drinks wine (did I mention he likes wine?), and gets involved in contemporary politics in a big way, but all the while it’s clear that this monk, kicked out of a formal lineage and seemingly far off the path, is actually teaching people how to let go and transcend their normal cares. Mostly he does this by getting them to demonstrate how harmful their attachments are by goosing them to carry them out to absurd ends, which is is really entertaining.
One of the things I love most about Ji is that he so deliberately wrecks expectations about what an enlightened person is supposed to be like. The people in the stories are clearly expecting an enlightened person to act in the stereotypical ways that many modern people think enlightened people should behave: be sweet, nice, uninterested in worldly affairs, exude peacefulness, be sanitized of anger and other “bad” emotions, avoid indulgent behavior like enjoying a hearty meal or drinking wine, and pretty much make everyone feel good about themselves. But Ji unsettles everyone. He disrupts their expectations at every opportunity and upends every convention he comes across. It is fascinating to me that the same stereotypes of awakened people existed in Ji’s time as exist today, and that people today would be just as shocked by his behavior as they were in his time.
Of course not everyone today views awakening so narrowly, but many still do, and it shows how little our understanding of awakening has matured over the centuries. Many people still hold on to ancient hagiographic wishes about awakened people that no actual human being can fulfill. And those who try to put on the part and fulfill the wish for the perfectly sanitized awakened master often come away looking more foolish than an honest monk like Ji. Any review of the modern scandals in meditation centers can reveal that. So while the stories are a window into another culture and time, the primary themes are very relevant for modern meditators interested in awakening. The truth is, awakened people are more like Ji than many novice meditators would like to think.
Despite challenging expectations, Ji still fulfills them in some ways that can be disappointing, though understandable given the cultural context. The focus on magic and the paranormal is interesting from a historical point of view, but furthers the notion that awakened people are magical – a notion that has doggedly persisted into modern times (see videos of Sai Baba and the like, for examples of this). I wish we could put this one to bed for good.
Also, while Ji is always in the eye of the samsaric storm, he comes away untouched. While this makes for a good story, this just isn’t the way it is in reality, though some people persist in thinking that awakened people sail through life with no difficulties because, you know, they’re now protected by some unseen force. This is another notion about awakening that we should put on display in the museum of bad ideas about enlightenment.
Reading about Ji I’m reminded of the section in Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha in which he reviews the different notions about enlightenment, that it is perpetual bliss, perfect sanitized emotions, perfect behavior, inability to make a mistake, psychic powers, etc., and basically dismantles them all. In some ways, Ji and ancient stories of mad monks were early attempts to dismantle immature understandings of awakening. They invite the reader to think about awakening as something more nuanced and unexpected, and in this way, they are radical for their time, and in some ways, for our own.
Some general notes about the book. The Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong published by Tuttle, is the first english book to contain all the Ji Gong stories. This is pretty amazing, because the stories run from one into the next, with characters and plot twists carrying over. Each story is brief, around three to ten pages, and stands on its own despite having intersecting characters and themes in other stories. Reading a bunch of them at once reminds me uncannily of binge-watching a great TV series. If you love rowdy adventure stories, and Zen Buddhist history, this is worth a look.
I will miss the warm island paradise that was the launching pad for this project called Aloha Dharma. And I look forward to the change in scenery as I make the move to my new home, Estonia.
Wait, did he say Estonia?
You couldn’t possibly find a place on Earth less like Hawaii than Estonia. And I have to say I’m as surprised as you are to hear that I’m going to move there. I’ve learned that no matter what I expect will happen, I’m usually wrong. Life is wonderfully unpredictable. This year I’m living in a tropical paradise. Next year I’ll be in the icy Baltic. The only reasonable attitude toward life is to expect anything – and to love what it gives you.
Nothing has taught me this lesson more than this crazy thing called “Aloha Dharma.” This site began after my teacher, Kenneth Folk, encouraged me to teach vipassana. I really didn’t know where to start, but decided that the best approach would be to create a website. Soon after, I offered to see people online, via skype, to teach them meditation one-on-one (which is an approach pioneered by Kenneth). I was more than skeptical that anyone would be interested. But now, years later, I have taught dozens of students from all over the world. Many of them have taken the meditation all the way to stream entry, and a surprising number have gone far beyond. This teaching project has been more successful than I could ever have imagined.
So this seems like a good time to reflect, to write out what I’ve learned since I started this project.
I started to really consider what I had learned when a friend asked me if I was planning to keep the site name. After all, “Aloha Dharma” probably sounds a bit weird in Estonian, which I’m led to understand includes umlauts (something going for it, in my opinion).
I replied that I am going to keep the name, explaining that the word “aloha” has come to symbolize many of the things that I have learned from teaching meditation. After all this time, it just means too much to me to change it. I can’t think of a more fitting word to express what it is like to connect with others in the context of an insight practice.
Most people know that “aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye.” That is a beautiful expression of impermanence, in my opinion, and all by itself points to something inherent in the experience of meditation that is crucial for insight. But what a lot of folks don’t know is that the ending “ha” refers to the breath, which has deep significance in Hawaiian culture and in vipassana. The word “aloha” invokes an immediate recognition of constant motion of the living moment connected to the breath – to what Hawaiians think of as the living force. All by itself, this word is a pointer to the first thing to be seen in meditation. For me, it has come to embody the initial insight that all meditators reach when they practice sincerely: each moment is alive with vibrant change. When you tune into it, in the insight of the Arising and Passing Away, your life is changed forever.
But for me personally, as a teacher, “aloha” has a very special meaning. It also means “I see you” or “I face you.” It is a statement of clear seeing and full presence, of relaxing into the being of another with warm regard. It refers to an attitude, to a way of being with things as they are that is open, caring, and utterly accepting. It is synonymous with peace, affection, and love. As a teacher, the word “aloha” has come to be my mission statement. It is the way I teach, and it is the way I feel about those I teach. Meeting with a meditation teacher shouldn’t be intimidating. It shouldn’t be weird. It should be like coming home. Like an oasis from constant confusion and judgement in the world (and in our heads). It should be simultaneously comforting and radically honest. This is what I aim for in teaching, and it’s why I’m keeping the name (and not adding an umlaut).
So much has changed since I’ve started Aloha Dharma, and I’ve learned as much from my students as they have from me. I wish there was a less cliche way to say that – but I sincerely mean it, so I’ll say it anyway.
This project has been so inspiring that after the move I plan to dedicate myself full-time to teaching and writing. Expect a book in 2015.
I am grateful to my students for reaching out to me and so generously supporting the teaching, grateful to Kenneth for teaching me, and grateful to life for always changing. I’m looking forward to whatever is next.
A student recently asked about the relationship between psychedelics and awakening. “It’s kind of like…” I thought for a moment, searching for the right analogy and coming up short. But as so often happens in these situations, the next thing out of my mouth surprised us both, “it’s like …eating pizza in Siberia.”
Of course, that one needed some explaining.
Weirdly enough, I once lived in Siberia. I won’t bore you with the details of how I got there or what I was up to, but I was in a small town near the center of Siberia for close to a year.
In a shopping plaza in the center of town was a pizzeria, which promised authentic New York style pizza. It even had a statue of Liberty painted on the sign out front. This was before Pizza Hut had ventured beyond Moscow into the frozen interior, but there were lots of Pizza Hut commercials on TV. No one in town really knew what pizza was supposed to taste like, but they did know what it was supposed to look like, and everyone was very curious to try it. Being the token American in town, I had to make a visit. But when I got my first slice I immediately realized something was amiss. For one thing, it had corn on it. Corn.
But it wasn’t until I tasted it that I realized what I was really eating. And it wasn’t pizza. It was an undercooked piece of dumpling dough with barbecue sauce. It was topped with fresh dill and salty cheese. After months in the cold of Siberia, far from home, I was eager to have some pizza. It was so disappointing.
But it occurred to me that I was disappointed only because I knew what pizza was supposed to taste like.
As I looked around the restaurant I saw lots of Russians hungrily eating the pizza, nodding to each other, and seemingly enjoying it. I realized that if you’ve never had pizza before, this stuff might not taste so bad. It might be kind of interesting. Maybe even pretty good if you have no expectations on your first bite.
It’s kind of like that with psychedelics and awakening. You’re told that a psychedelic experience is a kind of awakening to reality, and naturally you’re curious. You try it and get a wild light show, energy fluxing through the body, and a radical shift in perspective. It seems to match what the texts describe as awakening. And it’s really interesting because it is so different from the normal way the mind usually functions. If you don’t know what awakening is, then this can seem like the real thing. You may even take up a meditation practice to try and replicate the experience.
But if you keep meditating long enough you’ll find that psychedelic experiences aren’t the same thing as awakening. They just look like it. It’s like eating pizza in Siberia.
None of this is said to diminish anyone’s good time or bash psychedelics. If they inspire you, that’s awesome. I’ve heard from far too many people about how their first big psychedelic experience inspired them to meditate to dismiss them out of hand, and I’ve had enough wonderful trips of my own to know their value. Some meditation teachers discuss their own psychedelic experiences openly and compare the two experiences favorably. I get that. I see the connection. But it is important not to overlook the differences as well, and they are significant.
The first difference is that awakening is not a state. Tripping comes and goes. So its a state. Awakening is not a state. The second is that awakening is a livable experience. That is, it is not like tripping for the rest of your life. You can pay your bills, do your taxes, raise your kids, do your job, and lots of other normal activities from a place of awakening. Not so with psychedelics, which pretty much bring a halt to all normal functioning. Additionally, when psychedelics go bad they bring out deep fear and ugly visions. By the time awakening occurs, those difficulties have been outgrown and left behind.
Finally and most important, awakening is seeing mundane life, the ordinary boring details of our humdrum lives, as they really are, and not wanting it any other way. It is a contentment that allows the mundane to become exquisite. Normalcy does not go away. The ordinary is still ordinary. But one’s contentment and love for being itself brings a sweetness to normal life that no drug ever could.
So have fun. Enjoy the thrill. Get inspired. But understand that when you come home for real, it feels different than any state may have led you to believe.
“Angie” is a grad student in London who has been skyping with me once a week to learn meditation. She has navigated through most of the stages of insight and is now in the low part of the Equanimity stage.
“I keep losing the plot” she reports. “Every time I sit it is nice, full of easy vibrations and happiness, but I’m lost.”
More effort, I instruct her.
A week later we skype and she explains that the spacing out is gone, but now there is a feeling “like a bounding pulse around my eyes.”
Less effort, I explain.
She looks at me, a bit frustrated. “Well?” she asks, “which is it!”
Building the Fire
There are few technical concepts in meditation as confusing as skillful effort. That elusive quality of leaning in to the meditation, focusing, attending, deliberately working… but not too much.
Skillful effort is like building a campfire. You need a little kindling, but not too much, blow on the coals, but gently. Do too much or too little of the right things and the fire will not start. And this is how it is with meditation. Too much or too little effort and your progress is suddenly brought to a halt.
Most meditators have had the experience of pushing too hard or too little, and finding that the meditation locks up under the weight of effort, or dissipates without enough of it. What it seems like from the perspective of the meditator is that the meditation either devolves into unfocused reverie or a tense, rigid striving, that is frustrating. If either of these is happening, try adjusting the effort.
It can be especially confusing if you read meditation instructions from different teachers answering student questions or from different styles of meditation. Some exhort you to practice like your hair’s on fire while others insist that there is nothing to do and never was, that all effort is unskillful. If you take all of it at face value, you’re likely to have trouble.
To help make sense of all of the contradictions, it is helpful to understand that the kind of effort that is skillful depends on what stage of meditation you are in. In other words, “skillful” effort is not a thing that you learn once and master. It is something that constantly changes during the meditation. You have to learn it fresh as new insights arise.
To discover what is skillful you need mindfulness. You need the capacity to notice how the meditation is changing this instant and remember from past meditations how to adjust your effort accordingly.
To use the analogy of the campfire again, imagine you get a small flame going by blowing hard on some coals, but then you keep blowing like that and the flame goes out. You try again and when the flame gets going you back off the blowing but forget to add more kindling, and it goes out. So then you go through the process and then add more kindling, and so on, until finally you have a fire that is sustaining itself.
This is how meditation on the insight knowledges proceeds up to high equanimity. It follows a predictable series of changes, and just like the changing conditions when starting a fire, how you balance effort needs to change depending on where you are in the progress of insight.
Roughly speaking, here is a very crude outline of how to apply effort by stage:
- Physiocognitive stage (nanas 1-3): Sustained applied effort. Objects are a bit dull and it is easy to drift off. Be wary of thoughts.
- A&P: Less effort needed. The level of interest naturally picks up and there is less need for one to stay present with objects. Surf on the pulsing, vibrating objects.
- Dissolution: more effort. It is easy to space out, or to get lost in a sense of frustration that objects are passing you by. Put energy into staying alert.
- Middle Dark Night (nanas 6 – 9): Less effort than dissolution, but more than A&P. There is a balance point right in the middle that is needed here. It is easy to slip into the avoidance tactics of daydreaming or analysis, but it is also easy to push so hard that the meditation becomes rigid, and stuck.
- Reobservation: more effort. The thing to do here is to try and keep up with what is happening, and it is all happening very fast.
- Low to mid equanimity: Much more effort. This is notorious place for getting lost and drifting off. Don’t allow your mindfulness, concentration and investigation to waft away in the pleasant hot tub of spacious vibrations. Stay focused and sharp.
- High equanimity: Much less effort. The meditation can almost do itself at this point.
- Very high equanimity: almost no effort. Surrender to what is happening. Trust the process and watch what it reveals to you. You will naturally look for what is not being seen clearly, but if you look to hard you won’t see it.
As you can see there is no single kind of effort that is “skillful.” If you were to follow a meditation teacher around for a day and listen to the advice she gives different students, you would come away pretty confused. Some students would be told to practice like their hair’s on fire. Others to surrender to what is and see through the illusion of doing. But the teacher would merely be tailoring the instructions to fit the student’s current situation.
And this is what it is like reading the many different meditation manuals, written by different teachers, in different styles, at different points on the questioner’s path. Understand that all meditation advice is situational, and effort is a constantly moving target. It gets better with practice.
Daniel Ingram was recently interviewed on Buddha at the Gas Pump, and the interview is long and ranges from the societal changes that could happen from meditation, to the the differences between vipassana-style awakening and nondual awakening, to technical vipassana insights.
Overall, this is a great interview. If you are not familiar with Daniel Ingram you can check out his website here, or visit the Dharma Overground, the meditation forum he manages, here. Buddha at the Gas Pump is a treasure trove of interviews with teachers from many different traditions. Visit BGP here.
Michael LaTorra is a fascinating guy. A zen priest, professor, author, and sci-fi expert, he is able to discuss religion in meta terms, from the deeply personal to the historically profound, handily laying out some ideas about what a religion of the future may look like.
Future science might show us how biological life arises and how it can be created anew. We will develop technology that enables us to create synthetic life-forms. Science may show that we live in a multiverse, or a universe of universes, with an unfathomably huge number of inhabited worlds in each one. We might discover that conscious minds with a level of intelligence equal to or greater than ours can exist in many different forms, including artificial ones we create ourselves, in computers and robots. We may also develop ways to merge our minds with these machines, thus becoming cyborgs. Or we may transfer our conscious intelligence into these devices as new substrates for living. Every one of these developments would create major challenges for the old-time exoteric religions, in terms of their cosmologies or their moralities.
Esoteric religions would have a much easier time dealing with all of these. The esoteric religions, or spiritual paths, are rooted in an ancient worldview that always included many worlds, and featured many forms of conscious life existing in them. The transfer of consciousness between different forms of embodiment is a core teaching of all esoteric spirituality.
You can access the full interview here.
Jeff Warren is becoming an important new voice in meditation. He wrote an article for the New York Times about his meditation retreat with Daniel Ingram, and has written a number of good articles published in Psychology Tomorrow. I recommend them. His latest, though, is really very good, and I’m going to do my part to get the word out about his work. Here is a quote from the article:
…most of the clinicians who so enthusiastically endorse mindfulness do not have a proper understanding of where it can lead. The fact is that mindfulness in large doses can penetrate more than just your thoughts and sensations; it can see right through to the very pith of who you are – or rather, of who you are not. Because, as Buddhist teachers and teachers from many other contemplative traditions have long argued, on close investigation there doesn’t appear to be any deeper “you” in there running the show. “You” are just a flimsy identification process, built on the fly by your grasping mind — a common revelation in meditation that happens to be compatible with the views of many contemporary neuroscientists.
You can read the rest of his article here.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations about God lately. People are emailing and skyping me with questions about whether I believe in God. The more presumptuous folks are asking me what he is like. At first I ignored a lot of these queries, or gently changed the subject, but they have become such a refrain that I felt it was best to write something to clear the air.
The reason that this is happening is because of Brad Warner’s fascinating new book “There is No God: And He is Always With You.” Warner is an outstanding writer, and is proving to be a prolific one. I’ve read his other work and enjoyed it. What I like most about him is that he has managed to become popular while breaking free from what I privately call the Cult of Nice (CoN). A CoN has an unspoken taboo against speaking plainly and directly in your own voice for fear of “wrong speech.”
At the risk of oversimplifying or misrepresenting him, my take on his position as it is written in the new book is this: we should stop using the words “enlightenment” or “awakening” and replace it with the word “God.” We should do this because people do not take the words “enlightenment” or “awakening” very seriously. Also, most people do not think of a big man in the sky when they think of God, instead they think of something more akin to the “ground of all being”. Finally, the classic literature in Zen and other forms of Buddhism is peppered with references to “it” and “suchness” which can reasonably be interchanged with “God”.
My intention isn’t to argue against Warner’s position, but to state my own. He has started an important conversation. One that I step into reluctantly because it is so important and can make people act crazy (literally). What I want to do here is present my own view on the matter so that people who may be interested in contacting me for teaching or advice can know where I stand before they reach out. Below is an amalgam of responses that I have made to recent inquiries that I think best represent my position.
First, when it comes to wanting “God,” I get it…
We are blessed, and cursed, to live in interesting times. We have been witnesses to the largest expansion of knowledge that has ever occurred. In the space of just a few generations our species has radically shifted from a view of the universe that was primarily supernatural, to one that is natural but far stranger than has ever been imagined. This is not the first big shift we have undergone, but what makes this moment in history so unusual is the breathtaking speed with which we have awoke from what Carl Sagan called “The Demon Haunted World.”
The rapidity of this change has been anything but easy. Nor is it even close to being over, as we have only begun to look at our universe on its own terms and not through the lens of our cultural stories. Frankly, it’s scary. To cope, I suspect that I’ve done what many others have done and kept one foot in that ancient mythic world, gripping tight to beliefs that feel comforting but which stand in flat contradiction to what we now know to be true. It is truly an amazing time we live in. We find ourselves at a moment of history in which each of us rests at a point of conflict: how do we honor and cherish the traditions that have nurtured our ancestors, while also outgrowing them?
Most of us, myself included, are like two people when it comes to religion. One part of me loves the writings of mystics, is sustained by their visions of peace and unity with the divine. Another part of me is a rationalist, a scientist, a skeptic. This part of me cherishes truth above all, and knows that while the idea of God is powerfully attractive, truth is uncompromising and always indifferent to my wishes. These two strands weave together to make my modern humanity, and I humbly accept that it is a product of the forces of history. I suspect that many readers will find that they share this experience with me. For many of us, there is an internal struggle for both reason and realization, and all too often we cannot find a way to reconcile the modern and mystic within us.
I believe that there is a way to reconcile this tension. It goes under numerous names: meditation, insight, awakening… but all these names point to one thing. A method of training the mind to do something radically new: forego all assumptions, stories, and concepts, and simply watch what is really happening. Watch the senses and the mind and what they do. Watch them as closely as you can for as long as you can with the intensity of an astronomer peering through a telescope. Accept only what is actually seen and discard the mind’s attempts to make stories about it. When this is done with sufficient strength profound states of change begin to occur in the observer, states that match the writings of mystics across many traditions.
…but it just isn’t necessary…
I have found that this is possible without appealing to faith, myth, or superstition. To experience these states and the lasting changes they create, all that is needed is sincerity, effort, and an understanding of what to do. If done with sufficient intensity and patience the process can lead to what has been traditionally called “enlightenment” or “awakening.” You do not have to believe in God to wake up. In fact, the fewer beliefs and stories you carry with you, the more likely awakening becomes.
So, I am not a religious teacher. But these writings and what I teach has its roots in religion, so people can easily become confused and think that I believe in God or have a connection to something divine. I do not believe in a God, or in anything supernatural. This might be shocking to some, but from my point of view it should not be surprising at all. I see meditation as no different than all the other countless discoveries that have religious roots. You do not need to be Muslim to learn algebra. You do not have to convert to Catholicism to do physics. In exactly the same way you do not need to believe in psychic powers, karma, past lives, heaven-realms, God, or anything else supernatural in order to awaken through meditation.
…because awakening is not supernatural…
Consider that there are lots of awakened people who woke up in very different religions appealing to very different supernatural forces. In fact it is hard to find a tradition in which there isn’t at least one awakened teacher who has done some writing and credited awakening to the benevolence of some mysterious force. What is strange is that all these awakened people have beliefs that contradict one another, leading to endless arguments. Yet, when you get down to the heart of the matter, the descriptions of awakening itself (whatever it is called in that particular tradition) have important similarities that just happen to have the least to do with supernatural claims: the self is not what we think it is, the things we think make us happy really trap us, there is nothing independent of anything else, and peace is available right this instant if you just stop doing things to prevent it (I’m sure there are more). Some also add insights about the nature of god or gods, blissful states or heavens, cosmological claims, and so on, but these appear unique to each tradition rather than common across them. The point is that awakening does not seem to depend on belief. There are loads of hardcore atheists who have experienced the same awakening as the most devout believers. Really. I’ve seen it.
How can all these people believe in conflicting things, or nothing at all, and yet experience fundamental insights that are so similar? Following the principle of Occam’s razor, look to the simplest thing that they all have in common. It is not the beliefs about God, metaphysics, or ways of living. They are all really different. It is not the practices, which vary from dancing feverishly to sitting in deepest stillness. What all these different traditions actually have in common are people. Awakening is not a special quality granted by worshiping the right God, believing the right concepts, following the right traditions, or doing the right practices. Rather, it is a quality that is inherent in the human beings that seek it. Awakening is a special kind of natural human development that has been discovered and rediscovered over and over again by religious mystics. Given the rise of the internet, and less than a decade of serious brain research, we are only now beginning to see this bigger picture for what it is, but a time is coming when awakening will be latest algebra and physics. For people devoted to tradition, this is actually a terrible time, full of uncertainty in the very traditions that promised certainty. For the rest of us, it is extremely exciting. We are finally breaking free from the magic, and this is a very good thing.
Some might say it is the ultimate liberation.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
Going on retreat is a right of passage for meditators. A retreat gets you outside of your comfort zone, gets you to interact directly with others who are committed to the practice and helps you to focus on your practice intensely. It increases the time you meditate from a small daily child vitamin dose to an all-day immersion. Because of this the effects of the meditation can be amplified and people often have their first “mystical” experience in a retreat setting. Many meditators make it a part of their practice routine to go on a retreat one or more times a year for this reason.
But long retreats at a retreat center aren’t always an option. You might be low on funds or time. Getting out of work for the scheduled retreat center times can be difficult. It may be hard to find a suitable retreat. Also, folks with disabilities or medical conditions can have an especially difficult time finding a suitable retreat. If a traditional retreat will not work for any of these reasons or others, there is another option: the self-guided retreat.
Self-guided retreats are exactly what they sound like: you lead your own retreat, just yourself, and do so on your own schedule. They are a great way to engage in serious practice but they also require serious self-discipline. One of the big advantages of a formal retreat is that all the distractions are subtracted. Television is gone. The phones are off. Internet is out. Books, magazines and newspapers are unavailable. No talking allowed. This highlights a significant disadvantage of a self-guided retreat. The distractions are only as far away as the remote, the phone, or the bookshelf. In an instant the retreat could easily become a staycation, so extra diligence and commitment is required.
To really engage in a self-guided retreat you must be committed and motivated to put in a sincere effort. There is no one there to keep you accountable, so it is all up to you to plan it, set the rules, and follow them. Before trying a self-guided retreat, I would strongly recommend having at least one formal retreat. If you feel like you are ready to give a self-guided retreat a try, here are some guidelines that can help it be a success.
Check in with a teacher
It is a good idea to have a daily call or skype session with a teacher who can support you in your retreat. During a formal retreat you will have interview sessions with teachers who can answer your questions and give you tailored advice. This is one of the best things about retreats and if you can arrange for it during your self-guided retreat please do so. In fact, when you are out of a formal retreat setting it may be even more helpful to check in with a teacher because she or he can help you plan and problem-solve, firm up the practice goals for the retreat, and keep you accountable.
A retreat is backing away from the constant noise of daily life and taking refuge in a deep silence. Some places are more supportive of this than others, and the key to finding a good place to take a self-guided retreat is peace, quiet and a lack of interruption.
Home: No other place already has so few hassles with setting up the space, no other place is going to be as easy to get to, and no other place will be quite as available. But home is also full of temptations. If you’re like me there are dozens of books waiting to be read within arm’s reach. Not to mention that you are conditioned to use your home for lots of other fun things, and there will be a very strong pull to indulge in them. Also, if you have a family, partner, or roommate, then taking a silent retreat at home might become more than a little awkward. If you can get time at home to yourself, and feel strong enough to forego the distractions, then a home retreat may be the very best option for its simplicity.
Camping: this is by far my favorite option. It’s cheap. It’s fun. It is simple. You don’t have to fight the temptation to surf the net or watch the news. All you need is a tent, food and a few basics. The difficulty is in finding a good location. Campgrounds are often a bad option. Many campgrounds these days have camping spaces that are absurdly close together, like a series of canvas-thin suburban cul-de-sacs, but without the privacy. Most campers are right up next to you, and they are on vacation, which isn’t exactly a good mix with a meditation retreat. I did this once. Within a day the other campers gave me wary looks. Why, they seemed to wonder, would a grown man sit quietly, by himself, all day long, and do nothing. Nothing! What is wrong with this guy? It’s best to avoid the whole problem entirely by avoiding campgrounds. You can usually find perfect camping spots on public lands, off of hiking trails, and even on private land if you live in a rural area. This is a great way of getting the silence and privacy you need while also getting out in nature, which is a great place to meditate (as long as the weather is not too extreme). For public land you will usually need a permit to camp and for private land always get the owner’s permission. In my own experience farmers and land-owners are often generous and allow folks to camp if you approach them respectfully.
Rentals: Another option is to rent a space for the retreat, which is a much cheaper and easier option than you might expect. Private community organizations such as the YMCA and most state and national parks have simple cabins that can be rented for a small fee. The most that I have paid for a cabin rental was $35 per day, though if the cabin is in a choice location or has great amenities the price can jump to $100 or more. This is probably the best option of all, as it has all the basics with none of the distractions. Many of the cabins available are very similar to the monks’ kutis found in retreat centers and monastic settings. And since your plan is to meditate the whole time, you can find a great deal during the off-season.
Use your friendly dharma network: Folks who meditate are pretty generous and they will go out of their way to help people who wish to focus on practice. Some people who have posted on forums and in other settings that they are looking for a place to retreat and have been given very generous offers to stay in guest houses, camp on private land, or use parked camper.
Get Specific with your Practice
Have a very clear idea of exactly what practice you will be doing. It is not enough to spend a day “meditating” or “being mindful.” Ask yourself “what will I be mindful of?” Define your terms of your practice ahead of time so you can dive right in and know what you are doing. Something along the lines of “I will spend the entire retreat practicing concentration on the breath”, or “I will practice metta the whole time” or “I will practice noting in the morning and concentration on a kasina in the afternoon.” This is the kind of specificity you are looking for. It is also important that you stick with your plan. Sometimes when going deep into a practice we hit a wall and it seems as if the meditation “isn’t working.” Stay with your plan. Often these walls are exactly what you need to be working on, so don’t give in to the temptation to switch to a different kind of meditation in the middle of your retreat.
Set Some Ground-rules
You’ll want to set some rules for yourself. Some obvious ones are:
No intoxicants. Nothing will wreck meditation faster than drinking or getting high.
No television. (This should really fall under intoxicants).
No internet. You can give it up for a little while.
No phone. This includes texting.
No hanging out with friends.
No video games.
Some less obvious and optional rules can be:
No talking. This could be a non-issue or a major problem depending on where you are and who is around. If you are going by this rule it is best to be on your own. If you can’t get away, try to let everyone around you know ahead of time.
No reading. Sometimes people will make reading a certain dharma book part of the retreat, and that is fine. I would even recommend it for certain practices. However, I’d recommend restricting reading time to a limited time each day. Otherwise you run the risk of spending the whole time reading and “pondering” rather than getting down to it.
Restricted diet. Some people go vegetarian for retreats. Others back off on foods they feel are harmful to their concentration (like sugar or caffeine). This is totally up to you.
No music. While it may seem like music can put you in a meditative state, it actually burns off concentration pretty quickly (the same goes for talking and reading). However, some people like to listen to traditional monastic chants or other contemplative music. The choice is yours.
No (insert your favorite activity here). Playing guitar, gardening, drawing or painting… most of us have activities that we are personally tempted to do rather than meditate. Anticipate the thing that will pull you away from the cushion and resolve not to engage in that during the retreat so that you can focus on practice.
Overall, there is one important guideline for trying a self-retreat for the first time: go easy. The rules and schedule you set should not be too much of a burden. It is not a contest where you pit yourself against yourself. Instead, it should be freeing because it removes obstacles to practice. The place you choose should be comfortable and calming, and the practice should be one that you really want to take a far as you can. You can make the retreat fit your needs in a way that is not possible in most settings, so ahead of time do a realistic assessment of what is possible for you at this stage of practice and what you need.
In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book in which he proposed that as human beings we are not the pinnacle of the natural world (an idea to which we are comically susceptible) but instead are merely hosts for genes, who are actually in charge. These genes have employed us as their clever and self-obsessed instruments to one purpose: to copy themselves into immortality. The theory was a Copernican-style displacement of our collective egos, and while it is a commonly accepted idea today, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution opened many minds at the time and created new conversations about what it means to be human. Oddly, one of the most powerful ideas in the book is just a bit of an afterthought toward the end. In a chapter called “Memes: the new replicators,” he proposed that another part our nature behaves exactly like genes: beliefs. Dawkins used the term “cultural unit of information” rather than “belief” and he called these self-replicating units “memes” (from the greek “mimeme,” or “imitator”). Today, memes are usually thought of as pictures of cats with punch-lines written beneath them. However, the serious study of memes emerged as a new body of theory and speculation in the past twenty years. As a discipline it had its coming out party in the 1990s with the first issue of the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.
The term “meme” is not used as often as it once was, probably because of all those pictures of kitties deadpanning on the internet, but the core concept, that mental constructs are essentially self-replicating agents, has not diminished with time. In fact, it has shown remarkable staying power for such a radical idea. A number of influencial variants on meme theory have arrived on the scene in the past couple of decades, including philosopher Daniel Dennet’s “rough drafts” theory proposed in his book Consciousness Explained, and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “memeplexes” in her book The Meme Machine. What all the differing theories suggest is that, just as with genes, we are merely the self-obsessed hosts of beliefs that have us unwittingly convinced of our primacy. We think we are using beliefs to navigate the world and thrive, but actually they are using us, or to be more accurate, it is an exchange. To get a glimmer of how profound is this exchange, and how favorable it is for us, think about what the belief in germ theory has done for your longevity. The radical idea that beliefs use us as much as we use them, and those that help us are helped by us, is slowly gaining ground in mainstream science. However, it is still on the sidelines. It is my guess that once we can track and study beliefs in the same way we do genes, through direct observation, then the field will likely explode into a fertile ground for new discovery. By then we will likely call them something other than “memes.” After all, we’ll want to leave something for all those adorable cats.
What Dawkins and some of his colleagues do not delve into (and which meditators face each day) is an existential correlate of meme theory: if my beliefs are using me and I’m using them, then what am I? Taking meme theory seriously, even a little, leaves one in a very uncomfortable position in this regard. Most of us no longer create an identity exclusively based on familial, tribal, city, state or career affiliations. However, most of us do make an unconscious assumption that what we believe in, have faith in, or “stand for” is actually us. We think that some deep version of our thoughts are who we are. Meme theory proposes that this is a tremendous (if adaptive) mistake. Consider the following thought experiment. Someone asks you who you really are. They insist it must be the “real you” beyond what can be seen by other people. It can’t just be something you do or a role you have in relation to others. Who are you in your deepest self? If you are like most people then you would likely answer this question with a worldview, moral code, or religion. In other words, with a belief. I’ve done this experiment with friends, and most respond along the lines of “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an artist,” or “I am an environmentalist.” While we think that these are the deepest expressions of ourselves, meme theory proposes the disconcerting notion that this cannot be the case. Instead, our beliefs have done something remarkable (and a bit crazy if you consider it), they have convinced us that we are them. Through a clever trick that is not fully understood, we not only accept some beliefs to be true, we assume that they are us. This is the default position of the mind, and it is the most comfortable state for us. Therefore, if you pause and consider the implications of meme theory, you should start to feel a bit anxious. If that last bastion of the “real me, deep down” is seen as just another natural process of the mind, then what is left to be me? The psychologist and popular author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this connection early on in the 1990s when he tied meme theory directly to the sense of self in his provocative book The Evolving Self. This connection between what we think and what we feel ourselves to be is normally hidden from sight, but it is powerful.
Where does meditation fit into all this? If you are a meditator you already see the connection as clear as the words on this screen. As it turns out, insight meditation practice appears to confirm some aspects of meme theory. With meditation you discover that your thoughts are quite independent of your will and come and go as they please. Even just a minute of calmly watching what the mind produces will reveal that very little of its activity is under your control. Sudden images, memories, plans, judgments, wishes, fantasies and internal lecturing come and go as quickly and as uncontrollably as a babbling stream. There are good neurological reasons for this. It is estimated that the brain processes 38 thousand trillion operations per second. If even a tiny fraction of these operations are what we colloquially call “background noise” then hundreds of thousands of them are occurring within a second. Of those, perhaps only a small fraction fire together in a pattern recognizable enough for us to be conscious of them. Of those, if only a small percent survive in our awareness for longer than a second then we are still left with dozens of flashes of cognitive activity each instant. And of that remaining set we may become fully aware of just one or two. Anyone who has sat in serious meditation for even moment can confirm that a quiet mind is actually very noisy. I have often compared it to a clown car at a circus constantly spinning out of control and revealing new absurdities at every turn. When you sit with this reality long enough the resulting insight is unmistakable: I am not my thoughts. They are not me. They happen on their own, without a controlling agency on my behalf. I can nudge them, judge them, hold them in contempt, dispute them, and distract myself from them. If I am a trained academic, I can make the mind follow a disciplined line of thought for a small amount of time, until exhaustion sets in. But what I cannot do is control thoughts in an ultimate sense. There are simply too many and they are rushing in and out too fast. The mind often gets compared to a garden that we cultivate, but really it is more like a dark and riotous jungle into which we have a few inroads provided by civilization, education, and if we are lucky, meditation. If we look deeply at this cognitive ecosystem we see that it is teeming with all manner of phenomena flashing in the dark and disappearing. An earnest look at this can be both disturbing and awe inspiring.
But although a meditator can see that the many thoughts winking in and out of the mind each instant are not “me,” she or he can still take beliefs as self. This is actually common. Meditators can simultaneously hold: “I am not my thoughts” and “I am a believer” in mind, not realizing the the first dismantles the second. This is because beliefs are felt to be special types of thoughts. They are more fixed, stable and make up a kind of internal cognitive architecture. But they only got that way by being copied and recopied. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts that have found a footing in the mind and have set up dominion there. They did this because they serve a very important function that can be seen clearly, but is often missed. It is seen when, as one watches the coming and going of cognitive phenomena, a signal arises in the noise. The layers of randomness become a background upon which patterns emerge. Some thoughts repeat themselves, or newer drafts of themselves, over and over again. In other words, some of them are “sticky.” Why is this? Meme theory suggests that the stickiest thoughts either fit well into the existing cognitive ecosystem or offer something useful to the meditator. In other words, our “beliefs” act as selectors, winnowing out what is incompatible and recopying what is in harmony with the existing architecture of thought. With continued investigation a new insight becomes unmistakable: all these thoughts and their sponsoring beliefs have to do with… me. If a thought begins with the phrase “I am…” or is just a few links in the chain from “I am,” then it has pride of place in the cognitive environment and is preserved and copied and re-copied. It begins to seem as if the mind is just repeating different iterations of what it perceives to be “me.” This can become very elaborate and intellectual. Very philosophical and deep. But a dispassionate look at the thoughts will show that any new thought that reinforces “I am” is kept, copied, and can even spun out into a story in the mind. If the thought or belief is particularly adaptive it will have encoded in it the instructions for copying itself. You will feel “called” to share it with others.
This is why meditation is such a rebellious act. Through meditation one begins to do something that threatens the constant trance of the babbling mind: you begin to witness beliefs instead of becoming them. Upon awakening, it is as if you realize you have been tricked into believing that you are the main character of a play only to find that you are in a seat in the theater. You begin to see, sometimes to your astonishment and dismay, that beliefs are just scripts, and if you observe them critically you see that they are empty of self. You have no ultimate interest in them. Even more disturbing, meditative investigation will show that the thoughts you took to be yourself do not survive in the mind by whether they are conventionally “true” or “false”, but rather by whether they play well with other beliefs. You begin to realize that your internal compass for belief was not set to look for truth, but for “self.” This insight upsets everything, because now you begin to understand that all beliefs could be wildly off the mark, and often this is exactly the case. The implications for this are astonishing. In the most extreme cases, we can believe things that are not only mind-bogglingly contrary to the world around us, but positively harmful to ourselves and others. This is in no way an unusual thing. Most of us know, or are, the hosts of some patently false and disturbing ideas. Just to cite some of the more vivid examples: there are people alive today who are convinced that the Earth is flat and others that it is hollow. There are those who sincerely think that air can be food. That if they think about something hard enough it will manifest. That sitting inside of a pyramid will cure illness. How can that be? Because those beliefs serve their hosts in some way and have convinced them of their truth. I have met people who literally believe that they have a cosmic karmic bank account in the red. Or that they receive instructions for what to have for lunch from an invisible being. Or that they have a long neck because they were a giraffe in a prior life. They believe these things sincerely and whole-heartedly, and they are no different from myself or anyone else. They simply became host to some particularly strange beliefs. How it happens is still being worked out, but if you would like to learn some of the science behind it look into Michael Shermer’s excellent work on the topic.
Meditation changes everything, because if it is done with sufficient strength and honesty it reveals the process of self-making through belief and therefore makes non-belief, rather than belief, the default position of the person. Seeing the process of identification with thoughts as it is happening is one of the things that meditation does for us, and simply seeing it happen shakes the very roots of belief. You will never see thoughts the same way again. This is something that meditation masters in virtually all the traditions have been professing for thousands of years, and ideas like meme theory may be the west’s initial attempt to catch up. I am not proposing that ideas like meme theory are “correct” or “true” in an ultimate sense. That would simply create another belief to hang the self on. To return to the analogy of the play, meme theory, or the meditative insight that “I am not my thoughts” is like a character walking onto the stage and talking directly to you in the audience about the play itself, “you know you’re not in this play, right?” It is a disrupter, a protester that crashes the show and keeps one from suspending disbelief and getting lost in the drama. Notions like this are nicely described by the Buddhist phrase “skillful view.” Meme theory is not so much an idea as a very skillful way to view ideas, and it is skillful because it supports us in breaking loose of all views. It changes how we think, not just what we think. The more we can view beliefs in a way that distances our sense of self from them, the easier it is to experience the kind of liberation that comes from being free from the constant demands and expectations they place on us and our world. This is the most skillful thing we can do. Ultimately, we come to see that not only is there no self in the play, there was never one in the audience either. The whole theater was a prop.