I recently moved to Portland Oregon, and I’m sitting in my office near the Hawthorne bridge leading into downtown. The traffic outside has come to a halt, again, as the city erupts in protests and riots, again. One of the most interesting things about the work I do in this psychology office is that I get a private peek at the inner lives of the public. And right now the public is scared. Very scared. The therapy sessions this week have transformed into what I can only call civic grief and trauma counseling. Around this city a heightened tension crackles in the air. This morning I saw several people on the bus staring hard into space with a look on their face that is hard to describe. It is the sort of expression I imagine they might have if a doctor just told them they are going to need chemo.
The reality is this: we elected an openly bigoted authoritarian as our president. He won by drilling into a deep reservoir of fear hidden beneath the small towns in this country. He stoked that fear into anger with thinly disguised hate rallies, and promised to cure it by singling out minority groups for punishment. He has a penchant for revenge and has promised to jail his political opponents and go after those who criticize him, which is restrained when compared to what his supporters are demanding. If he actually does nearly anything he has promised, over two centuries of steadily constructed peaceful civil society will be more than undermined, it will be gutted.
We are going to need the equivalent of society-level chemo.
I can’t pretend to understand how we got here. Historians will bicker over how it happened a century from now. But whatever the larger social forces are, there is one thing I am certain about: one of the reasons we find ourselves here is because millions of individuals have been steadily drinking from a firehose of paranoia, and have been cultivating minds filled with fear and anger. Over the past eight years fear and irrationality has reached the level of a global crisis. Through the vector of scare-journalism and social media fear has spread like a mass viral outbreak. In the past I’ve called fear a meme because it mindlessly tries to survive, replicate, and spread. Today it is the meme that won the world.
One of the most basic truths discovered by all meditators is that you have the mind you have cultivated. We don’t just have minds, we are farmers of our minds. Planting the crop now that we will harvest in the seasons ahead. If you want a peaceful mind, cultivate peace by reading about peace, speaking about peace, and engaging with peaceful people. If you want a busy mind, get busy. If you want an angry mind, you can do that easily. It takes time and some effort, but it really is a choice. If you make no choice at all, the weeds will take over. The world will not look out for your mental health. It’s on you.
This is meditation 101. A no-brainer for people who get their time on the cushion every day, and something we take for granted. But I am convinced that this is a crucial insight for our times. What is needed now is the equivalent of a national mental health education project. People who understand how minds develop need to speak up and talk about it. More people need to know that there is tremendous danger in allowing your mind to develop willy nilly, especially in the cultural petri dish of paranoia we now find ourselves in. This idea needs to be shared with people who have not heard it.
If you are a meditator (and if you are reading this you likely are) then you are put in a strange position right now. What do you do? The culture and tradition around meditation has its own memes: acceptance, letting go, letting be, and resting in what is. In other words, not letting things like fear take the controls of your mind. But while these might provide you some personal immunity from fear, they don’t address the larger outbreak. It is not the time for acceptance. It is time to act.
It is tempting to hide in ourselves at times like this. To withdraw from the turmoil of the world and hibernate in a warm cocoon of contemplative bliss. Please don’t. We need you. We need people with insight right now. People who have looked their own demons in the eye and been through the darkest parts of themselves. We need those who know how to be with fear without running away or freezing. Who know how to stay firmly with fear until it loses its hold. We desperately need people who can be beacons of reason in fearful times. So don’t retreat. Don’t hide. Share what you know.
I have been wearing what looks like a sci-fi headband these days when I meditate, a small portable EEG device called a Muse. If you think people meditating look a little funny (I do), just wait until these become more common.
The headband belongs to Michael Bevin, an entrepreneur and meditator who is interested in the intersection of technology and contemplative practices. As EEG technology has become more accessible to regular people he has been investigating whether it can be used to help meditators learn specific practices. Normally I’m skeptical of what I think of as meditation-related gimmicks. Binaural beats, special high-priced mantras, blessed images, or even brainwave technology, which often seems to straddle the twilight world between actual science and, well, everything else our minds produce. But Michael’s idea is a smart one and it just might work. The EEG literature on meditation is decades old but a lot of it is based on small samples, inexperienced meditators, and a lack of clarity when it comes to different types of meditation. That means that many of the EEG programs for meditation, when they are based on research, are not that helpful. Michael is trying to correct for this by creating a brainwave databank of experienced meditators doing different kinds of meditation. With that data he will try to zero in on the common characteristics that experienced meditators have when they do different meditations, and then hopes create a program that assists new meditators in tuning their own brainwaves to those key characteristics through live feedback. Michael approached me several months ago and asked if I would be interested in donating to the brainwave bank by letting him peek inside my head while I meditate. Being the geek I am, I jumped at the chance.
It has been a fun learning experience. What I’ve learned about my own brain when I meditate is that it likes to make alpha waves and delta waves during both insight and concentration meditation, but the combination and pattern is different for each kind of meditation. Alpha waves are very sensitive to how mindful and investigative I am when I meditate, and they seem to drop the second I am distracted (such as whenever I peek to see how high they just went) or if I do anything intentional during the meditation. Delta goes higher as the factors of relaxation and equanimity increase. This makes sense from the little I have read about them. Delta seems to be associated with deep states of sleep and relaxation, while alpha are associated with present-moment focus, creativity, and positive mood. Beta, which drops significantly during my meditation, is associated with busy, anxious thinking and active problem-solving. Michael’s program allows the user to look at live recordings of brainwaves in vivo, which means I was learning these things about my brain as they were happening. That has an interesting upside: it allows me to play with the waves deliberately. Simply by changing my focus from one-pointed to choiceless, or shifting to a different meditative state, or developing a specific factor, I can intentionally cause different kinds of waves to go higher or lower. It’s surfing brainwaves.
Of course, some people will hate the idea of wearing any gadget when they meditate, or quantifying anything related to contemplative practices. I get that, and if that is you, this is not the right technology for you. But if you are a sciency meditator, the kind that reads brain research for fun and stares at fMRI images like they are Hubble Deep Field pictures, then this technology is going to awaken the nerd in you.
Michael is interested in getting more experienced meditators to donate to his brainwave bank, so if you are interested in making a donation, here is how it works. You download Michael’s program, called “Brain Yoga” from here, and each time you meditate you open the program and put on the EEG (you will need to get one here). The program records your brainwaves as you meditate and saves the data to a drive in the cloud. If you would like to try it or have questions, you can contact Michael at: firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE (5/29/16): The new Muse headsets have some difficulty connecting with some devices. If you are thinking of getting one and would like to try Michael’s program, please email him first to check if the new headset is compatible with your device.
The Takeaway: This is a very practical guide to one of the foundational practices in Buddhist meditation – jhana. The instructions work as advertised, are very clear and easy to follow. If you try them you will certainly get deeper concentration, and possibly jhana, even without dedicating long stretches of your life in a monastery. Highly recommended.
I love this book. If I could travel back in time I would find my 26 year-old self, put a copy of it in his hand, and say “here is what you need to know.” At that time I was preoccupied with attaining jhana. Obsessed might be a better way to put it. But I had notions about jhana that were unrealistic. I really had no idea what I was doing, and yet I was closer than I could ever have imagined. This book would have cleared everything up. If you have any interest in concentration meditation and jhana, this is a book you should read.
For those unfamiliar with the language being used, “jhanas” are states of meditative bliss. They feel amazing and do wonderful things for the mind. Namely, they suppress five states that get in the way of deep meditation (anger, craving, doubt, restlessness and sleepiness) while developing qualities of mind that make it very powerful. For this reason jhanas are useful for people who want to take insight meditation far. But even if you aren’t interested in insight or awakening jhanas are worthwhile in and of themselves. If you don’t think this, read just about any sutta from the pali canon. Chances are the jhanas are at least mentioned, and when they are discussed the Buddha talks about them the way a doctor talks about diet and exercise. He even made the cultivation of jhana one of the steps of the eight-fold path, which is where the book’s title comes from. “Right” concentration is synonymous with jhana. There are some who say jhana is required for even the initial stage of awakening (stream entry) and others who say they are not required even for full awakening (fourth path). That debate is not covered in this book, but I happen to think Bhihkkhu Bodhi’s take on it, which finds a middle ground between the two positions feels most right. If you’re curious you can read it here.
There are eight jhanas. Four “material” jhanas, so called because they feel most similar to the kinds of physical sensations found in the normal material world, followed by four more “immaterial” jhanas, which have a more mental flavor. All eight are covered in this book. My teacher taught me how to access another five called the “suda wasas” or “pure land jhanas,” but they fall outside the scope of this book.
One of the wonderful things about this book is that it makes jhana, normally the purview of monastics and hermits, accessible to ordinary meditators. Leigh Brasington’s approach is something that normal people can do at home, though he strongly suggests getting guidance from a teacher on a jhana-focused retreat. That way you can make sure your technique is right and your experience is actually jhana. His approach is based on Ayya Khema’s teaching of the jhanas, and if you do not know who she is I would strongly encourage you to read some of her work. The directions are simple and clear, yet Brasington does his best to point out the succession of small subtle state shifts that lead up to jhana. Along the way he guides the reader at each point in the development. This is a seasoned teacher, and the way he delivers the instructions and addresses potential problems shows that.
I tried his instructions over the Christmas holiday and soon entered into a state that I recognized as first jhana, however it was most similar to what I was experiencing from my days struggling to attain jhana back in my 20s. “Wow!” I thought “this is first jhana in this system? I was accessing first jhana the whole time and not realizing it!” After settling in with the first jhana and getting comfortable going in and out of it using Brasington’s directions, I followed his instructions for the higher jhanas and it worked beautifully. What he teaches in the book works. I can say that with confidence.
The jhanas always leave me feeling fantastic. It was though I had taken some wonderful drug that makes me love everybody. People joke about “jhana junkies” as a bit of a problem in meditation communities, and I can see what they mean, but what is odd about jhanas is that they only get strong when you stop craving them, so “junkie” is really the wrong way to think about it. Jhana does not lead to attachment to jhana, it leads to letting go of attachment in a deeper way, even attachment to bliss. Exploring jhana using Brasington’s approach gave me a much deeper appreciation of the fact that jhana can be very good medicine for people, even if they aren’t monks.
There are people who disagree that what is described in the book is “real” jhana, and they point to the fact that these are not states of full absorption (that is, you can still feel your body and hear sounds). In the commentaries jhana is only jhana if there is full absorption, and so the canonical view has been that if you feel your body it is not jhana. However, Brasington takes pains in the second part of his book to show how this view of jhana is not only unsupported by the earliest suttas, but contradicted by them. He speculates, usefully I think, that as monastic life became more settled meditation standards became more extreme and exacting. Jhanas became a kind of extreme sport, with full absorption as the minimum criteria, even though full absorption is not mentioned in the early canon. This makes sense to me, and it explains why it is that the early information on jhana available to folks in the west pushed this idea of full absorption as the mainstream approach, even though it was out of reach for ordinary lay people. That is why my 26 year old self was so confused even though he was accessing first jhana. Brasington is going out on a limb and helping people in that position by showing that it doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, have to be that way. Jhanas, the real thing, are more available to regular people than we have been led to believe.
Now go buy his book and try them for yourself. Whether you want to call them jhana or not doesn’t matter. You’ll see that they are very good for you.
In my work as a psychologist I rely on lists. A lot. What are “symptoms” really? Lists. They
are a rundown of the qualities of experience a person has when struggling with a problem. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and so on are actually baskets into which lists of qualities are placed. But what about the opposite of mental disorders? Can healthy states be thought of in the same way? The short answer is yes. Positive psychology has begun to group positive qualities into larger constructs such as “kindness,” “bravery,” and “wisdom.” While some dislike the reductionist overtones of such an approach, it is nothing new. In fact, Buddhism is one of the earliest examples of how to do this well.
Buddhism is, in my opinion, the oldest and most sophisticated psychological science in the world. So it is not surprising that so many parallels exist with modern psychology, which is, in many ways, reinventing the wheel the Buddha set in motion millennia ago. Lists play a large role in Buddhism, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” rare states and transformations of consciousness. One of these lists is especially important. Think of it as the psychological profile of someone ready to awaken. The seven factors of enlightenment.
The Seven Factors
The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, concentration, energy, relaxation, rapture, and equanimity.
These seven arise in the meditator at certain stages of development, building gradually toward awakening. Then, when the first moment of awakening (stream entry) is close, all seven reach a peak. Six of them fall into balance with each other. The odd one out is mindfulness, which does not need anything to balance it. I often imagine these factors as being like a dog sled team. Mindfulness is the lead dog at the front of the team, followed by three equally matched pairs that balance each other perfectly.
Mindfulness – this one stands alone. Mindfulness is not merely bare attention to the present moment, it is also intuitively recognizing the kinds of things that are coming up and their significance (that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness). It sees what is happening and its significance right this instant. Mindfulness knows insights as they arise (the insight knowledges), and remembers what to do (or not do) at each development of the insight path. At first mindfulness is effortful. It is the first factor to come up, and it needs to be deliberately called up and entrained. When it begins to gain strength the meditator experiences the first stage of insight (knowledge of mind and body). So one way to tell if you are developing mindfulness, versus bare attention, is to see if you are able to experience the first stage of insight. As mindfulness is practiced in and out of meditation it becomes more automatic, taking on a life of its own.
This is where the dog sledding analogy is helpful. Mindfulness is like the lead dog, and lead dogs are very special. People build very close relationships with them and gradually turn over more of the responsibility for knowing the trail to the lead dog. Once a lead dog has experience with a path, it intuitively recognizes where the soft spots are, where the ice is thin, where the snow looks wet and where it is firm. It knows which turn to take and keeps the team moving down the center of the path and away from the slippery banks at the edges. It takes time and patience for a lead dog to learn, but once it knows a path, it can guide you along automatically, and you can let go and allow the team to take you to your destination. This is how mindfulness works as it matures and deepens. As a meditator gains experience, she learns to trust mindfulness more and more and to allow it to take the lead.
Investigation/Concentration – Investigation is the process of looking at an object and seeing that it is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is looking at something mundane, like the the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, and seeing that it is not just a single sensation called “breath,” but a dynamic field of flickering vibrations (anicca), that are not the observer (anatta), and are uncomfortable to hold on to (dukkha). It is balanced by concentration, which is the ability to keep the mind still for long enough that objects can be seen with sufficient clarity. It involves building a calm focus that is unwavering. Investigation is like the focusing of a camera lens. Concentration is like holding the camera still long enough to focus. When both of these factors are strong and in balance things can be seen clearly for what they really are.
Energy/Relaxation – These may seem contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. The great meditation teacher Ayya Khema sometimes described “energy” as “willpower.” This makes sense, although it is a translation that has lost popularity. It is the sense of applying oneself, giving all of oneself to the process and not holding back. It is the raw impulse that puts the other factors to work. It is balanced by relaxation, which is just what is sounds like. If you apply yourself, but are tight and clenched in body or mind, then the meditation is likely to stall out. Relaxation is that which allows the process to run smoothly, while energy keeps it running. These two, in a sense, feel like surrendering to the meditation, no matter how intense it becomes, with great alertness. To get an idea of what a peak balance between energy and relaxation feels like, reflect on how you feel right after a good workout, when you are letting go and not striving any longer but still full of energy.
Rapture/Equanimity – Rapture is a combination of joyful feeling and physical “pleasure.” That word is in quotes because it isn’t pleasure in the normal sense. It doesn’t come from the five senses. A pleasant feeling fills the body in one of several different ways, electrical tingles, fine vibrations, pulses, warm light – it can be percieved differently by different people, but it is always very pleasurable. There is a kind of erotic feeling to it for many people, and this can throw off many westerners who read over and over about renouncing worldly pleasure and not becoming attached to anything. It is important to understand that this kind of pleasure is essential to the development of deeper meditation. However, it needs to be balanced with equanimity, which is that quality of mind which does not grasp or cling to experiences, good or bad. Of all the factors, equanimity may be the most odd one, because there are few experiences in normal life that are similar to it. It is a sense of calm that remains interested and focused, without feeling like anything occurring is consequential to the observer. As my teacher once put it, “you no longer feel like you have a dog in the fight.” And yet, with all the rapture you are still deeply interested in what is occurring. These two balance each other beautifully.
When all seven factors are working well, they feel almost as though they take over, pulling the meditator toward awakening. Along the way the meditator puts in work and effort to develop the insights and the factors, but once things mature the combination of factors seem to grow in strength, balance, and in a sense, it feels as though they take over. It is at this point that the admonitions to “do nothing” and simply “let go” make the most sense. With the right factors in place, the process can now do itself, you simply have to hold on and watch.
Let’s talk about Donald Trump. I know, I know. We shouldn’t. That will only give him more attention, which is what he really wants. I know that most serious people aren’t going to support him. And I also know that talking about him just distracts us from real problems. But it really isn’t Trump that has me concerned, it’s fear. Because that is what he is. Born of fear, sustained by fear. Walking, breathing, spray-tanned fear. He is an avatar of something we need to come to grips with about ourselves. It seems that most of our neighbors, or maybe ourselves, are flat-out scared. Scared of the world, scared of each other, and scared of the future. Trump’s narcissistic bravado and anger is simply a mask for our fear. He is showing us a part of ourselves, and it is ugly.
There are plenty of people who are discussing this already from a geopolitical perspective. But for people like me, psychology-loving meditators, this larger societal problem has layer of meaning to it beyond the polls and election-year trends.Donald Trump has as more to do with how poorly people are managing their own emotions than he does with real political issues. His rise is a sign of our poor collective mental health.
Fear is part and parcel of the contemplative path. Everyone has to face fear at some point, but meditators confront it in an unusually direct manner. There is even a stage of insight named for this very moment, the “knowledge of appearance as terror,” sometimes called the “knowledge of fear.” Because we deliberately confront fear and work with it, meditators know a bit about how it actually works and how to overcome it. In this gestalt of fear, people who meditate may have something important to contribute to public discourse. Meditators have learned a few things in the past couple thousand years about fear that might be helpful right about now.
Don’t ignore it – The hardest but most effective thing you can do is to be with fear completely. If you can do this you will see that it doesn’t last. Feeling fear completely doesn’t mean entertaining it or believing the crazy thoughts it generates. It does mean restraining the automatic reaction to push it away.
Analyze it – This is the most important part. What is fear, really? What is it made of? Where is it in the body? What thoughts and images come up with it? Investigating fear tunes you in to the fact that it is simply a constellation of sensations and thoughts working together to keep itself going your body and mind. Fear is a meme. It is trying to survive for more than a few moments, and to do that it hacks your belief systems along with your nervous system to trigger alarms. One dimension of meditation is to deliberately suspend belief in beliefs, at least for a while, and just this act can be tremendously helpful when it comes to fear. Watching how fear tries to use beliefs to keep itself going, you can undo fear’s magic trick, which keeps your attention on the world outside rather than on the world inside, where real change is possible. Discovering how fear ticks is like taking a massive dose of emotional penicillin.
Focus on how it disappears – Fear always goes away. It will pass. Every single time. When it does the person learns something about fear at a deep level. The mind becomes conditioned to see it as just another thing that comes and goes. A spell of bad emotional weather, not worthy of a full reaction.
So how can these three ideas from meditation translate into civil discourse? It helps if you start with the assumption that the way we deal with fear in our own minds is analogous to how to deal with fear between minds. If you find yourself in the same room with a firebrand Trump supporter this Christmas, and if the statistics are any guide most of us will, don’t try to debate, try to understand. (If you know you cannot do it, then don’t try to engage.) If you have thick skin and a deep well of patience, treat the person the same way you would treat your own fear in the midst of meditation. See the other person as a scared part of yourself. Beneath their anger is fear. What are they scared of? Don’t ignore it, Don’t push it away, and don’t feed it. Simply try to see clearly, together.
I believe that it is only through conversations like these, happening in homes everywhere, that we can collectively begin to move beyond our fear in a healthy way. Meditators can be especially helpful here, because we know this psychological territory better than most.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
I have been lax in writing for this blog because I have been writing a book. A year ago I predicted that I would have it done in a year. Well, I’ve learned a lot about my limitations since then, and now know that it will take a bit longer than that. But the reason why it will take longer is something that has fascinated me and may be interesting to others.
As I began writing the section of my book on what Buddhism is and how it relates to modern day insight meditation it began to dawn on me how little I know about what the historical and linguistic scholarship actually says about Buddhism. Having been an avid meditator and a lay teacher of insight meditation I have gobbled up the suttas and commentaries and popular interpretations of Buddhism, but these are really what Buddhism has to say about itself. It is the perspective that one gets from somewhere inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. But what does Buddhism look like from a point outside of that bubble? What do non-Buddhist scholars see when they look at Buddhism from a more critical or skeptical perspective? I realized that I actually had no idea what that perspective might be like, so for many months I have been digging deep into the academic literature, and what I have found has been eye-opening, to put it mildly.
The first thing I was curious about, since I’m a bit of a philosophy nerd, was how modern philosophers and linguists who study the history of religion make sense of the Buddha’s ideas. I don’t remember what I expected to find, but I assumed it would be something along the lines of an enthusiastic endorsement. After all, I love the Buddha’s ideas, who wouldn’t? What I found was neither an endorsement nor critique, but rather, a thoughtful study of how these ideas arose within their historical context. Something, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t really considered. I’d read all the Buddhist books about Buddhism that present it as a timeless truth, a perfect realization of Reality with a capital “R,” but of course it had to be a product of a time and place, just like everything else. I became very curious about this.
I thought knew the story of the Buddha. That he was a prince who snuck out of his palace, saw suffering all around, decided to do something about it, and set off on his own to discover its cause. You know the rest. But that is who he is from inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. Scholars who look at him from outside this bubble focus much more on an aspect of the history that I peripherally knew about but which I had not given very much attention to. They focus on how he joined a radical group of what we modern people might call “social reformers” who were attempting to create an alternative to the Vedic view of life. Vedanta had already been in place for about a thousand years, and it kept the Brahmins, who were the ruling caste, in power. The social movement trying to change this called themselves the samanas. It was a revolutionary time. When the Buddha left his princely life to set out on his quest he did not simply go out on his own, he joined the samanas, and this was a very meaningful move on his part. The samanas were a mixed bag of freethinkers who were not just arguing against the Brahmins, most were arguing against each other. They were preaching all sorts of contrary ideas, like there is no permanent self, and that there is one, that one should remain skeptical of extreme positions, and one should be as extreme as possible in austerities, etc. The Buddha was not simply meditating during those years before his enlightenment, he was likely soaking up these ideas and inching closer to what would become his own realization.
The doctrines that became Buddhism, according to many scholars, seem to be a coherent system which blends samana and Vedic concepts, and this blend would appeal to those who wanted reform and those who wanted tradition. In fact, one scholar argues very persuasively that the doctrine of dependent origination is actually a thinly disguised version of the Vedic creation myth, but refashioned so as to undercut the core concept that gives the Vedic tradition its power: that the way to liberation is by finding one’s true self (atman) so one can unite with the ultimate source, Brahma. In the standard Buddhist mythology, after the Buddha’s enlightenment, when he looks into the links of dependent origination and sees that there is no atman to be found, Brahma himself shows up and bows down to the Buddha, begging him to teach the world. From a scholarly perspective this makes sense given that what the Buddha was trying to do was create an alternative to the Vedic cosmology that integrated the samana’s ideas with those that had already been fixed in the minds of his culture for a millenia, and he succeeded.
This way of looking at Buddhism is still new to me and I am still processing what it means, but it got me wondering about the source texts. The scholars kept referring to differing accounts in different early texts, and it struck me from what they were saying how little we actually know about the Buddha or early Buddhism. The pali canon is generally agreed to be the earliest source of information about this, so a lot of people who are eager to follow a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism are often drawn to it. Many will criticize the commentaries or Abhidhamma literature as inferior because they are not the “real” words of the Buddha, which are, of course, in the pali suttas. That makes sense until you find out how old the pali suttas actually are. Scholars do not agree on this, but even accounting for the disagreement, the earliest versions of the pali suttas date to somewhere between the first and sixth century CE, with the strongest evidence (gold plates with pali inscriptions found in Burma) favoring sometime around the 5th century. That means that everything we know about the Buddha and early Buddhism from the pali sources might come from writings made sometime nearly 1000 years after the Buddha. I am still learning about all this and if there are earlier sources I hope to find them. I always knew that the pali writings were copies of earlier writings, but I assumed that they were close enough in time to the Buddha to give a faithful account of what the Buddha actually taught. But now I’m not so sure about that. All scholars agree that from the earliest texts on there are changes made to the canon, some small, some large, and that many of the changes were not simply errors but deliberate additions, combinations, and redactions. Is there any reason to believe that these changes only began after the earliest texts we have found? Not really. It is much more likely that these kinds of changes were going on for centuries as differing groups of Buddhists developed differing accounts and interpretations of what came earlier, which was very likely a changed version of what came before that. When you add to this that the pali canon is merely the recorded outcome of 200 to 400 years of oral tradition during which time there were multiple schisms, the whole foundation on which people like me base their ideas of a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism becomes more than a little shaky.
There is one other line of scholarship that rocked my ideas about Buddhism, and I never thought about it before. I nearly slapped my forehead in a “doh” moment once I actually started looking into it – archeology. There has been some very interesting archeological work on the earliest sites in Buddhism and the physical evidence from these sites shows that the early Buddhists lived remarkably different lives from those depicted in the suttas or vinaya. For example, in one site archeologists found evidence that early Buddhist monks were coining money. That is a very different picture from that painted in the pali sources, and speaks to the early Buddhists having a relationship with the state and people that is completely unlike that found in the texts. There are a lot of other findings that I could go into but I am still in the process of absorbing this information.
So what have I learned from this excursion outside the Buddhist bubble? Essentially, it comes down to this. What we now take to be the authentic teachings of the Buddha are actually more likely to be a snapshot of what Buddhism evolved into after many centuries of changes and schisms. Those trying to limit themselves to the earliest parts of the pali canon in an attempt to adhere to a more authentic version of Buddhism are more likely to simply be practicing whatever Buddhism became sometime after the first century CE. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do this, but it is good to know what one is really doing. Overall, what Buddhism appears to be when seen from outside its own worldview is less a perfect source of unchanging wisdom than an evolving field of study, just like any other. It has branches, schools, factions, controversies, evidence and lack thereof for its claims, some of which stand up on their own, and some of which seem to address particular cultural and historical needs.
One could see all this and throw one’s hands up, deciding that there is no reliable source so there is nothing to be found, but this would be a big mistake. Because the thing that is unique about Buddhism, that is its real bedrock in light of all this information, is that it is something that one does not really believe but rather something that one does. As a field of study it is more like a science than an art, because it has specific claims (the three characteristics and nibbana) and methods for testing those claims (the three trainings). This is ultimately what matters, because these are the claims that are most independent of culture, history, worldview, and scripture. They are testable by ordinary people in today’s world. All one needs is the set of instructions for how to run the test, the motivation and curiosity to do it, and then you can see for yourself. So while most of what is called “Buddhism” is a body of knowledge that has changed over many centuries, it still has something at its core that matters in the sense that all things eventually matter: it is an accurate reflection of your reality here and now and you can see that for yourself. In the end, Buddhist meditation isn’t worth doing because we know exactly what the Buddha really taught, it is worth doing because it works.
The Tim Ferris podcast is fascinating because he interviews fascinating people – cutting edge thinkers, radical artists, start-up gurus, fitness freaks and other people breaking boundaries and changing our world – and there is one thing about these people that keeps coming up:
They meditate. Almost all of them.
This has not escaped Ferris, who comments on it frequently and pushes the idea that meditation can be a productivity tool, kind of like speed reading or amazing time management. Personally, I’m not so keen on mediation as a tool for business success, in fact, when I teach it to people this is the first myth I try to dispel. But I am excited to see so many influential people sitting down, shutting up, and tuning in to something deeper in themselves.
So if the soon-to-be one percent are meditating, what are they doing exactly? It seems pretty vague, and most of it seems to be in the vast basket of “mindfulness” practices (which could be almost anything). This means that while many of them are meditating, very few of them may be experiencing the deep transformations that come with insight. But a few of them probably are experiencing such transformation, and regardless of the type of meditation or what they are using it for, one thing is certain: there are now more meditators in positions of influence and high social status than ever before, and this really has my imagination going. Allow me to indulge in a bit of wishful thinking…
Imagine a future where meditation has its own Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Imagine foundations dedicated to supporting stream entry for people in “dharma deserts” (far from meditation centers), global insight initiatives, X prizes for the best technique to attain first jhana, research on what jhanas and nanas do to the brain, and genius grants for talented meditation teachers. Imagine what it would be like if the overachievers began to experience awakening. If they unyoked meditation from the worship of productivity and began seeing it as a good in and of itself that deserves time, resources, and public support. Imagine the way such a change would effect the lives of ordinary people. Imagine what it would be like if taking time off from work to meditate was no more unusual than going to a conference or getting specialized training in your field – and if it were considered just as important. Imagine if meditation teachers were covered by your insurance company, just like dentists or psychologists.
This is just a fantasy, but such a world is possible. Probable? Not yet. But sometimes, in my more optimistic moments, and when I listen to people like Ferris speculate about why meditation is embedded in the routines of the most influential people, I begin to think that such a world is not just a happy thought, it could one day be a reality.
“I’m such a big shot in the universe that I’m going to make your three biggest wishes come true” he says to Bill, then he opens the door of the birdcage (the first wish). Bill flies to the window. Kilgore opens the window for the second wish, but Bill becomes so frightened that he flies back into his cage. Kilgore closes the door and praises Bill for choosing a very smart third wish: to have something left to wish for.
I see this happen from time to time in meditation. Meditation is all about finding freedom from suffering. Whether it is in temporary blissful states, like jhanas, or in the lasting relief that comes with awakening, ending suffering is what it is about. But it is easy to hold on to suffering, to become the sufferer, to cling to the anger, the restlessness, or the desperation that it gives you. To become, and remain, the troubled artist, dark night mystic, or the person fighting the good fight.
I call this “marrying your Dukkha.” It happens in ways that most of us never notice until we are, like Bill, confronted with the real possibility of freedom and have the impulse to run back in our cage. This usually happens when the meditator begins to exit the dukkha insights. As she realizes that there is no longer a struggle with dukkha, that it can come and go without being a problem, there is sometimes the urge to stop and fall back into the dark night.
Awakening means giving up who you believe you are. This is how it is for everybody, and that isn’t easy. But it is even harder when you believe you are the very suffering you are working to overcome. It takes a lot to take that leap, especially when it means giving up everything you know. This is the “faith” part of the practice. Trust the process of awakening and know that if you give up something that feels both painful and safe, there is freedom to be had.
This week my home country made a stunning leap forward in becoming a saner and safer place to live. The supreme court recognized that gay couples have the right to marry and supported the country’s imperfect attempt to give every person access to health care. In other news, another court undercut a previous ruling that allowed one’s boss to dictate whether you can have insurance that gives you access to birth control. It was a very good week for those who want to be free. It was a great week for finding happiness and reducing suffering in our own way. It was a terrible week for hatred, judgement, and shame.
As a person writing about meditation and awakening I often don’t touch on politics. These are usually such divisive topics. For those who are looking for spiritual solutions to life’s problems (likely a lot of people who read what I write) politics can seem like a waste of time, as if worldly concerns drag us away from the path.
They don’t have to.
Social causes can reduce real suffering in the world, and as long as we keep our eye on reducing suffering (including our own), being involved in politics and social causes can be a skillful part of a spiritual path. I thought about this a lot this week. As a person who works in psychology, and especially with families in crisis, this week has been especially poignant for me. I am lucky enough to see the public in private, so to speak, and that means abstract social problems that make headlines often make up a big part of my workday, even if they don’t impact my private life. It is a privileged position (I am fortunate beyond all reason), and so this week I reflected on all the gay teens that I have worked with who were terrified to come out, and those who faced terrible consequences when they did. I thought about all the broke working families that I treated virtually for free because their insurance wouldn’t cover the necessary therapy. I thought about all the unnecessary suffering I’d been privy to, and those who allowed me to witness it. This week meant something very real to these families. If a person is on the path of awakening and focused on reducing suffering, then working to create the kind of week that just happened should be part of a full practice. A vast amount of suffering has been erased from the future. I hope that it inspires more people to become active.
Buddhists, nondual folks, and people engaged in the work of awakening are generally the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They are warm-hearted, earnest to a fault, and sincerely interested in improving the world. They tend to avoid conflict like ebola. This is the beautiful side of the spiritual life. Seeing the Dalai Lama refer to the Chinese government as “my friends, the enemy” warms the heart. One way spiritual teachers and seekers avoid anger and accomplish this level of compassion is through self-examination whenever pain and anger arises. This is smart and effective. But while this level of forgiveness and self-examination is generally a good thing, I also believe it can become a problem. A much bigger one than we may be willing to acknowledge. Why? Because this is the kind of habit that keeps abusive people in power.
This thought occurred to me while following what has occurred with the famous nondual teacher Andrew Cohen, who recently released a letter of apology. Why the letter of apology? I don’t want to go into the details here, as his behavior has been written about extensively. For more information on the scandal read Enlightenment Blues by Andre Van der Braak, American Guru by William Yenner (former students), or the book written by his own mother The Mother of God. There is also an entire website devoted to cataloguing the allegations.
While this kind of scandal is concerning, there is something else about it that is beginning to concern me more, and that is how people in spiritual communities are reacting to Andrew’s apology. In my own honest opinion, the apology was disappointing. I felt that the apology was inauthentic and did not fit the magnitude of the abuses, and a close friend pointed out that the admission of wrongdoing was sandwiched in between layers of self-aggrandizement. I believe that this is plain to anyone who reads it. Many people commented on Cohen’s blog to this effect and people who follow such things have noted it in social media. However, there were a significant number of people on social media and in the comment section of the apology itself who responded to criticisms by pointing out that critics should examine their own “shadow sides” and engage in more self-reflection. As chatter about Cohen’s apology spread on social media, this meme began making the rounds:
While I agree with the sentiment in principle, and even find it beautiful, these reactions gave me chills. As a family psychologist who has worked with many victims of abuse, and abusers themselves, what I was seeing was disturbingly familiar. This is how abusers stay in authority. I realized that the same family dynamics that are well-understood in psychology are at play in spiritual communities. People are downplaying the magnitude of what happened, blaming those who bring it up, and trying to make everything OK when it isn’t. As I read the comments I kept asking myself if this is what the Buddha really meant in that instruction to examine ourselves.
What is really happening when people who express their appropriate skepticism of an abuser’s mea culpa are told, essentially, to be quiet? What does “skillful” really mean in this context?
When faced with the crimes of spiritual teachers, spiritual seekers tend to perform a strange kind of psychological judo on themselves and others by disarming anger and judgement with spiritual techniques. With intense self-investigation we avoid investigating the crimes committed. When abuses happen and we turn inward, we should ask ourselves if we are using spiritual practice to avoid the hard work of confronting abuse or crying out for justice when others don’t want to hear it. We should consider if the “shadow side” in these situations is not our own anger but the avoidance of it. We should ask ourselves if we are excusing misdeeds by omission of an appropriate emotional response. Perhaps in these situations it is important to understand that there are many kinds of anger – not all of them are unskillful in certain contexts. In my work with children of abuse one of the phases of therapy children often go through is what I call “permission to be angry.” I think the same can be said for spiritual communities.
People like Cohen seem well aware of the habit spiritual seekers have of turning indignation into navel-gazing, and he has a history of using it to his advantage. In the books linked to above there are many instances in which people attempt to criticize, or merely question, Cohen but are shut down by being told to look at their own issues first. Over and over again he accused people who questioned him, or had his inner circle accuse people, of giving in to ego trips, underlying narcissism, and of being consumed with jealousy for his realization and enlightenment. By doing so he fostered a sense of chronic self doubt and mistrust in those who followed him, leading to a deeper dependence on his certainty. Essentially, he used people’s habit of self examination and forgiveness to disarm their wise discernment. This isn’t something that only happened with Cohen, or only in neoadvaita communities. In his Atlantic article “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side” Mark Oppenheimer points out that the kind of western Buddhists who fell victim to Eido Shimano “…proved extremely, perhaps uniquely, willing to forgive.” In response to the sexual predations of Jashu Sasaki Roshi, Joan Halifax wrote:
There is something about our religions… that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations…
I would take her statement farther, and say that in spiritual communities, especially Buddhist ones focused on kind speech and avoiding division, people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because confronting others runs counter to the way we are trying to live. As Buddhists we excel at ethical self-inquiry but are ill equipped to confront violations when they arise in our own communities.
I am not claiming to know how to determine what an appropriate expression of anger is for abuses such as sexual harassment, beatings, death threats, or financial ruin. But I do believe that some expression of anger, even for those on the path to awakening, is appropriate. Finding how to balance the expression of authentic anger with liberating insight into it may be one of the most mature of spiritual practices. It may also be one of the only sustainable solutions to the constant reoccurrence of abuse that seems to happen in our spiritual communities.
If a psychologist, lawyer, medical doctor, or school teacher were caught doing any of the things Cohen is alleged to have done they would not only have to write a letter of apology, but state licensing boards would revoke their ability practice, civil penalties would be leveled against them, and criminal investigations would begin. In our society we recognize that no one, no matter how well-trained or accomplished, is invulnerable to behaving recklessly. But when it comes to spiritual leaders we seem to throw out the rules and expect people to be something greater than ordinary. This is a problem. The most disturbed people seem to know this, and gravitate toward the role of spiritual leader, as the late great meditation teacher Bill Hamilton pointed out in his book Saints and Psychopaths.
Changing this problem is worth the discomfort, and even anger, of speaking up. It can be done. I am an optimist about this. We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on basic rights for meditation students, and that we stop telling those who are offended by the violation of those rights to point their attention back at their own failings. Things can get better, but first we need to change our relationship to anger, and understand that in some situations expressing it is an appropriate response. Once expressed, we can get on with business of insight and healing. At that time, it may be useful to point others to examine their own “shadow sides.” Until then, allow responses to be what they are. Allow people to call for justice. Allow the process of wise discernment to take its first uncertain steps.
Thanks again to Andre for his wonderful talent as a sound technician…
It’s funny how things come together in unexpected ways. After doing a talk and guided meditation on metta last week a person who attended the talk contacted me saying he would like to record it.
It turns out that it wasn’t just any person either, his name is Andre Pichen and he is a sound engineer. After a little magic in Andre’s sound booth, he shared this recording with me and I’m sharing it with you.
Thanks so much to Andre for his hard work on this.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The takeaway: This is a high-level dharma book about a complex topic that baffles many who study it. The book is a good one for those who want to get serious about studying the doctrine of dependent arising.
In 2000 I started attending a Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara in Washington D.C., where I learned to meditate and also discovered the joy of Sri Lankan Buddhist books. I was a naive american who bought most of his books from Borders, and at the vihara’s little bookshop I discovered a whole new world of Buddhist thought and philosophy that was much more compelling than anything I encountered before. Eventually I travelled to Sri Lanka, stayed in meditation centers there, and returned with a pretty serious meditation practice – and a suitcase full of books. These were the kinds of books that wouldn’t make the Oprah book club, or crack any bestseller lists. They were never meant to. They were the hardest of the hardcore dharma, and I learned a lot from them. This experience taught me something about modern Buddhist culture that everyone should know, the best writing on Buddhism is not happening in the states, or anywhere in the west. The best books, even in english, come out of Buddhist countries. Within Sri Lanka there are many independent presses that regularly put out some the best books on Buddhism. These books, often written by monks or advanced lay meditators, specialize in the deepest and most perplexing aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. For those who like (or need) such things, these books are absolute treasures. They are traded among friends and cherished, and given as gifts to build merit and show respect to the recipient. Palitha Mapatuna’s new book Dependent Arising, available from The Buddhist Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka, falls squarely in that category.
Dependent Arising is just like it’s name – clear and to the point. Mapatuna wastes no time dressing up the ideas or watering them down, but instead he lays out the case for this particular aspect of the Buddha’s teaching like a professor laying out a geometric proof, step by patient step. Keeping up with him can be a little difficult, and at times I found myself rereading sections several times in order to make sure I understood before moving on. This is important, because each point builds on the next, and so if you dive into this book I would advise taking your time. It is not a long book, but it is information-rich. Have some scratch paper handy too. At times the only way I could follow the logic was to literally diagram it out for myself on paper. Mapatuna takes on a complicated topic here, and he clearly assumes that the reader is ready to handle it’s deepest complexities.
For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of dependent arising (or if, like me, you need a refresher), it is the Buddha’s most complete expression of why things are the way they are. It shows how, in a chain of linked phenomena, hooked together like train cars rolling down the track of time, past lives connect to this present moment, and how we end up in so much distress.
A couple of big points to keep in mind about dependent arising. First, it is not a chain of cause and effect, but rather a chain of interdependence. The links in the chain are not caused by the preceding links, but rather depend on them, the same way the leg of a table depends on all the others to remain standing. Second, and this is the biggest issue I hear about from many westerners, this doctrine goes explicitly into past and future lives. For some, this has led them to dismiss it out of hand. That would be a big mistake. Even if you don’t believe in past lives you can still find use in dependent arising, because many of the links occur in this very instant. You can observe them happening even as you read this. This model represents one of the most nuanced examinations of our present-moment psychology to come out of Buddhism.
Here are the 12 links summed up as I understand them (Mapatuna does a much better job of it in his book):
- Ignorance – in our past and present lives we mistake things that cause us unhappiness for things that make us happy. This links up to:
- Determinants – because we didn’t know better (in past lives and in this one) we build a momentum with “determinants,” which are things like intentions and volitions, that keeps the mind running after the things that make us unhappy. This momentum links up to:
- Consciousness – a primitive form of raw consciousness, carried by the momentum of past volitions, jumps from one life to the next, linking to:
- Mind and Matter – In this model we’ve just arrived in the here-and-now and are in the world that everyone, Buddhist or not, can agree exists. The raw stuff of our subjective experience. These two basic elements then link to:
- The six senses – Don’t be thrown by “six” senses, Buddhists include the mind as a sense along with sight, touch, hearing, etc. With the link of mind and matter, along with the six senses, the next link is:
- Contact – Mind and matter and the six senses come in contact. For those who are heavy solipsists and think that Buddhism is an expression of that, think again. The Buddha is clearly demarcating internal and external phenomena here, otherwise “contact” would be meaningless. This link is the world of flowing experiences you are in right this second. Thoughts, feelings, moods, sensations and other normal experiences are in this part of the model, which then links up to:
- Feeling – All of these flowing phenomena are automatically put through a lighting-fast sorting process which puts them into one of three basic categories: we like it, don’t like it, or don’t care. This is usually expressed as “pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.” Feeling then links up to:
- Craving – Once something is sorted into one of the three baskets we want more of it, less of it, or ignore it. This is the part of the model that is most critical for insight practice, because up until this point things were happening so quickly and automatically that we could not really do more than observe, but at this critical link we can actually get to work. There is a subtle pulling toward pleasant feelings, pushing away of unpleasant feelings, and this push and pull often goes on at the edge of awareness. With awareness of what is happening to us we can see this craving as it occurs, put it front and center in our minds, and make a deliberate choice about how to respond, a lot of the practice has to do with how we make these choices. Craving links up to:
- Grasping/Taking up – this is action. In Buddhist philosophy this is where new karma is made. Grasping is usually habitual and automatic. It happens all the time at a very subtle level, driving our behavior. But if we are watching craving closely and not reacting automatically, we can hold off on the grasping. Grasping links up to:
- Becoming/being – The model exits the immediate world that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists can agree on, and posits that grasping links up to the creation of future experiences and outcomes, including future lifetimes. Becoming is the link that connects what we do here and now to our next life. Becoming links to:
- Birth – you are born again.
- Aging and death – Because you are born again you go through the same painful struggles again.
These are the spokes on the wheel of samsara, going round and round, and Mapatuna’s reflection on it in Dependent Arising points out how rich this model really is. It fits perfectly with the other aspects of the teaching, such as the four noble truths, the five aggregates, and most of the other Buddhist descriptions of our condition. That makes sense, because this model is (according to the Pali texts) the very thing that the Buddha realized under the Bodhi tree on the night of his enlightenment, discerning the links in the first watch of night, followed by the links in reverse order in the second. To understand this model is to grasp something crucial about what the Buddha experienced on the night of his enlightenment, but understanding it isn’t easy. Every time it seems clear, another mystery about it comes into view. Indeed, when Ananda told the Buddha that he understood it the Buddha admonished him to think again, saying that he had not really grasped its profundity.
If you want to grasp it, this book would be a good support to your efforts. I’d recommend this book if you are already familiar with the model of dependent arising, know its importance, and are ready to get serious about understanding it. Mapatuna’s particular skill in this book is not merely describing the links, but showing how they link together, and what evidence shows those connections. It is a book for a serious reader, ready to grapple with some profound ideas.
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.