Who is Ron?
I am an American psychologist living in Europe who teaches meditation. I am a new dad (that picture is of me and my little boy), and a pretty ordinary guy. I began teaching meditation while living in Hawaii, and at the time named this site Aloha Dharma to emphasize how relaxed and open the teachings can be. You don’t have to be conversant in Pali or have been on a lot of retreats to learn meditation and even wake up.
So what does Ron actually teach?
I teach insight or “Vipassana” meditation. There are several techniques for doing this, but the most useful one is the “noting” technique. Meditation with noting means that the practitioner literally makes a “note,” either silently or aloud, of what they are experiencing in that moment. As the meditator begins to master this practice there are specific states and stages that they go through. These are the insight stages or “nanas” and concentration states “jhanas.” My job as a teacher is to help students navigate through these parts of the path.
I started meditating around 1998 for reasons that I can’t remember. I think I saw some people on TV doing it or read an article about it. I had read a few Buddhist books before this and was really interested in the intellectual aspects of it, but hadn’t really put it into practice. I was living in Alaska, and during the long dark winters there the meditation gave me something to do with my time and helped me to shake off the restlessness of cabin fever. For a number of years (perhaps 3) I continued in a spotty way, just doing it to relax. It worked. I felt better and could handle stress with more ease.
At some point I got involved in a Sri Lankan temple in Washington DC, where I had moved to start college. As a volunteer project I was teaching the monks conversational english, and started taking meditation classes and going to Dharma talks. Getting ever more involved, but not in a purposeful way. It just happened. Eventually I even went to Sri Lanka and meditated in a monastery for a couple of weeks. I learned to meditate by concentrating the mind on the breath to the exclusion of all else.
It was around this time that I began to have more mystical type experiences: lights, exciting feelings running around my body, tingling, tickling sensations around the third eye area… I was hooked! Problem was, I had no idea what was happening. It was just about this time that I moved to Chicago to go to grad school, and lost contact with my monk friends.
For a few years, during breaks from studying and research, I prowled the internet and book stores trying to figure out what was happening to me when I meditated. I was now meditating regularly, and experienced the lights and other fireworks daily. It was like I was living a secret life. Mild-mannered grad student by day, mystical cosmonaut by night. I didn’t share any of this with anyone (who would believe me?) and I was really hungry to know more. To my surprise most of the books I found on meditation had nothing in them about what I was experiencing. Sometimes authors would speak of “light” or other things, but it was impossible to tell if they were speaking metaphorically or if they were referring to my experience. It was pretty disheartening and invalidating. After all, if none of these big name meditation gurus were describing what I experienced, how important could it really be?
Finally I ran across a description of the Jhanas. That sent me into a fit. I found a small number of authors who explained that symptoms like the ones I had were a prelude to entering into “Jhana.” They explained that there are eight Jhanas that meditators access in order and that these are the blissful states that progressively clarify the mind and set the conditions for enlightenment. I read everything I could and became a big fan of Ajahn Brahm, Ayya Khema, Leigh Brasington, Bhante Gunaratana, Tina Rassmussen and Steven Snyder. I still am a big fan. I became convinced that what was happening was that I was getting strong access concentration and that I was beginning to experience a “samadhi nimita” which is the sign that you are about to enter the first jhana. For about three years I tried and tried to get first jhana. I concentrated my butt off. Still, all I got were lights and a few fireworks. No jhana.
Then, when I was listening to the Buddhist Geeks Podcast I heard a meditation teacher explain that he knew for certain that “ordinary people can get enlightened… because it happened to me.” He went on to explain that he did it through following the insight meditation techniques and the maps laid out in the progress of insight. The teacher’s name was Kenneth Folk, and I was shocked that he claimed enlightenment. I was also blown away that he did it with a technique I had never even tried. I had heard of vipassana, but hadn’t really given it a sincere try. By this point I felt so stuck in the mud that I was willing to try anything to make progress. I sent Kenneth an email and asked if he would teach me. My first real teacher.
With the guidance of a teacher I learned that along with the jhanas, there was another roadmap of the path to enlightenment called the “nanas”, or stages of insight. While there were eight jhanas, and I couldn’t access the first one, there were sixteen nanas, and by sincerely applying the technique I accessed the first four right away. In addition, I learned that the map didn’t end at the nanas. The first 16 nanas comprised the first section of four larger sections, or “paths”. According this map, also known as the “four path model”, once a person has worked their way through the fourth path, a shift in perception takes place, a deeply profound shift, and this shift is enlightenment. Under the guidance of a teacher, I navigated the traditional insight stages and found that they are real, and that awakening is real too.