Category Archives: book review

Book Review: Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington

RightConcentration

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.

Book Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience

VREThe 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.

Book Review: 10% Happier, by Dan Harris

10% happierThe takeaway: This book is about the struggle of a guy trying to figure out what is real in the world of pop-spirituality. The good news is that he found it. The bad news is that he had to search through loads of woo-woo to finally discover what it is. This is a good book for teachers, advanced students, and people deeply involved in meditation communities to read, because it is a reminder that the people who show up, get involved, and commit to the work have had to put up with a lot of stupidity before you ever see them. They deserve a lot of respect.

Dan Harris is not an awakened master. In fact, he is about the farthest thing from an enlightened person that there is, and he’d be the first to admit it. An avowed atheist and skeptic, he’s turned off by the spirituality and oddball ideas associated with meditation. And in my opinion that is why he is the perfect person to write a popular book on meditation.

First the background: Harris is a news reporter, and the book opens with an account of one of the worst days of his career. Maybe one of the worst days of his life. He is reporting live on Good Morning America, one of those upbeat morning shows where the news is mixed with cookie recipes, dancing pop stars, and lots of weather reports for places where you don’t live. On the morning Harris describes, viewers from all over the country are eating cereal, drinking their coffee, and waking up while watching GMA, when he has a full-blown panic attack live on the air. A racing heartbeat, gasping for breath, inability to speak – the whole embarrassing thing unfolds in front of approximately five million groggy-eyed viewers just before they head off to work for the day. For a reporter, it is the stuff of nightmares.*

The reasons for the attack are numerous and make up an interesting biography in the first couple of chapters, but what is most interesting is what happened next. He goes on a search to change himself, and it turns into a kind of postmodern spiritual journey: a spiritual journey by an investigative journalist who investigates all things spiritual for a national news outlet. How meta can you get?

If you meditate, then the basics of his search will probably be very familiar to you. He reads self-help books. Then he stumbles upon Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the other Oprah Book Club gurus. He goes from books to talks. From talks to meditation. And so on. It seems to be the trajectory many people follow in the west. Step one: read the books. Step two: listen to the teachers. Step three: try it for yourself. Step four: repeat.

But here is the unique thing about Harris’s story, he is in a position not just to read the books, but to interview the authors. Harris goes on a bit of a mission to investigate the gurus and see who they really are. He clearly has a spiritual yearning, but his reporter’s instincts give his investigation a clarifying effect that is missing from other “spiritual journey” biographies: he can easily see what is BS and what is not. And there is a lot of BS. He sums up the problem he encountered perfectly in the opening chapter:

Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem. Largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.

He gives a frustrating account of his interview with Tolle, who has a way of producing loads of what Kurt Vonnegut would call “foma,” sayings that are harmless but essentially meaningless, only to suddenly say something so true, clear, and powerful that it shocks you into amazement. The effect is short-lived, because more foma quickly issues forth. Harris senses that Tolle is on to something, but he can’t put his finger on what it is and can’t get any meaningful advice from him on how to find out for himself. He drops him for a time, but he makes a reappearance later in the book.

After Tolle he moves on to Chopra, who comes off horribly in the book. Chopra is not so much a spiritual guru as a business guru, a salesman, and he is a glutton for fame and attention. Harris is restrained and polite in his skepticism, but clearly after spending time with the blackberry-addicted, media-loving, savvy businessman that is Deepak Chopra, Harris feels less than inspired.

But luckily, that is when he runs into Mark Epstein. Epstein introduces him to Buddhism, the mindfulness movement, and the world of people associated with insight meditation.** It is touch and go, and the mindfulness people don’t seem that much better than Tolle or Chopra at first. But over time he comes to see them as more real and less obsessed with fame. The fact that they make no weird claims about quantum vortexes, the law of attraction, or awakening hidden energies doesn’t hurt. Epstein and many others seem like ordinary people who discovered an extraordinary thing – meditation actually works when you know how to do it. But still, the world of mindfulness and Buddhism has its fair share of sentimentality, if not outright woo-woo, and in this respect teachers like Tara Brach do not come off well in the book.

Despite his skepticism, he begins meditating and discovers, like so many millions, that it actually works. But he is frustrated by the dissonance between the weirdness of the culture surrounding meditation and its incredible down-to-earth practicality. As he puts it:

I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.

In the end of the book, Harris does not become enlightened. As far as I can tell, he has only begun his practice. This is not a book about the joys of finishing the path, or even of being on the path, but rather the relief of finally finding the trailhead. It is about the frustrations of finding real information despite the wall of white noise that is modern pop spirituality. The thickets of new age confusion that one can get caught in are on full display in this book, and Harris, with his investigative journalist’s eye, describes just how awful they are for someone starting their search. And while this could give the book a cynical tone, the overall feeling is hopeful. Harris does find the trailhead. He finds a practice worth doing and is excited to demystify it for other newbies. From what I can tell he has not yet experienced the first big mystical breakthrough, what is called the A&P, but if he keeps meditating I’m sure he will.

I’m looking forward to that book.

*The way the other anchors and the corporate folks respond to his panic attack is amazing. It makes one question the stereotypes about those involved in the news media.

** It’s an odd coincidence, but I ran into Harris at this point in his journey. We attended a dinner together and though we didn’t get a chance to talk I kept wondering why he looked so familiar. I assumed we must have skyped about meditation at some point so as I was leaving the dinner I waved at him and said “sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk.” Now I understand the look he gave me, which at the time I thought was “I’m sorry too,” but in hindsight must have been “who the hell is this guy?”