Category Archives: Meditation
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.
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.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
The takeaway: This book is about the struggle of a guy trying to figure out what is real in the world of pop-spirituality. The good news is that he found it. The bad news is that he had to search through loads of woo-woo to finally discover what it is. This is a good book for teachers, advanced students, and people deeply involved in meditation communities to read, because it is a reminder that the people who show up, get involved, and commit to the work have had to put up with a lot of stupidity before you ever see them. They deserve a lot of respect.
Dan Harris is not an awakened master. In fact, he is about the farthest thing from an enlightened person that there is, and he’d be the first to admit it. An avowed atheist and skeptic, he’s turned off by the spirituality and oddball ideas associated with meditation. And in my opinion that is why he is the perfect person to write a popular book on meditation.
First the background: Harris is a news reporter, and the book opens with an account of one of the worst days of his career. Maybe one of the worst days of his life. He is reporting live on Good Morning America, one of those upbeat morning shows where the news is mixed with cookie recipes, dancing pop stars, and lots of weather reports for places where you don’t live. On the morning Harris describes, viewers from all over the country are eating cereal, drinking their coffee, and waking up while watching GMA, when he has a full-blown panic attack live on the air. A racing heartbeat, gasping for breath, inability to speak – the whole embarrassing thing unfolds in front of approximately five million groggy-eyed viewers just before they head off to work for the day. For a reporter, it is the stuff of nightmares.*
The reasons for the attack are numerous and make up an interesting biography in the first couple of chapters, but what is most interesting is what happened next. He goes on a search to change himself, and it turns into a kind of postmodern spiritual journey: a spiritual journey by an investigative journalist who investigates all things spiritual for a national news outlet. How meta can you get?
If you meditate, then the basics of his search will probably be very familiar to you. He reads self-help books. Then he stumbles upon Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the other Oprah Book Club gurus. He goes from books to talks. From talks to meditation. And so on. It seems to be the trajectory many people follow in the west. Step one: read the books. Step two: listen to the teachers. Step three: try it for yourself. Step four: repeat.
But here is the unique thing about Harris’s story, he is in a position not just to read the books, but to interview the authors. Harris goes on a bit of a mission to investigate the gurus and see who they really are. He clearly has a spiritual yearning, but his reporter’s instincts give his investigation a clarifying effect that is missing from other “spiritual journey” biographies: he can easily see what is BS and what is not. And there is a lot of BS. He sums up the problem he encountered perfectly in the opening chapter:
Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem. Largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.
He gives a frustrating account of his interview with Tolle, who has a way of producing loads of what Kurt Vonnegut would call “foma,” sayings that are harmless but essentially meaningless, only to suddenly say something so true, clear, and powerful that it shocks you into amazement. The effect is short-lived, because more foma quickly issues forth. Harris senses that Tolle is on to something, but he can’t put his finger on what it is and can’t get any meaningful advice from him on how to find out for himself. He drops him for a time, but he makes a reappearance later in the book.
After Tolle he moves on to Chopra, who comes off horribly in the book. Chopra is not so much a spiritual guru as a business guru, a salesman, and he is a glutton for fame and attention. Harris is restrained and polite in his skepticism, but clearly after spending time with the blackberry-addicted, media-loving, savvy businessman that is Deepak Chopra, Harris feels less than inspired.
But luckily, that is when he runs into Mark Epstein. Epstein introduces him to Buddhism, the mindfulness movement, and the world of people associated with insight meditation.** It is touch and go, and the mindfulness people don’t seem that much better than Tolle or Chopra at first. But over time he comes to see them as more real and less obsessed with fame. The fact that they make no weird claims about quantum vortexes, the law of attraction, or awakening hidden energies doesn’t hurt. Epstein and many others seem like ordinary people who discovered an extraordinary thing – meditation actually works when you know how to do it. But still, the world of mindfulness and Buddhism has its fair share of sentimentality, if not outright woo-woo, and in this respect teachers like Tara Brach do not come off well in the book.
Despite his skepticism, he begins meditating and discovers, like so many millions, that it actually works. But he is frustrated by the dissonance between the weirdness of the culture surrounding meditation and its incredible down-to-earth practicality. As he puts it:
I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.
In the end of the book, Harris does not become enlightened. As far as I can tell, he has only begun his practice. This is not a book about the joys of finishing the path, or even of being on the path, but rather the relief of finally finding the trailhead. It is about the frustrations of finding real information despite the wall of white noise that is modern pop spirituality. The thickets of new age confusion that one can get caught in are on full display in this book, and Harris, with his investigative journalist’s eye, describes just how awful they are for someone starting their search. And while this could give the book a cynical tone, the overall feeling is hopeful. Harris does find the trailhead. He finds a practice worth doing and is excited to demystify it for other newbies. From what I can tell he has not yet experienced the first big mystical breakthrough, what is called the A&P, but if he keeps meditating I’m sure he will.
I’m looking forward to that book.
*The way the other anchors and the corporate folks respond to his panic attack is amazing. It makes one question the stereotypes about those involved in the news media.
** It’s an odd coincidence, but I ran into Harris at this point in his journey. We attended a dinner together and though we didn’t get a chance to talk I kept wondering why he looked so familiar. I assumed we must have skyped about meditation at some point so as I was leaving the dinner I waved at him and said “sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk.” Now I understand the look he gave me, which at the time I thought was “I’m sorry too,” but in hindsight must have been “who the hell is this guy?”
The takeaway: This is not light reading. Venture into this only if you are serious about understanding what the Satipatthana actually says. Otherwise, read the more friendly summaries. Or just read the sutta itself, which is here.
Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization is not one book, it’s two. The first book is in the text, and the second is in the footnotes, which sometimes take up half a page. Both books are full of detail. Both books are a challenge to the lay reader because the writing is scholastic, abstract and filled with exotic terminology. But it is abundantly clear that in both books the author knows what he is talking about. If you are serious about knowing what is in the Satipatthana, this is probably your go-to book.
Let’s back up a moment: what is in the Satipatthana Sutta that it merits a whole two books? The Satipatthana is a discourse found in both the Majjhima Nikaya and Digha Nikaya (two of the root texts of the Buddha’s original teachings) and it is special because it gives amazingly clear meditation instructions. A surprising fact about the original discourses: there are not many places in them where the Buddha gives nuts-and-bolts meditation instructions. The Satipatthana is unique among them because it stands out as the clearest, most complete, and the most unique to the Buddha’s teachings. So if you want to do “Buddhist” meditation, you can’t go wrong doing what is in the Satipatthana.
Another reason to study the Satipatthana is that after giving the meditation instructions the Buddha tops it off with a big promise. At the very end he explains that if anyone does this kind of meditation day and night diligently for just two weeks she can expect to reach awakening (stream entry). Think about that. If you get it together enough to put all your energy into this meditation for about the length of an average vacation, you can awaken. When he calls it the “direct path to realization” he is not joking.
Now, most of us, myself especially, cannot keep up the level of intensity he is describing for that long. This kind of meditation can wear you down. So two weeks of nonstop mindfulness is, well… aspirational. No problem. The Buddha adds that if you keep it up at a more moderate level you can expect awakening in 7 months to 7 years. That’s not very specific by modern standards, and some people might balk and putting in work on a such an open-ended project, but when you consider what is being promised, it is well worth the effort. So the Satipatthana sutta is especially interesting to folks who are ready to get serious about their meditation and see if awakening is real.
The Satipatthana translates as the “Foundations of Mindfulness,” and it is considered the source of what is now commonly called “insight meditation.” The sutta lays out two broad ideas: first there is a special technique of meditation invented by the Buddha (mindfulness), which one then applies to four categories of experience. Hence the “four foundations of mindfulness.”
The technique described in the sutta is to get focused, build some concentration (how much is the source of a lot of debate), and then to turn attention to ordinary things. And when I say ordinary I mean very ordinary. Itches. Sounds. Pressure. Mental images. The constant channel surfing of the body and mind in all their busy activity. What do we do when we look at these things? We simply “know” them. That’s it. That’s the technique. This is the counterintuitive part. He’s not advocating doing anything. Just “know.”
This is so simple it is mind-bogglingly hard to understand. We want to do something, change something, create something. But no. The Buddha is saying clearly over and over, just know what you are experiencing in your body and mind right this instant. That’s it. That’s all. Just do that and keep doing that as long as you can.
For anyone experienced in the natural sciences this should sound vaguely familiar. Consider how Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Or how natural scientists of all kinds study the behaviour of complex natural systems in their native environment. The very first step is to simply immerse yourself in the system and watch. That’s all. Don’t interpret. Don’t interfere. Don’t test. Don’t theorise. Simply watch.
The Buddha is explaining how to conduct the data collection phase of naturalistic study.
Everything that is called “insight meditation” today flows from this simple technique. Whether it is noting, body scanning, open awareness, or any of the other dozens of ways of doing insight meditation, they all are different ways of simply getting you to immerse yourself in the mind and body and then observe without interfering. The technique is simple moment-to-moment data collection.
So what do we collect data on? In the sutta these are the four foundations. To return to the Jane Goodall analogy, imagine that she were to sit with a pad and paper with four columns on it while watching the chimpanzees. Each column represents a different category of behaviour she wants to watch for, and each time she sees one she simply makes a brief note in that category. In this kind of meditation we are instructed to do something very similar. This is where Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization really shines. The author gets into the nuances and subtleties of the four foundations in a way that is intriguing. It turns out that there is a lot of information packed into the sutta, even though is is relatively short. If you like deep study into Buddhist theory and deconstruction of language, then you will love this book.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the four foundations here, because obviously you would need a whole two books to do cover everything, but there is one aspect of the four foundations that I love and it is hard not to share. It’s also one that really confuses people. So please excuse me for geeking out for a moment.
The first three foundations are straightforward. They roughly correspond to the body, the mind, and how you react to the contents of the body and mind. But the fourth foundation is my favorite. It is also the least understood. It is often translated as “mental objects” or not translated at all and left as “dhammas” with a small “d.” It always strikes people as a bit strange because it doesn’t fit at all with the first three, which are pretty intuitive.
The fourth foundation contains things like the five hinderances, the seven factors of enlightenment and the five aggregates. The reason I love this foundation is because it shows the Buddha’s humanity. This is what I call the “kitchen-sink” foundation, because it seems like it is the one in which he threw everything else that he couldn’t fit neatly into the first three.
Let’s return to the Goodall analogy. Imagine that on her pad the first three columns had items that any person would recognize as relevant for animal behavior, such as “feeding,” “sleeping” and “mating.” But then in the fourth category she had a wide-ranging list of things to watch for that were unique to chimps and were part of her theory of chimp behavior, such as “hierarchical posturing,” “selective grooming,” and “sharing resources.” You couldn’t really study chimpanzees without watching for such things, but they don’t fit neatly into the most basic categories. That is exactly the case with the fourth foundation. Anyone can easily watch for body sensations, mental activity and reactions, but there are subtle and important things occurring that are part of the natural behavior of the body and mind. They don’t fit neatly into the first three categories. And if you do the meditation long enough you are bound to come across them. That is the fourth foundation.
Overall, I would recommend Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization for two kinds of people. The first are those who are true hardcore Buddhist geeks (if you listen to the podcast of the same name you are likely in this category). The kind who know the original Pali words for things, and consider studying the Visuddhimagga to be a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The second kind of person who would get something from this book are those who have been doing insight meditation for a while, and maybe something is starting to happen. Maybe you have had some unusual experiences, or something deeper seems to be working. You are becoming more serious about insight meditation and want to learn more about it from an in depth analysis. If that is you, I don’t think you can get much better than this book.
There is this phrase that is used in Buddhism to denote when big changes happen: “a turning of the wheel.” It’s always struck me as a little cryptic and eerie-sounding. Wheels, after all, don’t care what they run over. But it fits when things in Buddhism start to change as though something large and outside of anyone’s control is on the move. Now might be one of those times.
The first turning of the wheel happened when the Buddha gave his initial instructions to a group of close friends. The second and third had to do with the expansion of those original teachings to include Mahayana concepts. These days there is a lot of talk that a fourth turning may be coming soon, and much speculation about what it would look like.
People who are into this sort of thing (I’m looking at you, Integral folks) are excited about how technology, neuroscience and the internet are all converging on meditation in a way never seen before. And I think they may be on to something. A big change is coming, but I actually think it already came and we missed it. Or rather, we are only now beginning to feel it. Because when you step back and look at what is going on, one of the biggest experiments in history is already well underway.
Like any good experiment, this one has mostly to do with the numbers. Consider that during the lifetime of the Buddha he taught large gatherings of people just about every day for forty years. Historical records are sketchy, but if we are very generous and grant that he taught an average of 100 brand new people every day of those forty years, then he reached around 1,500,000 people directly in his lifetime. That is about the population of Phoenix.
Fast forward to today. Approximately 31 million americans meditate every day. That’s right. Every day in the US more people are meditating than he could have reached in twenty lifetimes. The equivalent of four New York Cities. While global estimates are not available, it is not unreasonable to believe that there are more people meditating every single day than were alive on the planet in the Buddha’s lifetime.
Even stranger is the fact that this all happened in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. It is reasonable to think all those new people meditating gradually built up in a nice predictable sloping graphed-out line over centuries. But no, as is usually the case, things aren’t reasonable. Just consider that it wasn’t that long ago in the west that meditation was a fringe activity restricted to beat poets, hippies, and other creative riff-raff. But that creative riff-raff went on to invent ipods and run countries. And so now meditation is about as mainstream as little league and pizza. Meditation’s growth in the past half century has been astonishing. It went from something artists did alone in the woods to something written about alongside the recipes in the Ladies Home Journal, and all that change happened in about the same amount of time that it took the Buddha to reach those 1,500,000 people.
All experiments start with parameters, and that is the first parameter of this experiment: a sudden, and massive, increase in scale. A vast new sangha has been created in a flash. We have little information about it, but we can be sure it is very different from the sanghas of the past. So let’s call it the “beta sangha.”
The second parameter has more to do with quality than quantity. Who are all these new people in beta sangha? We don’t really know for sure, but what is clear is that the betas are nothing like stereotypical meditators of the past. It is now normal to hear CEOs talk about mindfulness. Celebrities, pop stars, and even presidents talk breezily about their daily meditation practice. Soldiers are taking audio instructions for meditation on deployment. Children are learning meditation in grade schools. Corporations are starting to give employees meditation breaks. Hospitals, social workers, and school counselors are teaching people how to to meditate. I could go on.
The world of meditation has not simply increased in population, it has dramatically diversified. Not only are more people meditating than ever before, wildly different types of people are meditating. The ultra religious and the hardcore atheists. Business folks and spiritual people. Conservatives and liberals. To say that meditation has become inclusive would be an understatement. And that is the second parameter of the experiment: people who never would have meditated in the past are now doing it in large numbers.
The third and final parameter is, I’ll admit from the start, a little heretical. It has to do with the quality of the meditation being done. In the world of religious Buddhism it is often thought that things have degenerated over time. That the teachings have become weaker and less effective. But is that really the case? If you think of the Buddha as an omniscient conduit of perfect information then it is perfectly reasonable. But if you take him at his word, that he was just a normal person who woke up, then he was a person who made a discovery that has become the foundation for further work. He was the Galileo of awakening, and since his time an army of forgotten meditation experts and engineers have moved from handmade telescopes to Hubble Deep Field Imaging. The last two turnings can be thought of as sudden leaps forward in the the work of successive refinements in the technology of awakening discovered by the Buddha. If anything, the technology has become more powerful, simpler, and easier to learn.
By the time the betas emerge in our century there are literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of extremely powerful meditative techniques that people can learn in a very short amount of time. The technology of awakening is now so powerful that if an average person commits the same amount of time and energy to meditation that they do to getting a college degree, they can experience profound change, and awakening is certainly possible. That is the third parameter of the experiment: the opportunity to awaken in lay life is greater than ever.
So when we put all the parameters together, in context, the experiment looks like this: we have recently moved from a point in history in which meditation was the lifetime task of a few elite dedicated monastics living in special conditions in relatively remote areas, to a globalized interconnected world filled with many millions of diverse people using very powerful meditation techniques every day in their normal lives. The people carrying out this experiment surround us. Ringing up our groceries, delivering our mail, making our laws, telling us the news on television, learning in our schools, and raising children at home. Beta sangha is a colossal and diverse new group, with no particular lineage, no particular faith, and even no particular interest in the religious and cultural aspects of meditation. They love meditation. But in a very real way they could care less about things like a fourth turning, and they are the ones most likely to deliver it.
Nothing like this has ever happened.
With more diverse people using powerful meditation techniques an interesting new paradigm emerges: a full curve. There is, and probably always has been, a bell curve of meditation. On one tail of the curve are people for whom meditation has meant becoming a little more relaxed. In the large middle are most people, for whom there is both relaxation and some insight, a glimmer of awakening. And at the other tail are the people who have taken it very far and some who have awakened. And at the farthest end are the outliers. The Dogens, the Milarepas, and Mahasi Sayadaws. These are the folks who have an uncanny talent for taking meditation to a far and deep place. In the past they have all been monks. But with the emergence of beta sangha this is about to change. The curve has recently flooded with millions of lay people. Some of them will have exceptional talent. A handful will see into the deepest insights discovered by past masters, and perhaps farther. The future outliers will probably be schoolteachers, mechanics, or bus drivers. We are quickly coming to a time when the most profound wisdom will come from the most unexpected sources.
The past turnings of the wheel had to do with the qualities of the teaching in some way, such as the meaning of “emptiness,” or whether “nibbana” was outside of day-to-day life. But the next turning will be less about the qualities of the concepts and more about what I call “the qualities of quantity.” The sheer force of numbers will shape the dharma to become more egalitarian. More open and easier to understand. To use a phrase from the world of technology, it will become more “user-friendly.”
I would expect that if beta sangha creates a fourth turning it will not give us a new insight into anything like emptiness. Instead of a new insight, we will get a new attitude. A more playful attitude. A lay attitude. An attitude about meditation more comfortable in jeans than robes. An attitude that recognizes wisdom without taking itself too seriously. It will be an attitude that rejects mystery, secrets, and ritual. It will be extremely pragmatic and intolerant of hierarchy. In short, if a fourth turning is coming, it will likely knock the dharma off its pedestal and bring it closer to daily life. A fourth turning will not be about getting a higher teaching. It will be about getting real.
Predictions like this are likely to be wrong. There is so little to go on. The bulk of this new sangha still hasn’t made their particular thoughts on the matter very cogent. Indeed, they’ve only begun to clear their throat. I am eager to hear what they have to say.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.
This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization of non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.
But then Ben Affleck happened.
When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.
But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.
The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.” What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.
What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.
Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.
And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.
While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.
One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”
If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.
It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.
Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?
In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.
But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.
The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.
From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.
So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.
A student recently asked about the relationship between psychedelics and awakening. “It’s kind of like…” I thought for a moment, searching for the right analogy and coming up short. But as so often happens in these situations, the next thing out of my mouth surprised us both, “it’s like …eating pizza in Siberia.”
Of course, that one needed some explaining.
Weirdly enough, I once lived in Siberia. I won’t bore you with the details of how I got there or what I was up to, but I was in a small town near the center of Siberia for close to a year.
In a shopping plaza in the center of town was a pizzeria, which promised authentic New York style pizza. It even had a statue of Liberty painted on the sign out front. This was before Pizza Hut had ventured beyond Moscow into the frozen interior, but there were lots of Pizza Hut commercials on TV. No one in town really knew what pizza was supposed to taste like, but they did know what it was supposed to look like, and everyone was very curious to try it. Being the token American in town, I had to make a visit. But when I got my first slice I immediately realized something was amiss. For one thing, it had corn on it. Corn.
But it wasn’t until I tasted it that I realized what I was really eating. And it wasn’t pizza. It was an undercooked piece of dumpling dough with barbecue sauce. It was topped with fresh dill and salty cheese. After months in the cold of Siberia, far from home, I was eager to have some pizza. It was so disappointing.
But it occurred to me that I was disappointed only because I knew what pizza was supposed to taste like.
As I looked around the restaurant I saw lots of Russians hungrily eating the pizza, nodding to each other, and seemingly enjoying it. I realized that if you’ve never had pizza before, this stuff might not taste so bad. It might be kind of interesting. Maybe even pretty good if you have no expectations on your first bite.
It’s kind of like that with psychedelics and awakening. You’re told that a psychedelic experience is a kind of awakening to reality, and naturally you’re curious. You try it and get a wild light show, energy fluxing through the body, and a radical shift in perspective. It seems to match what the texts describe as awakening. And it’s really interesting because it is so different from the normal way the mind usually functions. If you don’t know what awakening is, then this can seem like the real thing. You may even take up a meditation practice to try and replicate the experience.
But if you keep meditating long enough you’ll find that psychedelic experiences aren’t the same thing as awakening. They just look like it. It’s like eating pizza in Siberia.
None of this is said to diminish anyone’s good time or bash psychedelics. If they inspire you, that’s awesome. I’ve heard from far too many people about how their first big psychedelic experience inspired them to meditate to dismiss them out of hand, and I’ve had enough wonderful trips of my own to know their value. Some meditation teachers discuss their own psychedelic experiences openly and compare the two experiences favorably. I get that. I see the connection. But it is important not to overlook the differences as well, and they are significant.
The first difference is that awakening is not a state. Tripping comes and goes. So its a state. Awakening is not a state. The second is that awakening is a livable experience. That is, it is not like tripping for the rest of your life. You can pay your bills, do your taxes, raise your kids, do your job, and lots of other normal activities from a place of awakening. Not so with psychedelics, which pretty much bring a halt to all normal functioning. Additionally, when psychedelics go bad they bring out deep fear and ugly visions. By the time awakening occurs, those difficulties have been outgrown and left behind.
Finally and most important, awakening is seeing mundane life, the ordinary boring details of our humdrum lives, as they really are, and not wanting it any other way. It is a contentment that allows the mundane to become exquisite. Normalcy does not go away. The ordinary is still ordinary. But one’s contentment and love for being itself brings a sweetness to normal life that no drug ever could.
So have fun. Enjoy the thrill. Get inspired. But understand that when you come home for real, it feels different than any state may have led you to believe.
“Angie” is a grad student in London who has been skyping with me once a week to learn meditation. She has navigated through most of the stages of insight and is now in the low part of the Equanimity stage.
“I keep losing the plot” she reports. “Every time I sit it is nice, full of easy vibrations and happiness, but I’m lost.”
More effort, I instruct her.
A week later we skype and she explains that the spacing out is gone, but now there is a feeling “like a bounding pulse around my eyes.”
Less effort, I explain.
She looks at me, a bit frustrated. “Well?” she asks, “which is it!”
Building the Fire
There are few technical concepts in meditation as confusing as skillful effort. That elusive quality of leaning in to the meditation, focusing, attending, deliberately working… but not too much.
Skillful effort is like building a campfire. You need a little kindling, but not too much, blow on the coals, but gently. Do too much or too little of the right things and the fire will not start. And this is how it is with meditation. Too much or too little effort and your progress is suddenly brought to a halt.
Most meditators have had the experience of pushing too hard or too little, and finding that the meditation locks up under the weight of effort, or dissipates without enough of it. What it seems like from the perspective of the meditator is that the meditation either devolves into unfocused reverie or a tense, rigid striving, that is frustrating. If either of these is happening, try adjusting the effort.
It can be especially confusing if you read meditation instructions from different teachers answering student questions or from different styles of meditation. Some exhort you to practice like your hair’s on fire while others insist that there is nothing to do and never was, that all effort is unskillful. If you take all of it at face value, you’re likely to have trouble.
To help make sense of all of the contradictions, it is helpful to understand that the kind of effort that is skillful depends on what stage of meditation you are in. In other words, “skillful” effort is not a thing that you learn once and master. It is something that constantly changes during the meditation. You have to learn it fresh as new insights arise.
To discover what is skillful you need mindfulness. You need the capacity to notice how the meditation is changing this instant and remember from past meditations how to adjust your effort accordingly.
To use the analogy of the campfire again, imagine you get a small flame going by blowing hard on some coals, but then you keep blowing like that and the flame goes out. You try again and when the flame gets going you back off the blowing but forget to add more kindling, and it goes out. So then you go through the process and then add more kindling, and so on, until finally you have a fire that is sustaining itself.
This is how meditation on the insight knowledges proceeds up to high equanimity. It follows a predictable series of changes, and just like the changing conditions when starting a fire, how you balance effort needs to change depending on where you are in the progress of insight.
Roughly speaking, here is a very crude outline of how to apply effort by stage:
- Physiocognitive stage (nanas 1-3): Sustained applied effort. Objects are a bit dull and it is easy to drift off. Be wary of thoughts.
- A&P: Less effort needed. The level of interest naturally picks up and there is less need for one to stay present with objects. Surf on the pulsing, vibrating objects.
- Dissolution: more effort. It is easy to space out, or to get lost in a sense of frustration that objects are passing you by. Put energy into staying alert.
- Middle Dark Night (nanas 6 – 9): Less effort than dissolution, but more than A&P. There is a balance point right in the middle that is needed here. It is easy to slip into the avoidance tactics of daydreaming or analysis, but it is also easy to push so hard that the meditation becomes rigid, and stuck.
- Reobservation: more effort. The thing to do here is to try and keep up with what is happening, and it is all happening very fast.
- Low to mid equanimity: Much more effort. This is notorious place for getting lost and drifting off. Don’t allow your mindfulness, concentration and investigation to waft away in the pleasant hot tub of spacious vibrations. Stay focused and sharp.
- High equanimity: Much less effort. The meditation can almost do itself at this point.
- Very high equanimity: almost no effort. Surrender to what is happening. Trust the process and watch what it reveals to you. You will naturally look for what is not being seen clearly, but if you look to hard you won’t see it.
As you can see there is no single kind of effort that is “skillful.” If you were to follow a meditation teacher around for a day and listen to the advice she gives different students, you would come away pretty confused. Some students would be told to practice like their hair’s on fire. Others to surrender to what is and see through the illusion of doing. But the teacher would merely be tailoring the instructions to fit the student’s current situation.
And this is what it is like reading the many different meditation manuals, written by different teachers, in different styles, at different points on the questioner’s path. Understand that all meditation advice is situational, and effort is a constantly moving target. It gets better with practice.
Daniel Ingram was recently interviewed on Buddha at the Gas Pump, and the interview is long and ranges from the societal changes that could happen from meditation, to the the differences between vipassana-style awakening and nondual awakening, to technical vipassana insights.
Overall, this is a great interview. If you are not familiar with Daniel Ingram you can check out his website here, or visit the Dharma Overground, the meditation forum he manages, here. Buddha at the Gas Pump is a treasure trove of interviews with teachers from many different traditions. Visit BGP here.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book in which he proposed that as human beings we are not the pinnacle of the natural world (an idea to which we are comically susceptible) but instead are merely hosts for genes, who are actually in charge. These genes have employed us as their clever and self-obsessed instruments to one purpose: to copy themselves into immortality. The theory was a Copernican-style displacement of our collective egos, and while it is a commonly accepted idea today, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution opened many minds at the time and created new conversations about what it means to be human. Oddly, one of the most powerful ideas in the book is just a bit of an afterthought toward the end. In a chapter called “Memes: the new replicators,” he proposed that another part our nature behaves exactly like genes: beliefs. Dawkins used the term “cultural unit of information” rather than “belief” and he called these self-replicating units “memes” (from the greek “mimeme,” or “imitator”). Today, memes are usually thought of as pictures of cats with punch-lines written beneath them. However, the serious study of memes emerged as a new body of theory and speculation in the past twenty years. As a discipline it had its coming out party in the 1990s with the first issue of the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.
The term “meme” is not used as often as it once was, probably because of all those pictures of kitties deadpanning on the internet, but the core concept, that mental constructs are essentially self-replicating agents, has not diminished with time. In fact, it has shown remarkable staying power for such a radical idea. A number of influencial variants on meme theory have arrived on the scene in the past couple of decades, including philosopher Daniel Dennet’s “rough drafts” theory proposed in his book Consciousness Explained, and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “memeplexes” in her book The Meme Machine. What all the differing theories suggest is that, just as with genes, we are merely the self-obsessed hosts of beliefs that have us unwittingly convinced of our primacy. We think we are using beliefs to navigate the world and thrive, but actually they are using us, or to be more accurate, it is an exchange. To get a glimmer of how profound is this exchange, and how favorable it is for us, think about what the belief in germ theory has done for your longevity. The radical idea that beliefs use us as much as we use them, and those that help us are helped by us, is slowly gaining ground in mainstream science. However, it is still on the sidelines. It is my guess that once we can track and study beliefs in the same way we do genes, through direct observation, then the field will likely explode into a fertile ground for new discovery. By then we will likely call them something other than “memes.” After all, we’ll want to leave something for all those adorable cats.
What Dawkins and some of his colleagues do not delve into (and which meditators face each day) is an existential correlate of meme theory: if my beliefs are using me and I’m using them, then what am I? Taking meme theory seriously, even a little, leaves one in a very uncomfortable position in this regard. Most of us no longer create an identity exclusively based on familial, tribal, city, state or career affiliations. However, most of us do make an unconscious assumption that what we believe in, have faith in, or “stand for” is actually us. We think that some deep version of our thoughts are who we are. Meme theory proposes that this is a tremendous (if adaptive) mistake. Consider the following thought experiment. Someone asks you who you really are. They insist it must be the “real you” beyond what can be seen by other people. It can’t just be something you do or a role you have in relation to others. Who are you in your deepest self? If you are like most people then you would likely answer this question with a worldview, moral code, or religion. In other words, with a belief. I’ve done this experiment with friends, and most respond along the lines of “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an artist,” or “I am an environmentalist.” While we think that these are the deepest expressions of ourselves, meme theory proposes the disconcerting notion that this cannot be the case. Instead, our beliefs have done something remarkable (and a bit crazy if you consider it), they have convinced us that we are them. Through a clever trick that is not fully understood, we not only accept some beliefs to be true, we assume that they are us. This is the default position of the mind, and it is the most comfortable state for us. Therefore, if you pause and consider the implications of meme theory, you should start to feel a bit anxious. If that last bastion of the “real me, deep down” is seen as just another natural process of the mind, then what is left to be me? The psychologist and popular author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this connection early on in the 1990s when he tied meme theory directly to the sense of self in his provocative book The Evolving Self. This connection between what we think and what we feel ourselves to be is normally hidden from sight, but it is powerful.
Where does meditation fit into all this? If you are a meditator you already see the connection as clear as the words on this screen. As it turns out, insight meditation practice appears to confirm some aspects of meme theory. With meditation you discover that your thoughts are quite independent of your will and come and go as they please. Even just a minute of calmly watching what the mind produces will reveal that very little of its activity is under your control. Sudden images, memories, plans, judgments, wishes, fantasies and internal lecturing come and go as quickly and as uncontrollably as a babbling stream. There are good neurological reasons for this. It is estimated that the brain processes 38 thousand trillion operations per second. If even a tiny fraction of these operations are what we colloquially call “background noise” then hundreds of thousands of them are occurring within a second. Of those, perhaps only a small fraction fire together in a pattern recognizable enough for us to be conscious of them. Of those, if only a small percent survive in our awareness for longer than a second then we are still left with dozens of flashes of cognitive activity each instant. And of that remaining set we may become fully aware of just one or two. Anyone who has sat in serious meditation for even moment can confirm that a quiet mind is actually very noisy. I have often compared it to a clown car at a circus constantly spinning out of control and revealing new absurdities at every turn. When you sit with this reality long enough the resulting insight is unmistakable: I am not my thoughts. They are not me. They happen on their own, without a controlling agency on my behalf. I can nudge them, judge them, hold them in contempt, dispute them, and distract myself from them. If I am a trained academic, I can make the mind follow a disciplined line of thought for a small amount of time, until exhaustion sets in. But what I cannot do is control thoughts in an ultimate sense. There are simply too many and they are rushing in and out too fast. The mind often gets compared to a garden that we cultivate, but really it is more like a dark and riotous jungle into which we have a few inroads provided by civilization, education, and if we are lucky, meditation. If we look deeply at this cognitive ecosystem we see that it is teeming with all manner of phenomena flashing in the dark and disappearing. An earnest look at this can be both disturbing and awe inspiring.
But although a meditator can see that the many thoughts winking in and out of the mind each instant are not “me,” she or he can still take beliefs as self. This is actually common. Meditators can simultaneously hold: “I am not my thoughts” and “I am a believer” in mind, not realizing the the first dismantles the second. This is because beliefs are felt to be special types of thoughts. They are more fixed, stable and make up a kind of internal cognitive architecture. But they only got that way by being copied and recopied. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts that have found a footing in the mind and have set up dominion there. They did this because they serve a very important function that can be seen clearly, but is often missed. It is seen when, as one watches the coming and going of cognitive phenomena, a signal arises in the noise. The layers of randomness become a background upon which patterns emerge. Some thoughts repeat themselves, or newer drafts of themselves, over and over again. In other words, some of them are “sticky.” Why is this? Meme theory suggests that the stickiest thoughts either fit well into the existing cognitive ecosystem or offer something useful to the meditator. In other words, our “beliefs” act as selectors, winnowing out what is incompatible and recopying what is in harmony with the existing architecture of thought. With continued investigation a new insight becomes unmistakable: all these thoughts and their sponsoring beliefs have to do with… me. If a thought begins with the phrase “I am…” or is just a few links in the chain from “I am,” then it has pride of place in the cognitive environment and is preserved and copied and re-copied. It begins to seem as if the mind is just repeating different iterations of what it perceives to be “me.” This can become very elaborate and intellectual. Very philosophical and deep. But a dispassionate look at the thoughts will show that any new thought that reinforces “I am” is kept, copied, and can even spun out into a story in the mind. If the thought or belief is particularly adaptive it will have encoded in it the instructions for copying itself. You will feel “called” to share it with others.
This is why meditation is such a rebellious act. Through meditation one begins to do something that threatens the constant trance of the babbling mind: you begin to witness beliefs instead of becoming them. Upon awakening, it is as if you realize you have been tricked into believing that you are the main character of a play only to find that you are in a seat in the theater. You begin to see, sometimes to your astonishment and dismay, that beliefs are just scripts, and if you observe them critically you see that they are empty of self. You have no ultimate interest in them. Even more disturbing, meditative investigation will show that the thoughts you took to be yourself do not survive in the mind by whether they are conventionally “true” or “false”, but rather by whether they play well with other beliefs. You begin to realize that your internal compass for belief was not set to look for truth, but for “self.” This insight upsets everything, because now you begin to understand that all beliefs could be wildly off the mark, and often this is exactly the case. The implications for this are astonishing. In the most extreme cases, we can believe things that are not only mind-bogglingly contrary to the world around us, but positively harmful to ourselves and others. This is in no way an unusual thing. Most of us know, or are, the hosts of some patently false and disturbing ideas. Just to cite some of the more vivid examples: there are people alive today who are convinced that the Earth is flat and others that it is hollow. There are those who sincerely think that air can be food. That if they think about something hard enough it will manifest. That sitting inside of a pyramid will cure illness. How can that be? Because those beliefs serve their hosts in some way and have convinced them of their truth. I have met people who literally believe that they have a cosmic karmic bank account in the red. Or that they receive instructions for what to have for lunch from an invisible being. Or that they have a long neck because they were a giraffe in a prior life. They believe these things sincerely and whole-heartedly, and they are no different from myself or anyone else. They simply became host to some particularly strange beliefs. How it happens is still being worked out, but if you would like to learn some of the science behind it look into Michael Shermer’s excellent work on the topic.
Meditation changes everything, because if it is done with sufficient strength and honesty it reveals the process of self-making through belief and therefore makes non-belief, rather than belief, the default position of the person. Seeing the process of identification with thoughts as it is happening is one of the things that meditation does for us, and simply seeing it happen shakes the very roots of belief. You will never see thoughts the same way again. This is something that meditation masters in virtually all the traditions have been professing for thousands of years, and ideas like meme theory may be the west’s initial attempt to catch up. I am not proposing that ideas like meme theory are “correct” or “true” in an ultimate sense. That would simply create another belief to hang the self on. To return to the analogy of the play, meme theory, or the meditative insight that “I am not my thoughts” is like a character walking onto the stage and talking directly to you in the audience about the play itself, “you know you’re not in this play, right?” It is a disrupter, a protester that crashes the show and keeps one from suspending disbelief and getting lost in the drama. Notions like this are nicely described by the Buddhist phrase “skillful view.” Meme theory is not so much an idea as a very skillful way to view ideas, and it is skillful because it supports us in breaking loose of all views. It changes how we think, not just what we think. The more we can view beliefs in a way that distances our sense of self from them, the easier it is to experience the kind of liberation that comes from being free from the constant demands and expectations they place on us and our world. This is the most skillful thing we can do. Ultimately, we come to see that not only is there no self in the play, there was never one in the audience either. The whole theater was a prop.
“Jill” is 32 and works as a lawyer in the southwest. She wrote to me explaining that during her meditation she sometimes feels a panic attack coming on and has disturbing mental images. She cannot control it and does not know what she is doing wrong. When we talk for the first time I ask her when it began. “It started a few months after my therapist taught me mindfulness…”
Third wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the marriage of modern psychology and ancient buddhist meditation. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, and many psychologists and meditation teachers are enthusiastic about the development, seeing it as a blend of the very best of eastern wisdom with western psychological science. Third wave CBT goes under a variety of names such as Mindfulness-Based CBT (MBCBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are also less structured approaches and informal sitting groups springing up in clinics across the country. It is the rare hospital or clinic that does not have a meditation group these days. This has resulted in a historically unique situation. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers and counselors are rapidly becoming the vanguard of meditation in the west, introducing people who may have never meditated to the practice.
All these approaches have the common elements of CBT (recognizing and challenging maladaptive thoughts) and a version of meditation that goes under the moniker “mindfulness meditation” or sometimes just “mindfulness.” A review of the treatment manuals for DBT, ACT, MBSR and MBCBT suggest that “mindfulness meditation” is something close to a “soft-vipassana.” The person doing meditation in these treatment protocols is instructed to watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own without judgment. This leads to the insight that one does not need to believe in, or act on, thoughts or feelings. This is perfect for CBT, which emphasizes the importance of thoughts and beliefs as the drivers of mood disorders. I call mindfulness meditation a “soft” version of vipassana because it stops short of instructing the person to see that everything in awareness is coming and going and is not owned. It also does not emphasize the kind of intense or rapid momentary concentration that marks some vipassana techniques. Instead, clinical mindfulness focuses on relaxation and gentleness (but not samadhi) and points the person to watch thinking and emotional reactions. I would argue that these differences are a very good thing because, despite popular opinion, traditional vipassana would be terrible medicine for a person who is emotionally distraught, unstable, and unable to cope.
That last sentence may be a bit shocking to some. If you are like most people, you associate meditation, all types of meditation, with happiness, relaxation, and maybe even bliss. The idea that it could produce difficulty is not only counter intuitive, it is anathema to how meditation is presented in the west. If anything difficult does occur during the meditation the meditator is likely to feel that they are doing something wrong. If he or she goes to a meditation teacher the advice will likely be to just “let it go,” “drop it,” or my favorite, “thank your mind for it.” This is patronizing. It gives the false impression that if anything distressing does occur during meditation, the problem is one of technique or reactivity on behalf of the meditator. In reality difficult experiences in meditation, ones that are remarkably similar to the symptoms of many mood disorders, are so normal that the most ancient surviving meditation manuals in Buddhism go into great detail about them, categorizing them into six distinct types that occur in a specific order. Far from being a sign of poor meditation, they are actually described as a sign of deepening insight. In other words, the most ancient manuals not only affirm that difficult experiences occur during serious meditation, they posit that these experiences are supposed to happen. They are a definite sign of one’s movement along what the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw coined The Progress of Insight, and are known as the “dukkha nanas” or “insights into suffering.” This might sound bad, but the good news is that these more distressing insights only occur when one is well on the way and down the path. Meditators usually have to go through a lot of sitting time, develop strong concentration, and become very equanimous before they can enter into the later insights. For this reason it is unlikely that a soft-vipassana approach can get one very far beyond the initial insights and into the dukkha nanas. So in a clinical setting if you stick to the instructions and don’t overdo it, nothing unsettling is likely to occur. I do not believe mindfulness meditation is intentionally designed for this, but if it was it would be a damn clever modification of traditional vipassana.
Despite the limits of mindfulness meditation, there is a problem. A small number of people in clinical settings are unexpectedly good at meditation. With the barest instruction, some people are able to launch themselves deep into the rabbit hole of insights that vipassana is intended to produce. It is an experience that can be troubling and even destabilizing, particularly if one has no idea that it is coming. As third wave CBT has boomed in the past decade these people have become a significant minority in the meditation community. Introduced to meditation through therapy, they find themselves on an emotional ride to which they never agreed, encountering upheavals and difficult truths at the very moment in their lives when they are least able to handle them. That is bad enough, but much worse is that many of the well-intentioned clinicians who teach these techniques have no idea that anything troubling could occur.
Many of the developers of these approaches received their training in meditation through Zen, which eschews the more old fashioned stage-models of insight, and therefore does not formally recognize the predictable difficulties that arise (though every Zen teacher I’ve met is cognizant of them and is well-prepared to handle them). Additionally, for reasons too complex to go into here, traditional vipassana teachers in the west have elected to present the practice without much emphasis on the traditional stages of insight. And so, without intending to, they often leave the simplistic impression that there are no difficulties associated with insight, and that more meditation equals more happiness. The inspired psychologists who learn from these teachers come away greatly impressed with meditation, but with little to no knowledge of the dukkha nanas. They return to their clinics, offices and hospitals and find novel ways to integrate meditation into the treatments of unstable people. Most of these people get great benefit. Some have a different experience, one that is unsettling. And while many meditators may object to this characterization, pointing out that their own experience of dukkha nanas was not so difficult, I would argue that most people who go through it with little trouble are not in the midst of therapy or suicidal.
People who have had this unexpected experience are growing in numbers and are starting to share with each other and with more traditional meditators. They have come to call the dukkha nanas the “dark night” after the Christian experience (some teachers believe they may be in the same mystical family if not the same thing). They are sharing and seeking advice on internet forums and in settings such as the Cheetah House and Dark Night Project where they feel they will not be told to simply “drop it” but will be supported in gaining understanding. They are an unseen, and as yet unrecognized, growing minority of western meditators. Many have no sangha, no formal teacher, no texts or canon, no philosophy or anything resembling “faith.” They are frequently alone, searching the Internet for anyone like themselves, trying to sift through the overwhelmingly positive pitch for meditation for some nugget of information that can illuminate their experience. Like refugees with no home, they do not understand what is happening to them or why, and they often do not know what to do or where to go for help.
This issue is not abstract for me and perhaps my own experience will shed light on why I care so much. Two years ago I received the green light from my teacher to begin teaching insight meditation. I put up a website, told those who knew me what I was up to, and waited to see who would be interested. While I made an effort to write in my own voice, which can be irreverent, what I presented was right down the middle vipassana. However, I did do one thing that was unusual and for which I am very grateful. I went against the common practice of downplaying the insight stages and instead put them front-and-center on the site. I did this because my teacher was clear about them with me, so I followed suit and was candid about them in my teaching. I made sure to include a rich description of the dukkha nanas and cautions to those who may be about to plunge into them. Unbeknownst to me this one gesture of understanding came to define my experience of teaching for the next two years, as the great majority of people who contacted me, and continue to contact me, are in the dark night. Most got into it through formal practice (amazingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much which technique or tradition). But I was alarmed when it seemed that a significant number, perhaps a third, learned to meditate from their therapist or from a group in a clinical setting. Sometimes they were actively suicidal at the time they learned to meditate. Interestingly, the majority never discussed their negative experiences while they were in therapy. Like the therapists themselves, they wanted to believe that meditation was helping, and so they dismissed what was occurring or blamed it on the thing that brought them to therapy in the first place.
As a psychologist this is more than a bit embarrassing, it is troubling. It is one of the ethical principles of psychology that no intervention is done without fully explaining the risks and benefits of the treatment. If an intervention could possibly cause distress, even mild distress, psychologists are ethically obligated to inform the person of this possibility and gain their informed consent before proceeding. Psychologists are not doing this when it comes to mindfulness meditation, chiefly because they do not know there are risks. But more and more people who have participated in it know that there are. This is not a situation created by malice, but by ignorance. Psychologists simply were not told this could ever happen, and were given the impression that the results of meditation were exclusively happiness, calm, and increased wellbeing. They are not to be blamed for this situation, as they have merely borrowed a problem that already existed in the way meditation was being taught to students in the west. It is a problem that continues and in some ways defines what “mainstream” meditation teaching is in the west.
While this is not psychology’s fault, it is only a matter of time before the consequences lay squarely on the shoulders of psychologists who teach mindfulness meditation. Sooner or later, those who teach it will learn about the progress of insight and the dark night. Either from writings like this or from patients themselves. When they do they will face an ethical dilemma about whether to continue teaching meditation in clinical settings. While meditation teachers can essentially “get away” with not telling people about the dark night, psychologists do not have this luxury. Ethically, we are obligated to acknowledge the risks and be cautious. This is not happening yet, but it is my sincere hope that those enamored of third wave CBT will examine not only the manuals and the studies, but look deeply into the descriptions of insight in the pali cannon. Even better, talk with meditators who have experienced a dark night, researchers who study it, or best of all dive into it and see what it is like. Psychologists might benefit most from going beyond mindfulness meditation, breaking loose of the manual, and seeing how far this practice can go. Then there might be more respect for the powerful, and sometimes life-shaking, changes that vipassana can create in the heart and mind. It is my hope that psychology will soon lose its infatuation with meditation, and begin to evaluate it as a tool for change in a more mature light, seeing both the promise and the dilemmas. Until this happens I expect the community of mindfulness meditation refugees to grow.
The recent new-year celebrations were followed by lots of resolutions, and then in the weeks following, considerable resignation. Resolutions are used in meditation too, but they are very different from the kinds of resolutions people make at the start of a new year.
New year’s resolutions have a few characteristics that we all know. They can be vague and unrealistic (I’m going to get in “peak condition!”). But most important they are usually about gaining something, such as a slimmer figure, better health or a new skill (“I’m going to learn the piano and speak French”). And this is very different than the kinds of resolutions used in meditation.
A meditation resolution is fundamentally about losing something, not gaining. You lose the restlessness, stop indulging the list-making mind, let go of the expectations, or unclench anger. Later, more technical resolutions are about letting go of blissful states and eventually even the sense of self that is doing the resolving.
To make a resolution, do so at the beginning of each sit for a few days (less or more as needed). It is good to say it aloud, but if you have people in the next room and don’t want to sound crazy, just say it quietly to yourself. Say the resolution with as much earnestness as you can muster, imagine that this is a promise you are making to someone very important that is counting on you (it is). But here is where things are very different from new-year’s style resolutions: once you’ve made the resolution – forget about it.
This might sound counterintuitive. But it solves an important issue – the sense of self may appropriate the resolution for itself, glomming onto it and turning it into a hero’s journey. The self will fiercely strive to fulfill the resolution it now owns. This just makes more of a problem for the meditator. It may help to imagine that the resolution is like a line of code that you are putting into a computer program. You hit the enter key and then just walk away, forget it, and get on with life.
If the resolution “takes” what will happen is that in the moment when it most counts it will pop up all by itself, with no effort on your part. When sleepiness comes on you’ll automatically remember to investigate how it feels in the body or when that self-judging talk starts to pop up you’ll automatically remember to give it a funny name (“here comes Mr. Boss-Man”) and let go. The resolution is working, but it is waiting at the edges of the mind for its time to come to work. It orients you to do the appropriate action at the moment it is needed, and at other times gets out of the way.
If the resolution doesn’t take then it may be that you need to make it again. You may need to use different words to make it more memorable. However, it could be that the resolution was too big of a leap from your present situation. If you can barely sit for 10 minutes and your resolution is to enter jhana, that’s too big of a leap. Think instead about what is just one step ahead. What is holding you back right now? Focus on making a resolution that works for your situation as it is, not as you aspire it to be in the future. Another issue could be that the resolution is not clear. For example, if you want to increase your concentration, making a resolution to “be more concentrated” isn’t likely to do anything. Instead state what it is that you will do to be more concentrated and make it as concrete as possible: “I resolve to place my attention on the breath every time a thought about work comes up.”
To sum up, here are three recommendations for making resolutions:
1. Make it concrete and clear
Resolutions work best when they are crystal clear. This is easier if you know the path and hindrances. If you don’t, then you won’t know what to resolve to attain or drop. You can learn about the path and hindrances on this site.
2. Make it and drop it
After you have “entered” the resolution you are no longer running the show, so just let go and watch what happens. State what you wish to do and move on without any effort to carry out anything special.
3. Give yourself permission
In order to download the resolution and move on, you really need to give yourself a unique kind of permission– the permission to remember when needed and forget when needed. In other words, the permission to give it all away – the action is out of your hands. You are giving the action, and all of its fruits, away from the start. When resolutions work, they arise spontaneously. In other words, while you are in deep meditation the intention for something to occur will arise on its own. “You” in the conventional sense, have nothing to do with it.
The most important thing about resolutions overall is to make sure that they are used appropriately and not in the same manner as a new-year’s resolution. Most resolutions that people make are for the enhancement and profit of the sense of self, but for the meditator, resolutions are very different. Like stones of intention thrown into the lake of the mind, you simply throw them out and let them go, watching the ripples spread outward. No further action is needed and any further action would become a hindrance. Out of compassion for yourself and others, you follow through on your intention in the moment when it is needed.
Metta meditation is a core practice for many people, and if you meditate or participate in a contemplative tradition, the concept of “self-compassion” is probably very familiar to you. Most versions of metta begin with one’s self as the object of compassion. As the well-known meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explained, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” The logic of self-compassion is very sound. If you want to be compassionate to others, you must be compassionate to yourself first. You simply cannot give what you do not already have. As Pema Chodron has explained “in order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.” Strong metta always includes the meditator in some sense.
While self-compassion has ancient roots in Buddhism, modern psychologists are only now discovering its importance for one’s psychological health. Researchers like Dr. Kristin Neff are finding that self-compassion can have a dramatic effect on one’s well-being, and the findings of her research are entering into mainstream publications. What psychologists like Neff are discovering is that the concept of self-compassion may not be just a warm-and-fuzzy idea, but a critical ingredient for living a whole and healthy life. Additionally, while psychology has traditionally viewed compassion or empathy as something akin to a stable trait, research is showing that it can be taught and learned (no big surprise to meditators). Dr. Neff proposes that self-compassion is actually a compound of three key processes: self-kindness rather than self-judgement, feelings of common humanity rather than isolation and mindfulness rather than over-identification with one’s feelings and experiences. Any meditator will recognize these immediately as core competencies in Buddhism. Whether they are parts of self-compassion can be debated, but a factor analysis of her scale shows that she may be on to something.
The single biggest objection to learning self-compassion is that it seems self-indulgent. Stopping to give yourself a break when you are tired, telling yourself that you’re only human when you make a mistake, or liking yourself despite your flaws may seem self indulgent at first glance – especially to someone that is unfamiliar with self-compassion. However, the research on self-compassion shows that it is associated with more personal initiative, not less. What might look like mild indulgence is actually a set of effective coping skills that lead people to be calmer, happier and more productive. People who practice self-compassion deal with failure with less anxiety, are more understanding, and have greater energy to work on the problems they face. Self-compassion means acknowledging failure and facing challenges honestly, while caring for oneself throughout. It is only indulgent when viewed from the perspective that what motivates us to succeed is fear of failure or punishment.
Meditation teachers who are also psychologists, like myself, are also taking notice of the emerging research and are beginning to recommend self-compassion as a valuable practice for virtually everyone. And in my psychology practice, once they have experienced the results of self-compassion for themselves, many parents are interested in fostering it in their children. In particular, parents and those who work with children are beginning to see self-compassion as a more skillful alternative to the intense focus on self-esteem that has dominated parenting guides in recent years.
While many parents want to teach self-compassion to their children the most traditional forms of generating self-compassion, like metta meditation, recitations and visualizations don’t fit well into most children’s lives. Can you imagine your child sitting still for 20 minutes and reciting a compassionate wish over and over? I didn’t think so. So the question becomes how do we teach what appears to be such an abstract concept to children? What follows are some concrete tips based on what I have learned from working with parents and children:
1. Label emotions, good and bad
Before children can skillfully work with difficult emotions and be kind to themselves they need to recognize what they are experiencing clearly, and having a word for the emotion goes a long way toward healthy coping. This is the childhood version of the skill adults call “mindfulness,” or clearly seeing one’s own experience in the moment. When a child is angry, sad, irritable, happy, surprised, jealous, etc. simply say “You’re feeling…” and label the emotion without judgment. Children will learn to do this for themselves and that is the first step toward doing something positive about feeling bad. Self-compassion is a natural outcome of self-understanding, so encourage your child to know him or her self well.
2. Show, don’t tell.
As Jim Henson once said, children “…don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Children learn to be a good friend to themselves when they see adults do it right in front of their eyes, so don’t hold back. When you’ve had a bad day, explain that you are going to do something nice for yourself to feel better. When you make a mistake tell yourself out loud that it is OK to make mistakes and that is how we learn. Most of all, don’t hide your frustrations and difficulties from your child, share them, but always share them with a strong dose of being good to yourself.
3. Acknowledge failure and difficulty
An important part of self-compassion is an honest acknowledgement of failure and difficulty. Simply noting aloud that the science project did not work out or that it was difficult to get through that dentist visit is the first step toward recognizing that problems and failure are a part of our common humanity. When a child is comfortable owning failure as well as success, and continues to like herself despite the failure, then compassion is encouraged. As with the argument of self-indulgence, some may see accepting failure as a way to encourage more failure, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing failure or difficulty as an anomaly in what should be an endless chain of perfection is the source of much frustration and needless suffering.
4. Point out and praise
When you catch your child being kind to himself, let him know that you like it. Praising your child increases the likelihood that he will repeat what he was doing when you praised him, and specifically tying the praise to self-compassion is even more effective. Simply saying “I like it when you are nice to yourself” when you notice self-compassionate behavior will go long way toward making your child more kind to himself in the future.
5. Make a meme of self-compassion
While children never remember lectures, they do remember sayings and aphorisms. A simple turn of phrase, capturing the meaning in a memorable way, will stay with a child for years. When it comes to self-compassion, here are a few: “kindness begins with yourself”, “be nice to everybody, and don’t forget you’re part of everybody” and “we take care of each other and ourselves too.”
Teaching children skills like these can be hard work and don’t forget that parenting is sometimes the perfect place for you as a parent to practice self-compassion. Society teaches us to judge ourselves harshly for the mistakes we inevitably make as parents, and to focus on our failings and worry about our shortcomings. Ironically, parents do a much better job when they are not preoccupied with how well they are doing and instead focused on enjoying their time with their child. When the judging thoughts come, practice some self-compassion for yourself. This will be a great model for your child and a great way of looking after the both of you.