Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.
First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.
This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.
After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.
In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!
Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.
This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality. He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?
Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?
There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.
I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?
Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.
Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.
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.
Metta meditation, also known as “loving-kindness” meditation, is a concentration meditation in which the meditator cultivates of a loving state of mind. Rather than taking the breath or a kasina as an object the meditator takes the feeling of love, warmth and caring as the object. This kind of meditation is very useful in the development of all three parts of the path: morality, concentration and wisdom.
Metta vs “Love”
In English “love” is an emotion that comes with attachment built-in. We love another person and we want to be with them. We view our lives, and in some cases even ourselves, as incomplete without the other person. This kind of love is not bad or unwholesome, far from it. Falling in love and being in love is great (if a little crazy). But it is not the same kind of love that is referred to by “metta,” which is love without clinging or attachment. In this sense it is very pure.
The Buddha evoked the image of a mother’s love for her newborn as an analogy for metta. A mother’s love for a baby is completely unconditional – there are truly no strings attached. The baby can be totally cranky and ridiculously self-centered (as babies tend to be), but the mother will still love the baby and expect nothing in return. If the baby does show love in return, well, that’s just a nice bonus but not expected (most people with a kid will know intuitively what metta feels like). With metta there is no sense that the other person needs to do something to fulfill one’s needs or complete the love – this kind of love is complete all by itself.
Metta is Learned
Metta and similar mind states are often mistaken as innate aspects of one’s personality. People can get stuck in the belief that this kind of unconditional love is inborn and you either have it or you don’t. While there is a grain of truth that loving-kindness can be easier for some people than others, the reality is that these qualities are learned skills. The more you practice feeling unconditional love the easier it gets.
If this is the first time you have come across this information, or if you’ve never considered it deeply, take a moment to do so now. This has some pretty big implications for your life. It turns out that with some work, you can become more loving toward yourself and others. So the question is, how do you want to live? What would life be like if more of your life was spent feeling loving-kindness?
Metta Creates a Well-Trained Mind
Oddly, if we do nothing and allow the mind states to come and go with no deliberate cultivation, a surprising thing happens: we feel pretty lousy. In a mind with no training or cultivation we tend to get a spectrum of negative to neutral mind-states. I am sure most people have experienced this for themselves. If you leave the mind to its own devices it soon drifts into worries, planning, rumination or boredom. It is as if the negative mind-states are weeds that will sprout all on their own if you do nothing to stop them.
Metta meditation is like weeding the garden. When you take the time to make the mind loving, calm and kind, then for that period of time no negative states can take root. Negative states that are already present, and even those that are deeply habitual, what we might mistake for character traits, begin to wither away with consistent metta practice. It is as if you have removed the sunlight of your attention from them. The way to understand this process is that each mind state conditions the next one over time. By deliberately cultivating metta you create the conditions for future mind-states to be more loving.
How to do Metta
For a beginner, metta can be a little tricky. After all, you are taking a feeling as the object of concentration. This can be pretty different from the breath, which takes up a position in space and can be felt directly through the sensation of touch. In this case you are taking an emotion as the object, which is a whole different animal. It is tempting to sit and simply try to feel loving, but that just doesn’t work until you have done metta successfully for quite a while. You will know you are proficient with metta when you sit and simply incline the mind to feel metta and it immediately does so. But before you can get there you need a way to get from a normal state of mind to a mind filled with metta. What is needed is a bridge to metta, something easy you can focus attention on that will lead to the feeling of metta. Once you get the feeling, then you can let go of the bridge and the feeling will become the object.
I have found two very good bridges to metta that I will share here. The first is what I call “classic metta” and it combines imagery with subvocal (or aloud) intentions for the well being of others. The second type is what I call “Mahamudra metta” and it involves generating positive mind-states that are conducive for metta.
This approach begins with the meditator feeling either neutral or even being in a negative mind state. This approach is sometimes jokingly referred to as a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” path to Metta, but even if it feels fake at the beginning it actually works, so don’t dismiss it without first giving it a sincere try.
One way to imagine this approach is to visualize a set of concentric circles with yourself in the center. Each circle, going outward from the center, represents people who are progressively more distant from you (emotionally). Your job in this meditation is to start at the center, generate a feeling of love and sincere wish for happiness, and move it progressively farther outward while keeping the center filled with love and happiness.
Step 1: To begin, start by wishing yourself love and happiness (after all, if you don’t feel love for yourself how can you really feel it for anyone else?). Begin with a verbal intention that you can memorize and repeat to yourself. The one that I use is this:
May I be happy and loved.
May I be peaceful.
May I be safe and healthy.
May I have the patience, courage, wisdom and understanding
to meet and overcome the problems of life.
In the beginning I recommend that you go slow, going over each line over the course of a slow relaxing breath. Say it to yourself with the intention to be real and sincere, even if you don’t feel loving yet, start out with the intention to feel it. Do not be hard on yourself if you do not feel it.
Some people find that feeling love toward themselves is very hard to do. If you have difficulty feeling love for yourself, start by imagining yourself as a small child or a baby. We all have at least one picture of ourselves as a kid, take a look at it. Wouldn’t you want the best for that kid? Imagine giving that child a hug, being comforting and helping the kid to feel loved and safe. Every child wants to be loved unconditionally. Use that image as a way to start the meditation and cultivate a sincere wish for happiness for yourself. Another technique is to imagine yourself as very old, close to death. Visualize yourself sitting next to the bed of this elderly you, reaching out and holding onto your own frail hand. Wouldn’t you want this person to be comfortable? To feel cared for? To feel like they have meaning in these final moments of life? Use that sincere wish to generate those loving feelings for yourself. If neither of these approaches work for you, then switch the order and put yourself at the end of the meditation rather than at the beginning.
Be patient. This approach takes some time to develop, and what will likely happen in the beginning is, well, not much. But it builds up gradually, like rain filling up a bucket. With each sincere wish for happiness and peace, for yourself and others, you add a drop to the bucket. With enough time and effort, it will fill.
Step 2: Next, use the same phrase to wish happiness and well-being to someone else. Pick someone close to you who you love already, who is easy to love. A spouse, a child, a parent or grandparent, a particularly close friend or a sibling; picture them in your mind. Picture them with as much detail as you can, and imagine that they are right in front of you. Repeat the phrase again but change it to be about them:
May you be happy and loved.
May you be peaceful.
May you be safe and healthy.
May you have the patience, courage, wisdom and understanding
to meet and overcome the problems of life.
Imagine looking directly at them and seeing the stress, unhappiness and suffering melt away from them. Soak this feeling in while sharing it with them, remembering that all of the comfort and love you are giving to them is felt by you as well.
At this point, you might feel a tingling, wiggling, or warmth in the chest where we would point to the heart. If you don’t feel it, don’t worry. Just keep going and keep nudging the mind in the direction you want it to go with the images and verbalizations. It may take many meditations before the feeling arises fully. No problem.
If you do feel it, focus your attention on that physical sensation and see if you can expand it or intensify it. Having that physical sensation is a strong sign that metta is beginning to develop, and by bringing attention to the sensation you further cultivate metta. Experience the sensation expanding and intensifying in the chest as you move to the next step. It is helpful to imagine the breath coming in and out from the spot on the chest where the sensation is strongest
Step 3: Take a neutral person as the object of metta. This is a person who is not easy to love, but who is also not a pest or a problem. It could be a coworker a few cubicles away, a neighbor a few doors down, a friend of a friend. Again, say the phrase to yourself, wishing them happiness and love. If you feel the physical sensation of metta, imagine that it is extending out from your chest is reaching them, encompassing them, filling them with comfort and relief. Imagine the stress leaving their body and all worries just falling away.
Step 4: Now for the hardest part. Imagine a person that you dislike. They could be someone you know personally, or they could be a famous person who represents something that you have a fundamental disagreement with (I have a few politicians and talk-show hosts who work for me). Now, extend this feeling of metta to them. Repeat the phrase with this difficult person in your mind’s eye. Be as sincere as possible, wishing them happiness and love. If any feelings of anger or irritation come up, turn the loving feeling toward yourself and make sure that you wish yourself peace and comfort. Allow the feelings to vie for dominance and always make a conscious choice to go with love, forgiveness, compassion and peace. This is where the work of metta can be deepest and most healing.
Step 5: Finally, imagine the feeling pouring out of you in waves. It can come from the chest with every breath or from your entire body. Sense the emotion as a physical sensation as best as you can, feel the warmth of it, the mix of joy, compassion and aching that is part of it, and expand it outward as far as your imagination will allow. It may help to visualize it as a golden light pouring outward.
Imagine all the people in your town or neighborhood and wish them well, all the creatures that live alongside you and share your environment with you, and wish them well. Then continue outward, imagining that metta is filling the world and touching every being. Take every living thing as the object of your meditation and spread loving feelings to all of creation. No one is left out. Every cell of every creature is held in this wish to be happy and loved.
If this last step is possible for you, then stay immersed in it for the majority of the meditation. This is metta meditation.
I jokingly refer to Mahamudra metta as a top-down approach to loving-kindness, because you begin with such high emotion and work toward loving kindness from there. It involves starting the meditation with such a wealth of positive feeling that you automatically feel compassion and love for yourself and others. My teacher has called this “the generosity of the rich.” When you are feeling peace, bliss and joy, loving-kindness becomes easy. If you simply incline the mind toward metta, it jumps at the chance.
To begin Mahamudra metta meditation you engage in Kenneth Folk’s Mahamudra Noting practice. I have found that this is a very effective way of cultivating a wonderfully open, peaceful and joyous state of mind.
With this approach you first cultivate Mahamudra by directing the mind toward emptiness in such a way that peace instantly settles in. Folk teaches that a simple way of doing this is to “listen for the ships in the harbor.” In this teaching, he directs students to listen for ships that are in a harbor which is many miles away, so far in fact, that it is literally impossible to hear the ships. In the moment when a student directs their attention toward listening for something they know cannot be heard, the mind is turned toward emptiness.
If you haven’t tried this before, try it now, it only takes a few seconds… There is a perfection to that emptiness, a sense that it is pregnant with potential. Rest your attention there long enough, and peace becomes a default state. For Mahamudra Noting, the next step is to begin to note the positive mind-states or enjoyable physical sensations that come up. The idea is to cherry-pick the positive states and not give attention to the negative states. What happens is that the positive states begin to grow in intensity while the negative states diminish and fall away altogether. With a little practice, I have found that this can happen quite quickly.
Now, with the mind suffused with happiness, gently switch from Mahamudra noting to metta. To make the switch, start by looking for anything about yourself in this moment that is suffering. A physical suffering is usually easiest to start with. Are there any tensions, aches, or any discomfort? If not, look for psychological suffering. Is there any part of yourself that you typically dislike or wish was different? Are you hard on yourself for not having the body you would like, or the personality or smarts you would like? Take that suffering or self-criticism as the object and shower it with the love, comfort and the wish for happiness.
The mind that is filled with joy and peace will do this automatically, and you’ll find that you need very little effort to get the metta meditation going. As you hold the suffering in awareness, the mind turns toward it in the same way that it would turn toward a whimpering puppy or a baby – with a sincere wish for it to be happy. You simply want to hold it and comfort it, and this is exactly the feeling you want to cultivate. Now, shift attention from yourself outward.
Go directly to Step 5 in the classic metta approach, and visualize the metta pouring out from you and reaching everyone nearby. Enjoy this feeling, and imagine it suffusing the people it touches, giving them comfort and happiness. Expand it even further, until your whole town or city is swimming in metta, and even further, outward until you feel it is limitless.
In this video Willoughby Britton PhD from Brown University gives a presentation on a very important topic: The negative effects of meditation.
I am currently collaborating with Willoughby to collect data on this phenomenon, which is often called the “Dark Night” in meditation communities. If you have experienced a Dark Night and would like to discuss it, please contact me at email@example.com.
The Dharma of getting your act together (sila) is all about behaving better. Some prefer to call sila “restraint” or “discipline” rather than “morality”, because morality is enmeshed with philosophical issues. However, all of the these words are fraught with shadows of western thought, and their meanings do not really capture the full concept of sila. They are too steeped in concepts of good and evil, and can trigger a frame of mind that is punitive and judgmental, which is not at all what sila is about. So in an effort to clear this up sila will be explored in some depth here.
While the other two parts of the Dharma, concentration and wisdom, refer mostly to practices and insights that take place in meditation, sila is the part of the Dharma that deals with “normal” day-to-day life. Getting an education? That’s part of sila. Being a loving member of family? That’s part of sila. Volunteering at the food bank? Sila. Doing an honest job at work, canvasing for a political cause that you think will help your neighbors, teaching the Dharma to people who want to become enlightened? All sila. Almost everything that we do that is not meditation or the insights related to it fall into the category of sila (though these distinctions get blurred during advanced practice). When you stop and think about it, most books on Buddhism are actually books on sila. Compassion, interconnectedness, gratitude, forgiveness, – focusing on these are all part of the practice of sila. Needless to say, there is a good reason so much of what is described as Dharma is in the basket of sila. It is where everybody starts, and nobody can skip this critical practice. When we begin on the path, we realize that where we start our practice is with the whole of our lives. Everything that we do off the cushion is sila.
So why care? There are many reasons why people behave well: a sense of gratitude toward God, sense of community, personal identity as a moral person, compassion for those who are effected by your actions, avoidance of punishment, a desire for the positive regard of others… The list of reasons could go on and on. All of the above reasons for moral behavior are fine. But the primary reason for moral behavior on the path to enlightenment is to prevent immoral behavior from getting in the way of liberation. These teachings are all about one thing – getting you enlightened (that isn’t quite right but I’m going to keep it simple). So everything in the Dharma, from start to finish, aligns on this one end.
How does immoral behavior interfere with enlightenment? There are two levels (roughly speaking) on which behavior affects one’s ability to wake up. The first is what happens when you sit to meditate. If you’ve been up to no good in your daily life, and you are a normal healthy person with no personality disorders, then your mind will immediately begin to ruminate on your actions. You will not have a choice about this, and it will be a real shock if you’ve never really looked deeply at your own mind before. You will see that it is constantly thinking about whether you got away with it, who might find out, what the effects might be to others, or to yourself if you were caught, and so on. It is not an exaggeration to say that for somebody with immoral behavior the mind is a prison. Even if that person is walking free, he or she cannot escape his or her own mind, and the nature of the mind is to get “stuck” on questionable behavior. Ever notice that people who act badly are also the most cranky and difficult? That is because a person with poor behavior will always have at least a low level of frustration and irritability, as if an annoying song was stuck in the mind. This effect is a form of Karma, or to put it simply, it is an example of the law of cause and effect (more on Karma in a future post). Meditation is very difficult for a person suffering the psychological effects of negative behavior.
The second effect that bad behavior has on liberation is in the form of Karma that most people are familiar with, the kind that effects our daily lives. When we engage in behaviors that harm ourselves or others, we create the conditions for further harm to happen to us. It really is that simple. What that eventual harm might be is nearly impossible to tell (and totally a waste of time to speculate about), but suffice it to say that if you do something that you know has caused harm to another person you have just set the stage for something negative to happen to you. This is not meant in a mystical sense at all. It is very direct and simple. If you exercise you set the conditions for good health to happen to you, if you text while driving you set the conditions for a car accident to happen to you, if you praise your child when they do their homework you create the conditions for them to do their homework again, and if you intentionally create harm you set the conditions for harm to happen to you in some form. It is not worthwhile to get caught up in the metaphysics of karma (that does not lead to enlightenment). The important thing to remember about karma is that, as one teacher told me, “you don’t get away with nothing.” So even if it seems in the short run that the rascal in you got away with something, rest assured that you didn’t. So, how does all this interfere with awakening? In a pretty no-nonsense type of way: if you are constantly dealing with the fallout from negative actions, how are you going to meditate?
Everything, literally everything, has a consequence. These consequences can be psychological, like the mind ruminating on something, or situational, like negative reactions from friends. The problem for most of us is that we are not clear-minded enough to connect the dots and see the pattern of cause and effect. It actually takes a tremendous amount of cognitive horsepower and mindfulness to do that. Unlike putting our hands on a hot stove and immediately feeling the consequence, the effects of many of our actions do not show up in such a neat linear fashion. Rather, our intentions set the conditions for the consequence to occur at some point down the road and over time it becomes nearly impossible to trace the effect back to the cause.
Because the purpose of morality in the dharma is to keep the path to enlightenment from becoming obstructed, there really are no concepts of “sin” or “judgement” in this way of thinking. Rather, there are guidelines, or “practice precepts” that are intended to keep the practicioner from doing things that would wreck meditation and interfere with awakening. This only makes sense. In any good set of instructions there are not only clear directions about what to do, but also what to avoid doing. For example, if you are baking bread you want to avoid putting the yeast into water that is too hot, otherwise the bread will not rise. As I mentioned before, learning to become enlightened is a skill like any other. So, you must not only learn what to do and what to practice, you need to know what not to do.
The most famous of the instructions on what not to do are the “five practice precepts” taught by the Buddha. These five are:
1. abstain from killing
2. abstain from stealing
3. abstain from lying
4. abstain from intoxicants
5. abstain from sexual misconduct
These precepts are very basic and are intended to keep the practitioner from causing serious havoc with their meditation. If you are robbing or killing people you will have a very tough time meditating. However, it should be pretty clear from the outset that these precepts are not airtight rules that are black and white. Does the precept to abstain from killing mean that I need to be vegetarian? Is it stealing if I buy a foreclosed home that belonged to a family with a subprime mortgage? Am I breaking a precept if I have a beer with dinner? What the heck is sexual misconduct? There are lots of grey areas here, and that is the primary reason that I mention them at all. To point out what I hope will become obvious to every practitioner, that there really are no absolute rules that can take the place of your own conscience and critical judgment. While a good teacher can give you guidelines, it is up to the individual meditator to decide whether a behavior is interfering with their progress. What can be said with any real certainty is that the precepts, and all of sila, is about preventing the practitioner from intentionally causing harm to others or to themselves. If anything can be a sila litmus test it is that: intention to harm.
Daniel Ingram once referred to the teachings on morality as “the first and last practice”. I like this way of describing it, because it emphasizes the open-ended nature of our attempts to perfect our morality. Becoming moral is not a practice that is finished on the way to enlightenment, rather it is a practice that deepens with each insight.
As your behavior becomes less harmful to yourself and others, more peaceful and compassionate, you will see a corresponding improvement in your meditation (and very likely a big improvement in your overall life). Once you have your act together and your meditation begins to deepen, it is worth your time to try and get a better understanding of meditation and its role in the path. The next part of Dharma covered here is on meditation and is what I call “Getting your head together.”
The second great part of the path is what I call “getting your head together” and it is all about meditation. Most of what is discussed in this site regards this part of the Dharma. Just like “Buddhism”, the word “meditation” is often used as if it were one thing, but actually there are many different kinds of meditation. It is way beyond the scope of this site to get into the many varieties of meditation, so I will limit this to the two big categories of meditation: concentration (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana).
In English the word “concentrate” has a different meaning than it does in Pali (the Buddha’s original language). I grew up thinking that to concentrate meant to think really hard. But in meditation concentration more closely resembles the concept of concentration in chemistry. To concentrate a chemical in a solution you filter out the impurities and then gradually reduce a large amount of solution down into a tiny distilled essence. This essence is the chemical concentration. The same process takes place in concentration meditation, only what is being concentrated is the mind itself.
The meditation instructions for concentration meditation are wonderfully simple: pick an object, like the breath, and place your attention on it – to the exclusion of all else. You pick a spot to watch the breath, say the upper lip or the tip of the nose, and just watch it come and go right there. Like a carpenter watching a band saw blade cut through wood who only focuses on the spot where the blade and the wood meet, the meditator focuses all attention on that spot where the breath enters and leaves the body. Every other function of the mind, listening to noises in the environment, planning what to do later, noticing an ache in the knee – all other processes get “turned down” so to speak, as if they were on an internal dimmer switch. This process of narrowing attention down on a single small object and dimming all other functions “distills” the mind into a very concentrated form. But it won’t be long before you find yourself drifting off and thinking about something other than the object, as if one of the dimmer switches suddenly went all the way up. No worries. This is what this meditation is for. It identifies the things that drag the mind away and helps you overcome them, or filter them out.
To concentrate the mind you first filter out the “impurities” in it (hence the title of the ancient meditation manual “The Path of Purification“). The impurities in this case are those things which get in the way of concentration, and they are known as the five hindrances:
1. sensual desire
2. restlessness and worry
3. ill will
5. sloth and torpor
Many meditators will recognize at least one of these as their own personal super-villan. It is near impossible for a beginner to try an meditate without at least one of them getting in the way. And often that one will come back again and again. There are many practices for filtering out these impurities (sometimes called antidotes), but the most powerful practice for filtering them out of the mind is investigation. When a hindrance comes up in the mind, become a private eye of your own mind, and notice it and watch to see if it diminishes on its own. If it doesn’t, start picking it apart. Ask yourself what are the individual sensations that make up the hindrance, what other experiences, thoughts and feelings are bundled up with it, is there some part of me that wants to hang on to this hindrance, am I wrapping my sense of self into it? Keep asking questions and working on it until it falls apart under the purifying light of your mindfulness.
At some point the impurities will be reduced to a point that is sufficient for concentration to proceed. You will know when this has happened because some fascinating, mystical-type, experiences will begin. The most common experience is to see light with the eyes shut. This is meant literally. It actually seems as if there is a light that is brightening. At this point the meditation is getting really good and the meditator is cooking along and suddenly it will be as if someone is gradually turning the lights up in the room. You may even find yourself peeking to see if the lights are actually going up in the room. What is happening is the mind is becoming concentrated and strong, and you’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. The mind does not know how to interpret that experience, and it grabs onto something it knows that represents what is occurring: in this case it chose “light,”but it could choose something else depending on the person.
From this point the meditator has a couple of choices about what to do, but to proceed with pure concentration meditation you would deepen attention on the object while simultaneously letting go of the effort involved in doing so. Needless to say, this takes some savvy skills, but it can be done. When attention is strong enough and the effort is of the right kind (with little ego control involved), the meditator begins to enter altered states called “Jhanas” (more about Jhanas in a future post).
How does concentration lead to enlightenment? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is purify the mind and make it so strong that when the mind is turned toward the work of insight, then the insights are powerful and easy to get. The difference between a normal mind that is diffuse and scattered among all the different senses and thoughts, and a concentrated mind that is deeply focused, is like the difference between a flashlight and a laser. With a flashlight you can look at what is around you, but with a laser you can actually do work and cut through things. In this case, the laser of the concentrated mind is used to cut through the illusions that keep us from waking up.
The next type of meditation is Vipassana or “insight” meditation. Vipassana begins just like concentration meditation, but the goal of Vipassana is not to distill the mind down but rather to get it just strong enough to begin investigating experience in the moment. To go back to the analogy of the light and the laser, in vipassana the meditator does not concentrate the energy of the light to the point of a laser, nor does the meditator leave it diffuse. Rather, you focus the light in such a way that whatever it shines on becomes easy to see clearly.
The technique of vipassana is somewhat more complicated than that of concentration. With concentration meditation one gets the mind to stay on an object to the point where it becomes very strong, but with Vipassana it is not necessary to keep the mind on one thing and distill it, instead, the meditator puts effort and energy into focusing the beam of the flashlight just enough to get a clear look at things. In this case, the “light” of the flashlight beam is the mindfulness, or deepening momentary awareness, used to know each object as it changes from one thing to the next. This is a very different experience than concentration meditation, because there is no need to stick with a single object. Rather, the effort is in the quality of knowing the objects that come up. So, when the mind starts off on the breath and then shifts to a new object – there is no problem at all! Let the mind wander, but stay with it in the moment. The intention is to follow the mind as it does what it does.
For example let’s say you sit down and place your attention on the breath (just like in concentration meditation), but then a motorcycle goes by outside your window, and your mind begins to focus on the sound. No problem. Now you just notice the sound and watch what happens to it the same way you would with the breath. But then the mind creates a mental image of a motorcycle and begins to focus on that. No problem. You notice the image and be as attentive as you can to that image and the process of the mind creating that image. But then the mind begins judging the person riding the motorcycle for being so loud. No problem. Just notice everything you can about the judging, and so on… The mind loves to wander, it is in its nature really. The beauty of Vipassana is that you truly go with the flow of the mind, letting it lead you to the next object rather than bringing it back to your chosen object.
What is most important to know about Vipassana (and is the very thing that most beginning meditators keep forgetting!) is that you don’t want to get caught up in the content that the mind generates, instead you just want to watch it. This is like the difference between a sports broadcaster describing a game on the air and a player in the game. When you are doing Vipassana you are the sports broadcaster, who is outside of the game but is still watching every little nuance of it as it unfolds. The player that remains in the game is the mind itself, which keeps on generating content and going about its business. The mind is in the midst of all the things that it typically does, building up scenarios, having opinions, taking positions, remembering things, etc., but the mind’s interpretations and ideas about all these things is not at all important. Rather, it is the process of what the mind is doing from moment to moment that really matters. And your job as the meditator is to be aware of it all without getting caught up in it.
Sound tricky? It can be! With this kind of meditation there is a real danger of discovering that you just spent 20 minutes wrapped up in a fantasy or reminiscing about the past. Such experiences are totally normal for new meditators (and even old ones). Just recognize when it happens and put effort into getting back on track. Just like with concentration meditation, in Vipassana you run right into the five hindrances. However, rather than turning your attention back to your chosen object, you simply take the hindrance as the new object and get to know it as best as you can. This will often take the wind out of the sails of the hindrance and the mind will simply jump to another object.
Having a teacher to check in with about this is helpful, because teachers have almost always run into the same problems and know the ways to work through whatever content is most “sticky” for the meditator. This skill of watching the mind do what it does without being caught up in what it does is a skill that can take some time to learn. So don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself daydreaming. It still happens to me all the time. Just get back to the task at hand and watch what the mind is doing. There are many ways of doing vipassana meditation, and you may find that some approaches are more productive for you than others. The approach that worked for me was the noting approach used in the Burmese tradition (look for a meditation instruction page in the future), and that is where I begin when I teach. However, it may be worthwhile to experiment with a few different techniques and see which one best fits you.
A note about vipassana: it can often be a problem for a meditator who is having a big problem in their life not to get caught up in the content related to the problem. If you are going through a really rough time, or you are in therapy, please know that Vipassana is NOT the same as therapy. It is not even close and it was never intended to be. It is a modern myth that insight meditation is somehow similar to “insight” in therapy. Insights in therapy are similar to a sudden pattern recognition, an “aha!” moment where you suddenly see that your insecurities are all about a specific trauma or difficult relationship. These kinds of insights are extremely valuable and are an important part of life – I urge everyone to work to gain these kinds of insights on their own or with a therapist. Sometimes they do arise spontaneously when the mind becomes calm. However, in meditation the word “insight” has a very different meaning, because it does not refer to the content of the mind or to the issues of the individual who is getting the insight. Rather, meditative insights are about understanding how reality is presenting itself at this very moment. With a very clear awareness of how the myriad objects are presenting themselves moment-by-moment, the mind steadily becomes conditioned to see what are the common threads through all of those clear, wakeful moments. It are these common threads that make up the next section on “getting it done.” Suffice it to say, the wisdom gained through meditative insight is highly impersonal. It does not relate to the dramas of the individual doing the meditation, but rather, relates to the way the universe operates. These are insights of an entirely different order than the personal ones that come to us in therapy.
Let me give an example of this situation. A meditator is currently in a relationship that is not going well, and while meditating the image of the his significant other comes into his mind, followed by feelings of anger, then by memories of something cruel he said, then by feelings of guilt, followed by tension in the chest, and then a desire to cry. In this scenario a novice meditator would get caught up in the story of what has happened: “… I remembered my girlfriend and the hurt she has caused, but then remembered how I have hurt her too, and in a fit of regret I understood my own contribution to the pain in our relationship.” This is good therapy, but it totally misses the mark as meditation. A mature meditator will experience the same sequence of events as: “the mind produced an image that triggered an emotion, and there was a craving to develop it into a story about myself. The image fell away and so did the feeling, but then the mind just produce another image and feeling to take that empty place in the mind. I then experienced tightness in my chest and there was a strong urge again to get caught up in a story about the image and feeling, but as I watched these also just disappeared…”
So how does vipassana lead to enlightenment? It leads to enlightenment by getting to the third chunk of the Dharma right away: getting it done. And it does this by seeing whatever is in the mind in that moment as clearly as possible. That clarity attacks ignorance at the roots – and it is ignorance which is keeping us from enlightenment. Ignorance has a special meaning in Buddhism. There is no original sin in Buddhism, but if there were it would be ignorance. Ignorance in this case refers to our lack of knowledge about the true nature if reality. The more clearly we see reality, the less ignorance there is and the more wisdom dawns on us. When we see things clearly enough, long enough, then enlightenment happens (more details on this in “Getting it done”).
The Double Helix of Meditation
Now that I’ve presented meditation in this way, as two overall different types (concentration and insight), I’m going to muddy these clear waters by explaining that these are, in reality, not two different types of meditation but one type of meditation, but each with a different emphasis in technique. In order to do concentration meditation you need a fundamental level of investigation and insight. And to do vipassana you need a basic level of concentration called “access concentration.” Each type of meditation contains the other within it as a necessary practice. The famous meditation teacher Ajahn Chah once explained that insight and concentration are like the front and back of your hand. If you look at one side of your hand you can rest assured that the other side is right behind it. So, you can select a technique that emphasizes concentration or insight, but you will really always be doing both. I call this the double helix of meditation. For a gene to be fully expressed, DNA requires two strands woven together to hold the genetic material. For wisdom to be fully expressed, the strands of both concentration and insight are needed to hold the meditation together. Whichever strand of meditation you choose to emphasize, you can rest assured that if you are making progress you are truly doing both.
Once meditation begins to deepen and the insights into the nature of reality begin to alter how your mind functions, you are well on your way to enlightenment. This is discussed in the next section on awakening wisdom, which I call “Getting it done.”
You have worked on getting your act together and are perfecting morality. You have sat in meditation and are starting to experience deep concentration and are beginning to investigate your experience in the moment. Now you are ready to move toward the deepest, most profound experience a human being can have: enlightenment, or what I call “getting it done.”
The whole trajectory of the Dharma leads the meditator toward enlightenment. Practitioners often want to ask “…what is enlightenment?” but are afraid to do so because teachers can be evasive or even dismissive of students who ask such questions. But it is absolutely a fair question. After all, the practice of perfecting morality and deepening meditation can be a tremendous amount of work, and while there is a lot of talk among some teachers and meditators about doing practice for its own sake, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know what enlightenment is and why it is so special. Monks give up all the normal comforts of life to pursue it, and even lay practitioners will withstand intense deprivation and difficulty if it means getting closer to enlightenment (sometimes with tragic results). Before the Internet, people would literally travel around the world, climb mountains and walk hundreds of miles to learn how to become enlightened from somebody who was rumored to have done it. Clearly, enlightenment is worthwhile, but what is it?
This is where the Dharma begins to break down under the inexpressibility of what is being taught. It is where the teachings begin to sound mystical and nonsensical to students. The reason for this is that we are attempting to understand enlightenment with the mind, and the mind is just not good at getting it. Your mind cannot really grasp enlightenment in the same way that your hand cannot reach out and grasp “love” or “boredom” – it is just not able to work in that way. The mind deals in concepts, symbols and representations, but what happens during enlightenment is strictly non-conceptual. Language can’t express it and it can’t be represented in an image. This is why when students asked the Buddha what enlightenment is he simply gave them a very long explanation of what it isn’t. Even he, probably the best teacher ever on the topic, couldn’t explain it.
So the hard truth is that no one can simply say what it is. While I cannot express what enlightenment is in a way that the mind can actually grasp, what I can say is this: the predominant experience of enlightenment is one of relief. When I asked my teacher, Kenneth Folk, about it he explained that, “You just feel done”. This might not sound like anything special, and it isn’t – and yet at the same time it really is (see how confusing this can get?).
I’m not a big fan of “faith.” It is not something that I recommend to people who are serious about waking up. After all, to lay the groundwork for enlightenment, you need to investigate your experience with the precision and clarity of a scientist. Faith can create expectations that obscure honest observations. However, when it comes to waking up, some faith is needed.
How do I get enlightened?
Strictly speaking, “you” never get enlightened. Enlightenment is very impersonal, and does not really happen to an individual. It happens when the awareness that mistakenly thinks it is an individual is liberated from that illusion. It is a bit misleading (but I believe useful) to describe enlightenment as “getting it done” because there is no “self” that can actually make this happen. Rather, the “self” creates the conditions under which insight can ripen into a full-blown realization. After enlightenment it becomes clear that while the path to enlightenment was traveled by an individual, the leap into enlightenment is something that the “self” could not, and did not, really do. It happened. But who did it really happen to? Once the leap is made, the paradoxes become simultaneously unending and irrelevant. You cannot do this with an act of will or with a plan of action, but you can create the conditions under which it is likely to happen.
How do I create the conditions for enlightenment?
The conditions for enlightenment are created by deepening meditation to a point where you begin to move along what is called “the progress of insight“: a series of stages in the meditation that provide the insights needed to awake (look for more on states and stages in a future post).
The way to enlightenment is often called a “path” for a very good reason. In the same way that the Appalachian Trail has mile-markers and sections, the path of meditation has specific markers and recognizable sections which vary in difficulty. Students progress along this path in a fairly predictable and repeatable sequence. While “path” is a metaphor, it is much more accurate than most students realize. The path arises in our experience when we sit in meditation and follow the directions exactly. If the meditator daydreams or gets caught up in the content of the mind, it is like leaving the trail to explore the woods. Before you know it, the trail is lost. However, by following the directions exactly, using the maps, and getting some guidance, you will stay on the path and will experience the series of developmental stages that make up that path to enlightenment.
The progress of insight is a series of 16 stages, called “insight knowledges” that arise in a specific sequence. The first few stages are pretty mundane and easy to miss, a lot like trail markers hidden in tall grass. But eventually the markers become pretty easy to spot. There are sections of the path which are blissful and joyful, and some that are rough and difficult. Having a teacher to keep you moving through the tough times and keep you grounded through the joyful times is nearly essential as you make your way. If the meditator sticks with it and makes progress along all the states, eventually the path leads to a very important moment, called a “cessation,” where everything, including the sense of self, disappears for an instant. It happens so quick that some people miss it, and those who do notice it often wonder, “what was that?” It is a very important moment in the life of the meditator, because it is, for an instant, a direct experience of Nirvana. As time goes on they can master cessations, and experience them whenever they like (I take lots of breaks at my desk at work by dipping into Nirvana periodically).
When the meditator experiences a cessation there is a fundamental change that is made at a very deep level called a “path moment.” In the metaphor we are using here, it represents a switch in the trail you are on. You start over, so to speak, on a new trail. As you progress along the new trail, the 16 markers appear again and you eventually get to the direct experience of Nirvana again, and then to a new path moment and so on. Each time you switch to a new trail and the 16 markers arise again, and are the same each time. When this progression along the paths is done enough times it creates the conditions for the profound shift called enlightenment to occur. You could say that moving along through the 16 insight knowledges and experiencing Nirvana ripens the meditator in a way that increases the chances that enlightenment will happen. In the traditional models, the progress of insight, through the 16 insight stages, is done four times, and then the meditator is fully enlightened. In this four-path model, when the meditator has experienced the first path moment, they have attained the first stage of Enlightenment, and are known as a “Sotapanna” or “stream-winner”, second path is “Sakadagami”, third is “Anagami” and the fourth is “Arahat.” An Arahat is an enlightened being and is finished with the work of awakening (it is actually a little more complicated than that in reality).
The progress of insight and four-path model is the overall map that I use to guide students. I use them because the 16 stages are fine-grained enough to be verifiable in the student’s direct experience, while the four-paths are broad enough to encompass the whole path. But it is important for all students to know that there are many other maps out there from many different traditions, and not all the maps agree on what the path looks like. For example large parts of the Tibetan maps don’t really fit well with the Theravadin maps, and in the Zen tradition they refuse to use maps (to my knowledge). While there are some critical differences in the maps (sometimes profound differences), what is more remarkable than the differences are the similarities. A practitioner who has awakened can look at most of the maps and recognize what is being described in terms of personal experience, regardless of which map that practitioner used.
Arguments Against the Maps
I should state at this point that there are teachers who feel that focusing on the maps is a bad idea. And this has led to a situation in which a lot of experienced and serious practitioners don’t even know the maps exist, or think that they shouldn’t know them. Teachers worry that the maps will create expectations that interfere with “natural” progress (though I must wonder if there is such a thing as “unatural progress”). In particular there is a concern that practitioners reporting experiences in their meditation may just “script” the experiences from the maps. Additionally, students could get competitive about where they are on the maps, or become so focused on attainments that they lose sight of becoming liberated from the ego that is attaining. These are legitimate concerns, however they beg the question: if the maps are not really helpful to students, why have the major traditions developed them, refined them and passed them down for literally thousands of years?
As it turns out, using the maps in practice is not nearly as fraught with problems as might be believed. It turns out that students rarely deliberately make stuff up when reporting their meditation, and when they do it is easy to see. If they are unconsciously scripting their experience, that can be handled easily by a competent teacher. To go back to the metaphor of the Appalachian Trail, there is a huge difference in the descriptions of a section of trail from someone who actually hiked it and someone who only read about it. Experienced hikers can tell the difference in the descriptions easily. This is one of the marks of a solid Dharma teacher, they know the territory first hand and when you describe it, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
Beyond the maps
Even though there is a good map that leads from first sit to awakening, astute students might begin to wonder what is really going on. After all, the maps simply explain what you experience along the way, but not why these experiences lead to awakening.
As it turns out, the insights that you experience along the path have a gradual but profound effect on the mind. Over time, the insights mature into what is called “wisdom” (panna). This kind of wisdom is not cognitive. It has very little to do with thinking and is closer in experience to the faculty of sight than thought. Wisdom is the ability to directly see what is true and what is not. It is a bit like seeing an optical illusion. What you thought was a vase suddenly resolves into two faces. In the same way, what you thought was real turns out to be false. What you could never have believed before becomes obvious. What you’ll discover as wisdom builds is that there are a lot of things that we take to be true which simply are illusions. The three illusions that are really important for enlightenment are:
1. The illusion that what is perceived as a “self” is real or has a core essence
2. The illusion that this “self” (or anything) is somehow permanent
3. The illusion that the things that make the self happy are truly satisfying
Corresponding with these three illusions are three core truths of reality, what are called the “three characteristics” in Buddhism. These are characteristics of reality that are so fundamental that deep and honest investigation of your experience at any given moment of your life will reveal them:
1. The self is a fiction (anatta)
2. Everything, including the perceived self, is in a constant state of change (anicca)
3. Most of the life of this “self” is very dissatisfying and often very painful (dukkha)
A close examination will reveal that the three characteristics are so interrelated that if you deeply understood one of them, the other two logically follow and become obvious to you. These are simply three ways of understanding one fundamental reality. The insights into the nature of reality that occur during meditation don’t seem to do much at first, but they have a cumulative effect on the mind. As the three characteristics become clearer, so do the illusions that obscured them. As these illusions weaken reality becomes more obvious to us, not in a conceptual sense, but in a way that is felt moment by moment.
The way that the progress of insight leads to awakening is that each of the insight knowledges experienced by the meditator has something important to reveal about the three characteristics. It is useful to think of each insight knowledge as a class on the three characteristics. When you “pass” the class you move on to the next insight knowledge, and when you experience a path moment, you graduate to the next level of your education. Eventually you get a complete education, and that is awakening.
It is this – fully understanding through the insights gleaned in meditation that you have been running on illusions, and really getting the three characteristics in your daily life – that sets the conditions for enlightenment to happen. Getting it done is all about fully comprehending the insights gleaned in meditation and letting them erode illusions at a very deep level.