The Takeaway: This is a very practical guide to one of the foundational practices in Buddhist meditation – jhana. The instructions work as advertised, are very clear and easy to follow. If you try them you will certainly get deeper concentration, and possibly jhana, even without dedicating long stretches of your life in a monastery. Highly recommended.
I love this book. If I could travel back in time I would find my 26 year-old self, put a copy of it in his hand, and say “here is what you need to know.” At that time I was preoccupied with attaining jhana. Obsessed might be a better way to put it. But I had notions about jhana that were unrealistic. I really had no idea what I was doing, and yet I was closer than I could ever have imagined. This book would have cleared everything up. If you have any interest in concentration meditation and jhana, this is a book you should read.
For those unfamiliar with the language being used, “jhanas” are states of meditative bliss. They feel amazing and do wonderful things for the mind. Namely, they suppress five states that get in the way of deep meditation (anger, craving, doubt, restlessness and sleepiness) while developing qualities of mind that make it very powerful. For this reason jhanas are useful for people who want to take insight meditation far. But even if you aren’t interested in insight or awakening jhanas are worthwhile in and of themselves. If you don’t think this, read just about any sutta from the pali canon. Chances are the jhanas are at least mentioned, and when they are discussed the Buddha talks about them the way a doctor talks about diet and exercise. He even made the cultivation of jhana one of the steps of the eight-fold path, which is where the book’s title comes from. “Right” concentration is synonymous with jhana. There are some who say jhana is required for even the initial stage of awakening (stream entry) and others who say they are not required even for full awakening (fourth path). That debate is not covered in this book, but I happen to think Bhihkkhu Bodhi’s take on it, which finds a middle ground between the two positions feels most right. If you’re curious you can read it here.
There are eight jhanas. Four “material” jhanas, so called because they feel most similar to the kinds of physical sensations found in the normal material world, followed by four more “immaterial” jhanas, which have a more mental flavor. All eight are covered in this book. My teacher taught me how to access another five called the “suda wasas” or “pure land jhanas,” but they fall outside the scope of this book.
One of the wonderful things about this book is that it makes jhana, normally the purview of monastics and hermits, accessible to ordinary meditators. Leigh Brasington’s approach is something that normal people can do at home, though he strongly suggests getting guidance from a teacher on a jhana-focused retreat. That way you can make sure your technique is right and your experience is actually jhana. His approach is based on Ayya Khema’s teaching of the jhanas, and if you do not know who she is I would strongly encourage you to read some of her work. The directions are simple and clear, yet Brasington does his best to point out the succession of small subtle state shifts that lead up to jhana. Along the way he guides the reader at each point in the development. This is a seasoned teacher, and the way he delivers the instructions and addresses potential problems shows that.
I tried his instructions over the Christmas holiday and soon entered into a state that I recognized as first jhana, however it was most similar to what I was experiencing from my days struggling to attain jhana back in my 20s. “Wow!” I thought “this is first jhana in this system? I was accessing first jhana the whole time and not realizing it!” After settling in with the first jhana and getting comfortable going in and out of it using Brasington’s directions, I followed his instructions for the higher jhanas and it worked beautifully. What he teaches in the book works. I can say that with confidence.
The jhanas always leave me feeling fantastic. It was though I had taken some wonderful drug that makes me love everybody. People joke about “jhana junkies” as a bit of a problem in meditation communities, and I can see what they mean, but what is odd about jhanas is that they only get strong when you stop craving them, so “junkie” is really the wrong way to think about it. Jhana does not lead to attachment to jhana, it leads to letting go of attachment in a deeper way, even attachment to bliss. Exploring jhana using Brasington’s approach gave me a much deeper appreciation of the fact that jhana can be very good medicine for people, even if they aren’t monks.
There are people who disagree that what is described in the book is “real” jhana, and they point to the fact that these are not states of full absorption (that is, you can still feel your body and hear sounds). In the commentaries jhana is only jhana if there is full absorption, and so the canonical view has been that if you feel your body it is not jhana. However, Brasington takes pains in the second part of his book to show how this view of jhana is not only unsupported by the earliest suttas, but contradicted by them. He speculates, usefully I think, that as monastic life became more settled meditation standards became more extreme and exacting. Jhanas became a kind of extreme sport, with full absorption as the minimum criteria, even though full absorption is not mentioned in the early canon. This makes sense to me, and it explains why it is that the early information on jhana available to folks in the west pushed this idea of full absorption as the mainstream approach, even though it was out of reach for ordinary lay people. That is why my 26 year old self was so confused even though he was accessing first jhana. Brasington is going out on a limb and helping people in that position by showing that it doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, have to be that way. Jhanas, the real thing, are more available to regular people than we have been led to believe.
Now go buy his book and try them for yourself. Whether you want to call them jhana or not doesn’t matter. You’ll see that they are very good for you.
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.
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.
The times they are a changin’. Well, at least the New York Times.
The national paper of record recently posted an op-ed piece by Jeff Warren describing an intense pragmatic dharma retreat that he took with Daniel Ingram. During the retreat he was shooting for stream entry and describes in detail how the stages of insight unfolded for him, and Dr. Ingram’s advice along the way. Well worth a read:
The article can be read here.
Shinzen Young gives one of the best analyses of the use of dharma maps I’ve yet heard. Maps are good, but there are downsides worth considering.
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.