In my work as a psychologist I rely on lists. A lot. What are “symptoms” really? Lists. They
are a rundown of the qualities of experience a person has when struggling with a problem. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and so on are actually baskets into which lists of qualities are placed. But what about the opposite of mental disorders? Can healthy states be thought of in the same way? The short answer is yes. Positive psychology has begun to group positive qualities into larger constructs such as “kindness,” “bravery,” and “wisdom.” While some dislike the reductionist overtones of such an approach, it is nothing new. In fact, Buddhism is one of the earliest examples of how to do this well.
Buddhism is, in my opinion, the oldest and most sophisticated psychological science in the world. So it is not surprising that so many parallels exist with modern psychology, which is, in many ways, reinventing the wheel the Buddha set in motion millennia ago. Lists play a large role in Buddhism, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” rare states and transformations of consciousness. One of these lists is especially important. Think of it as the psychological profile of someone ready to awaken. The seven factors of enlightenment.
The Seven Factors
The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, concentration, energy, relaxation, rapture, and equanimity.
These seven arise in the meditator at certain stages of development, building gradually toward awakening. Then, when the first moment of awakening (stream entry) is close, all seven reach a peak. Six of them fall into balance with each other. The odd one out is mindfulness, which does not need anything to balance it. I often imagine these factors as being like a dog sled team. Mindfulness is the lead dog at the front of the team, followed by three equally matched pairs that balance each other perfectly.
Mindfulness – this one stands alone. Mindfulness is not merely bare attention to the present moment, it is also intuitively recognizing the kinds of things that are coming up and their significance (that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness). It sees what is happening and its significance right this instant. Mindfulness knows insights as they arise (the insight knowledges), and remembers what to do (or not do) at each development of the insight path. At first mindfulness is effortful. It is the first factor to come up, and it needs to be deliberately called up and entrained. When it begins to gain strength the meditator experiences the first stage of insight (knowledge of mind and body). So one way to tell if you are developing mindfulness, versus bare attention, is to see if you are able to experience the first stage of insight. As mindfulness is practiced in and out of meditation it becomes more automatic, taking on a life of its own.
This is where the dog sledding analogy is helpful. Mindfulness is like the lead dog, and lead dogs are very special. People build very close relationships with them and gradually turn over more of the responsibility for knowing the trail to the lead dog. Once a lead dog has experience with a path, it intuitively recognizes where the soft spots are, where the ice is thin, where the snow looks wet and where it is firm. It knows which turn to take and keeps the team moving down the center of the path and away from the slippery banks at the edges. It takes time and patience for a lead dog to learn, but once it knows a path, it can guide you along automatically, and you can let go and allow the team to take you to your destination. This is how mindfulness works as it matures and deepens. As a meditator gains experience, she learns to trust mindfulness more and more and to allow it to take the lead.
Investigation/Concentration – Investigation is the process of looking at an object and seeing that it is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is looking at something mundane, like the the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, and seeing that it is not just a single sensation called “breath,” but a dynamic field of flickering vibrations (anicca), that are not the observer (anatta), and are uncomfortable to hold on to (dukkha). It is balanced by concentration, which is the ability to keep the mind still for long enough that objects can be seen with sufficient clarity. It involves building a calm focus that is unwavering. Investigation is like the focusing of a camera lens. Concentration is like holding the camera still long enough to focus. When both of these factors are strong and in balance things can be seen clearly for what they really are.
Energy/Relaxation – These may seem contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. The great meditation teacher Ayya Khema sometimes described “energy” as “willpower.” This makes sense, although it is a translation that has lost popularity. It is the sense of applying oneself, giving all of oneself to the process and not holding back. It is the raw impulse that puts the other factors to work. It is balanced by relaxation, which is just what is sounds like. If you apply yourself, but are tight and clenched in body or mind, then the meditation is likely to stall out. Relaxation is that which allows the process to run smoothly, while energy keeps it running. These two, in a sense, feel like surrendering to the meditation, no matter how intense it becomes, with great alertness. To get an idea of what a peak balance between energy and relaxation feels like, reflect on how you feel right after a good workout, when you are letting go and not striving any longer but still full of energy.
Rapture/Equanimity – Rapture is a combination of joyful feeling and physical “pleasure.” That word is in quotes because it isn’t pleasure in the normal sense. It doesn’t come from the five senses. A pleasant feeling fills the body in one of several different ways, electrical tingles, fine vibrations, pulses, warm light – it can be percieved differently by different people, but it is always very pleasurable. There is a kind of erotic feeling to it for many people, and this can throw off many westerners who read over and over about renouncing worldly pleasure and not becoming attached to anything. It is important to understand that this kind of pleasure is essential to the development of deeper meditation. However, it needs to be balanced with equanimity, which is that quality of mind which does not grasp or cling to experiences, good or bad. Of all the factors, equanimity may be the most odd one, because there are few experiences in normal life that are similar to it. It is a sense of calm that remains interested and focused, without feeling like anything occurring is consequential to the observer. As my teacher once put it, “you no longer feel like you have a dog in the fight.” And yet, with all the rapture you are still deeply interested in what is occurring. These two balance each other beautifully.
When all seven factors are working well, they feel almost as though they take over, pulling the meditator toward awakening. Along the way the meditator puts in work and effort to develop the insights and the factors, but once things mature the combination of factors seem to grow in strength, balance, and in a sense, it feels as though they take over. It is at this point that the admonitions to “do nothing” and simply “let go” make the most sense. With the right factors in place, the process can now do itself, you simply have to hold on and watch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
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 Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
The takeaway: This 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.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.
This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization of non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.
But then Ben Affleck happened.
When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.
But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.
The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.” What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.
What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.
Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.
And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.
While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.
One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”
If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.
It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.
Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?
In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.
But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.
The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.
From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.
So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.
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.
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.