I have been lax in writing for this blog because I have been writing a book. A year ago I predicted that I would have it done in a year. Well, I’ve learned a lot about my limitations since then, and now know that it will take a bit longer than that. But the reason why it will take longer is something that has fascinated me and may be interesting to others.
As I began writing the section of my book on what Buddhism is and how it relates to modern day insight meditation it began to dawn on me how little I know about what the historical and linguistic scholarship actually says about Buddhism. Having been an avid meditator and a lay teacher of insight meditation I have gobbled up the suttas and commentaries and popular interpretations of Buddhism, but these are really what Buddhism has to say about itself. It is the perspective that one gets from somewhere inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. But what does Buddhism look like from a point outside of that bubble? What do non-Buddhist scholars see when they look at Buddhism from a more critical or skeptical perspective? I realized that I actually had no idea what that perspective might be like, so for many months I have been digging deep into the academic literature, and what I have found has been eye-opening, to put it mildly.
The first thing I was curious about, since I’m a bit of a philosophy nerd, was how modern philosophers and linguists who study the history of religion make sense of the Buddha’s ideas. I don’t remember what I expected to find, but I assumed it would be something along the lines of an enthusiastic endorsement. After all, I love the Buddha’s ideas, who wouldn’t? What I found was neither an endorsement nor critique, but rather, a thoughtful study of how these ideas arose within their historical context. Something, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t really considered. I’d read all the Buddhist books about Buddhism that present it as a timeless truth, a perfect realization of Reality with a capital “R,” but of course it had to be a product of a time and place, just like everything else. I became very curious about this.
I thought knew the story of the Buddha. That he was a prince who snuck out of his palace, saw suffering all around, decided to do something about it, and set off on his own to discover its cause. You know the rest. But that is who he is from inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. Scholars who look at him from outside this bubble focus much more on an aspect of the history that I peripherally knew about but which I had not given very much attention to. They focus on how he joined a radical group of what we modern people might call “social reformers” who were attempting to create an alternative to the Vedic view of life. Vedanta had already been in place for about a thousand years, and it kept the Brahmins, who were the ruling caste, in power. The social movement trying to change this called themselves the samanas. It was a revolutionary time. When the Buddha left his princely life to set out on his quest he did not simply go out on his own, he joined the samanas, and this was a very meaningful move on his part. The samanas were a mixed bag of freethinkers who were not just arguing against the Brahmins, most were arguing against each other. They were preaching all sorts of contrary ideas, like there is no permanent self, and that there is one, that one should remain skeptical of extreme positions, and one should be as extreme as possible in austerities, etc. The Buddha was not simply meditating during those years before his enlightenment, he was likely soaking up these ideas and inching closer to what would become his own realization.
The doctrines that became Buddhism, according to many scholars, seem to be a coherent system which blends samana and Vedic concepts, and this blend would appeal to those who wanted reform and those who wanted tradition. In fact, one scholar argues very persuasively that the doctrine of dependent origination is actually a thinly disguised version of the Vedic creation myth, but refashioned so as to undercut the core concept that gives the Vedic tradition its power: that the way to liberation is by finding one’s true self (atman) so one can unite with the ultimate source, Brahma. In the standard Buddhist mythology, after the Buddha’s enlightenment, when he looks into the links of dependent origination and sees that there is no atman to be found, Brahma himself shows up and bows down to the Buddha, begging him to teach the world. From a scholarly perspective this makes sense given that what the Buddha was trying to do was create an alternative to the Vedic cosmology that integrated the samana’s ideas with those that had already been fixed in the minds of his culture for a millenia, and he succeeded.
This way of looking at Buddhism is still new to me and I am still processing what it means, but it got me wondering about the source texts. The scholars kept referring to differing accounts in different early texts, and it struck me from what they were saying how little we actually know about the Buddha or early Buddhism. The pali canon is generally agreed to be the earliest source of information about this, so a lot of people who are eager to follow a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism are often drawn to it. Many will criticize the commentaries or Abhidhamma literature as inferior because they are not the “real” words of the Buddha, which are, of course, in the pali suttas. That makes sense until you find out how old the pali suttas actually are. Scholars do not agree on this, but even accounting for the disagreement, the earliest versions of the pali suttas date to somewhere between the first and sixth century CE, with the strongest evidence (gold plates with pali inscriptions found in Burma) favoring sometime around the 5th century. That means that everything we know about the Buddha and early Buddhism from the pali sources might come from writings made sometime nearly 1000 years after the Buddha. I am still learning about all this and if there are earlier sources I hope to find them. I always knew that the pali writings were copies of earlier writings, but I assumed that they were close enough in time to the Buddha to give a faithful account of what the Buddha actually taught. But now I’m not so sure about that. All scholars agree that from the earliest texts on there are changes made to the canon, some small, some large, and that many of the changes were not simply errors but deliberate additions, combinations, and redactions. Is there any reason to believe that these changes only began after the earliest texts we have found? Not really. It is much more likely that these kinds of changes were going on for centuries as differing groups of Buddhists developed differing accounts and interpretations of what came earlier, which was very likely a changed version of what came before that. When you add to this that the pali canon is merely the recorded outcome of 200 to 400 years of oral tradition during which time there were multiple schisms, the whole foundation on which people like me base their ideas of a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism becomes more than a little shaky.
There is one other line of scholarship that rocked my ideas about Buddhism, and I never thought about it before. I nearly slapped my forehead in a “doh” moment once I actually started looking into it – archeology. There has been some very interesting archeological work on the earliest sites in Buddhism and the physical evidence from these sites shows that the early Buddhists lived remarkably different lives from those depicted in the suttas or vinaya. For example, in one site archeologists found evidence that early Buddhist monks were coining money. That is a very different picture from that painted in the pali sources, and speaks to the early Buddhists having a relationship with the state and people that is completely unlike that found in the texts. There are a lot of other findings that I could go into but I am still in the process of absorbing this information.
So what have I learned from this excursion outside the Buddhist bubble? Essentially, it comes down to this. What we now take to be the authentic teachings of the Buddha are actually more likely to be a snapshot of what Buddhism evolved into after many centuries of changes and schisms. Those trying to limit themselves to the earliest parts of the pali canon in an attempt to adhere to a more authentic version of Buddhism are more likely to simply be practicing whatever Buddhism became sometime after the first century CE. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do this, but it is good to know what one is really doing. Overall, what Buddhism appears to be when seen from outside its own worldview is less a perfect source of unchanging wisdom than an evolving field of study, just like any other. It has branches, schools, factions, controversies, evidence and lack thereof for its claims, some of which stand up on their own, and some of which seem to address particular cultural and historical needs.
One could see all this and throw one’s hands up, deciding that there is no reliable source so there is nothing to be found, but this would be a big mistake. Because the thing that is unique about Buddhism, that is its real bedrock in light of all this information, is that it is something that one does not really believe but rather something that one does. As a field of study it is more like a science than an art, because it has specific claims (the three characteristics and nibbana) and methods for testing those claims (the three trainings). This is ultimately what matters, because these are the claims that are most independent of culture, history, worldview, and scripture. They are testable by ordinary people in today’s world. All one needs is the set of instructions for how to run the test, the motivation and curiosity to do it, and then you can see for yourself. So while most of what is called “Buddhism” is a body of knowledge that has changed over many centuries, it still has something at its core that matters in the sense that all things eventually matter: it is an accurate reflection of your reality here and now and you can see that for yourself. In the end, Buddhist meditation isn’t worth doing because we know exactly what the Buddha really taught, it is worth doing because it works.
Buddhists, nondual folks, and people engaged in the work of awakening are generally the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. They are warm-hearted, earnest to a fault, and sincerely interested in improving the world. They tend to avoid conflict like ebola. This is the beautiful side of the spiritual life. Seeing the Dalai Lama refer to the Chinese government as “my friends, the enemy” warms the heart. One way spiritual teachers and seekers avoid anger and accomplish this level of compassion is through self-examination whenever pain and anger arises. This is smart and effective. But while this level of forgiveness and self-examination is generally a good thing, I also believe it can become a problem. A much bigger one than we may be willing to acknowledge. Why? Because this is the kind of habit that keeps abusive people in power.
This thought occurred to me while following what has occurred with the famous nondual teacher Andrew Cohen, who recently released a letter of apology. Why the letter of apology? I don’t want to go into the details here, as his behavior has been written about extensively. For more information on the scandal read Enlightenment Blues by Andre Van der Braak, American Guru by William Yenner (former students), or the book written by his own mother The Mother of God. There is also an entire website devoted to cataloguing the allegations.
While this kind of scandal is concerning, there is something else about it that is beginning to concern me more, and that is how people in spiritual communities are reacting to Andrew’s apology. In my own honest opinion, the apology was disappointing. I felt that the apology was inauthentic and did not fit the magnitude of the abuses, and a close friend pointed out that the admission of wrongdoing was sandwiched in between layers of self-aggrandizement. I believe that this is plain to anyone who reads it. Many people commented on Cohen’s blog to this effect and people who follow such things have noted it in social media. However, there were a significant number of people on social media and in the comment section of the apology itself who responded to criticisms by pointing out that critics should examine their own “shadow sides” and engage in more self-reflection. As chatter about Cohen’s apology spread on social media, this meme began making the rounds:
While I agree with the sentiment in principle, and even find it beautiful, these reactions gave me chills. As a family psychologist who has worked with many victims of abuse, and abusers themselves, what I was seeing was disturbingly familiar. This is how abusers stay in authority. I realized that the same family dynamics that are well-understood in psychology are at play in spiritual communities. People are downplaying the magnitude of what happened, blaming those who bring it up, and trying to make everything OK when it isn’t. As I read the comments I kept asking myself if this is what the Buddha really meant in that instruction to examine ourselves.
What is really happening when people who express their appropriate skepticism of an abuser’s mea culpa are told, essentially, to be quiet? What does “skillful” really mean in this context?
When faced with the crimes of spiritual teachers, spiritual seekers tend to perform a strange kind of psychological judo on themselves and others by disarming anger and judgement with spiritual techniques. With intense self-investigation we avoid investigating the crimes committed. When abuses happen and we turn inward, we should ask ourselves if we are using spiritual practice to avoid the hard work of confronting abuse or crying out for justice when others don’t want to hear it. We should consider if the “shadow side” in these situations is not our own anger but the avoidance of it. We should ask ourselves if we are excusing misdeeds by omission of an appropriate emotional response. Perhaps in these situations it is important to understand that there are many kinds of anger – not all of them are unskillful in certain contexts. In my work with children of abuse one of the phases of therapy children often go through is what I call “permission to be angry.” I think the same can be said for spiritual communities.
People like Cohen seem well aware of the habit spiritual seekers have of turning indignation into navel-gazing, and he has a history of using it to his advantage. In the books linked to above there are many instances in which people attempt to criticize, or merely question, Cohen but are shut down by being told to look at their own issues first. Over and over again he accused people who questioned him, or had his inner circle accuse people, of giving in to ego trips, underlying narcissism, and of being consumed with jealousy for his realization and enlightenment. By doing so he fostered a sense of chronic self doubt and mistrust in those who followed him, leading to a deeper dependence on his certainty. Essentially, he used people’s habit of self examination and forgiveness to disarm their wise discernment. This isn’t something that only happened with Cohen, or only in neoadvaita communities. In his Atlantic article “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side” Mark Oppenheimer points out that the kind of western Buddhists who fell victim to Eido Shimano “…proved extremely, perhaps uniquely, willing to forgive.” In response to the sexual predations of Jashu Sasaki Roshi, Joan Halifax wrote:
There is something about our religions… that disallows us facing the shame associated with sexual violations…
I would take her statement farther, and say that in spiritual communities, especially Buddhist ones focused on kind speech and avoiding division, people are particularly vulnerable to abuse because confronting others runs counter to the way we are trying to live. As Buddhists we excel at ethical self-inquiry but are ill equipped to confront violations when they arise in our own communities.
I am not claiming to know how to determine what an appropriate expression of anger is for abuses such as sexual harassment, beatings, death threats, or financial ruin. But I do believe that some expression of anger, even for those on the path to awakening, is appropriate. Finding how to balance the expression of authentic anger with liberating insight into it may be one of the most mature of spiritual practices. It may also be one of the only sustainable solutions to the constant reoccurrence of abuse that seems to happen in our spiritual communities.
If a psychologist, lawyer, medical doctor, or school teacher were caught doing any of the things Cohen is alleged to have done they would not only have to write a letter of apology, but state licensing boards would revoke their ability practice, civil penalties would be leveled against them, and criminal investigations would begin. In our society we recognize that no one, no matter how well-trained or accomplished, is invulnerable to behaving recklessly. But when it comes to spiritual leaders we seem to throw out the rules and expect people to be something greater than ordinary. This is a problem. The most disturbed people seem to know this, and gravitate toward the role of spiritual leader, as the late great meditation teacher Bill Hamilton pointed out in his book Saints and Psychopaths.
Changing this problem is worth the discomfort, and even anger, of speaking up. It can be done. I am an optimist about this. We can have spiritual communities in the west that are free of these kinds of abuses, but it requires that we all agree on basic rights for meditation students, and that we stop telling those who are offended by the violation of those rights to point their attention back at their own failings. Things can get better, but first we need to change our relationship to anger, and understand that in some situations expressing it is an appropriate response. Once expressed, we can get on with business of insight and healing. At that time, it may be useful to point others to examine their own “shadow sides.” Until then, allow responses to be what they are. Allow people to call for justice. Allow the process of wise discernment to take its first uncertain steps.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The takeaway: This is a high-level dharma book about a complex topic that baffles many who study it. The book is a good one for those who want to get serious about studying the doctrine of dependent arising.
In 2000 I started attending a Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara in Washington D.C., where I learned to meditate and also discovered the joy of Sri Lankan Buddhist books. I was a naive american who bought most of his books from Borders, and at the vihara’s little bookshop I discovered a whole new world of Buddhist thought and philosophy that was much more compelling than anything I encountered before. Eventually I travelled to Sri Lanka, stayed in meditation centers there, and returned with a pretty serious meditation practice – and a suitcase full of books. These were the kinds of books that wouldn’t make the Oprah book club, or crack any bestseller lists. They were never meant to. They were the hardest of the hardcore dharma, and I learned a lot from them. This experience taught me something about modern Buddhist culture that everyone should know, the best writing on Buddhism is not happening in the states, or anywhere in the west. The best books, even in english, come out of Buddhist countries. Within Sri Lanka there are many independent presses that regularly put out some the best books on Buddhism. These books, often written by monks or advanced lay meditators, specialize in the deepest and most perplexing aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. For those who like (or need) such things, these books are absolute treasures. They are traded among friends and cherished, and given as gifts to build merit and show respect to the recipient. Palitha Mapatuna’s new book Dependent Arising, available from The Buddhist Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka, falls squarely in that category.
Dependent Arising is just like it’s name – clear and to the point. Mapatuna wastes no time dressing up the ideas or watering them down, but instead he lays out the case for this particular aspect of the Buddha’s teaching like a professor laying out a geometric proof, step by patient step. Keeping up with him can be a little difficult, and at times I found myself rereading sections several times in order to make sure I understood before moving on. This is important, because each point builds on the next, and so if you dive into this book I would advise taking your time. It is not a long book, but it is information-rich. Have some scratch paper handy too. At times the only way I could follow the logic was to literally diagram it out for myself on paper. Mapatuna takes on a complicated topic here, and he clearly assumes that the reader is ready to handle it’s deepest complexities.
For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of dependent arising (or if, like me, you need a refresher), it is the Buddha’s most complete expression of why things are the way they are. It shows how, in a chain of linked phenomena, hooked together like train cars rolling down the track of time, past lives connect to this present moment, and how we end up in so much distress.
A couple of big points to keep in mind about dependent arising. First, it is not a chain of cause and effect, but rather a chain of interdependence. The links in the chain are not caused by the preceding links, but rather depend on them, the same way the leg of a table depends on all the others to remain standing. Second, and this is the biggest issue I hear about from many westerners, this doctrine goes explicitly into past and future lives. For some, this has led them to dismiss it out of hand. That would be a big mistake. Even if you don’t believe in past lives you can still find use in dependent arising, because many of the links occur in this very instant. You can observe them happening even as you read this. This model represents one of the most nuanced examinations of our present-moment psychology to come out of Buddhism.
Here are the 12 links summed up as I understand them (Mapatuna does a much better job of it in his book):
- Ignorance – in our past and present lives we mistake things that cause us unhappiness for things that make us happy. This links up to:
- Determinants – because we didn’t know better (in past lives and in this one) we build a momentum with “determinants,” which are things like intentions and volitions, that keeps the mind running after the things that make us unhappy. This momentum links up to:
- Consciousness – a primitive form of raw consciousness, carried by the momentum of past volitions, jumps from one life to the next, linking to:
- Mind and Matter – In this model we’ve just arrived in the here-and-now and are in the world that everyone, Buddhist or not, can agree exists. The raw stuff of our subjective experience. These two basic elements then link to:
- The six senses – Don’t be thrown by “six” senses, Buddhists include the mind as a sense along with sight, touch, hearing, etc. With the link of mind and matter, along with the six senses, the next link is:
- Contact – Mind and matter and the six senses come in contact. For those who are heavy solipsists and think that Buddhism is an expression of that, think again. The Buddha is clearly demarcating internal and external phenomena here, otherwise “contact” would be meaningless. This link is the world of flowing experiences you are in right this second. Thoughts, feelings, moods, sensations and other normal experiences are in this part of the model, which then links up to:
- Feeling – All of these flowing phenomena are automatically put through a lighting-fast sorting process which puts them into one of three basic categories: we like it, don’t like it, or don’t care. This is usually expressed as “pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.” Feeling then links up to:
- Craving – Once something is sorted into one of the three baskets we want more of it, less of it, or ignore it. This is the part of the model that is most critical for insight practice, because up until this point things were happening so quickly and automatically that we could not really do more than observe, but at this critical link we can actually get to work. There is a subtle pulling toward pleasant feelings, pushing away of unpleasant feelings, and this push and pull often goes on at the edge of awareness. With awareness of what is happening to us we can see this craving as it occurs, put it front and center in our minds, and make a deliberate choice about how to respond, a lot of the practice has to do with how we make these choices. Craving links up to:
- Grasping/Taking up – this is action. In Buddhist philosophy this is where new karma is made. Grasping is usually habitual and automatic. It happens all the time at a very subtle level, driving our behavior. But if we are watching craving closely and not reacting automatically, we can hold off on the grasping. Grasping links up to:
- Becoming/being – The model exits the immediate world that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists can agree on, and posits that grasping links up to the creation of future experiences and outcomes, including future lifetimes. Becoming is the link that connects what we do here and now to our next life. Becoming links to:
- Birth – you are born again.
- Aging and death – Because you are born again you go through the same painful struggles again.
These are the spokes on the wheel of samsara, going round and round, and Mapatuna’s reflection on it in Dependent Arising points out how rich this model really is. It fits perfectly with the other aspects of the teaching, such as the four noble truths, the five aggregates, and most of the other Buddhist descriptions of our condition. That makes sense, because this model is (according to the Pali texts) the very thing that the Buddha realized under the Bodhi tree on the night of his enlightenment, discerning the links in the first watch of night, followed by the links in reverse order in the second. To understand this model is to grasp something crucial about what the Buddha experienced on the night of his enlightenment, but understanding it isn’t easy. Every time it seems clear, another mystery about it comes into view. Indeed, when Ananda told the Buddha that he understood it the Buddha admonished him to think again, saying that he had not really grasped its profundity.
If you want to grasp it, this book would be a good support to your efforts. I’d recommend this book if you are already familiar with the model of dependent arising, know its importance, and are ready to get serious about understanding it. Mapatuna’s particular skill in this book is not merely describing the links, but showing how they link together, and what evidence shows those connections. It is a book for a serious reader, ready to grapple with some profound ideas.
The takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.
First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.
This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.
After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.
In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!
Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.
This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality. He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?
Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?
There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.
I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?
Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.
Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.
The takeaway: This book is about the struggle of a guy trying to figure out what is real in the world of pop-spirituality. The good news is that he found it. The bad news is that he had to search through loads of woo-woo to finally discover what it is. This is a good book for teachers, advanced students, and people deeply involved in meditation communities to read, because it is a reminder that the people who show up, get involved, and commit to the work have had to put up with a lot of stupidity before you ever see them. They deserve a lot of respect.
Dan Harris is not an awakened master. In fact, he is about the farthest thing from an enlightened person that there is, and he’d be the first to admit it. An avowed atheist and skeptic, he’s turned off by the spirituality and oddball ideas associated with meditation. And in my opinion that is why he is the perfect person to write a popular book on meditation.
First the background: Harris is a news reporter, and the book opens with an account of one of the worst days of his career. Maybe one of the worst days of his life. He is reporting live on Good Morning America, one of those upbeat morning shows where the news is mixed with cookie recipes, dancing pop stars, and lots of weather reports for places where you don’t live. On the morning Harris describes, viewers from all over the country are eating cereal, drinking their coffee, and waking up while watching GMA, when he has a full-blown panic attack live on the air. A racing heartbeat, gasping for breath, inability to speak – the whole embarrassing thing unfolds in front of approximately five million groggy-eyed viewers just before they head off to work for the day. For a reporter, it is the stuff of nightmares.*
The reasons for the attack are numerous and make up an interesting biography in the first couple of chapters, but what is most interesting is what happened next. He goes on a search to change himself, and it turns into a kind of postmodern spiritual journey: a spiritual journey by an investigative journalist who investigates all things spiritual for a national news outlet. How meta can you get?
If you meditate, then the basics of his search will probably be very familiar to you. He reads self-help books. Then he stumbles upon Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the other Oprah Book Club gurus. He goes from books to talks. From talks to meditation. And so on. It seems to be the trajectory many people follow in the west. Step one: read the books. Step two: listen to the teachers. Step three: try it for yourself. Step four: repeat.
But here is the unique thing about Harris’s story, he is in a position not just to read the books, but to interview the authors. Harris goes on a bit of a mission to investigate the gurus and see who they really are. He clearly has a spiritual yearning, but his reporter’s instincts give his investigation a clarifying effect that is missing from other “spiritual journey” biographies: he can easily see what is BS and what is not. And there is a lot of BS. He sums up the problem he encountered perfectly in the opening chapter:
Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem. Largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.
He gives a frustrating account of his interview with Tolle, who has a way of producing loads of what Kurt Vonnegut would call “foma,” sayings that are harmless but essentially meaningless, only to suddenly say something so true, clear, and powerful that it shocks you into amazement. The effect is short-lived, because more foma quickly issues forth. Harris senses that Tolle is on to something, but he can’t put his finger on what it is and can’t get any meaningful advice from him on how to find out for himself. He drops him for a time, but he makes a reappearance later in the book.
After Tolle he moves on to Chopra, who comes off horribly in the book. Chopra is not so much a spiritual guru as a business guru, a salesman, and he is a glutton for fame and attention. Harris is restrained and polite in his skepticism, but clearly after spending time with the blackberry-addicted, media-loving, savvy businessman that is Deepak Chopra, Harris feels less than inspired.
But luckily, that is when he runs into Mark Epstein. Epstein introduces him to Buddhism, the mindfulness movement, and the world of people associated with insight meditation.** It is touch and go, and the mindfulness people don’t seem that much better than Tolle or Chopra at first. But over time he comes to see them as more real and less obsessed with fame. The fact that they make no weird claims about quantum vortexes, the law of attraction, or awakening hidden energies doesn’t hurt. Epstein and many others seem like ordinary people who discovered an extraordinary thing – meditation actually works when you know how to do it. But still, the world of mindfulness and Buddhism has its fair share of sentimentality, if not outright woo-woo, and in this respect teachers like Tara Brach do not come off well in the book.
Despite his skepticism, he begins meditating and discovers, like so many millions, that it actually works. But he is frustrated by the dissonance between the weirdness of the culture surrounding meditation and its incredible down-to-earth practicality. As he puts it:
I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.
In the end of the book, Harris does not become enlightened. As far as I can tell, he has only begun his practice. This is not a book about the joys of finishing the path, or even of being on the path, but rather the relief of finally finding the trailhead. It is about the frustrations of finding real information despite the wall of white noise that is modern pop spirituality. The thickets of new age confusion that one can get caught in are on full display in this book, and Harris, with his investigative journalist’s eye, describes just how awful they are for someone starting their search. And while this could give the book a cynical tone, the overall feeling is hopeful. Harris does find the trailhead. He finds a practice worth doing and is excited to demystify it for other newbies. From what I can tell he has not yet experienced the first big mystical breakthrough, what is called the A&P, but if he keeps meditating I’m sure he will.
I’m looking forward to that book.
*The way the other anchors and the corporate folks respond to his panic attack is amazing. It makes one question the stereotypes about those involved in the news media.
** It’s an odd coincidence, but I ran into Harris at this point in his journey. We attended a dinner together and though we didn’t get a chance to talk I kept wondering why he looked so familiar. I assumed we must have skyped about meditation at some point so as I was leaving the dinner I waved at him and said “sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk.” Now I understand the look he gave me, which at the time I thought was “I’m sorry too,” but in hindsight must have been “who the hell is this guy?”
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.
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.
Anyone who has meditated, even for a minute, is familiar with at least one of the five hindrances. While they are still the best overview of the issues that come up during meditation, some meditators are facing modern versions of these that can be confusing. Here is a list of some of the most common.
The meditation intellectual. You’ve met this person. You might be this person (I’ve been this guy on a few occasions). He or she can quote from the suttas and knows the original Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit for lots of obscure Buddhist, Taoist and non-dual concepts. While this might be an advantage when debating on internet forums, it can be a hinderance when one sits down to settle the mind and meditate. Nothing gets in the way of meditation more than thinking about meditation so much that one thinks about meditation during meditation.
Being a technique-o-phile or a technique-o-phobe
I once worked as a mechanic. In the shop we loved to argue about which tools were the best. One group loved Snap-on, another loved Mac, and still others swore by Matco and so on. The debates were heated and endless. Meditative techniques, like noting, breath concentration or visualizations, are also tools. They are employed to support a process of change in the mind and heart, and are valuable only for that reason. However, just like the mechanics in my old shop, meditators often divide themselves up into camps and swear by one technique or another. Some refuse to use any technique at all. Being too wedded to any technique or to no technique is missing the point. The tool is not important. It is the work the tool is intended to accomplish that matters.
Internal debate (lack of confidence)
External debates are a big distraction for some, but internal debates plague most meditators. Am I doing it right? Is this the right technique? Maybe I could let go more. Could this be the wrong time to meditate? Although it is normal for beginning meditators to debate with themselves and try new things in starts and fits, the speculation over how to improve one’s meditation could literally go on forever. For some people it feels as though it does, and they find themselves struggling with this years into a regular sitting practice. The internal debate is the wicked little child of the hindrances of doubt and restlessness, so it is best to target those. The solution to this hinderance will be a little different for everyone, but generally it will be a combination of calming the mind through concentration and setting clear resolutions or goals at the start of each sit that clarify what one will do. Having someone you are checking in with, whether it is a teacher or a friend, can help as well.
We have all been there. You are sitting in meditation, watching the breath, when the memory of something painful comes up and… you realize that you’ve been afraid of the pain of that awful event that happened when you were four and which eventually led to your defensiveness in so many relationships and your fear of your own success, and because of that fear you have never been comfortable with your own body and compensated by all sorts of behaviors that eventually led to difficulty in your family which then led to…
Meditation can bring up a lot of things in the mind but few are as “sticky” as self-psychotherapy. Examining and rehashing our own personal story is extremely tempting when meditating, but it rarely leads to insight into the nature of reality. Instead it leads to insight into the nature of this ego and its problems. Aim higher. Go bigger. Don’t settle for putting yourself on the couch when you could be seeing through all of that and getting in touch with something much more profound.
Some Western meditators just can’t shake their puritan roots no matter how hard they try. Pursuing awakening is not always fun (it can be very difficult and harsh), but the pursuit should not kill one’s sense of fun in life. The meditator suffering from too much seriousness has a mind that is too rigid, too hard, unable to be flexible and meet the challenge of the moment. Eventually, the major challenge of meditation is to completely surrender, and this only happens when the tight fist of rigidity unclenches. When you see any “fun” with meditation as unskillful, then you are in trouble. One useful antidote to this is to ask yourself how things got so serious in the first place. Often you’ll find that the rigidity is tied to a sense of identification around the meditation itself. For example, folks who want to be a “good Buddhist,” or a “real yogi” sometimes end up in this trap. Question your vision of “good” practice.
As is pretty clear from this website, I’m a fan of mapping out the path. But knowing that map, while empowering when you are getting up and started, can become a hinderance. Most students who know the insight path well know that they can become obsessive about where they are and what is going on. Am I in the dark night or equanimity? Is this dissolution or the arising and passing? Was that stream entry or something else? Knowing the map can lead to a lot of thinking about the map – during meditation. The problem is that this can feed the sense of self that thinks it is making its way along the path. In the larger scheme of things this is a self-correcting problem (pardon the pun) because when one gets to a certain point on the map dropping the self is the only way left. The key is to be an informed meditator. Knowing the map is fine and using it is skillful. But when you are in the midst of meditation, set it aside. A good driver wouldn’t try to read a map while driving, so don’t try to use the map while meditating.
Seeking the mystical, ignoring the mundane
Mystical states, strange powers, psychic intimations, bliss and peak experiences – these are obstacles to insight when they become the goal of practice. Chasing a grand experience leads to a dead end because seeing the truth of matters is often mundane. This is not to say that mystical and strange things do not occur, they often do. It is when one seeks these experiences that problems arise. One of the characteristics of awakening is that while it is consciously recognized as something extraordinary, it also feels very mundane. This paradox is always so unexpected that it often feels like a cosmic joke. Don’t worry about rarified experiences. Aim to have the cosmic joke played on you.
Putting too much or too little effort into the practice is a common obstacle, and it’s tricky to recognize in the beginning. When a person puts too much effort into their meditation, it stalls out under their attempts at control. The first instinct is often to try harder, and the problem gets worse. And for those who have come to believe that any effort is the wrong way to go, when they start spacing out or getting lost in daydreams the first impulse is to “just be” even more. The key is to find that balance in effort that allows you to stay present with whatever arises without trying to control the experience. The antidote to this is to see that it is happening and run a few experiments when you meditate. Try a little less effort or a little more. What happens?
The self-improvement project
The path of insight is one in which the self becomes less important, not more. As one sees more deeply into moment-to-moment experience, the very creation of the sense of self in each instant becomes observable, and this dramatically changes one’s view of the self. However, this process can get derailed if the meditator is trying to become something from the meditation. Any attempt to create a better version of yourself will stall out the process. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a sincere wish to become a better person. Serious meditators often start off with this kind of self-improvement project when they take their first steps toward meditation. I started off by wanting to be a more relaxed version of myself. However, as the path unfolds, you need to abandon the self-focused motivation in favor of the motivation to see reality clearly. If you can’t abandon the self-improvement project, you can’t abandon the self.
Abandoning all goals
To put it simply, it is a mistake to do this too early in your practice. There are excellent reasons to meditate with no goals and to abandon all goals entirely, however this approach fits best into an advanced practice. Too many novice meditators (pre stream-entry) read about goal-lessness and end up with no real way to start. Some can get stuck in a relaxing spaciness that leads nowhere and end up doing this as their practice for years. It is absolutely reasonable to set goals for your meditation early on. In the beginning it could be as simple as sitting for a certain length of time. Then it could be to count a certain number of breaths. And as the practice matures and one starts to see the path unfold you can aim your efforts at stream entry. Goals are important. Especially before the first taste of awakening. Once practice has matured to a certain point the logic of setting goals for your meditation will seem foolish and silly. Then you will know that you have outgrown them and the time for abandoning goals in practice has arrived.
Great expectations or no expectations (believing the biased sample)
The internet has been one of the biggest turnings of the wheel of the Dhamma ever. More people have more access to information on meditation than ever before. This is literally true and a bit amazing to ponder. However, those who post their experiences with meditation on the internet often have something unique or compelling to share. When so many people share their compelling experiences, it can seem as if everyone is having unusual and mind-blowing experiences. The average meditator can sometimes feel as if their perfectly normal experience is anything but. The reports found on the internet can sometimes be what social scientists call a “biased sample” in that those meditators who share on the internet have a bias, or an unusual experience, compared to the general population. For meditators who are starting out, it is important not to expect unusual experiences. And for those who have some sitting time behind them it is important not to discount it.
This list of modern hindrances is in no way exhaustive. There are others not included, but my hope is that by bringing up some of the most common ones, others will be easier to work on as well. As with everything, the key to overcoming the hindrances is to first see them for what they are, and having a name for them helps.
Recently I was following a debate between two meditators (yes, we do debate). It ended with one of the debaters, whose views had been soundly taken to task, accusing the other of “wrong speech.”George Orwell, I thought, could not have imagined a more ironic outcome.
For those who are not familiar, “right speech” is a Buddhist concept, and is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path. Although the intent behind right speech is to help people behave skillfully by being truthful and not hurting others with words, in practice it can be anything but useful. In fact, it can be used to squash dissent, shut out alternative views, and put the brakes on important and revolutionary ideas. Wrong thinking about right speech can be a hindrance to innovation and authentic sharing.
The Wrong Speech Accusation
Few things stop a person in their tracks faster than accusing them of wrong speech. For those protecting their attachment to a deeply held view, such an accusation can be a trump card, a way to hold off challenges to beliefs that have become an identity. This is especially true when the person accused of wrong speech is persistent, critical and direct. This is often when the wrong speech card gets played in Buddhist circles, and staying with right speech actually takes some guts.
Sometimes a person can be rough, or even harsh, but still be engaging in right speech. To some folks this might sound crazy, but it is totally true. In reality right speech can be both gentle and kind or strong and challenging. It can be encouraging or dissuading. It can comfort and it can push others out of their comfort zone. It can make you feel great and give you a boost, or it can challenge who you think you really are. The Buddha himself was extremely compassionate, but he also jumped into many heated debates to give his two cents, and even called people “stupid” when they made ridiculous assertions (MN 4.8).
How can this be so? Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is spoken. It can look divisive, harsh and anything but compassionate. But if it nudges the listener and the speaker in the direction of honesty, self-examination and awakening, then it is skillful.
(One caveat: if you’re reading this you’re not likely a Buddha (harsh, I know). So, be cautious with the name-calling and attitude when debating others. If the mythology around the guy was any indication, he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.”)
The Wrong Speech Cop-Out
Some people use right speech as a cop-out, as an excuse for not confronting bone-headed superstitious thinking or even injustice when it presents itself. For example, deciding not to tell a person that they are hurting others, when they clearly are, is an example of wrong speech. This is not at all academic. Consider for a moment the many scandals in Sanghas that began with a teacher verbally harassing and belittling students. The most common question after such scandals is: why didn’t anybody say anything? In such instances right speech would be considered harsh and divisive if it were done at the appropriate time.
Another example is not confronting a person when they are speaking or behaving in a bigoted manner, or staying silent while public figures espouse hateful views. We have all too many instances of this in our recent history. Not openly disagreeing with these views when you have an opportunity to do so is not skillful. People who are genuinely on the fence about racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills hear your silence as agreement – and that is absolutely wrong speech.
The point is that silence is likely the most common form of wrong speech.
How Do I Engage Socially, Politically, and Still Use Right Speech?
If you want to engage in right speech you need to think before you speak. In particular you need to consider a few things before you say something:
Is this false?
Am I trying to hurt this person?
Am I trying to serve my ego? To boost myself up in some way, to make myself look important, smart, or cool?
Is saying this just serving a favored identity of mine?
Am I confused and trying to hide it?
If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s best not to say anything. In other words, check your motivations for speaking. If it is selfish, hurtful, or comes from a place of confusion, then abstain. However, I would add one caveat. Before abstaining ask yourself this question:
Am I simply avoiding speaking up because it will be uncomfortable?
If you answered yes to this, then reconsider. Don’t let misguided ideas of right speech get in the way of doing the right thing.
In this video Willoughby Britton PhD from Brown University gives a presentation on a very important topic: The negative effects of meditation.
I am currently collaborating with Willoughby to collect data on this phenomenon, which is often called the “Dark Night” in meditation communities. If you have experienced a Dark Night and would like to discuss it, please contact me at email@example.com.
The second great part of the path is what I call “getting your head together” and it is all about meditation. Most of what is discussed in this site regards this part of the Dharma. Just like “Buddhism”, the word “meditation” is often used as if it were one thing, but actually there are many different kinds of meditation. It is way beyond the scope of this site to get into the many varieties of meditation, so I will limit this to the two big categories of meditation: concentration (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana).
In English the word “concentrate” has a different meaning than it does in Pali (the Buddha’s original language). I grew up thinking that to concentrate meant to think really hard. But in meditation concentration more closely resembles the concept of concentration in chemistry. To concentrate a chemical in a solution you filter out the impurities and then gradually reduce a large amount of solution down into a tiny distilled essence. This essence is the chemical concentration. The same process takes place in concentration meditation, only what is being concentrated is the mind itself.
The meditation instructions for concentration meditation are wonderfully simple: pick an object, like the breath, and place your attention on it – to the exclusion of all else. You pick a spot to watch the breath, say the upper lip or the tip of the nose, and just watch it come and go right there. Like a carpenter watching a band saw blade cut through wood who only focuses on the spot where the blade and the wood meet, the meditator focuses all attention on that spot where the breath enters and leaves the body. Every other function of the mind, listening to noises in the environment, planning what to do later, noticing an ache in the knee – all other processes get “turned down” so to speak, as if they were on an internal dimmer switch. This process of narrowing attention down on a single small object and dimming all other functions “distills” the mind into a very concentrated form. But it won’t be long before you find yourself drifting off and thinking about something other than the object, as if one of the dimmer switches suddenly went all the way up. No worries. This is what this meditation is for. It identifies the things that drag the mind away and helps you overcome them, or filter them out.
To concentrate the mind you first filter out the “impurities” in it (hence the title of the ancient meditation manual “The Path of Purification“). The impurities in this case are those things which get in the way of concentration, and they are known as the five hindrances:
1. sensual desire
2. restlessness and worry
3. ill will
5. sloth and torpor
Many meditators will recognize at least one of these as their own personal super-villan. It is near impossible for a beginner to try an meditate without at least one of them getting in the way. And often that one will come back again and again. There are many practices for filtering out these impurities (sometimes called antidotes), but the most powerful practice for filtering them out of the mind is investigation. When a hindrance comes up in the mind, become a private eye of your own mind, and notice it and watch to see if it diminishes on its own. If it doesn’t, start picking it apart. Ask yourself what are the individual sensations that make up the hindrance, what other experiences, thoughts and feelings are bundled up with it, is there some part of me that wants to hang on to this hindrance, am I wrapping my sense of self into it? Keep asking questions and working on it until it falls apart under the purifying light of your mindfulness.
At some point the impurities will be reduced to a point that is sufficient for concentration to proceed. You will know when this has happened because some fascinating, mystical-type, experiences will begin. The most common experience is to see light with the eyes shut. This is meant literally. It actually seems as if there is a light that is brightening. At this point the meditation is getting really good and the meditator is cooking along and suddenly it will be as if someone is gradually turning the lights up in the room. You may even find yourself peeking to see if the lights are actually going up in the room. What is happening is the mind is becoming concentrated and strong, and you’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. The mind does not know how to interpret that experience, and it grabs onto something it knows that represents what is occurring: in this case it chose “light,”but it could choose something else depending on the person.
From this point the meditator has a couple of choices about what to do, but to proceed with pure concentration meditation you would deepen attention on the object while simultaneously letting go of the effort involved in doing so. Needless to say, this takes some savvy skills, but it can be done. When attention is strong enough and the effort is of the right kind (with little ego control involved), the meditator begins to enter altered states called “Jhanas” (more about Jhanas in a future post).
How does concentration lead to enlightenment? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is purify the mind and make it so strong that when the mind is turned toward the work of insight, then the insights are powerful and easy to get. The difference between a normal mind that is diffuse and scattered among all the different senses and thoughts, and a concentrated mind that is deeply focused, is like the difference between a flashlight and a laser. With a flashlight you can look at what is around you, but with a laser you can actually do work and cut through things. In this case, the laser of the concentrated mind is used to cut through the illusions that keep us from waking up.
The next type of meditation is Vipassana or “insight” meditation. Vipassana begins just like concentration meditation, but the goal of Vipassana is not to distill the mind down but rather to get it just strong enough to begin investigating experience in the moment. To go back to the analogy of the light and the laser, in vipassana the meditator does not concentrate the energy of the light to the point of a laser, nor does the meditator leave it diffuse. Rather, you focus the light in such a way that whatever it shines on becomes easy to see clearly.
The technique of vipassana is somewhat more complicated than that of concentration. With concentration meditation one gets the mind to stay on an object to the point where it becomes very strong, but with Vipassana it is not necessary to keep the mind on one thing and distill it, instead, the meditator puts effort and energy into focusing the beam of the flashlight just enough to get a clear look at things. In this case, the “light” of the flashlight beam is the mindfulness, or deepening momentary awareness, used to know each object as it changes from one thing to the next. This is a very different experience than concentration meditation, because there is no need to stick with a single object. Rather, the effort is in the quality of knowing the objects that come up. So, when the mind starts off on the breath and then shifts to a new object – there is no problem at all! Let the mind wander, but stay with it in the moment. The intention is to follow the mind as it does what it does.
For example let’s say you sit down and place your attention on the breath (just like in concentration meditation), but then a motorcycle goes by outside your window, and your mind begins to focus on the sound. No problem. Now you just notice the sound and watch what happens to it the same way you would with the breath. But then the mind creates a mental image of a motorcycle and begins to focus on that. No problem. You notice the image and be as attentive as you can to that image and the process of the mind creating that image. But then the mind begins judging the person riding the motorcycle for being so loud. No problem. Just notice everything you can about the judging, and so on… The mind loves to wander, it is in its nature really. The beauty of Vipassana is that you truly go with the flow of the mind, letting it lead you to the next object rather than bringing it back to your chosen object.
What is most important to know about Vipassana (and is the very thing that most beginning meditators keep forgetting!) is that you don’t want to get caught up in the content that the mind generates, instead you just want to watch it. This is like the difference between a sports broadcaster describing a game on the air and a player in the game. When you are doing Vipassana you are the sports broadcaster, who is outside of the game but is still watching every little nuance of it as it unfolds. The player that remains in the game is the mind itself, which keeps on generating content and going about its business. The mind is in the midst of all the things that it typically does, building up scenarios, having opinions, taking positions, remembering things, etc., but the mind’s interpretations and ideas about all these things is not at all important. Rather, it is the process of what the mind is doing from moment to moment that really matters. And your job as the meditator is to be aware of it all without getting caught up in it.
Sound tricky? It can be! With this kind of meditation there is a real danger of discovering that you just spent 20 minutes wrapped up in a fantasy or reminiscing about the past. Such experiences are totally normal for new meditators (and even old ones). Just recognize when it happens and put effort into getting back on track. Just like with concentration meditation, in Vipassana you run right into the five hindrances. However, rather than turning your attention back to your chosen object, you simply take the hindrance as the new object and get to know it as best as you can. This will often take the wind out of the sails of the hindrance and the mind will simply jump to another object.
Having a teacher to check in with about this is helpful, because teachers have almost always run into the same problems and know the ways to work through whatever content is most “sticky” for the meditator. This skill of watching the mind do what it does without being caught up in what it does is a skill that can take some time to learn. So don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself daydreaming. It still happens to me all the time. Just get back to the task at hand and watch what the mind is doing. There are many ways of doing vipassana meditation, and you may find that some approaches are more productive for you than others. The approach that worked for me was the noting approach used in the Burmese tradition (look for a meditation instruction page in the future), and that is where I begin when I teach. However, it may be worthwhile to experiment with a few different techniques and see which one best fits you.
A note about vipassana: it can often be a problem for a meditator who is having a big problem in their life not to get caught up in the content related to the problem. If you are going through a really rough time, or you are in therapy, please know that Vipassana is NOT the same as therapy. It is not even close and it was never intended to be. It is a modern myth that insight meditation is somehow similar to “insight” in therapy. Insights in therapy are similar to a sudden pattern recognition, an “aha!” moment where you suddenly see that your insecurities are all about a specific trauma or difficult relationship. These kinds of insights are extremely valuable and are an important part of life – I urge everyone to work to gain these kinds of insights on their own or with a therapist. Sometimes they do arise spontaneously when the mind becomes calm. However, in meditation the word “insight” has a very different meaning, because it does not refer to the content of the mind or to the issues of the individual who is getting the insight. Rather, meditative insights are about understanding how reality is presenting itself at this very moment. With a very clear awareness of how the myriad objects are presenting themselves moment-by-moment, the mind steadily becomes conditioned to see what are the common threads through all of those clear, wakeful moments. It are these common threads that make up the next section on “getting it done.” Suffice it to say, the wisdom gained through meditative insight is highly impersonal. It does not relate to the dramas of the individual doing the meditation, but rather, relates to the way the universe operates. These are insights of an entirely different order than the personal ones that come to us in therapy.
Let me give an example of this situation. A meditator is currently in a relationship that is not going well, and while meditating the image of the his significant other comes into his mind, followed by feelings of anger, then by memories of something cruel he said, then by feelings of guilt, followed by tension in the chest, and then a desire to cry. In this scenario a novice meditator would get caught up in the story of what has happened: “… I remembered my girlfriend and the hurt she has caused, but then remembered how I have hurt her too, and in a fit of regret I understood my own contribution to the pain in our relationship.” This is good therapy, but it totally misses the mark as meditation. A mature meditator will experience the same sequence of events as: “the mind produced an image that triggered an emotion, and there was a craving to develop it into a story about myself. The image fell away and so did the feeling, but then the mind just produce another image and feeling to take that empty place in the mind. I then experienced tightness in my chest and there was a strong urge again to get caught up in a story about the image and feeling, but as I watched these also just disappeared…”
So how does vipassana lead to enlightenment? It leads to enlightenment by getting to the third chunk of the Dharma right away: getting it done. And it does this by seeing whatever is in the mind in that moment as clearly as possible. That clarity attacks ignorance at the roots – and it is ignorance which is keeping us from enlightenment. Ignorance has a special meaning in Buddhism. There is no original sin in Buddhism, but if there were it would be ignorance. Ignorance in this case refers to our lack of knowledge about the true nature if reality. The more clearly we see reality, the less ignorance there is and the more wisdom dawns on us. When we see things clearly enough, long enough, then enlightenment happens (more details on this in “Getting it done”).
The Double Helix of Meditation
Now that I’ve presented meditation in this way, as two overall different types (concentration and insight), I’m going to muddy these clear waters by explaining that these are, in reality, not two different types of meditation but one type of meditation, but each with a different emphasis in technique. In order to do concentration meditation you need a fundamental level of investigation and insight. And to do vipassana you need a basic level of concentration called “access concentration.” Each type of meditation contains the other within it as a necessary practice. The famous meditation teacher Ajahn Chah once explained that insight and concentration are like the front and back of your hand. If you look at one side of your hand you can rest assured that the other side is right behind it. So, you can select a technique that emphasizes concentration or insight, but you will really always be doing both. I call this the double helix of meditation. For a gene to be fully expressed, DNA requires two strands woven together to hold the genetic material. For wisdom to be fully expressed, the strands of both concentration and insight are needed to hold the meditation together. Whichever strand of meditation you choose to emphasize, you can rest assured that if you are making progress you are truly doing both.
Once meditation begins to deepen and the insights into the nature of reality begin to alter how your mind functions, you are well on your way to enlightenment. This is discussed in the next section on awakening wisdom, which I call “Getting it done.”
You have worked on getting your act together and are perfecting morality. You have sat in meditation and are starting to experience deep concentration and are beginning to investigate your experience in the moment. Now you are ready to move toward the deepest, most profound experience a human being can have: enlightenment, or what I call “getting it done.”
The whole trajectory of the Dharma leads the meditator toward enlightenment. Practitioners often want to ask “…what is enlightenment?” but are afraid to do so because teachers can be evasive or even dismissive of students who ask such questions. But it is absolutely a fair question. After all, the practice of perfecting morality and deepening meditation can be a tremendous amount of work, and while there is a lot of talk among some teachers and meditators about doing practice for its own sake, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know what enlightenment is and why it is so special. Monks give up all the normal comforts of life to pursue it, and even lay practitioners will withstand intense deprivation and difficulty if it means getting closer to enlightenment (sometimes with tragic results). Before the Internet, people would literally travel around the world, climb mountains and walk hundreds of miles to learn how to become enlightened from somebody who was rumored to have done it. Clearly, enlightenment is worthwhile, but what is it?
This is where the Dharma begins to break down under the inexpressibility of what is being taught. It is where the teachings begin to sound mystical and nonsensical to students. The reason for this is that we are attempting to understand enlightenment with the mind, and the mind is just not good at getting it. Your mind cannot really grasp enlightenment in the same way that your hand cannot reach out and grasp “love” or “boredom” – it is just not able to work in that way. The mind deals in concepts, symbols and representations, but what happens during enlightenment is strictly non-conceptual. Language can’t express it and it can’t be represented in an image. This is why when students asked the Buddha what enlightenment is he simply gave them a very long explanation of what it isn’t. Even he, probably the best teacher ever on the topic, couldn’t explain it.
So the hard truth is that no one can simply say what it is. While I cannot express what enlightenment is in a way that the mind can actually grasp, what I can say is this: the predominant experience of enlightenment is one of relief. When I asked my teacher, Kenneth Folk, about it he explained that, “You just feel done”. This might not sound like anything special, and it isn’t – and yet at the same time it really is (see how confusing this can get?).
I’m not a big fan of “faith.” It is not something that I recommend to people who are serious about waking up. After all, to lay the groundwork for enlightenment, you need to investigate your experience with the precision and clarity of a scientist. Faith can create expectations that obscure honest observations. However, when it comes to waking up, some faith is needed.
How do I get enlightened?
Strictly speaking, “you” never get enlightened. Enlightenment is very impersonal, and does not really happen to an individual. It happens when the awareness that mistakenly thinks it is an individual is liberated from that illusion. It is a bit misleading (but I believe useful) to describe enlightenment as “getting it done” because there is no “self” that can actually make this happen. Rather, the “self” creates the conditions under which insight can ripen into a full-blown realization. After enlightenment it becomes clear that while the path to enlightenment was traveled by an individual, the leap into enlightenment is something that the “self” could not, and did not, really do. It happened. But who did it really happen to? Once the leap is made, the paradoxes become simultaneously unending and irrelevant. You cannot do this with an act of will or with a plan of action, but you can create the conditions under which it is likely to happen.
How do I create the conditions for enlightenment?
The conditions for enlightenment are created by deepening meditation to a point where you begin to move along what is called “the progress of insight“: a series of stages in the meditation that provide the insights needed to awake (look for more on states and stages in a future post).
The way to enlightenment is often called a “path” for a very good reason. In the same way that the Appalachian Trail has mile-markers and sections, the path of meditation has specific markers and recognizable sections which vary in difficulty. Students progress along this path in a fairly predictable and repeatable sequence. While “path” is a metaphor, it is much more accurate than most students realize. The path arises in our experience when we sit in meditation and follow the directions exactly. If the meditator daydreams or gets caught up in the content of the mind, it is like leaving the trail to explore the woods. Before you know it, the trail is lost. However, by following the directions exactly, using the maps, and getting some guidance, you will stay on the path and will experience the series of developmental stages that make up that path to enlightenment.
The progress of insight is a series of 16 stages, called “insight knowledges” that arise in a specific sequence. The first few stages are pretty mundane and easy to miss, a lot like trail markers hidden in tall grass. But eventually the markers become pretty easy to spot. There are sections of the path which are blissful and joyful, and some that are rough and difficult. Having a teacher to keep you moving through the tough times and keep you grounded through the joyful times is nearly essential as you make your way. If the meditator sticks with it and makes progress along all the states, eventually the path leads to a very important moment, called a “cessation,” where everything, including the sense of self, disappears for an instant. It happens so quick that some people miss it, and those who do notice it often wonder, “what was that?” It is a very important moment in the life of the meditator, because it is, for an instant, a direct experience of Nirvana. As time goes on they can master cessations, and experience them whenever they like (I take lots of breaks at my desk at work by dipping into Nirvana periodically).
When the meditator experiences a cessation there is a fundamental change that is made at a very deep level called a “path moment.” In the metaphor we are using here, it represents a switch in the trail you are on. You start over, so to speak, on a new trail. As you progress along the new trail, the 16 markers appear again and you eventually get to the direct experience of Nirvana again, and then to a new path moment and so on. Each time you switch to a new trail and the 16 markers arise again, and are the same each time. When this progression along the paths is done enough times it creates the conditions for the profound shift called enlightenment to occur. You could say that moving along through the 16 insight knowledges and experiencing Nirvana ripens the meditator in a way that increases the chances that enlightenment will happen. In the traditional models, the progress of insight, through the 16 insight stages, is done four times, and then the meditator is fully enlightened. In this four-path model, when the meditator has experienced the first path moment, they have attained the first stage of Enlightenment, and are known as a “Sotapanna” or “stream-winner”, second path is “Sakadagami”, third is “Anagami” and the fourth is “Arahat.” An Arahat is an enlightened being and is finished with the work of awakening (it is actually a little more complicated than that in reality).
The progress of insight and four-path model is the overall map that I use to guide students. I use them because the 16 stages are fine-grained enough to be verifiable in the student’s direct experience, while the four-paths are broad enough to encompass the whole path. But it is important for all students to know that there are many other maps out there from many different traditions, and not all the maps agree on what the path looks like. For example large parts of the Tibetan maps don’t really fit well with the Theravadin maps, and in the Zen tradition they refuse to use maps (to my knowledge). While there are some critical differences in the maps (sometimes profound differences), what is more remarkable than the differences are the similarities. A practitioner who has awakened can look at most of the maps and recognize what is being described in terms of personal experience, regardless of which map that practitioner used.
Arguments Against the Maps
I should state at this point that there are teachers who feel that focusing on the maps is a bad idea. And this has led to a situation in which a lot of experienced and serious practitioners don’t even know the maps exist, or think that they shouldn’t know them. Teachers worry that the maps will create expectations that interfere with “natural” progress (though I must wonder if there is such a thing as “unatural progress”). In particular there is a concern that practitioners reporting experiences in their meditation may just “script” the experiences from the maps. Additionally, students could get competitive about where they are on the maps, or become so focused on attainments that they lose sight of becoming liberated from the ego that is attaining. These are legitimate concerns, however they beg the question: if the maps are not really helpful to students, why have the major traditions developed them, refined them and passed them down for literally thousands of years?
As it turns out, using the maps in practice is not nearly as fraught with problems as might be believed. It turns out that students rarely deliberately make stuff up when reporting their meditation, and when they do it is easy to see. If they are unconsciously scripting their experience, that can be handled easily by a competent teacher. To go back to the metaphor of the Appalachian Trail, there is a huge difference in the descriptions of a section of trail from someone who actually hiked it and someone who only read about it. Experienced hikers can tell the difference in the descriptions easily. This is one of the marks of a solid Dharma teacher, they know the territory first hand and when you describe it, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
Beyond the maps
Even though there is a good map that leads from first sit to awakening, astute students might begin to wonder what is really going on. After all, the maps simply explain what you experience along the way, but not why these experiences lead to awakening.
As it turns out, the insights that you experience along the path have a gradual but profound effect on the mind. Over time, the insights mature into what is called “wisdom” (panna). This kind of wisdom is not cognitive. It has very little to do with thinking and is closer in experience to the faculty of sight than thought. Wisdom is the ability to directly see what is true and what is not. It is a bit like seeing an optical illusion. What you thought was a vase suddenly resolves into two faces. In the same way, what you thought was real turns out to be false. What you could never have believed before becomes obvious. What you’ll discover as wisdom builds is that there are a lot of things that we take to be true which simply are illusions. The three illusions that are really important for enlightenment are:
1. The illusion that what is perceived as a “self” is real or has a core essence
2. The illusion that this “self” (or anything) is somehow permanent
3. The illusion that the things that make the self happy are truly satisfying
Corresponding with these three illusions are three core truths of reality, what are called the “three characteristics” in Buddhism. These are characteristics of reality that are so fundamental that deep and honest investigation of your experience at any given moment of your life will reveal them:
1. The self is a fiction (anatta)
2. Everything, including the perceived self, is in a constant state of change (anicca)
3. Most of the life of this “self” is very dissatisfying and often very painful (dukkha)
A close examination will reveal that the three characteristics are so interrelated that if you deeply understood one of them, the other two logically follow and become obvious to you. These are simply three ways of understanding one fundamental reality. The insights into the nature of reality that occur during meditation don’t seem to do much at first, but they have a cumulative effect on the mind. As the three characteristics become clearer, so do the illusions that obscured them. As these illusions weaken reality becomes more obvious to us, not in a conceptual sense, but in a way that is felt moment by moment.
The way that the progress of insight leads to awakening is that each of the insight knowledges experienced by the meditator has something important to reveal about the three characteristics. It is useful to think of each insight knowledge as a class on the three characteristics. When you “pass” the class you move on to the next insight knowledge, and when you experience a path moment, you graduate to the next level of your education. Eventually you get a complete education, and that is awakening.
It is this – fully understanding through the insights gleaned in meditation that you have been running on illusions, and really getting the three characteristics in your daily life – that sets the conditions for enlightenment to happen. Getting it done is all about fully comprehending the insights gleaned in meditation and letting them erode illusions at a very deep level.
Mindfulness has become a wildly popular concept. It is rare that a term from a contemplative tradition breaks into popular culture with such vividness and recognition. Self-help sections in bookstores are now chock-full of guides on mindfulness for everyday living. In psychology, an alphabet soup of therapies capitalize on mindfulness, such as MBSR, MB-CBT, ACT, and DBT. It is no longer unusual to hear business gurus describe mindfulness as a way to increase productivity, sports trainers claim it as way to get in the zone and or celebrities tout it as fashionable. Mindfulness has struck a nerve in our popular culture, and people are looking to it for answers to their problems.
Mindfulness is sometimes presented as a panacea, a magic bullet that will strike down our illusions in a moment and make us smarter, happier and stress-free. This hype around mindfulness, while bringing greater attention to meditation, also blurs mindfulness in the public imagination into a vague cure-all. This snake-oil approach to mindfulness is what I call the Myth of Mindfulness.
With so much hype about mindfulness, it would be easy to assume that everyone knows what it is. Students who are new to meditation are often not clear on what mindfulness really is, and are too embarrassed to ask, because they assumed that if everyone is talking about it, then everyone else gets it. But in reality, pop culture definitions show that it is greatly misunderstood. So sincere practitioners get confused and are too embarrassed to ask about it. It sometimes gets defined as “attention,” “focus” or “being completely in touch.” In more mystical writings I have seen it described as “presence,” “surrender” or “being in the here and now.” In the psychological and stress reduction literatures there is a focus on mindfulness as being “nonjudgmental attention” and “radical acceptance.”
This is where meditators are often left scratching their heads. If mindfulness boils down to nonjudgmental acceptance of everything, and paying full attention in the moment, then how does it liberate us from our illusions? After all, someone deeply engrossed in a rampage during a game of Grand Theft Auto has great mindfulness by that definition. Someone breaking into a house is very mindful of every little noise they make, and is totally “present”. If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you can imagine many scenarios in which people can be “mindful” and do awful or even stupid things. So for someone trying to awaken, mindfulness by some of the most popular definitions doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the context of Buddhist meditation what does mindfulness really mean?
Mindfulness in four easy pieces
The reason why the popular definitions confuse beginning meditators is because they are meant to serve totally different ends than those in meditation. In the therapy literature mindfulness is intended to help the person relax and get in touch with their feelings, which is not the focus of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation (though it is often a nice side-effect). In the self-help literature mindfulness is often intended as a way to help the ego accomplish something or get something – which is actually the opposite of what mindfulness is used for in contemplative traditions. It may be cynical to say, but celebrity versions of mindfulness are simply meant to enhance a public persona and will remain in the public eye until mindfulness has jumped the shark. If the meditator relies on pop concepts of mindfulness, they will be working against the path rather than moving forward.
Many definitions of mindfulness that are out there leave out three-fourths of the picture. They have it right when they include attention, so we can think of that as the first piece. What follows is a discussion of the other three missing pieces.
Piece 2: Mindfulness of… a meditation object
In order to pay attention, accept, or be nonjudgmental you need something to pay attention to and be nonjudgmental about. What you need is called an “object” in meditation. An “object” has a special place in the world of meditation; it is what the meditator selects as the focus and centerpiece of the meditation. Objects come in all shapes and sizes. Just about anything (and literally “no-thing”) can be an object. Objects are what the mind uses to get the meditation going and keep it going. Some traditional objects are the breath, sensations in the body, a repeated word or phrase, a question, the flow of thoughts, mental images, painted discs called kasinas, emotions and hundreds of other things. In some traditions the goal of the meditation is to maintain an awareness of the object through literally every waking moment. In specialized practices the mind is allowed to freely wander and whatever it naturally focuses on becomes an object for an instant, before it moves on to something else. In the context of practice it is important to remember that mindfulness is always “mindfulness of…” there is always an object to which the attention is applied. This crucial piece is what is often missing in pop definitions of mindfulness, as if it were a disembodied process with nothing to anchor it in reality.
Piece 3: The Quality of Attention – Falling in love with the object
But this is not the whole picture. Mindfulness is not just being present in the moment. It is not simply attention, and it is not the object either. And it is not both. It is an intimacy between the meditator and object that is unique depending on the person and object. At this point, the attitude of the meditator plays a great role in mindfulness. The meditator begins to build a relationship with the object, to learn about it, understand it, and become deeply alive to it. The meditator needs to generate curiosity, interest and affection for the object. I once heard the concentration meditation teacher Tina Rasmussen describe this process as “falling in love with the object.” This is a perfect way of describing it.
Piece 4: Remembering to remember
Adding to the complexity, and depth, of this practice-oriented view of mindfulness is that it also includes the act of remembering – the last piece of the picture. Staying focused on an object, even for a few minutes, can be difficult. There is effort involved in staying with the object, especially at first, because the mind likes to wander off. What is needed is a constant act of remembering to pay attention to the object. This act of remembering is also referred to with the shorthand: “mindfulness.” This is the work of meditation and it can be very difficult for some meditators. I have been meditating for years and I still need to put effort in each time I choose an object and “put mindfulness before” me, as the Buddha described it. That initial effort gets easier and easier as time goes on, and eventually you will even take joy in that effort, as if the act of remembering brings with it the inspiration to keep at it.
A mature practitioner will see that though mindfulness does indeed include attention to the present moment, it is so much more. Mindfulness is the gentle, recurring, building of a relationship between the mind of the meditator and an object of meditation. To build this relationship the meditator constantly guides the mind back to the object and surrenders as much attention to the object as they can. In this process, the mind becomes quiet and still, and the object starts to become more and more joyful to watch. Once the meditator begins to master mindfulness, they will find that they are wondering “…is this it? There must be more than this.” And the answer is that there is much, much more. When mindfulness increases, so do the other factors of meditation, particularly concentration, energy and investigation. At this point, two things can happen, the meditator can increase attention so much that they experience “absorption” with the object, in which the object seems to absorb the whole of experience, or the meditator can begin investigating the object to see if the teachings of the Dharma are true (check out the General Dharma page for more). What the meditator will inevitably discover though, is that mindfulness is not all that there is to meditation and awakening. Mindfulness is the foundation upon which more complex and subtle meditative techniques rest. It is the first skill a meditator learns, the one that is done throughout all of one’s practice as a supporting background, and the one that continues to need refreshing even after enlightenment.
Once the meditator has mastered mindfulness, they may be surprised by what he or she is not experiencing. The meditator finds that mindfulness does not translate into a complete lack of stress, or a solution to the problems of life. The meditator will not become more beautiful, begin to make genius business decisions or suddenly dunk baskets like a star. In fact, becoming even more sensitive and attentive in general might make you more irritable, not less! This might seem like a let down to those who have bought into the myth of mindfulness, but that is only because the myth caters to the very thing that all of pop culture caters to: the ego. In developing and truly experiencing mindfulness, the meditator cannot help but gradually shed illusions, and the biggest illusion of all is the self. This can happen in a sudden wallop of absorption, on through the gradual erosion of illusion that insight produces. Either way, if you engage in a sincere practice of mindfulness you will find that while the myth sounded nice, the reality is far far better.