Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Forbidden Topics

The intention here is to warn people away, although realistically the title will likely draw even more views than normal.  So be it.  But be warned.  Basically, if you are comfortable with your meditation practice and don't want to trip yourself up with expectations and so forth, bail out now.

The epitome of not talking about phenomena is perhaps Soto Zen practice where in theory they tell you absolutely nothing about practice or experiences, states, whatever.  They only teach you the position to sit in, and you sit.  No instruction about what needs to go on in your mind, or anything about various stages, meditative experiences, nothing.  And that is good in a way, because an indoctrinated mind can contract around these ideas and concepts, and that can trip some people up.

Personally, I'd say the Soto Zen approach is a bit extreme.  I think there is something to be gleaned from a bit of talk about progress, markers along the path and so forth.  These things can help keep a person going, see where you are and that progress has been made.  A form of useful feedback along the way as opposed to groping in the dark.  But some people seem to manage to beat themselves up about not having attainments, or being jealous of other's attainments, etc., so be careful.

The fact that there are topics that are traditionally not talked about, such as actual experiences or attainments, this head-in-the-sand policy has both some dogmatism to it, and some skillfulness.  The good part is that not talking about attainment avoids problems with one-upping and overclaiming and people feeling poorly about lack of attainments.  The dogmatic part derives from the fact that the old Buddhist texts prohibit a monk from talking about such things to laypeople, and that has been incorporated into even very mainstream meditation groups, to the point that many teachers aren't even aware of this material.  This dogma leads to a lack of basic awareness of what is happening, and a lack of reasonable feedback that could otherwise be conducive to progress.

Some of these things that aren't talked about would be:
  • micro-stages that one tends to experience while doing contemplative practice
  • stable, trance-like states of meditative absorption
  • macro-stages, analogous to something like years of college
  • non-experiences, gaps, or emptiness

Basic Progress

Nothing forbidden here.  You may have experienced some markers of fairly mundane meditative progress in your everyday life.  Perhaps while experiencing some kind of task or game or even while having a glass of wine, you notice that in your current experience compared to how you were in the past, you are a little bit more aware, and a little bit more relaxed.  For many, this will be the standard result from traditional meditation practices.


The micro-stages (Buddhist jargon: Progress of Insight) are a series of experiential phenomena that tend to happen to in a somewhat repeatable order to people that do contemplative practices.  Tradition breaks this down more finely, but this will be a 4 stage version.  I will emphasize that not everyone is going to experience all this stuff exactly this way, so don't worry if you don't.

These stages appear with varying depths and over various timeframes.  A person may notice a series of phenomena that arise during the course of a single sit, and eventually may notice that something very similar is happening to the background of their overall experience over many weeks and months as the underlying neurology catches up to the cutting edge in practice, and reflects that in daily life.

First Stage - Sustained

At the first stage, in my opinion not a lot is going on.  This area was not even conceived of in the micro framework until quite late in the game (i.e. the last century) by the monk Mahasi who seemed to be using it as a way of introducing some basic conceptual understandings, but I'm not sure there is much there in terms of actual phenomena.  What is there might be thought of as correlating with a kind of sustained effort, and there are some related physical phenomena that may occur particularly to newer meditators.  Namely, at this stage there can be persistent (i.e. sustained) physical sensations such as itching, or a constant pain or tension or cramping.

Second Stage - Pleasant

The second stage we might call the Pleasant stage.  You might notice various pleasant sensations, joy, brightness in the visual field.  At its best, everything can seem really good, very sixties, people with flowers in their hair, togetherness, everything can be really wonderful.  You might notice some pulsing in the forehead as the demands on your prefrontal cortex are increased.  Sometimes there may be a bit of flashing in the visual field as this happens.

It often during this stage that people might stumble into a big spiritual experience, an opening or awakening, a glimpse.  I call this the "Big Experience", and I'll come back to it later.

Third Stage - Unsatisfactory

The third stage is the Unsatisfactory stage.  At the beginning of this stage, in the wake of the Pleasant stage, everything might be very okay, but the relaxed okayness becomes a kind of relaxed but sinking sensation.  After this transition, a series of unsatisfactory sensations might come up like fear, misery, or disgust.  For example sometimes a pang of fear can come out of nowhere.  Or a feeling like you need to get up off the cushion or you will die.  Things seem generally unpleasant or out of phase.  At the end of this stage there can be an angsty depressive feeling that many people find to be the most difficult of all the phenomena in this stage.

The general advice for this stage is to accept the phenomena, let go of your resistance, and keep meditating.  This is not a place to linger or get stuck.

Fourth Stage - Equanimity

And then this breaks open into the fourth stage, traditionally called Equanimity.  Here we come to an aware, relaxed, open, and sometimes stable state where everything is okay.  It becomes easy to meditate, and some people may even quit meditating since things seem to be going just fine.  At some points during equanimity the mind may become a little spacier and it may require some persistence to stay aware.

An Easy, Common Sense Measure of Progress

If you are getting to that last stage during your sits, the state of Equanimity, you might have some idea of how long it takes you to get to that point.  Initially, a beginner might not even get there at all.  But as you continue to practice, you might notice that if you practice 45 minutes, sometimes you get there.  With continued good practice that number should come down.  As the time to reach equanimity falls to 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, you will know you are making progress, regardless of anything else.  Your brain is making changes, it is adapting to the demands that you are placing on it.  As you continue to practice well, you are laying down neurology that will become more and more permanent.  You are changing your mind's default from monkey mind to mindful.

You might also notice, as mentioned before, that over longer periods of time something like this same progress of 4 stages is happening in the background experience of your life, but playing out over longer periods of perhaps weeks or months, even years, instead of minutes.

For some, the stages may not be as clear or specific as outlined here.  During meditation you might just notice a sense of "shifting gears" as the brain covers this apparent territory and slowly settles into mindfulness.  All of these repeatable phenomena are markers that you are getting somewhere, that you are covering some terrain, the brain is changing.

The Big Experience

Relatively early on, often at the level of the Pleasant stage, some may have a "big experience".  A big, often dramatic release into a substantially more aware, relaxed, open mind, maybe with a lot of joy, the joy of relief, the joy of completely laying down the massive burdens of life, if only for a few minutes.  The big experience is not a certainty, but also not uncommon, and although the territory can be experienced again, often the first experience will be the biggest or most dramatic event in the life of a meditator.  It is also possible to pass through this kind of area more slowly and quietly without much fanfare.  The classic big experience is probably most likely for a beginner in a setting of massed practice such as a retreat situation.

In the big experience the mind catches a glimpse of just how much baggage can be dropped, and it can be such a stark contrast to the person's normal everyday grasping mind that it is indeed perceived as a very big and dramatic experience.  It is sometimes mistaken for enlightenment, but it is indeed a taste or glimpse of that direction.

In terms of progress, if we liken the meditative path to a four year college degree, the Big Experience (or merely passing through the Pleasant stage) would be the equivalent of passing the first semester midterms.

The bigness of this experience, the drama or ecstasy, is dependent on having a "normal" attached, grasping mind.  It's big because dropping "down" into pure consciousness, letting go of so much baggage, is incredible to the normal mind.  The relief can be unimaginable.

The big experience is more likely to happen earlier in a meditator's career because as someone continues to practice the mind gets closer and closer to being completely relaxed and let go (the background of the big experience), and so there is less to let go of, less relief to be had.  At some point way down the road, this kind of massive relief is simply no longer possible - nothing can be that big of a relief anymore because the mind is already permanently relaxed to that degree.  There is no longer a big dramatic difference.

The big experience may also come about by way of psychedelics.  Some may be lucky and stumble into an experience like this, but for many, psychedelic experiences will be merely interesting and strange rather than life changing.  Meditation does makes it more likely that one might access this territory under psychedelics.  Makes you luckier, you might say.  Just like the big spiritual experience, as one progresses down the meditative path, even these big psychedelic experiences will become less and less important, less dramatic.  Nothing to see - move along.

Meditative Absorptions

Some may experience states that are often referred to as states of concentration, but could also be described as states of absorption or stability.  These can be relatively strong sometimes, there is the sense of an altered state, and the stability and absorption can seem like a trance but with more clarity.  These are what Buddhists refer to as jhanas and Hindu refer to as samadhi.  Experiencing these would be a marker of progress, and there are a number of them that tend to come up, often in order.  These states are usually thought of as being connected to single pointed concentration practice, but mild versions can be reached with mindfulness when the awareness of each object in succession is both good and continuous.

The first 4 meditative absorptions are roughly related to the 4 micro-stages mentioned previously.  The absorptions are absorbed versions of the micro-stages, more or less.  The traditional descriptions are a passable guide to this kind of territory, this is a brief outline of the predominate aspects:
  • 1st - sustained attention, delight
  • 2nd - joy
  • 3rd - contentment
  • 4th - equanimity
Although these are the predominate aspects, 1st is traditionally described with all of the above characteristics, in other words sustained attention, delight, joy, contentment and equanimity.  Then the predominate aspects of 1st, sustained attention and delight, are dropped and we are left with joy, contentment and equanimity for 2nd.  Then joy is dropped and we are left with contentment and equanimity for 3rd.  Finally, contentment is dropped and we are left with equanimity for 4th.  Again, this is merely a passable guide and you can find variations on the words chosen above.  To me these absorptions are maybe not quite so linearly defined, but nonetheless knowledge of these characteristics may help one to be more aware of what is being experienced.

The second 4 meditative absorptions are traditionally called formless or immaterial, because if the absorption is incredibly strong, experience of various senses and the body can fall away.  But even without extreme concentration these aspects can be noticed.  Because of the formless, faded out quality, my overall description of these are as "dark and delicate".  In a sense, these can be thought of as extensions to the 4th absorption.
  • 5th - infinite space
  • 6th - "self" or consciousness
  • 7th - no-thing-ness
  • 8th - absorption without description
These are all more or less absorptions into concepts, albeit very basic concepts such as space, self, and no-thing.  The model of letting go from one to the next, similar to how the first four progress, is often used, i.e. letting go of the experience of space, then self, then no-thing.  8th is something like where one ends up after letting go of all those concepts, like an absorption into the background of experience.  It is perhaps best thought of as simply "the one beyond 7th" or as a process of subtraction, i.e. if it was a formless absorption and it wasn't 5th, 6th, or 7th, then maybe it was 8th.

The formless states are extremely tranquil.  If you get to the point where you can experience these, it can be good to "steep" in these states on a regular basis.  Becoming familiar with the formless and training the neurology in this direction begins to bring an aspect of deep tranquility to your entire life.


If you keep up the good practice, get the dose high enough and long enough and get relaxed enough, at the stage of Equanimity you might eventually experience a weird little blip, a little discontinuity, a little "what was that?" moment often immediately followed by something like a flash of light and perhaps a pleasant sensation coming up through the body.  That would be a cessation, a gap, a moment when perhaps some part of the mind lets go in a more substantial way, and an important marker when it happens the first time.  If it fits that description, and maybe around that time you experience a kind of general shift towards more mindfulness, and maybe you have an exceptional few days or a couple of weeks, and you get more of those specific little blips, that would be the next major marker after the big experience.

A cessation is generally brief, just a moment.  It is a discontinuity, but there is enough information from the before and after of the non-experience to model it as just a moment.  But there is also the possibility of a cessation lasting for longer than a moment, say minutes.  This is more rare, but in this case one more or less "loses time".

Coming back to the typically momentary cessation, at the first occurrence, in particular referring to the overall shift that might happen, this tends to mark a kind of tipping point.  In the college model of the path, this would be the equivalent of finishing up freshman year, and in many ways this would put you on a kind of final trajectory.  This would be the most important bridge to cross and marks the tipping point as you have essentially hit escape velocity.  Again, it is vaguely plausible that some people could cross this territory without noticing, as the mind is very biased to model things as continuous.

And if you kept going, you might notice that these blips appear for a while, maybe for weeks or a couple of months, and then you might notice that they don't come up for a while, again maybe weeks or months.  You then might notice going through the stages for the second time, eventually hitting Equanimity and a second round of cessations.

At this point, two cycles in, you would be at the equivalent of finishing up sophomore year, although it becomes difficult to map beyond this point.  The first two cycles can be pretty solid, but additional cycles don't really map so well to linear progress anymore.  The remaining years are a continual process of opening up into new territory, polishing one's "empty mirror" and getting used to a more mindful, less attached perspective.

This cycle will continue to repeat, and if you pay attention to it, like other phenomena the cycle may speed up to a degree, and may get irregular.  If you're noticing this kind of thing, you're pretty far along.  You should have fewer and fewer questions about this stuff.  Over time, your meditation, your mind itself, will become more polished, mindfulness-wise.  Meditation will become easier, smoother, faster, more constant.  The mind becomes more open and flexible.  Mindfulness becomes your new default.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Getting It Done

People who practice a little bit of meditation may notice that they become somewhat more aware and relaxed.  But much more than a little bit of awareness and relaxation can be accomplished if one takes it far enough.  I wouldn't go so far as to promise the wonderful "ever increasing bliss" that Yogananda sold, but there can be substantial tranquility, relief from anxiety and psychological suffering, as well as a substantially new way of looking at the world.

"Getting it done" isn't that complicated.  It is mainly about doing enough quality training to cause the mind to permanently shift, and implies a relatively serious part-time commitment to practice.  This does not necessarily mean years at a monastery, but rather points to consistent high quality daily practice.


Just about anyone who gets much of anything accomplished in life had some kind of desire to get it done, some kind of great love, hope, or interest.  In the meditation world it is often driven by a desperate search to solve life's many problems along with the magical promise of some kind of blissed out Buddha-like perfection.  Although fantasies like the latter should be seen as such, the practical reality of shifting the mind to an relaxed, aware, open, non-conceptual view can be a very big deal.  Most people have no idea of how many burdens they are carrying around, and how much can be let go of.  And from where I sit, all of this seems completely possible, it is just a matter of getting the quality and volume of training high enough.  In my own case, the shift from relatively anxious to relatively serene was a big deal.  YMMV.

For many people, reading books and watching videos can be inspiring, so dig in, but just make sure that you are actually doing the practice.  If you want to get it done, it's not about some kind of conceptual understanding, it is about training the mind.


Like many other things in life, getting it done tends to require a daily practice, very similar to something like playing a musical instrument.  Imagine learning to write extremely well with your other hand, for example.  That's going to take a lot of consistent, conscious practice, but it's very doable.  It's like that.  Establish a daily practice routine, a time and a place, and stick to it.  I used to keep a notebook where every line was a date, how long I practiced, and a word or two that summarized the main sensations of that session.  If I missed a day, that meant I skipped a line, and I didn't like to see blank lines in the notebook, which for me happened several days a year.

All Day Awareness

A short (30 minute) daily practice, if extremely high quality, can do some amazing things.  But the effect can be greater if one's mindset is to be repeatedly aware of mindfulness throughout the day, rather than just an isolated block once a day.  Minds naturally fall out of mindfulness, but the idea is to be enough of a mindfulness enthusiast that you come up with creative ways of bringing yourself back to the present moment throughout the day.  Noting out loud in the car on the way to work, practicing in the shower, on breaks, washing dishes, etc.  Spending a minute here and there while watching TV with the full awareness that you are in fact in a room watching images on a screen, without getting lost in the narrative.  Coming up with certain events that trigger mindfulness, I don't know, maybe whenever you walk through a doorway.  Maybe use reminders, like signs that says "aware, relaxed, open" taped to your computer monitor, in the bathroom, on top of the TV, above the kitchen sink, etc.  Set a timer to go off every hour or something (the possible benefit of living in earshot of an old fashioned clock tower or mantel clock).


It is important to stress the importance of the quality of practice, quality being something like the percentage of time one is actually aware of being aware.  There is the practical sense that intention is important, and practice time is important, but it's really important to get the quality aspect down.  Practice makes permanent.  So what are you practicing?  What are you actually getting done in terms of this percentage-of-time-aware metric?  How many quality hours are you piling up?  The path to quality is generally going to be the more structured methods that require you to maintain this kind of awareness.  I recommend noting, breath counting, mantra, and combinations of those.  If those aren't your thing, try to at least occasionally check in from time to time with a structured method to see exactly how you're doing.  Feedback is extremely important in learning, and many people aren't aware of how much they are spacing out.


The longer you can stay with this kind of meta-awareness we're referring to, the better.  There are some schools that present the idea of "short moments, repeated many times".  There is certainly some truth to that, but I think it gives people an excuse to only practice a few moments.  I think the saying points to the fact that even so called continuous periods are in fact made up of moments, all strung together with many nano-sized gaps in between.  But that's a fairly advanced view.  Think more in terms of the aspect of "repeated many times" as being important, and maybe many as meaning many, many, many, many times.  Many times infinity.  Enough of these short moments to last an hour a day, say.  At any rate, longer stretches of continuous mindfulness tend to be a marker of progress, so be aware of how you are doing on the continuity scale.

Tight But Loose

It needs to be emphasized that ultimately, with the structured styles, only a small amount, perhaps about 5% of one's attention should be on the structure - the note, counting or mantra itself.  Most of the attention, eventually, should be on the actual object in awareness - the seeing, hearing and feeling.  One has to adjust to circumstances, tailoring one's awareness to the relative ease or difficulty that presents itself.  These structures are tools, and it's not about the tool, it's about the work you do with the tool, and that work is the mindfulness itself.

Attention at the Edge

One small key to getting it done might be to notice some things around the "edge" of your experience.  At first a person may notice a kind of binary quality to meditative awareness.  Either they are aware and present, or oops, they are lost.  It may seem very black and white, but try to start to notice the edges of that.  Notice when you are losing it, and note "losing it".  Or maybe you notice "boredom", and that's a cue to reinvigorate your structured practice.  Or maybe you could notice the underlying desire to go think about that thing you've been wanting to think about, and note: "desire".  Being aware that the quality of your awareness has changed, that you have lost some clarity and are getting fuzzier or sleepier, this can be noticed and you can take appropriate measures.

In everyday life, I notice that the times that the mind tends to start to run off is when there is some kind of slowdown or break in the action.  While watching TV, you may have to pay attention to some exposition to catch the plot, but then there is a break when there is a transition with some purely visual footage to set up something like a new location.  The mind immediately notices that there is more room to go off and think and off it goes.  You can notice this at times, that desire to "fill that space", the desire to think and the movement towards that.

The Dogmatic Approach

The dogmatic approach is to take a structured method and just dogmatically follow it.  Kind of silly in a way, this method is to literally follow the method, but it needs to be said.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, most people take a laid back, laissez-faire approach to meditation.  They're chilling out, relaxing, and, while maybe that's fine in its own way, they're spacing out left and right, just like they do off the cushion.  The structured styles exist because there is a real need for them, because our minds have been conditioned to go off and think about those things, and to be very attached to that.  We're like addicts in that way.

A Hindu teacher once remarked on a practice seen in many Asian markets where people buy cups of raw rice and other products.  The vendors have a practice where they continually and repetitively count each cup during the whole process of scooping it up, transferring it, putting it in a bag, so the counting would sound something like "one, one, one, one, two, two, two, two" etc.  It's a practical way of keeping the transaction honest, but it's a practice borne out of the human tendency to space out.  It's necessary.  At some level it might look silly, but it needs to be done, it's the only way to be sure when you have small measuring cups and no scale.

So the dogmatic approach is like this.  It is based on the understanding, in a ten steps kind of way, that we are otherwise powerless against the tendency to space out.  And one remedy is to make this dogmatic agreement with yourself, that similar to the vendors, you will count every breath, or that you will note once per second, or whatever your technique requires.  So you agree to note 3600, yes 3600 times in one hour.  That you have no choice in the matter.  You've signed up for boot camp.  Just do it and stop complaining about it.  Stop imagining that there is some other choice or that you can just wing it without technique.

Someone who wants to be a professional jazz musician doesn't have some kind of choice about whether they practice scales or not.  And even for a die hard musician, some of that might be tedious from time to time.  But they do it because they want to get to the end goal, to play jazz.  A guitarist is not born with the ability to play through a scale with 64th note triplets with perfect alternate picking technique.  It takes a lot of dogmatic practice, and they don't get to just lazily pick a few notes and then space out for a minute.  They stay focused on the task for minutes at a time, continuously.  And over time it indeed changes them into a person who can play 64th note triplets with alternate picking technique.

So "you" give up, you surrender to this process.  That's kind of useful in itself, as part of the path.  The way that your mind has been living life for how ever many years you have been alive, you are going to abandon those habits and become a slave to these methods that are going to interrupt and interfere with those habits.  Again, useful in itself.  You are just going to sit and do this possibly insane sounding practice, and you probably won't like it at first (because the mind wants to do what it's always done), but that's it, you just do it.  No sneaking off for a few seconds here and there, no buts, no thinking "I'll just wing it", you just do the freaking practice.  The practice that forces you to stay continually aware of your awareness.

It is possible to do this.  If you wanted to, you could count 3600 little cups of something in a hour, at the rate of one per second.  It's entirely possible, and counting those cups out loud is the way you would be able to do it without losing count.

And Yet Let Go

Although dogmatic practice is goal oriented in this way, it's equally important to emphasize the idea that you don't beat yourself up about the lapses that absolutely will occur.  If you slip, you slip, and you just smile at yourself and go right back into the practice.  Don't stress yourself out with it.  You'll need to get up to speed with a new practice, learn a bit, get adjusted to the process, it will take time.  Some people might even panic or worry a bit, but just keep it simple, relax, and just do it.  At first, it will be hard, but eventually it will become easier, as it becomes second nature.  Find a way to do it in a relaxed way, even if you're learning.  Find a way to be okay with it.  And as it becomes easier, you can focus more on that relaxation aspect.  When you've got the awareness of awareness going, within that you can relax.  Notice whatever physical, emotional, or mental tension there is.  Let it be there.  Don't fight it.  If you can let go of some of that, great.  If you can't let go of it, great, just let it be there.  Feel your resistance to that tension, let it be there.  If you can let go of some of that, great.  If you can't let go of it, great, just let it be there.  Repeat ad infinitum.

Lean into the Sensate

Another great pointer is to lean in the direction of the basic senses, seeing, hearing, and feeling.  All you have to do is continually check in with this sensory stuff.  What am I seeing?  What am I hearing?  What am I feeling?  With no conceptual elaboration, no stories, no spin.  Just the sensate experience.  Your techniques should lead you to a continual answering of those questions.  In a way it couldn't be easier: just what is here, right here, right now, seeing, hearing, feeling.  All we have to do is set up a bit of structure to keep us from running off into daydreams, and we can just sit and be and watch.

Examples of Structured Styles

  • Noting
  • Breath Counting
  • Mantra
  • Noting with breath counting
  • Noting, timed with breath
  • Breath counting with mantra


Local meditation groups and teachers can be helpful, often giving people more motivation to practice well.  These are almost always going to be promoting a non-structured, mainstream style, but you can meditate any way you want.

There are a couple of online communities that are well oriented to the approach of actually getting it done.  A person who really wants to get it done might consider joining these communities and possibly keeping an online practice journal for feedback.


Whatever gadget or technique that works for you, use it.  Here are a couple of ideas.

I'm not super into smart phones and their apps, but I can tell you that the Insight Timer is fairly popular meditation app, and there are many, many others.

When I was getting it done I often used a device (the Motivaider) that was essentially a modified beeper that vibrated every so often.  I had it set to the minimum, one minute.  I would hold it loosely (so I would notice it more easily) in my left hand, and I logged probably over 1000 hours with it.  They also have a mobile app.

Non-Dual Teachings

Another approach, or supplement, would be to check out the people who are doing talks where they are pointing very directly at or from an enlightened perspective.  This would be the realm of Advaita/Non-duality/Dzogchen.  There are more of these teachers now than one could count, but a couple of the most famous would be Adyashanti and Eckhart Tolle, for whom there are innumerable Youtube videos.  These can sometimes be helpful, teaching something about the direction to lean towards.

Head-Butting Your Worldview

Another supplemental approach can be to do a kind of intellectual inquiry, digging straight into the concepts and seriously confronting one's views about the world.  A good example would be the book Gateless Gatecrashers (pdf, also available in print).  They have a website, Liberation Unleashed, with forums where people work on this kind of stuff, and like the meditation forums above, you could start a personal thread to directly engage with people on your journey.

The book EST: Playing The Game* The New Way might be another angle.

Effort vs. No Effort


Many would place me in the "effort" camp of meditation.  There is some of that.  But I believe the dichotomy of effort vs. no-effort is solved, like most things, by understanding that both things are happening, both things are required.  One has to simultaneously remain aware (effort, at times) in order to notice the grasping and resistance that can be let go of (no-effort).  So I recommend some kind of structure in addition to a basic intent to be aware, and I recommend letting go of everything that can be let go of.

Feel Your Way Into It

Don't beat yourself up with this.  These structured techniques are just tools, use them, and relax while you're using them.  You're just doing the equivalent of counting cups of rice, it doesn't have to be stress inducing, far to the contrary, it can be relaxing.  Counting a cup of rice isn't hard, but it does mean you don't get to go off and think about that thing.  That's the job you signed up for.

Maybe I should end by making the point that this is ultimately or eventually something that you very much have to feel your way into.  Feel the sensations, feel the emotions, feel the grasping and resistance, feel the breath.  And relax, relax, relax wherever you can.  Counting the breath, for example, is not about the counting.  It's not about controlling the breath.  It's about using the counting as a tool so you can feel the breath continuously, until you are just watching it happen, until you are just being, effortlessly experiencing an animal that happens to be breathing.

Best of luck to you. 

Why Use the Noting Style?

First off, use whatever works.  Whatever works to get you present and aware of what you are aware of, and keep you there a high percentage of the time, like 95% or more.

The background is that the noting style comes from southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism, from a monk called Mahasi.  The style arguably came out of a period of experimentation and regrowth in the Theravada communities due to various factors.  It was an attempt to do exactly what Buddha described in the mindfulness sutta.

The following is a bit technical, and therefore skippable, but here are some of the reasons that this style may be effective:
  • Regular noting at approximately one second intervals doesn't allow much time for mind wandering
  • The noting actually requires you to continuously prove that you are aware, unlike most methods where one merely intends to be aware
  • Coming up with the note requires one to use up a certain amount of mental bandwidth that might otherwise be used to wander
  • Practiced earnestly, it allows for a very high rate of continuous mindfulness or awareness of awareness
  • Freely noting from any points in awareness, "dancing" from one object of awareness to another, trains mental flexibility and gives insight into impermance
  • Similarly, continually breaking up one's experience into little parts, deconstructing the experience, "busting it up", gives insight into no-self
  • The regular noting (around 3600 times per hour) provides a unique type of feedback, allowing the mind to see patterns it might miss otherwise, at times providing insight into dependent origination, the billiard ball like physics of the universe (for example: loud sound > fear > body tensions > fearful thoughts > realization > relief > relaxation)
  • This style is perhaps exceptionally good for interrupting the conditioned prejudice towards, and attachment to, thought
  • Ultimately, it is a complete by-the-numbers approach to learn mindfulness.  If you actually do it, you are being mindful.  If you are doing mainstream mindfulness practice where you merely intend to be mindful, much of the time you won't be mindful.
Next:  Intro to Noting and Meditation

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Meditation and Psychedelics

Many, if not most, of the senior members of the meditation community and teachers came to meditation at least in part as a result of psychedelic experiences back in the sixties and seventies.  Books like Zig Zag Zen discuss this phenomenon.

Clearly the use of psychedelics is not widespread in classic Buddhism.  Yet they do make the rare appearance in the form of the Amrita (and Soma) sacrament in ancient Tibetan Buddhism (and Hinduism). Descriptions make it sound likely that these were mushrooms, described as both "red" (likely amanita muscaria) as well as "blue throated" (likely psilocybe cubensis).  These mushrooms have been associated with many other cultures and religions.

Adepts would go through a certain amount of meditation training before being presented with an initiation experience with the Amrita substance intended to provide a glimpse of the "deathless".

Psychedelics can be enormously helpful, but they should come with a big warning label.  Pragmatically, anything that can amplify the underlying psyche, bringing our deepest psychological baggage into full, naked awareness, and/or destabilizing closely held beliefs about world views, should probably come with a few caveats and precautions.

In the same way, intensive meditation practice and intensive psychotherapy should come with similar warnings.  The difference is simply that psychedelics can get you there quicker.

The general recommendation is that you would already have your stuff together psychologically and so forth before you embark.  For the studies that have been done on psychedelics they typically screen out people with various problems, family histories of schizophrenia, etc.  But the reality is that a far broader spectrum of people will be experimenting with these substances.  While I would recommend starting a meditation practice as part of the preparation, I would say at minimum familiarize yourself with at least one of the many guides to tripping that are available.

Meditation and Psychedelics

Some initial research indicates some usefulness for meditation in conjunction with meditation.  For example the paper, Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behavior.
“There was a participant in the study who had had an extensive, extensive practice, like tens of thousands of hours of meditation, which is an incredibly extreme amount,” said Frederick Barrett, PhD at the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “And she indicated after her psilocybin session that she relived all of the peak experiences she had ever had meditating. Wow.” 

Similarity of the Brain on Psychedelics with that of Advanced Meditators

FMRI studies show substantial correlation in brain activity patterns between people using major psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin and that of advanced meditators.  Both show a dialing down of the Default Mode Network (monkey mind).  So it is plausible that this might be helpful with some kind of crossover or training wheel effect.

Seeing Things in A New Way

Psychedelics are a useful tool to see that there are alternatives to the way we usually experience the world.  This can help us to open up to new ways of seeing things.  While we humans are continual learners, I feel that once we reach a certain age it becomes maybe even more useful to begin to unlearn some of the stuff that we learned wrong the first time around.  To let go of entrenched dogmas and psychological viewpoints that aren't helpful anymore.

Similarly, psychedelics may help us to connect various ideas and concepts in new ways.  The brain scans show that there is a type of interconnectivity in the brain that is not normally present.


One of the ground breaking findings from research into psilocybin is that changes were observed in the personality domain of openness, one of five dimensions of personality that were thought to be relatively fixed by adulthood.  As with other positive trait changes resulting from psilocybin, the effect was correlated with the degree to which the individual experienced a genuine mystical experience.  From the paper:
The long-term positive impact of hallucinogens may depend on their ability to occasion profound insights and mystical-type experiences. The core features of mystical experience, are feelings of unity and interconnectedness with all people and things, a sense of sacredness, feelings of peace and joy, a sense of transcending normal time and space, ineffability, and an intuitive belief that the experience is a source of objective truth about the nature of reality.

Because such experiences appear to enable individuals to transcend their usual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, it is plausible that they could occasion changes in core dimensions of personality.

Offering A Glimpse

By offering people a chance of a mystical experience, there is a possibility to glimpse the kinds of insights that would otherwise be possible only after years of meditation.

Magnifying Glass

Psychedelics are sometimes described as a non-specific magnifier of experience.  They can sometimes bring hidden issues to the forefront in clear detail.

Concentration Practice

The meditative absorptions known as jhanas or samadhi are easier to attain on psychedelics and more intense, this makes various aspects of jhanas clearer than they might be otherwise.  Again, a training wheel effect.

Although controversial, I think a retreat practice that included some days of very low microdoses could be effective.


The dropping away of the ego into pure consciousness or oneness is easier to stumble into.  This could help with a training wheel effect or perhaps more realistically it simply gives one a better idea of the ultimate direction to lean into.

Psychological Healing

Under certain conditions psychedelics can help with the healing of difficult psychological problems.  The use of MMDA for PTSD is relatively well established, now in stage III clinical trials, but this type of thing can happen with major psychedelics as well.  The short version is that the challenging material needs to come up under the influence and be "allowed" without resistance.

Neurogenesis and Plasticity

There is some sparse evidence (studies on mice, I believe) that the major psychedelics enhance neurogenesis and plasticity, things that are beneficial for training and learning of all kinds.

On the other hand

Promotion of Delusion

Because things can seem more real under the influence of psychedelics, and the mind is particularly open and vulnerable to different ways of seeing things, strange beliefs and superstitions often arise. In the world of recreational psychedelics, bro-science rules.

Often doesn't make for Permanent Changes

Occasionally, yes, particularly under the right conditions, but as a rule, probably not so much.  Spiritually, one gets a glimpse.  All too often a person will simply fall back into their previous patterns.  Can be very helpful, but the way it is typically used recreationally is not ideal. Used properly, and in combination with a good meditation practice, I think there are some real benefits.

Some Personal Experiences

Around 1980 or so, early in my twenties, I had my first psychedelic experience, with LSD.  It was blotter with the image of something like a blue dove.  Whatever it was, it was not weak.  It was an interesting and surreal experience, but at the time, I didn't take it as much more than that.  Looking back I can see there were a lot of important insights that I passed off as merely unusual.


For example, seeing that everything was happening, without "me".  There were clearly many experiences like this during the trip, but I find it fascinating that it didn't really impress me as mind blowing or anything.  I think the basic problem was that I was still living with a very solid assumption of self.  And I had not really considered the notion of ego-death, if I had even heard of it at all at that point.  Frankly, if you had asked me if ego-death had happened to me, I would have said no.  And I did not release into what I would call pure consciousness.  That would be decades later for me.

I did a little bit of drawing with a sketchpad, and I noticed that the drawing was just happening.  I wasn't controlling it or guiding it, or cognizing about it as I usually might.  No lining things up or checking angles or proportions, rather it was just flowing naturally and the pencil was moving as if by itself.  I was just watching.

A friend took me to a video arcade where I played the game Asteroids. As I played, it was as if I wasn't doing anything, but again, just watching it happen.  Like the sketching, I wasn't trying to direct or control anything.  My hands were moving by themselves and stuff was happening on the screen.  I ended up with a score that was about 10% higher than I had scored before or since.  I would say this is primarily because "I" got out of the way, perhaps in the same way that Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while high on acid, or when Jimi Hendrix knocked out that incredible set at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Being very purely in the moment

We then went to a repertory showing of the Beatles movie "Let It Be".  This became very strange, because I lost the ability to understand music.  My experience was so intensely, concretely, so hard into the present moment that it was as if the past and future didn't exist.  With no past and future, only the present moment, there was no continuity of sound and therefore no "music".  In that context, all I could perceive was the fundamentals of sound in each moment, each happening in an utterly independent way, with no connection to the next or previous moment.  Just isolated, random sounds, with no perception of melody.  I'm not sure if I could perceive harmony, but there was certainly no enjoyment or appreciation of what we would call music.  It was just sound.  In the hearing was just hearing.

I also lost some ability to distinguish visual objects at times.  I can remember being unable to separate the microphone from Paul McCartney.  It was as if it was one object, microphonepaulmccartney.

Thoughts Are Just Happening

Winding down at the end of that evening, as I fell into bed and maybe for the first time relaxed and went within (something that decades later I wished I had done from the start), I was noticing my thoughts, and what was peculiar is that it was as if they weren't my thoughts.  It was as if I was separate from the thoughts and I had no connection with them.  Once again, they just seemed to be happening.

All in all, that one experience on LSD was jam-packed with insight.  I feel fortunate to have gotten so much, but it changed my life almost none.  Only years later, with extensive meditation, did it all come together for me.

5th Jhana

Many years later, the first time I experienced 5th jhana, which is a meditative absorption with the predominate feature of "infinite space", was while taking psilocybin.  It blew me away.  This was a bit of a game changer because, for me, it was such an unusual distortion of my normal reality in a way that was inescapable.  And since it was repeatable, I couldn't explain it away as imagination, suggestion or whatever.  The fact that it plays on the primary sense of vision as well, making whatever space you're in look and feel enormously big and sometimes expanding, wow.  This is an example of the way that psychedelics are what I call spiritual steroids, they allow you to go beyond your cutting edge and see a bit more.  Within weeks I experienced it in normal meditation.

At the time, I didn't know it was 5th jhana.  I didn't know enough about jhanas to know that.  But I did guess it was one of the higher jhanas, and afterwords I pulled a book off the shelf with some descriptions and found out what it was.  I was almost disappointed it was "only" 5th.  Hah, the ego.

5th jhana on psychedelics holds a special place for me, not only because of that first experience, but there was something about continually experiencing that, and expanding out to infinity, it kind of literally opened me up, it was as if it physically connected me to all things, to all people.  Literally expanded my world.

Fading out of Senses

On many other occasions with psilocybin and various combinations I have experienced the loss of one or more senses while on psychedelics.  Most commonly the sense of hearing.  Sometimes sound became distorted like the clipping of an overdriven amplifier, more rarely it would drop out completely, sometimes turning off and on as if someone was flicking a switch.  And, one time, on my highest dose, I experienced a void where there really weren't any senses.  I didn't know where I was or what was happening, and my cognition was very limited.  Might have been something like a hard 8th jhana.

Bright White Light

I have also experienced a significant brightening of the visual field on many occasions.  I sometimes would use a light and sound machine for the entrainment and entertainment of flashing lights.  On the most extreme occasion I can think of, the white brightness of my visual field became so intense that I couldn't even make out the LED's on the light goggles that were flashing directly over my pupils.  I remember resignedly taking off the goggles muttering to myself, "well this is pointless".

Caution and Final Words

These personal stories are some of the more extreme experiences of someone who, for a period of about 5 years in particular, was something of a psychonaut.  This is the cream of extreme out of hundreds of experiences, although I can't even begin to do justice to them, and the hundreds of other insights that came along the way.  Out of all those experiences, I should mention that there were maybe 3 sessions that were substantially challenging, one particularly so.  That's going to happen at some point, although the most difficult experiment resulted from too high a dose in combination with an mao inhibitor. Not a good choice, stay away from both, and work up slowly. The other two difficult experiences were a result of tripping while experiencing a lot of unsatisfactoriness. Again, not a great choice, although the underlying psyche can be difficult to read.

Also, that first experience on LSD had a segment of very intense paranoia.  For me, it took a long time to get past that paranoia, and I encountered it a little bit on every trip for a while.  Then, perhaps starting a dozen trips down the road, I started to finally be with that paranoia, allowing it to be there, allowing the underlying part of me that I was resisting to just be what it is, accepting it, making peace with it.  That process played out over about 5 trips for me and ended up being the most important therapy of my life.  It fixed me.  I really want that for everyone, but, you know, be careful, be prepared.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Supplements for Meditation

Besides a reasonable healthy diet, there may be supplements that make sense for a meditator.

As meditation training is a kind of learning, the concepts of neurogenesis (adding brain cells) and neuroplasticity (creating lasting changes) makes sense.  Neuroscientists are not exactly supplement junkies, but they do typically recommend two things over and over:
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Aerobic Exercise
I find it interesting that the Theravada Buddhists include substantial portions of walking meditation on retreats, sometimes 50% of meditation time, as much as 8 hours a day.  I think that much might be overkill, but the general idea gives one at least the incentive to do what the medical establishment already recommends, about 30 minutes a day of moderate activity like walking.

It is fairly common in retreat environments for stimulants to be provided, such as:
  • Tea and Coffee
I'm a bit sensitive to those myself, but if those work for you and you don't overdo it, use them intelligently when you need to.  On the other hand, if you need to sleep, sleep.

Rather than, or in addition to caffeine, I recommend one of the earlier "cognitive enhancing" drugs:
The research on piracetam is somewhat inconclusive with respect to the kind of things it is often tested for, such as cognitive impairment, etc.  I can only point to a small number of advanced meditators that have gone on and off the substance and noticed the difference.  There are other more potent "racetams", but the original is the best studied, probably safest in that regard, and seems to work fine.

My take is that piracetam is helpful in keeping the mind aware and mindful, a literal mindfulness supplement.

It is often suggested that one start off with higher doses of piracetam, around 4.6 grams twice a day, and perhaps gradually tapering down to a maintenance dose of around 2.4 grams once a day, but you could also just start at the maintenance dose if you're more patient.  Your mileage may vary.  I've been satisfied with a modest 0.5 gram per day for many years now.

Even more controversial, and based on even sparser research, it might be worth mentioning perhaps even a:
  • Major Psychedelic
There is a very small amount of research showing that major psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD, promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.  Perhaps that by itself is not enough to recommend it, and at some point I intend to do a more detailed post about psychedelics and meditation, but for now I would speculate that, if you are comfortable with these substances, a very small microdose, perhaps 1-5% of a dose, taken first thing in the morning on retreat, might not be the worst thing to do.

Of course, better than any supplement would be to make sure you are:
  • Regularly, repeatedly, earnestly engaging in the practice of mindfulness and letting go

Friday, November 3, 2017

Alternative Noting

The kind of noting described so far could be done anywhere, but an alternate or additional form can be used off the cushion, which is to describe actions being performed.  For example, the practice of focusing on the breath is often noted with the "rising" and "falling" (of the diaphragm), or sometimes "in" and "out" if noting the breath at the tip of the nose.

Walking can be noted as stepping, or during slow meditative walks as a sequence of lifting, moving, placing, pressure, etc.  Getting a glass of water, there might be reaching for the cabinet handle, grasping the handle, pulling the handle, reaching for the glass, holding the glass, moving the glass, reaching for the faucet, turning the faucet, moving the glass, filling the glass, reaching for the faucet again, turning the faucet, raising the glass, turning, sipping, tasting, swallowing, etc.

Next: Getting It Done

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

If you've gotten this far, you may be interested in some other resources for learning about noting style meditation.

Getting In Touch With Emotions

Realize that when you are having an emotional experience, there may be many things going on.  There could be a primary emotion such as anger.  Easy enough.  But there could also be tensions in the body that are related to the anger.  One of the better habits to cultivate is an ability to quickly scan through the body and notice where there are any tensions.  Often, a fair amount of that tension can be let go of immediately, once you are aware of it.  In addition to the emotion of anger, and the body tensions associated with anger, there could also be angry thoughts.  It may be worthwhile to remember these components of body-emotion-thoughts and when one is experiencing any of these that are related to emotions, maybe check out the other parts of the body-emotions-thoughts complex, and see what else can be noticed and let go of.

This is similar to the idea of breaking things down into their component parts.  What is this sensation made of?  Where is it in the body?  Does it stay the same?  Adyashanti once made the analogy of being like a mad scientist, exploring the feelings that you are resisting or fearing.  What is that nasty depression like when you break it down in this way or stop fighting it?  Or that rage or fear?  Plunge into it and first try to just let it be what it is and break it down, again and again.  Be curious, as curiosity is a great tool for maintaining awareness.   What are the basic sensations, where are they in the body, what does that feel like, what are the thoughts, might I be able to let go of some of that?  Could I just let that be without resisting it?  Do this until you begin to do this wordlessly.

I hesitate to get too deeply into the beliefs underlying emotions, because we are trying to break everything down into component parts, and simultaneously we're trying to avoid going into stories and narrative, but I should also mention that on this emotional axis and the body-emotion-mind experiences that are woven there, there is typically an underlying belief, an opinion, an assumption, that lies beneath the resisted phenomenon.  Letting go of the underlying belief can facilitate the letting go of all the various sensations.  If you are aware enough of your own psychology to go down that road, I recommend keeping the concepts to the very simplest pointers possible such as "Dad was controlling", and then go right back to noting basic phenomenon.  Nothing to see here, move along - it is just phenomenon like any other.  Psychological analysis can take place outside of formal meditation practice.

So the recommendation for things you are resisting is to lightly explore the usual suspects of body, emotion, and mind, investigate a bit without creating a bunch of stories about it, let go of what can be let go of, and ultimately let everything just be with as little resistance as possible.  The background of the meditative path is one of relaxation, which is about letting go of the tensions that we are often unconsciously creating.

Sometimes we may be dealing with something that is more persistent or troublesome emotionally.  This requires more of the same.  The pointer is to work in a very continuous way on feeling, accepting, allowing, acknowledging, opening up to it, making friends with it, holding the space for it, letting it be, letting go.  This aspect of treating everything that comes up in a non-judgmental way, relaxing with it, allowing it, is a very important part of the practice.

Next:  Alternative Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate