Sunday, July 30, 2017

Meditating, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, covers Kahneman and Tversky's groundbreaking research into cognitive biases and other topics.

From Wikipedia:
"The central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical."

System 1 refers to behaviors that are essentially hard-wired, acquired either innately or by well practiced learning.

It struck me that meditation practice operates between these two poles.  We begin by using System 2 to deliberately train the mind to become more aware and relaxed.  Over time, and with enough high quality practice, the mind becomes automatically aware and relaxed.  That is the path, like any other well trained skill, moving from deliberate practice until it becomes second nature, System 1.

Kahneman also posits an alternate measure of happiness, based more on moment to moment experience rather than recalled happiness.

"Odd as it may seem," Kahneman writes, "I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me."

Again in many ways the path is to reduce our attachment to the conceptual, remembering self, and to increasingly focus on the experiencing self, here and now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Reality of Technique

One of my observations about the mainstream meditation world is that many people have an implicit assumption that they must learn to meditate by something like sheer willpower.  While that may work in a small number of cases, by and large it will fail.  The level of conditioning in the direction of thought, applied over decades, is just too hard to overcome by willpower alone.  So I recommend various techniques to beat the mind at its own game, chiefly noting practice.

In Upping Your Game, I made the case for techniques and even gadgets to help one remain continuously aware.  Buried in that post was a reference to a device I used to prompt me at 60 second intervals during meditation.  I used that device during most of the time I was "getting it done".  Here is some feedback I received:
"I reset my meditation app so I hear a subtle wood block every minute while I’m sitting. This helps quite a bit, so thanks for that!"
Excellent.  This person is using the popular Insight Timer app on their smartphone.  There are many apps like this and I wish I was more familiar with them.  But yeah, road test some of these more structured approaches, do whatever it takes.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What Is Spiritual Enlightenment?

 As the Zen poet Ryokan said:

"If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say -- wealth and honor are nothing but dust,
As the evening rain falls, I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer."

Enlightenment is often put up on a pedestal of perfection, and perhaps only a few out of billions have gone far enough to be substantially beyond severe physical suffering.  At such an extreme of non-attachment and non-identification, the pain simply arises and passes as it is, without resistance or stress.  But it's not necessarily all "good" at that point.  It becomes somewhat pathological, at least from the standpoint of society.  Ramana Maharshi was said to have let rats eat the flesh of his legs.  We might question whether this was truly the best use of the amazing insight of Ramana.

In the article "Drowning Mr. M" (SciAm Mind April 2005), we find a person suffering from athymhormia, a profound lack of attachment and motivation, due to lesions on the brain.  Taking a dip in the pool, he finds himself underwater and simply begins to let himself drown.  He doesn't care.  It doesn't bother him.  The sight of his daughter, though, breaks the apathy and he returns to the surface.  For these people, "it is as if they have become mere spectators to their own lives, no longer actively participating."

In many ways (credit to Shinzen Young) this condition mimics a high degree of enlightenment.  The interesting thing about athymhormia is that unlike other related experiences, there is no depression or cognitive impairment, the person is just very unattached.  They feel pain but it doesn't affect them.

And there are accounts of many such as Katie Byron, where it took her a long time to adjust to her extreme version of enlightenment.  For example, she couldn't understand why strangers on the street didn't know her, because from her perspective they were the same person.


The standard definition for enlightenment would be something like the falling away of the ego.  But this is not necessarily easy to fathom unless one has actually experienced it.

In some ways enlightenment represents the falling away of false beliefs about the self, the loss of a certain kind of neuroticism.

From Karen Horney, (Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization):

The infinite powers the neurotic ascribes to himself are, after all, powers of the mind.  No wonder, then, that he is fascinated by it and proud of it.  The idealized image is a product of his imagination.  But this is not something created overnight.  Incessant work of intellect and imagination, most of it unconscious, goes into maintaining the private fictitious world through rationalizations, justifications, externalizations, reconciling irreconcilables - in short, through finding ways to make things appear different than what they are.  The more a person is alienated from himself, the more his mind becomes supreme reality.

Only when the patient has become interested in the question "Who am I?" will the analyst more actively try to bring to his awareness how little he does know or care about his real feelings, wishes, or beliefs.

The patient may simply feel sympathetic toward himself and experience himself for the first time as being neither particularly wonderful nor despicable but as the struggling and often harassed human being which he really is.

Moreover any move toward being himself gives him a sense of fulfillment which is different from anything he has known before.  And while such experience is at first short lived, it may in time recur more and more often and for periods of longer duration.

From the standpoint of individuals, it is important to notice that we weren't always ego-based creatures.  There was a bit of time, however brief, as say a fetus and a newborn, when we really didn't know we were anything.

Didn't know we were separate, or male or female, good or bad, rich or poor, or human, or anything.  Didn't have politics or religion, or categories period.  Didn't have gender, ethnicity, social class, occupation, hobbies, culture.  Didn't have parents, friends, or family, at least in the sense that we didn't know what those things were.  Didn't have status, self-esteem, reputation, body image, commitments, achievements, losses, gains.  Didn't have characteristics, values, beliefs, attitudes, ideas, habits.

Didn't have identity or uniqueness.  Didn't know we were separate. Didn't have past or future, time or space, or age or continuity. Everything was just happening, and there were no decisions that we could call conscious.

So what is that like?

What we're pointing at is pure, nonconceptual awareness, prior, in a sense, to the arising of anything.  All of those things listed above are attachment points for identity.  With those things dialed down, there is a lot of freedom to simply be who we are, instead of what we or other people think.

So pure consciousness or awareness or suchness, without ideas or conception, is a pointer.

Alfred Lord Tennyson used a type of meditation to pierce the veil:

"... when I have been all alone. This has often come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently till, all at once, as it were, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life"

Anyone can have a moment of that, but generally people's assumptions and attachments are so strong they go right back to their assumed identity.  A person could get a powerful sense of this during a psychedelic experience, and in some way it might lightly affect them, but mostly people will go back to their old ways.

So something could be said about both a degree of liberation, which could be massive in a temporary experience of just one moment, and also the degree to which that liberation is permanent.  Someone who is enlightened would have a substantial degree of both.

From another angle, we might look to science, which points out that we don't ever have any direct contact with what we call the universe.  Our senses feed into a brain, which creates a map, and that map is all we ever experience.  As you perceive it, the universe IS your consciousness, always has been.  Everything you have ever experienced is you, is consciousness, and that is all we can know in an absolute way.  Some may find that hard to swallow, but it is an important pointer.

This is basically the insight of Plato's analogy of the cave.  All we can see are shadows on the wall of the cave, yet we cannot actually see what is casting the shadows.

And again from a scientific view, we can't really consider ourselves to be quite so separate as we might ordinarily conceive.  Not only do we live in a massively interconnected human world, each ultimately dependent on everyone else, and all of our beliefs formed by our interactions with others, but at a fundamental level we do not exist without oxygen or food or water, which means we do not exist without plants, or the earth, or the entire universe.  We are not separate from the totality.

We can generally understand that an amoeba has no self.  It is just a little organic machine, doing what it does, genetics plus environment.  As we go up to multi-cellular creatures, perhaps we can still see that something like an earthworm or a grasshopper has no self.  Just little organic machines, doing what they do.  For a lot of people this exercise gets more difficult as we get up to the mammals.  But it's the same thing.  A mouse or a goat is just an organic machine that does what it does.  By the time we get to dogs and cats, many people will begin to disagree.  But it's the same thing.  You take those genetics, you put them in that environment, that's what you get, organic machines doing what they do.

So yeah, the kind of dry and unappealing spin is that we are soulless robots.  But waking up to that and beginning to see how your mental machinery was indoctrinated, and letting go of that unskillful programming, that's a beautiful thing.  Once again though, it's also just your particular genetics doing what they are doing in your particular environment.

The enlightened viewpoint might seem "wrong" in a way from the assumptions of consensus civilization.  ("Oh, but of course I have a self").  But in many ways it is the enlightened mind that is actually letting go of what isn't real, the phantoms of belief, opinion, and assumption.

And that intellectual path of seeing what we are conceptually is one thing, but circling back, the really important thing is to experience and see from the viewpoint of pure consciousness.

The enlightened mind is a mind relatively absent of assumptions or elaborations, one that is not taking the bait of craving or resistance.  Less compressed, more relaxed, less closed, more open, less reactive, more responsive, less self-obsessed, more compassionate, less compulsive, more free.

There is a kind of relaxation that takes place when all of this striving is let go of.  The mind has been conditioned to "flex" and strive, in a way.  Continually practicing to be aware of that flexing and to let go of it, this is the path.  Eventually the mind begins to relax in this way.  The letting go of the grasping of self-identity is one aspect of this relaxation.  With enough practice, the mind breaks free of prior assumptions and begins to adopt relaxed awareness as its new default.  It begins to "identify" with the background of experience, with pure consciousness.  As this becomes permanent, this absence of assumptions, seeing what actually is, this is what we call enlightenment.

All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. If man will strike, strike through the mask!
     -Ahab, from Moby Dick

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Upping Your Game

It may be, of course, that you don't need to up your game.  But odds are that you do.

The meditation game is something along the lines of mastering a combination of attention and relaxation.  Simple enough, in theory.  But as the song* goes, "with a back beat narrow and hard to master."

The mainstream advice seems to be mostly about merely having an intention to be mindful, but not much is said on exactly how to accomplish this experience of mindfulness.  It's not that they don't provide any hints, but rather that they speak in general terms and seem to eschew reliance on any kind of direct technique to accomplish the task.  It's as if it were somehow rude to suggest that one indulge in something so crass as a technique, or probably even moreso a technique that is not (god forbid) specifically mentioned in the Pali Canon.  Other, of course, than following the breath, which seems eminently allowable because Buddha specifically used awareness of the breath as an example of how to be mindful.

I once knew a particular guy that was very into meditation and Buddhism.  He had practiced daily for years, read all the books, listened to all the dharma talks, been to all the retreats, and had even taught meditation for a while at an established center.  I'm not sure exactly where he was on the path, but I do know that I turned him on to noting style, and afterwards he said that he had never been that aware in meditation before.

Okay, so maybe that last line went by kind of quickly.  Pause and consider the unbelievable magnitude of that last statement.  Let's go through it again: daily practice for a couple of decades or more, bookshelves full of dharma books, always listening to dharma talks, been to all kind of retreats, and, critically, taught lots of other people how to meditate, and yet HE HAD NEVER BEEN THAT AWARE IN MEDITATION.  What does that say about the success of the mainstream meditation community?  I mean, not that there isn't more to it than meditation, but seriously folks, c'mon.

And let me say that noting style may not be the be all and end all for everyone, but circling back to the point, this is a concrete example of how a simple technique changed one person's game, even if just for a moment.

Noting style is a kind of paint-by-numbers version of mindfulness, forcing one to do exactly what mindful people do.  Name what you are aware of, at a rate of about one "note" per second or so.  Repeat 3600 times per hour.  When first exposed to it, people often comment about the unusual degree of awareness, much like the experienced practitioner I mentioned.

But, like many things, people habituate.  They slack off.  They succumb to the learned desire to think about this or that.  Time to up your game.  You can always work on intention, attempt to increase your earnestness, your engagement, your resolve.  And that is an important factor, but generally it is not enough.

So what I'm recommending is coming up with techniques to overcome this problem.  You don't have to do it "on your own" without technique.  You don't have to just "wing it".  You can figure out a technology to get it done.

In noting practice, the first thing to recommend is noting out loud.  Most people will avoid this important step.  Noting out loud ups the ante.  Do it.  The hardest-core version I have recommended is to note out loud while writing down each brief note on paper.  I don't believe a single person I have recommended this to has actually done the practice, but trust me, I didn't recommend it without test driving it, and I can tell you it works really well.  But it seems to be something along the lines of "too much trouble".

There are any number of techniques, I have outlined a bunch of the usual suspects (and more) in Basic Meditation Styles.  But like the writing down noting technique I came up with, you can invent what works for you.  There are apps that you can use to vibrate your phone every so often, like once a minute.  For years I used an old beeper device (Motivaider) that would do that, and held it loosely in my hand while I meditated.  By doing that, it was difficult to space out for more than a few seconds.  That's the idea.

Say you're lying down on the couch watching TV.  Great time to practice, few will attempt it, fewer will succeed.  Do what you have to do.  Maybe prop up your arm and slowly wave it in front of you, obscuring your view of the TV every second or so.  Use it to remind yourself to be here now, feel the body, open your awareness to the room.  You can invent a way to stay present.

All of this may be seem a bit silly or hardcore for armchair meditators who are maybe just looking for a bit of relaxing and de-stressing.  I very much advocate relaxing and de-stressing, but I find that awareness has to take precedence.  Once you are present, you will actually be able to relax.  You will actually be aware of what is tense, and you can see if you can let go of some of that.  That's what it takes to really relax.  And it does take some work to undo decades of conditioning, the prejudice of the mind towards concepts. 

The reason I am concerned about this can also be seen in a recent Tricycle article where the writer said:
You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner ...
The article, though nice in its own way, is essentially apologetics for slacking off.  It saddens me that he's put in so much time, enough to get far more than a glimpse of stability and peace, but in some way the mainstream practices failed him.

I'm not one for Buddhist dogma, but I'm willing to bring up a couple of quotes such as Buddha's last words, to "strive diligently".  Or when describing the removal of distracting thoughts, "with teeth clenched ... he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind".  That's one intense dude.

This kind of effort must eventually be let go of like everything else, but for most people that will be a few years down the road.  For example, musically, you have to learn your scales and modes and arpeggios and chords and songs and solos and fingerings, and get to the point where all the movements are second nature, before you can really lay back and improvise at a high level.  It takes time and hard practice, and imagining that is going to happen without real effort is insanity.

I have indeed seen one clear example of an advanced practitioner who got there with a very technique based effort, who was at a point where he really needed to let go and just be.  But in my experience, he was the exception.  In stark contrast, the overwhelming number of people I run into have the opposite problem.

If you want to "get it done", it can be done.  Figure out a technique that will get you, and keep you, aware, relaxed, and open, and do that for an hour a day.

*Doors: Texas Radio and The Big Beat

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

It's not about thinking with your eyes closed

Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. - Sam Harris
"Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed"
- Sam Harris

I would add that sitting on a cushion at a retreat for 60 hours a week is not necessarily meditation, although it could be.

It depends on what is going on internally.

I've heard examples of modern meditation teachers recommending that their students actively think and analyze on the cushion.  At some level I find this frightening and I would tend to disagree.  I think this is quite possibly pointing in the wrong direction, that it may be training people to strengthen and practice their attachment and prejudice towards thought, something that instead needs to be un-done, un-learned.

On the other hand, it is possible to some extent for a person to be relatively unattached to their thinking, to merely observe the thoughts that arise, and that indeed can be a part of meditation practice, but notice this is not the same as the recommended steering and analyzing and grasping, but rather a mindful witnessing of what is.

In part this has resulted from a seemingly well intended political correctness about thought in meditation, at least among the consensus meditation community.  Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no-thought was used prominently as a pointer, and it remains an excellent pointer if understood correctly.  The danger is that some people would assume there should be an aversion to thought and would therefore resist thought.  The largely modern western groups reacted to this by pretty much abolishing talk of no-thought.  But grasping and resistance were never part of the practice.  Being mindfully aware and relaxed and open, and leaning in the direction of the non-conceptual, abandoning whatever grasping and resistance that can be abandoned, surrendering to the moment, that is the practice.

The practice is a letting go of what can be let go of, not of shunning or resisting thought.

In my experience, there is grasping with every thought, at least on the cushion.  On the cushion, everything is taken care of, there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  Thoughts in that situation, although natural at some level, reflect a degree of dissatisfaction with the present moment.  But the experience of thoughts subsiding, relaxing down to the level of a few proto-thoughts, is a sign that you are on the right track.  Although perhaps an advanced practice, one simply watches these arising and lets go of them as they are seen.

Part of the political correctness stems from the misunderstanding of the no-thought pointer.  But there are a couple of other pieces to the puzzle.  For example, there is a general recommendation to "investigate" experience, and Buddha himself clearly does a bit of thinking and analyzing.  My take would be that sure, you can do some of that, but I would recommend doing it off the cushion.  I would recommend staying away from discursive analysis on the cushion and instead emphasize "feeling" your experience.  What does your experience really feel like?  What does that fear or that tension in the body really feel like?  What happens when we stop resisting that?  We're living in a world of people that are out of touch with their bodies and feelings, like brains on a popsicle stick.  We need to practice the non-verbal.  We need to practice just being.

Similarly, the western Buddhist experience has been substantially blended with psychology over the past few decades.  This may not be a bad thing.  But again, when I hear someone at a dharma talk saying that they plan to spend their next retreat "meditating" on their relationship with their partner, my heart falls a bit.  Who knows, maybe what that person needs is a lot of psychological think time.  But I wouldn't call it meditation.  I do recommend psychological work, I think everyone is on a spectrum of neurosis, but again I would recommend that work be done off the cushion.

Time on the cushion is precious time, it is an opportunity to practice being aware and letting go.  Grasping at stories is not that.  And as my guitar teacher put it, practice makes permanent.  You practice sloppy, your playing will be sloppy.  Guaranteed.  Practice being aware and letting go, abandon whatever you can.

Another Reason for Noting Practice

The article, "Things You Can Do to Cheer Up, According to Neuroscience", in the segment "He-Who-Actually-Must-Be-Named", explains that:

“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
This is the essence of noting practice, to continuously describe what is more or less predominate in awareness.