Saturday, September 6, 2008

Shocking puppies

You've probably heard of the Stanley Milgram shock experiment, in which 26 of 40 (65%) of subjects willingly administered shocks of 450 volts to a test subject when prodded by the experimenter.

Of course, the shocks weren't real, and the people purportedly being shocked were in fact actors, but the subjects didn't know that. Yet, not one of them refused outright before 300 volts -- by which point the test subject (heard, not seen) was already clearly in agony (the starting voltage was 45v). In addition, none of the 40 subjects insisted that the experiment itself be cancelled, or went to check on the health of the shockees.

After the publication of the experiment, some commented that the subjects must have known the actors were faking, so... a follow-up was conducted (King & Sheridan, 1972) in which shocks actually were given to real subjects: puppies. (In addition, the study has been replicated many times since, consistently yielding ~65% willingness rates).

Now, clearly nobody believes the puppy is faking it. As I understand it, the puppies were actually present in the room, unlike the human subjects previously. So, how many of the 13 male and 13 female college students delivered the maximum, potentially-lethal shocks? Guess before you read on.

According to Wikipedia, although many of the women were highly emotionally distraught (and some cried), all of the females pressed on until the end, as did 7 of the 13 men.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A happiness paradox

Some people are fond of quotes suggesting that you can't be happy if you're trying:
If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time. -- Edith Wharton
They use such quotes to suggest that you shouldn't even be reading books on happiness. So what happens when you read a study about how exercise elevates mood, and then go exercise? Do you necessarily become unhappy because you've made the dire mistake of "trying to be happy"?

Of course not. Such quotes only make sense in the context of dwelling neurotically on your happiness, or trying to affect it in some direct way.

So there you have it: it's okay to read about this stuff...

Happiness & intuition: part II

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. -- Carl Jung
There seems to be a popular opinion that being happy all the time would be boring (and hence unhappy). Such a belief, I think, stems from poor intuition about emotion. Plus, there's a logical fallacy there.

First: is there any difference between a chronically depressed person and you (assuming you're not the former)? His relative mood is probably much like yours: it elevates a bit when good fortune strikes, and depresses when things go wrong. If happiness were defined by contrasts, it wouldn't be meaningful to say that you're happier than he is.

But the huge size of the antidepressant market is good evidence that this isn't the case. So why is it hard to believe that there exist people for whom your situation is analogous? Would you prefer to be miserable because everything else is boring?

Second: to say that being happy all the time would be unhappy implies that there are two different usages of "happiness" here. We can't logically be simultaneously happy and unhappy if they are to refer to the same dimension, but we could conventionally say such a thing (and sometimes do, colloquially) if they mean slightly different things. But if so, and it's the latter meaning that we're emphasizing and trying to optimize ("...then you would be unhappy"), then we can meaningfully ask: what if you were consistently happy in that sense? It logically precludes the possibility of you being anything other than happy.

Another take is that being unhappy all the time leads to unhappiness. In this way, there is only one state we're discussing. But now we're making a behavioral claim about how people must react (as opposed to a philosophical claim about how mental states are relative), and plenty of evidence from positive psychology indicates that we're pretty wrong about the upper reaches of mental ability.

Look at it this way: is "tall" a relative term? Yes, but only in relation to other people. You're not "tall" because you're taller than you were a few years ago. If you vary in height between 4' and 4'8", you're still never "tall." And if you're 8' in a world full of 8'ers, you may not get the distinction of being "tall," but you can still damn well dunk on an 8' rim.

Trump bares all

I found this nice page full of Donald Trump quotes. The purpose of the site is "Motivation and Strategies for Entrepreneurs." No surprise, then, that we find quotes like this:
"We won by wearing everyone else down. We never gave up, and the opposition slowly began to melt away"
And that we don't see one of his wiser quotes (which in fact is found in exactly one place on the web):
"It's a rare person who can achieve a major goal in life and not almost immediately start feeling sad, empty, and a little lost. If you look at the record -- which in this case means newspapers, magazines, and TV news -- you'll see that an awful lot of people who achieve success, from Elvis Presley to Ivan Boesky, lose their direction or their ethics. Actually, I don't have to look at anyone else's life to know that's true. I'm as susceptible to that pitfall as anyone else"
It seems evolutionary psychology is still hard at work. Ethics doesn't pay the bills or help us reproduce, does it?

Happiness & intuition

I'm currently reading a technical volume on Emotion Regulation. I'm both encouraged and disappointed that the state of the art includes such nuggets as:
"Tamir (2005) has argued that hedonic considerations can sometimes be trumped by other considerations, such as whether a given emotion will help a person achieve his or her immediate objectives."
i.e., sometimes we act with goals other than immediate pleasure and:
" individuals mature and gain in life experience, they might increasingly learn to make greater use of healthy emotion regulation strategies (such as reappraisal) and lesser use of less healthy emotion regulation strategies (such as suppression). Evidence now exists that such an age-related change does occur."
i.e., wisdom happens.

Let it be noted, lest I sound cynical, that I fully appreciate that the gathering and analyzing of objective evidence is indispensable in any science; psychology is no exception, regardless of whether or not its hypotheses are intuitively reasonable.

On the other hand, intuition is an individual thing. And although it may be hard to measure objectively, surely some have better intuition than others. So although intuition in general cannot be relied upon -- that is, some psychological findings are "counterintuitive" -- it seems that perfect intuition should jibe perfectly with those findings.

For this not to be a tautology (i.e., to avoid having to define "perfect intuition" as that intuition that perfectly predicts objective findings), such a thing should exist in the real world and be definable in other ways (say, the supposed omniscience of the Buddha).

Anyway, it's interesting to note that intuition doesn't seem to be constant; one can develop it through persistent introspection. And bit by bit, more psychological insights make a transition from counterintuitive to natural and obvious. To me, that seems like a good operational definition of wisdom, and a fount of happiness.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


After watching the nightly news, and rediscovering after three months that the planet is going to Hell in a handbasket, I'm reminded of the central point of the awesome book Blessed Unrest: humanity seems to act as an innate immune response when the Earth is suffering. It seems we're all well aware of the social and environmental havoc being wreaked, and we are all doing some small part to salve it.


Paraphrasing one of the central claims in Buddhist philosophy, the empty clarity of mind is naturally imbued with a kind of intelligence or wisdom borne of compassion. One of the benefits of meditation seems to be that, by piping down the competing racket in the mind, the inherent wisdom of mind shines through more brightly.

Is Buddhist practice necessary to uncover this intelligence? Certainly not. Is retreat critical? Probably not. Is it crucial to devote more time to finding ways of accessing this deep-seated sagacity and selflessness, and then implementing them? Probably.

My suspicion is that the recent upsurge in interest in meditative practices just when wisdom is needed most urgently is no coincidence.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Engaging the clutch

I don't have time to search for all the quotations I need to back up this post, but I'll put together something more solid later. The purpose here is to give quick intuition about meditation that can apparently escape people for decades. Don't worry. It's not hard.

First of all, let's look at the two qualities of mind you're trying to avoid while engaging in shamatha meditation:

* Laxity: this typically includes stupor (ranging from a mild zoning out to effectively vegetating) and torpor (being slightly drowsy to falling asleep).
* Excitation: letting "discursive thoughts" take control. It's never elaborated in Buddhist texts what is meant by "discursive", but of the two main definitions, the former seems more applicable:
1. Passing from one topic to another; ranging over a wide field; digressive; rambling.
2. Utilizing, marked by, or based on analytical reasoning -- contrasted with intuitive.
There are also descriptions urging you not to attempt to have an empty mind, which they associate with vegetating. At first, all these seem eminently reasonable. But eventually you discover things that seem to clash with those descriptions:

* In the highly advanced dream yoga, you learn to fall asleep while vividly conscious, and maintain your awareness through sleep. Crazy as it sounds, I can assure you it's possible.
* If meditation made you unable to pass from one topic to another in thought, who would want to do it? Maybe they mean you shouldn't do that while meditating, but this is also wrong: in the most advanced form of practice, you are completely aware of "rambling thought" if it happens to arise (which happens much less frequently).
* Eventually your mind does in fact become "empty" in some sense. In fact, it is claimed in Tibetan Buddhism that the ultimate nature of mind (and reality) is emptiness!

Okay so now for the intuition. Think of how the following situations feel.

* You're meditating on the breath, but at some point notice yourself thinking about something else. In fact, you've been off it for thirty seconds without noticing.

* You're reading a textbook for school, but have to re-read paragraphs after realizing that the words were going in one eye and out the other.

* You're sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office and suddenly notice that you don't know where the last ten minutes went. It's just as well, you think, because it's boring in there.

Each of these is a description of zoning out. In some cases, your mind may be running furiously, churning up one useless (but deliciously interesting) thought after another; in other cases, you're totally blank.

Classically these are distinguished as stupor and excitation, but in actuality they're fundamentally the same. As for torpor, it seems problematic only in that it seems to induce spaciness no matter how hard we try to fight it.

So we've reduced the faults to just one that we're intimately familiar with: being zoned out. The title of this post refers to an analogy I like to make: presence of mind is like having the clutch engaged in your vehicle (for those who are unfamiliar with how cars work, the clutch is a mechanism that transfers power from the engine to the transmission, and ultimately, the wheels). When the clutch is disengaged, it makes no difference if the engine is spinning wildly (excitation) or totally at rest (stupor); the end result is the same: no power to the wheels.

The goal of "mindfulness" meditation is to keep the clutch continuously engaged. By doing so, we become better at reading, listening, noticing our emotions, ... or in short, living life. So get a feel for it, even if you don't like formal meditation. I suspect you'll find yourself "out of it" more often than you normally realize, and the little extra mindfulness this exercise automatically brings you will surely be worth the effort.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I've made friends with more lamas (not llamas...) than I can shake a stick at, and believe me, I can shake a stick at lots of lamas. Why am I so lucky? Because the end of my retreat just happens to coincide with Rinpoche's teachings. During one of our walks, they (jokingly) knighted (lama'd?) me Lama Chokyi Senge, the mighty Dharma Lion.

Yeah, I know I look pretty dumb in that shot. But when I look fine, they look away...

(Lama Tashi Dondup, me, Lama Karma Wangdu, and Tulku Damcho Rinpoche. Not pictured: one I hope to visit soon, Lama Rinchen!)

Unfortunately, you have to attend a three year retreat to get that title. On the bright side, you don't have to be a monk. It turns out there's so much ritual and study that they don't get time to meditate!

In fact, one lama -- a monk for 28 years -- admitted to totally misunderstanding meditation until really trying it on year 27! Although he's undoubtedly exaggerating, the fact that people (and especially monks) tend to stick to one teacher or tradition makes it more believable, in my experience. In light of that, it makes sense why so many people at Rinpoche's teaching, many of whom have been students for several decades, ask questions about meditation that can be answered by a careful 3 month retreat!

It is in that light that I may consider this foray a success. I have some pretty neat observations about how to meditate (even if I'm still lousy at it) that somehow I haven't seen condensed anywhere. Maybe I'll put it up on a website or something...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Virtue ninjas

This is related to the last post, but it can stand on its own.

While talking to Khenpo about the previous scenario, I was once again deeply moved by the thought of how Bodhisattvas operate. In effect, they're like stealthy, ruthlessly efficient saints. Their every action is stunningly efficacious at bringing about a net positive result, but you may never even see them operating.

That may sound comic book-like, but we probably all know people who give off a whiff of that unrelenting goodness. It's just unfortunate that the most virtuous actions undertaken for my benefit are probably also the ones I'm too dense to recognize and appreciate.

I'll be more attentive in the future. I promise :-D

Judaism and Buddhism

I was reflecting on the following scenario with Khenpo, and afterward came upon an interesting (if unsurprising) parallel in Buddhist and Jewish teachings.
You're living at a house with two other people, one of whom has prepared enough dinner for the three of you. There's other food in the house, but the prepared food looks better. Arriving home, you find a guest arriving simultaneously, and he is invited to stay by your housemates. He agrees, not knowing there's just enough to fill three stomaches. Do you

1) Shove in front of him to get your share before it's gone
2) Keep in front, leaving enough for him to snack on
3) Get in line behind him, but make it subtly clear he better not take too much
4) Let him have all of it, but make it obvious that you've been put out
5) Let him have all of it, not letting him (or the others) realize and thus feel guilty
I suspect most of my readership is at stage 2 or higher (although it's not a totally linear scale, and there are clearly other good options). I also imagine many -- like myself -- were once not even that far. What changed, and would you ever want to go back? If you see these as ascending stages of virtue, why not progress to a higher stage? Is that wisdom reserved for the saints, or do you believe there's some point after which you just gotta get yours?

(Oh, and this is what I read afterwards; hence the title of this post.)

Well, in Buddhism, it is considered that most of our suffering comes from drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, the far side of which we believe would just be giving up too much of our stash and thus condemning us to a life of misery.

It is quite an insidious trap. If you can't remember your mental state when you were at stage one, imagine trying to convince someone there that stage two feels even better. You'll likely be ridiculed for being a naive Santa Claus. And yet, being at a higher stage, you're not the slightest bit uncertain that it's more virtuous than stage one. In fact, people down there would probably not disagree.

It seems that we're all hardwired for compassion, but somehow the intellectual understanding can't manage to blossom into its active counterpart, wisdom. And yet, as we age, it seems to develop on its own.

But must we wait for wisdom to "happen" to us? It's contended in Buddhism that there's a more efficient way: develop a keen, penetrating watchfulness; instead of going through the motions like a zombie, observe the cause and effect of every action you take; deconstruct the mental compartments that separate knowledge from wisdom (a la yesterday's post); behave at all times like you believe a wise person would (WWJD!), thereby reinforcing those patterns.

Supposedly, this is a highway to becoming a "better" person. Sure, it may be easier to be a mental couch potato, but perhaps the fulfillment is more than worth the effort (which itself is a wondrous journey for anyone with the slightest bit of curiosity about life).

Some of you, I think were worried I was joining some sort of a cult. At times, I feel like all the cultural trappings have that scent (although less so than other traditions I've explored), but in its essence as a skeptical, see-for-yourself path, it's in fact the polar opposite.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Does it surprise any of you that most Buddhists are not vegetarian? It sure as hell surprises me. I've been avoiding this topic for a while, as I'm afraid of alienating my audience. But since I bet nobody reads this anyway, and it's what's on my mind, here goes!

First things first: it is completely untenable for Buddhists to eat meat. This is not my opinion, but that of many highly respected masters. In short, assuming you know anything about the gut-wrenching, heart-rending torture and agony visited upon animals by the meat industry, being compassionate and eating meat produced by that industry must be held in strictly separate mental compartments -- the product of a sort of personality split.

Holding conflicting beliefs in one's head -- even those as divergent as presented above -- is a totally natural thing for humans. But it goes strictly against Buddhist philosophy, the central premise of which (other than compassion itself) is that one should be striving for mental clarity, health, and consistency -- in short, enlightenment.

Anyway, on to observation #2. 

As I've been helping out around the house for Rinpoche's visit, I've noticed a pattern emerging: those tasks that are high-profile and 'sexy' tend to get a lot of volunteers to oversee or help with. Those that aren't often get overlooked.

Today, after our morning session, the coordinator asked the room of nearly 200 if anyone would like to assist a disabled woman during the next 10 days. Even in plain view of everyone else -- where one can receive kudos -- only a couple of hands went up. It seems everyone is too busy doing flashy practices to worry about silly things like compassion. After all, how bad can MS be? It's not like she can't use the restroom without help. Oh, wait...

But the most ironic part is how proud people are of their "tenure." Personally, I'd be a little embarrassed to admit that I've been Buddhist for 30 years, have traveled to Tibet and Nepal, and am still bickering over who gets to sit where. It's a bit like saying I've been practicing piano for 30 years, and then sitting down and mashing the keyboard with my elbows.

It's days like these where I feel like going it alone. But then I remember: there are people here who actually have made progress. 

They're the ones you don't notice.

Friday, June 20, 2008

And so it goes

(Thrangu Rinpoche, HH the Dalai Lama, and HH the 17th Karmapa)

Today I had the amazing good fortune to be allowed a very special interview with Thrangu Rinpoche.

I'd like to tell you that I had all my questions answered, received profound wisdom, and that I gained direct insight into the nature of mind and reality, but alas, it ain't so!

Instead, I'm left with what is bound to be the only foolproof advice likely to penetrate my skull: take it slow and keep plugging away at it.

No easy answers, I guess!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I often say that I don't miss people. Lest this be misconstrued as some sort of cold-hearted stoicism, rest assured that that's not at all the case. As I was reflecting on that, I realized that explaining the Tibetan practice of Tonglen might shed some light on it.

Tonglen literally means "giving and taking." In the practice, one imagines oneself taking on all the pain, suffering, and mental afflictions of another person, and sending back all of one's good health, happiness, fortune, etc. with kindness. It's typical to start with people close to your heart, move out to acquaintances, then strangers, then enemies (if you have any!).

In this way, by focusing intently on each person, one generates a sense of well-wishing that engenders an inner peace and joy that stands in stark contrast to the yearning, and sometimes saddening, feeling of missing people (or the hatred you feel for your enemies). Not that I'm free of yearning! But it provides an interesting counterpoint for sure.

Anyway, as for news: Rinpoche arrives today, and Lama is very kindly seeing that I get an extra long interview with him. From the 20th-29th I'll just be going to his instruction, so with all the cleaning and commotion this has turned out to be more like a 2-month retreat. I'd like to say I'm a completely different person, but I suspect you'll see through that quickly :)

I think I'll be spending all of July meditating at my parents' house; it turns out this "meditation" thing is worthwhile. On that note, maybe I'll have time to type up another post or two. I think shedding all the baggage that comes with the term "meditation" and giving a clear description of its immense practical benefit could really be useful. In short: it makes you more human (and less zombie/animal/etc.).

Also, hopefully I will find time to catch up with people before I return to Seattle...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Math again

It seems that whenever there's a lull in meditation, math springs to mind. That's actually a large part of why I'm meditating... I could do without so many useless thoughts! So here's your warning: this is useless, and will only make sense if you love math and/or physics (I know there are a few of you out there).

I've had a few neat thoughts to share regarding musical instrument and note detection (regarding Hilbert spaces. No, I'm not joking ;)), but I figure someone's already tried it out. So instead, here's a useless problem where a neat flash of intuition came in handy. They say intuitive flashes are more common when the mind is calm; I'm not sure if this is such an example, but it felt like one.

Consider the wave formed by the sum of sine waves of differing amplitudes and offsets, but the same frequency:
f(x) = a1 * sin (vx + k1) + a2 * sin (vx + k2) ...
Does it have multiple peaks (and troughs) per period, or just one? With the usual disclaimer that this may be obvious to everyone but me, here's a quick proof that it's just one:
f''(x) = -v^2 * f(x)

Thus the only inflection points (where f''(x) = 0) are where the wave crosses the x-axis. Hence only one "hump" in-between.
Then it occurred to me that it relates to the following situation I was thinking about earlier:
Planets orbiting distant stars are detected by the redshift they induce on the star's light. What can we determine about the number, distance, and masses of planets given just the time series data of the star's redshift?
That problem is a bit richer, but the following reduction is useful:
Multiple planets orbiting at the same distance have the same period (not hard to verify: the gravitational acceleration of a body is uniquely determined by its distance from the star, neglecting the pull from other sources), but have different pulls on the star (thus the different amplitudes above). But regardless of their "offsets" around the star, the perturbation of the star will take on what shape? A circle! QED.

(For the sticklers, yes, I left out a few steps: the position being circular implies that the velocity and acceleration vectors are also circular; the acceleration in each dimension is uniquely determined by the position of the planets in those dimensions.)
It feels easier both to relate problems to each other and to use intuition to solve them. I don't know if this will persist, or if it does, whether it will derail my meditation. But it's a nice little break!

Note. On second thought, here's a simpler proof: f(x) and f'(x) have the same periodicity. Oops.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Distractedness vs Presence

Okay lots to say but don't wanna waste too much time writing.

When meditating, we can roughly break our experience up into two modes: presence and distractedness. Presence is when you're aware of the object (if there is one), and by God, you know it. Distractedness is when your mind is wandering; its existence is only detected at some later point in an "oops!" moment. In some meaningful sense, your wits are not fully about you. During the beginning stages of meditation, most people spend the majority of their time in distractedness.

We can apply these labels to our everyday (non-meditating) consciousness as well. It's just sometimes harder to do when there is no object per se whose absence unequivocally reveals our lack of presence. This is why the form of meditation that uses no object is considered advanced. The practice is summed up in the following quote:
Although there is nothing to meditate upon,
Don't be distracted for even an instant!
So if during meditation, when we're trying our best to not be distracted, we spend the majority of time distracted anyway, you can imagine the picture we'd get if we could see all the times in our daily life that we're not "all there."

That's sobering. Isn't life too short to spend 90% of it distracted?

Okay on to the second point.

When we're in pain, we spend most of the time dwelling on the pain. This is being distracted from the pain. If that seems counterintuitive, consider the difference between watching the bare physical perception of pain and compulsively forming ideation about it. The first requires a keen presence; the second feels much more akin to what we would call "distractedness."

It turns out that when you maintain a lucid awareness of the physical sensation itself, the conceptual embellishment vanishes, and the suffering goes with it. The pain is still there, but the sense of being hurt by the pain disappears. They've been yelling this from the rooftops for millennia, but until one sees it for oneself, it sounds too mystical to be true.

So that's the second point: distraction brings suffering, while having a clear, vibrant presence of mind reveals the counterintuitive observation that sensations in and of themselves have no intrinsic power to harm. This insight itself releases the suffering that we normally assume must be part and parcel of the sensation.

To recap, distractedness robs you of the vitality of being there in life, and burdens you with suffering and the illusion that it is unavoidable; presence puts you front and center, and makes all perceptions wondrous spectacles of the mind.

Put in those terms, I'm becoming inclined to return to my boring practice of meditation...

(This was all typed up too quickly to respond to objections, some of which I foresee.)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Slowly coming together

Yesterday during my one-on-one with Lama, as we were discussing my progress, he mentioned that it's probably not so critical that I refrain from social contact at this point. The basic reason, I think, is that meditation is not so foreign to me any more.

In a previous post I mentioned that reaching "the next stage" was very tricky because it was resistant to grasping. Well, it turns out that in the tradition I'm studying, there are no "stages" as such, and since the instructions are more or less "don't grasp," it's clear why that approach just doesn't work.

For anyone who's worried that meditation is hard and boring, here's a bit of good news: once you figure out an approach that works well for you, it's not so bad. The approach I study is the simplest of all, it turns out, and because most Westerners want desperately to do something, it can also be the hardest. I'll try to give you a bit of intuition so you can see if it works for you...
A quick primer on "simple" meditation

If you've ever sat down to watch your breath for 15 minutes, you've almost certainly noticed at some point that you're thinking about something else entirely, even though you fully intended to watch the breath. Ask yourself what exactly was happening in your mind at the time. You'll find that it's like a mini-bout of amnesia: you know you're supposed to be meditating, but you kinda sorta temporarily forgot. Oops!

The English term "mindfulness" is a translation of the Pali term "sati" (Sanskrit "smrti"), which refers to remembering. In this case, it's remembering that you're supposed to be watching the breath. It's not that you "forgot" in the colloquial sense -- if someone were to interrupt your daydream by asking you what you're doing, you'd say "meditating."

But there's a clear distinction between the times you're remember to watch your breath, and the times you're "forgetting": it's a sense of cognizance, awareness, witnessing, presence of mind. Call it what you want, but the key point is to get an intuition about the difference between being "on the ball" and being either spaced out or lost in thought. The breath is used as a "support" because it's dead obvious when you've lost the witnessing aspect: if you're not watching the breath, you've lost presence of mind. Beware of false positives, though: it's no good to be watching the breath in a spacey, absentminded, or distracted way.

Once you gain a firm understanding of the difference between presence and absence of mind, it's not so crucial to have a support for meditation. At that point, just relax, and keep your wits about you. Bit by bit, you'll develop lucidity and vividness, the presence will stabilize, compulsive thoughts will subside, and you'll end up in a much more aware state than when you were a bare novice!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Don't expect applause

It's getting busy around the center, as they prepare for Rinpoche's visit. That means more dirty dishes, and although doing them is not my assigned task, I figure it's better to do them so that we can, you know, eat.

Well, people see me doing them, and assume that it must be my job. I sometimes get a cursory "need any help?" while they scurry off without waiting for an answer. Don't get me wrong -- everyone here is wonderful, and probably better than I'll ever be, but after talking to many people about the Buddhist community, it's interesting to learn that Buddhism is just like any other pursuit: people learn the basics, get some medals and emblems, and then pride themselves on being better than everyone else.

So it's fun to take a different approach: trying to figure out exactly what I'm getting myself into here, and learning it whether it's easy or not. It's hard as hell (not the meditation -- that part is fun and easy), but boy is it rewarding. As an example, here are two different suggestions from two separate masters. I call them "suggestions" because there are no commandments, but you'd be hard pressed to call yourself a Buddhist without trying to incorporate these.

* Don't expect applause

Bodhisattva vow #16

Even if a person for whom you've cared
Like your own child regards you as an enemy,
Cherish him specially, like a mother
Does her child who is stricken by sickness -
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

This has nothing to do with being meek so you can reap rewards later, or allowing yourself to be stepped on because you are worthless or undeserving. That's closer to the territory of the "lower" Buddhist vehicle. In contrast, in the Bodhisattva path, you are expected to realize that such philosophy is the only way to shed the adamantine panoply of ego that you think is keeping you safe.

Acting any other way is like a turtle retreating into his shell. The main difference between a saint and your average chump sobbing about being used is expectation. There's far too much to be done to waste time waiting for applause, to worry about being liked or appreciated, to drown in regret, or simmer over others' faults.

Oh, and one can't forget the key point in becoming a Bodhisattva:

A sense of humor!

Lest any of you nutters expect any such behavior from the likes of me, rest assured I harbor no such delusions. I am still as useless as ever!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Meditators For Intergalactic Peace!

Apparently we've solved all of our problems here on earth, because the best use researchers can find for meditation is ...

"Benson believes that such a capability could be useful for space travel. Travelers might use meditation to ease stress and oxygen consumption on long flights to other planets."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dwelling on peace

"Shamatha," as I may have pointed out before, translates as "calm abiding," or "dwelling in peace." Sometimes, however, that can turn into "dwelling on peace," as in "What?! I've only done 5 hours so far today? Shit! Relax harder, you idiot! You gotta make this session count!"

Surprise, surprise -- that doesn't work at all. Mingyur Rinpoche teaches:
We are just going to sit with our body and mind relaxed, just like we had finished a long job that made us tired. ... This relaxation is meditation. But I did not instruct you to meditate. But it is said, non-meditation is the supreme meditation. Therefore we don't need to meditate. We relax our body and we relax our mind.
This meditation technique that has just been described is called shamatha or calm abiding meditation without object.
So meditation in this way is extremely easy, but there is one difficulty: it is so easy that it is hard. It's hard because we don't trust it. We are always thinking that meditation must be referring to something very special.

"Shamatha without object" is the most advanced form of shamatha, and now I can see why. His brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche (Rinpoche is their title, not their last name) describes the very same practice as "stupidity training," and says it can only lead to vegetation. It can take a while to get the hang of the subtle difference.

After weeks of rather good practice, suddenly my goal-driven mind kicks back in and gets fed up with me "doing nothing," and expects me to do it better, faster, harder. Otherwise my friends and family will think I'm a failure, having spent months with nothing to show for it. More neurosis instead of less.

I have to keep reminding myself that you guys will still love me if I'm a failure.

Won't you?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's noisy out there

The 17th Karmapa made his historic first visit to the USA this past weekend. At first I wasn't going to attend, but circumstances were such that I ended up going to Boulder to listen to his talks.

I got a chance to walk through downtown Boulder (a college town) at night during some sort of fair (the kind with amusement park rides), and through the bar district. If I didn't know any better, I'd have said I've made no progress whatsoever in mindfulness. I think it would have taken the Buddha himself to not get distracted out of his gourd.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The search continues

ABC Australia joins an all-star cast of philosophers, neuroscientists, monks (and some who are a combination of those!) in a terrific continuation of the neuroscience/Buddhism collaboration on happiness.

All In The Mind - 17 May 2008 - The science of happiness

Natasha Mitchell: Well Matthieu and Alan can I bring you both in here, do you see meditation as the only vehicle for studying happiness as a way of being?

Matthieu Ricard: Well not if we think of meditation again as sitting under a mango tree and emptying your mind—but if meditation means to cultivate until it becomes familiar—yes, for sure, what will come without training? That would make no sense. So meditation is training of that spoilt brat of the mind. And unless you do that it will remain chaotic.


Natasha Mitchell: Daniel, I wonder whether we can apply science definitively to working out why the hell we often pursue things that absolutely make us unhappy but we think that they will make us happy—money is a great one; the expectation is that we should desperately quest for money and it will make us happy. Yet we keep stumbling into a state of unhappiness in relation to our relationship with money—so what can science say about why we keep doing that, is there an evolutionary compulsion?
... why doesn't someone when they get to that future just tell the rest of us to stop questing?

Daniel Gilbert: Oh they do, they do all the time and we make sure not to listen. What we say from other people's experience is well you're not exactly like me, you know I understand that getting the vacation home in Hawaii didn't do it for you, I don't know what's wrong with you, it sure would make me happy. Look Alan was alluding to...there's lots of data on lottery winners—guess what, on average they are as happy as people who don't win the lottery. Some are ecstatic; some are miserable. Tell that to everybody and they nod and they say, 'But yes, if I won the lottery... So I think one of the things we really fail to do is learn from people who've already visited the very future that we're contemplating, who have real data to share with us and the reason we don't listen is we think we are marvellously unique. Well guess what, human beings are remarkably the same when it comes to their emotional reactions to stimuli, that's why everybody laughs at a Comedy Club, they cry at a funeral—we basically have the same responses. You can learn a lot from other people.

A quote

"In meditation, behave as though the universe is giving you a profound lesson. It is."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dan Rather - Mind Science

Quit wasting time on the web, and watch something useful for a change.
"Usually you see, we consider every emotion as just part of our life, part of our mind. For example, fear or hatred, as it comes, we just consider normal. I think that's a mistake." -- H.H. the Dalai Lama
"We are exposed to all kinds of influences in our environment all the time. Those influences are affecting our brain, they are changing our brain. If we are better able to regulate those inputs and to engage in specific kinds of training to cultivate positive qualities of mind, we can, I think, based on modern neuroscience evidence, we can change our brains by transforming our minds in beneficial ways.
We shouldn't think of these as fixed characteristics of people. If we take the initiative, take responsibility for our own minds, we can produce more positive individuals who have more of these beneficial qualities, which in turn, I think, will have a synergistic effect in making our culture and our society a more positive one." -- Richard Davidson, neuroscience professor; collaborator and close friend of the Dalai Lama

Friday, May 16, 2008


A couple of nights ago, wracked by insomnia at 1 AM, I decided to give in to an impulse to try out a bit of math. Nothing too abstract, as I've found that my reasoning skills per se haven't improved, but something that required me to dot my "i"s and cross my "t"s. For those not of a mathematical bent, the details can be skipped entirely. Long story short: I was able to manipulate equations correctly in my head that normally are a bit tedious even on paper.

For those who want details (nerds!), here's the problem statement and (the essentials of) the solution, all done mentally:

Given the following line segments expressed in parametric form, tell whether they intersect.

(a + bt, c + dt), 0 <= t <= 1
(e + fs, g + hs), 0 <= s <= 1

So I set about solving for the value of s at which the two (infinite) lines would intersect.

a + bt = e + fs, c + dt = g + hs

t = (e + fs - a) / b = (g + hs - c) / d

b(g + hs - c) = d(e + fs - a)

bhs - dfs = d(e-a) - b(g-c)
s = [d(e - a) - b(g - c)] / (bh - df)


Saturday, May 10, 2008

A taste of freedom

You decide you’re going to watch the breath for 20 minutes. You crack your knuckles, sit cross-legged, and put a blissed-out look on your face. Today is the day you’re going to meditate, dammit!

Thirty seconds later you’re wondering what’s for dinner. Wait a minute! What just happened? You’re not schizophrenic, are you?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but in the Buddhist view of the world, yeah, you are. We all are. Deep down we want to be compassionate, saintly souls, but man! did you see that jerk just cut me off?! I want to clean my room but ooh I wonder if there’s anything new on the Internet! It’s so natural to intend one thing but do another that we figure c’est la vie, que sera sera, jeena isi ka naam hai, it’s one of the cute little perks of being human. Tee hee!

But what if there’s another way? What if by slow, unrelenting perseverance you could marshal the forces of will, waging a silent, invisible coup against the cold, neurological machinery of habit that would keep you not just away from the helm, but blissfully oblivious of and inured to your very impotence?

Contemplatives claim that a taste of free will is blissful and liberating, that mindfulness is incompatible with boredom, fear, and anxiety. Bit by bit, I am becoming more inclined to believe them.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The sound of music

This should be of interest to anyone remotely interested in music theory. At first I wasn’t going to post it, but I have to get it out of my mind. I’m going to leave out some details to keep it unrelated to my practice.

If you’ve ever studied music (modern music in the West anyway), you might have asked yourself why the most common scale – the C major diatonic scale – has such a strange setup. A4 (the A above middle C) is at 440 Hz, and the frequencies of most pairs of adjacent notes (whole steps) are separated by a multiplicative factor of the sixth root of two, except for two (half steps E-F and B-C) which are only separated by the twelfth root of two.

Seems pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it? Probably sounds so good because we’re just used to it.

But what if some ancient cultures (e.g., the Hindus) claimed to hear seven distinct notes while meditating, starting with our middle C, with the only difference being that the A was 432 Hz, instead of 440 (a recent change, it turns out)?

And what if meditators even today sometimes stumbled upon those original frequencies, "hearing" them quite distinctly, persistently, and unmistakably? Well that would be pretty neat, now wouldn’t it?

edit: a little searching reveals it was first 'invented' by the Greeks (see 'Lydian mode'), but I have my suspicions that it was known even earlier...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The snot thickens

Just as my allergies are getting so ridiculously bad that I'm considering leaving, I've also run into some strange (if minor) experiences that are unmistakable signs in an esoteric Hindu tradition.

I guess you take the good with the bad. Or maybe the bad with the bad. I don't know yet.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

5/4 - A minor milestone

Yesterday was my first 8 hour day, and today I'm going to push past that.

It seems that many people in the Project (see previous post) had pretty traumatic psychological issues crop up during the first month. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I feel completely normal. Best guess: I'm taking it too easy. If the next stage won't come to me, well then hell, I'll go to it.

If I've gained any mental control at all, I'll tell you one thing it hasn't done: relieved my fear of spiders one damn bit. There's one that resides in my room, and every now and then sees fit to rappel down to a random spot, often near my bed. How's that for a distraction?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why shamatha?

This blog should save me some time!

It's about the Shamatha Project, which I am modeling my own retreat directly after.

Particularly interesting is the section "What are the benefits of the practice?"

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

4/29 - A new kind of challenge

I had a long, dramatic post written up, but I fear it would be imprudent to post it just yet. In lieu of that, here's the essence of it.

This next stage is interesting. The more I want it, the harder I try, the more I even think about it, the harder it is to achieve. I've had tastes of it, but it's far from stable. The further I go, the more it feels like I'm just sitting there. No doubt this is why the main Zen practice is called shikantaza, which translates as "just sitting," and why it's so hard to describe in words.

If it never stabilizes, oh well. If it does, I should have more to write. In the mean time, I suspect not much of interest will happen.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Monkey and elephant

Here's a nice picturesque representation of what shamatha meditation is all about.

The second half of the page illustrates the stages.

Friday, April 25, 2008

4/25/08 – Ace, Bob, or Aditya?

Imagine, if you will, the local video arcade. Ace and Bob have just finished another long day at the factory, and as usual, are cooling off steam playing Ultimate Fighter Pilot. There's a war going on out there, but both men have somehow, thankfully, avoided the draft.

Blam! Every time he downs a bogey, Bob gleefully imagines he's a true flyboy. It's a good way to distract him from reality. He knows he should be at home with his wife and kids, and the bills surely aren't going to pay themselves. But man, what a rush! Nothing will ever come of it, but he doesn't want to admit that. Maybe, just maybe, an Air Force recruiter will happen by, and SEE, dammit, that he is The One. Then he'll really be somebody...

Ace has always had a funny feeling in the back of his mind. He doesn't know why he's always been attracted to games like this -- but whatever, it's fun. Every now and then, he gets shot down, and wonders why he's wasting his time. But something keeps him there. He doesn't know it -- at least not yet -- but years ago, he was one of Britain's top guns. In his head, just behind the amnesia, a little man is sitting, smiling at the irony. No matter, he thinks; soon, destiny will take its inevitable course, and in a flash of insight, all will become clear...

Meanwhile, next door, Aditya sits writing stupid stories, knowing fully well he should be meditating instead.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

4/25 – Get enlightened or become a vegetable trying

So I’m sick of trying to locate the breath below my nostrils. My hay fever is bulldozing right over the Claritin, and besides, I think years of ineptitude with shaving have left the skin above my lips a barren, insensitive wasteland.

So I asked myself today, just wtf IS meditation? Well, I thought I’d try a different version, one that comes with a warning label: “for advanced meditators only!” Now, I’m no advanced meditator, but read the canonical description of shamatha without an object:

By completely abandoning thought and the object of thought
One should let the mind settle in the natural state of an infant.

Hey, I could do that! It sounds like how I spend most of my time (just ask Grant)! In fact, it sounds suspiciously like what I imagined meditation to be before I was disabused of the notion by such statements as this, written by Tibetan Buddhist adept and scholar Alan Wallace in his indispensable The Attention Revolution:

During the early 1970s, I knew of one fellow who decided on his own that the whole point of meditation was to stop thinking, and he diligently applied himself to this goal for days on end. Eventually, he reached this goal by becoming vegetative, unable even to feed himself, and he needed to be hospitalized.

Hmm… Then a few chapters later, we have quotes from Padmasambhava and Tsongkhapa, both founders of Tibetan Buddhist schools:

Vacantly direct your eyes into the space in front of you. See that thoughts pertaining to [everything] are completely cut off.


Resolve, “I will settle the mind without thinking about any object.”

So there you have it, folks. It’s all just a big hoax.

Just kidding. Luckily I have a few lamas here to help me sort it out.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

4/23 - Not just a fluke

Now for some good news: today's sessions suggest that perhaps I wasn't just lucky these past few weeks. I think I'm doing just fine progress-wise.

4/23 Talking to myself

I was gazing at a tree after meditating outside, and I almost said out loud “wow, isn’t that beautiful.” Not very clever. In fact I wasn’t taking in the beauty at all -- I was only telling myself how obviously beautiful it must be. Sometimes I have to do that, I think: use a few words to remind my brain what I’m “supposed to be” focusing on.

Do you ever do that? Like while working out a problem, talk either out loud or in your head to jump-start the thinking process that got sidetracked, bogged down, or simply faded out a few seconds ago?

4/23 Stream of consciousness

Breathe in… breathe out… breathe STUPID FLY get off my nose! … breathe … why I’ll KILL YOU!! … breathe in … what?! only 12 minutes so far?! … breathe out … gosh I hope I don’t waste all 3 months like this … breathe maybe I should take a nap.

So I’m an impatient, uncompassionate, anxious, neurotic, drowsy wreck. Oh well, at least it’s an improvement over two weeks ago, when I didn’t even know it! Welcome to the untrained mind, I guess.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

4/13 - A nice Zen moment

(Yes, I know this post is out of order. Oops.)

So here I am, sitting outside in the 65 degree weather, the warm desert sun shining down, a bowl of strawberries in my hand. What could make it more beautiful? Ah, a nice butterfly coming to land on my… AH CRAP it’s a buzzing moth! Get away from my ear!

4/20 - Yes, progress

I don't wanna jinx it, but today there were signs of real progress. Of course, it's unbecoming a Buddhist to discuss details of his 'accomplishments', and besides, maybe I've just been lucky thus far. But keeping my fingers crossed...

4/16 - The chomping metronome

You ever have a song playing in your head while you eat? It's so much worse, because you're going chomp chomp chomp at a regular pace, giving your mind a nice metronome. I thought I'd trick my mind (worst Buddhist evar) by varying the pace of my chewing.

All it did was make for a more interesting rendition of The Legend of Zelda theme.

4/15 - I am now officially a Buddhist

Today Khenpo gave my lay ordination as a Buddhist practitioner. I am now officially ... (drum roll) ...

Choki Senge

A couple hours later, while cleaning the bathroom, I almost broke my vows and killed a spider that decided it would be clever to scare me.

4/14 - I want a nostrilectomy

After 5 long hours of practice, it would be nice to be able to feel something other than my nostrils. I actually have to breathe through my mouth to turn off the feeling...

Plus, my head hurts.

4/14 - Progress?

Mark Hallett, Helen Neville, Amir Amedi, and Ehud Zohary.

Those are the names I remember from the book last night ("Train your mind, change your brain”. Hey, it’s about “a groundbreaking collaboration between neuroscience and Buddhism” – and pretty inspirational!).

I didn’t have to re-read sentences, understood what was being said, read faster than usual, and got distracted much more rarely than normal. And somehow, those names stuck (okay, I cheated a little – I re-read those names while reading yesterday). And I think I remember what each contributed.

I have to remind myself not to get too excited about my progress…

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Today at lunch, Khenpo's friend noticed that the three retreatants were all silent. We've all decided not to talk (as much as possible). Khenpo made the amusing observation (in his unique brand of English) that "Everyone silence. Only three monks not silence!"

Well I found it funny anyway...


Today I’ve woken up at 4:30 to get some practice in before breakfast. Reminding myself why I’m here and practicing bodhichitta should be enough to keep me awake until I zonk out after prayers.

Khenpo loves talking, but I think it’s time for me to practice silence. I think I’m going to try out earplugs and no talking. Silence and vegetarianism… looks like I’m going this one alone.

I’m not sure yet if caffeine is a crutch. Buddhism says tea is fine (even good). It does help me focus. And presumably some skills I learn while on caffeine (mindfulness, introspection) will stay even when the caffeine goes.

One subtle obstacle I’ve found is trying to immediately regain my level of focus immediately after a largish distraction. I can go on for minutes fruitlessly trying to vividly attend to a fine sensation at the nostril for minutes, but never finding it. Instead, I find it best to begin with general relaxation and watching the breath as a whole, and quickly it becomes refined.


Today we had a “special” meal cooked by Khenpo’s friend, an outgoing Tibetan lady. She tells me she doesn’t meditate, but is sure it’s very easy. On the other hand, she’s heard stories (friend’s mom’s dog’s sister) of monks who have gone mad during retreat.

The special dish is beef soup. There’s also a veg version, but surprisingly enough, only 3 of the 10 attendees opt for it. Khenpo only does because HH has said he should. Lama loves meat though, which surprises me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Last night I asked khenpo about vegetarianism. Apparently the Dalai Lama, after eating meat for many years, recently said (decreed?) that all Tibetan monks should stop eating meat. Until then, Khenpo ate meat. He says that in Buddhism, it is okay to eat meat so long as you are not responsible for the death of the animal. Tricky, I think, in our culture.

Practice went rather well yesterday. Today, so far by 10:30 all I’ve achieved is a nap, after maybe 15 minutes of so-so meditation after prayers. But boy, this morning felt very nice, alert, and peaceful:

I just had this recurring (nagging) dream where I’ve failed to graduate from college because I skipped too many classes (and missed some finals or too much homework or something). Every time I have it, I yet again fail to show up to class and pray I’ll graduate anyway. This time, I actually went – and paid attention and took notes in class! This is a good sign…

At lunch, I sprinkled some chili powder on my food and started sneezing. I commented that I should stop using it, and Ron jokingly commented that it’s an addiction. A funny thing happened. I noticed my mind start to defend itself (“but I’ve only used it twice in three days!”), and then pat itself on the back for simply joking along, and then start to wonder how true it was. All in a very short time. I’m sure that’s always going on, but it’s fun to notice.


On Monday, Khenpo Jigme and a friend from Alamosa arrived to pick me up from the airport. Upon finding out what I do, Khenpo offered me a deal: he’ll teach me meditation if I teach him how to use his computer. I gladly accepted.

When I arrived, the only other retreatant was a woman doing 6 months of completely silent retreat – we can talk to her, but she cannot respond with her voice. The other inhabitants are Khenpo Jigme, Lama Wangdu, and a western monk named Chosang. Perhaps “monastery” is not too far off the mark.

Now it seems there’s the occasional other person coming and going. I imagine it will be hard avoiding contact with everyone during the next few months, since it feels rude. But it will probably be quite a distraction introducing myself to everyone who shows up.

Maybe because of the altitude adjustment, or maybe as an excuse because meditation is so hard and boring, I find myself taking frequent naps. I also partake in the occasional Lipton, telling myself that it’s at least better than coffee…

Here are the deer that come to eat the scraps we feed them:

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Tomorrow I leave at 7 AM to drive through hellish LA traffic for my 10:44 flight. I don't arrive til 5:38 MT in Alamosa, where Lama Wangdu has promised to give me a ride into the boonies where I'll be locked away for the next 3 months...