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?"