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."