Friday, October 12, 2012

This experience

Are you aware of the experience happening in this moment?

Okay, trick question.

The experience isn't happening. It is.
The experience isn't in this moment. It is this moment.
You aren't aware of this experience. You are the awareness that is this experience.

Yes, you are this experience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Resting concepts

Are concepts required for meaning and intention?

Thoughts seem to be what guide our understanding and behavior. For example, suppose you see a truck barreling at me. You think "there's a truck barreling at me!" (meaning) and "I better get out of the way!" (intention).

Two questions worth investigating are:

(1) Just how much thought is required in such a situation? Certainly not the full verbal manifestations given above. Does the concept "truck" need to be formed?

(2) What about for less reactive situations, where deeper thought seems to be required?

Is a conceptual overlay of reality necessary for survival (or for thriving)?

You know the computer in front of you exists "in reality," right? And yet, you cannot be sure that you are not living in a simulation (a la The Matrix) or an elaborate dream. How do you reconcile the two?

Is it possible to have a conventional belief in physical reality without having an absolute belief? Given that you can't be sure of the existence of a physical reality, wouldn't it make sense to remain agnostic about such a thing? Or would that somehow impede your ability to act normally? Could there be any benefits to such a strange personal philosophy?

If you were willing to give up conceptual overlays, how would you even do that?

It's pretty hard to figure out on your own. A few brilliant people seem to figure it out. Most brilliant people end up ensnared much more deeply than when they started. Trying to think your way out of concepts is like trying to fight your way out of quicksand.

Here's a brief outline of how it might be done.

First, where does the visual experience of dreams take place? Is that mental screen the same as or different from the one where the image of physical reality resides?

What about the other senses? Can you find a sense in which they take place on "mental screens"? How are these screens oriented with respect to each other? They don't seem to intersect. In fact, they don't seem to occupy physical space at all, so the concept of "orientation" doesn't make sense.

Now notice that thoughts, memories, emotions, and everything else we think of as "mind" takes place on a screen as well. Does this screen have special privilege over the other 5?

These six "screens" seem to be subdivisions of a larger "space" in which all perceptions arise. If you had another physical sense (say, echolocation, like bats), another such screen would appear. And just like smells are never confused for sights (unless you're a synesthete), the perceptions on this new screen would be distinct from those in all the rest. Is there any limit to the kinds of perceptions that could arise?

What are the characteristics of this "space"? It seems cognizant, or in other words, it illuminates perceptions. It is the perceiving quality itself. But characteristics belong to the realm of perceptions, not to the space itself. This space has no characteristics of its own.

This space is the nature of mind, sometimes called an "empty cognizance." If you could find a way to rest in the nature of mind, instead of on particular phenomena, you might find a way to rest the conceptual overlay.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Stages of meditation

Here's a summary of what I've discovered so far about the progression of meditation in various traditions. At the end is an idea of my own.

1) Shamatha with object

Sometimes this is done with a physical object (e.g., a pebble). Usually, it is done with the sensations of breathing. This is true in Theravada (anapanasati), Mahayana (Zen has "susokukan" as the introductory zazen), and Vajrayana has it too.

In Theravada, anapanasati alone is considered enough to attain enlightenment (from Wikipedia).

2) Shamatha without object, "with attributes"

This is variously called "shamatha without a sign," "unsupported shamatha," "awareness of awareness" etc. One rests one's mind without any particular support. This can be practiced in informal settings to some extent, for example while walking one might think "I am maintaining presence of mind." As such, there is still a subtle clinging to a meditative state, and a definite subject-object duality (I am meditating on something).

3) Shamatha without attributes

Sometimes called "released shiné" (by Dzogchen Master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche) or simply "resting in the natural state." Similar to the previous, except there's no longer an explicit sense of resting on or in anything.

In Dzogchen, this is sometimes accomplished by first resting in shamatha (Tib. shiné), then investigating into "who is resting," and then releasing. For some time, one is able to rest in rigpa (which has already been pointed out by the master in the Direct Introduction, which is essential in Dzogchen).

In Mahamudra, the Direct Introduction / Pointing Out Instruction is optional. Alternatively (per Lama Gendun Rinpoche), one may simply practice by releasing all fixations (including the sense of meditating or a meditator) and rest in "the natural state." As one progressively relaxes deeper, one comes to know one's true face. Another approach (Thrangu Rinpoche, Vivid Awareness) is to do analytical vipashyana to determine that the essence of mind is a cognizant emptiness (that's the "who" that's resting), and then just rest in that. The key point is to abandon all hope and fear, all idea of something to get and someone to get it.

In this way, one practices "undistracted nonmeditation," where one's self-aware presence of mind simply sustains itself for some time. Over time, it starts occurring spontaneously while off-cushion, and eventually the barrier between meditation and post-meditation blurs more and more. At its culmination, one is spontaneously (non)meditating all the time, and there is no longer any sense of a subject as distinct from objects. This is the first realization of emptiness of phenomena, which marks the dawning of the first Bodhisattva bhumi.

How does this happen? Basically, all distraction is distraction from awareness. Since awareness is the (non)thing doing the "watching," this means that distraction is awareness distracted from itself. It is characterized by determining phenomena to be external to awareness, and then awareness entering into a dualistic relationship with them. This is what gives birth to the ego, and is known as grasping. As it becomes clearer that there is nothing apart from awareness itself, there is no longer anything to grasp, and hence no possibility of distraction.

This practice seems similar to Zen's shikantaza ("just sitting"), although without careful guidance one runs the strong risk of meditating (stage 2). This is also known to be a major stumbling block for those trying to practice Mahamudra / Dzogchen without guidance.

4) Sky-gazing

Sometimes called "mingling the threefold sky" or "namkha arted." This is an important Dzogchen practice to enhance one's released shiné. Basically, one mingles one's consciousness with the infinitude of the sky, thereby actively undoing the subject-object duality.

Here's where I try something of my own invention. In sky-gazing, one has to have a clear and unobstructed view of the sky. Even clouds are obstructions. Since that's not easy, I'm considering experimenting with the Ganzfeld Effect, where one's visual field is immersed in a white haze. One site describes the effect as "Ganzfeld creates the illusion of an open field of vision of infinite depth." Bingo! Typically this leads to hallucinations, but I suspect most people aren't practicing released shiné while wearing them...

So I'm going to build my own Ganzfeld Goggles (swim goggles augmented with glass frosting spray) and see what happens.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

That brains cause minds

I've always loved this hypothesis: brains cause minds. In some circles, brains are minds.

Well, if by minds, we mean thoughts, emotions, memories, and other objects of mind, I see no problem with this. Objects can and should live in the physical world.

But if we mean the awareness that perceives these things and everything else, then we get into trouble.

See, the existence of brains can be disputed. "How?!," you might wonder, having seen one in the flesh yourself. Well, do you know you're not in The Matrix right now? Or in a dream? Yes, it's farfetched, and Occam's Razor would suggest otherwise, if you needed to invoke it. But that would just give you the most likely answer. You still cannot know for sure. Brains may be the figments of some machine's imagination.

On the other hand, can you deny the existence of awareness itself? I know some people damn well try, but consider this: if you doubt the existence of awareness, how do you know you doubt it? Do you have a thought that says "I doubt it?" If so, how did you "have" that thought without experiencing that thought? Are these even different things? Have you ever had a thought that you didn't experience / witness / know / observe / become aware of? Aren't all thoughts and doubts themselves evidence of awareness then?

This isn't a trick. On the other hand, as I've recently learned, it's not always obvious. The Mahamudra tradition goes through a stretch of calming the mind (shamatha) before it is calm enough to even notice that it is cognizant. This aware cognizance is closer to you than your own face, and it's a bloody miracle. I recommend noticing it.

So if we contend that the brain gives rise to the mind, we're forced to admit that something whose existence is questionable is the cause of something whose existence is not questionable. And the smarter we are, the more likely we are to swallow this one, I think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The subject-object divide

This is a topic that is central to Eastern spiritual traditions. We are told that there is no intrinsic subject-object divide. It's the punchline behind the joke where the Dalai Lama tells a hot dog vendor: "make me one with everything."

It's not that one becomes one with everything; it's that one notices that "one" was never apart from "everything." Despite the seeming insurmountability of this goal, the idea behind it is fairly straightforward. It goes something like this.

The subject is that which experiences, and objects are those that are experienced. Now, to characterize something, you must be able to experience it. You cannot call something "purple" or "big" or "drowsy" if you cannot experience it. Therefore, characteristics belong solely to objects. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the subject is free of characteristics. In Buddhist parlance, it is "empty."

And yet, it cognizes. Or maybe you could say it is cognizance. But if that which cognizes has no characteristics, it's not a "thing" at all. It's not even an "it." That supposed dividing line has no-thing on this side of it: there was no division at all. Thus, cognizance itself belongs to "the other" side of the dividing line, the side which contains everything.

Since objects are those that are experienced, objects are nothing other than experiences. The thought or idea that there are unexperienced objects out there waiting to be experienced is itself just an experience.  And it is never verified by experience (go ahead, try to find an unexperienced thing). In other words, everything fit to be called a thing is itself an experience. And there isn't anything that's not a thing.

And yet these words are (probably) not enough to get you to deeply experience this realization. How do we do that? The methods I'm using currently are Mahamudra meditation and Greg Goode's Direct Path. The former basically asks you to rest in empty cognizance (awareness itself) without modification, contrivance, or distraction. Modification implies the existence of a modifier (ego). Contrivance generates hopes and fears about keeping or reaching a state, and hopes and fears also belong to ego. Distraction happens when awareness constructs a divide, by putting something on that side and thus something (ego) on this side. The feeling is of me thinking about something. Meanwhile, The Direct Path gives techniques to demonstrate the absurdity of the notion of unexperienced things, to help you experience all objects as awareness itself.

I'm not sure yet whether these paths will mesh well together, but so far I have hope. They seem not to interfere with each other.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The process

Similar to yesterday's post, I'll write a little about how I see the process unfolding.

1. Start with first principles.

What do you know beyond any doubt? Only that you know (or cognize, witness, experience). If you close your eyes and wait for a gap between thoughts, do you disappear? Do you stop experiencing? No, you experience (almost) nothing, and yet something knows this to be the case.

This is similar to Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," but even that misses the mark by presupposing an "I" and by requiring thought. Really it's more like "awareness is happening."

Next, notice your usual model of thinking about something like "I see a cup." It can be deconstructed into:

Perceiver (I) ---> Perceiving (see) ---> Perceived (a cup)

2. Investigate the Perceived.

Do you know there's a cup there, or just that you see one? If this is hard to answer, let me ask you this: do you know you're not in some elaborate dream right now, or The Matrix? No, you don't. Therefore the idea that there's a cup is a useful one (it helps you drink from it) but not a necessary one.

What you do know is that there is the perception of a cup, so we simplify:

Perceiver (I) ---> Perceiving (seeing) ---> Perception (form of a cup)

3. Investigate the Perceiver.

This one is a bit trickier. How do you know there's an "I"? Well, you feel it! But a feeling is just a perception. You've seen it (in the mirror). That was just your body, which anyway is a perception. I don't have enough room to explain this one in detail, but suffice it to say that nobody who's looked for an "I" has found anything other than perceptions, which all belong on the right side of the diagram above.

So now we're down to two:

Perceiving (seeing) ---> Perceptions (form of a cup, hopes and dreams that there is an "I" oh god let there be an "I"...)

4. Investigate the Perceiving / Perception divide.

What does it mean for there to be an unperceived perception? Where is it hiding? Again, it's like an unthought thought, which has the same status as an invisible unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yes, materialists, you are die-hard religious fanatics when you insist that there is a physical reality "out there." That's just a convenient model, which is instantiated as... a thought, which falls under the category of "perceptions."

There is no perception apart from perceiving. The two are really the same. So we're left with


5. Profit!

Congratulations. You now directly experience the nature of mind and reality.

Now, you might think "oh, I do that all the time -- I'm very perceptive." But if you still harbor a suspicion that you exist, or that there's a world "out there" that must exist, then there's work to be done. Yes, there's a "bit of a lag" while step 4 percolates.

This is not just a ploy. It's really all you can know, and when it fully sinks in, well hello, Buddha. Do you cease to function as a "normal" person? No, you can still pass the salt. But you have lost the essential hallmark of "normal" people: we suffer (i.e., experience emotions like anxiety, worry, stress, hurt, ...)

With that little snag out of the way, you're free to function as you may long have suspected you could.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A to Z

Okay, I'll distill everything I've learned about how to get from our usual state to the "end goal." Hopefully it's correct, since it's what I'm doing :)

First: "shamatha," or calm abiding, is the aspect of meditation that is aimed at bringing stillness or stability. When one normally talks of "shamatha meditation," one usually means "you focus on something until your mind becomes still." That something could be a real object (a pebble), a sensation (breath), a "perceptual space" (mind), or awareness itself.

If done extremely well (and perhaps continuously for years), this results in a profound absorptive state known as jhana, where one can focus with extreme precision nearly for hours on end without the slightest whisper of a thought or distraction. On the other hand, it won't bring you to the "end goal."

The reason is that it reinforces (or at least perpetuates) the subject-object duality: "I am meditating on this." So, with a relatively still mind, you do some investigation into emptiness (sunyata). I know some would disagree, but the neo-Advaita Vedanta approach seems to nail it. Here is how it's laid out by the brilliant Greg Goode. I won't go into too much detail, because I'd rather you buy his book Standing As Awareness.

Pick an object and a sense modality (a cup, and sight, say).

  1. Notice that "cup" is a concept, and all you directly experience is a form (a shape and color).
  2. Notice that the form is not distinct from the seeing of the form. An "unseen form" is like an unthought thought. It's an absurdity.
  3. Notice that seeing is not separate from awareness itself. There is no seeing living out there that awareness then picks up and observes.
  4. (This one I'm introducing from Buddhism) Notice that awareness itself is an unidentifiable, indescribable non-thing. If you wanted to describe it, you could say it is "cognizant emptiness" or "empty cognizance."
In short, all objects are displays or manifestations of this empty cognizance, and nothing more. This results in noticing that:
  • All phenomena, both internal and external ("physical" objects, thoughts, emotions) are of that same nature.
  • "Mind" (as a "container" of internal phenomena) is itself just a thought.
  • The sense of there being a "you" is itself merely an internal phenomenon. In fact, any indication whatsoever that there is a "you" is just a phenomenon that is reducible in the above way.
And thus you arrive at the conclusion that the subject-object divide is unwarranted. Now if you practice shamatha, it will be without all the division and reification ("I'm a real thing, you're a real thing, I'm watching you") inherent in the initial description. "All" you do is remain in this non-conceptualizing non-reifying continuity and let it fully blossom.

The tricky part (for me anyway) is being sure that I'm doing something more like the second and less like the first. I guess a good way to tell is, after practicing a while, see what your experience is like. More dual or less dual? More reifying or less reifying? And there are correlates of a less-dual experience, such as reduced suffering and heightened compassion.

Anyway, looks like I have my marching orders...

Edit: the "tiny" thing I've left out of this is that according to Buddhism, the ability to actually experience sunyata and anatta (emptiness and non-self) and other cool stuff depends on a lot of things outside of intellect, including motivation (both in the sense of dedication, and reason -- selfish or altruistic), karma, and a bunch of other stuff.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Stole them, and embellished a bit, but they get to the heart of the matter.

Our normal state is like that of holding a bell tightly. Occasionally stuff hits the bell, and makes a noise, although we probably don't realize it. Perhaps we notice it when the noise is particularly loud or long, perhaps we even label it something (like "a moment of grace"), but even then we never think to ask "what is that?" Or if we do, we focus on the hand that is holding the bell.

When we are introduced to mindfulness, it is like striking the bell. We do this repeatedly, and notice the sound it makes. It's still muffled, and to keep it "continuous," we must keep at it. We find that those magic moments happen more and more often, but we still somehow believe our hand is the cause.

Eventually we learn techniques to start releasing our grip on the bell. As we relax more completely into this release from grasping, we notice that after striking the bell, it rings for longer and longer. Repeatedly striking it does not help.

We find that the bell, and not our hand, is what is making the noise. We are surprised to learn that we are not the bell, and in fact, the bell is not even ours. Eventually, we are content letting the bell ring continuously, with no interference.


When we are holding the bell, we find that thoughts are like words chiseled into stone. They seem somehow real, meaningful, relevant. As we release our grip, thoughts become like writing in water. They abide nowhere, are made of nothing, and have no lasting effect on the water.


From one perspective, meditation is striking the bell. From another (usually later) perspective, it is allowing the bell to ring. Nothing could be simpler, but in some sense, nothing is harder than letting go of the bell.

(These should not be taken as instructions, by the way. I don't think it works that way. If you want instructions, pick a path and stick with it. Or if you're really foolhardy, make it up as you go along, like me.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Another kind of experience

Okay, so following up from a few posts ago: pain is like the color red -- both just nameable experiences happening in awareness. The sense of being aware is also just another experience. And as you may have already figured out, the sense of "I am" is just another thing happening in awareness as well. That is, your conventional self is like the color red: just another thing floating on by, that has nothing to do with the real you.

A little harder to wash out than a red stain though.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mindlessly eating your emotions

You are not your X

This is sort of an add-on to the previous post.

I sometimes teach people in meditation class that "you are not your body, thoughts, or emotions," hinting that they are their awareness. But in the class, "awareness" has an opposite (or absence), "unawareness."

In this sense, I may be rooting them (and myself) more firmly in dual fixation. The awareness that you are does not have an opposite or even a lack, as I understand it.

"But wait!" you say, what about in deep sleep, when you're clearly not aware in any sense? Well, those who have gone before say even that's not true. That may have to wait some time for me to understand.

For now, it's good to remember "I am not my lucidity or dullness," nor my awareness or unawareness. Trippy.

On the varieties of experience

Figure I'd name the post something cool, even if the content doesn't live up :)

Suppose you see a red shirt during the day, and again (from exactly the same position) in the evening when the Sun is in a different spot. Are those two different experiences, or are you having the same experience in slightly different ways? The first, I hope.

Now suppose you see the shirt under the same lighting conditions, but once you're wide awake, and the other time drowsy. Same experience in different ways? No, still two different experiences.

In general, if two experiences can be distinguished in any way, they are different experiences. The only constant is the awareness that is "having" the experience, and it cannot be labeled in any way, because labels belong to experiences.

Not so hard to grasp, but it seems to make a difference during meditation. In the "awareness of awareness" shamatha practice I regularly do, it feels like awareness itself is changing from moment to moment, which is the only thing that could really keep me from full stability. If I could actually see that the awareness is never changing, then *snap* I'd be at the end goal (of shamatha, anyway).

Presumably this is the idea when Tsoknyi Rinpoche says (in his book Carefree Dignity) that when the division between stillness and thought occurrence falls away, this is the recognition of one-pointedness. He also suggests that during the similar vipashyana practice (in Mahamudra, anyway), the "maintained" awareness is replaced by an "automatic" awareness (he likens it to a doorman calmly watching guests come and go / opening and closing the door for all of them, vs. a laser sensor being there).
"Everything is just one continuity of being alert and awake. And this alertness or awake quality is completely settled, without your having to try to settle it."
Okay, so: tying your shoelaces with awareness vs. without awareness. Same experience in different ways? Again, different experiences, and in both cases there is an underlying awareness that is cognizant of them. In other words, even when you're "unaware" in my usual sense (which itself is a more subtle thing than in the colloquial sense -- which usually means completely zoned out), you're still aware in some sense.

So perhaps this particular vipashyana practice with awareness is a nice supplement and booster for the shamatha practice: find the awareness that is constant.

No big deal, I'll just go find the Tao now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Must be doing something right, because I just had one of the best sessions that I can remember. The key for me is remembering that I want this. Not want in a craving sense, but that I know this is the right way to be going. Thoughts seem so... passé. It's like I'm asking to be drawn into the source.

Now to update the comment I made on my previous post: what I'm suggesting may not be so outlandish. Consider shikantaza, the Zen practice of "just sitting." As I understand it, it incorporates both shamatha and vipashyana into a general awareness practice. And occasionally, one experiences kensho -- which sounds an awful lot like popping into rigpa.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The One True Way

Now that I'm back in retreat, this blog will switch back from being "general purpose" to being something more like a retreat journal.

I've read a bit about the distinction between Mahamudra and Dzogchen -- purportedly the "highest teachings" in Tibetan Buddhism (which seems to fancy itself as the highest form of Buddhism, or something). To an outsider, they look nearly identical. But for centuries, those schools argued back and forth about which method was superior. And perhaps more importantly, about which end result was "higher."

At some point, it seems, one of them finally relented and said "ok, yeah, they're exactly the same." Presumably with a bit of grumbling from the stakeholders on each side. But I get the feeling they still consider themselves superior to other branches of Buddhism, to say nothing of non-Buddhist schools.

To think that any one approach has a monopoly on enlightenment seems a bit silly to me. So I think I'll do what I'm sure I've been warned not to do, and mix and match. There are several pieces that seem consistent across approaches I've "studied" (okay, read briefly about: Tibetan Buddhism, other Buddhist schools like Zen and Theravada, Advaita Vedanta, and some new, secular "non-dualist" schools, ...):

1. Awareness seems to be the lynchpin of this whole thing. (Or perhaps "now"-ness. They seem the same to me.) I'm willing to buy this one, as it has always seemed to me that awareness precedes everything, including physical reality.

2. The non-existence of an independent "self" (anatta in Buddhism). Okay, Advaita doesn't quite say there's no self, but rather that it (Atman) is identical with the source (Brahman). This sounds easy to believe as well.

I'll use the words "the source" as a stand-in for Brahman in Vedanta, Dharmakaya in Buddhism, Tao in Taoism, etc., since I take them to be the same thing. Or non-thing. Or whatever.

3. The non-existence of... physical reality (sunyata). I'll leave this one alone for now, as it's furthest from my own experience and hard to take at face value. But I'm willing to investigate it.

Put these together, and you get things like Wu Wei, the Taoist idea of doing without doing ("Do nothing, and everything is done" -- I love that quote). Normally, if you try to stop "doing", one of two things happens: you become inanimate, or else mindless. The latter, taken to its extreme, results in some sort of dissociative state, which is not the idea. Being aware without feeling that you are the one "doing" is hard, to say the least, but it seems to follow from the first two.

It is possible to misconstrue these in many ways (e.g., #3 seems to suggest nihilism, which is wrong; #1 and #3 together may give solipsism, which is maybe even worse; all three together give... dissociated solipsism? Shudder). Which is presumably why there are codified ways to approach these ideas.

Nonetheless, given that many of them bicker (less true with the latest "non-dualist" schools -- but maybe they also have less to offer), I'm going to follow my own nose. I think the Buddha had a brilliant idea in dividing meditation up into two categories: shamatha (mental quiescence) and vipashyana (clear seeing; insight). It makes sense that one would need a mind that is both calm and penetrating to make progress.

Exactly how, no two teachers will agree on, but it seems hard to go wrong by practicing maintaining lucid awareness. Sure, at first it may be dualistic (as in unsupported shamatha or shamatha without characteristics), but hopefully it progresses toward the non-dualistic approach (rigpa) that many agree is closer to the truth. It's sort of like progressing from "doing aware" to "being aware."

So although the school I'm currently "affiliated" with (by virtue of getting guidance from a lama) teaches that one cannot progress to the second without special induction (the pointing out instruction), there seem to be enough others who managed to go without it that I won't sweat it too much.

Okay, back to the cushion with me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A simple way to be happier... and save the world in the process

The title of this post is bold and unbelievable, I agree. Luckily, it's also true, and as such would be a shame not to share. So buckle in. This is going to take a few minutes.

Why we suck at being happy

What's the one thing that everyone wants? To be happy. Even if you "just" want to be famous, you'd probably rather not be famous and depressed. So why are we so bad at it?

One common misconception (perhaps the most common) is that what we're missing is having the right stuff. The right job, the right house, the right car, the right spouse. If you honestly believe that you'd be (permanently) happier by winning the lottery, or sadder by losing an arm, then you simply haven't been keeping up with the research. That's forgivable and easy to fix: read it, digest it, and come back.

But picking the wrong targets is only half the story. The other half is far more interesting: it's about what our life is like while we're clamoring for all of those things. See, I think the biggest thing standing between us and happiness is... all those other pesky emotions. Anxiety. Anger. Irritation. I think we have them all wrong.

Your emotions are yours (and yours alone)

Say you're walking rapidly through the mall, on the way to buy your new gadget or shoes. Then some jerk steps out in front of you and starts walking slowly, seriously dampening your mojo. Irritation is the obvious result, and it's clearly that guy's fault. If only there weren't such thoughtless people in the world...

Or say you get dragged to the dreaded opera. And while you're there, you can't help but think how boring this whole thing is. Life would be better if you just didn't have to be here right now.

But an opera can't be boring. Some people actually like it, so boring-ness can't be a property of the opera, in the way that brightness is a property of the sun. Boredom is a property of you. It's merely a description of how you're not yet skilled in dealing with reality as it is. Don't wear it as a badge.

I'm very fond of the way David describes things in his blog ( linked above:
Annoyance is never anything but a dysfunctional relationship between you and what you experience.
A dysfunctional relationship between you, and what you experience. It’s never anyone else’s fault, and it’s never the best emotion. If you understand just this one sentence, there's hope. You're halfway to getting it.

Now, mind you, you don't have to know yet how to overcome it. We'll get there soon. You don't even need to really believe that people who get in your way aren't jerks, or that people who slurp coffee aren't doing it just to annoy you. Maybe some of them are. You just need to accept that the emotions themselves are yours and yours alone.

If it sounds scary to you to think that you have complete responsibility for all your emotions at all times, consider the alternative. If other people had buttons they could press that actually changed your emotions? Now THAT would be scary.

And if you think that brain chemistry alone is to blame, remember two things. First, our brains are malleable, and change in response to our actions and attitudes. And second, research shows that people who believe they have free will make better choices.

So take pride in owning your emotions, and remember, even if you were dealt crappy cards, there’s always time to change.

Question the motives of your negative emotions

Consider this bumper sticker:

It's popular, and I think, wildly misguided. At first, it sounds morally righteous. If you can see that our world needs help, surely the correct emotion is violent, resentful anger?

Or maybe you can be passionate without being resentful or vindictive. Outrage looks for someone to blame, something to destroy. If you remove those blinders, you get passion. Passion sees more possibilities. It's productive. It looks for the best solution going forward, regardless of “who started it.” It's certainly not apathetic, which is the usual explanation of why we need outrage.

When reason and emotion pair up, good things happen. Otherwise, what you have is raised blood pressure with very little else to show for it. Except a rad bumper sticker. Outrage is getting your panties in a bunch because it feels righteous.

I think the band The Offspring said it best:

The more you suffer, 
The more it shows you really care. 
Right? Yeah yeah yeah!

We may be addicted to negative emotions like outrage and irritation because they give us that little kick of dopamine from being right, and that feels good. So ask yourself: are you more interested in being right, or doing something about it?

There's a reason we're said to wallow in self pity. Indulging in negative emotions feels good in the same way eating a box of chocolates does: for a short while, and not for the right reasons. A great deal of the fun for me in my journey has been identifying why I'm still attached to various negative thoughts or feelings (blame, vengefulness, cynicism, annoyance, outrage, ...) so that I can better escape their siren calls in the future.

Again, I'm not saying it's bad if you feel these things now. I do, too. But it's important to take the next step. The key is to realize that for nearly every situation which involves a nasty emotion plus some result, you can get the same (and often better) result without the nasty emotion. Fewer people (including you) have to get hurt.

Once you're willing to trade in negativity for productivity, you're ready to proceed to the real core of the issue. So far I haven't told you how to resolve any of this. Now I'll show you.

You are not your X ( X) for all you non-geeks, that reads "for all X"

Has it ever occurred to you that you are not your body? You have a body, but even when you don't experience that body -- like in a dream, where you can take on any form -- there's something there that still unquestionably feels like you, and it sure ain't made of body parts.

You are not your emotions, either. You experience emotions. You are not your thoughts. You experience thoughts. If you are experiencing some thing, then it stands to reason that you are not that thing.

Continuing this line of reasoning, you may wonder: what, then, are you? Well, if you can be said to be anything at all, perhaps it is the awareness that is experiencing all of these things -- body, emotions, thoughts, perceptions. This is more than just a philosophical stunt. The practical implications of this fact are more profound and wide-ranging than you can imagine, once it sinks in.

At every moment of your life, you have a choice to make: you can choose to identify with this awareness that you are, or you can choose to identify with the things it is aware of -- thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc.

To illustrate the difference, consider two ways of experiencing anger:

1. You feel angry. You have become angry, and now there's a strong sense that something must be done about it. You either need to vent it (bad), or else suppress it (bad). Your judgement is impaired. Anger has its claws in you, and feels as if it's a part of you.

2. Recognizing that you cannot be angry (you cannot be any emotion -- see above), you instead simply notice that you are experiencing the emotion "anger." If you need to act, you will. Otherwise, you can let it drift on by like a cloud in the sky. You know, right then and there, that it will pass. This prevents you from doing anything stupid, and from being deeply affected by the anger.

If you've ever felt that you did something because you were angry, it's likely you were experiencing the first mode -- identifying with the anger. In the other option, we maintain the continuous recognition that anger is just a signal to us, and that deep down our pristine, lucid awareness is unsullied and still has control. In this way we cannot be hurt or bullied by anger or other strong emotions. This is identifying with our own awareness.

The key is to remember that you -- the real you -- in some fundamental sense cannot be touched or modified. Awareness cannot be harmed in any way. Like fireworks and the sky, emotions may be stunningly bright but cannot modify our fundamental fabric.

Again, this is not some metaphysical ploy. It has real world implications. Lots of them.

The ability to witness thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them is the fundamental skill behind extremely successful techniques for managing or curing pain, stress, depression, anxiety, panic, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, overeating, ... you name it.

Learning to see yourself as you truly are, and not as the things you're thinking and feeling right now, is not an easy process. But nothing has a bigger payoff.

Remembering to do it

Okay, that sounds nice, but I still haven't told you how. Truth is, coming to this realization while you're in the grip of a strong emotion is rather difficult. Smarter would be to first train it in easier settings. Let's look at an example.
You look at yourself in the mirror. Identifying with your body, you generate a thought about how you wish you were more shapely. Identifying with that thought, it generates a whole train of further thoughts about your body image, resulting in a feeling of worthlessness. Finally, you identify with this feeling, and your day is ruined.
There were many opportunities in this scenario to recall that you are not your body, thoughts, or emotions, and halt the downward spiral. The sooner in the process you do it, the easier it is, and the fewer the negative consequences downstream. The hard part is remembering. The only way to do that reliably is to practice.

You have thousands of opportunities a day to practice. Pretty much any time a thought pops into your head, and you're not explicitly aware that it has, it leads to another thought, and then another. We normally call this "mind wandering," and as we now know, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

To get a sense of what it feels like to become explicitly aware of thoughts, think back to an episode where you've been reading, only to find that at some point your eyes are scanning the page but your mind is elsewhere. At that crucial moment, there's a sudden realization that "oops, I meant to be reading, but I'm thinking." You sort of "wake up." That's a brief flicker of awareness.

When you are continuously aware of your own awareness, the feeling is that of "being present" or "being in the moment." With practice, thoughts and memories can even stop being obstacles to being in the moment. With enough skill, you can even get the benefits of mind wandering without the drawbacks.

How to get started

Mind wandering with awareness is a somewhat advanced practice. Usually we end up falling into the stream of thoughts and forgetting to maintain our awareness. If you want something simpler, look into meditation classes or books.

The entire purpose of meditation is to give you a sandbox in which to practice recognizing and disengaging from stray thoughts and feelings. By itself this can make you relaxed and calm, but its real benefits are in how it transforms your everyday experience.

You may think meditation is too boring, or time consuming, or hippie-ish, but the alternative -- to live life half asleep, and in the grip of whatever thoughts and emotions feel like tossing you around -- sounds even less attractive. If you can't be bothered to spend 10 or 20 minutes a day working on the most important (and in some sense only) thing affecting your emotional wellbeing -- your mind -- then expect results to match.

And contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about quieting the mind, although that can be a nice (if eventual) byproduct. You're not "doing it wrong" or "bad at it" if you're flooded by thoughts when you try. That's like saying exercise isn't for you because you can't run as fast or lift as much as you think you should. That would suggest it is for you.

Every time you explicitly engage your awareness is once more than you would have otherwise, and the significance of that should not be underestimated. As long as you're trying to do that, you're doing it exactly right.

And if you're wondering "do I have to meditate to get these benefits?," the answer is... maybe not exactly. Perhaps you could do something a whole lot like meditation (repeatedly engaging your nonjudgmental awareness) and not call it "meditation" if that word bothers you. Sort of like you don't have to "exercise" to be healthy. You could instead... play sports.

BTW, when my own MindPing app is completed, maybe it will be useful as a gentler introduction.

...and save the world in the process

Now we reveal my true purpose (muahahaha).

What's wrong with the world today? You might say that people are too violent, or selfish, or celebrity obsessed, or materialistic, or consumeristic, or ... whatever specific problem you have decided to focus on.

What's the right way to fix things? Should we address each of the concerns above individually? If so, do we do it by telling people "hey, you're too consumeristic! Halt, heathen!"? Do we just impose our (your? my?) wills on them? Has that ever worked?

What if the easiest way to solve all (fine, most) of these problems at once is by getting people to care? And what if I told you that there's an efficient way to do that -- and that it's described above?

Think about it. Can you imagine anyone, after gaining more mental clarity and stability, becoming more interested in celebrity gossip? In buying shinier and fancier things? In stabbing kittens?

No. And the research backs this up. If you're wondering why, just think back to an experience where you felt truly present and in-the-moment. Which comes closer to describing it? Violent, or peaceful? Selfish, or selfless?

The truth is, selfishness and kindness are not simply competing tendencies of our minds, as some would have you believe. Unless you're a sociopath, chances are very good that as your awareness is honed, the parasitic emotions that cause selfishness and unhappiness will lose their grip. And that leaves a lot more time, energy, and interest in helping others. Y'know, driving this whole species forward and all.

To finish, let's return to the blog over at raptitude (emphasis mine).
It’s no secret that quality of life is all about how you come to terms with the present moment, and resentment is a woefully unskillful way to do that.
This applies to you and everyone else. Whenever you're tempted to peg people as lazy, stupid, or evil, remember this gentler and more truthful word, and how it applies to us all: unskillful. Same goes for you, when you want to blame your emotions on someone or something.

Now you know what the skill is to solve it all in one fell swoop. No more excuses. Go do it.


Some people seem to think this implies that when one is not identifying with emotions, it means they have blunted emotions. That would indeed make this unattractive. What actually happens is that we fight negative emotions less, and we desperately cling to positive emotions less. The emotion feels more direct, but the result is less sting in negative emotions and more simple joy in positive ones. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Inconvenience and annoyance

I recently posted about boredom. This guy has something similar to say about annoyance. I think he describes the whole thing beautifully:
But annoyance is never anything but a dysfunctional relationship between you and what you experience. 
Compare to what I wrote earlier about boredom:
Boredom is nothing more than the inability to stop fighting a reality that you have decided is insufficiently interesting to you.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Faith and devotion

I've read before that two very important traits to have on the path to recognizing awareness are faith and devotion. I don't much like those words, as they sound kinda religious, but upon further consideration, they seem to mean, essentially, trust and dedication. As in,

Trust that (continuous) recognition of awareness is in fact the goal to end all goals, and
Dedication to commit oneself to recognizing it.

I really think there's something to that...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Two faces of meditation

There seem to be two different ways in which meditation is commonly approached. It's not a clean divide, but I'll turn them into distinct categories for this post.

1. Psychological / spiritual

It's odd to lump these together, but the scientific study of meditation seems to be largely based in practices that many would consider "spiritual." This includes things like breathing practices and yoga, to calm the body and mind.

I think it commonly looks like this:

I know it's probably obnoxious of me to do so, but I can't help but laugh at pictures like that. Those people are, like, so much more groovy than me. It's like they're making gang signs. Of spirituality.

This is the approach that many are trying to secularize, so that you don't have to wear particular clothing or beads, or have a cool-looking silhouette, or rub a fat man's belly.

2. As an introduction to awareness

Some traditions (particularly the ones that call themselves "non-dual") suggest that meditation is primarily a way of calming your mind just enough to recognize "awareness": the knowing faculty of the mind. It's the thing (or non-thing) by which you experience anything at all. Once you recognize it, the idea is to make that recognition deep and continuous.

Some suggest you do it by invoking various deities. Others say it's as simple as "short moments, repeated many times." I prefer the latter approach. Relax and be cognizant. When everything is gone, what's left is awareness. Even when everything is there, what's underneath, inside, and all around, is awareness. As the recognition of awareness grows, the division between (and the need for) the absence or presence of any particular experience fades away.

Sometimes I feel it's just too simple, and so I think I have to go back to one of the more "complicated" approaches (deities, breathing exercises). But all of the awareness traditions tell you that when it's done right, it does in fact feel "too simple."

Its simplicity is also a trap. If there are no explicit signs to indicate that you're doing it "right," you can easily fall into solipsism or nihilism or some other -ism. Or maybe you think "screw meditation, I'm beyond that," even though you're not beyond anything at all.

So how do you know? I think it's just that when you know, you know. Yeah, that's not helpful, but I'm not really trying to teach anything anyway ;)

In the end, obviously, people should do whatever works best for them. But at some point, if you feel that all this "meditation" stuff is too contrived or spiritual or constrictive, consider that there's another way.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mind wandering and creativity

New research by Schooler and Baird at UCSB builds on previous research suggesting that mind wandering assists creativity. I haven't read the original paper yet, but from its description in the SciAm article, I have a few big questions. First, to recap:

  • Subjects were asked to list unusual uses for usual items.
  • They took a break, which included one of four possible activities:
    1. Resting
    2. A demanding attentional task
    3. An undemanding reaction task "known to elicit mind wandering"
    4. No break
  • Subjects in group 3 were much better than the other groups at listing additional uses for items they saw before the break. They were no better with new items.
    • This suggests that mind wandering is great for stimulating new ideas to problems you're already working on.
Immediate questions:
  • How do we know that the subjects weren't trained meditators, and thus that the undemanding task didn't elicit wandering?
    • Did they measure mind wandering in the subjects and try to correlate it with the improvements? If not, why not suspect that reaction tasks are what boost creativity?
  • Resting is known to elicit mind wandering. Why did this group show no improvement at all?
  • How would a meditating group do? If, say, breathing meditation is not good for creativity, maybe we should be warning people.
Next step, I guess, is reading the paper itself.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Our true nature?

Often we hear that humans are innately both good and bad, with the capacity for kindness as well as selfishness, all in one big human nature soup. But is it really like that?
Imagine an old man (or woman) who has just returned from the mountain top, after many years of dedicated meditation. Is he more likely to want to: 
a) Share universal wisdom in a meaningful way to reduce suffering in the world
b) Stab kittens and puppies and eat all of his dastardly meditative competitors
Okay, those may not be the only two possibilities, and perhaps we're influenced by Hollywood and other cultural influences. But in actuality, I think something very much like (a) is really what usually happens. When we spend time clarifying our minds, compassion scatters selfishness like the sun clearing the clouds.

See Greg Burdulis or Matthieu Ricard as examples. Even a comparatively useless fellow like yours truly had quite a powerful experience of compassion that radically changed my outlook on life and its purpose.

Here's a brief outline of what I discovered (or maybe just decided) (see my other blog for more):
  • Being mean usually happens when we're manifesting an anxiety or insecurity that we're unable to cope with in a healthy way internally.
    • I may be hungry and irritable, but if I can maintain mental clarity, I can quarantine that miasma from other people. And not by suppressing it or otherwise worsening things for me.
    • If I want to make a decision that may slightly harm someone else but benefit me, there's a little voice I have to squash first. That's easier to do if my mind isn't calm.
  • Having a calm, lucid mind exposes all anxieties and insecurities as extraneous. As those melt away, there's progressively less that can hurt me, and thus less to worry about. This happiness-that-cannot-be-stolen frees up a lot of mental room to do other things. In most people who try, the inclination seems to move toward doing nice things and away from doing mean things.
    • Doing "mean" things, to any degree, for any reason, no longer seems to have a purpose.
    • Doing nice things still has the beautiful byproduct of feeling good.
In other words, I think there's a strong argument that compassion is a fundamental component of human nature, while selfishness and malice are adventitious (that is, parasitic). Doing away with compassion requires some brutal conditioning, whereas eliminating selfishness requires only seeing the world as it really is.

There's also a final step here. What does one do with the compassion uncovered from all this practice? In addition to straightforward ways of helping people (volunteering, charity, etc.), there's this big one:
  • Having noticed the turmoil in my own mind that led to all the suffering I caused myself and others, it's reasonable to assume that everyone else is doing it, too. This gives a clear target for compassion: help them understand how beautiful things look from this other perspective.
    • Decreases my need to blame other people. Instead, I'm more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt with their actions.
    • Reduces the need to focus on the "details" of the world: most social problems can be solved by simply enhancing the empathy of the actors. All other strategies are forceful and thus less efficient and less durable.
So get on the train, transform your mind, and join the inevitable compassion revolution. Or keep yelling at stoplights :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

On the neuroscience of meditation

As I collect research on the effects of meditation on the brain, I'm again struck by how weird it is that the neuroscience of it matters to most people. Consider this analogy:
You're hungry. Like, really hungry. And you don't know what to do about it. Then you meet some people who have tried something they call "eating food," and they report that hunger diminishes. And they get big and strong. These are all the things you care about and want for yourself! 
But they only do this in the dark, and they can only describe the mechanism in metaphor ("it's like putting a spoon... to your mouth... but with stuff in it"). You don't fully believe them, so you do some studies and find that, indeed, they're consistently interrupted less during their day by things like hunger pangs. But this could just be some sort of misunderstanding. In your world, photons are the only things that are real, and you haven't seen photonic evidence, dammit!
So you do another study: you shine bright lights on them, and study their shadows while they eat. Lo! You can sort of make out from the shadows that spoons with stuff are being put to mouths. Now that you have real evidence, you decide it's worth learning this mystical skill of "eating." And now you can explain to everyone else why and how eating works: these shadows over here move like this!
When people meditate, they report less stress and sadness, and more happiness and empathy. That sounds pretty good, so we collect evidence. The psychological studies check out: we get exactly the skills that we want from this practice! But that's not enough. When we see blood oxygenation levels fluctuate in the right places -- as suggested by putting brains in magnets and then bouncing radio waves off them -- and infer that this is because those neurons are firing and thus needing more oxygen (fMRI), then we finally believe it. Or when we see that brains "grow" -- even though brain growth is often a symptom of pathology.

If indeed there are lasting behavioral changes, and those are the things we want, it's a bit funny to wait to discover brain correlates before trying the techniques. Of course something changed in the brain. It would be quite surprising indeed if meditators had large behavioral changes and there were no physical correlates. Now that would be a real finding.

Note: I don't mean to make it sound like neuroscience has nothing to offer meditation research. But it is surprising to see just how much it matters to people, particularly when even experts (see last four paragraphs) don't attribute as much meaning to some of the findings as we do.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What meditation is

I think meditation is frequently misinterpreted as a nice way to relax or chill out. Maybe that's all it is for some people, but I think it misses out on the real richness of the practice (besides being hard to do that way -- meditation frequently isn't at all easy!). I'll explain using an example.

When you're late driving somewhere and get stopped by a red light, do you think "stupid light!" and wish it would hurry up and change? Do you recognize that this action is not only useless (it doesn't make the light change faster) but counterproductive (it makes you anxious, whereas you'd presumably rather be happy)? If so, why do you do it? This could be considered an example of a neurosis:
Neurosis is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations, whereby behavior is not outside socially acceptable norms.
This way of relating to the world may seem natural while we're doing it, but it's anything but healthy. Assuming that it's healthy just because it's normal may be our most fundamental mistake. The above example is just an obvious example of what might be termed "fighting reality." But it turns out that a vast array of negative emotions we feel may be rooted in the same view.

Before practicing meditation, it might not be obvious why fighting pain is a bad thing. When you stub your toe, why not feel "ow, this sucks, this sucks"? Or why not just distract ourselves so that we don't have to face the reality of pain at all? When we learn to face reality head-on, it becomes clear why this approach is far preferable to fighting, ignoring, or clinging to any such experience. And once you see that, you wonder how you ever thought anything else could work.

So yes, the result of adapting to this view may be that you are more relaxed, better at concentrating, kinder, and experience other cognitive and psychological benefits. But relating to the world in a healthy way is a much more profound goal.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lengthening sessions

Sometimes sitting for longer is hard because I think "man, I've already been sitting here for X minutes! How can I possibly do more?" I find that if I "forget" how long I've been sitting, it becomes easier again. Sometimes I pretend like I've just now sit down.

Maybe not a revelation to most meditators, but somehow it's new to me. And I think there's research precedent.

* Can't find the study, but somewhere I read about army recruits told to march X miles, and then questioned about exhaustion partway through the march. I don't remember the details, but I believe exhaustion was strongly correlated with how far they thought they had walked, I think more so than how far they actually had (within the parameters of the study).

* In Carol Dweck's research on willpower, manipulating whether students thought they had unlimited vs. limited willpower impacted how much willpower they actually demonstrated. This goes against the previous theory of it being in limited supply, dictated by biology (running out of "willpower juice" in the brain -- which come to think of it, they had declared was simply glucose.)

I'd be interested to see (/do) a study on how this works with meditation. For now I'll try to forget the idea that I have a limited supply of meditation juice and see if that helps me sit longer.