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.