August 4, 2015

Beyond Words – and Back

William James was a major figure in 19th century American philosophy. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as the Father of American Psychology. He was a rigorous thinker but also had a sympathy to religious experience, particularly of the mystical type.

According to James, one of the characteristics of mystical experience is that it can’t be put into words. I’m not sure if it was James who started this idea but certainly many scholars of religion make similar pronouncements: mystical experience cannot be talked about at all, what to say in precise language. At one time I believed such pronouncements because scholarly authorities had made them and also because some Buddhist masters concur. However, at this point in my life, I strongly disagree with the notion that it’s impossible to describe mystical experience precisely.

Of course, it’s true that in order to have mystical experience on a consistent basis, a person has to work through the drive to think in words. So, yes, one part of the mystical journey involves the struggle to get beyond words. But another part involves the struggle to describe in words how to get beyond words, and to describe in words what the experience of getting beyond words is like. There are many ways to get beyond words. You can find one possible description of how to get beyond words by following the ten steps presented here (pp. 39-46). Step 10 - Dance At The Source describes in words (and pictures!) what it’s like to go beyond words. You can find a more detailed breakdown here.

As most of you know, mathematics is a bit of a hobby with me. Recently I discovered a little known byway in the history of early 20th century math—an interesting dialectic between European and Russian mathematicians.

Set theory is the most commonly used foundation for mathematics, and mathematics is foundational for science, so set theory might say something deep about the mind, if not nature itself. One initial problem with set theory was that, if one accepts certain seemingly reasonable assumptions, it can lead to weird stuff and paradoxes. Not just things like Russell’s Paradox (which many people are familiar with), but really weird stuff, like the Banach–Tarski Paradox.

According one historian, Loren Graham, some of Russia’s most famous early 20th century mathematicians were followers of a renegade Eastern Orthodox sect called Imiaslavie. The Imiaslavie theologians firmly believed that God could be precisely named. According to Graham, this emboldened the Russian mathematicians to pursue certain implications of set theory that their more rationalistic European counterparts were unwilling to face.

I’m not sure how relevant this bit of esoterica is to my disagreement with James and other authorities. But, if nothing else, it’s an interesting little byway in the history of science that I thought to share with you.

You can read about it towards the end of this short article.

Also check out this interview with Loren Graham on SoundCloud:

July 16, 2015

Positive Behavior Change

By Kalyan Shah (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I often speak of five goals or applications of mindfulness:

  1. Reduce suffering.
  2. Elevate fulfillment.
  3. Understand yourself at all levels.
  4. Foster skillful actions.
  5. Cultivate a spirit of love and service.

I think of these as representing the Five Dimensions of Happiness.

Item four requires some elaboration.

Actions refer to objective behaviors—what we say, do, and (intentionally) think. The adjective skillful was chosen to be broad. It can refer to practical skills such as academic skills, professional skills, artistic skills, sports skills, amatory skills, and such. This is the meaning of skill as it is used in ordinary English. However, in Buddhist usage, skillful refers to actions that reflect good character or ethics.

It might seem strange to place practical skills and good character in the same category, but they do have some things in common. Both refer to objective behaviors—as opposed to sensory experiences or objective circumstances. When considering the issue of human happiness, it can be useful to distinguish happiness that depends on objective situations versus happiness that depends on sensory content versus happiness that depends on how mindfully we experience sensory content versus happiness that depends on objective behaviors. Which brings us to another point of similarity between practical skills and ethical skills. Both of these skill categories tend to bring about desirable objective circumstances.

So how can we assure that we will develop skillful ethics and character? And what is the relationship between mindfulness skills (concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity) and character skills (good deeds, good speech, and good thought)?

It’s been my experience that five elements are usually sufficient for assuring that we become admirable people. In some cases, all five may be needed. I list them below. Notice that only the first two are direct applications of mindfulness.

1. Deconstruct negative urges, e.g., with Focus In or Focus on Feel.  These techniques are designed to dissolve the compulsion by breaking it up in to pieces and then sub-pieces, until you're just left with vibrating energy.

2. Reconstruct positive urges, e.g., with Nurture Positive. Nurture Positive techniques are designed to weaken the compulsion by focusing away from it while finding and/or creating positive thoughts and emotions. (You can also weaken the compulsion by anchoring out in the external world, or by focusing on restful states, and so forth.).

3. Keep feedback loops open. Listen to what people tell you about how you’re carrying yourself in the world (and make it easy for them to tell you that!).

4. Acknowledge explicit ethical guidelines (four-fold sīla, five-fold sīla, and so forth).

5. If the above prove insufficient, then you need to establish for yourself a "behaviorally-oriented accountability and support structure" (a 12-Step program, regular counseling or therapy, and so forth).

Here are some resources that may be helpful:
Posted with many thanks to Har-Prakash Khalsa and Stephanie Nash for their videos.

June 16, 2015

Want a Good Laugh?

The above was created by a mindfulness colleague of mine, Professor Marcello Spinella.

If you want another good laugh, check out this video (courtesy of Har-Prakash Khalsa's Expand-Contract YouTube channel).