December 31, 2012

A Japanese Proverb for the New Year

Many of you have sent me kind greetings for the holidays. I wanted to reciprocate with an idea around the theme of a new year. 

The Japanese have a proverb: 
"rainen no koto o ieba, oni ga warau" -- 
"when we say next year, the devil laughs." 

It’s an exhortation to have one’s priorities straight—to not put off things that are really important. 

One way to measure the importance of something is how deep, how powerful, and how universally applicable that thing is. By this metric, our mindfulness practice deserves more priority than it often gets. 

The New Year is an opportunity for renewed practice. That’s the highest blessing that I can wish.

December 21, 2012

Want to Intensify Your Practice?

Exciting news for those of you interested in intensive practice!

For two decades, people have been asking me if there is a place to do a really long retreat using Basic Mindfulness techniques.

Those of you who have done extended retreats appreciate that one week of unbroken practice is incomparably more impactful than one day, and one month is incomparably more impactful than one week. So imagine the life-changing effects that you would likely experience as the result of nine months of Basic Mindfulness practice offered at an intensity level comparable to Asian monastic training!

Although I have run a few one-month programs, my schedule has not allowed for me to organize more extended, monastic-style intensive training. It gives a lot of very pleasant “Feel In” to be able to tell you all that plans are underway to create the world’s first Basic Mindfulness monastery here in Burlington, Vermont. The prime mover for this project is my colleague Soryu Forall.

To be able to pull it off, we need two things:
  1. People who wish to utilize the program; and
  2. Enough funding to support the program.
 So spread the word! For more details, see the message and links below.

Looking forward to seeing some of you in my town. J

All the best,

A Message from The Center for Mindful Learning
The Center for Mindful Learning (CML) is excited to announce a nine-month intensive Residential Mindfulness Training Center (RMTC) based on Shinzen Young’s Basic Mindfulness System.
The format will follow the Asian monastic systems in which Shinzen Young and Soryu Forall were ordained, with modern-day improvements that integrate science and leadership training with these contemplative traditions. The nine-month program will be as rigorous on a daily basis as a typical Shinzen retreat (if you were to attend every sit at the Shinzen retreat). One week per month it will be more demanding, like a monthly “sesshin.” We will happily make accommodations for those with disabilities or similar needs.
The RMTC will be located in Burlington, Vermont. We are hoping to begin as early as July 2013, (although the start date is dependent upon securing funding). Soryu Forall will lead the training, with guest appearances by Shinzen Young.
We’re specifically looking for two groups of people: participants and donors. If you are interested in possibly being a resident and/or donor for this groundbreaking project, please email Harrison Heyl ( or follow this link to our website:
This RMTC may be a real first in world history. It’s an incredible opportunity to develop the next generation of deeply committed modern mindfulness teachers by integrating deep practice with science and leadership skills. We look forward to making history with your support!
With gratitude and warm regards,
The Center for Mindful Learning

November 9, 2012

Direct Transmission

Update 3/13/13: Please note that Dharma Heritage has removed from their site the video that this post was written about. I hope you'll still find the other materials useful.

Great souls communicate their gifts to humanity in three ways:

Through their concepts.
Through their conduct.
Through their contour.

Their concepts are powerful ideas expressed in words. Their conduct is how they deal with real-life situations and challenges. Their contour is their energy—how they are able to express the flow of nature/spirit/space/no self/true self through their movements, gestures, gaze and voice quality.

Powerful concepts inform us but can also inspire us. Admirable conduct inspires us but can also inform us. Likewise for the contour of energy that envelops that content—you can be both energized and educated by it.

The concepts and conduct of great souls can be passed down through the written word. But what about their contour? Learning from the teacher’s energy is highly valued in some traditions (most conspicuously Zen and certain forms of Hinduism). In the Japanese language, this is referred to as ishindenshin (transmission of consciousness by consciousness).

In pre-modern times, there was little one could do to preserve the energy contour of an enlightened being. The closest one might come would be realistic portraits or statues that capture some of those dynamic qualities. Indeed, I have heard it said (but I can’t remember by whom; maybe one of you knows) that the first appearance of realistic portrayal of human form in East Asia was driven by the desire to preserve the essence of meditation masters. (Another way was to mummify.)

But now things are completely different because you can get videos of great souls and learn directly from their dynamic essence. Below you’ll find a link to one such video. It’s actually a sizzle reel to promote a longer feature length movie that I sincerely hope eventually gets made. The video is short but it still packs a punch. It contains several vignettes with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the Zen master who has so profoundly influenced the way I teach. Interspersed with these are interviews with Leonard Cohen and others talking about Roshi. If you’re sensitive to such things, you should be able to “cop a vibe” from how Roshi effortlessly rides on the flow of expansion and contraction. In the video Roshi mostly talks about “where things go to when they vanish.” Two of Leonard Cohen’s songs are played in the background: “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” and “Love Itself.”

Here’s the link: (3/13/13: link no longer works; please see the update at the top of this post)

And here are some resources that might help enhance your appreciation of it.

I talk about “where things go” here and here.

I talk about expansion and contraction here and here.

Leonard's "Love Itself" is a description of dissolving into “Flow and Gone.” I talk about it and play it (with Leonard’s personal permission!) here:

The lyrics can be found here.

The Ballad of the Absent Mare is Leonard’s contemporary reworking of the Ten Ox Herding pictures. (Ox is replaced by mare; herding boy is replaced by cowboy.) Check out my talk about the Ox Herding pictures here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (sorry about the technical quality on these videos. They were the first Youtube videos we shot ).

You may have heard about how blows from sticks are used to spur Zen students forward. You’ll see that briefly in the Dharma Heritage video. The stick is called a keisaku. For fun, check out this hilarious clip of my colleague Soryu using a keisaku to whack the crap out of me.

Roshi is, at this writing, 105 years old. Here are some photos of me interviewing him for CBS on his 100th birthday. (Thanks to Dan B. Wood of the Christian Science Monitor and Stephanie Nash for these photos, and as always to Har-Prakash Khalsa for the Expand-Contract Youtube channel and videos.)

October 15, 2012

Seeking Honest Descriptions of Personal Meditation Experience...

You may be familiar with Philip Kapleau's 1965 classic Three Pillars of Zen. At the request of Kapleau's Japanese teacher, Hakuun Yasutani,  the book included a series of frank accounts of regular people achieving life-changing experiences. This was a real first, and motivated many Westerners to pursue rigorous Zen practice.

Now a student of mine, the writer and journalist Jeff Warren (author of The Head Trip) is doing something similar with mindfulness. I think it's a worthwhile project. If you have experiences to share (see below), I encourage you to send Jeff an email. He can be reached at

All the best,

From Jeff Warren:

I'm looking for people's honest descriptions of personal meditation experience.  I'm very grateful for whatever people would like to send me. I have yet to decide with my publisher whether I will use people's first names, initials only (as in Three Pillars), or keep the anecdotes anonymous. Please indicate your personal preference in this regard and I will of course comply.

Some possible themes:
  • Experiences of both sudden and gradual changes and your thoughts on this general topic
  • Experiences of dramatically increased sensory clarity + insights into mind and body
  • Initial breakthrough experiences
  • Kundalini /energy experiences
  • The experience of no self, unsatisfactoriness or impermanence in each sensory moment
  • Self-dissolution and / or "Dark Night" experiences
  • Experiences of equanimity or reduction in sensory fixedness
  • Decrease in self-rumination
  • Increases in sensitivity and vulnerability and openness
  • Changes in creativity
  • Experiences of emotional / mood cycling associated with meditation
  • Experiences of unusual phenomena/ hallucinations / "makyo" / powers, etc.
  • Cessations / fruitions
  • Stream-entry, and how this changes one's perspective
  • Post stream-entry changes, integrations, unexpected challenges, unexpected insights, further paths
  • General thoughts on how meditation has changed your consciousness

October 4, 2012

Seeking Heartwood, A Documentary Film

Check out this cool new documentary film...

from a cool young guy...

(...and my cool new look as I'll appear in the movie).

 ...only a few days left to achieve his fundraising goal.

September 26, 2012

(Main)Stream Entry

General Mills’ Janice Marturano, who created the
company’s 'Mindful Leadership' programme

Many years ago, I was talking with Jack Kornfield about my dream of how a modernized, secularized, and science-based reworking of Buddhism could infiltrate the institutions of the Western world. He said something like,

"Oh, I see—you’re not just interested in stream entry, you’re interested in mainstream entry.” 

Recently a student sent me this article from the Financial Times, and my friend Jeremy Hunter sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal. Check them out. It’s amazing to see how mainstream entry is gradually becoming a reality....

September 19, 2012

The Compassionate Brain with Rick Hanson

Check out this cool program by my friend Rick Hanson.

Over the years, Rick and I have enjoyed a deep and productive dialogue regarding science, spirituality, and the potential for revolutionary global change. In this free (!) video series, Rick will be interviewing some real heavy hitters like Richie Davidson and Dan Siegel.

What’s not to love here? :) 

In his book, Buddha’s Brain, Rick points out that the brain is designed to emphasize and install negative experiences and to de-emphasize and quickly forget positive ones. Therefore, to capitalize on the brain’s plasticity for positive change, one has to systematically focus on any positive effects that may occur during meditation practice, and to do so for a sufficient duration of time. I independently came to a similar paradigm several years ago. That is why I developed the elaborate sensory taxonomy and algorithmic branching that characterizes the Basic Mindfulness System. That system is designed to uncover and emphasize the positive windows that nature is constantly presenting to meditators but that sometimes pass unnoticed and unused.

You’ll probably enjoy this series. If so, I hope you’ll use that as an opportunity to systematically apply Rick’s Pleasure Principle.

August 30, 2012

Coming to Your Screen Soon...

Here's my latest poster:

Soon to be seen here:

during my month-long online retreat 

Meanwhile, enjoy this video conversation between me and Polly Young-Eisendrath.

August 24, 2012

Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

I find the story of Jigoku Dayū ("Hell Courtesan") and her enlightenment under Zen Master Ikkyū inspiring and compelling.

A modern story related to this theme is Shoko Tendo's life. She was born into the Yakuza. A turning point in her life was getting this full-body tattoo of the "Hell Courtesan." She talks about it here.

This blog post is dedicated to Shelly Young.

August 16, 2012

Working Smart

People often complain that they’re able to get in deep states during formal practice but are not able to maintain those states in daily life. There’s a lot to be said about this but one suggestion I have is to work smart by creating for yourself “challenge sequences.”

The idea is simple. 

Take any meditation technique you relate to and attempt to maintain it through a sequence of progressively more challenging activities. Stay with each stage for however long it takes you to get as deep as you were in the previous stage.

Here’s an example.
1. Lying down
2. Seated eyes closed
3. Seated eyes open
4. Standing
5. Slow walking
6. Faster walking
7. Walking in a sensorily impactful environment
8. Simple exercise
9. More complicated exercise
10. Washing dishes
11. Cooking a simple meal
12. Cooking a more complicated meal
13. Carrying on a vacuous conversation
14. Watching low-impact tv
15. Watching high impact tv
16. Carrying on a substantive conversation
17. Carrying on an emotionally charged substantive conversation

Your goal is to maintain the deepest state you can experience in #1 while in #17. It's like weight training, you build it up gradually. It may seem like an awful big homework assignment but you have the rest of your life to turn it in!

August 14, 2012

Sacred Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony

Still courtesy of Har-Prakash Khalsa / Expand-Contract
In September, I'll be leading a retreat through TCMC at a scenic ranch in the Sonoran desert in Arizona. One of the cool features is that retreatants have an opportunity to do a traditional native sweat lodge.

Native people call their path the "Red Road" (here "red" is not a racial term but rather the sacred color of the North). I've given some talks about the relationship between the Native American Red Road and the Buddhist Eightfold Path and what to expect from the sweat lodge ceremony:
Here's a document from TCMC on what to expect from the sweat lodge ceremony and how to prepare(Note that there are also opportunities for sweats following some of my Canadian retreats each year.) 

As of this blogpost, plenty of openings remain for Shinzen’s upcoming residential retreat in Arizona:

Residential Retreat with Shinzen Young
September 10-16, 2012
Oracle, Arizona
Hosted by TCMC

Email/Contact: Pam Ballingham,
P.O. Box 43204, Tucson, AZ  85733

Special thanks to Har-Prakash Khalsa and Stephanie Nash for the videos.

August 6, 2012

A Stroke of Insight?

In April, I posted a blog about a medical condition I’m interested in. The condition is sometimes referred to as “athymhormic syndrome” and sometimes as PAP (French: perte d'auto-activation psychique, i.e., loss of subjective autoactivation).
In the following post, you see a sequence of emails between myself and Ron Serrano. Ron is a jhana adept who has studied extensively with Leigh Brasington and consults on meditation research with Dr. Jud Brewer of Yale Medical School.
The exchange raises some interesting and fundamental issues regarding the possibility of a neuronal basis for enlightenment.

On Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 5:58 PM, Ron Serrano wrote:

…Regarding PAP; is this really a pathological version of arhatship? I read the associated article and this condition sounds more like "indifference" rather than "no self". At first blush, indifference seems like being without hatred and without greed and therefore without ego. On closer inspection, however, indifference is really a separation from the world, where as "no self" is a union. Also, I'm sure you're aware of a great deal of fMRI study which has been done on construction of the self in the brain (including Jud Brewer's work). A number of brain areas, including the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) have been repeatedly highlighted in these studies, but to my knowledge the anterior caudate has never come up. I know that you are well versed in this area, so I am probably missing something here.…

On Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 5:34 PM, Shinzen Young wrote:

    Hi Ron,
…Okay, I'm willing to admit that referring to Athymhormic Syndrome (aka PAP) as a “pathological version of arhatship” may be a little over the top  : ) .
But here’s why I’m interested in it.
  1. It has some intersection with at least four themes that are central to the Buddhist endeavor.
  2. Its effects in those areas are really dramatic.
  3. Its physical basis can be easily characterized.
The four areas of intersection with Buddhist experience are:
  • Dukkha Reduction. PAP victims report experiencing physical pain with normal poignancy but little suffering. (It would be interesting to know if they have the same relationship to emotional pain.)
  • Lobha-dosa Reduction. PAP victims seem to have little craving or aversion.
  • Samatha. PAP victims apparently experience long periods of time conscious yet without thought.
  • Anatta. Personality does not arise unless booted from the outside.
As you imply, the real question here is what’s the relationship between symptoms of PAP victims and the attainments of Buddhist adepts? There’s some relationship. Even if the relationship is “they’re vastly different,” I think it would be useful to know in a fine-grained way exactly how different and why.
I would divide this question into four sub-questions.
  1. First Person Question - Part One: Do any PAP victims spontaneously experience any of the “good stuff” we associate with advanced meditation?
  2. First Person Question - Part Two: Could PAP victims be trained to find good stuff in their symptoms?
  3. Third Person Question - Part One: Does the neuronal basis of PAP intersect in any way with the neural correlates of meditation states/traits?
  4. Third Person Question - Part Two: Even if the answer to Question #3 is no, it would still be interesting to know if inducing PAP-like states through “reversible lesions” (based on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or Transcranial Ultrasonic Neural Modulation, etc.) is in any way useful. Specifically, could it help accelerate a person’s meditation progress? (Metaphor: the mechanical principles underlying the flight of airplanes and those underlying the flight of birds and bees are quite different. Relative to birds and bees, airplanes fly “artificially”, but they still fly!)
I think these questions are worth looking into because:
I think the first step in answering these questions would be “Organoleptic.” I would interview PAP victims to determine if I could smell or taste anything about their conditions that either:
  • is liberation like.   OR
  • could become liberation like through training....
    All the best,

On Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 11:47 AM, Ron Serrano w

…Regarding the organoleptic interview, you might focus on two aspects: Do PAP victims exhibit either some high level aspect of well being or selflessness (generosity, compassion, etc.)? If so, there could be something of great interest here. Otherwise, it looks more like clinical indifference, which is an altogether different path from enlightenment….

On Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 12:28 PM, Shinzen Young

    Hi Ron,
…I'm not sure I'll ever have the opportunity to pursue research on athymhormia, but I just wanted to get the idea "out there" just in case someone someday decides to look into it.  So, thanks for permission to post our interactions.  By the way, that goes both ways.  Feel free to use anything I send you in any way you wish….
    All the best,

August 2, 2012

Mindful Leadership, a new book by Myoshin Gonzalez

Myoshin Maria Gonzalez is one of my senior facilitators and a long-time student. She is making quite a splash, creating a lot of interest in Mindfulness-based investment and leadership both in her native Canada and around the world. 
Recently, her newest book, "Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others," has been getting a lot of wonderful coverage. Check some of it out here: 

July 25, 2012

Meet My New Girlfriend: tDCS

For many years, I've been interested in the possibility of what I call “technoboosts.”

A technoboost is something based in the physical sciences that would reliably accelerate the attainment of stream entry. I got the term “boost” from general relativity. Boost is what acceleration looks like in 4-D space-time. Some people claim that such technoboosts are currently available but none of the current candidates meet my criteria—not even close!

Our current systematic ways of bringing people to stream entry could be described generically as two-component systems. We give people certain ideas (darshana), and we give people certain practices (sādhanā). I envisage the possibility that, in the future, there might be a third component added: science/technology-based boosters (modern upāya).

The three components could work together to reliably and quickly bring deep results with, hopefully, a minimum of problematic side effects (“Dark Night” problems, etc.). I have no idea the specific form such technoboosts would take, but one possible paradigm would be to induce a precise spatio-temporal pattern of activation and deactivation (our old friend of simultaneous expansion/contraction). The pattern of activation/deactivation would give the students a strong taste of a desired state (such as no-self). They could then be trained to reproduce that on their own.

So I'm always interested in technologies that create patterns of activation and deactivation in the human brain, such as: neurofeedback, TMS, transcranial ultrasonic neuromodulation, and so forth.

Recently, several people have called my attention to a very simple and quite old form of neuromodulation that is currently gathering a lot of research momentum—transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

Here’s why I’m excited about tDCS.

Qualitative Significance:
The effects of tDCS seem to map directly to the core themes in mindfulness.
  • Enhanced ability to focus (this seems to relate to the concentration piece in my definition of mindfulness)
  • Enhanced ability to detect signals against a noisy background (this seems to relate to the sensory clarity piece)
  • Enhanced ability to deal with pain (this may be related to equanimity)
  • The turning off of mental talk (i.e., a samatha effect)

Practical Feasibility:
As a process, tDCS…
  • Seems to produce the above effects reliably.
  • Apparently can both increase and decrease the average level of excitability for targeted populations of neurons (so, for example, it may be possible to simultaneously activate concentration and clarity switches while deactivating ego switches).
  • Seems safe (at least relative to other brain stimulation modalities).
  • Has a mechanism that is at least partially understood (seems to be related to long-term potentiation and long-term depotentiation).
  • Is technologically simple (stimulation devices involve very simple electronics--in fact, anyone can make their own crude but effective tDCS units using a 9-volt battery, a single resistor, and a couple sponges!).

I think this is an area where the meditators/mindfulness practitioners of the world could help push the envelope of neuroscience by getting involved with responsible research on the effects of tDCS. If you run into anything interesting, please add it in a comment on this blogpost. Also check out these guys, who are creating an online community of “body hackers” interested in this stuff. (I’ll leave it to your discretion to decide whether body hacking counts as responsible research ;) .)

Here are some links (Thank you to Mike Michaels for many of these resources):

Popular Articles

 Technical Articles

You Tube Videos

UPDATE - 7/12/13 - 
Hi folks, I wanted to update this blog post: Recently there’s been some concern about the safety issues because so many people have been experimenting on their own. Check it out:

DIY Brain Stimulation Raises Concerns

July 24, 2012

We're Not There Yet!

Some people claim that we already have a scientific description of enlightenment or that technologies currently exist which dramatically accelerate it.  No way.

The depth of paradigm and the power of technology that I envisage would have stunning global consequences within a few generations of its creation.

Until that’s happening, we ain’t there. (Law of contraposition: (A→B) → (~B→~A) If A implies B, then not B implies not A.)

A true science and technology of enlightenment would dramatically and reliably transform the majority of its users. They in turn would almost certainly recruit other users, causing a rapid, viral spread over the planet. 

If a process is not deep enough and reliable enough to guarantee global, viral spread, then it’s not deep enough or reliable enough to be called a true science/technology of enlightenment. Until 106-9 people worldwide have experienced “stream entry” (a permanent state of no self/big self), we ain’t there.

Currently we’re at the Galileo stage of this program, not the Hubble stage. But being on the ground floor is fulfilling in its own way.

“…it is quite possible that in contact with western science, and inspired by the spirit of history, the original teaching of Gautama, revived and purified, may yet play a large part in the direction of human destiny.”

--H.G. Wells, 1920

“…it is reasonable that in contact with modern science, and inspired by the spirit of history, the original discoveries of Gautama, rigorized and extended, will play a large part in the direction of human destiny.”

--Shinzen Young, 2011      

July 17, 2012

ReWire is Here!

Dear fellow meditators,

One of my students, Mike Redmer, just came out with a really cool app that makes my "Just Note Gone" technique into a video game!  Check it out here:  And if you feel like it, give him feedback as to what works and doesn't work about it.  Apropos of that technique, an article by me on "The Power of Gone" should be appearing in the upcoming August edition of Tricycle magazine.

And speaking of August, this year's Buddhist Geeks conference will be livestreamed for free!  Way to go geek team!

Take a look at what Mike had to say about ReWire: 
ReWire is Here!
Posted by mikeredmer on July 7, 2012
We are happy to announce that the newest, most innovative meditation app currently on the market is available for immediate download. It’s been a year in the making, and we are super excited for you to try it out.
What is ReWire you ask? Head over to our brand new website and check out all the cool features ReWire offers.
ReWire is still in Beta, and in the coming months we will be continually iterating to make ReWire the best it can be. Please take it out for a few test drives and let us know how it handles. We have big plans for this new interactive approach to mind training, so feel free to let us know what you love and what you would like to see change. This is just the beginning.
Download the app today and join us on this ReWire journey. We hope we have a created an a meditation tool that will encourage, support and improve your mind training practice.
And remember, if you like ReWire make sure to tell your friends and spread the word. Thank you for all of your support.

July 11, 2012

The God Particle

Cr34t0rJuly 4, 2012 11:52 AM wrote:
Dear Shinzen, humanity calls for your explanation about Higgs boson. can't wait to read it.

It's a Papist conspiracy!  They realized you can't have Mass without it!

So much for humor; let me try metaphor.

Higgs is a sort of viscosity field that confers materiality to particles that would otherwise just be pure radiation.  In some way, that seems analogous to how sensory viscosity causes the flow of experience to coagulate into the impression of somethingness.  Neuroscientists are beginning to look into that.  Richie Davidson and others refer to it as "stickiness".  Stickiness might be the reciprocal (opposite) of what I call equanimity.  

But comparing this with the Higgs field is just a fun simile.  Probably no more relevant to human spirituality than my corny attempt at humor.

Parallels like this can be fun, but we should resist the temptation to read too much into them.  Here are some of my favorite parallels and my caveat.

For more on this, check out Buddhism and Science.

May 31, 2012

Secular Buddhist Episode 119: Meditation, Pain, and Science

Hi folks,

I really had fun being interviewed by Ted Meissner at the Secular Buddhist. I think you’ll enjoy what I had to say as well as other of his presenters. 

May 10, 2012

Does Shinzen Have The Buddha-Nature?

First, to understand who we’re talking about, check out this picture of Shinzen:

He belongs to a Canadian fan of mine who named the dog after me so it would serve as a constant reminder to keep practicing.

You are probably familiar with the famous statement of ZenMaster Zhaozhou:

When asked, does the dog have a Buddha nature, he replied,

Do you understand?

Hint: Just Note Gone. J

May 2, 2012

A Possible Way to Convince Skeptical People that Mindfulness is a Good Thing

Recently a student asked me whether mindfulness optimizes the information processing capacities of the body and mind.

Here’s how I replied:
Your idea that mindfulness optimizes the information processing capacities of body and mind both makes sense and may be extremely important in terms of convincing skeptical people that it's worth putting time and energy into the practice. 
If you think of my "putatively operationizable" definition of mindfulness--Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity--this would exactly translate into an electronic receiver with: 

Does that not pretty much sum up what one would want in an optimal information processing system?
If we assume that optimal information processing in the human nervous system is advantageous (evolutionarily, functionally, hedonically...) and if indeed mindfulness training does significantly improve information processing as defined by a generally agreed upon metric, then there's good reason for humans and for humanity to adopt it.

April 18, 2012

How to Enlighten the World

I was recently dialoguing with a neuroscientist about the possible merits of biofeedback versus direct modulation for bringing people to no self experiences. Here are the main points that I made.

Let's start by making a few assumptions in order to simplify the discussion.

  • Assumption 1. One or more "ego switches" actually exist in the brain--understanding that a “switch” might involve more than one location      and might even involve a complex temporal relationship between locations. 
  • Assumption 2. The switch(es) are in fact dimmers that can be turned down but also completely turned off.
  • Assumption 3. Our ultimate goal is to bring the student to the point where they can let the switch to be on or totally turn it off at will any time in daily life. In terms of traditional Theravada, this would be equivalent to being able to access “fruition states” at will.
  • Assumption 4. A quick, easy process that reliably leads to balanced, integrated liberation would trigger an exponential propagation of enlightenment within a few generations (and, thus, dramatically change the course of human history for the better).
  • Assumption 5. Our process would involve three components: 
    • A. Conceptual Content. People would learn cultural, philosophical, and scientific perspectives on the no-self experience as well as ethical and behavioral guidelines, possible challenges around integrating no self into daily functioning, etc. 
    • B. Formal Focus Techniques. Probably pretty similar to those we currently use in mindfulness practice.
    • C. Techno-boosts. Technological intervention that allows us to turn off the ego switch(es).  
We already have components A and B. The role of the techno-boost would be to dramatically accelerate their impact. In other words, I don't see the techno-boost as a replacement for mindfulness practice but rather as an effective accelerant to what we do already. (Think a one-year class at any community college during which a sequence of techno-boosts are implemented and integrated through lecture and discussion). 

If assumptions 1-3 are in fact correct, then the question becomes "What sort of techno-boost should be used?".
  • Should it be some form of biofeedback? (EEG, rtFMRI, or some other physiological parameter….) 
  • Should it be direct modulation from the outside? (TMS, focused ultrasound, deep brain stimulation….)
  • Should it be a combination of modalities?
It's reasonable to assume that biofeedback would be the way to go because it involves a learning process and our ultimate goal is that the student should gain insight and regulatory control. On the other hand, I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that direct modulation might prove more effective than biofeedback. 

In my way of thinking, there are three desiderata for any techno-boost to no self:

  • It should be dramatic.
  • It should be reliable.
  • It should be universal.
By dramatic I mean it leads to a strong and impactful experience of no self. By reliable I mean it’s able to induce that in a given individual consistently, and by universal I mean it works more or less equally well for most people. 

It's possible that direct modulation could induce states of no self more dramatically, reliably, and universally than biofeedback. However that still leaves open the question of how much the student would learn from those experiences.

The most dramatic example of (a kind of) no self produced through a completely physical means that I'm aware of is “athymhormic syndrome.” This condition apparently obliterates the ability to auto-boot egoic existence (although its victims can be booted temporarily by someone talking to them). 

Based on the limited information I've been able to gather on this syndrome, it seems that at least for some of its victims, their default state is a complete disidentification with mind and body (which is my definition of arhatship). This is brought about by tiny lacunar infarcts that apparently obliterate key pathways involved in autoactivation of self. 

When I first heard about this condition, I did the following thought experiment:

What if I took a beginning meditator and temporarily induced that state through "reversible lesions" while having them listen to a guided meditation CD (to keep a “meditating self” booted). And what if I kept this procedure going for, say, ten hours straight. Would this allow a beginning meditator to have the experience of an arhat doing an all-day “strong determination” sit? If so, might it not profoundly and permanently rewire them in that direction? 

Of course, I recognize that there are a gazillion possible problems with this scenario. For one thing, we don't really know if our first three hypotheses are correct. Secondly, all of the external direct modulatory technologies are problematic. TMS probably cannot be focused tightly enough or deeply enough, DBS is massively invasive, and ultrasonic neuromodulation is pre-clinical. But, if it turns out that ultrasonic neuromodulation is both safe and effective, then it might be just what we're looking for because it can be focused to millimeter precision at any depth within the brain.