October 16, 2015

enlightenment, Enlightenment, and the Age of Enlightenment

I’m one of those teachers who’s comfortable with the “E-word”—perhaps because my very first teacher Okamura Keishin talked about kenshō and satori as realistic goals. I take the Zen notion of kenshō to be roughly equivalent to sotāpatti or stream entry. I tend to use the phrase “enlightenment with a small e” to refer to the depth of a person’s kenshō, i.e., the extent to which they have broken the identification with the mind-body process.

Of course many teachers avoid using the E-word. There are numerous and quite legitimate reasons for that taboo—not the least of which is that the general public tends to associate the word enlightenment with an extremely advanced stage of practice wherein one has deeply integrated kenshō with refinement of one’s humanity in terms of behaviors and relationships. I tend to refer to this latter attainment as “Enlightenment with a big E.”

Enlightenment with a small e comes about as a kind of paradigm shift involving the notion of self. That shift can occur rapidly or come on gradually. (I have talked about this a lot; see the resource list below.) According to Buddhism, the centerpiece of this paradigm shift is the shedding of sakkāya-diṭṭhi, the perception that there is a thing inside one called self. Historians of philosophy point out that a Buddhist-like notion that self is an illusory bundle of perceptions also arose in the West, specifically in the Scottish thinker David Hume, who is considered to be one of the founders of the European Age of Enlightenment.

Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic by Alison Gopnik conjecturing a direct historical link between Buddhist bundle theory and Humean bundle theory. The connection involves an amazing Italian Jesuit named Ippolito Desideri—perhaps the first Westerner to attain a thorough education in Buddhist scholastic theory (in the early 1700s!). So possibly there’s an interesting synchronicity between enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of that term and The Enlightenment in the historical sense of that term.

If this sounds interesting, check it out!

Related Resources:

September 30, 2015

The Mindful Geek, A new book by Michael W. Taft

The Mindful Geek, A new book by Michael W. Taft

We may be seeing the beginning of a major revolution. This revolution is in some ways a natural next step from the Scientific Revolution that occurred about 500 years ago and the Neolithic Revolution that occurred many millennia before that. Ever since the Neolithic, human spirituality has tended to center on a literal interpretation of organized myth. The Scientific Revolution decentered those myths. So is humanity now left without a source of deep meaning and moral compass? Perhaps not. The Mindfulness Revolution offers a totally new direction: industrial strength psychospiritual growth based on industrial strength attentional skills—concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity.

Michael Taft is one of my senior facilitators. If you’re interested in topics such as secular mindfulness and mainstream mindfulness, check out his recent book The Mindful Geek. It's a clear and cogent call to revolution.  Viva la causa!

September 13, 2015

"Absolute Compassion is the Only Thing that Works"


An old student and senior facilitator of mine, Dr. Sondra Solomon, passed away this morning.

She was a truly remarkable person who overcame numerous difficulties to become a stellar research scientist at the University of Vermont here in Burlington. Her practice played a major role in making that possible.

You can read a bit about Sondra here, about her research here, and see her interviewed in 2011 to raise awareness about Neurofibromatosis here.

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).

June 8, 2015

International Western Dharma Teachers Gathering 2015

I just got back from the International Western Dharma Teachers Gathering. The whole conference totally rocked. I got to reconnect with a bunch of old friends and make a lot of new ones. Also came away with a much better idea of trending issues within the Buddhist community.

Here are a couple of pics taken of me with some totally awesome people.

(From Left to Right) Har-Prakash Khalsa, Loch Kelly, Santiago Jimenez, CuladasaShinzen YoungDaniel IngramStephanie Nash

April 3, 2015

Again, Good Friday

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934)

TS Eliot Signature

As some of you may know, I look upon T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as a poetic manual for contemplative-based psycho-spiritual growth. Here are some things I've said about that:
This morning, a student sent me this really cool link: http://jeremyirons.net/tag/four-quartets/.
It includes some UK scholars talking about the Four Quartets, followed by a great reading of it by Jeremy Irons. Enjoy.

March 17, 2015

I’ve decided to convert to Tau-ism

© Kerstin/dragonflyducky @ Flickr
Some of you may know that Saturday was a particularly significant Pi Day. During the morning Home Practice Program, I asked participants to observe a moment of silence in honor of Archimedes as we transitioned to the Pi Instant at 3/14/15 - 9:26:53 am EST.

Apropos of Pi Day, one of my computer scientist friends, Neal McBurnett, sent me this really cool Youtube segment by Michael Hartl, formerly of Caltech. It’s about the tongue-in-cheek geek war between pi and tau.

I’ve decided to take Hartl’s message to heart and, from now on, I’ll be practicing and advocating “Tau-ism.” Check it out if you like geeky fun stuff.

March 6, 2015

Geek Out - Part Deux

As many of you know, I’ve taken a month off to nurture my body through diet while I have fun studying mathematics, specifically category theory. My interest in this branch of mathematics stems from my hope that humanity will someday achieve what I refer to as the “Pythagorean Agenda”—a deep understanding of the relationship between the physical world, the spiritual world, and the world of mathematics.

By physical world, I mean what the hard sciences, like physics, tell us about “what’s out there.” By spiritual world, I mean the core mystical/contemplative experience, which can be described many ways, my personal favorite of which is dissolving in the dialectical process of expansion and contraction (as I have described in a gazillion talks). By the world of mathematics, I mean, well, mathematics.

It’s a well-established fact that mathematics models the physical world and gives us a deep picture of it, in terms of both description and prediction, even sometimes explanation. See “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” by Eugene Wigner.

Many, but not all, mathematicians believe that category theory is far and away the best candidate for a foundation of mathematics. So, if the universe is modeled by math and math can perhaps be founded on category theory, then maybe category theory says something deep about the nature of the physical world—or even spiritual experience. Ideas like this are, of course, highly speculative. But I have to admit that category theory “smells” a lot like Buddhism to me. It’s all about complementary contrasts and connections, and many of its fundamental formulations seem to reflect the dialectical process that is my model for enlightenment. I talk about that (with what I hope are sufficient caveats) here.

So that’s why I’m interested in the subject.

Imagine my amazement when I recently discovered that a couple major figures in the field (Lambek and Lawvere) have given serious thought to some of these issues. Check out this and this. (Warning! This material is uber-meta geek! So you may need to have a bit of equanimity with Don’t Know Mind. On the other hand, if you have a practice, you should experience some pleasant “Feel In” at seeing names like Meister Eckhart and Heraclitus appearing in a rigorous, high-end math web site.)

Although the idea of a dialectical interplay is associated with many conceptual systems (notably Taoism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and such), for me it's something quite tangible—indeed, I suspect, purely physical.

In the Vipassana tradition of Southeast Asia, an important stage of practice is entered when the student begins to have clear experiences of "arising and passing" (udayabbaya). I believe my friend Kenneth Folk has popularized the abbreviation “A & P” for this perception. In a particularly clear experience of udayabbaya, one gets the sense that no sooner is something arising but it's already simultaneously passing. Since every sensory event creates a spatial volume, one could refer to the arising as expansion and the passing as contraction, which is the terminology I use because it allows one to experience Self and Scene as a unified expanding-contracting sphere without a fixated observer anywhere. (By “Self” I mean inner See-Hear-Feel activity; by “Scene” I mean outer See-Hear-Feel activity.)

If I had to make a conjecture as to what's involved here on a biophysical level, my guess would be that it has something to do with improving the efficacy of information processing in the central nervous system—something to do with the inner clocks that time how information is processed. Perhaps somehow during an “A & P” experience, the erasing keeps in perfect pace with activation, leaving no time for somethingness to coagulate. If indeed this is the case, then neuroscience will eventually ferret out the biophysical correlates of this and model it in the kind of standard equations that any scientist or engineer can appreciate. That would create a hard-nosed physical link between mystical experience, dialectical philosophy, and perhaps even some aspects of mathematics that seem "dialectical" in nature.

Furthermore, I suspect (but don't know) that the deep mind works through connectivity (cf., the Tiāntái idea that "one thought contains 3,000 worlds",
 一念三千). Also if I had to make a conjecture about what “physical reality” is, my guess would be that it’s likewise a vast network of pure connectivity without any connected things per se. Single-sorted category theory might, in some sense, be relevant to that notion, thus creating another link between mathematics, spirituality, and physical reality and, hence, pushing forward the Pythagorean agenda.

Just a thought. : )

March 4, 2015

Regarding Purim, From A Friend

Here’s an interesting email I got from my friend Brian concerning the holiday of Purim (which the Jewish world celebrates starting this evening).
"A mystics thought on Purim….
WE are all familiar with the Talmudic statement regarding Purim: One should drink עַד דְּלָא יָדַע -- “until one no longer knows the difference between "blessed be Mordecai" and "cursed be Haman.”
But what does it mean?  For the non-meditator this seems like a very bizarre concept. Why would one strive to no longer be able to distinguish evil from good? Wouldn't that be the height of immorality?
The most important mental state a meditator is trying to develop is equanimity; in Hebrew it is referred as hishtavuth (interestingly, also from the same root equal = shaveh). The top student of the ARI, R. Hayim Vital describes the state in Shaarei Kedushah as “humility shall be deeply impressed upon his soul, until he will feel neither joy at being honored nor the contempt of those who insult him, and both shall be EQUAL in his eyes.” At the most peak moment of equanimity = hishtavuth the mystic can no longer discern between opposites -- all is one. In Latin this is referred to as coincidentia oppositorum and in Hebrew as ahduth hashaveh. R. Azriel of Gerona uses this term to describe the Infinite -- the place where opposites are nullified.  So Purim is a festival where the non-meditator simulates the mystic by engendering extreme joy with the aid of alcohol such that there is a semblance of equanimity.
Intoxication is not equanimity, but the concept is introduced on Purim and we should all strive to achieve the true state of shaveh/hishtavuth/ahduth hashaveh:
שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד
I equanimize, G-d is before me all the time."