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. 

April 17, 2012

My Favorite Equation

Here’s what I wrote back to him:

Just for the record, here's my all-time favorite equation:

First, let me admit that the way I just wrote it involves some abuse of notation. Properly, it should be written this way:

But I think the former form is justified for the visual effect.

To the eye, it seems to equate two closed curves that have symmetry: A regular triangle, with 3-fold rotational symmetry (the minimum possible) and the circle with infinite rotational symmetry (the maximum possible).

But as a mathematical formula, it represents the “generalized Laplacian equation."

This equation is one of the broadest statements of balance in nature. Phenomena as different as three-dimensional thermodynamic equilibrium and four-dimensional relativistic motion can be described by this equation.

To me, it's a reminder that "mutually-canceling polarities" play a fundamental role both in the physical world as described abstractly by scientists and in the spiritual world as described concretely by mystics.

April 14, 2012

Marvel Comics Spreads the Dharma

Clark Gregg, the actor who plays Agent Coulson in the Marvel Universe, gave me this crew swag t-shirt in July when they were filming The Avengers. I wore it at Buddhist Geeks 2011, which greatly enhanced my “Geek cred.” The movie is coming out this May.

In Sanskrit, the letter “A” plays the same role as the “A” in Greek; It negates (symmetric vs. asymmetric; typical vs. atypical, etc.). In the Japanese Vajrayana tradition, it stands for the Primordial Unborness (ajāta) of all things. That may sound inscrutable but it’s something everyone experiences. It’s what you turn towards each time you notice something vanishing. In my system of teaching mindfulness, I instruct people to label the moment of vanishing with the word “Gone.”

Goneness has been known and cultivated in all ages and in all cultures inside and outside of all religious traditions. Hence, there are many synonyms for it, some of which seem to contradict each other! The following partial list of synonyms will give you an idea of the ubiquity and importance of this experience.

·       Zero (according to Jōshū Sasaki Rōshi)
·       Pure Consciousness (Purusha in Yoga)
·       Cessation (Cittavrittinirodha in Yoga, Nirodha in Buddhism, Cesó in St. John of the Cross)
·       The Source (Ha Makom in Kabbalah, Kongen according to Jōshū Sasaki Rōshi)
·       The Witness (Drashtri in Yoga)
·       True Self (Ātma in Hinduism)
·       No self (Anatta in Buddhism)
·       The Unborn (Ajāta in Buddhism and Hinduism)
·       The Undying (Amrita in Buddhism and Hinduism)
·       Nothingness (Nihil, Nichts, Nada in Christianity, Ayn in Judaism, Shunyatā in Buddhism, Fanā’ in Islam, Xū in Daoism)
·       Ground (Grund according to Meister Eckhart, Gzhi in Tibetan practice)
·       True Love (Shinjitsu no ai according to Jōshū Sasaki Rōshi)
Update 1/3/13: Stephanie Nash posted to her "Shinzen Interviews" Youtube channel a dharma talk on "A"....Shinzen Young explains "A" in a Whole New Way. Enjoy!

April 13, 2012

Good Friday

Just want to wish you all a good Easter. Perhaps you’re thinking, what’s wrong with you, Shinzen? First of all, Easter was last week and, secondly, what does Easter mean to a good Jewish Buddhist like you?
Let’s address the last question first.
Once when I was translating for Sasaki Roshi, a Catholic priest asked him what his understanding of Christianity was. Sasaki said that it was all about crucifixion and resurrection—and hence, for him, identical to what Buddhism is all about, which is also crucifixion and resurrection.
Of course, by crucifixion and resurrection Sasaki meant the alternating cycle of self dissolving into expansion and contraction and then self re-arising as wisdom thought and loving emotion: Wisdom thought, because that resurrected self can look back and realize it had just been one with the Source, and loving emotion because that resurrected self sees all other selves as sharing that same Source.
Crucifixion is really an excellent metaphor for how the self dissolves according to Sasaki’s paradigm. We die into the Source by being simultaneously stretched out by expansion and nailed down by contraction.
Last month when I and my VSI administrator Chôshin were in Israel, we walked the Stations of the Cross together, ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the crucifixion and resurrection occurred. Sharing that experience with her was certainly a high point. Because of Sasaki Roshi’s take on Christianity, this church is one of my favorite spots on the planet.
Again on the theme of Easter, I would also like to share with you one of my favorite poems. Some people call it “Good Friday” although it’s actually just a portion of a longer poem, East Coker, which itself is one of the “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot. It was published in the Easter 1940 edition of the New English Weekly as World War II was gaining momentum. It depicts the purifying action of the Holy Trinity upon the human soul, which, as many of you know, can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable. Apparently for Eliot, his bhanga was of the “Dark Night” or “Dukkhañana” type. 
Anyway, here’s a link to Eliot himself (!) reading the poem:
Also here’s a link to my take on the "Dark Night" phenomena: http://shinzenyoung.blogspot.com/2011/11/dark-night.html
But you’re still wondering why I’m a week late. Well actually I’m not. People often forget that in addition to Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, there’s another major branch of Christianity: Eastern Orthodox. Historically, the Orthodox tradition has placed a huge emphasis on direct meditative experience. For this, it uses a rich Greek technical vocabulary. Central notions are hesychia (tranquility), theoria (clarity), apatheia (equanimity), askesis (systematic, sustained practice), nepsis (sober observation)—sound familiar? This year, Orthodox Easter begins today, Friday April 13th.
Finally here’s some pics of me and Chôshin in the Holy Land.

Me and Chôshin on the Mediterranean beach near Haifa

Me and Chôshin walking the Stations of the Cross

Cell video of bells ringing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

April 2, 2012

Basic Mindfulness - Basic Science

Thanks to Ulco Visser and his Impact Foundation, we were able to complete an initial study of my Basic Mindfulness System at Harvard Medical School. We used categories from the Basic Mindfulness Grid in order to investigate “Neurobiological Substrates Underlying Varieties of Restful Experience and Modalities of Awareness in Mindfulness Practice.” The principle investigator is my friend Dave Vago

Thanks also to participants. Many of those who participated are quite web saavy so the event has generated some Internet buzz. If you’re interested, check out the links below: