December 20, 2013

Are You Mono, Bi, or Poly?

A while back, a student asked me:
Do you think it's useful to combine different systems of meditation? If so, how can these other systems be incorporated into the Basic Mindfulness universe?
Video stills courtesy of Har-Prakash Khalsa
I can remember when I got started with Buddhist study and practice (about 50 years ago, yipes!), I was very confused by the seemingly conflicting maps, opposing paradigms, and confident claims of the various approaches. It’s all integrated for me now but that took quite a while, so I would encourage anyone confused by seemingly diverging dharmas to be patient. Clarity with regards to these issues comes through time, practice, and direct experience. You can find my current integrated view in this article, What is Mindfulness?. Also, on pp. 147-148 of my practice manual, you’ll find a summary of how various historical practices relate to Basic Mindfulness. A careful reading of that section will reveal that Basic Mindfulness is just a framework for showing relationships between various historical practices.

In some lineages of Buddhism there is a belief that one should stay with a single teacher in order to fully deepen one’s practice. Then there are people who encourage their students to go on different kinds of retreats with different teachers. My own point of view is this:

I think that some people are naturally “poly-spiritual” and some people are “mono-spiritual.” Mono-spiritual people develop overt or subtle conflicts if they go with different teachers or approaches, whereas poly-spiritual people get an immediate sense of the complementary. I’ve always been poly-spiritual. Everything I did with anybody seemed immediately to complement what I had done with everybody else. But that’s my personality type. As far as students go, I ask them to decide for themselves which type they are and to act accordingly. For me, this resolves the classic conundrum of “one deep hole versus many shallow ones.”

I should also say that when I encourage students to explore other teachers, I’m careful to give them a framework that reduces possible confusions and conflicts. I point out that there is a common thread that passes through all forms of mindfulness. Every style of mindfulness meditation is designed to develop three basic skills: concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. The styles differ in regard to which aspects of sensory experience are emphasized and in regard to what focusing strategies are employed. As long as a student can view the practice as the acquisition and application of a universal skill set, there shouldn’t be too much confusion.

December 14, 2013

Arising and Passing

Several students have recently asked me a question about the Basic Mindfulness System:
Shinzen, Why don’t you note or have a label for arisings, the way you do for passings, i.e., "Gone"?
Here’s my response:
There actually is a technique within my system that notes the instant of arising. But the point is subtle, and I did not really describe it in detail in my manual. If you look in the section in the manual on Expansion-Contraction Flow, you’ll notice that one of the things that can be noted is simultaneous awareness of both expansion and contraction. When an experience disappears, it goes to “Gone.” Just before the next experience arises, the “Gone” polarizes into two activities: one that expands and the other that contracts. If you detect that instant, then you are detecting the very instant of arising, because the next experience is being molded in the folds of that simultaneous expansion and contraction. So, the label for “arising” is “Both.” This is symbolized in the drawing above. The two outwardly directed arrows associated with “All Arisings” represent Both, i.e., polarization. The two inwardly directed arrows associated with “All Passings” represent Gone, i.e., neutralization. You’ll find details on pp. 39-45 of my article "What is Mindfulness?" 

December 9, 2013

Mathematics for Mystics: Welcome to my Geek Out

I’ve recently been having some cool email exchanges with a professionally-trained mathematician, Newcomb Greenleaf. He now teaches in the Individualized BA program at Goddard College, and is on the board of the Yoga Science Foundation.

Just for the fun of it, I’m including a few excerpts here.

I said:
Here are some thoughts on category theory but, first, a big disclaimer:  I am a total dilettante amateur in mathematics. No formal training whatsoever--or, rather, my formal training ended at Venice High School, where I flunked beginning algebra three times in a row (much to the chagrin of my parents!). I only know what I've picked up on my own through books and the Internet. I'm also acutely aware of how easy it is to "see the Virgin Mary in your danish", i.e., see what you want to see in science and math results. Newton thought the attractive power of universal gravity was a reflection of God's love (so by that logic, is dark energy proof of God's hate?). Maupertuis was convinced that the Principle of Least Action, proved God's existence. (Voltaire wrote a parody of him called Doctor Akakia.) Even Leibniz, who by all accounts was probably one of the most versatile western intellects of all time, believed that mod-2 arithmetic demonstrated how God could make something (1) out of nothing (0). These guys represent the cream of professionals, and I'm just a dilettante amateur! So having stated all of this by way of caveat, here are the parts of category theory that seem to resonate with Buddhism and my personal meditation experience. 
Connection is a huge theme in Buddhism. It's elaborated philosophically in the doctrine of pratÄ«tyasamutpāda. The slogan is "This being that is." Indeed in the Mahayana formulation, there aren't even entities--just connections. As you know, category theory is all about arrows--different flavors of arrows connected in various ways. Paralleling Mahayana, it's even theoretically possible to do away with the objects themselves. So, in a sense, both Buddhist philosophy and category theory seem to say "it's arrows all the way down."  
Moving on to a different theme, in the way I like to formulate impermanence, binary contrast is very important--different ways in which self-cancelling polarities can mold experience. In my system, this is formulated in terms of expansion-contraction (check out more about this herehere, and p. 56 on here...). One important class of categories are "pointed categories" or "categories with a zero object". The arrows in these categories all start from zero and return to zero--which sounds an awful lot like  how I experience consciousness working). I talk a bit about the history of zero in my article Algorithm and Emptiness--here's the link. I also talk about related issues on pp. 151-159 and pp. 173-183 in my Five Ways manual. 
So to the extent that category theory generalizes group theory, the theme of mutually cancelling polarities is a major theme, and that maps on to my meditative experience rather nicely. Category theory then goes on to generalize invertibility itself with the notion of adjoint functors. Although the language is just coincidental, I love phrases like "forgetful functor" and "free functor." In contemplative practice, we first forget our specific identity, which then frees us up to assume arbitrary identities. Once again, I'm very aware that the language used here is merely coincidental, but I do find it amusing.  
Moving on, at the most universal level, arrows can always be reversed. There's this incredibly beautiful duality principle that pervades every facet of category theory. Pythagoras, Lao-Tzu, Hegel, and Marx would all be pleased. 

Newcomb responded:
I felt privileged to allow the elegance of your mathematics to enhance the punch of the dharma. Tangibly, they have inspired me to re-examine my understanding of the foundations of math in categorical terms.  I've had to recall my rather checkered history with categories. In graduate school I was good friends with Peter Freyd, whose thesis became the first book about category theory, which up 'til then was treated in the context of algebra or geometry or topology.  It's called Abelian Categories, and I find that it's still in print. I learned to think categorically I recall Peter's excitement and particularly his emphasis that, "We used to think that category theory just did away with the elements.  Now we see that it also does away with the objects." and it's nice to see that insight again.  

To which I responded: 
I'm totally awestruck/starstruck that you were good friends with Peter Freyd.