Saturday, December 27, 2014

Enlightenment - Jeffrey Martin - Finders Course

Jeffrey Martin is a researcher on enlightenment, which he terms persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE).  I've previously linked to his dissertation, which basically says that enlightenment is not particularly linked to psychological development.

I recently came across a more recent paper that focuses on the changes occurring as a result of PNSE.  A continuum of experience was discovered with clusters of change around sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.  I thought this was an interesting paper and identified with many of the changes reported.  I think it's a good attempt to describe some things that have been historically difficult to describe.

Martin categorizes the continuum of changes as Locations 1, 2, 3 and 4, which reminded me in some ways of the 4 Buddhist paths.

A program called the Finders Course came out of this research and is an attempt to move people in the direction of persistent non-symbolic experience.  The exact components of the course are being left mysterious, but are clearly meditation based.

Out of the research, about 6 meditative techniques seemed to rise to the top, which again, are not revealed.  The idea seems to be to sample all of these techniques and find what works best, and it is implied that practicing an hour a day for a week is enough time to see whether or not a given technique is suitable.

Speculating on these techniques we might include things like single-pointed concentration, mantra, noting, self-inquiry/koan, body-scanning, open awareness, and metta.  These would be the likely suspects.

The first 6 weeks are described as being "designed to get you into a psychological sweet spot so that you don’t dark knight in the second half of the course," which implies that concentration practices are being used in this part of the course.  I believe I saw some reference to the course being 15 weeks in length, but I can't find it right now.

I do like the idea that this is a systematic attempt to figure out how to get people enlightened.  I will say that there is a slightly weird vibe to the whole thing, a bit of a secretive nature about what's going on, a substantial fee, and I suppose there is a pretty big expectation for the course, all potential yellow flags.  But I guess I do like the overall direction of the project.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sam Harris - Waking Up

In his previous books, I had found Sam to be one of the better intellects out there, so I was particularly looking forward to reading Waking Up.  Sam is the kind of person that whether or not you agree with him on various issues, you'd be hard pressed to find fault with his reasoning.  And it was so fascinating that this guy that I had known in the context of being a very rational, atheistic author had actually gone down many of the same spiritual roads that I had.

Being mindful of true spirituality as well as the concerns of his atheistic base, he does sprinkle the text with rational criticisms of religion.  But the main point of this book lies elsewhere.

Here we have a reasonable guy with something of a triple threat: a background in neuroscience, a pretty decent spiritual resume (having sat a fair number of retreats with Sayadaw U Pandita (Mahasi's student), Papaji (Ramana's student), and Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche), and some significant experiences with psychedelics.  I considered this a must-read.

Many mind-blowing topics are covered from a number of different angles based on this unique skill set.  For example, I found the information about the split brain experiments to be interesting.  If we want to cling to the self, then at minimum, we would have to think of ourselves as many selves.

Being a bit of a Mahasi fan and practitioner myself, I found it perplexing that Sam, while apparently following the Mahasi meditation instructions on retreat with great earnestness, never stumbled into a cessation.  I think he makes a decent case that the hardcore approach may contain a seed of failure, in that one is striving to become what one already is.

I will say that stumbling into a cessation is a bit of a paradox.  On the one hand, the mind must be trained to stay present and unattached in a way that seems unusual for normal modern humans.  And that seems to require effort, practice.  And yet to stumble into the actual cessation, one must let go, one must cease effort.

The cessation route seems to speed things up, if nothing else, and seems to make jhanas easier.  In some ways I think it would be a shame if someone became enlightened and yet hadn't experienced the jhanas.  It would be like never having relaxed in a comfortable chair.

In terms of talking about no-self, this can be a relatively weird topic and I believe Sam does about as good as can be done.  For a modern Western version along the lines of Dzogchen pointing instructions I might recommend something like Greg Goode's The Direct Path, along with other books on non-duality.

For Sam's target audience, his original fans, I suspect this will be a bit of a one-off that will be quietly dismissed (linking to a friend's podcast).  But yeah, there's something here.  Maybe a few more people will get it.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BBC Doc - The Secret You

An hour long pop-science show, The Secret You (on youtube) touches on existential topics of consciousness.

With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anaesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science's greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? While the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience, they are notoriously difficult to explain. So, in order to find out where they come from, Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.

He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait. Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self. And in Hollywood, he learns how celebrities are helping scientists understand the microscopic activities of our brain. Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Meditation Makes You More Creative

In the article Meditation Makes You More Creative, researchers found:

"Test persons performed better in divergent thinking (= thinking up as many possible solutions for a given problem) after Open Monitoring meditation (= being receptive to every thought and sensation). The researchers did not see this effect on divergent thinking after Focused Attention meditation (=focusing on a particular thought or object.)"

This Is Your Brain on Magic Mushrooms

The article "This Is Your Brain on Magic Mushrooms" describes network theory in mathematics being applied to data from fMRI studies on subjects taking psilocybin.

"The findings seem to explain some of the psychological experiences of a psilocybin trip. Linear thinking and planning become extremely difficult, but nonlinear “out of the box” thinking explodes in all directions. By the same token, it can become difficult to tell fantasy apart from reality during a psilocybin trip; but focusing on a certain thought or image — real or imagined — often greatly amplifies that thought’s intensity and vividness."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buddhism and Psychedelics

Information on Buddhism and Psychedelics from, presumably associated with the Johns Hopkins psilocybin research.

A list of links to various Buddhists (Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, etc.) and Buddhist-friendly psychonauts talking about the intersection of psychedelics and spirituality.  I think my favorite was the long piece by Myron Stolaroff, "Are psychedelics useful in the practice of Buddhism?"  Stolaroff also wrote "The Secret Chief Revealed" which I linked to at the end of the post on Psychedelic Trip Guides.  I keep meaning to do a trip guide myself, I think I'd better do it before I get too far away from it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Katherine MacLean at BG Conference

A fair amount of the 2014 Buddhist Geeks conference is available on LiveStream, I'm not entirely sure you can get to these links without registering, but we'll see.

Johns Hopkins researcher Katherine MacLean said a few things about psychedelics, I believe that link puts you right in front of that video on the page.  She speaks for about the first 20 minutes.

A lot of familiar stuff.  I was reminded of the TLO advice:  Trust, Let Go, Be Open.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Your Brain on Psilocybin

Your Brain on Psilocybin, a nice little article by researcher Robin Carhart-Harris.
Evidence from this study, and also preliminary data from an ongoing brain imaging study with LSD, appears to support the principle that the psychedelic state rests on disorganized activity in the ego system permitting disinhibited activity in the emotion system. And such an effect may explain why psychedelics have been considered useful facilitators of certain forms of psychotherapy.
 Drops the ego, enhances access to emotional material.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing, an article from the aptly named Deconstructing Yourself blog.  It discusses Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, addiction, and training the brain among other things.

Jud Brewer's fMRI research at Yale found the PCC to be a major area of interest in terms of mindfulness and no-self.  At UMASS he is apparently experimenting to see if EEG biofeedback could do something similar to the PCC biofeedback he did with fMRI.  EEG biofeedback would be far more accessible.

As Brewer recalls, “Some of our novice subjects were able to make their PCCs look like those of advanced meditators after only nine minutes of real-time neurofeedback. They would get out of the scanner and ask how soon they could come back and do it again. I wish I had that ten years ago when I was striving my butt off trying to learn to meditate.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dharma Talk 014: Meditation Pointers: Stay! and Keep Away

There is a similarity between mindfulness and concentration practice, more or less the two main types of meditation. Both of them involve a kind of detachment from many phenomenon, but of particular interest in this context is detachment from the wandering mind. This is what Brewer (2011) saw in his research on advanced meditators. The wandering mind network in these individuals was severely "crippled" in comparison with normal individuals. Normal people have made this wandering mind network their default, but this is something that can be changed with training, with meditation.

Concentration Meditation

In concentration practice we focus in a single pointed way on a very specific object, often the breath, perhaps at the nostrils, or on a visual object (I often use a ball), or even on an auditory object like the sound of a babbling brook or an air conditioner. Not much to it, really. The attention is brought to the object, and sustained. Wandering is always brought back to the object. Aim your attention at the object, drop everything else, and keep "rubbing" your attention on the object. Repeat. So in this case, our attention "stays" on the object, and our attention is kept "away" from the wandering mind. It's not a bad idea to do a few minutes of concentration to start out your meditation session before you go on to a mindfulness practice. As with all this stuff, you kind of have to make it important, there needs to be a certain earnestness, you have to really try.

In some of the original research on EEG biofeedback, Barry Sterman taught cats to listen to a tone and press a lever when the tone ended. The cats ended up exhibiting a calm, alert "stalking" behavior, with an EEG frequency of 12-15 Hz, a bit faster than alpha waves. This reminds me of concentration practice, attentive, not dull, engaged, relaxed, ready, aware, focused.

Mindfulness of Seeing - Hearing - Feeling

In mindfulness we focus on whatever happens to be predominate, whatever is changing, whatever is new, whatever is now. Mindfulness is like the ongoing headline news of the mind, we are not dwelling on old stories and we don't do in-depth reporting or interviews, we just focus on what is present right now. We might be focusing on the feeling of tension in the forehead, then hearing some distant traffic, then seeing the back of our eyelids. Feeling an itch or tingling, the feeling of the touching of the seat cushion, then hearing the wind in the trees, then seeing an electrical outlet on the wall. In these examples, the emphasis is on seeing, hearing, and feeling, all of which are "away" from the wandering mind.

We could also notice thought itself, noticing things like planning, remembering, imagining, etc. But this can be very difficult and I tend to think of this as a somewhat more advanced practice, but then again more power to you if you can do it like this. But again, I'm saying this may be difficult and one may easily wind up lost in thought, because, well, that first step into thought, it's a real doozy! So I'm advocating an exercise that is focused solely on the seeing, hearing and feeling doors. Of course we could also have tasting and smelling, but these tend to come up a bit less in meditation and I'm trying to keep it simple. And a triad is nice.

So as a mindfulness practice, one could just "stay" within the sense doors of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Can you "stay" for a while just within these three senses? It's kind of like staying just with the body, just the primary senses. So we're learning to prejudice our attention towards the body, and sight and sound.  This is the remedy to our long standing, deeply ingrained prejudice towards thought.

So in a way, we're dropping our attention to thought - we're playing a game of keep away with thought, with the wandering mind. Thought is not a total enemy, and we can't exactly push it away, but we can play this game of keep away.

Keep "tossing" your attention back and forth among seeing, hearing, and feeling. Get used to the idea of "staying" here, moving your attention among only these places, hanging out here, seeing what's going on here. Learn to look first in these places for the "next thing", and as usual, allow all those little feelings and sensations to arise, notice them and surrender to all those little tensions and resistances. This place is akin to the original mind, the natural mind, the experiential, unprocessed, unconditioned, pre-verbal, non-conceptual mind. It can be very comfortable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Magic Mushrooms & Addiction

From UltraCulture, in a study at Johns Hopkins, two moderate-to-high doses of psilocybin were used in conjunction with behavioral therapy to help long time tobacco smokers kick the habit.  Results were very good and are reminiscent of the decades old research on the use of LSD with alcoholics (for instance Bill W, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain, a quickie summary with big pictures covering possible benefits including longevity, self-regulation, slowing of Alzheimer's, etc.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dharma Talk 013: Waking Up

This is an essay that came out of the Atlanta Soto Zen center, circa 1993, author unknown.

Waking Up

You won't experience God, or Truth, sitting in a church on Sunday listening to a man talk about a book written hundreds of years ago, my friend.  Go spend a few days by yourself in nature, or look into the vast, silent eyes of a child, or sit still a very long time and look deeply into the eyes of your lover or a very dear friend.

True spiritual practice is not something we do once a week on Sunday or only once a day by sitting in silent meditation or prayer.  It is a deep commitment to keep our "consciousness" alive, to stay Awake, to the never ending, ever changing, present moment.

Just because our eyes are open does not mean we are Awake.  Anyone who really starts to observe this deeply conditioned mind we have, notices how often we are like "sleepwalkers" dreaming our lives away, lost in thought.

There is nothing wrong with thought, but if you are always thinking, you are not aware.  As I write these words, it is difficult to stay aware, or awake, to the present moment as I am concentrating, or limiting my awareness.  But as I slow down and take notice of the feel of the pen in my hand, the posture of my body and any tension it holds, the sounds of birds outside my tent (arkk-arkk), a plane (burrrr), and feel the exhilaration and inhalation of my breathing, I expand my awareness or wake up to the present.

To read or write an article, to build a house or work a computer one needs to think, but the overwhelming majority of thoughts spinning through the mind have nothing to do with Reality - this NOW moment.

From the moment of awakening in the morning until sleep at night, the mind is constantly churning out memories, plans, opinions, judgments and fantasies, and our attention to "what-is-actually-happening-this-moment" is slim at best.

There is no need to believe this!  Belief has nothing to do with being Awake.  Pay attention to your own life and ask yourself these questions.

How often have you been driving down the freeway and realize you've been daydreaming, asleep to Reality the past few miles?

Are you truly conscious when you eat food, tasting each bite, or are you also reading something or lost in worries or plans?

Right now, are you aware of your body posture and any tension it is holding, sounds in the background, your exhalations?

The simple fact is we are rarely awake to the present moment.

NOW is the only time there is, my friend.  The future is never here and the past, whether one minute ago or one thousand years, is just a memory trace residing in our brain cells and body tissues.

When we deeply explore the question of "Who am I?", all we come up with are memories of experiences we've had in the past.  As the teacher Krishnamurti was fond of saying, "If you get a good grip on yourself, you are holding on to nothing but a memory."  And these memories are always occurring in the present moment!  It is not that there is a "self" that has memories but that our "self" is memory.

We can say the set of thoughts we call ego is built upon time, in a way is time.  All our problems are in time.  All guilt or regret is a state of mind lost in the "past" and worry and anxiety is being lost in the "future".  This present moment, however, is timeless and whole, and contains absolute peace.

Slow down, my friend.  Let go and rest in the silent, peaceful, heart-space of this moment.  After centering ourselves, the question remains of how to keep our consciousness alive, or stay awake to the wonder of the present.

Truly experiencing our breathing will help.  Not trying to control, but just feeling our inhalations and exhalations.  Breath always occurs in the present and can be used as a wake-up tool throughout the day whenever the mind wanders.

A Big step would be to cut out the noise we surround ourselves with, such as the radio and television.  We need to confront boredom, our fears, and loneliness, sooner or later.

Maintaining a spirit of silence is important too.  We cannot notice the subtle layers of thought if we are constantly chattering.  Also, notice how often we talk about people not present with us, or plans for the future, or memories of the past.

A daily silent spiritual practice will help tremendously.  Perhaps Hatha Yoga, or Tai Chi, or Aikido for those who are body oriented, or a sitting practice such as Vipassana (insight) meditation.

In Vipassana, one sits still and gives "bare attention" to whatever is arising, externally and internally, without judging it, following after it, or avoiding it.  One simply witnesses it and then lets it go.  One begins to notice how awareness clings to thought and brings the mind over and over again to "what-is-actually-going-on-in-this-moment".

A practice like Vipassana is difficult at first, and for a beginner, just sitting still for twenty minutes is an accomplishment!  Also, many people have much repressed material to work through, and perhaps, would gain more insight through a cathartic meditation or combining meditation with therapy.  Growth takes place on many different levels and insight into our conditioning may occur through a variety of experiences.

There is no stopping point in this life, my friend.  To be aware of every thought, feeling, and contraction throughout this deeply conditioned mind-body is true meditation and a never ending process.  A sense of humor is essential!  To giggle instead of becoming frustrated when realizing one has been asleep, lost on a "thought-train" of memory or fantasy is important.  At that moment you awaken!

Growth also occurs as we slow down and simplify our lives. As we simplify what we talk about, what we "feed" our consciousness, and what we do, we learn to let go and surrender to the healing peace of the present moment.

To be truly alive as a human being we need not only to do, but to BE.  To be in touch with our mind-body and the incredible suffering of the world around us, and also to be aware of the beauty, awe, and wonder of the ever changing eternal NOW.  Look!  Listen!  Stay Awake!

First scientist in 40+ years testing LSD on humans

"When people take psychedelics recreationally, in a social context," he says, "they might get preoccupied by the perceptual changes and the novelty, and they'll laugh their way through with a certain amount of confusion and anxiety. But in an experimental context, particularly in the therapeutic context, people lie on a couch with their eyes closed and have a very introspective experience. It's richer; psychologically, it's more interesting. 
Presumably he is doing fMRI scans similar to what he did with psilocybin.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Meditation Helps with Men's Emotional Intelligence

From Men developing emotional intelligence through meditation? Integrating narrative, cognitive and electroencephalography (EEG) evidence.  (Abstract)

"development of attention appeared to enhance men’s emotional intelligence, which in turn could be conducive to well-being."

Neuroscience of Mindfulness

From Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, & Mindfulness, an overview of basic brain structures and networks.

The key points listed at the end of the article (note:  DMN =  Default Mode Network, the wandering mind network, and TPN = Task Positive Network, focused or mindful):

An overactive DMN is highly correlated with negative mood states and certain mental illnesses.

The DMN can be simplistically conceptualized as a ruminative network. It directs our awareness to the past and future while largely ignoring the present. And while the DMN can be used responsibly to plan and organize, we must always be wary of its runaway force.

The TPN is involved in present moment awareness.

The TPN is engaged when we attend to the here and now. It is the action network. The TPN is our direct line to mindfulness and the Present Moment in which worry and sadness cannot survive.

The TPN and DMN are mutually exclusive. 

By activating the TPN we deactivate the DMN. This may be the most powerful lesson of our entire discussion. The next time you feel helplessly lost in worry or self-recrimination remind yourself of the power of the TPN. Go for a walk, practice yoga, sense your breath, or engage fully in a conversation with a friend. You need not overpower your DMN to escape negative thoughts. You need only to intentionally engage your TPN and allow your natural physiology to disengage your DMN.

People Hate Doing Nothing

"The investigation found that most would rather be doing something – possibly even hurting themselves – than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts"

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Kenneth Folk Dharma Archive

Mainly for the hardcore, and perhaps of historical significance, the old Kenneth Folk Dharma forums, which were active for perhaps 4 years (and were then mysteriously deleted one day by an apparently overzealous third party free domain owner), have been restored on the Awake Network site as the Kenneth Folk Dharma Archive.

The bulk of it is in the "Original" section, which contains a vast number of practice journals that are of potentially incalculable value, although similar material can be found on Dharma Overground or Awake Network.  The V2 section archives the short lived and ultimately failed attempt to revive the forums after their sudden disappearance.

Then there's the plain old Kenneth Folk site in it's current incarnation that contains a lot of the instruction topics from the original site, but frustratingly doesn't seem to have quite all of them.  There is still an archive that points to those, here I'm talking about the topics that show up in a box on the left ("Start Here", etc.).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain

Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain
"Although only tested in one person, the discovery suggests that a single area – the claustrum – might be integral to combining disparate brain activity into a seamless package of thoughts, sensations and emotions."

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dharma Talk 012: Leaving Concept-Land

A long rant on mainstream mindfulness practice and the psychological approach of many modern practitioners.  Fair warning, my views here may be considered heretical and cynical.  And in some ways I am making up things to rail against, as I don't see all this stuff as completely unskillful.  Just relatively unskillful in some ways :)  Anyway, I feel there are some points to be made.

The western consensus buddhist culture typically supports what we could call a mild meditative hybrid of concentration and insight practice, wrapped up in a traditional container of dogmatic, religious morality, with a heavy emphasis on psychology and philosophical thought.

Perhaps this is all well and good, but to me, excellent meditation practice trumps all of this.  The mainstream spiritual religious culture is basically a consolation prize for people who aren't willing or able to become mystics.  Hence we have religion, dogma, moral codes and intellectualization.  Maybe this is necessary and useful, as clearly we human beings need some consoling.

Functionally, the widely recommended middle of the road mindfulness could be described by MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), a secular approach adapted by Jon Kabat-Zinn from traditional Buddhist mindfulness practices.  My impression is that most people who are into meditation are familiar with something along these lines, generally a core focus on the breath, a heavy emphasis on relaxation, with some mild instruction to notice other things, all in a non-judgemental way.

Although this mainstream mindfulness is perhaps "adequate", in that it probably works for some, my view is that at its worst it becomes a least common denominator approach that ends up failing on both the development of concentration as well as insight.

There is the typical heavy concentration on the breath, which is the core of many instructions on mindfulness.

It does kind of blow my mind that in most of the references in the popular literature to the mindfulness sutta (i.e. the key basic mindfulness instruction chapter in the pali canon), usually all they mention is the mindfulness of the breath.  Sometimes they quote the sutta, but always using only the section on the breath, presented as if that one little part was the whole thing.  It's only one paragraph out of an 11 page chapter.  Might be something more there.

Not that I'm endorsing a dogmatic view of everything in that sutta, but to me the parts I would highlight are along the lines of the simple insight of seeing things as they are, and actually noticing them.  Quoting from Majjhima Nikaya 10:
when feeling a pleasant feeling, a bhikku understands: 'I feel a pleasant feeling'
This can be done for sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc.  Almost as if one were doing a noting practice ;)

The widely recommended breath focus can make sense on a certain level, being immediately accessible and ever-present, but then again it isn't generally done with enough of an absolute focus so that substantial concentration benefits would reliably ensue.  I'm guessing most people doing MBSR aren't going into jhanas, for example.  The mindfulness aspect, of noticing everything that is going on at all the sense doors, is often overlooked and at any rate is crippled with that same bias to the breath.  And there is a general lack of emphasis on the kind of continuous earnestness that seems to be required to really "get the job done".  We end up with a format that practically assures few will ever attain technical stream entry.  The emphasis is somewhat more on relaxation and psycho-intellectual "growth" as opposed to close, persistent, continuous attention to what is chaotically predominate in awareness.

It's an approach that meets the requirements of not offending many different styles and traditions but it's kind of like throwing a nice entree and a dessert into a blender and saying, yeah, it's the same thing as eating them separately, so just drink this instead of your meal.

Other than the aforementioned McMindfulness, there is the psychological aspect, referring to this meditative culture that communicates almost exlusively in terms of the psychological, the philosophical, and the intellectual.  My theory is that this aspect grew out of the general culture's increasing awareness and acceptance of psychology in the past few decades and was plausibly exacerbated by the leadership of Jack Kornfield and his bias to preferentially hire dharma teachers with a background in psychology.  And as they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I'm not necessarily saying that it is a bad thing, to do a bit of psychology, but it's a bit of the same comment as before:  it's as if we're trying to kill two birds with one stone and we end up with no bird at all.

On the other hand, there is a certain level where you do have to have something to talk about at local meditation groups, and teachers have to have something to talk about with students.  Maybe that's exactly what people need in a meditative context, a culture of inexpensive and lightweight group therapy combined with standard morality doctrines and religious sermons.  Maybe that's what sangha needs to be.

Psychotherapy can be helpful, to some, I think it was tremendously helpful to me (albeit extremely expensive and time-consuming), but then again, outside of a few specific evidence based areas, it should be mentioned that there is precious little to recommend it clinically.  And the same could be said of meditation, at least for clinical situations.

One of my real concerns, based on a fairly small sample, is that I'm seeing an increasing number of meditation practitioners who seem to actually believe that psychological development is the same thing as enlightenment.

Guess again.

Although we don't have much research, Jeffrey Martin's work (2010), found that ego development was not particularly correlated with enlightenment.  His definition of enlightenment was individuals with "persistent non-symbolic experience".

Psychological insight and enlightenment are not necessarily incompatible, but then again eating right and exercising are also not incompatible with enlightenment.  In fact, getting enough omega-3s and exercising are actually key components for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  So there's a lot to recommend good nutrition and exercise if you're trying to acquire a skill like meditation.

But of course eating right and exercising are not the same thing as enlightenment.  Similarly, one could do decades of group therapy, but that isn't going to get you enlightened either.

What I see as the underlying danger in this psychological approach is that people become trained and habituated towards intellectual, philosophical, psychological analysis, and this becomes a significant part of their meditative practice.  Therapy teaches people this process, and meditation teachers are in some cases reinforcing it.  They end up training themselves to automatically go off into thought, into concept.  They are bowing to the needs of the ego to think and control things and they are imagining that they are getting enlightened.

The problem is this:  you have a person ostensibly meditating, and some kind of vaguely challenging, uncomfortable or difficult feeling comes up.  What do they do?  They immediately go off into their trained psychological analysis mode.  They decide, "This is unpleasant, I'm going to fix this, I'm going to get to the bottom of this, I'm going to figure this out, I'm going to understand where this comes from, I'm going to trace this back to my childhood, I'm going to draw metaphors around it and relate it to other things in my life.  I'm going to do this so that at some point in the future maybe I'll feel a tiny bit better."

Good luck with that.  You'll never think your way into enlightenment, although you can certainly get an intellectual understanding.  The understanding of enlightenment is more of a direct knowing that is prior to thought.  And that knowing is now, not at some point in the future.

To be clear, I'm not discounting psychotherapy, rather I'm saying that there is a time for everything, and maybe while practicing your true nature on the cushion is not the time for intellectual concepts.  Psychological analysis is the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  You might feel well pleased with yourself after arranging the deck chairs into a smiley face, but you're still on the Titanic.  I'm advocating that instead you lash the wooden deck chairs into a raft and get off the sinking ship.

Running off into thought and concept is itself a grasping, it is a striving, and it is being actively trained by an increasing number of practitioners.  Can you feel that desire to go off into thought?

What I'm advocating is in some ways a more primal version of psychotherapy.  The invitation is to actually feel your feelings (what a radical concept!), to actually stay with those potentially unpleasant sensations instead of running off into concept-land.  The possibility is to stay with those basic experiential, unconditioned, non-conceptual feelings and allow them, make peace with them, feel your resistance to them, learn to live with them, be okay with them, surrender to them, meet them halfway.  Be curious about the actual raw sensations as opposed to your stories about them.  Can you stay with what is?

The striving that is acceptable is to prejudice oneself back to the original mind, the raw experiencing mind prior to language and concepts.  There is a striving there, because there is something trainable there, absolutists notwithstanding.

Based on the changes seen in the brains of advanced meditators (Brewer 2011), we see highly significant differences that come from training the mind in specific ways.  A dogmatist may say you can't see enlightenment, so there is nothing there.  But actually we do see it clearly in the fMRI scans.  In fact, in advanced meditators we see some of the largest deviations from normal ever seen in any population.

So there IS something there, there are attentional networks that are being trained, retrained, or untrained, just as surely as children are trained to speak, read, write, and do mathematics.  And almost without exception children are able to train their minds in these ways, they learn these things.  It is possible to learn new skills, to train the brain.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dharma Talk 011: Kalyani Lawry

A non-dual talk by Kalyani Lawry, shown with fellow Aussie Bob Adamson.  She refers to Bob and Nisargadatta quite a bit.  I stumbled across this particular interview, and was somehow fascinated enough with it to edit it down by about half, almost completely removing the interviewer, for example.  This leaves lots of little gems, although I suppose these kinds of things are a bit out in left field for a lot of folks.  I consider listening to this kind of stuff as kind of working from the endpoint back, as opposed to meditation which is more like working from start to finish.

Your Creative Genius

This is kind of tangentially related, author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) doing a TED talk about creativity.  She talks about the meaning of genius in the old days as something outside oneself, which is far beyond the current norms of thoughts of individual egoic accomplishments.  So it's kind of a non-dual talk.

The Unpleasant States

In the last post I briefly mentioned "that meditation of any type is not all unicorns and rainbows, and as we open ourselves up there is definitely potential for some repressed stuff to rise to the surface."

Which is a reference to, in the Theravada, the dukkha nanas, the unsatisfactory stages of insight, sometimes referred to as the Dark Night.

The Dark Knight of the Soul is an article about researcher Willoughby Britton and her ongoing work in this area.

TM & David Lynch

Transcendental Meditation, at one level, is nothing more than a simple mantra meditation.  A mantra can be a good tool to give the mind something constant to attend to as opposed to being embedded or lost in thought.  Of course, my tendency would be to recommend what we could almost call a "dynamic mantra" in the form of the Mahasi noting technique.

Although the TM mantras themselves are veiled in secrecy, supposedly chosen psychically by a guru, you could actually determine your TM mantra with a simple look up table, and assuming you had the basic idea of mantra meditation down, you could save ~$1000 or more.

"David Wants To Fly" is a documentary about TM by a German filmmaker that includes a number of interviews with David Lynch, the famous artist-director-TM advocate.  Flying is a reference to the rather silly TM "yogic flying" program which purports to develop the ability to levitate.  In the picture above, you can see an example of this, which is absolutely nothing more than hopping up and down while in a lotus position.

I was not aware of some of the large sums of money ($1,000,000) which people pay to be in certain TM leadership positions, nor of the wealth of Mahesh's heirs, apparently now one of the richest families in India.  One wealthy American publisher who was featured in the film gave $150 million, and was disappointed that the money was clearly never spent on the intended projects.

I came across the reference to the documentary on "Falling Down the Rabbit Hole", a site that is highly critical of TM.  [I would briefly mention that meditation of any type is not all unicorns and rainbows, and as we open ourselves up there is definitely potential for some repressed stuff to rise to the surface.]

And then there's the famous Beatles song about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sexy Sadie.

EDIT:  I didn't particularly want to throw David Lynch under the bus here, he seems like a nice guy and seems relatively awake.  I'm not sure that David literally wants to fly, but maybe he does believe in that stuff, who knows.  He has started initiatives to introduce children to meditation (TM of course) through his David Lynch foundation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Low Dose Psychedelic Recipe
The image here is of an old book called The Psychedelic Guide to Preparation of the Eucharist, which contained methods for preparing a number of psychedelic compounds.  I like the image, and I feel it sets the tone.

I figured before I got too respectable I'd share a bit about some recent recreational explorations.  It should be said that the doses I'm listing here are almost surely too low for most people.  I have found that as I have progressed in meditation, I don't seem to want or need a whole lot of psilocybin or cannabis, for example.  This is simply what works well for me, as someone with a couple thousand hours of meditation and access to 10 jhanas.  My sense is that those specific developments/attainments are what have changed the doses for me, moreso than just time on the cushion.

Given the low doses, I would think these would be pretty safe starting doses for most people.

I sometimes think of these as the acronym CANP, i.e. Cannabis, Alcohol, Nitrous, Psilocybin.  Here's a recent recipe for CANPing:

Cannabis - 0.05 grams edible, every couple of hours
Alcohol - 1/2 drink per hour or two, at first
Nitrous - 1/3 cartridge every other breath
Psilocybin - 0.10 grams of mushroom

Cannabis by itself is not necessarily a huge factor, although in combination with nitrous it does become a pretty big deal.  It brings a little bit of pleasure, and it does open the psychedelic door just a crack.  On very rare occasions, particularly when I feel very worn out or chemically sensitive, it can have very profound effects similar to psychedelics.  0.05 grams edible is a very small amount, not that long ago I used to regularly use around 0.25 grams (one brownie at ~8 grams per pan of 32).

Alcohol is not particularly important here.  I just find it a bit soothing at the beginning, it seems to take away a certain edge that seems to come up with cannabis and psilocybin as they take effect.  I tend to mix weak 1/2 strength drinks in tall glasses and sip them over long periods of time.  For me this is often a bit of vodka in Crystal Light lemonade.

Nitrous, I would mention that (at minimum) one should always take some B12 ahead of time, ideally sublingual methylcobalamin.  I'm trying to approximate my dosage here, but something approaching 1/3 of a cartridge, maybe about a 4 second sip, with at least one breath in between every sip.  Make sure you are oxygenated so you can hold it a bit.  I'll have to admit it took me quite a while to discipline myself into this particular rate of consumption, as nitrous often called out for "more".

Psilocybin at 0.10 grams (of mushrooms) may not be enough for some people to feel much of anything, I think for a lot of people something like 0.25 to 0.75 might be more like it in combination with the rest of the cocktail, and frankly, a couple of years ago I was using 2.0 grams.  For me, recent explorations at as much as 0.20 were fine, but were simply too intense.  It's one thing to have tears of joy, but to turn that into super intense, gut wrenching sobbing is just too much for me.  So I've backed off.

I'm also a big fan of appropriate music, lying down, eyes closed, and staying present.  There can often be a great yearning to go off into fantasy under these conditions.  What happens when you acknowledge that desire and allow it but instead of grasping at thought you just remain with what is?


Re-reading this a couple of years later, the psilocybin dose of 0.10 does seem low and would be the one to play with.  Although I suppose I covered that.  I seem to have gone through a phase of extraordinary sensitivity and while that hasn't entirely changed, I now find something like 0.20 to be tolerable and appropriate.  For my unique situation.

I would add that in the interim I experimented with DXM, dextromethorphan.  I gradually worked up to a dose of 300mg but decided it was not for me.  It produced a uniquely weird kind of experience which was fine, but on balance I found that there was something unpleasant about it and would not recommend it.  Perhaps luck of the draw, but I ain't going back there.  So I nixed the high dose, but I did find along the way, and in the spirit of the whole low dose synergy combo thing, adding a mere 30mg (2 pure gelcaps) to the above mix seems to add a slightly noticeable and beneficial difference with no apparent downside.  As with some of the other ingredients, it seems to help open the psychedelic door a wee bit more, at a very reasonable dose.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Vipassana in Prison Documentaries

There is the 1997 film called Doing Time Doing Vipassana (on youtube), a story of the experimental introduction of Goenka style vipassana to the 10,000 inmate Tihar jail in Delhi.

In response to this success, Americans have set up similar prison meditation experiments, one was captured in the film The Dhamma Brothers, which took place in Alabama.

I found both of these films to be heartwarming.

Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness

Researcher Jeffery Martin has created the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, kind of a clearing house for related research and a portal for people experiencing non-symbolic consciousness (aka enlightenment) who are interested in participating in research.

Martin's dissertation (which I've linked to before), is "Ego Development Stage does not predict Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience."  Which to me means that psychological development is not particularly correlated with enlightenment.

From the site I came across a number of links.  An interview with Non-Duality Magazine left me impressed with Martin's balanced academic style, and rather unimpressed with the often dogmatic notions of the interviewer.

He has a book out, The God Formula, which seems to cover some of the same ground.  There are a series of videos supporting the book that cover info about non-symbolic consciousness.

In those videos I came across some other interesting sites, including the book "Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment" as well as references to Peter Fenner, a non-dual teacher and Alan Combs (book: Radiance of Being), a non-dual researcher.  And if you've never come across it, The Sedona Method, a so-called releasing method, isn't bad but I would consider it a bit expensive. consciousness blog

Investigative journalist Amber Lyon had some profound experiences with ayahuasca and psilocybin and created an aggregator site, that "provides journalism on natural therapies for depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD, addiction, and other health conditions, and strives to help expand consciousness, enhance spirituality and well-being."

Bill Maher's Rant about Psychedelics

Riffing about Halloween, Bill Maher goes off on a rant about the benefits of psychedelics.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dharma Talk 010: Two Axes

I conceive of enlightenment as having two primary elements, an axis of mind training, and an axis of non-dual understanding.

Meditation is mind training, and this can cause a certain kind of neurological development.  The mind is trained in various ways to be (for example) present, stable, relaxed, open, non-conceptual.  If one really gets this particular axis going, the mind will go through a surprisingly predictable course of development that is pretty well represented by the Theravada progress of insight, paths, and jhanas.  My bias is to recommend the Mahasi style of noting for this kind of development.

Training the mind this way can be thought of as training the mind back to the original mind, the raw experiential non-conceptual mind.  This is beneficial because it allows the original mind to look out at the world and figure things out, and the original mind is very wise in this way.  It tends to see things as they are and drops many of the unskillful beliefs and assumptions and prejudices that we acquire through life and culture.

So the benefit arises by getting the conceptual mind out of the way, the conceptual mind that most people are continually drawn to and spend a majority of their time embedded in.  Through language, school, and an entire culture built on symbolic communication, we develop a preference for thought.  Very useful, but we overdo it, we co-opt the mind for the exclusive use of thoughts and we end up getting in the way of that brilliant original mind.  We have to get out of our own way by training the mind back to its original default mode.  Then the original mind can drop all our precious little formulas and assumptions and just see things as they are.

We can talk about the path of neurological development as not being exactly the same as enlightenment, but in my opinion it is so highly correlated with the general direction of enlightenment and so useful in that regard that I would consider it a shame for someone to not get that done.

Cessations, at least when first stumbled upon, seem to be cataclysmically important, at least in the overall scheme of things, even if the changes are not immediately obvious.  Later on, the mind seems to get used to them.  But there is something important there that is let go of, perhaps it is that an actual selfing process or two gets dropped, or perhaps it is just the introduction of nothingness into the equation that causes the mind to have to recalculate and rethink its whole conception of what it is and its own relative impermanence.  At any rate, self identity takes a bit of a body blow.

The jhanas are not enlightenment per se, but they can be very useful.  Let's say you can get into the territory of 8th jhana.  That's a very faded out kind of place.  So the self is very faded out (you have let go of the "me-ness" of 6th jhana, for example), thoughts are very faded out, there are mainly just bubbling proto-thoughts, and it's very tranquil.  That may not be enlightenment, but I would say that it's functionally a lot closer to an understanding of non-duality than ordinary clinging, thinking mind.  And spending time in those jhanas seems to imprint those qualities on the mind, and the mind begins to operate more from those qualities of tranquility and contentedness.  Which is pretty worthwhile even if you don't want to consider that enlightenment.

The second axis, that of non-dual understanding, is what we would have to refer to as enlightenment proper, in its narrowest and most precise definition.  People can gain a conceptual understanding of this by reading and listening to non-dual teachers, for example.  The flesh android has arisen as an appearance in the totality, and it's just doing what it's doing.

You could see aspects of it from the standpoint of science.  Evolution teaches us that we are not different from other life, that all life is related, all is one.  Your cells are the cells of your ancestors, all the way back to the origins.  And the origin of life is from the basic elements, the earth, which comes from the stars, which comes from the gas clouds, from the big bang.  All one.  We are that.

But it is one thing to understand it conceptually, and another to grok it, to know it in one's bones, to see it in real time.  We could point to many philosophers that understand it conceptually (say Thomas Metzinger), or maybe some academic Buddhist scholars who don't meditate but know the pali canon forwards and backwards.  But that's not enlightenment.  And in some ways I am creating more concepts here.  The concept of oneness or non-duality.

The real understanding is beyond concepts, it's more of a mystery, a not knowing, everything is just happening in a field of awareness.  And to grok it, you have to be out of the way, and that seems to take a bit of training, although we all have glimpses, maybe a moment of no-thought staring out contentedly at a sunset, or maybe a peak experience on a psychedelic.

Dead or Meditating?

The old myths about yogis persist.  "A court has been called to rule on whether a wealthy guru is dead or in a transcendental meditative state."  It reminds me of the old Monty Python dead parrot sketch.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cultivating Empathy with Neurofeedback

Real time fMRI feedback, apparently to the pre-frontal and temporo-parietal junction, helped increase empathy in subjects.

"From a clinical perspective, these methods could be applied to “re-wire” cognitive networks of individuals who have pathologies associated with a lack of empathy."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dharma Talk 009: "Cheating" on Breath Meditation

I rarely do breath meditation these days.  Lately, if I do it at all, I focus on the breath at the so called anapana spot, specifically the subtle sensation of the breath as it touches the outermost part of the nostril, or sometimes just the overall sensation of the breath as a whole while remaining focused on that one area.

On the nostril, the way I sense it, there is a surface sensation, and then there is a little bit of a more diffuse sensation that spreads out underneath that.  That's just a small pointer that there is a lot of detail there, some subtlety that someone might gloss over or not notice right away.  Don't assume that the sensations of your body are what you theorize they are, be curious and find out what's actually there.  There might be more than you think.

A few years back I would occasionally do breath counting.  There are many variations, but I would typically count the outbreath until I got to 10, and then start over from 1.

Anyway, one time I did that for 40 minutes without losing the count.  Maybe that's impressive, maybe not.  The fact is, I cheated.  Kind of.

What I did was to come up with a kind of visualization to help me keep track of where I was in the count.  I visualized something like a telephone keypad, but only 9 numbers, or actually just the spaces or locations, a nice little 3 x 3 matrix.

When the count was one, I oriented my visual attention to the upper left.  When the count was two, I oriented to that middle upper location, and so on until I was at the bottom right.

When the count was 10, I would visualize the entire "keypad" area, which was bigger and different, and that would help clue me in to the next move, the most important move in the whole sequence, the change to go back to one, to the upper left.

So I was cheating in the sense that I was using a technique, a device.  But I was thinking about it today, and it struck me as something fairly useful.  As someone with perhaps a decently strong visual orientation, I translated the problem into a purely visual device, a relatively simple visual pattern rather than the arbitrary numerical symbolic sequence.  The numeric sequence makes the problem much harder, because we are so terribly overtrained on counting numerical sequences.  The numerical counting becomes automatic, and it is very easy to go on autopilot and go beyond the count of ten.

It also struck me in hindsight that I had changed the problem, in some little ways, into a slightly more nondual friendly format.  I literally didn't have to even use numbers, although I did.  It could be done with just those locations and sizes.  In this way, the sequence could be grokked in a slightly more direct way.  Although it is still conceptual.

Again, in hindsight, I like the idea of taking this particular problem away from the left brain a bit, I think this is the direction that meditation of all types needs to lean towards.

ABC does Psilocybin

Thursday (I think), the ABC show Black Box will air an episode containing an instance of the use of psilocybin for the palliative/psychological care of a terminal cancer patient, mimicking the Johns Hopkins studies.

I watched the episode on demand.  The doc and her friend also end up tripping, because we  have all made that mistake of reaching into a friend's purse, taking out a unknown small packet and assuming the strange light brown powdered substance inside must be cinnamon for sprinkling on our lattes.  Right.

Diffuse Optical Tomography

Mainly, I liked the photo.  But yeah, there's this optical imaging with LEDs and fiber optics that "compares favorably to other approaches but avoids the radiation exposure and bulky magnets."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dharma Talk 008: Thought-ism and Thought-aholics

In Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that the great perfection is non-conceptual awareness.  That's a really good pointer.

By nature of language, symbolic communication, education, and civilization itself, we have become prejudiced towards thought.  We overdo thought.  We have become thought-ists, thought-aholics, spending our days excessively absorbed in dreams of the future and rehashings of the past.

The original mind, say the mind of a newborn baby, does not have thoughts, at least not like we do.  It cannot have discursive thoughts because it lacks the building blocks of language and symbols for conceptual thought.  In the original mind there is just the bare sensory experience.

The remedy to thought-ism is a combination of things.  On the one hand, we need to stop being thought-ists.  We need to stop indulging and feeding the thought machine when possible.  When you are aware of an attachment to thoughts, could you simply let it drop?  We don't want to resist thought or push it away, but to simply stop at the first noticing of craving or desire for thought.  Let it fall, without worrying about it or experiencing aversion towards thought.

The other side of the coin is to simultaneously develop a kind of affirmative action towards non-thought as an antidote to thought-ism.  In terms of Mahasi style noting, we want to be emphasizing the sense doors of seeing, hearing, and feeling.  We create a new super-preference for all the basic sensory experiential stuff.  In a sense, we are returning the organism back to factory specifications, back to the original default settings.  This is enlightenment.

I once came up with a metaphor of the mind as something like an untrained dog on a leash, always pulling the owner around.  With meditation, we can not only train that dog to be much more calm, but we can also learn to drop the leash.  With a well trained dog and no leash, who cares what the dog does?

The dropping of the leash represents a certain detachment, a distance from the thoughts that are merely happening "over there."  Extending the metaphor a bit, I am reminded of the Dog Whisperer and his teachings about calm, assertive leadership.  The pack leader is unconcerned about a new dog walking into their territory.  The pack leader is king, the king doesn't bow down to some newcomer, doesn't even glance at the new dog.  The pack leader just keeps on doing whatever they were doing.

Similarly, thoughts are like that.  It's just a new dog walking into your territory.  You notice it in your peripheral vision.  That's it, done.  No need to investigate the content of thought or wonder about where it came from or whatever.  Just back to what you were doing.  Just this.

Psilocybin and Depression

"In a new study, researchers from the Psychiatric University Hospital of Zurich have shown that even small amounts of psilocybin can weaken the way our brains process negative emotions and provide a positive mood lift" from the article Compound in Magic Mushrooms Could Treat Depression.

The results are similar to a few other studies along these lines.  The dosage was listed as 0.16 mg/kg in the abstract, equivalent to about 2 or so grams of magic mushrooms.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Kenneth Folk's Book

Kenneth Folk's book, Contemplative Fitness, is now available online as a work-in-progress.

It makes for a good addition to the Pragmatic Dharma ground covered by Daniel Ingram in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

Alpha Waves screw up Visual Processing

In the article "Controlling brain waves to stay visually aware"
"researchers at Beckman Institute have used a novel technique to determine how the brain processes external stimuli that reach (or don’t reach) our awareness."

We found that the same brain regions known to control our attention are involved in suppressing the alpha waves and improving our ability to detect hard-to-see targets,” said Diane Beck, a member of the Beckman’s Cognitive Neuroscience Group, and one of the study’s authors.

Meditation Sucks

Researcher Willoughby Britton, in the article Meditation Nation, points out that one of the recent large meta-studies shows meditation isn’t any better than any other kind of therapy.

My comment about the lack of the earth-shattering results would be to not expect much out of 8 week studies on mindfulness.   If you could follow some people until they got a few paths under their belt, maybe that would be a bit more interesting.

She also goes into a lot of good stuff about experimental design and biases, finishing with a need to be open about the downsides of meditation (de-repression of traumatic memories and the dukkha nanas) and a need to get to the bottom of what techniques do what.

Friday, May 2, 2014

PTSD, Mindfulness and Psilocybin

From the article Psilocybin and meditation have same effect on posterior cingulate cortex (that effect being a massive decrease in activity in the PCC):
  •  decreased coupling between the PCC and mPFC with psilocybin corresponds with the subjective experience of a less egoic state, or less “self.” 

In a patient whose PCC was resected,
The surgeons reported "the patient reported experiencing no rumination for almost a month after the surgery and to be in a contemplative state with a subjective feeling of absolute happiness and timelessness."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dharma Talk 007: A couple of talks about NonDuality

Ananta Kranti spent a long time at the Osho commune in India, and apparently awakened to her true nature while in a Japanese prison for a drug charge.  She does satsang in Thailand.  Here is a really nice bit of guided meditation - open awareness - direct pointing called Resting at the Source.

Fred Davis is a nondual teacher with a southern drawl and his distinctive down-to-earth wisdom.  Standing as Nondual Awareness is one of his better youtube talks.

Sam Harris on Meditation

Unbeknownst to most, famed atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris had a few experiences with psychedelics early on and ended up spending a couple of years in India on some long vipassana retreats.

He has a couple of guided meditations that are quite good.

In the article Taming the Mind, he has a conversation with Dan Harris (no relation?), anchorman and author of the new book 10% Happier.
"you can have great friends and live pretty high on the socioeconomic ladder—your life can be a long string of pleasurable meals, vacations, and encounters with books and interesting people—and, yes, you can still have what Eckhart Tolle describes as a background static of perpetual discontent."

"this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience."
this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. - See more at:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Enlightenment and stuff

A series of vaguely related links I stumbled thru while doing my normal searches:

Dark Night and What Enlightenment is Like
A pragmatic dharma practitioner lists a few characteristics of enlightenment.  A little bit idealized here and there, but a good general list.

How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science
Jeff Warren with some interesting stuff about people having cessations/fruitions in the fMRI machine.

On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young
With his student Har-Prakash Khalsa.
Benefits of Long-Term Meditation with Shinzen Young
More enlightenment talk from Shinzen, a transcript from the Thinking Allowed television series.

Levels of Organization in General Intelligence
This is a long treatise on artificial intellignece.  I didn't bother to read the thing, but I noticed the abstract simplified intelligence down to the following organization: code > sensory modalities > concepts > thoughts > deliberation.  It's kind of like dependent origination.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

Relative Safety of Psychedelics

LSD and other psychedelics not linked with mental health problems, analysis suggests

"The use of LSD, magic mushrooms, or peyote does not increase a person’s risk of developing mental health problems, according to an analysis of information from more than 130,000 randomly chosen people, including 22,000 people who had used psychedelics at least once. The researchers found no link between the use of psychedelic drugs and a range of mental health problems. Instead they found some significant associations between the use of psychedelic drugs and fewer mental health problems."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dharma Talk 006: Getting Stream Entry
In the relatively reasonable Burmese sense, stream entry, aka 1st path, the 1st stage of enlightenment, is marked by a cessation.  In a cessation everything, every sense door, blinks out for a moment.  It's not particularly remarkable, in fact in many ways it is more of a non-event.  For most people, if they even notice it, they might say to themselves, "what was that?" - that little blip.

No big deal.  But it is a game changer for meditative progress, so let's make it a big deal for a moment.  Experiences vary, but for me shortly after stream entry I became mildly aware of the first 4 jhanas, and within a few more months I had all 8 jhanas.  That's kind of a big deal.  Without stream entry, that progress typically takes a tremendous amount of dedicated practice, hours a day, often for years.  And with jhana practice comes great tranquility, and with stream entry the potential for great insight begins in earnest.  Something has been let go of or seen through at a fundamental level.

A good vipassana technique such as the Mahasi style will get you in the ballpark of stream entry.  There is some groundwork to be done, but if you've been practicing daily for a year or more, you're probably already in the ballpark (technically, the stage known as equanimity in the progress of insight as described by Mahasi or Ingram).

Once you are up against the wall of stream entry, you just need a moment of grace to fall into a cessation. How do we stack the odds?  With good meditative practice.  Some fine points:

A-R-O: The Arrow, a checklist:

A is for Aware:  We want to be aware and present, rather than embedded or lost in thought.  Here and now, just this right here, not off over there in thought.  We want this awareness to be happening a very high percentage of the time in meditation, or even off the cushion as well.  Thought is not necessarily an enemy, so we don't need to resist it or push it away, but at the same time we don't want to feed and nurture the wandering, spacing out mind, we are trying to stand somewhat apart from that, to let that be.

R is for Relaxed:  We want to be relaxed, tranquil, we want to be let go.  So when you return to awareness after some wandering, the next thing to do is maybe a quick scan of your body to check and see if there are any little tensions you are holding that you can immediately relax.  This also points again to a non-grasping, non-resisting frame of mind.  We want to simply be.

O is for Open:  We want to be open, an open awareness as opposed to a narrow, closed off focus or one-pointedness.  We're talking about something other than a pure concentration style, there needs to be a kind of flexibility, a receptivity to anything that comes up on any sense door.  This can also point to a kind of space-like three dimensional aspect of openness.  Check to see that your awareness is open in this way.

When we're practicing this aware relaxed openness, we're practicing something along the lines of our true nature.  Not grasping, not resisting.  Surrendered, gone, but aware.

In the Mahasi style of noting, each note is just a light pointer to what one is aware of, and we lightly flow from one thing in awareness to another, stepping gently and deftly from one awareness lilypad to another, so that we stay continuously aware and we don't sink into the water of embedded thought.

I'll repeat a phrase from one of my old guitar teachers: "practice makes permanent".  If your meditation practice consists of 50% spacing out and mind-wandering, to my way of thinking you are creating a mind that will be spacing out and wandering 50% of the time.  The mind will adapt to the specific demands that you place on it.

A style such as Mahasi, practiced earnestly, can help us maintain a very high percentage of awareness, and I believe this is a major key to success.  But just get that percentage (we can also think of this as continuity or persistence of awareness) as high as you can by any style and any means necessary.  While I was getting it done, I used some ancient beeper technology, a device that I could set to vibrate once per minute, that I would hold loosely in my fingers (for maximum effect).  So I was meditating in the Mahasi style, noting once per second, and with the beeper device (the motivaider) the longest I could space out would be something less than a minute.

You will space out and wander, that's going to happen.  But don't beat yourself up about it.  As soon as you are aware, you are aware, you are already back to doing what you are intending to do.  In such cases you have unconsciously come back to awareness from wandering.  Well done.  If anything, simply renew your earnestness and adjust your effort if need be.  Balance effort and relaxation.

We practice this so that we can make this our new default.  The default mode in a normal modern human is the wandering mind, we need to change this to a relatively persistent aware relaxed openness.  We need to train enough to get this state to persist a bit, we need to be able to know that if we take our hands off the steering wheel the car is going to keep going in the same direction, that we're not going to suddenly veer off into thought/attachment.  Thought is often graspy - we can't be grasping.  You go through the gateless gate with the hands off the steering wheel.

Once the mind is relatively trained to this, the game becomes one of simply stacking the deck with lots of these aware relaxed open moments.  For many, retreats are ideal for this, but also some practitioners with a consistent daily practice of around an hour a day have been successful.  Daily practice is very important, as it is with any learned skill.  Create an intention to get it done, to work on these elements until they become second nature.  Back to it, again and again.  Keep coming up to the plate and taking swings at the ball.  Keep letting go into these moments.

So we have all these little areas in our meditation where we do become aware, relaxed, and open, where we become okay with everything, with every sense door.  We lose our self-consciousness, we become pure, natural, and sometimes, maybe even a little bit forgotten.  Hands off the steering wheel.  And in moments like this, it is possible for something deep down to let go, if only for a moment.  Give your unconscious mind permission to let go.

With any luck - blip.  You're on the ride, you're riding the ox (wait, which way are we going?).  Now you're really screwed :)


For a longer, more traditional, fundamentalist, repetitive, and mostly morality based instruction (yet then again quite possibly useful if you have the time and inclination to geek out on the old texts), check out "Into the Stream - A Study Guide on the First Stage of Awakening" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  EDIT:  Into the Stream also available in a slightly prettier pdf form.

Meditation Shifts Brain Asymmetry

"Shifting brain asymmetry: the link between meditation and structural lateralization" describes a number of changes found in advanced meditators vs. controls.  Similar to other research, this points to changes in the default mode (wandering mind) network and attentional processing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dharma Talk 005: Practicing Original Mind

When I come across people talking intimately about their meditation practice, there are two things that often stick out to me.

One, they are overly focused on the breath.  The breath is a fine tool for concentration practice, and can be a good fallback if nothing else seems to be going on, but I think it's overdone.  The breath can be a vipassana object, like anything else, but I'm not sure that most people are really experiencing it in that way.  I think most people end up getting a bit focused in, and are simultaneously not paying attention to their full experience.

I tend to model meditation, first and foremost, as practicing our original nature.  Imagine the mind of an infant, perhaps a very peaceful infant, between changes and feedings.  Is a blissed out little baby focused on its breath?  I doubt it.

More likely, the baby is focused on whatever is predominate in it's consciousness at that moment.  (Nonverbally:) ... there are some little sparkly things there ... there are some sounds over that way ... there's a weird sensation.  Just whatever is happening at that moment, whatever is predominate.

To the baby, everything is just happening, just this.  A literally unknown field of awareness in which experiences are arising and passing.  Grok that.

The second thing I notice is that some people seem to be doing quite a bit of intellectualizing, philosophizing, psychologizing - analyzing their thoughts while they are meditating.  They want to "get to the bottom" of things, they want to understand their patterns, they want to learn, they want psychological insight.

In meditation, notice the thoughts, sure.  If you're doing noting, you can note that as thinking or planning or whatever.  My recommendation is that be the end of it.  If you go further, into analysis, that's kind of graspy, right?  Let go of that, just be.  You noticed the thought, move on to whatever is current as opposed to feeding the machinery of thought.

Notice the baby has no analytical thought.  They have no language, no symbolic communication, no real basis for conceptual thought.  Just this.

Pre-verbal, non-conceptual, unprejudiced, bare awareness.

So if you want to do some concentration practice as a separate thing, that's fine, practice on the breath or a kasina object or whatever.  If you want to analyze your thoughts, you can set aside some time for that or work with a therapist or whatever.  But if you want to wake up, my recommendation would be to keep your vipassana sessions pure - practice original mind.  Keep letting go into that original mind.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dharma Talk 004: Effortlessness

There are some thorny issues in the enlightenment game surrounding what we might call "the absolute".  In the end game, or really any time, everything is seen as just happening.  No agency or doer-ship, so there's nothing to be done.  And you therefore get these admonishments, biblical even, to "cease striving".  Nothing to do.

In Buddhism, because of religious dogma (monks are not allowed to talk about meditative attainments, for example) and the resulting culture, no one really talks about getting anywhere or making progress.  Again, nothing to do.  And at a certain point on the path, I think this makes a lot of sense.

But I think there is a certain danger here, of teaching only the end game.

I've played guitar long enough to be able to effortlessly improvise a decent blues solo.  The flow and spontaneity, the effortlessness of the act is important, yes.  But if I were to preach effortlessness as the most important thing to a beginning guitarist, well, we might not end up getting too many soloists.  We might not get many people who can actually play the guitar like that.

I think effortlessness for a beginner is manifesting as the beginner's desire to work and accomplish.  That is their nature at that point.  They want to accomplish, so they strive, that is actually their path of least resistance.  In the end, once they have their chops, they can learn a different kind of effortlessness.

Enlightenment is something that can be "done".  If the monks can't say it, I will.  It seems to require training, even if you want to think of it as un-training.  I've never known a single person who has "gotten it done" without daily practice.  The last words of Buddha were supposedly "strive diligently".  Although admittedly, as one wise person said to me recently, Buddha said a lot of things.

Addendum: after stumbling upon it later, here's a hardcore version of this from Daniel Ingram, titled "Why The Notion That You Cannot Become What You Already Are is Such Bullshit"