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.