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.