December 20, 2013

Are You Mono, Bi, or Poly?

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2013

Arising and Passing

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

December 9, 2013

Mathematics for Mystics: Welcome to my Geek Out

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

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2013

Dealing with a World Run Amok

The husband of one of my students is starring in a new TV series set in the marvel cinematic universe. He gave me my favorite t-shirt, which you can read about here. Here’s a recent LA Times interview with him.

The tagline of the show is “How can ordinary people deal with a world run amok?


A Giant Passes

On Saturday September 28, 2013, my world--the world of mindfulness teachers--lost a giant. Satya Narayan Goenka has passed away.

It was primarily (although not exclusively) through Mr. Goenka that I came to be influenced by U Ba Khin’s paradigm. Many years ago, I was privileged to stay at Goenka-ji’s center at Dhamma Giri in Maharashtra, India.

Here are some specific examples of U Ba Khin’s influence my teaching:
  1. The acknowledging of how important it is to work with body sensations.
  2. The interpretation of anicca (impermanence) as a positive, purificatory energy (contra the early Buddhist formulation of anicca as a pessimistic philosophical statement).
  3. The central role of equanimity in the process of mindfulness practice--in Goenka-ji’s lapidary phrasing “samataa hi vishuddhi hẽ” – “Equanimity is purity.” (Hope I didn’t botch the original Hindi too badly. )
  4. How to work with insomnia. What I describe in this blogpost is a slight reformulation of Mr. Goenka’s advice in that regard. 
  5. A useful paradigm for how mindfulness practice works through sankhāras (subconscious blockages; see pp. 31-33 of What is Mindfulness?)

You’ll find details about Mr. Goenka here and here.

September 15, 2013

What Is Mindfulness?

This Spring I wrote a new essay. It’s sort of a “white paper” or personal manifesto on the nature of mindfulness as I like to think of it. It’s my hope that it will nurture dialogue in the larger community

If you haven’t already, check it out, and enjoy.

August 30, 2013

Summary of Basic Mindfulness

Einstein said he knew he was on the right track when the equations became beautiful and symmetrical. He also pointed out that sometimes things aren’t as simple as we would like them to be. 

So one way to look at scientific creativity might be as an interplay of contraction and expansion – trying to get things to be as simple as possible but at the same time not glossing over significant subtleties and complexities. 

From time to time, I like to explore different ways of organizing what I’ve learned over my years of study and practice—see how simple I can get things to be. I look upon my formulation, which I call the Basic Mindfulness System, as a contribution to a world-wide “program.” Not program in the computer science sense but rather program in the sense of an ongoing endeavor that may take generations to realize. In other words, program in the sense that landing a human on the moon was a program. The ultimate goal is to create a true science and an effective technology of enlightenment. It may take humanity decades to complete this program but at least the vision is clear now.

Just for fun, here’s my latest attempt at presenting in a beautiful and symmetrical way a “grand theory of everything” regarding human contemplative spirituality. 

Basic Mindfulness: Summary of the System

August 27, 2013

Vive Les Geeks!

I just got back from Buddhist Geeks. It was great. Got a chance to reconnect with a lot of my old friends and to make a few new ones.

Here are some pics and description. (A huge thanks to Har-Prakash Khalsa – he took all of these photos except where otherwise noted.)

Horsing around with Daniel Ingram

With Gary Weber 

With Diane Hamilton. I lent her my signature Blues Brother’s hat.
(For more about the hat, see the comments I made on this blogpost.)

With ~C4Chaos

(pic courtesy of ~C4Chaos)

I mount our Harvard results within the framework of history

Visual summary of the Basic Mindfulness System. (I’ll blog about the meaning of this summary soon.)

A visual outline of our Harvard results 
(Drawn by KellyKingman)

Another view with ~C4Chaos

(pic courtesy of ~C4Chaos)

I pontificate on the The Meaning of Life

A visual outline of the Meaning of life
(Drawn by KellyKingman)

The ABCs of Being a Good Human Being  
(Detail from Meaning of Life drawn by Kelly Kingman)

5 Factors Involved in Positive Behavior Change
(Detail from Meaning of Life drawn by Kelly Kingman)

Interplay of Emptiness and Form
(Detail from Meaning of Life drawn by Kelly Kingman)

August 14, 2013

Transparent Dharma Dialogue

There's a growing group of people worldwide who advocate what might be described as "transparent dharma dialogue."  Transparent dharma dialogue has two characteristics:
  1. A willingness to speak openly and frankly about anything and everything one personally experiences in the course of practice, and 
  2. a willingness to question the standard formulations of historical Buddhism.
I think that this is a very good trend but I also think that it is best carried out from a place of lightness and humor (and, therefore, by implication, a place of genuine humility).

Among bloggers in this field, my friend ~C4Chaos provides a great example of the lightness and humor criterion. If you want to have some fun, check out his latest:

August 8, 2013

Help for Insomnia: Yet Another use for Mindfulness

(c) Tony Huynh
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is a very common complaint. Mindfulness can help but one must first radically revision the nature of the problem.

People tend to get into a negative feedback loop with insomnia: Not getting to sleep leads to worry, leads to further difficulty sleeping, leads to more worry, leads to…. What to do? One possibility is to start thinking about the night in a different way. This is a conceptual reframing, a profoundly different paradigm regarding the issue of sleep.

The normal paradigm is:
"I have to get a good night's sleep or I'll be a mess tomorrow".

The new paradigm is
"If I get a good night's rest, I'll be fine tomorrow".

Amazingly, it's possible to get a good night's rest without necessarily sleeping much or at all. Two things are required:

(1) that the body get rest by lying very still and corpse-like.
(2) that the consciousness get rest by engaging in a systematic focusing technique.

It does not matter which technique(s) you use, although something from the Focus on Rest technique family would probably be a natural first candidate to try—see Chapter 3 in the Five Ways manual. If none of those techniques work, you might consider Focus In (to “divide and conquer” the agitation), or Nurture Positive, or Do Nothing…whatever interests you most.

It may be hard to believe that you can be deeply refreshed after a night of little or no sleep (but lots of relaxation and concentration). Confidence in this truth comes with time and experience. You may also discover that letting go of the preoccupation with getting sleep ironically brings sleep.

In addition to using Mindfulness in this way, other factors should also be considered. Sleep scientists have a long, standard list of suggestions to facilitate a good night’s sleep. You can easily get this information from the Internet or consulting directly with a sleep medicine specialist. To the extent that their suggestions help, you can utilize them. To the extent that they do not help, you can utilize the mindfulness strategy described above.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many people who have sleep disorders spanning a wide range of intensities and causalities. My field experience tells me that the following formula almost always works.

  • Utilize the suggestions of sleep experts.
  • Stop worrying about staying asleep all night.
  • Get fascinated with learning to rest all night.
  • Train yourself in that skill by keeping the body deeply relaxed and maintaining a focus technique as continuously as possible.
  • Be patient. Skill deepens with time.

August 1, 2013

From Fuzz to Buzz: Suggestions for Breaking Through Sleepiness During Meditation Practice

Many people have issues around sleep. They may get sleepy when they want to be alert (i.e., during meditation practice) or they may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep when they want to (i.e., they have insomnia). Sadly, some people have both issues. I plan to address the insomnia piece in a future blogpost. In this blog, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions around the sleepiness piece.
sleepy meditator
illustration by M.Zittel

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a term that translates into English as “sinking.” (In Japanese, it’s called konjin; in Tibetan it’s called chingwa). This term is quite generic, covering the whole range from subtle fuzziness to complete loss of consciousness. The remarks below are applicable to any point on that range. 

There’s an objective side to sleepiness and there’s a sensory side to sleepiness.

The objective side involves two things:

1.    One’s body posture.
2.    One’s degree of alertness.

The sensory side also involves two things:

1.    Pleasant states associated with being sleepy.
2.    Unpleasant states associated with being sleepy.

That gives a total of four components (two objective and two sensory). The trick in dealing with sleepiness is to work optimally with these four components.

On the objective side:

1.    With regards to posture: one has to fight over and over to re-establish good posture:
·       Straighten the spine.
·       Force the eyes open if need be.
·       Stand up.
·       Etc., etc.

2.    With regards to alertness, one has to fight against its loss:
·       The posture piece can help;
·       Forcing yourself to speak labels out loud can also help;
·       But basically, it’s a function of time and practice, and will.

On the sensory side:

1.    With regards to the unpleasant sensory side of the experience, try to accept the uncomfortable sensations of sleepiness in the body: Greet them with equanimity until they turn into a flowing energy. You may have had the experience of a pain or an itch breaking up into flow. It’s hard to believe, but the same thing can happen with uncomfortable sleepy sensations. You can “watch them to death.” At that point, they turn into a kind of energy that circulates around your body, inflating you with vitality.

2.    The pleasant sensory aspect of sleepiness are the restful states (See Rest, Hear Rest, and especially Feel Rest in the form of muscle relaxation). Try to notice that sleepiness comes in waves. Each wave of sleepiness carries two things:

·       a wave of unconsciousness which we should fight with, and
·       a wave of restfulness which we can detect and enjoy.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Try to notice that at the onset of each wave of sleepiness, there is a tendency for the whole body to relax (that’s why people lurch). But if you tangibly detect that relaxation, you won’t lurch—you’ll just drop a notch into deeper repose. So each new wave of sleepiness becomes a new wave of settledness. Wave by wave, second by second, you drop deeper and deeper. It’s attentional jujitsu. Objective unconsciousness is your opponent. With this trick, you use his weight to your advantage!

Detecting the pleasure of sleepiness clearly and enjoying it without craving allows you to re-engineer the experience of sleepiness into the experience of jhānic absorption.

July 19, 2013


Here’s an idea whose time has come. I just sent a contribution.... Check it out!

July 5, 2013

Post-Buddhists Post

I sometimes think of myself as part of the first generation of Post-Buddhists. By “Post-Buddhists” I mean people who have been profoundly influenced by the methods and discoveries of the historical Buddha but who attempt to maintain a thoroughly modern, skeptical, evidence-based, and critically-minded perspective on things. Organizations such as Buddhist Geeks and Secular Buddhist provide a platform for people sympathetic to that perspective.

Here’s a link to a recent discussion hosted by The Secular Buddhist that took place between me, Vince Horn (Buddhist Geeks), and Ted Meissner & Mark Knickelbine (Secular Buddhist). The topic centered around creating virtual communities to support practice. Enjoy!

June 19, 2013

Dharma Rip

I have a friend, Chade-Meng Tan (陳一鳴), who is one of the original Google engineers (in fact, Employee #107!). He has recently created a program called “Search Inside Yourself”  which is based on mindfulness.

A while back, he described in an email to me a significant experience (see below).

I gave him a rather extended response, which he just posted on his blog. If you’re interested, check it out:

(He was also featured in a fantastic WIRED article yesterday!: Enlightenment Engineers)

From: Chade-Meng Tan (陳一鳴) 
Date: Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 1:12 AM
Subject: mind of no thought and shamatha
To: Shinzen Young

Honored Teacher,

In the past few weeks, I had been having increasingly frequent moments when my thinking stopped (at least the audio / narrative / chattering mind stopped) and the mind had enough clarity to abide in that space of no-thought.  But everytime it happened, it'd only last one moment, because the next moment, the narrative mind would say, "Hey, look, no thought!"  D'oh!  :)

This time last week, I sat in a short 2+ days retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  I made a huge stride forward during the retreat.

During the retreat, I became able to arrive at that mind of no-thought repeatedly, and each instance a little longer than it normally would (but still short enough to qualify as "a moment").  I investigated that mind and found that it has 3 features:

1. "Direct experiencing" is very strong, specifically the experience of sensation.  There is brain science that shows the "direct experience" network to be mutually exclusive to the "narrative" network in the brain, and I think I have discovered it experientially.

2. Specifically, audio sensitivity is very high.  In that mind, I became very sensitive to sound.  At first, I wasn't sure of the direction of causality, I thought it was attention to the sound that led to the mind of no-thought, since I was close to a water fountain at the time.  So I moved far away from it to a "quiet" spot and found that, in that mind, I became very sensitive to the air conditioning sound.  Hence, it seems like the no-thought mind lead to heightened audio sensitivity.

3. Seeing without seeing.  I had a very strange visual experience, which I could describe only as "seeing without seeing".  I could clearly see, but I could not perceive visually.  I investigated it and figured out what happened.  In that mind of no-thought, the gaze of the eyes were fixated on one spot.  I realized that when we "see" a scene, the eyes are actually scanning the entire scene and then the mind forms a mental picture.  

When the gaze is fixated, the mind could not form the mental picture and hence it did not "see".  When I returned to seeing "normally" (ie, allowing the eyes to scan the scene), that subtle activity alone was enough to break the no-thought mind.

And then I realized something more profound.  I realized that what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls "awarenessing", which is being here now and attending entirely to the present, specifically to sensations, creates the conditions for no-thought mind, which in turn creates the conditions for quietness of mind, which then creates the conditions for strong shamatha.

In other words, "awarenessing" is the secret ingredient of shamatha!  Wow.

I just wanted to report this progress and, as usual honored teacher, any wisdom from you is greatly appreciated.

Much Metta

My response: Shinzen Young on the in and out of attention (and enlightenment)

April 24, 2013

Meet My Mom

Here’s my mom on her 98th birthday, October 12, 2012, at a Chinese restaurant in her neighborhood Redondo Beach. I and my friend Ann Buck  are taking her out to lunch. Her vibe and comment tell the whole story. (To learn a little bit more about Ann, check out what our mutual friend Jennifer Grey says here.)

Below you'll find some audio clips of my mom reminiscing about my childhood. On the right is her current photo and on the left is how she looked when I was a little boy in the 1940s. You can see where I got my good looks.  

I have very little natural ability or natural inclination towards meditation. In early life I was unusually wimpy, whiny, and fussy. Also, I was perennially impatient. On top of that, I had a proclivity to be destructive, including towards myself (when I'd get frustrated, I'd bang my head on the sidewalk). I was also pretty mean (just ask my brother).

I actually like for people to know what a poor meditation candidate I am based on the tendencies of my early life. I take it as a positive. If a person like me can be successful, anyone can be successful. You'll hear some of the details in Clip #1. (FYI, a bunch of Yiddish words appear in this dialogue; here are links to their spellings and meanings: kvetchsitzfleisch, schpilkes, naches.)

Clip 1 (03:48)

In Clip #2, my mom continues to talk about my earlier life and the influences on me, and the changes that I went through. We talk about a famous natural reserve in Arizona called Madera Canyon and the ginormous grasshoppers I used to collect there. My mom also talks about early influences from the Cornell University Department of Entomology, which molded my young mind in a scientific direction.

Clip 2 (03:59)

Although there were some rocky points early on, I'm pleased to say that my relationship with my family of origin has been absolutely wonderful for decades. After my dad passed away in the early 80s, my mom asked me to teach her mindfulness. She's been practicing on her own and coming to retreats ever since then. It doesn't get any better than that!

My brother Howard, my mom, and me as of 2010.

My brother and me at a very early age.

My mom and my dad.

My grandmother holding my mom in front of their house.
I'm guessing the photo is about 100 years old.
The spot where the house was is now under one of the LA freeways. Anicca!

Update: My mom passed away on the morning of Friday, January 31st, 2014. 

זיכרונה לברכה

March 25, 2013

Buddhist Geeks Conference 2013

Some of you may know I gave the keynote presentation at the inaugural Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2011. I'm happy to be presenting again in August of 2013. 

This year I’ll be offering a number of presentations, the first of which is a 20-minute TED-style talk. I’ll also be dialoguing with David Vago on the research we started at Harvard last year. This will be the first opportunity for the two of us to make a joint presentation on these findings. We’ll be doing this through a new format called BG Dialogue, a 90-minute discussion including a live question and answer period from the audience.

You’ll find some more specifics on registration below.

All the best,


August 16-18, 2013
Boulder, Colorado

This year’s list of presenters includes Reggie Ray, Marianne Elliott, Rick Hanson, Diane Hamilton, Kenneth Folk, Sofia Diaz, Lodro Rinzler, David Vago, and many more....

|| Register here || 

Get your Early Bird Ticket before May 31st and save $75.

February 26, 2013

Give Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity to School Children

I wanted to let you all know about an opportunity to make a positive impact on the future.

Imagine school children learning Basic Mindfulness techniques every day as part of their school's standard curriculum. Imagine how their lives will be different because of the attentional skills they've acquired before graduating high school.

Well, actually there's no need to imagine . . . It's happening right now.

Many of you know Soryu Forall, Ted Holtz, Harrison Heyl, and some of the others at The Center for Mindful Learning. Many of you also know about the program they have for school classrooms, "Modern Mindfulness for Schools." Every day in Vermont, school children are practicing mindfulness techniques with language for young kids. For example Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity are simplified to the action verbs Focus, Explore, and Welcome.

Now they've created a campaign to make the program available online, anywhere. They're asking for help. Only a little more work is required to allow people anywhere in the English speaking world to sign up and pay online. (. . . and I hear the German translation may already be in the works.)

You can help by visiting their kickstarter page and choosing one of the rewards.

The objective numbers coming out of the program show how effective it is, as the chart below indicates:

The subjective reports from the educators involved in the program are stellar:
I have been using the new mindfulness program and I am LOVING it!! I have incorporated the skills and techniques across the day as we build our classroom community! When you come to visit the next time, I'm sure you'll immediately notice in my classroom enormous signs painted by the children that say Focus, Explore, Welcome!!! It is all so exciting!   
-- Helen-Anne Cafferty, Teacher, Smilie Memorial Elementary, Bolton, Vermont
Here is the link again if you want to make a contribution and see more details:

On Kickstarter, your account is only charged if we reach our fundraising goal. Otherwise, CML will not receive any of the pledges and your pledge will be returned to you. Thanks.

All the best,