Hello friends, some of you have expressed interest in learning more about what we’ve been up to with the Shamatha Project, so I thought I’d post something here for the brave to wade into. Getting ourselves set up for this year-long intensive, off phone and email, has taken a lot longer than we’d hoped, and we’ve committed to start full time tomorrow morning, so I’m going to try to knock this out quickly – forgive, if this isn’t the most coherent.
Also, I’m pulling liberally from many sources here, including Alan (our teacher) – and in the interest of time, I’m not going to footnote.
I’ll try to answer a few key questions:
WHAT IS THE SHAMATHA PROJECT?
The Shamatha Project is the first major Western longitudinal (i.e. tracking over time) study on the physiological, psychological and neurological effects of a prolonged meditation retreat. The study’s two key areas of interest are the cultivation of “sustained voluntary attention” and emotional regulation – two sides of the same coin, I suspect. Michelle and I each went through three-month mostly-silent retreats, where we practiced as much as 10+ hours a day and underwent a million-and-one measurements (I also acted as a control group member to the first retreat, so I went through the trials then, too).
Shamatha is a family of practices designed to cultivate an exceptionally stable (i.e. stay on the chosen object -- effortlessly -- for very long periods of time) and vivid (i.e. high resolution, picking up very brief, very subtle sensory events) faculty of attention -- the inner equivalent of building a high-powered telescope. In addition to the attention-oriented practices (various mindfulness of breathing techniques, mindfulness of mental objects, and 'awareness of awareness itself'), we included practices designed to cultivate qualities of the heart, known at "The Four Immeasurables": compassion, empathetic joy, lovingkindness and equanimity. Shamatha lends itself well to scientific study for a number of reasons, including the fact that the entire Shamatha path (i.e. leading up to the "achievement of Shamatha -- a discontinuity resulting in a profound physiological/psychological transformation) has been carefully mapped and broken into ten stages.
What were scientific measurements like? The best of them were tedious, the worst downright disturbing (that was their goal – to test emotional responses). Let’s just say, I’ve never held a job usually filled by a monkey, and there were definitely moments where I wish the monkey had gotten the job, instead. The scientists took blood, saliva (oh, the joy of never having to drool into a vial again), daily (and loooong) psychological questionnaires, audio diaries ("speak into the recorder as if you were speaking to an intimate friend" ... say what? now this little digital recorder is an intimate friend?), video interviews (which, among other things, they'll code for micro-expressions - 100 minutes of coding for every one minute of video), had us do countless computer trials while they hooked us up for measurements of respiration, perspiration, eye blinks, muscle-twitches, heart rate, EEG (brain) data, secretly videotaped our facial expressions during the computer trials (woe to the poor unknowing soul who picked their nose for a hundred scientists to analyze), on and on …
They’ve got data to mine for decades to come -- 5-million floppy discs worth of EEG data alone -- and the first major wave of studies should come out in two to three years, with a few early results coming out this year.
WHAT WAS THE THREE MONTH RETREAT EXPERIENCE LIKE? Um, boy ... that's a hard one. Amazing. Intense. Profoundly rewarding. Trying to summarize the experience in a few paragraphs feels like trying to capture the Mona Lisa in four pixels or less, but I'll give it a shot. We were hosted by retreat center in the Rockies, at 8k feet – a breathtaking and conducive environment (I’ll let the photos here and here do the describing). Thirty-five of us lived in a lodge, brand-new and well-appointed, if a bit sterile. Ten thousand square feet or so. Each of us had a room, most our own bathroom. There was a week of total silence, and the rest of the time was mostly silent - functional talking (like when we did our assigned chores together) and occasional conversations to support each other, discuss the practice. Amazing how well you get to know people by non-verbals, by simply being together in silence.
I started off practicing about six hours a day, and built to ten-plus by the end, which was about average, I think. There were many days in the first month that were very, very hard for me. These practices are notorious for dredging the psyche, and they lived up to their reputation. All kinds of nasty gunk comes up, and, even though you (mostly) know that the gunk is just part of the practice, and that hardship is a sign that you’re flushing the gunk out, it still feels pretty awful, like going through a high fever (in Tibetan, this gunk goes by the technical name of nyam. More about nyam in this post). After I got through the choppy waters of the first month, things were significantly less difficult. Most of all, the practice transforms the color of day-to-day experience. Your whole palette shifts dramatically towards feelings of well-being: wonder, gratitude, interconnectedness, lovingkindness, joy, equanimity, meaning. It’s pretty amazing, a much deeper, and less coarse feeling than the pleasure-driven happiness that comes from external stimuli. Hard to describe the experience, but I felt it. Michelle felt it. And you could see it blossoming all around the lodge – people’s faces opening up, brows unfurrowing, movements slowing down and softening. And so much kindness! We were blessed with an extraordinary “sangha” (a community of practitioners) – I’ve never experienced anything quite like the graciousness, humility, wisdom and lovingkindness that permeated the lodge. The nyam can get pretty intense, conjuring up all kinds of nasty demons – anger, sadness, fear, resentment, low self-esteem, physical ailments, etc. Spending pretty much 24/7 in close quarters, going through such an intense experience, you’d think there’d be conflict, tension, irritation. There was (well, virtually) none. I think even our teacher, with decades of experience, was surprised by how smoothly the retreat went.
There are some profound social implications, I think, to the novel (in our culture, anyway) form of happiness that arises in this practice, that relates to ethics, medicine, consumerism, even climate change. More on this later.
Oh yeah - and there was a lice scare. That added some drama as we turned the place upside down, checked each others' heads and disinfected everything for a few days. When the analysis came back from the world's leading lice lab, at Harvard (who knew?), it turned out they were 'book lice.' Eat paper, not blood. Made for some good laughs afterwards, at least - like the person who put up a poster with two columns comparing the traits of a Shamatha Participant and a monkey: eats bananas? check, check; can be used in lab experiments? check, check; doesn't have use of verbal language? check, check; pick lice from each others' hair? check, check ....
Michelle and I were a bit uncertain going into this retreat: how would it effect our relationship? It turned out to be hard, a lot harder than we expected, particularly in the first leg (last spring) when Michelle was in retreat and I was visiting every month as a “control group” member. But it turned out to be hard in the best way possible – it forced us to confront things that we would never have had to, individually and as a couple, and this whole process has brought us to an amazing place in our relationship. And our engagement with the practice is at the heart of this transformation.
WHY IN THE WORLD ARE YOU CONTINUING WITH THE PRACTICE/PROJECT? So far, about 20% of the seventy project retreatants are continuing on, with another 5-10% who’ve said they’re organizing their lives to dive back into retreat shortly. People have arranged their own places to practice, with clusters in various locations, including Mexico and Colorado (where we are: Crestone, CO). Our reasons for continuing are as follows:
- The practice is powerful. What can I say? We’re believers. Part of me wondered, coming into this, if Shamatha was simply one more way of coping with stress – like working out, going to the spa or even seeing a therapist. All these activities are valuable in their own way, but we came away from our experience feeling like there’s something much more profound at play here. We’ve experienced it first hand, we’ve seen the practice transform friends, time and time again. And intriguing pilot studies have added some interesting validation from a third-person perspective (for example, here). It was pretty amazing going through the computer trials four times before the retreat started, and then at the end. The final set was a completely different experience. Tasks that had been impossible before the study were suddenly doable. And the emotional experience was completely different. Who knows what the studies will show, but from the perspective of this n=1, the studies offered a pretty amazing benchmark for the transformation.
- Profound social change. In the last few years, Michelle and I have looked closely at a number of ways to get behind causes we believe in, and we’re convinced that this project is the most meaningful thing that we can be involved in, at this moment. The practice alone has significant social value, for anyone who undertakes it. But there’s added value, we hope, from the fact that this project has been done as part of a scientific study. Science is the dominant mode of inquiry in this culture. It’s brought the once fringe environmental movement to Main Street, and we’re optimistic that the same thing can happen with here. I’m convinced that we’re in a unique moment in history (more below) where these practices can make a big difference, and where they’ll have an opportunity to flourish and enter school systems, prisons, families, businesses, etc.
- Timing. The path we’re on requires continuity and silence. We’re hoping to have children soon, which means that this is our last chance, for a while. And apparently, Shamatha is a bit like getting a medical degree: going all the way means a huge leap forward in the benefits, and the benefits become – more or less – irreversible (unless you really blow it). We’ve come this far, why not try to go all the way?
- Alan Wallace. We’ve been blessed with an extraordinary teacher. Alan embodies the wisdom and compassion that these practices are all about, and combines a unique blend of deep contemplative experience (with the Dalai Lama as his root teacher) with deep scholarship, Eastern and Western (see bio, here). Having Alan as a teacher’s a bit like having a Nobel Prize winning physicist -- who also happens to be profoundly kind and generous -- as your Freshman-year science tutor.
- The community. I love the community that formed in this retreat, and the group’s broader sense of purpose. One way or another, I hope to be able to find ways to continue to work with, deepen friendships with, and share the practice with them.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF THE PRACTICE? In short: these practices reduce the influence of afflictive impulses (anger, fear, jealousy, resentment, depression, low self-esteem, vanity, etc.). In normal life, we’re most aware of these impulses when they burst through the surface, and often only after they’ve caused regrettable behavior. More often, however, they lurk under the surface, roiling away, and causing us to fall into traps like the subtle and pervasive form of confusion that psychologists term cognitive bias. As these obscuring impulses fade, it’s a bit like clouds giving way to a blue skies – an exceptional feeling of well-being arises, one that includes elements like heightened empathy, a sense of wonder and beauty, clarity of perception and heightened sensory experience, physical bouyancy, a deep calm, fearlessness, joy, equanimity, ability to focus. What are the practical implications? Here are some:
- Increased productivity. this is the obvious one – if you can focus more effectively, you can be more efficient. For example, we took reading comprehension tests before and after the retreat, using really long, really boring stories. My ability to “stay on task” went up significantly. Man, could I have used this skill in college, where, typically, I’d sit down with a dry seventeenth century text, and within ten minutes, one of two things’d happen: I’d fall asleep, or my mind would go wandering off to a million places.
- Increased emotional intelligence (self). The practice heightens your awareness of your own emotions, while simultaneous reducing the extent to which you need to react to them. You see them as if from above, and you don’t have to fall into them.
- Increased emotional intelligence (others). The practice also heightens your ability to read other people’s emotions (see this article – we did these Paul Ekman tests, too).
- Changes to the physical structure of the brain. Attention has been shown to be a kind of magic spotlight – turn the spotlight on a part of the brain, and you can actually change its physical structure. If you rehearse piano scales, and your attention is tuned in, you’re actually recruiting neurons to the motor cortex. If you perform the same exercise while distracted, there are no changes to the motor cortex. And what’s even more interesting is the fact that people who close their eyes and visualize practicing these scales change the shape of their brain as if they’d actually been moving their fingers across the keyboard.
- Opens the heart. Attention, while useful in and of itself, is most effective as a tool to cultivate other faculties, including those of the heart. Four classic meditation practices for the cultivation of the heart are lovingkindness, empathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. Once you’ve enhanced your attention, you can turn it to the cultivation of these virtues and literally grow the brain in the areas that generate these qualities. It’s pretty amazing to feel in yourself – and see in others around you – how the heart begins to open up.
- Health benefits. Western medicine is just beginning to understand the physiological benefits of the practice. Early studies show, among other things, that these practices lower levels of stress hormones (like cortisol), increase immune response levels, lower blood pressure, and improve healing processes, as suggested in this study. The scientists took blood and saliva samples regularly throughout the study, and they'll be measuring a number of elements, including an indicator that might suggest that meditation slows down the aging process. Anecdotally, I can say that before I started practicing, I used to get three colds a winter, like clockwork. In the last five years, I've gotten no full blown colds, and once I felt like my body might be fighting a cold, but it wasn't bad and passed in a couple of days (granted, there've been a lot of other changes, too -- fewer airplane flights, better diet, more exercise, less stress -- but I suspect that the practice has something to do with it). Also, I used to get some sort of stress related affliction every eighteen months or so -- a slipped disk, a pinched nerve in the neck, etc. -- and in the past five years, that's disappeared, too. Also, once I started practicing, I found myself effortlessly gravitating towards a more wholesome diet, a phenomenon I know others have experienced. I suspect that there's a positive relationship between the practice and food cravings (in fact, cravings of all kinds).
- Enhances free will. One the first things you realize when you begin the practice is, well, that you’re nuts. You realize how automatic mental processes are. They’re a bit like the breath: we can influence them by volition, but most of the time, they operate as if on their own (Thoughts without a Thinker is the title of a well-known book on Buddhist psychology). The other thing you realize is how primal and irrational and selfish most of these impulses are. And through these realizations, you begin to understand how little free will we actually exercise in our day-to-day experience. Mental impulses, of course, generate words and actions. If impulses run wild, behavior reflects them. One of the faculties that this practice enhances is what psychologists call meta-cognition – heightened awareness of one’s mental/emotional states and the efficient use of this awareness to self regulate. Three things happen to the mind’s ceaseless whir. First, it calms down. Afflictive impulses are fewer, and weaker. Second, even if they arise, we’re able, in many cases, to watch them without reacting. Third, they fade away more quickly. Something that would’ve made you irritable for hours now may fade in minutes. The net of all this: day-to-day experience changes, and behavior changes. All of a sudden, you’re working with a degree of freedom you didn’t know possible. When an irritable loved one snaps at you, or someone thinks you’re going to cut them off in line and hurls a racial slur at you, instead of reacting impulsively, like an animal, there’s a brief “time-out” built into the system, a gap that allows you to bring in wisdom and compassion. I think of the movie Crash. What if, in those moments where two people collide, act badly, and send agitation out into the system, they acted instead with grace? How would these moments of grace ripple outwards? (granted, you wouldn’t be left with much of a movie, but L.A.’d be a much nicer place to live).
- Correlates with genius and creativity. Unfortunately, I’m not a creative genius yet. But there’ve been studies, going back over a hundred years, on the faculties that correlate with genius, and creative genius in particular. The faculty that keeps turning up is … you guessed it. Sustained voluntary attention. Not only for reasons of productivity, but also because, with that faculty strong, the mind’s better able to tap into deeper levels of consciousness, where that creativity lies. Gladwell’s Blink explores this notion of unconscious knowing. Einstein used to say that his breakthrough ideas came first as intuitions, ineffable knowings – then, his cognitive function would digest this strange knowing and turn it into logic, articulate it in German. If you think about geniuses you’ve seen in the media – Federer or Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods come to mind – they seem to have an aura about them, an exceptional presence. I suspect that this presence is closely related to the two key elements of attention: stability of focus, and vividness of awareness.
- Cultivates exceptional memory. Apparently, people who have acheived Shamatha (i.e. realized the tenth stage in these practices) develop uncanny memories. You can say to them: "December 13, 1994, 3:45" and they can call up exactly where they were, and describe it in vivid detail. And they can do this with any time and date, going all the way back to ... the womb (interestingly, given point #8 above, Samuel Beckett claimed that he had memories from the womb).
- Tool for wisdom practices. The whole Shamatha track, as mentioned, is about the cultivation of an attention that is exceptionally stable (think: a telescope that can stay on its chosen object for hours on end – effortlessly) and vivid (think: a telescope with super-high resolution, and an ability to pick up super-quick events). Within the Buddhist framework, the purpose for building this telescope is to then turn it inwards (via “Wisdom practices”), to use it as insight into the deepest levels of consciousness/reality (closely intertwined in Buddhism). These later stage wisdom practices, including Vipassana (“seeing the world as it really is”) and Dzogchen (“The Great Perfection”) are (again, within the Buddhist framework), the path to enlightenment – where, apparently, the benefits dwarf the ones I’ve listed here.
- Promotes virtue. I realize as I keep talking about “well-being,” “joy,” “benefits”, etc., that the obvious question might be: “Isn’t this just a way of making yourself feel better? Just another me-culture tool for self-improvement?” I think the answer is yes to both questions, except for the “just” part. The true goal with these practices is to benefit others. And what’s so interesting here is that this isn’t just a nice, empty aspiration. It’s built into the practices themselves. They don’t work without ethics. If Shamatha is building a high-powered telescope, then ethics are the clean room without which you can’t build the telescope. Every experienced meditator begins to see first hand that selfish behavior leads to an agitated mind (and vice-versa), which harms the practice. I think all of us in the retreat saw, first hand, how behavior that comes from an open heart correlates with the ability to sustain attention – and how the ability to sustain attention cultivates an open heart. A pretty interesting, virtuous (literally) circle.
A UNIQUE MOMENT IN HISTORY. I’m convinced that we’re in a moment of accelerated social change as profound as we saw four hundred years ago (i.e. the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, etc.). Contradictions inherent in the feudal/medieval system had run their course, new and improved frameworks (i.e. the scientific method, democracy) emerged, and the West evolved. Contradictions inherent in contemporary culture are starting to run their course, and new ways are beginning to present themselves. There’s a theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology, and maybe the same thing exists in social evolution. Why might these practices flourish in the West?
- FERTILE GROUND
- Teachers/translations. Those of us embarking on serious practice today are lucky. In the nineteenth century, no less a brilliant visionary than William James understood that the cultivation of attention would be the education par excellence – but there weren’t any techniques available in the West. So he assumed that it was impossible to train attention, and he moved on. People who went to India, Nepal, etc. in the ‘70’s had to figure everything out on their own: which teachers are legitimate?, which practices are wholesome?, how in the world do I read these Tibetan texts? Many went awry, cults and scam-artists preyed on the vulnerable, and the practices in many cases got mixed up in drugs. Today, thanks to people like Alan Wallace, Matthieu Ricard, Bikkhu Bodhi, etc., we have excellent, rigorous translations to work from, and a community of highly-skilled, well-intentioned teachers. The practice is accessible in a way that it’s never been before.
- Internet. Fifteen years ago, a friend in college did their thesis on micro-lending in Bangladesh. To set themselves up, they sent an air mail letter to Mohammed Yunus in Bangladesh, and received a response a month later accepting the idea. They sent another letter about logistics, and heard back a month later. Two years ago, when Michelle and I wanted to get involved in a project in Cambodia, we emailed the hospital director, and heard back a few minutes later. We sent our resumes, and the next morning we had jobs lined up, and links to everything we could need to know. There’s a new possibility of cross-cultural exchange now, through the internet (and easier travel, and the spread of democracy) that has opened people’s minds, and made it much easier for ideas to spread from one culture (e.g. Tibet) to a very different one, across the globe. Or, for that matter, for that matter, for you to be reading what I've typed in a remote, rural community in the Rockies.
- Open-minded culture. Fifty years ago, you would have been lucky to find a restaurant in New York that wasn’t traditional American, or maybe French. Today, you can’t throw a rock without hitting Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese, Angolan, you name it. We live in experimental, multi-cultural times. When a Zen master, Sokei-an, founded the Buddhist Society of America in New York in 1931, it had four members. Seven years later, it had grown to thirty members. Sokei-an likened growing Buddhism in America to “waiting for a lotus to take root while holding it against a rock.” It wasn’t until culture blew open, in the sixties, that Zen Buddhism began to flourish. Today, thousands of meditation centers have blossomed across the country – in a wide variety of Buddhist traditions.
- Buddhism flourishes in a time of peace. Two questions I asked myself, when I sensed the power of this practice, were: (1) If it’s been around for twenty-five hundred years, and it’s so valuable, then why isn’t everyone doing it? (2) Why are cultures that have included Buddhism for so long (Burma, China, Tibet, etc.) facing so many social problems – military dictatorships, rampant disease and poverty, etc.? And the key to answering these questions, for me, was the realization that there’s a big difference between what makes an individual genuinely happy, and what makes a social system powerful from an economic and military standpoint (Stumbling on Happiness does a great job of elaborating on the volumes of psychological studies to this effect). Particularly when we’re moving quickly, with little capacity for introspection, we’re amazingly susceptible to believing our culture’s myths about happiness (think communist propaganda or advertising in our culture). When the Chinese invaded Tibet, one in five citizens wore monk’s robes. Buddhist practices permeated all aspects of the culture. I’d be willing to bet that if you put a happy-o-meter on the heads of pre-invasion Tibetans, you’d find they were exceptionally happy (like the monk in this article). Put the same hat on soldiers conscripted into the Chinese communist military, and I’d be willing to bet that you’d find they were exceptionally unhappy. Even if they spouted lines about how communism made them happy. Why the propaganda myths? Because they encourage behavior and social systems that engender military and industrial might. Which, by the laws of geopolitical Darwinism, are the ones that end up dominating. So guess what? The Chinese steamrolled the Tibetans. Buddhism has never been particularly good at fostering economically powerful (consumption beyond basic subsistence isn’t viewed as being important – genuine happiness turns out to have nothing to do with external stimuli) and militarily aggressive (power isn’t viewed as being important) societies. So, by the might-makes-right of international conflict, more aggressive (and less happy) cultures have dominated Buddhist practitioners – throughout history. Buddhism suffered a holocaust at the hands of communism (in the Soviet Union, Burma, Cambodia, China, etc.) as intense as the Jewish holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. This is all to say: Buddhist practices are effective at the personal level. They make people happy, more wholesome in their behavior. So, in times of peace, they spread by osmosis – because they’re valuable. But they’re not effective at fostering dominant, aggressive societies. So, in times of war, they get decimated. And, to get back to my second question (why do “Buddhist” societies seem to show up in the news with so much misery?), I’ve realized that there are a few answers. First, I suspect that our Western definition of happiness and misery may be a bit skewed (I won’t go into this here, but “Genuine Happiness” and “Stumbling on Happiness” do a great job). Second, and most importantly, it’s as wrong to blame, say, Burma’s problems on Buddhism as it is to blame the problems of Stalin’s Soviet Union’s on the Jews. Jews were victims, not the dominant element. Similarly, Burma’s dominant element isn’t Buddhism, it’s a cruel military dictatorship. My question about “Buddhist” cultures was wrong a priori: the societies that display so much misery in the news aren’t “Buddhist” societies. They’re military, Communist dictatorships that happen to include Buddhist monks among their citizens. But here’s what’s interesting to me: the West has just entered a new era, after a journey of many thousands of years (see The End of History and the last Man). A key, underlying trend in the past millenia has been the spread of civil rights – often through violence, and with horrible setbacks. Ancient Egypt: one man was free, the Pharaoh. Rome: the aristocracy. Europe: eventually, all white men. Then, men and women. Then, all races. The march of civilization has been about the spread of open democracy across society. And open, capitalist democracies don’t go to war - not against each other, in any case (see Thomas Friedman’s “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”). Sixty years ago, Europe was the most dangerous place on earth. Today, can you imagine Germany invading France? We’re in an era of peace (at least between Western countries, all of which have more or less arrived at this so-called "End of History"). And Buddhism flourishes in stable, peaceful times -- because the practice engenders personal, and social flourishing (as long you’re not about to get invaded). To me, this is one of the reasons I think the practice has unique, fertile ground in which to grow. Whew. That was a long one.
- PARTNERSHIP WITH SCIENCE
- Consonance w. scientific method. one of the things that’s fascinating to me about Buddhism is that it seems much more like science than religion, at least the way I’d thought of religion. In its beginnings, at least, it was remarkably free of dogma and blind faith. The engine that drives the original Buddhist teachings is close-investigation and analysis. Within original Buddhist frameworks, faith is the lowest form of knowledge, reason a higher form, and direct, personal experience the highest form. To quote the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama: “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Science is the dominant mode in our culture. The fact that these practices accord with empirical investigation makes it much more likely to spread.
- Non-denominational. These practices derive profound benefits that can be categorized as spiritual – wisdom, compassion, equanimity, to name a few. But, ultimately, they are methods of inquiry, as open to anyone as physics or algebra. The practices we were doing in this retreat didn’t involve mantras, deities or dogma. They’re open to people of all faiths – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Amazonian tribesman. And Buddhism is, arguably, the first truly unbounded thought-system. The Buddha was known to include members of all castes, and of both sexes. The highest principle is universal lovingkindess – even for one’s enemies.
- Losing faith in faith. Certain influential elements of our culture seem in this moment to be particularly at odds with the Abrahamic religions, which culminate in faith – see, for example, books like “The God Delusion,” "God is Not Great," or “The End of Faith” (btw, see the author, Sam Harris' article on meditation, here). I doubt that all forms of faith are as bad as these books would suggest, but the corollary to the two points above is the fact that these practices, because they aren’t grounded on blind faith or dogma from above, may be particularly valuable in this cultural moment.
- Scientific validation. There are a number of scientific studies on meditation to date that have delivered some startling findings. I won’t try to summarize them here, but I’ve posted some relevant articles here, here, here and here.
- Findings at the cutting edge of modern science keep dovetailing with ancient Buddhist findings. These practices are a rigorous mode of inquiry into the nature of reality. So it’s not surprising that ancient Buddhist claims seem to presage the cutting edges of modern science, in so many ways. There are too many convergences to go into detail, but here are a few: In psychology/neuroscience: Freud’s notion of the unconscious; cognitive science’s “constancy illusion,” as applied to the external world and the self; the recent discovery of neuroplasticity; the realization that emotions and thoughts (contrary to ideas going back to Plato) are fundamentally intertwined. In physics: the notion that consciousness may play a central role in the manifestation of reality, which may not exist in and of itself, apart from the observer, except as pure information; possibly the (rather trippy) Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics; from Werner Heisenberg: “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.”; and “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” There are compelling arguments that Foucault’s pendulum and quantum non-locality (aka quantum entanglement) are also connected to Buddhist philosophy. One could write volumes on this convergence of ancient Buddhist philosophy and modern science, I list a few because I find it fascinating that, time and time again, modern science seems to accord with Buddhist claims from twenty-five centuries ago. These practices are onto something …
- ETHICS IN A TIME OF PLURALISM. As I’ve discussed above, I’m excited by the fact that ethics, within the Buddhist framework, are based on direct, personal investigation into the nature of happiness. The practice doesn’t work without ethics, without lovingkindness at its core. I know discussions of ethics can sound preachy, or academic, but when I look around, I feel like the underlying fabric of moral reasoning is a patchwork of moral relativism; ad-hoc, make-it-up as you go; a recourse to social Darwinism; or maybe a kind of tribal, take-care of your own, take what pleasures you can while you’re still alive. And I do think there’s anxiety, and confusion, and unwholesome activity that comes from this patchwork, in very real, tangible ways. Sorting through this moral confusion is the great project of modernity. Dogma may have worked when cultures were isolated, and monolithic. But it doesn’t work today. Whose god is right? The Muslim God? The Jewish God? The Christian God? The Gods of Hinduism? Amazonian tribesmen? And I’ve never been convinced by the workability of modern, Western attempts to create transcendental ethical frameworks – whether it be the rationalists (Kant), the sentimentalists (Hume, Adam Smith), the utilitarians (Bentham, John Stuart Mills) or the social contractarians (Hobbes, Locke, Rawls). The framework that emerges from these practices -- i.e. from direct, personal experience and investigation, that is universally replicable, b/c it's universally human -- are the first that truly make sense, for me.
- THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN. I’ve discussed this notion above, but I believe we’re at an inflection point in history. For millennia, the struggle has been towards freedom from institutional oppression. And we’ve more or less crossed a finish line -- we've gotten to a level of open democracy, in the West, where changes going forward will be incremental, not revolutionary. I look, for example, at my father’s struggles for free speech, in the sixties. Fighting, in court case after court case, to get the right to publish a book like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”. Which today seems incredibly chaste. Today we have all the institutional freedom we could want. Look at how open speech is on the internet. And the internet's a huge boon, in many ways. But it’s also filled with lies, pornography, and hate speech. The question is no longer “How are we going to get the right to speak freely?” It’s: “Okay, we have this freedom, what are we going to do with it? How are we going to use it in a wholesome way?” Civilization’s first struggles were against the most external: enemy tribes, nature’s forces. We found freedom from these elements. Then came struggles more internal to a society – class struggles, struggles to spread rights to women, children, all races within a culture. And we’ve come a long way with these. I’m convinced that this trajectory from external to internal has to continue for us to progress. The next struggle is about going within, and freeing ourselves from our own, internal afflictive impulses. Which is exactly what these practices are about. Racism, for example, has been largely banished from our legal system, and these changes have helped banish it from our public institutions. But it still resides in the heart, in the unconscious, and you can’t legislate it out of those places. Education helps, but even that works at a cognitive, conscious level. Psychologists consider 95% to 99% of our mental activity to be unconscious. To get to -- and tranform -- the unconscious, you need something that digs as deep as these meditation practices (the Shamatha Project, for example, included some interesting computer trials on this phenomenon of unconscious bias, like the ones here (try them - pretty fascinating!) – it’ll be interesting to see what comes of them. As with all the trials, I can tell you that my experience of them was completely different at the end of the study, in ways that were very heartening).
- DESPERATE NEED: CLIMATE CHANGE. Here’s a big one, from my perspective. And I believe this project relates to the green movement, in a number of ways:
- Acting for the greater good. I feel like the connection between spiritual conviction and the green movement remains an untold story in the media. When I trained with Gore last year to give presentations, it was amazing, looking at the bios of the other two-hundred people, how many two-line blurbs seemed to include phrases “rabbi,” “priest,” “minister,” “founder of interfaith green alliance,” etc. Down in Nashville, every third conversation seemed to turn to matters of spirit. As mentioned, the practices we’ve been doing in the Shamatha Project are non-denominational – they don’t include deities, dogma, mantras, or conversion of any sort. Participants came from all faiths, atheism included. But at their core, these practices are about extending beyond selfish interests to connect with the greater good. So I think it’s fair to call them spiritual.
- Changing our relationship to consumption and production. The climate change problem has been framed of late as “how are we going to get to 2050 without derailing civilization?” When I dig into the numbers, it strikes me that we’ll need Herculean innovation, legislation and international cooperation to get us to 2050 without catastrophe. And we may pull it off. Mankind’s ability to innovate, particularly in the face of crisis, never ceases to amaze. But here’s the thing I keep coming back to: climate change doesn’t disappear in 2050. To solve this problem in the long run, we’re going to have to get back in balance with key geochemical cycles. To balance the carbon cycle, for example, we’d have to cut global GNP by 60-80% - from where we are today. What if we look out 200 years – just six generations – and grow the economy at historical rates? That’s an increase in global GNP of more than a 100x (assuming population growth flattens in the middle of this century). We have to cut by two-thirds, and we’re on track to grow 100x! Our economic system seems like it’s programmed at the moment to grow until it consumes its host. These numbers seem too staggering to think that innovation and legislation alone will get us out of this fix.
I had the pleasure of hearing Janine Benyus speak recently, and when someone asked her: “How are we going to get out of this climate change mess?”, she responded: There’s a hole in the middle of culture that we keep trying to fill with more and more stuff. And until we realize that this hole is insatiable, we’re never going to solve this problem. And I think she’s right. To survive, we’re going to need a sea change in values. Easy to do? Of course not. Are these practices the silver bullet? Of course not – value changes will have to come from a wide array of sources, and belief systems. But I’m optimistic that the practices we were doing offer a very powerful technique – one that brings the possibility of a kind of well-being that is aligned with virtue – and that has nothing to do with more consumption. There's been a lot of talk about focusing on "Gross National Happiness" instead of "Gross National Product" - and with these practices, I think there's a powerful technique to actually make the switch.
- Working with science to bring a fringe movement to the mainstream. Like environmentalism just a few years ago, meditation remains a fringe activity, sometimes derided as a hippie indulgence. Just as science brought green to Main Street, this project and the many that follow will bring Western legitimacy to these practices. The hope is that these practices will then make their way into modern institutions – schools, prisons, businesses, families, and so forth. Sound crazy? So did desegregation, universal suffrage, a polio vaccine, and the fall of the Berlin Wall – once upon a time. I’m a firm believer in the idea that, in the long run, intrinsic value wins out. If something’s truly of value, no matter how many rigid institutions or superstitions or traditions are opposed to it, it’ll prevail. Eventually. And I’m convinced that these practices are profoundly valuable.
- DESPERATE NEED: ADHD REACHING AN EXTREME. One of things you learn when you meditate is that, no matter who you are, you have some degree of ADHD. It’s the way the untrained human mind works. But what we’re experiencing in this culture is a wide-spread range of socially acceptable ADHD, born in no small part of the extraordinary -- and accelerating -- pressures and distractions that beset the average citizen. And this ADHD epidemic correlates with a long list of other afflictions – depression, various anxiety disorders, anger, low self-esteem, etc. These practices have been shown to offer a powerful remedy, without all the costs and nasty side effects associated with pharmaceuticals.
THE METAPHYSICAL QUESTION
This is too big a topic to do more than begin to scratch the surface of, but I’ll throw out a few headlines, because I find can't help finding this possibility intriguing.
Buddhism has a rigorous, empirical, sensible approach to the investigation of reality. Teachers and advanced practitioners I’ve spent time with have an unusually canny, reasonable, sensible, balanced view of the world. And, when pressed, highly realized masters admit, time again, the possibility of what the West calls paranormal. I say “when pressed” because there’s a long tradition of de-emphasizing these elements – they can distract the practitioner, tempt the ego, and muddy more authentic aspirations. Nonetheless, you hear extraordinary anecdotes of remote viewing, pre-cognition, remembrance of past lives, levitation, and so forth.
All these things sound pretty trippy, but what’s interesting is how eager certain highly realized practitioners, most visibly the Dalai Lama, are to test these possibilities with the tools of Western science. Resistance seems to come more from the scientific establishment than the monks (for a great read: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - where the phrase 'paradigm shift' was coined). It was hard enough getting the Shamatha Project off the ground – it took twelve years to find funding, and scientists willing to go out on a limb. And the Shamatha Project is studying topical, mainstream phenomena, like attention and emotional regulation. How in the world will Buddhist practitioners get a scientist -- worried about their reputation, fighting the never-ending battle to get research grants -- to test for remote viewing, pre-cognition or remembrance of past lives? Not likely to happen anytime soon – not unless this first wave of more mainstream meditation studies deliver interesting enough results over a long enough period of time.
There are varying degrees of paranormal. Some phenomena that emerge in this practice sit on the border between what we’d call “normal” and “paranormal,” and have been documented by Western scientists, such as Tumo (the generation of bodily heat, so that practitioners can can lie down in subzero temperatures that'd kill a normal person, with nothing but a thin cotton robe, and get up twelve hours late, with the ground thawed beneath them, or submerge themselves for long periods of time in ice-covered lakes, then come out, and steam-dry frozen sheets off their back, etc.) or “abiding in the clear light of death” – where, after death, the body doesn’t decompose, emits a sweet smell, and the heart remains warm, for days, sometimes a full week after bodily death (for example, in this case, documented in a Chicago hospital).
Then, you hear that your trusted friend’s trusted teacher, who lived in Tibet for several years, witnessed lamas manifesting what’s known as the “Rainbow body" - where the monk (or nun)'s body, at death, dissolves into a rainbow of light and shrinks down, leaving behind only hair and nails.
From the standpoint of a hard scientific materialist (i.e. consciousness is an illusion created by the chemical machine that is the brain; anything that can't in principal be studied by science's existing tools and methods is non-existent; generally aligned with atheism; etc.), these claims sound pretty crazy.
But when you take a hard look at scientific materialism, it seems as outdated, and grounded on leaps of faith, as any metaphysical framework out there. The basic assumption in much of Western science, for example, is that the mind is simply an illusion created by changes to the biochemistry of that great machine, the brain. I have a hard time buying that. This laptop I’m typing squawks when I hit a bad keystroke. But I doubt that it feels pain – it’s executing a reaction on hardwired commands. In fifty years, I’ll be able to go to Amazon and order a computer-robot that looks and behaves like a human being. It may recoil and say “Ow!” if I poke it with a pin, but I doubt it’ll feel pain any more than this laptop. I find it hard to believe that subjective experience doesn’t have an inherent reality of its own.
It doesn’t take a lot of reading into modern physics, with notions like M-theory, the curvature of space-time, quantum entanglement and non-locality, the Many Worlds hypothesis, the collapsing of quantum superposition, and John Wheeler’s “its from bits” to make you realize that the common sense of world of “objectively real” hard objects is as misleading as a sun that seems to rise and set around an earth that sits still. And there’s a giant blind spot at the center of science: consciousness. What is consciousness? What are its necessary and sufficient causes? How does it relate to the manifestation of quantum phenomena, and macroscopic experience? When does consciousness enter into a human being? At conception? The third trimester? Does consciousness continue after bodily death? If so, what happens to it? Are animals conscious, or just humans? Does subjective experience have a reality beyond hard materialism? Why, as the philosophers ask, is there something rather nothing? Our teacher, Alan, who trained in physics and continues to work closely with many of the world’s leading physicists and philosophers of science, makes a compelling case that we can’t begin to answer these basic – and critical -- questions with our current scientific tool kit. For a true revolution in the mind sciences – and possibly even physics – we’re going to have to bring introspective faculties into play. Currently, we’re studying the mind by external, “objective” phenomena: changes to the brain, and behavior. Science has more or less ignored subjective experience, for a number of cultural reasons, and also in part because we’ve never had the tools for reliable, repeatable, subjective measurement. With the cultivation of the “Shamatha telescope” – highly tuned, highly stable, highly vivid, and attached to a language that may not be public, but is at least semi-public (like higher mathematics), there’s the possibility of a beautiful friendship between meditation and science. We’ve developed tools (like fMRI, EEG) that can look at the brain’s “objective” workings in fine-grained details. But those tools are typically used on, say, college sophomores making $10 an hour. Now, with Shamatha practitioners, we can use these brain-scanning tools on people who can call up specific states of mind on command, and observe and describe them in a reliable manner. Alan’s written on this topic in a number of fascinating books, including his latest, Hidden Dimensions.
How far will this attempt to marry the inward-turned telescope with external measurements go? To alleviate problems of attention-deficit and emotional regulation? Or might it go a lot farther? Could this scientific path lead to a more profound paradigm shift – one that challenges the very metaphysical assumptions that underlie modern science? Could the inclusion of rigorous, subjective analysis lead to a much deeper understanding of consciousness, and the nature of reality itself?
Well, this took a little longer than expected, and I wrote this almost as fast as I can type. Ask a guy who’s been silent for three months to talk about a subject he’s passionate about, and you may get more than you ever wanted to know …
For those of you who’ve asked for more about this project, thank you for your interest. For those of you who actually made it this far into this long (okay, painfully long) ‘blog entry, thank you for your courage and persistence.
We’ll be thinking of you and sending love. Can’t wait to reconnect when we emerge.
Big hugs, all,