Thursday, February 04, 2010

A talk by Shinzen Young, about which I am all jazzed

This guy Shinzen Young came to Google in California and gave a talk. I watched his talk on a video-conference. I have since begun meditating twice daily.

It was a talk about meditation. I encourage you to watch it online. But that's an hour, so if you'd rather, I took notes, I will try to make them into real sentences so you can read them here:

You try to meditate, to focus on the physical sense of your breath. You'll get distracted. What distracts you? Internal self-talk, external sounds, internal mental images, external sights, internal emotions and feelings (let's call this "feel"), external physical discomforts (call this "touch"). 6 aspects: internal and external, 3 main senses. (smell/taste are kind of different anyway, and you can blend them in with touch.)

If you meditate a lot, what happens?
- early on, you'll have a sobering event where you realize how distracted you really are.
- soon you get good at focusing on your breath. This is easily generalizable: you'll be good at focusing on anything.
- you get a taste of a highly concentrated state
- then this highly concentrated state expands: deeper (more powerful) and broader (into more parts of your life)

This is super magically incredible. This is an awesome state. Anything you do will be more subjectively fulfilling, and you'll be more objectively good at it. This state has names: Samadhi (Buddhism), Recollection (Christianity), Kavanah (???) (Judaism), Zikkur (???) (Islam).

Eventually, a figure/ground reversal happens. Before, there's your life, and meditation is a thing that you do. After, there's meditation, and your life is just this thing that you do. This is like that concentrated state all the time. You're never bored again, because you're always "in the zone." (or high, even) You get twice as much life, not because you live longer, but you live twice as concentrated/twice as big.

As your concentration grows, your senses expand, and you get some epiphanies. It's like looking through a microscope; you learn things deeper within you, and broader, about everyone.

You also notice suffering, and that physical discomfort and the experience of suffering due to that discomfort are not the same. Suffering = pain * your resistance to that pain. It's like electricity, even, V = I * R. Similarly with pleasure: you hold on to it and get attached to it, and in this way you have this "resistance" to pleasure as well. Fulfillment = pleasure / resistance (or attachment). The inverse of this resistance is called equanimity, and that grows along with concentration.

You'll also get increased sensory clarity, and a sense of how your identity comes into being moment by moment. You can monitor your internal talk/image/feel, just as you can right now monitor your external world. And you'll notice that when you have none of the three, you cease to exist. Noting these things and their change is a big deal in Buddhism.

So what about Buddhism, why Buddhism? Well, it's not a big distinction; most meditative traditions have these concepts of concentration and equanimity. Buddhism's focus in this sensory clarity and noticing your moment-by-moment existence is rather unique. It's also called "mindfulness". You realize that your "identity" is paradoxical; that it only exists sometimes, and that it's a home you can leave and come back to. Call this an elastic/paradoxical/enlightened identity.

Back to practicality. So you want to meditate: how should you do it? Well, most practices are roughly equally ineffective. They totally work, but they take years. So, go to it. Interestingly, Young's ideal is a world where meditation is obsolete. Technology and knowledge get us to a point where enlightenment becomes much more attainable for anyone, even without practicing for 50 years, so more people can get in on the spiritual path.

A closing paraphrase: "Take me or anyone who's meditated for 40 years and give them the following choice: a lifetime of ordinary pleasure, or one day with a meditator's consciousness. Any meditator will pick the latter."

End talk, and these are Dan's ideas again, not Shinzen's. Why did this get me so excited? Well, it sounds awesome, right? But it's not just that; anyone can promise you 72 virgins or eternity in Best Heaven or whatever. The thing is: this is all worldly, it's doable (half hour a day?), it offers incremental benefits as you progress, and most importantly, I believe it. I believe it because it's entirely reasonable and consistent with everything else I've heard about meditation.

Practical note: if you want to meditate, I think it's pretty simple: sit down and focus on your breath. On the feeling of it in your nose. Your consciousness will inevitably wander, each time just gently bring it back- no worries, you're not a bad meditator, just focus on your breath again. Set a timer, try 10 minutes at first, or even 5. If it stops being enjoyable, do it less. I like Mindfulness in Plain English if you want a book.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go meditate.

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