Monday, October 31, 2011

Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English

I just read this book, Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English. I got it because I had read Mindfulness in Plain English and it was very good. Also, Daniel Ingram recommended the author, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, as someone who writes well about jhanas. (again, jhanas are states of high concentration, and concentration is one of the three practices to get you to enlightenment. The others are morality and insight.)

Some things I learned:

- I was pretty naive about how big a deal achieving even the first jhana is. Ingram made it sound easy. Gunaratana recommends at least an hour meditating skillfully, ideally longer sessions in a retreat setting, and notes that "most meditators practice in access concentration (a prerequisite to any jhana) for a good while before attaining jhana." So maybe I'm further away than I thought.

- However, I am pretty sure that I've achieved access concentration! The descriptions he gives sound a lot like what I felt in those two half-hour sessions towards the end of this past retreat: a strengthening of concentration, maybe slightly odd visions, maybe a feeling of lightness.

- However, I think I was "doing it wrong", in that I was trying to force it. I really wanted that concentrated state, and I just kinda tossed insight aside. Gunaratana makes it clear that you have to practice concentration mindfully or else you might develop "wrong concentration"- absorption without mindfulness. Wrong concentration is dangerous, because you might actually achieve some blissful states and get really wrapped up in them, and then you won't be able to develop insight because you're so attached to absorption.

- Thus, the kind of concentration I'm looking for is not "just concentrating a lot" or "becoming one with ____" where ____ is your breath or a candle or a clay disc or whatever.

- Given all this, I think I'm more at peace with the slow boat to enlightenment. Reading Ingram, I wanted to get enlightened in 5 years. Reading someone more mainstream like Gunaratana, I'm reminded how you can't really rush it; or, you can rush it, but by putting in the work, not by just wanting it to go faster. I could get enlightened in 5 years, but I'd have to spend a lot more time in retreats and daily practice. And I'm not a monk, nor do I currently want to be one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Positive mental time travel

Buddhism aside (whew! I do worry about this blog getting religious.), I read a thing about how people had the best moods when either their minds were on what they were doing, or they were engaged in "positive mental time travel": looking forward to good things in the future, or remembering nice things in the past.

I've been doing that a lot recently. It helped get through that retreat. It may not be what I should have been doing, but still. It also helps, say, when I'm cold, simultaneously lonely and sick of talking to people, and fighting spiders. In mental fantasy land, I've never fought with anyone, you're all radiant angels of goodness, and my life's future holds 8 months of joyful and fulfilling vacation followed by an equally marvelous career and life back at home.

I'm not going to debate whether this is a good strategy or not. (see? no Buddhism for now.) Let me just say one thing, though: thanks to you all for helping me to create such nice memories and things to look forward to!

Been killing spiders

A bunch of them, recently. Sometimes I wonder if that's okay to do. I wonder this more whenever I read or think a lot about Buddhism, which is a lot recently. It is particularly awkward when there are spiders in my bathroom at a Buddhist retreat center.

See, in Buddhism, all life is sacred. They say don't kill any living beings, including bugs. They often have stories, too, about so-and-so monk who would catch flies and release them, unharmed, outdoors and how he accumulated such great karma or merit or whatever.

Well, it's a consistent enough teaching, anyway. At some point, you have to decide what's sacred. You have to draw a line and say "you can kill anything below this line, and nothing above this line." Modern secular Westerners draw that line right below humans. Buddhists draw that line below bugs (and above plants, I guess, even though those are alive also; maybe by "living", Buddhists mean "animate" or something). Vegetarians might draw the line below the animal kingdom but above bugs. Or below bugs. Whatever. And then there's also the debate about unborn babies/fetuses/lumps of cells: are they above the line? How can we answer this?

I like Ken Wilber's philosophy on this, based on a book of his that I read and half understood a while ago. The part I remembered is: "Honor complexity." Humans are above the line because we're so complex, particularly our brains. Bugs are just a few nerves and an exoskeleton: below the line. This solves a lot of dilemmas: you don't have to discuss consciousness, you don't have to worry about souls, you can neatly handle any new edge case. (new bacteria from Neptune? well, how complex is it?)

Side note: the part that will likely cheese a lot of people off is that it doesn't line up with old-fashioned definitions of "life". For example, anyone will agree that an ant is alive. But what about one of these supercomputer weather simulators, say. That's probably more complex than the ant; is it alive? is it sacred? (I personally take a bit of perverse pleasure in gleefully saying yes, it is more morally okay to kill an ant than a supercomputer.)

But anyway, if you're still with me, then we've got a philosophical metric of sacredness with no real-world way to measure it. I mean, we could measure computer vs. computer in a few ways (and even that is difficult), but how could we possibly compare the complexity of a supercomputer with, say, a rat's brain?

I don't know. All I know is, for right now I'm using that argument to rationalize going against all the Buddhist wisdom and killing spiders.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life choices, if life weren't handed on a platter to us rich white Americans?

I've kind of taken it for granted my entire life that working for money isn't a good idea, that things aren't worth worrying about, and that money won't buy happiness.

This all assumes that I'll always have enough money. What if I didn't? Suddenly, working for money becomes a viable and smart career option. Until you get to that diminishing returns point ($40k/yr? $60k?), one dollar equals one util!

Other luxuries include control over my time. I take flexible hours and vacation time for granted. At home I could pretty much choose to do whatever I want whenever I want. Traveling now, not quite as much (sometimes more than others). If I were working, and had a more restrictive job, even less.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maybe I'll get enlightened instead of having kids.

One question with undertaking a quest like "get enlightened" is: how do I plan to do this? I'm not prepared to give up my career. A healthy social life is, well, healthy, and I'm not prepared to give that up either. I'd like to get married someday. How will I find time to do all the things that everyone else does, and also get enlightened?

Here's an idea: not have kids.

Kids don't make you happier, for any definition of happier. I particularly don't think kids would make me happier. And one more enlightened being in the world is probably more beneficial in a grand sense than 2 or 3 more confused small people. I don't see much of a downside here.

(I want to put some disclaimer here that I know enlightenment is not a panacea, and then go on to describe all the ways that people who have achieved enlightenment are not automatically perfect radiant superman buddhas, but I said I'd stop blogging, so I'll have to save that for another time.)

Making the Best Life

As I'm taking a year of life that is different than most life, I get a good chance to reflect on ways I want my next settled life (that is, my grad student life) to be. The difficult thing is that everything is different now, so I can't run experiments on diet, sleep, caffeine, etc, because of all the confounding factors. The nice thing is that I have a lot of time to figure out ideas and a lot of diverse experiences.

Some thoughts, and I'm open to everything from the profound to the mundane

- make sure there's a farmers' market near my house and at least one good coffeeshop. This has been nice in Seattle.
- keep biking. This is also good.
- meditation will probably still be in the morning. An hour would be a nice number. After sitting for an hour or more many times these past two weeks, I've jumped up to 45 minutes in the morning, which feels totally doable now. I'll work up from there.
- make a bunch of Indian food. Dishes/appliances I would like include a food processor and a big wok, or maybe a cast-iron skillet. (That's the best thing for a skillet, right? I'm cool with maintenance.)
- here's a thought: keep nothing immediately edible in my house. I've enjoyed staying a bit hungry, and if food always required me to work, I'd probably get back to 3 standard meals/day and feel pretty good.
- somehow limit, but not eliminate, drinking. Like Gerrit's "only drink in houses, not bars" idea.
- make sure my home desk setup works nicely. Big monitor, comfortable chair. Or standing desk?
- figure out something about sleep. Sleeping naturally always is nice, but it'd be good if it didn't take so long.

And one more thought, which probably deserves its own post (and then I'll quit blogging for tonight, promise).

My mental state and current meditation plan

I'd say "plan of attack", but that doesn't sound right.

Two weeks ago, I was starting a 10-day meditation course, for over 90 hours of meditation. My previous total meditation experience is probably (1 year * average maybe 10 minutes/day) + (1 year * 20 min/day) + (1 month * 30 min/day) + (2 retreats = 20 hrs) = ~180 hours. So this retreat is half as much meditation as I've done ever. (now I've got 270 hours, so I'm 2.7% of an expert, if you ask Malcolm Gladwell!)

Given that, I figured I could make some real progress. I've just been amped up on descriptions of jhanas and stages of insight from Daniel Ingram, and he suggests attaining the first (samatha) jhana first. Two reasons: it's very blissful, which will make you want to meditate more, and once you're in this state, you can examine it for the characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self, and go on to insight practice from there.

Sounded good to me. I'm not really sure how to get there, but I think you just concentrate hard. A point along the path to the first jhana is "access concentration", where you get the ability to concentrate on whatever you want for as long as you want. The ability to, say, concentrate on your breath for an hour and never let your mind wander.

What happened: Over the 10 days, I didn't experience anything that I'd consider a jhana. I had a couple times I concentrated on my breath for a good half hour without losing focus, and then had some mildly dreamy thoughts/visions, but I think that attaching special significance to those is is wishful thinking. On the other hand, I had a couple times I concentrated on my breath for a good half hour without losing focus, so that's a start. Both times occurred in the evening, 6-7pm, after a very light dinner and some tea.

So what now? I think keep on track with the concentration. Once I hit the first jhana (or maybe second; it sounds nice and easier to maintain) and can regularly get there, then I'll start back to insight/Vipassana practice. It feels weird to learn Goenka-style Vipassana and immediately drop it (and Mahasi Sayadaw-style Vipassana) and go for concentration, but it seems good for the two reasons above, and also so I can post "I hit something repeatable and definitely qualitatively different from my regular mind, therefore I'm not just wasting time sitting on pillows."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Goenka-style Vipassana meditation, and my reactions

I spent 10 days at a Buddhist Vipassana meditation course led by S.N. Goenka. I've explained more about the course itself on my travel blog. Here I'll explain in more depth the teaching:
  • Proper living (/enlightenment) has 3 parts: Sila (morality), Samadhi (concentration), Panna ("pan-ya", with tildes on the n's. wisdom.) Sounds familiar.
  • Morality is just living your ordinary life well. Five precepts, etc. It's simple enough- we've been learning this our whole lives. Not to say it's easy, but it's more or less simple.
  • Concentration can be developed by a lot of meditative practices, including "Anapana" meditation, where you just focus on the feeling of your breath in the nose. Just focus on it. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back, non-judgmentally.
  • Wisdom can be developed by Vipassana meditation. In Goenka's teaching, Vipassana goes as follows: feel the sensations in your body, both the gross sensations (like pain in your knees) and the subtle ones (like just focus on your hands, right now, and after a few seconds you'll probably feel a little tingling, or maybe heartbeat-like pulsing.) Notice them, develop your awareness, and also develop your equanimity- don't react to them with clinging or aversion.
  • How does Vipassana meditation develop wisdom? You start to realize that you have no permanent independent "self"; you are constantly changing. Every sensation is something changing on a small level. Eventually you realize that everything is impermanent ("anitcha") and that will bring you to enlightenment.
  • Also, any attachment or aversion you develop is like a line you draw in a rock, or a "sankara", that lies deep within you. When you just notice all your sensations with equanimity, you stop generating new sankaras, and your old ones bubble up to the surface and get evaporated. When you evaporate all your sankaras, you'll be enlightened.

I mostly like his teachings. Here are things about the teachings that I like:

  • it's mostly in line with things I know about Buddhism.
  • the body-scanning technique is kind of like the Mahasi Sayadaw-style mind-scanning technique I'd been doing, but for the body instead of the mind. This is sort of easier, because you can go in a direction. Start at the top of the head and go down, start at the feet and go up. You can't really scan the whole mind.

But I have a few beefs. Here are some things I don't like, ordered from least crazy to most crazy:

  • solving your mind's problems through the body seems like the wrong way to do it. Like debugging software by examining the entire contents of memory. It might work sometimes, but usually it's just inefficient. But then, I am willing to concede that I might be wrong here.
  • plus, it's kinda boring. After I scan a couple times, I get bored.
  • he teaches his style of Vipassana as if it is the only way to do Vipassana. Obviously this is frustrating.
  • he keeps arguing against straw-man organized religions. "Vipassana is a technique, not an organized religion where you do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death." I think very few people would agree that their own religion is "do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death."
  • at some point he started talking about "kalapas", which are the tiniest particles, smaller than quarks, that make up matter. Apparently each kalapa has the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. I'll stop here because you can probably sense my scowl.
  • he also liked to talk about the "law of nature", which I think had something to do with karma, in the sense of "if you do something bad, that will come back to bite you." Guys, this is false. Or he'd start off a story with "there's this guy who had a fortunate life due to some past karma..." Hey, sounds like "do this good deed and you get rewarded after death." (admittedly, he talked about karma sometimes in a non-wacky sense, like how if you generate anger towards someone, it hurts you too.)
  • that bit about the sankaras! That makes no sense! He offers no explanation as to how this happens, beyond some hand-wavey thing where I guess, e.g., you might develop anger towards someone, and then you'll get a sankara, and later it'll manifest itself as a pain in your foot. I don't know.
  • and then, after all this, he says "Buddhism is scientific!" ... Goenka-ji, it can be, but you're doing it wrong.
So you might get the idea that I thought the whole thing was crazy. Not so. Most of it actually made a lot of sense, and it was only about 10% talking, 90% meditating anyway. You don't go to this retreat to philosophize, you go to meditate. And now that I think about it, if you just skipped all the dharma talks after maybe day 4, you could have a really great retreat. (however, this is very frowned upon.)
And as Goenka said, if you are eating delicious kheer, and you find a cardamom seed that you don't like, then just leave it aside and eat the rest of the kheer. Eventually you may realize that you like cardamom too, and then you eat that bit. Or maybe not, also fine.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Buddhism has a 4th grader's understanding of alcohol

Okay okay, 10 days without talking, and I love to talk. I have a lot of things to say. I am very limited by my internet connectivity, and the fact that I want to sleep. This is mildly frustrating. So I'll lead off with this thought because it's quick.

The Five Precepts in Buddhism are: don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, don't have sexual misconduct, and don't take intoxicants (including alcohol). Monks take these (along with a host of others). During retreats, non-monks take these too. Non-monks are further encouraged to take these precepts during normal times too. The first four are of course fine; who could disagree with those? But the fifth one seems a bit severe in our society. I've heard two reasons, and I can think of a third:

1. "When you drink, you become more likely to do all the other bad things." Or sometimes "a drunk person is like a madman" which is kind of like D.A.R.E.'s outlook on booze: you're either sober or drunk. I could see a precept against getting drunk, but against all drinking seems extreme. You can still control yourself.

2. "Continuity of mindfulness is important, so even getting mindless for a couple hours can really hurt your practice." Okay, this argument is more legit. Still, really? No breaks? What about when you're sleeping? And it's not like I'm mindful anywhere near 24/7 anyway...

3. Cultural factors. In Europe, say, everyone drinks sometimes. In India, it's rarer, and maybe back around Buddha's time, the only people who drank were the town drunks. So in this case, this precept seems out of place. (imagine if Buddhism started in Europe, and there was a precept against drinking tea!)

At any rate, could we replace it with "don't use intoxicants irresponsibly"? (or perhaps this is impossible and I just want to have my enlightenment and eat drink it too.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Well, more grad apps submitted

CMU HCII, MIT Media Lab, and the NSF and NDSEG fellowships. CMU and MIT were mostly done already, but the fellowships required me to write a bunch more essays. This was frustrating and a bit depressing, although I had two days I didn't know what else to do with anyway. I feel like the NSF app is all about diversity, and the NDSEG app at least hopes that maybe some part of your work might be defense-related, but it's worth applying anyway, I suppose. Getting one of these is the "golden ticket" that lets you study anywhere (because nobody has to worry about paying you, so, why not?), but not getting either is fine too.

Here's hoping! I'm not all too worried; something will turn out.

In other news, here's a snarky quote: I've been listening to the Dalai Lama talk about Buddhist stuff in the day, and I'm reading H.P. Lovecraft stories about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Mi-Go, and the Great Old Ones at night. Learning about both worlds seems pretty similar.

What I mean by that: you can talk about Buddhism for ages without saying anything practical. Okay okay yes, we have emptiness, causality, suffering, and the four noble truths. Beyond that, we have Nagarjuna, Avalokiteshvara, Milarepa, Maitreya, the Eightfold Path, the Nine Understandings or something, Dharmadutta, Dharmakaya, Theravada, reincarnation, Karma, ... which are all either nice concepts or cultural baggage, but what do you do? I guess I just want to stop talking until I gain some wisdom and have something to talk about. (which doesn't explain why I went to hear some teachings. Oh well, check off HH on the celebrity sighting checklist.)