“Spirituality” and the terminology surrounding it – meditation, mindfulness, mysticism, enlightenment, etc. – are all shrouded in misconceptions.
Before using these words in future posts, it behooves me to first define them; this post shall serve as that reference.
Keep in mind none of these words are the truth, nor are the definitions, ideas, and concepts behind them that I’ll be sharing in this post. They are all abstractions invented to relate certain embodied experiences to minds who have not yet lived those experiences. Experience is the truth. The very beginning of the first poem of the Daodejing reminds us: A name that can be named is not The Name.
Regardless, having a map is useful when navigating an unfamiliar territory. And meditation teacher Shinzen Young has provided an astoundingly lucid map of the spiritual path in his book The Science of Enlightenment.2
Shinzen was a scholar of Buddhist Studies and Asian languages up until his late 20s when he decided to leave behind his accumulation of abstractions and pursue the path of truth (i.e. experience). And after decades of practice, he has developed his own names for referring to Names – clear names, names scrubbed of esoteric baggage, names inspired by the “spirit of quantified science,” names more readily comprehensible to Western minds – names I’ll be sharing in hopes that they will, at the very least, leave misconceiving minds with more respect for the Name.
To begin, I’d like to tackle the umbrella word “spirituality,” from which all the other concepts can roughly be categorized under. Atheist spokesperson Sam Harris wrote an article in defense of the word “spiritual” and further supported the word in his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he describes spirituality as:
the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to overcome their feeling of separateness, fully bring their minds into the present, or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness […]
The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion […] which can be altered or entirely extinguished […] From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, [such experiences of “self-transcendence”] represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality”
I don’t disagree with Harris’ description, but favor Adyashanti’s more poetic description of spirituality as perception from a certain state of being:
Within each of our forms lies the existential mystery of being. Apart from one’s physical appearance, personality, gender, history, occupation, hopes and dreams, comings and goings, there lies an eerie silence, an abyss of stillness charged with an etheric presence. For all of our anxious business and obsession with triviality, we cannot completely deny this phantasmal essence at our core. And yet we do everything we can to avoid its stillness, its silence, its utter emptiness and intimate embrace […]
By clinging to the mind in the form of memory and thought, we are held captive by the movement of our conditioned thinking and imagination, all the while believing that we are perfectly rational and sane. We therefore continue to justify the reality of what causes us, as well as others, immeasurable amounts of pain and suffering.
Deep down we all suspect that something is very wrong with the way we perceive life but we try very, very hard not to notice it. And the way we remain blind to our frightful condition is through an obsessive and pathological denial of being — as if some dreadful fate would overcome us if we were to face the pure light of truth and lay bare our fearful clinging to illusion.
The question of being is everything. Nothing could be more important or consequential — nothing where the stakes run so high. To remain unconscious of being is to remain asleep to our own reality and therefore asleep to reality at large. The choice is simple: awaken to being or sleep an endless sleep.
Adya also likes to ask of his students “What am I if I don’t refer to a single thought or feeling to tell me who I am?” Really pause for a moment to ask yourself.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.Rumi
As with Zen koans, there is no name which would suffice as an answer. Instead, the question is meant to create a space for you to encounter the Name or better yet, the Nameless or No-Name; to directly experience being aka your true nature aka what is present without qualities aka “the emptiness of consciousness, the Self, or the No-Self” aka to “realize yourself as beautiful no-thing-ness” aka “resting as primordial awareness” aka no-mind or your don’t know mind… you get the picture.3
Point being, if you were able to escape being spellbound (in a neurotic trance) by the conversations you have with yourself and instead glimpse a wordless awareness of your own direct experience, if only for a short moment, then you’ve answered the question.
Fully embodying this answer, to me, is the spiritual path. Or perhaps more technically, the mystical path, as Shinzen clarifies when he speaks of three different types of spiritual experience:
|Spirituality of Thought||- religious experience centered around concepts, belief systems, prayer, dogmas, faiths, credos
- reaches its extreme in fundamentalism (word-centered spirituality)
|Spirituality of Feeling||- a felt of what the Romans called the numen, the mystery; a beauty or significance that provokes awe
- devotion, love, piety, what we might call the heart
|Mysticism||- spirituality centered on states of high concentration|
Comparative mysticism, which Shinzen has studied, reveals to us how each of the world’s religions have a meditative or mystical core – how the Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc. traditions each have their own generic technical term that designates any concentrated state, as well as their own techniques for attaining states of high concentration.
It’s fascinating that despite enormous cultural and philosophical differences, mystics across different religions “living in different times in different places, having totally different views of the world, all describe a basically similar sequence of stages of enlightenment”4 having spent a lot of time in the concentrated state. And not only in the context of spiritual traditions, but in secular settings through concentrative activities such as music, art, or sports – people have reported similar experiences of enlightened consciousness. Sometimes these experiences arise even without any particular cultivation practice; it just happens to certain people. One podcast I’ve listened to entitled Buddha at the Gas Pump features interviews with ordinary people5 (e.g. at the gas pump) who have had a spiritual awakening and are undergoing a continual shift to more enlightened (e.g. Buddha) states of consciousness. For some, the shift spontaneously occurs in early life, as if struck by thunder, only to leave and then return more gradually after many years of practice.
One of my main inspirations for writing this post comes from my own misunderstanding of these words, and in talking to others, seeing how grave the misconceptions can get; I’ve witnessed strong knee-jerk reactions, along the vibe of the following conversation:
(visibly flustered) Science is the only answer.
Nobody likes seeing people get triggered, especially if the trigger is an innocuous word. I appreciate where they’re coming from, but believe they’re victim to a common misunderstanding.
Shinzen comments how the East reached the pinnacle of subjective science: the systematic exploration of nature from the inside (i.e. meditation). And the West paralleled in reaching the pinnacle of objective science: systemic exploration of nature from the outside.
To clarify, I think people see mysticism as a doctrine which asserts objective truths about the universe at large on the basis of subjective mystical experiences. But that is not mysticism. That is New-Age Bullshit and Deepak Chopra woo-woo. Mysticism, and no other word that I’m aware of, refers to transforming human consciousness to more enlightened states of being through practices generally centered around cultivating states of high concentration.
Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras from 4th century India is one example of an ancient mystic tradition. Patanjali developed a system called Raja (royal) or ashtanga (“eight-limbed”) yoga for cultivating high concentration – eight limbs because it describes a spiritual path in terms of eight steps. The last three limbs describe different stages of concentration:
In day-to-day experience, your awareness is usually divided between an immediate objective experience and your subjective thoughts and feelings. But imagine if all of your attention flowed into the external “it”? The sense of an internal “I” as separate from “it” would then vanish. This is samadhi “with a seed”:
This is non-duality, no-mind, merging of subject and object, oneness with the Unborn Source, the Absolute, Still Point – again, different teachers and traditions have their own name for it. Shinzen says the object ceases to be a particle and becomes a wave, an integrated flow of energy and spaciousness.
Here’s where, without firsthand experience, the resolution of Shinzen’s metaphor becomes blurry to the extent of being legally blind: we then become that wave, which “links us to all other waves in the universe, and then dies away into deeply fulfilling nothingness.” And if you can consciously taste moments of seedless samadhi in daily life, then you’ve attained the initial stage of enlightenment. Enlightenment, as Shinzen explains, is not a peak but a plateau from which you ascend further and further over time. A continually unfolding, multi-dimensional process wherein the beginning is this elastic identity, this shift in perspective as being something liberated from the ego or “self” or, perhaps in Interpersonal Neurobiology terms, liberated from habituated patterns of energy and information flow in the embodied and relational mind.
Again, this is only the growth of concentration as described in one tradition, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Shinzen barely mentions it and more or less devotes the majority of the book to using his own descriptions and those of the Buddhist tradition6 to explain various facets of enlightenment, meditation, and mindfulness.
In How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation, neurotheology pioneers Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman surveyed a diverse set of over 2,000 people who all have had profound spiritual experiences – rich and poor, young and old, men and women, varying ethnicities and traditions including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, Catholic, Christian, and general spiritualists – and found five basic elements of enlightenment:
- A sense of unity or connectedness. A loss of a sense of self, a dissolution of boundaries between self and other, and a strong feeling of connectedness to God, nature, the universe, etc.
- An incredible intensity of experience. Respondents described their experiences using dramatic and emotionally powerful language. Just as our everyday reality feels more real than a dream, enlightenment feels more real than everyday reality! Nearly everyone confirmed their experience was not a fantasy or hallucination, and actually reported that, years later, they still view their enlightenment experience to be as real or more real than the reality they normally experience every day.
- A sense of clarity and new understanding in a fundamental way. Everything now seemed to make more sense in their lives. They more clearly understood their purpose in life, the value of relationships, and the goals they wanted to set for their future.
- A sense of surrender or loss of voluntary control. You are not directing the experience or making it happen; it is directing you. You are going along for the ride. Like sunlight, the light from “enlightenment” comes from a source different from you.
- A sense that something—one’s beliefs, one’s life, one’s purpose—has suddenly and permanently changed. An instantaneous and permanent transformation of one’s personality or worldview; going from the experience of enlightenment to the state of enlightenment.
Shinzen’s simple definition of meditation is any practice that significantly elevates a person’s base level of focus, which is how focused you automatically are throughout daily life. Concentration ability is like a muscle that can be strengthened, and can be thought of in both time and space:
Likewise, the meditative state – perhaps colloquially known as being in a “flow state” or “in the zone” – has two dimensions:
- Breadth. Maintaining progressively deeper and deeper states throughout more and more complex activities of life.
- Depth. There is a continuum of states, from a light focus almost everyone has experienced to profound states of physiological trance that very few people have experienced.
Shinzen gives an example of a breadth progression of the meditative state:
As you can see, meditation slowly shifts from something you do during the day, to becoming something you increasingly are. Eventually the entire day occurs during your meditation. Ordinary daily activities become moments of significant psychospiritual evolution. Breadth and depth continue to deepen, and when they pass a certain critical point, you “find yourself living an enlightened life.” Learning to meditate is in some ways analogous to learning how to drive a car:
You have to start in an empty parking lot where everything is simple, and there are no pressures on you. Formal practice in stillness, such as sitting meditation, is analogous to the empty parking lot. Over time, however, you internalize the skills of driving and are able to drive on a quiet country road. Formal practice in motion, such as walking meditation, is the quiet country road. Eventually, driving becomes second nature. It requires little thinking or effort. You simply get in a car and driving happens.
… and over time you grow to find yourself being able to navigate busy traffic while eating, talking, and listening to the radio. Driving still “just happens” on top of all that.
My Taoist teacher, Serge Augier, makes a distinction between mind exercises (Shen Gong) and actual meditation (Shen Dan). I will go into more detail on the different practices of the Taoist school I am in at a later time, but briefly, mind exercises are for developing attention, learning how your mind works, and calming the mind down. An example would be to sit down and focus on one of your senses, such as hearing, for 30 minutes. Any time your attention drifts from hearing to another one of your senses, for example to thinking or feeling, you gently return it to listening.
On the other hand, meditation is a state of being where we connect with who we really are, as I described at the beginning of this post. I practice our school’s “Sitting and Forgetting” or Zuowang practice which leaves a markedly different effect on me than the myriad of other mind exercises I do, such as developing the sensory circuits. What Adyashanti describes as true meditation is also an example.
One of Shinzen’s many incredible, free online resources7 is the 76-page article What is Mindfulness?. Before presenting his own definition, Shinzen first critiques two common definitions of mindfulness:
“Presence-centered, non-judgmental awareness.”
- Presence-centered. Because “presence-centered” is used, people may be mistaken that fantasizing or thinking about the past or future is not mindful. However, only the content of the thought is not in the present. As long as you are aware of the thought the instant it arises, regardless of what the content of the thought is, then you are in presence-centered awareness.
- Non-judgmental awareness. Similarly, people may interpret “non-judgmental” to mean that judging anything is wrong and not mindful, which in itself is a judgment. “Non-judgmental awareness” simply means that, if any judgments arise, don’t judge the judgment; be aware of its arising in the present and accept the judgment, allowing it to come and go.
“Self-purification through self-observation.”
- Self-observation. If there’s always a self observing, then how will you get free from that self? Through practice, the sensory circuits become extremely refined in awareness. Eventually, the habit of observing/mindfulness/clarity does the observing/mindfulness/clarity for you, and the sense of a self who is meditating goes away. This is just like the car analogy in the previous section, where the habit of driving does the driving for you, and you find yourself arriving at your destination, wondering how you got there.
In the first chapter of the book The Mindful Brain, Dr. Dan Siegel compiles numerous definitions of mindfulness;8 renown mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition is:
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
Not bad. Dan presented a study which found five of “the most statistically useful and reliable constructs in creating an operational definition of mindfulness”:
- Nonreactivity to inner experience e.g. perceiving feelings and emotions without having to react to them
- Observing/noticing/attending to sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings e.g. remaining present with sensations and feelings even when they are unpleasant or painful
- Acting with awareness/(not on) automatic pilot, concentration/nondistraction e.g. breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else
- Describing/labeling with words e.g. easily putting beliefs, opinions, and expectations into words
- Nonjudgmental of experience e.g. criticizing oneself for having irrational or appropriate emotions
… that’s the longest operational definition of a single word I’ve ever come across. Shinzen’s definition comes as a breath of fresh air:
“Concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together.”
- Concentration. Focusing attention on what you deem relevant.
- Sensory clarity. Discerning the components that constitute an experience and detecting their subtle essence. A microscopic investigation of the senses.
- Equanimity. Allowing sensory experiences to come and go, expand and contract, or be still, without interfering or identifying with it. A gentle matter-of-factness, a letting go of any craving or aversion around whatever comes up in experience. Fundamentally, a relationship to our own sensory circuits, whether in response to objective external experiences or internal sensory experiences such as subjective thoughts, images, or emotions.
At any instant, we may be experiencing any combination of mental talk, mental imagery, and body sensations. Sensory clarity is detecting and discriminating the qualities, intensities, timing (e.g. start, stop, rate of change), and spatial nature (e.g. size, shape, location, width, depth, height) of these sensory events.
Yes, even thoughts can be spatially tracked; usually the space for mental images occurs towards the anterior. Images associated with memory, planning, and fantasy tend to occur in front of/behind the eyes; self-images tend to occur where the body is; when your eyes are closed, the images you get of your surroundings tend to be arrayed out and around you.
Internal talk tends to be located towards the posterior, usually in the back part of your head or at your ears.
Body sensations come in two main categories: physical-type body sensations such as sights, taste, sounds, smells, and touch, and emotional-type such as anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, impatience, disgust, interest, joy, love, gratitude, humor, and smiling.
There’s more! Sensory clarity is keeping track of:
- how much,
- of what,
- interacting in what ways, and
- changing at what rate.
… and not letting any of these bits of sensory information tangle into a skein. When we lose track of sensory clarity, our sense of self manifests as a “separate, vulnerable particle,” which is an illusion, rather than as an “interactive, uninhibited wave of personality.” If two threads, one white and one red, were tangled together and held at a distance from you, you would get “a very clear impression that there is a unified pink mass.” Upon closer inspection, however, the pink disappears. In the case of self, instead of pinkness, the property that goes away is “thingness.” With a microscopic sensory awareness into the fundamental substance of thought and feeling, we gain what Buddhists call insight into no self. We don’t lose our ego because it was never there to begin with. “Instead,” Shinzen says, “we simply see the sensory situation as it is.”
Fusing equanimity with microscopic-level sensory clarity allows all those sensory components to arise uninhibited moment by moment. Without equanimity, we would be holding on to or interfering with the natural flow of thoughts and feelings, imparting a molasses-like viscosity to our sensory circuits, and ultimately preventing the “self-as-wave” from flowing smoothly. With equanimity, you exist in a permanent flow state, where internal fluidity manifests as external spontaneity. You embody the Tao. You “possess the doingness of self as opposed to being possessed by the somethingness of self.”
There is much, much more to unpack regarding why and how! Shinzen devotes entire chapters elaborating these points. With boring definitions out of the way, I’ll be able to continue with the fun stuff in Part 2. To quickly summarize, greeting experiences with the threefold attentional skill set of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity dramatically catalyzes enlightenment, which Shinzen believes is a natural process just waiting to happen:
Whether they know it or not, all human beings are involved in the path to enlightenment by virtue of living daily life. Nature (or grace, or spirit, if you’re comfortable with such words) is constantly pulling us toward the enlightened state. The main difference between a practitioner and any other person is the speed at which they are intentionally moving along this path.
I agree with him. In a previous post I mentioned how I believe the desire for enchantment (what’s a greater enchantment than enlightenment?) is an inherently human quality or phylogenetically-acquired somatic function of a healthy human organism. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who I mentioned earlier, states that the newest research demonstrates the personal transformation that comes with enlightenment experiences is a “biological imperative that drives us from the moment we are born.” Our brains crave these experiences! But let alone the experiences themselves; even being on a path of consciously seeking enlightenment produces beneficial long-term structural changes in the brain, suggesting that we are biologically predisposed to seeking.
Through the course of Nature muddy water becomes clear
Through the unfolding of life man reaches perfectionLaozi (Daodejing, Poem 15)
- image source: snap snap snap
- Shinzen already offers an enormous amount of free content (some articles are well over 80 pages!) and videos on his website & YouTube, but his book is the friendliest collation on the topic I’ve ever come across.
- I pulled a number of these names from Adyashanti’s writings
- Aldous Huxley referred to this universal phenomenon as the perennial philosophy
- and one such guest has been Shinzen
- though Shinzen identifies as a “generalized mystic” and not as a Buddhist
- again, see footnote 2
- admittedly, this is the least interesting part of the book!