May 4, 2011
This post is the second in a series; you can read the first here.
I have already given a brief overview of what the goal of a particular style of meditation is, and why some individuals in this community might find it beneficial to pursue. The basic structure of this article will be as follows: a brief restatement of my major claims, a highly abridged history of meditation in one Buddhist-associated tradition and of models of the path towards enlightenment (from its ancient Buddhist roots to the modern day), and then a short-but-explicit set of instructions which an interested individual can use to see for themselves whether this style of meditation leads to what I have claimed it does.
My basic claims from Part 1:
A highly abridged history of effective Buddhist-styled meditation, from a contemporary secular perspective.
The man whom we refer to as the Buddha lived around 500 BCE and taught various forms of meditation to those who were interested in pursuing enlightenment. His followers collected and preserved his teachings, first as an oral tradition, and later in written form. The written collection is formally called the 'sutta pitaka' in Pali; I say 'the suttas' to refer to the teachings in general in the form in which they're currently preserved.
The suttas describe various ways in which enlightenment is reached. The most common formulation is that a meditator will pass through four altered states of consciousness in sequence (called 'jhanas'), and after having passed through the fourth, they will grasp the truth of things and their delusions will be extinguished. The suttas also contain other formulations, some of which are elaborations of this (e.g. eight altered states of consciousness instead of four), and some of which are not (e.g. people reaching enlightenment through certain kinds of intellectual reflection, directly hearing the Buddha's instructions, certain ways of regarding the content of experience, etc.). The suttas describe four stages of enlightenment (the first three being 'partial enlightenment' and stepping-stones on the way to full enlightenment) but there is much less detail on how they come about in relation to the progression-through-four-jhanas theory.
Around 400 CE, Buddhaghosa wrote a book called the Visuddhimagga, which is ultimately adopted as the orthodox view that characterizes Theravada Buddhism. (Theravada Buddhism is the form of Buddhism most common in Southeast Asia, and which hews closest to the suttas compared to all other currently-extant forms of Buddhism.) According to the Visuddhimagga, there is an attentional exercise called (roughly) 'concentration,' the application of which leads to the aforementioned altered states of consciousness, and there is an attentional exercise called (roughly) 'discernment,' which is along the lines of what I describe in the next section. In order to reach enlightenment via meditation, one develops and improves the capacity to execute these two exercises, in various manners and with varying amounts of emphasis on one or the other (according to the capabilities and inclinations of the meditator). [Modern scientific research often taxonomizes forms of meditation as 'focused attention' or 'open monitoring', which may or may not be derived from an inaccurate understanding of the Visuddhimagga's instructions regarding 'concentration' and 'discernment'.]
In the 20th century, a Burmese monk in the Theravada tradition (Mahasi Sayadaw, 1904-1982) is taught, practices, and subsequently popularizes a style of meditation which many people discover to be extremely powerful and effective. In his tradition, the progression-through-four-jhanas theory is reconciled with what the Visuddhimagga says: the path to enlightenment is modeled as a progression through four basic modes of perception, which manifest in varying ways due to personal factors and the extent to which a meditator has developed the capacity for and applies 'concentration'. The four basic modes of perception are further divided into sub-modes (eleven relevant sub-modes in all). Having passed through all the sub-modes serially, one reaches partial enlightenment; repeatedly passing through them all eventually leads to full enlightenment.
Contemporary practitioners have further refined the previous model of meditation, by further subdividing the sub-modes of perception, and making some astute observations about the ways in which modes and sub-modes present cyclically and the ways in which they can be developed and manifest outside of meditation in everyday life. (More about the latter two claims later in this post, and in Part 3). Some important revisions are made to the model of partial enlightenment with respect to how one makes progress from partial enlightenment towards full enlightenment. Contemporary practitioners are also responsible for producing the viewpoint that leads to this abridgement, in the following sense:
So it goes. I for one am glad that contemporary experience has built the groundwork so that 2500 years of Buddhist tradition can be framed in a way that makes sense outside of a religious context.
(Non-Theravada Buddhist traditions have been omitted for the sake of simplicity, not because I or contemporary communities have anything against them.)
There is lots of disagreement about whether the enlightenment I describe is the same as the enlightenment that [the suttas / the Visuddhimagga / etc.] describe, or whether there are other methods that lead to something even better than it. It's an interesting question, but will not be resolved here. The only thing that's important here is that the methods I describe lead to something very useful which you are not likely to ever run into unless you put them into practice. So, listen up.
How to meditate if you want to be enlightened.
What follows is a simplified description of one style of meditation which has been shown to be extremely effective, along with a simplified model of where one is along the path to partial enlightenment, and what to do about it. This style of meditation emphasizes the development of 'discernment' rather than 'concentration,' though both will be developed to some extent. The simplifications are my own, and they draw heavily on my own meditation practice, the experiences and knowledge of others, and "community knowledge."
A major focus of this method is to develop an acquaintance with what are called 'vibrations.' A meditator practicing in this style will eventually find that their experience is not static, but 'vibrates' or fluxes in a peculiar way over extremely short periods of time (fractions of a second). For an explanation by analogy, imagine a set of speakers playing music without dynamic variation; if a person rapidly turns the volume knob in the pattern off-low-high-low-off, the amplitude of the music will flux over time. Similarly, a meditator practicing in this style finds that the components of experience are not static, but fluctuate rapidly from nonexistent to existent and back again. N.B. This has nothing to do with the fact that the contents of experience are constantly changing. Rather, apparently static objects (e.g. an unchanging white visual field) turn out to be in flux.
The analogy only goes so far. Unlike music whose volume is being manipulated, recognizing that experience is made of 'vibrations' rather than static objects is not in itself disorienting and does not in itself affect one's ability to keep track of or make sense of or appreciate one's experience. A discussion of why is unimportant, but a person who takes up this style of meditation will discover for themselves the fact that it does not have these effects, and may get some intuitive sense of why. Another dis-analogy is that this fluxing appears to be tied into the mental process of attention, rather than presenting purely as a property of sensory experience.
The orthodox view is that these vibrations are related to 'impermanence,' according to Buddhism one of the three characteristics of everything that exists. A science-inspired view is that this style of meditation develops one's attention to the point that one can directly observe an artifact of the way that attention is implemented and interacts with sense data and cognitive content in the brain. In context of practicing meditation, the true explanation does not really matter; what matters is that experience has shown that developing the ability to perceive vibrations is an important step towards enlightenment and so you had better do it.
As an interesting aside, there is a common belief that meditation works by reinforcing ways of thinking and feeling, and their continued reinforcement slowly biases one's everyday experiences towards those ways of thinking and feeling. For example, one might believe that a meditator cultivates pleasant feelings and learns to vanquish unpleasant feelings, and eventually pleasant feelings become more common and unpleasant feelings are easily done away with when they arise. This appears not to describe how meditation aimed at reaching enlightenment works. In the style being described, one will do practices that develop attention and perception, but at the end, when attention and perception have become sufficiently precise and clear, something completely unexpected will dawn upon the meditator...specifically, that they have been laboring under delusions which are caused by the inability to see clearly. Now that they see clearly, they unexpectedly and permanently reap the cognitive and emotional benefits of not being deluded in the ways they were. The practices that develop attention and perception are, by contrast, not especially interesting or useful in themselves. Unlike meditation aimed at generating pleasant experiences, one needs some degree of confidence that the development of attention and perception leads to a good outcome, since their development is unlikely to be valued in itself.
To recap, there are four basic modes of perception which are of interest in the context of meditation. These modes of perception can manifest in distinct and profound ways during intense meditation, but also can and will manifest during everyday life in subtle and unremarkable ways. Each has typical characteristics related to the width of one's attention, the frequencies of vibrations which present themselves, and the cognitive / emotional content which tends to appear. When you sit down to meditate, you generally begin in the first mode, and slide upwards to the last mode that you have ever reached; continuing to meditate at the "edge" of the last mode you have reached allows you to progress to the next mode once you have put in enough effort and allowed your brain time to rewire. In general, once you reach a particular mode of perception, you are able to reach it again with much less effort (it is difficult to regress, especially if you meditate regularly, though it is possible). The stage you are at is determined by the highest mode you can easily reach. Therefore, there are four basic stages before partial enlightenment.
This is where you begin if you try to meditate, have never meditated before, and have no 'accidental aptitude' for developing your attention and perception outside of formal meditation, nor have personal factors which predispose you towards having developed your attention and perception without ever having made the explicit effort to. N.B. This means that some people, for whatever reason, will not start here, even without any formal meditation experience.
Typical qualities of mode one perception: Very narrow attentional width (if you "tune into" one sense you "tune out" the others"; if you "tune into" part of the content of one sense [e.g. a visual object in front of you] you "tune out" all the other content of that sense [e.g. your peripheral vision]), vibrations are subtle, various cognitive and emotional content but nothing very extreme aside from physical unpleasantness.
Goal: Develop attention sufficiently to focus on an object without one's mind wandering much; learn to distinguish different kinds of experiences; develop the ability to perceive vibrations clearly.
Basic method: Sit down in a place where there are few distractions, and pick an object to focus one's attention on. The most popular objects are the feeling of breath at the tip of the nostrils / upper lip, and the motion of the abdomen as one breathes in and out. (In this description I'll assume you're using the latter.) Begin by trying to clearly perceive the feeling of the abdomen expanding and contracting; when it expands and you perceive it clearly, attach the label 'in' to that perception, and when it contracts and you perceive that clearly, attach the label 'out' to that perception. As your attention becomes more stable and precise, you can divide the experience up into as many parts as you can discern: for example, 'in'->'holding'->'out'->'holding', or further, 'in-beginning'->'in-slowing'->'holding'->'out-beginning'->'out-slowing'->'holding'. The label you use is not important so long as it's simple and makes sense to you. What is important is attending to the perception, and the best way to do this is by attaching a label to the perception every time you notice it clearly. Focus on perceiving every aspect of the movement of your abdomen as precisely as is possible for you, given your current level of attentional and perceptual development, and on keeping your attention as set on the movements of your abdomen as possible given the same. When you get good at this, try to incline your mind towards the attentional / perceptual flux called 'vibrations' in the experience of your abdomen moving. Try to see how, in the experience of attention being fixed on an object, it is continually being set and re-set there. After enough practice, they will make themselves apparent.
Whenever your attention goes to anything other than your abdomen, attach a label to the accidental object of attention and then go back to your abdomen. If you wonder about how effective the exercise is, believe it's easy, believe it's hard, decide it's pointless, congratulate yourself for how you're doing, etc. etc., label it 'thinking' and go back. If you think about your day, your future plans or responsibilities, etc., etc., also label it 'thinking.' If you visualize what you're going to do after meditation, etc. label it 'imagining.' If you have the desire to move, label it 'restless.' If you form the intention to move, label it 'intending.' If you feel some emotion, label it appropriately: 'happy,' 'sad,' 'enthusiastic,' whatever. If your attention wanders off for a long time, when you regain it and realize that, label the whole daydream or reverie 'wandering' and put your attention back on your abdomen. If you hear a distracting noise, label it 'hearing.' Anytime your attention is not on your abdomen, whatever it's on, recognize that it's not on your abdomen and is instead on that thing, label it, then go back.
If you've done the basic method in stage one successfully, you will eventually get here.
Typical qualities of mode two perception: slightly wider attentional width, vibrations are obvious and often perceived effortlessly, potential for extreme shifts in mood and energy towards the positive end of the spectrum; potential for surprising or detailed spontaneous visualizations or mental imagery, potential for highly physical / sexual / pleasurable sensations, potential for all kinds of egocentric biases (in the everyday sense) concerning one's capabilities, moral worth, etc., potential for 'missionary behavior' concerning meditation because it seems like meditation is so fun, pleasant, effortless, etc. and everyone else would enjoy it if they would only do it, potential for generic [hypo]manic behavior (such as high sex drive, low need for sleep, etc.).
Goal: Observe vibrations without any special regard to the content of the experience that they comprise; spend enough time observing them that it becomes effortless; try to observe them so precisely that you will be able to see an extremely high number of them per second.
Basic method: Approximately the same as with stage one, except that meditation is typically much easier and effortless here, many of the admonishments and bits of advice can be put aside. If you can simply attend to any aspect of your experience and perceive vibrations in it, it is sufficient to attend and perceive them. If you get lost or your attention falls off, you can go back to observing your abdomen and labeling things until it recovers. Try to attend fluidly and effortlessly, as if the only thing you would like to do is indifferently observe your experience. Again, let mental activity that isn't concerned with observing vibrations (and possibly with labeling experience) fall away due to disinterest, as much as you can. Try to be indifferent towards the content of your experience (e.g. if you visualize Buddha vibrating at 10hz, pay attention to the fact that the image is vibrating at 10hz and not the fact that the image is Buddha or that you like or dislike the visualization). Observe very precisely and rapidly. Don't feel obligated to stay with your abdomen if you can more easily observe vibrations in some other aspect of your experience. (For example, I find the visual field, on the back of the eyelids or with eyes open, to be very good for this.)
This stage manifests in a variety of ways that typically mimic hypomania, and in extreme cases can mimic mania with psychotic features. If a lot of crazy stuff presents itself to you and you find it disturbing, remember that it is not atypical for this stage and will eventually go away. If you have intense visualisations or hallucinations, just label it 'seeing.' If you feel like you're going mad, label it 'thinking.' If you feel like meditation is the greatest thing and that you'd like to preach about its benefits, also label it 'thinking.' If you think "I must be enlightened!", definitely label it 'thinking,' and feel free to label it 'delusion' also, because you're far from it.
If this is your first time passing through this mode of perception (which doesn't include people who have without ever having made the explicit effort to meditate), it is likely to alter the way you relate to your own sense of self, and you are likely to find that you have a better intuitive grasp of issues in philosophy of mind due to that alteration. This is likely to be permanent.
It is highly typical for the end of this stage to involve extremely strong physical rushing sensations ("energy") throughout the body. They can be extremely sexual (like the biggest orgasm you've ever had), possibly paradoxically pleasant and unpleasant at the same time, and can somehow distort your sense of self or constitute a very short-lived bona fide altered state of consciousness. When they occur, they can make you feel as if you're losing your identity or your volition as they temporarily take over your experiential world. Observe that they are comprised of vibrations and try to see them as precisely as you can. The number of vibrations you may see may be very high, like 20 or 40 per second, so don't aim too low. If the experience is too extreme to keep your wits, then just submit to it without fighting and without worrying about where your identity or volition will go.
If you ever get to stage two, it should be easy to get here, because the characteristic mode of perception in stage two is enjoyable and makes you want to keep observing your experience. My advice is only likely to make it happen faster. In stage three, the characteristic mode of perception tends to be unpleasant, so it is possible to get "stuck" because you may be inclined not to observe your experience. Read closely, commit what I'm writing to memory, and resolve to keep meditating no matter what.
Typical qualities of mode three perception: attentional width is very diffuse (as if you can see a lot of your experience at once, but none of it especially clearly), some vibrations are fast while others aren't, vibrations tend to change frequency less often, 'discord' between vibrations in the experiential field, potential for moodiness, low energy, depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and all kinds of other unpleasantness.
Goal: Observe vibrations. Attend to a wider swath of your experience than before, even if it feels like your ability to perceive it is clouded or muddled. If you feel terrible, label each and every such feeling. If you ruminate about how terrible you feel, label each and every such instance of thought. Whatever terrible experiences arise, see them as objects of experience, or better yet, as vibrating objects of experience.
Basic method: Like a cross between stage one and stage two. Vibrations should be easy to see, but unlike in mode two, observing them tends to be unpleasant, so some of the advice from stage one needs to be re-read and applied. The new element here is that attention is much wider than usual, so make peace with that (don't try to constrain your attention by focusing on your abdomen and trying to tune things out) and attend to experience in a way that accords with that width. The types of experiences here are different than before, so be sure to see them as clearly as you can.
This stage manifests in a variety of ways that typically mimic mild depression / anxiety, and in extreme cases can mimic depression with psychotic features. If the content of your experience starts getting crazy, the advice for dealing with crazy experiences in stage two applies here. If you visualize grinning skulls eating corpses, label it 'seeing.' If you feel like life is pointless and you can't go on, label it 'thinking.' If you think that this practice will extirpate your sense of self and you won't be able to function without it and will be condemned to a psychiatric ward, label it 'thinking' or 'delusion'. And so on.
The more into this stage you get, the worse it tends to be, so don't be discouraged if nothing you do appears to be helping.
Keep in mind that there are lots of individual factors involved and your experience may only be mildly unpleasant. That is not atypical either.
Also, keep in mind that if you stop meditating altogether at this point, mode three perception (with all its negative content) is likely to become the subtle undercurrent of the rest of your life. That is seriously bad. Please don't do that to yourself. Please resolve, if you get to stage three, that you will keep meditating until you get out of it.
The contrast between stage three and stage four should be rather big. One typical manifestation of the very beginning of stage four is boredom or a feeling of blandness. So don't expect to immediately feel relieved when you get here, or to think "this feels so much better than what was happening before!" Recognize stage four by the fact that you've stopped feeling terrible, and your attention is both wider and clearer than before. It will not necessarily 'feel' like there is a big contrast; simply recognize that there is one.
Typical qualities of mode four perception: attentional width is such that you can see very large amounts of your experience and it seems rather clear (rather than muddled), vibrations are regular and slowly become synchronized, feelings of boredom and indifference that eventually turn into peace and equanimity, ability to perceive subtle aspects of experience that were previously indiscernible.
Goal: Observe your experience in a wide, diffuse way. Attend to all the subtle aspects. Don't ignore any aspects of experience just because you've never really reflected on them before or don't know what they are.
After the fireworks of stages two and three, this stage may incline you to think that meditation no longer works, and nothing interesting is really happening. It begins in an unassuming way, but ultimately develops into an experience characterized by enormous attentional width, peace, ease, the effortless ability to see all experiences as objects, and a plethora of subtle objects to observe. At the very end you may temporarily lose the ability to distinguish between your various senses. (This is not synaesthesia, but simply a change that involves objects being seen as 'experience' rather than being categorized by the particular sense they manifest in.) The distinction between the senses may seem arbitrary or artificial. Just keep meditating.
The rest of your life is likely to benefit from having mode four perception as its subtle undercurrent. Problems may seem less important and typical worries may no longer arise. If you stop meditating here, it is possible to do fine, but it is also possible to eventually regress to stage three (in which case mode three perception becomes the subtle undercurrent), which sucks. So try not to let that happen.
Partial enlightenment is preceded by the apparent momentary cessation of consciousness, which will happen at the very end of this stage. Some people find it very profound, in that they now have a radically different understanding of 'self' and of their own mind. Other people find it to be a natural evolution of what they already have developed, and so do not find it to usher in an enormous new paradigm. My working hypothesis is that, the more steeped in Buddhist dogma and belief one is, the more likely it is to be seen as natural. (If "all phenomena are not-self" has been resonating in your mind for years, understanding what it means is likely to be less shocking.) If you get to this point, write a post on LW and let us know what you think!
It is sometimes hard to be sure that you have experienced an apparent momentary cessation of consciousness. One 'test' is simply to see whether you suddenly have a different perspective on things. Another 'test' is to consider which of these cases applies to you:
After partial enlightenment, at first the various modes of perception will present strongly, and the rapid transitions may be somewhat disorienting, but eventually the brain manages to integrate these various modes of perception and they become rather unimportant, and their emotional and cognitive peculiarities taper off. The subtle undercurrent of one's everyday experience may slowly shift to perceptual mode four.
Enlightenment has no qualities. It is not a feeling of apathy, detachment, a trippy altered state of consciousness, or a constant stream of awesome vibes. Partial enlightenment is partially like enlightenment. Do not expect all your emotions to be gone and everything good to be sucked out of life; do not expect to find an endless fountain of joy inside of you. Actually reaching partial enlightenment may make it extremely clear to you how silly these expectations are; but despite that, people have them, and so I have to say something about them.
Partial enlightenment is good in itself, but I would not be able to explain why. Review the first post in the series for some of my claims about the incidental benefits of enlightenment, which are easier to explain.
It helps to know someone who is experienced with respect to this style of meditation and these four stages, but if you have no one to talk to, you can do it by yourself if you have enough commitment and can follow instructions. You will get better advice on how to finesse your way through these various experiences from a person, because they can tailor what they say to your particular experiences and your personality, and because there is immense individual variation in how minds work which needs to be accounted for when giving advice. Also, there is an enormous amount of useful advice which will help many people in meditation, but trying to stuff it all into a blog post would be absurd. Remember that the model and advice in this post is a condensed version of a much larger model and much more exhaustive advice.
I include one general piece of advice at the end, because I don't know if it's true, but I think it is. That advice is, if there is some aspect of experience which is suddenly especially interesting or strange to you, that aspect of experience is worth focusing on during meditation until it becomes less interesting or strange. For example, if you are in stage one and it appears to you that your intentions are not leading to action in the way you normally expect, that is worth paying attention to; or, if you are in stage four and are fascinated by the perception of 'nothingness,' that is worth paying attention to.
Getting from partial to full enlightenment is not necessarily harder (though it generally is). Good advice for how to do it is definitely much harder to summarize and can be highly individual. The process is approximately akin to the process that first gets you to partial enlightenment, but not really. If you get to this point and want to go further, you should find someone to talk to about it.
Don't forget that being partially enlightened is not the same as being fully enlightened. You are still deluded. Assume that you still don't really know what enlightenment is about, even though you may have a much better idea than before. Don't stand on a pulpit and tell people what it's about unless you are extremely confident that you know and that further meditation won't change your mind, taking what I just wrote into consideration.
If you are psychologically unstable or suffer from mental illness, please read the descriptions of stages two and three carefully, consider the ways in which they might exacerbate the problems you are already dealing with, and make an informed decision about whether to proceed. If you do decide to proceed, make sure your plan includes ways to deal with these stages safely. And get a doctor's approval and supervision before beginning any of this, whether or not you have pre-existing problems, since I'm not a doctor and not a dispenser of medical advice. You follow the technique I describe at your own risk.
Now you know how to meditate. Secret knowledge has been revealed to you. If you're interested, test it for yourself and see whether what I have written is true. If you have not done these practices and never observed someone else do them and their results, you have minimal evidence with which to judge the truth of my claims. Perhaps one source of evidence for you will be what other LWers say after trying these exercises themselves. Keep in mind that it takes a variable amount of time to reach partial enlightenment, through if you have a committed practice, a year is a good upper bound. If you have been practicing for awhile and not seeing much, get feedback; you may not be following the instructions even though you think you are. One of the benefits of contemporary communities is that openness and feedback about meditation may have reduced the amount of time it takes to make progress, so take advantage of that feature.
The way that common descriptions of how to meditate go wrong is as follows. Beginners' minds are inclined by default to do everything other than cultivate their attention and perception in a way that leads to results. (If it were otherwise, most people wouldn't be beginners when they start meditating.) Generic instructions such as "follow your breath and don't get caught up in your thoughts" lead to beginners' minds doing a wide variety of different things. (Such instructions are not specific enough to constrain what their minds do or guide them towards developing attention and perception in the right way.) Because of the fact that the prevalent culture of groups interested in meditation in the West involves norms of not talking about one's experiences in detail, not talking about enlightenment as a goal, and not criticizing other people's meditation methods, meditators are never given any way to gauge their progress or any means by which they would recognize and correct their own failure to cultivate their attention and perception. Compounding this, many meditation groups are interested in mood and stress alteration rather than enlightenment, and are not aiming at developing their attention and perception, and so many people never hear that that there is something worth cultivating through meditation apart from relaxation and detachment from negative thoughts and feelings. The style of meditation I describe avoids these problems by 1) coming pre-packaged with a model of how to reach enlightenment, 2) focusing on developing the perception of vibrations and then observing them, which has been shown to be a way that gets people to cultivate their minds in the right way, and 3) providing a way to test whether they have (i.e. "can you perceive vibrations?")
I am not claiming that no other style of meditation is effective or is as effective as this one, or that any effective style bears striking similarities to this one. My claim is that this style is highly effective and easy to teach. My personal belief is that it is a member of a family of closely-related meditation styles which are the most effective known styles for teaching contemporary Westerners, but establishing that convincingly requires data to which I don't have access.
In Part 3 I shall include criticisms and arguments against my claims, reflections on science with respect to their interest in and models of meditation, and some specific things which contemporary communities who study and practice this stuff believe about meditation which would have significant consequences for the practice of clinical psychology and for people's everyday mental health if they were true. And perhaps some other things that I haven't yet thought of. (If there are specific issues anyone would like me to address, please write them in the comment section and I'll see if I can work them in.)