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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Shinzen Young: The Science of Enlightenment, Part 1
Shinzen Young is a renowned mindfulness teacher known for his live gatherings, where he uses a scientific, "algorithmic" approach to explain the many aspects of meditation. With Sounds True, he has published the decades-in-the-making book The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Shinzen speak on his approach to mindfulness, including a method of breaking down sensory experience into easily parsed categories. They talk about the three core powers of focused attention—sensory clarity, concentration, and equanimity—and how mindfulness can free us of the impression that our selves are static and unchanging. Finally, Shinzen and Tami discuss the different ways in which we can understand the concept of enlightenment, including an in-depth consideration of what Shinzen calls "classical enlightenment." (66 minutes)
Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge.. Today my guest is Shinzen Young. Shinzen is an American mindfulness teacher who is known for his algorithmic approach to mindfulness, and often uses mathematical metaphors to illustrate meditative phenomena. He leads meditation retreats throughout North America and has helped establish numerous mindfulness centers and programs, including the Home Practice program. With Sounds True, Shinzen has written a new book—a book several decades in the making—called The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works, where he merges scientific clarity, a hybrid of Eastern and Western teachings, and offers readers an uncommonly lucid guide to mindfulness meditation.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Shinzen and I spoke about how one of his approaches to mindfulness includes "dividing and conquering," also known as the strategy "Untangle and Be Free," in which he breaks down sensory experience into categories of seeing, hearing, and feeling. We also talked about how Shinzen defines mindfulness as consisting of three core powers of attention: concentration power, the power of sensory clarity, and the power of equanimity; and how by developing mindfulness, we can be liberated from identifying with the self as a thing and instead recognizing the fluid quality of the self. We talked about the observer trap in meditation, and how understanding that consciousness works in patterns of contraction and expansion can free us from this trap. And finally, we talked about how enlightenment can be understood on different levels, and what Shinzen means when he speaks of "classical enlightenment." Here's my conversation on The Science of Enlightenment with Shinzen Young:
Shinzen, I want to begin by congratulating you on the publication of The Science of Enlightenment. I know that this book has been several decades in the making, and I just want to say thank you so much for bringing it out into the world in book form—The Science of Enlightenment.
Shinzen Young: Well, I guess I have to reciprocate by thanking you so much for motivating me to do that, and being so patient with a project that was supposed to take a year [and] taking an order of magnitude more time than that! I'm feeling the love, thank you.
TS: Well, as you teach in The Science of Enlightenment, having equanimity in the face of whatever's happening—including maybe the impatience I felt. I've had plenty of chances to practice equanimity.
SY: I see, yes.
TS: I'm just joking with you, Shinzen, I'm so pleased—
SY: It was good for your daily monastery.
TS: Yes. I'm so pleased that—
SY: It was actually good for me too because one of my main struggles in life has been perennial procrastination. Through a combination of the practice and some behaviorally oriented therapy, I finally was able to break through that a little bit. So, it pushed me, too, but it was a really good push.
TS: Well, now I'm going to have to ask you a question about that. A behaviorally oriented therapy to address procrastination? I think a lot of listeners have procrastination problems; how did you break through?
SY: Well, as I said, it was actually a combination of my practice and that behaviorally oriented accountability and support structure. When we use the word "enlightenment," it can either refer in a narrow way to a kind of paradigm shift that is permanent and sort of frees one from the limited perspective; but we can also use the word "enlightenment" in a broader sense to include that paradigm shift plus becoming an admirable human being—in other words, integrating that paradigm shift into your behaviors in a way that you live more skillfully in terms of objective actions.
The core skills and techniques of mindfulness can help with behavior change—overcoming procrastination is one form of behavior change. It's something I'm not doing that I should be doing [and] I'm resisting, so I need to overcome that resistance. Another form of behavior change obviously is something I'm doing, like abusing a substance or food, and I need to change—to stop doing that, change that behavior. So basically, there's two kinds of behavior change.
Now, where practice and techniques enter in is that they will allow you to deconstruct a negative urge—either deconstruct the urge to do the action that you would best not do, [or] you can also use it to deconstruct the resistance to taking an action that you would best do. So, in my case, when I would have resistance to the writing or other responsibilities, I would break it up into mental image, mental talk, and body emotion, and it's divide and conquer. So, I would sort of deconstruct it until it lost its hold over me. Then I found that I could overcome the procrastination at that time.
However, I found that in this particular case, with me, the mindfulness techniques and the mindfulness skills were insufficient to overcome my procrastination enough so that I could write that book and do other things that I was resisting doing. So, I think it's important to understand the awesome power of concentration, clarity, and equanimity; those are the basic mindfulness skills as I define it. It's important to understand the awesome power of those to improve all dimensions of a person's happiness. But it's also important to understand the limitations of those, and what needs to be supplemented for what might be called "optimal" happiness.
So, if you can apply your practice to a behavior change and you are sufficiently successful with that, well and good. But I wasn't; the practice wasn't enough. So, what else had to be supplemented that's not part of practice is something that I call "a behaviorally oriented accountability and support structure." So, it's someone giving you small, manageable assignments and then you reporting that you either did it or you didn't, and if you didn't do it then you have to admit that; if you did do [it], then it's good. One way or another, they support you.
What happened was: through a combination of being given these assignments with this external structure, which was a therapist—actually a psychiatrist, but he was functioning as a [behaviorist] because that's what I asked him for. He would give me the assignments, I'd have resistance, I would apply the technique, it would be usually successful because they were small assignments, and then he escalated the assignments. The depth of my practice kept pace with that. The combination of the two was an effective cocktail.
TS: There's a lot in what you just said, and I want to pull out a couple of pieces. You were talking about your definition of mindfulness, and deconstructing our experience. You said that in the way you see mindfulness, it's a combination of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. I don't think that's common language for people when they think of mindfulness, so tell me about those three elements.
SY: Sure. The book is called The Science of Enlightenment, so I already mentioned a couple things about enlightenment. One of the things that I would mention about science is that the nuts and bolts of science is "divide and conquer." Now, some people don't understand that phrase—it sounds sort of imperialistic or aggressive—but divide and conquer means if you have something that is a complex situation, break it up into small, natural atoms, and then you can conquer your overwhelm. OK?
I would say that most of the book is about how the spirit of science has informed the way I teach meditation/mindfulness. One of the ways the spirit of science has informed the way I teach is that I think dimensionally; I break things down into their basic components and I'm a bit of a stickler for precision in language because that's another part of the nuts and bolts of science—is to be able to say what you mean, to actually put in words the concept you have in your head.
The endeavor of meditation—broadly, worldwide—can be broken down into three basic dimensions—three basic attentional skills that I call concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Now, the reason for defining things that way is it becomes a basis for a very broad and clear analysis of not just the different forms of mindfulness or the different forms of Buddhist practice, but broadly contemplative-based psycho-spiritual growth throughout the millennia and over the whole planet. You can look at each tradition and see in what way they explicitly or implicitly developed those three skills.
Concentration power is the ability to attend to what you deem relevant. Sensory clarity is the ability to untangle the strands of an experience into its basic components. Equanimity is the ability to allow those strands to come and go without push and pull. I've sort of analyzed meditation into those components.
Now, let's say we're dealing with a practical issue—like I'm going through a negative emotion or I'm experiencing a negative urge that I want to not act on. Any emotion that you might experience will involve three dimensions of sensory experience. Now, we're applying dimensional analysis or the spirit of science to the experience of self.
So, mental image and mental talk are the thought components; you can break them down—you can break thought into a visual and an auditory component. Then you have the body emotion. So, when I have a challenging emotion or a negative urge, I use the clarity piece to detect what part of it is a visual thought, what part is the auditory thought, and what part is body emotion—that's clarity. Then I briefly—when each one of those arises, I briefly focus all my attention on it. That's called Khanika Samadhi in the mindfulness tradition, momentary high concentration. Then I also try to give permission for that sensory component in that moment to expand and contract as it wishes. That's the equanimity piece.
Well, it turns out that when you habitually apply those three skills to the inner see/hear/feel that constitutes a negative emotion, that negative emotion causes less suffering. When you apply it to a positive emotion, that positive emotion delivers more fulfillment. So, it's win-win.
But when you apply those same skills to the same three elements that constitute a negative urge—say, to procrastinate or to overeat—what happens is they lose their power to control your behavior. So, we can use the practice both to—we can use the same skills, apply the same three dimensions of focus skill, applied in the same three dimensions of sensory experience (mental image, mental talk, and body emotion).
It turns out it's enormously general and broad; if it's a pleasant thing you're experiencing, it will be more fulfilling. If it's unpleasant, it will cause less suffering. And if it's a negative urge, its control over you will weaken. So that's another way that the spirit of science can inform the way we teach meditation because I've just given you a relatively simple paradigm that works for an enormous range of human applications. Suffer less, be more fulfilled, and be able to act more skillfully in the world.
TS: You know, Shinzen, you introduce so many exciting insights—at least exciting to me—in The Science of Enlightenment, so there's so much I want to talk to you about, I'm kind of bursting here. But, as we're talking about this "divide and conquer" approach, you also call it "untangle and be free." I really like that.
SY: Yes, because for some people, "divide and conquer" is too violent.
TS: Yes. I like the femme-y "untangle and be free." And part of that has to do with [untangling] this solid sense of self—be free from this sense of a solid thing that is the self. Could you help me understand how using this deconstructive approach, we get insight into what it means to be free of a solid sense of self?
SY: Yes. That's very interesting and very deep. I would like about three hours for that, but I know you would like something in more like three minutes.
So, when you start out, you're just overwhelmed. You have a sense that there's a thing inside [you] called the self. You don't have much tangibility behind it, but there is this—all people have this strong sense—all adult people have this strong sense—that there is a thing inside me called "the self" that is fundamentally separate from an "it" called another person, another object, or more broadly, the world. So you sort of start out there—there's this strong sense of something that's separate.
Then you are given a technique that asks you to, moment by moment, say one of three words. Make your best guess: the three words are "see, hear, feel"—and typically I have people do that speaking it out loud initially, then they can do it mentally. "See" is short for "see in," meaning I'm experiencing a mental image. "Hear" is short for "hear in"—I'm listening to mental talk, self-talk, or dialogue inside my head. "Feel" is "feel in;" that's body emotion. So I'm going to ask you moment by moment to—and it's OK if you have to guess and grope—say exactly one of three words depending on whether your experience of self is dominated by a visual thought, auditory thought, or body emotion. And lo and behold, people can do it after a little bit of practice.
Once you do that, now OK, let's look a little more carefully at "see in"—at mental image. We're going to just look at that for a while. So, if you have a mental image, say, "See in," if you have no mental image, say, "See rest." If there's no mental image, notice that you're free from form. If there is a mental image, notice whether it's stable or changing.
OK, you do that for a little while. Now we're going to do the same thing with your mental talk. If there's no mental talk, notice that you're free from concepts, or at least verbal concepts. If there is mental talk, listen—it might just immediately vanish, it might stick around. Just let it be there.
Then we're going to do the same thing for body emotion—we're going to look individually. Now, as you're doing that, you're going to start to notice that those mental images are not always stable—often they immediately vanish, or even if they stick around, they sort of melt and morph. Same thing for mental talk, and actually same thing for body emotion. Now you start to get interested in the vanishing—constant vanishings, and the sort of waviness in there.
At some point, that dominates, and here's another metaphor with science—wave/particle complementarity. You start out [with] the self [as] a particle, solid and separate. Now, as we've sort of divided it into its components and then looked in a concentrated way with a lot of clarity, we start to notice a theme of change—abrupt change in the passing of things; continuous change in that it's [undulating], vibratory. At some point, the [undulating], vibratory, vanishing aspect becomes so prominent that your experience of self shifts from, "I'm a particle," to, "I am this flow of space that interacts with everything and is in essence nothing." So, it's paradoxical self; it's an elastic self. It's both transparent and rich at the same time. That's a sort of summary of what might take four days but might also take 40 years.
TS: I love it, Shinzen, when you use this wave/particle complementarity to talk about the self. I notice for me that brings a lot of insight in that sometimes, I do experience the particle nature, and sometimes I experience the wave nature. One of the points that you bring out in The Science of Enlightenment is this quote from Sasaki Roshi: "You must learn to let go of self and learn how to manifest self." I thought that was really interesting, because I think a lot of times when people get interested in mindfulness meditation, they're so determined to see that they're not a self that this idea of the particle part of us is not—
SY: Is bad.
TS: Yes. We have to push away the particle; if there's ever a particle, that's a problem. I wonder if you can talk about how this is a complementarity a little bit more. And what does it mean to learn how to both manifest ourself and let go of ourself?
SY: Yes. I really struggled a lot with this one in the early years of my practice. For the first 15 or 20 years of my practice, I literally tortured myself trying to get rid of the sense of self because according to what I had read and studied, success with the Buddhist path is when you realize "no-self." So my interpretation was, "Well then, if there's a self—a perception of self—then I'm not there yet. My meditation is a failure."
So, without realizing it, I was subtly suppressing, tightening around the arising of self. But you can't really suppress that, because the activation of the inner system—mental image, mental talk, and body emotion—is natural. It's something that just happens.
Anyway, I was talking to a student about his practice, and I said, "How are things going?" And he said, "Well, I discovered something interesting. I'm breaking down my experience of self into visual, auditory, and body components, and I'm just sort of labeling, ‘see, hear, feel.'" And I thought, "Wow, that's an interesting way to think about how the sense of self arises."
In early Buddhism, there's the notion that a sense of self comes about through five elements called The Five Aggregates. There's an implication in later Buddhism, in Vajrayana, that it involves mental image, mental talk, and body because when you try to have an experience of merging with an archetype in what's called deity yoga, it involves a visualization mantra, which is sort of a presumed mental talk of an archetype, and then the physical and emotional body sensations through the mudras.
So I realized, "Wow, that's sort of an integrating theme, that there are these components and they could be visual, auditory, and somatic." So, when I started to pay attention to how my sense of self arose, I noticed that sure enough, whenever I'd get a mental image, especially if it was an image of my own body or my own appearance, there would be this tightening—very "Aaah!" [makes agitated noise]—and as soon as mental talk arose, there'd be this physical tension, because, "I don't want that talk there, I've got to have quiet." I was also tensing around the arising of body emotion—interestingly, not just the unpleasant ones like nervousness or anger or embarrassment, but even the pleasant ones. I noticed if I got a self-referential pleasure—like someone would praise me—I'd start to smile and then I'd tighten around that smile. I was afraid to experience the pleasure of approbation.
Once I started to use this relatively simple untangle paradigm that was actually suggested to me by a student, I could really see how I was suppressing the arising of self. Then I started to try to not do that—to in fact do the opposite: to give total permission in general for the inner system, and particularly for the inner system when it's self-referential—when I get images of my own self, talk about who I am, what's good and bad about me, and praise and blame sensations in my body. Especially those self-referential inner see, hear, feel—but in general, all inner see, hear feel. I started to just say, "OK, just expand and contract, last as long or as short as you want. I give you complete permission to just do your thing." It was only then that I started to get some sense of liberation, because what I realized is there's a natural cycle. Just as the day shifts between daylight and nighttime, our inner system activates and rests over and over again—and by inner system, I mean mental image, mental talk, and body emotion. That system activates and then dies away, activates and then dies away. So, I realized that liberation is not just the absence of the self, it's noticing when the self is absent and then it's also giving permission for that system to activate as a flow of space.
So, my soundbite is: if the system goes inactive—there's no internal image, talk, or body emotion—that's like a no-real, no-self experience. Everyone has it thousands of times a day, they just don't notice. So no-self—if you notice it, no problem. But, then what happens is the system activates. Well, if you get out of the way and give it permission to expand and contract, it turns into a fluid self. So then the other part of the soundbite is "flow self, no problem"—no-self, no problem; flow self, no problem. You're alternating that nothingness when things come and return, and whether they return with the doingness of space. There's no time left for somethingness of self in the world.
TS: I love that, Shinzen—that fluidity, that fluidity. Now, a couple of times you've mentioned expansion and contraction, and to me this teaching that is interspersed throughout The Science of Enlightenment book—you call it the expansion/contraction paradigm of how consciousness works—is really one of the contributions, if you will, that I think you're making. In the intro—this is something that you learned from your studies with Sasaki Roshi—at least you credit him with introducing you to the expansion/contraction paradigm of how consciousness works. Can you explain that to our listeners?
SY: Sure. Over the years, my way of describing the effects of meditation on my life has changed because it's like a many-faceted jewel; you can see one side, you can see another side. There was a time when I mostly liked to talk about it in terms of oneness, but then there were—you can also talk about it sort of in terms of emptiness. There are times that I've been mostly wanting to talk about it in terms of true love. Lots of different ways you can talk about these things, and of course, that's very confusing to people when they begin their practice, because it's like, "Well, this one says this, and this one says this, and this one says that." It's the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, which does come from Buddhism and is in fact a metaphor for exactly this. There's just different ways to think about it.
But if you were to ask me what's the deepest way that I currently think about how consciousness works, it would be the expansion/contraction paradigm. However, first I need to say what I mean by "consciousness." By consciousness, I just mean sensory experience. So, by sensory experience, I mean what we see, hear, and feel. We have physical sights, physical sounds, physical impact on our body; we have mental image, mental talk; we have body emotion if we're willing to put the chemical senses of smell and tasted broadly under "body." We've got this inner and outer visual/auditory/somatic sensorium. That's what I mean by consciousness. So, it's not something abstract. To me, the word "consciousness" is just a synonym for sensory experience.
Sensory experience has to arise in time and space. So, in terms of the brain, an inner/outer or mixed sensory experience starts with an activation; that activation spreads through the brain, and it takes time for it to spread. Now, it doesn't take very long—we're talking about milliseconds, thousandths of a second. In neuroscience, typically you monitor brain activity on a graph that has a timescale of milliseconds—so thousandths of a second. One hundred milliseconds is a tenth of a second, and you can see that a perception might take a second or two or three to go from its inception to the person saying, "I'm not having a conscious experience."
So, what happens between the very instant of an inner, outer, or mixed arising and the ordinary experience of, "The world's out there, there's a self back here, and we're in a relationship,"—well, in those few hundred milliseconds, something actually happens—something that you can learn to detect that's always present, always been present, always will be present because it's what happens. OK?
So, as I mentioned, concentration, sensory clarity, equanimity. Sensory clarity has two sides. We talked about the untangling, the breaking down of things into manageable components, but there's also a detection dimension to clarity—the ability to detect subtle things. The subtlest of all subtle is what happens in those few, initial few hundredths of a millisecond as sensory experience is self-organizing. With practice, your clarity skill becomes such that you can actually tangibly experience that pre-conscious phase that's present in everyone's experience but most people have not developed the clarity to detect in a tangible way the process of pre-conscious processing. Neither do they have the concentration power to hold attention on it as they go about their daily activities. Neither do they have the equanimity to allow the ten thousand somethings that arise on the surface of that to come and go without being caught up in them.
So, if you get the clarity to detect what precedes each moment of experience, you have the concentration to hold it 24/7, and then you have the equanimity to deal with everything that's not it—which is all the coagulations of self in the world that arise on its surface. If you can do all of that, that's what in Zen they call "riding the ox." You're 24/7 mounted on the nature of what in Zen they would say, "the nature of the mind," but it doesn't mean the mind—chitta or xin in Chinese. It means consciousness, the nature of sensory experience, the formless perfection that precedes and follows and pervades every ordinary experience. So, you're able to hold it.
But expansion and contraction are in no way different from the early formulation in Theravada Buddhism that is called "arising and passing." So, if you read the classic Theravada manual, the Visuddhimagga, on the description of seven stages that people go through before stream entry, there's a stage where you're immensely aware of arising and passing, and there's a subsequent stage where you're intensely aware that no sooner is it arising but it is already passing, and the "it" is anything—the experience of the outer world, the inner world, and so forth. So, this sense—if we talk temporally, we talk about as it's arising it's already passing. Jack Kornfield's teacher Ajahn Chah has a great talk about that where he says—he looks at a glass, a physical glass, and he says, "Someday this glass will be broken. Well, for me, it's already broken." Well, that's a perception that no sooner is something arising [that] it's already passing. However, since sensory events occupy with depth and height, another way to say it is, "No sooner is it expanding [that] it's already contracting."
So, why I use "expansion and contraction" as opposed to "arising and passing" if they mean exactly the same thing is that there's a couple minor advantages to the expansion/contraction. One of them is that you might get into a situation with arising and passing where there's a meditator here observing the arising and passing, which causes a separation. That would probably be a standard Zen criticism of Vipassana.
However, that problem does not necessarily happen—in fact, it usually doesn't happen. But, if a problem were to happen with Vipassana, that would be the characteristic problem. Well, the Zen solution is there's a simultaneous expansion and contraction of space, and both the world and the observer are born in the folds of that. So, the expansion/contraction paradigm has a marginal advantage [in] that it breaks down the fixated observer.
TS: Now, I think what you're saying here is really important, Shinzen, so I want to make sure I understand it. I think a lot of meditators fall into what you name in The Science of Enlightenment as "the observer trap:" they become stuck in the witness, if you will. They're able to witness mental talk, mental image, body, feel, but then they're a witness—"I am the witness." So help me understand how feeling into expansion and contraction helps someone not fall into the observer trap.
SY: This is one of the things that you sort of have to experience; I'm not sure I could explain it very well. I could take a stab. Usually, if you have a sense of an observer, it sort of has a location. OK? So, if you think about how people describe overwhelm, they describe it in two terms: one is that, "I'm flooded;" the other is that, "I can't hold on to a center." Now, a good doctor will cure your disease, but only a great doctor can show you you were never sick. What people call overwhelm or flooding—too much is happening in too many places too quickly—that's just nature trying to expand you and make it so that you have to give out. OK?
On the other hand, the fact that you can't find your center, you're scrambling around to find a center, to find firm ground but you can't—this is the experience of freak-out, overwhelm, right? Something happens and it's like there's no solid ground under me anymore. The rug's been pulled out.
Well, another way to look at that is that every attempt to hold the center, you're immediately pulled off-center. So, the ground is constantly collapsing under your feet. That's contraction. Now, you can either interpret that as horrible or you can reframe it as, "Nature is making me huge and tiny at the same time." So, I'm large enough to embrace the galaxies and small enough to abide in each atom—and then you become everything and nothing, and you're set free.
TS: Now, Shinzen, I realize in this conversation we're having that a listener might think, "Wow, they're really in the deep end of meditative practice." And your book, of course, is called The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works, and so we have to be in the deep end to address a title like that. When you say "how meditation works," could you just summarize for people, "Works to do what?" How [does] meditation [work] to accomplish what?
SY: I can summarize it in four little words, each one of which contains a huge concept: develop attention skills and use them to optimize happiness. So, "work" means that "your practice is working," [which] means that you have optimized happiness.
So what does that mean? Well, when you have uncomfortable situations or uncomfortable sensory experiences, they bother you less and less and less. When you have pleasant situations and pleasant sensory experiences, they fulfill you more and more and more. You are progressively understanding yourself at deeper and deeper levels. First you understand yourself at a psychological, personal level; then at a subconscious, sort of deep psychological level; then you understand yourself as a sensory system. Finally, you understand yourself as primordial perfection, which is the deep end that we just described a few minutes ago.
In addition to that, your performance skills and your character skills are improving, and what you do, say, and think in terms of your actions in the world have progressively more creativity and bounce and spontaneity. And last but not least, you find yourself deriving more and more of your fulfillment from service to others.
So, those are the five dimensions of, "It works." How you develop those skills is—well, someone teaches you at least one technique. You don't have hardly any concentration, clarity, and equanimity at the beginning. That's fine. But you practice that technique or techniques—those techniques—a little bit each day. You try to do micro-hits during the day in addition to your, say, morning formal practice. Occasionally you do intensive retreats. As the months and years pass, your concentration, clarity, and equanimity grow just like muscles. If you exercise them daily, they grow. And at some point, you start to notice all of the different types and levels of improvement and happiness that I mentioned.
TS: You mentioned in these different ways that one's life changes—that there's this change in one's character values, if you will. I'm not quite sure what word you use, but how one expresses the virtues in the world. And I think, Shinzen, something I want to talk to you about—that one of the reasons people that I know have become cynical about enlightenment—even just the word "enlightenment"—"Tami, don't talk to me about enlightenment!"—is because they have seen so many teachers who seem to be able to teach on things like impermanence, expansion and contraction, a fluid sense of self, et cetera, and yet in their lives, have manifested terrible actions that have been hurtful to other people. You know what I'm talking about, of course—many teachers [are] like this. Not one—not any one teacher—but so many teachers that have abused power, money, sex in one way or another. It's like, "Enlightenment is a crock of hooey, Tami. Look at these teachers. Look at them." I'm curious how you make sense out of that.
SY: Well, that's pretty close to home, so [it's] obviously something that I've thought about a lot. It's informed my presentation. You recall that I said that we could use the word "enlightenment" in a narrow sense to be a sort of measure of how liberated you are from identifying with the mind and body. We can also use enlightenment in a broader sense to mean that plus how admirable you are as a human being by the ordinary canons of your culture.
Now, the classical formulation in early Buddhism was the latter. The Buddha was described as vijja-carana-sampanno, meaning he had his act together both in terms of illumination and conduct.
So, if we use "enlightenment" to just mean this paradigm shift or this insight or illumination that frees you from the identification with the mind and body, that has an interesting relationship to refining yourself as a human being in the world. What is the relationship? The relationship is that that perspective gives you a place to stand where you can optimally refine how you carry yourself in the world. So that's one part of the relationship.
However, even though—oh, and also, that perspective will make you inclined to be a better person. But—so two things so far: having the liberated consciousness makes it easier to be a better person; having it makes you be inclined to be a better person. And now we have the big "but," because like the song goes, "You can't always get what you want." What we would want is that having that liberated perspective would guarantee that you become a better person. Unfortunately, that is not true. Other factors have to enter in. You remember, I was pretty adamant about, "We want to be clear both about the power of these practices and the limitations of these practices."
What else is needed besides—I told you how I dealt with my procrastination. Now, that was becoming a more admirable person in the world. And by the way, I have to do the old 12-Step thing: I am a recovering procrastinator. I will always be a procrastinator. OK? It's a struggle even now. But [I'm] a lot better. OK? But what did I have to do? It wasn't enough to have liberation from the mind and body. I needed 18 months with a behaviorally oriented psychiatrist, with weekly assignments.
So, what more is needed besides liberation—what's needed is a list of suggested—I'm sorry, we're going to have to pause a minute. What's the word I'm trying to think of?
What's needed is—one thing that's needed is a list of guidelines: general, ethical guidelines that we take seriously. In Buddhism, it's four basic ones; or if you're in recovery, it's five, because there's abstaining from intoxicants. Those are general guidelines. We need general guidelines. You need to keep feedback doors open from everyone in your world so that they're able to reflect to you the good ways and bad ways that you're carrying yourself in the world. There's not a barrier, either perceived by the people around you or a barrier that you create or a barrier that your social structure creates. You have to assiduously remove barriers to feedback that you would receive from everyone in your world, including a beginning—if you're a teacher, there needs to be a way a beginning student can confront you if they think you're off base. That element I call "keeping the feedback channels open."
The other thing that you may need is that you may consider the guidelines to be important; you may even have these feedback loops—or feedback channels, rather; you may be using the practice to deconstruct negatives and to reinforce positives; yet still the behavior does not change. What else do you need? A behaviorally oriented accountability and support structure—a 12-Step program or a counselor or what-have-you.
Now, it is very easy for someone in that teaching position to have those feedback channels closed, and it is very difficult for someone in a teaching position that's been trained in Buddhism to realize that, "Hey, yes, I might have to go to a behaviorist or a therapist or something because I'm just not cracking it with the practice." However, I think you will find that rarely, if ever, where there's a situation where the person has a strong practice [and] keeps those feedback channels open, takes the guidelines seriously, and is open to a behaviorally oriented accountability and support structure—I'm going to say that rarely will you find problems in that situation.
Typically, what happens is you get a perfect storm. Vajrayana and Zen arose in reaction to early Buddhism. In some ways, they complement early Buddhism, but in some ways they're a reaction to early Buddhism. Early Buddhism can be a little bit moralistic. OK? And be all about the rules. So, there's a certain liberation aspect to giving another perspective—well, it's not all about the rules; except it sort of still is all about the rules. But historically, there was a need for reaction because things had become legalistic and moralistic. But then the reaction goes too far, and now you've got a problem. Most teachers either come from or inherit a very hierarchical social structure, so those feedback channels aren't there. It's not on their radar to go to a 12-Step program or a therapist; it's just culturally not. So then, you can have this perfect storm—this toxic cocktail of deep liberation, but a kind of indifference to the consequences.
TS: So, Shinzen, when you said that this question hit close to home, were you saying that because you've been examining this in your own experience in terms of—you talked about procrastination as an issue; there may be other personal challenges—or because Sasaki Roshi, who is someone that you studied with for a long time, became a figure of quite a bit of critique for sexual scandals. Or both?
SY: Both, and more. Zen and Vajrayana are reactions to the problems, or they're reactions to early Buddhism. Well, nowadays, what I teach is sort of a reaction to the problems that I've seen with so many deep traditional teachers. Not just Sasaki Roshi, but the list goes on and on. So, because I've seen it, I see it's a problem, and so I have formulated things the way that I do.
Also, I've had my own struggles. But furthermore, in a minor way, I've actually had—at an early time in my career—that problem arise in myself. Now, it wasn't—
TS: What do you mean, "that problem?"
SY: The problem of people not being able to give you feedback on your behavior.
TS: I gotcha.
SY: And being—the problem of being a senior teacher who's off base. That's what I meant by that problem.
Now, this was a long time ago. It was decades ago, and it was relatively minor, and it was not in the sex, power, or money domain. It was in a different domain—a domain I was not so alert to, and I got blindsided. But basically, it was the same thing. I was off base, and I didn't realize it.
But then I did, because—thank God that there was still enough feedback channels in my world that eventually I had to see it, although it took a little while. It took a year; students would tell me things, and I just couldn't see it, I couldn't see it. But then eventually I did see, and that was like, "Oh my God, OK. I've got to really change something here."
So, in a minor way, I've been that guy. Thank God it wasn't at the level of sex, power, and money like some of these other things. It was low-key relative to that.
TS: Can you share with our listeners what it was, just because I'm sure people are guessing at this point?
SY: Oh, well, I got into a codependent situation with another person that was not healthy for my role as teacher.
TS: OK. Yes. So, Shinzen, since you're so interested in precise language, there's a part of me that feels like we should have a word for the kind of narrow enlightenment, which is this knowing of fluidity—you have other words that you use in the book The Science of Enlightenment. So, one word for that narrow knowing, and then a second word for the entire, wholesale change in how a person acts and behaves in every moment of their life, and the coherence and congruence between those. What do you think? We're using the same word for these two pretty different things.
SY: Yes, I know, and it's not good. But it's a habit that I and other teachers have, and it's a bad habit. But, we just get in the habit of talking that way, loosely.
So probably, if we wanted to have a rigorous use of language, the enlightenment in the sense of the paradigm shift—maybe we could call that "liberation" because it does free you from the mind-body identity. Then the other thing—when you've got that plus the refinement as a human—actually, I do have a term for that. I tend to call that "classical enlightenment," in the sense that that was the classic model given to us by the historical Buddha. Vijja-carana-sampanno—the illumination and the conduct.
TS: Shinzen, there's a lot I could talk to you about, but I think for now, we'll bring our conversation to a close. Your book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works, includes an incredible collection of your teachings really from the past couple decades based on dharma talks that you've given. It's a tremendous, revelatory read [I think]—at least it was for me. I'm so grateful that you got through your procrastination stuff and that this book exists in the world for other people. I think it's a great gift. So thank you so much.
SY: I guess we could say you and I had a book together!
TS: We did! We did.
SY: And now that baby is out in the world, baby!
TS: It is. The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works from Shinzen Young. I do encourage you to check it out. Thanks, Shinzen, it's always great to talk to you. I always learn from every conversation and am impressed by your genuineness and truth-telling powers—and your goodness. Thank you.
SY: My pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.