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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 2
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 the second half of an extensive interview on Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Shinzen talk about how to bring equanimity to both pleasurable and painful sensory experiences and how that has a purifying effect on consciousness. In order to ground this experience, Shinzen leads Tami and the audience on a guided practice to help give a "taste of purification." Finally, Shinzen shares a quick, powerful technique for starting on the path to enlightenment and something intensely personal—his happiest thought. (75 minutes)
Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Shinzen Young, for part two of our conversation about his new book, The Science of Enlightenment. Shinzen is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant who is known for his algorithmic approach to mindfulness and he often uses mathematical metaphors to illustrate meditative phenomena. Shinzen 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, The Science of Enlightenment, where he merges scientific clarity with the 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 bringing equanimity to both pain and pleasure and how that purifies consciousness. Shinzen also led us through a guided practice to help us have an experience of what he calls "the taste of purification," and he explained how once you learn to taste purification, your growth goes exponential. Shinzen also talked about what he calls "the power of gone," and he introduced us to a technique which, if push came to shove, he would pick as the quickest path to enlightenment. And finally, Shinzen shared with us his happiest thought. Here's my conversation with Shinzen Young.
Shinzen, I wanted to have this second part on the science of enlightenment because there's so much in your new book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works that I want to talk to you about, that we couldn't possibly cover it in just one short conversation. So, to begin with, thank you. Thank you for joining me for part two.
Shinzen Young: My pleasure.
TS: Now, one of the things that you talk about in terms of how meditation works, is something you call "the taste of purification." I wanted to start there because I think a lot of people, even people who've been meditating for a long time, aren't quite clear on all of the pain that often comes—the physical pain—in sitting in meditation posture for long hours. I remember someone I once went to an early meditation retreat with—early in this person's life as a meditator, and she said, "Why would I possibly do something like this that's going to help me feel supposedly more relaxed, calm, when I'm in this much pain for this many days? I'm out of here!" So, talk to me some about this idea of the taste of purification and, specifically, the pain of sitting.
SY: Sure. [Laughing] There's actually a lot to say about that. My initial experience with meditation practice was totally dominated by the challenge of dealing with physical discomfort. I was in Japan. I was doing it completely within the context of traditional Japanese culture and the teachers insisted that I sit in full lotus. It was a zero-tolerance policy. You couldn't move at all. And I had that same reaction. "This is loony tunes! Why am I sitting through all this discomfort?"
I can remember actually thinking, "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to go back to the United States. I'm going to have some sort of surgery done on my tendons to make them longer so I can come back here and sit comfortably in this posture." I can remember having those kinds of thoughts—like "This makes no sense whatsoever to sit through this." But, of course, I was not going to go back to the United States. I was more or less stuck in Japan, and I'd committed so I just had to learn to deal with it. And indeed, I eventually came to understand that you learn a lot from that physical discomfort.
The metaphor that I would use is that it's like a vaccination. When you are given a vaccination, you're actually given a manageable dose of a disease that trains your body into a condition where if it encounters the actual disease, it has a coping mechanism. So, in formal practice, the discomfort that people sometimes have to put up with—especially if they do sort of the more intense or traditional kinds of practices—that discomfort is analogous to a vaccination against future suffering. You're given a dose of discomfort, but relative to what you'll eventually have to go through in real life, it's rather small and manageable. But, it's done within a context whereby your body learns the difference between pain and suffering.
Essentially, suffering—or pain as a problem—is what happens when pain encounters resistance. So, you come to be able to discriminate. The discomfort is one thing. My body's resistance to its own product—the discomfort—is another thing. When those two things happen together, the discomfort is transformed into suffering. But, when there's just the pain and there's not the interference with its natural flow pattern, then there's the paradoxical experience of pain without suffering. Does it hurt? Yes. Does it hurt poignantly? Yes. Would the hurt motivate and direct appropriate behavior? Yes. Is the hurt a problem? No.
So, you either put yourself in a training situation where you're set up to notice this and all the forces and structures are there to help you get this insight, or you have to wait for life to teach you this. Something happens in life. You can't avoid the pain. Hopefully, at some point you spontaneously fall into what we call equanimity, which is the nonresistance to the natural flow of the senses, and you notice that the pain is the same but the bother is not there—or not as much there—and that gives you an insight. "Oh, if a little openness gives a little bit of relief, if there were more openness, there would be more relief. And if there were an absolute openness—if you were the equivalent of a superconductor without any viscosity or ohmic resistance—then there'd be no suffering at all.
You see that. You see that potential and that fundamentally changes your relationship to physical discomfort for the rest of your life. And it's not just pain. It's any kind of physical discomfort. "It's too hot. It's too cold. I'm dizzy. I'm fatigued." Et cetera, et cetera. And you then realize, "Oh, wait a minute. It's not just physical discomfort for which this principle holds." Emotional body sensations that are uncomfortable—anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, shame, impatience, disgust—those are different forms of emotional discomfort and they work exactly the same way. So then, it broadens to a real oh-my-god, which is, "Wow! I can poignantly feel rage, terror, and grief. It will motivate and direct appropriate behavior, but it won't obscure the perfection of the moment. I can have my cake and eat it too as a human being."
That's extraordinary. Physical discomfort, now in retrospect, years—actually decades—down the line, I can look back and I understand exactly the point. The point is: a few minutes of physical discomfort is a manageable dose and by working with that, you get an insight into that pain doesn't have to turn into suffering. Then, that generalizes to all forms of physical discomfort. Then that generalizes to emotional discomfort. Then that generalizes further. You realize that the same state of equanimity or non-interference will cause pleasures—physical and emotional—to give you greater fulfillment.
So, there's this—I can only describe it as a paradigm shift, an architectonic shift in the way you view the world. Your fundamental relationship to pleasure and pain is changed in terms of your attitude because you realize you may not have deep enough equanimity now to experience a certain physical or emotional discomfort without suffering—but with further training, it is possible. And at some point, you have the confidence that there simply is no state of the body which is not in theory amenable to this form of relief. You also realize that there's no degree of fulfillment with pleasure that you can't get with even a tiny pleasure if you have enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity with that pleasure.
It's a hedonic revolution, and that's why they put you through that and that's why people are willing to go through that, both in tribal ceremonies—sweat lodge, piercing, sun dancing, this kind of thing—and in formal practice. Or you just wait for life to present you with a situation where you have to learn this. Or, the third possibility is—unfortunately—many people will never learn this.
What I just described might be called "the change in perspective," and then what you asked about is "the taste of purification." My metaphor here is that there are certain tastes that adults have that most children can't understand. I like black coffee—dark roast black coffee. I like intense spicy foods. Most kids don't like those tastes.
As you grow older, a palate matures. People develop the ability to understand quality in a wine. I never developed that particular palate, but some people do. I think the most expensive wine I ever had maybe cost a couple hundred dollars for the bottle. I had it with Leonard Cohen. There was just a big thing about Leonard in The New Yorker.
TS: And for people who aren't familiar, they might not know that Leonard Cohen also studied with one of the same teachers that you studied with, Sasaki Roshi.
SY: That's right. We are dharma brothers for decades. And at one of the breaks at one of these killer, killer Zen retreats, we had a big party with the Roshi—courtesy of Leonard, me and a few of the other senior people—and he bought this really expensive wine. So, you know, it seemed pretty good to me. But, I can't tell the difference between if it's worth $40 or if it's worth $400 or $4,000.
But people develop a palate and it matures with time. So, there's something analogous to this, which is a kind of spiritual palate. There's a taste, and I can't put it into words.
To continue with the metaphor of learning wine tasting, I have a student that is—her profession is to write books on wine tasting. That's actually her specialty. So, I said, "Slip me the secret. What's the secret? You know I read these reviews of wines and it says there's a hint of chocolate and walnut with this kind of nose and this kind of finish and you know. It doesn't mean anything to me. Can you, in just a few words, slip me the secret?" And she said, "Well, you just have to drink a lot of wine."
SY: So, you just have to go through a lot of experiences with a certain perspective and, at some point, you begin to taste the effect of equanimity. So, I'm going to define equanimity as an ability. It's the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull. It's analogous to a fluidity within a hydrodynamic system, or conductivity—or actually, the technical term is even admittance for AC circuits. It's analogous to conductivity in an electrical system. It's a quality that you develop with time in the way that your nervous system processes sensory experience.
Equanimity carries with it a certain taste and I can't put it into words. You just have to look for it and just drink a lot of wine [laughs]—have a lot of experiences where you're looking for this. And with time, the palate matures.
I can attempt to put it into words. It's a kind of knowing that because of the way that you're experiencing this moment, every moment in the future will be just slightly more fulfilling, or entail just slightly more suffering—less suffering—because of the way that you're experiencing this present moment. It's a kind of knowing that a brighter future—each moment of the future—is just going to be a little more fulfilling or entail a little less suffering because of how you're experiencing this present moment.
The flip side is it's a knowing that because of how you're experiencing this present moment, holdings from the past are being broken up. You can feel them snapping deep down within you, like the rigidity in the substance of your soul is being broken up. That's the taste of purification—vishuddhi rasa. "Vishuddhi," in Sanskrit, is purification. "Rasa" is a taste. That's not a classical Sanskrit term. I just made it up. But there should be a word in Sanskrit for it and now there is.
TS: Now, I want to help our listeners get a sense of this taste, if you will—the taste of purification—in this moment. I wonder, would it be helpful perhaps if people were able to approach something in their current sensory experience, and you could take us through how we might be able to know equanimity enough that we could have a small taste of purification, Shinzen. Can you introduce people to it specifically here?
SY: I could make an attempt. Now, typically, to be honest, what happens is you sit there for hours and it's a numbers game. At some point, you fall into equanimity, and you learn from that. I can maybe give some vague hint of what that might be like. Are you suggesting that I do a little guided practice?
TS: I think yes. Something short. I mean, maybe somebody is feeling a little bit of physical pain or pleasure, or something like that, and they could learn what this taste of purification is like by relating to that.
SY: OK. About how long would you like this to be?
TS: Oh, five to ten minutes.
SY: Five to ten minutes? Sure.
So, wherever you are, if you're listening to this and your situation allows you to tune in to your experience for a moment, then take a moment to stretch up and settle in. Or, if you're lying down, stretch out and settle in. And I'd like you to see if there's anything in your current experience that is noticeably pleasant or noticeably unpleasant. Now, there might not be, and it might be in your body—physical body. It might be in your emotional body. It might be in your mind. It might be in the external sights and sounds around you. It's possible that at this time, there's something that's either valenced towards pleasant or valenced towards unpleasant. Maybe there's both, in which case you can choose which one to work with.
Now, let's say that you don't have any experience that's particularly pleasant or unpleasant. You can still follow my guidance around equanimity. Tune into the neutrality of your experience and sort of get a sense of how that creates a restfulness, a kind of matter-of-factness that is in its own way subtly pleasant.
So, you'll either have something pleasant, you'll either have something unpleasant, or you'll have a little of both, or you'll have neither. If you have neither, fine. Tune in to the fact that your experience is neutral now, and let that put you into a kind of neutral rest zone. You might notice that there's actually, paradoxically, something a little pleasant about that neutral rest zone.
Alternatively, you have something in some part of your experience that is currently pleasant or unpleasant or both. If it's both, choose whether you want to work with the pleasant side or the unpleasant side. If it's just one, you have no choice. If it's pleasant, we're going to focus on that. If it's unpleasant, we're going to focus on that. So, no matter what your experience, there's something to do.
If you're focusing on something pleasant, notice moment by moment, how you're relating to that. Do you just sort of let it flow? Or is there some tightening around the pleasure? Or some holding on to the pleasure? Or some fear around losing the pleasure? If so, be aware of that and when that goes away, be aware of that. You'll notice that around the pleasant experience, sometimes there'll be a little more interference or investment. Other times, there'll be a little less. And just sort of notice that spontaneous fluctuation.
If you're focusing on something that's unpleasant, we're going to do exactly the same thing. Watch how sometimes you might be tightening around its arising or its passing, or in some way reacting to it. Other times, there'll be less of that. Just sort of watch those fluctuations.
What you're watching is the changes in spontaneous equanimity. Equanimity is just like anything else in nature. It varies slightly from moment to moment. Sometimes there's more interference. Sometimes there's less.
So, we're going to watch that, but we're going to have equanimity with our equanimity. So, if you're tightening more or interfering more or more reactive, that's OK. Just observe that. Now, there's a little less equanimity. And then, when there's spontaneously a little bit more, be aware of that. You're sort of having equanimity with the expansion and contraction of your equanimity. It's sort of a second-order observing. Just observe your experience in that way for a couple minutes.
[Approximately one minute of silence.]
SY: Good. Stay with that.
[Approximately one minute of silence.]
SY: If you're in neutral spontaneously, fine. Notice how that can have its own reward flavor. Notice how when you tighten around the pleasure, it delivers a little less satisfaction. When you relax spontaneously around it, it's a little more deeply fulfilling, even though the actual level of pleasure may not change. And see how it works analogously for the discomfort. The level of the discomfort might remain stable, but if you tighten a little bit more, it's more bothersome. If you spontaneously release a little bit, it's less.
We're going to just watch spontaneous fluctuations in equanimity. You don't need to try to make it happen. But, we are going to notice that sometimes there will spontaneously be more openness to the flow of the pleasure or the pain, in which case there's more fulfillment or less suffering. When the opposite of that happens, there's less fulfillment or more suffering.
As you're noticing this, the deep mind is also noticing this. One of the titles of the Buddha was Anutaro Purisadhammasarathi, "the unexcelled trainer of the animal within the human." The animal is the deep circuits of the brain.
[Approximately 45 seconds of silence.]
SY: OK, good. Good work. Now, if you wish, you can let go of this or continue to do it if you want.
TS: Thank you, Shinzen. You know, there's a quote from The Science of Enlightenment that I would love for you to comment on at this point, and here's the quote:
"Once you learn to taste purification, you growth goes exponential."
SY: So, "exponential" means that the bigger you get, the faster you get big. It's a mathematical function that would be exemplified by the expression "snowball." So, when a snowball rolls down a hill, it gathers snow to it in a way that's proportional to its surface area. So, if it's a little snowball, the rate at which it gathers new snow is less than if it's a big snowball. So, we have this expression, "snowballing." It means when something grows with a hockey stick curve—a curve that is not linear. It's not like going up a straight hill. It's like going up a hill that has a very strong bend to it.
Now, it's known mathematically that in nature this kind of rapid growth is associated with a positive feedback loop. In other words, the more you grow—the more you have grown, the faster you will grow. So, that creates what's called a positive feedback loop.
Once you start to taste purification, you're now getting a reward. Even if you're going through discomfort, there's a reward that you experience immediately, and that encourages you to go even deeper into equanimity. Then you get an even bigger reward and that encourages you to go even deeper into equanimity.
And so, at the beginning of one's meditation career, the kind of thing that I'm talking about is very subtle. You have to do a lot of retreats. And, you know, you do a retreat and during the retreat, you're mostly just sleepy and your mind wanders and you're uncomfortable and it seems like you're wasting your time. But then, after the retreat, you notice, "Wow!" Some things have changed in daily life now that the pressure is off. You can see some changes. You weren't aware of them at the retreat, but afterwards when the pressure is off, you notice, "Oh yeah, there are improvements."
Then, after you get a little more practice, maybe towards the end of a retreat, you start to notice those positive things. You don't have to wait until the retreat is over. Then as you get a little more practice, you start to notice the positive changes during one sit. You can actually taste that you have grown and matured. So, now you're sitting there and maybe there's some discomfort but you can actually, in the moment, get that reward of the taste of purification. And that's how people end up doing practices that you might think are just impossible.
I mean, with my own eyes I have seen people sit for 12 hours without moving, get up, take a pee, fold their legs back ,and do it again—and then get up and take a pee and do it again. No bed. They never lay down at night. They do the temple duties. If people need help with things, they help with things. They reach out, they're compassionate. But in between, if there's nothing to do, they just sit there 24/7 without moving. And I can tell you it's actually done with a smile on the face. You might think it would be white-knuckle endurance, but the reason they're able to do things like that is that they're tasting the purification as it's happening in real time.
TS: Now, Shinzen, you mentioned that you've witnessed people do this and I know you, yourself, have engaged in some pretty extreme spiritual practice situations. You briefly made an aside mention to the sun dance ritual, which I know is something you've participated in, and other Native American intense spiritual practice rituals. I wonder if you can share a little bit about that from your own experience and why you chose those types of immersions.
SY: Well, Native American practices, for me, are like icing on the cake. You know the substance of my practice is based on Buddhism, but I like some frosting, and the Native American practices provide the same sustenance, the same fundamental nutrition as the cake of Buddhist meditation, but there's more frosting. It's done as a community and there's an energy and an artistry and just sort of a fun factor of singing and such that, to me, is just a perfect complement to the more solitary, methodical Buddhist practices. So, I would say that one attraction was, that I like some frosting on my cake. But that doesn't mean that there's no nutrition in the frosting. In fact, there's a lot of sugar in it. [Laughs.]
These practices essentially moved our ancestors in a direction similar to Buddhist practice. I'm not going to say it's identical, but there's [definitely] a lot of overlap there. But they're more colorful and more community and more fun in some ways, because it's a ceremony.
So, there was that, and then there was just the practical thing of, "It's going to push the envelope of my practice." And clearly, it's doable because ordinary people do it. The native people that do these ceremonies are typically not trained meditation yogis. They're typically people that have had a lot of problems with crime and addiction. They grew up on fry bread and Snickers candy bars and Coca-Cola. I mean, we're not talking about yogis here. But clearly, within the context of the community and the ceremony, people can do it. So, I thought this is something that will push the envelope of the practice.
And then, the third reason was the delicious connection with our remote ancestors—where we started on this planet as humans. Our current way of being human is relatively recent. What? Ten-thousand years? Neolithic, right? For countless tens of thousands of years, we were different. We were pre-literate, tribal. Life was simple. Life was uncomfortable. Life was full of things you could never understand. But, our ancestors were happy because they experienced all of that with a natural equanimity.
So, my interest is in science and sort of in the future, but to me it's delicious to be able to have both worlds. Basically, if life is uncomfortable, mysterious, and simple, you can start figuring things stuff out, which leads to science. You can start building stuff to make your life comfortable. That leads to technology. That's the world we now live in. You're going to lose the simplicity and you're going to lose the ability to naturally drop into equanimity and concentration. That's the price you're going to pay—and we did pay that price, coming out of tribalism. But on the other hand, we have science and technology, which is sort of cool.
Well, for me, I can have a complete human experience by fully participating at both extremes. I function as a scientist that's interested in developing new technologies. So, that's at one end of the human perspective or spectrum. But, it is still possible for me to be welcomed into the world of our remote ancestors—the other end. And I can straddle the whole spectrum of humanity in one lifetime. That's incredibly delicious.
I remember: a few years ago, one of my Canadian students took me to a reconstructed Iroquois village in southern Ontario. And it was winter, so there were no tourists around. There was no one. There was just the two of us and it was really cold and covered with snow.
So, essentially, we were in a Paleolithic world and you could get a vibe of what that world was, because there were no signs of modernity. We walked through and we started to just sort of live that world. I remember there was this incredibly moving moment when we came to the sweat lodge. They had reconstructed a sweat lodge and I looked inside and it's like, "Oh! I know what all of these things are. I've done this ceremony hundreds of times. My God! It's exactly like it's done now! And I can have this connection with our remote ancestors." So, there's that.
TS: Shinzen, let's say someone's listening and their thought is, "I like meditation and I'm certainly interested in developing equanimity, but I'm not interested in doing things that are extreme and painful. I like to meditate lying down, walking in the forest, hanging out in the bathtub. I don't need to be in intense physical experiences. Life delivers enough pain. I'll deal with it when it comes." What do you think about that person's approach?
SY: That works. That totally works. You just have to—you're going to replace working with intensity by working smart. There's nothing to say that you can't purify consciousness with pleasure as well as purify consciousness with discomfort. In fact, traditional Buddhist practice—if we are to believe some of the older suttas that are thought to be more authentic in the Pali Canon—what you see there is essentially a description of developing blissful states and then bringing clarity to those states, and achieving insight and purification as the result of that.
It's true—you don't have to go through intensities. That can push the envelope, but you can train yourself systematically. You can—my phrase is "work smart"—train yourself in the skills doing a regimen that's not too demanding.
The only thing is, as you mentioned, sooner or later, life is going to present you with a challenge that's comparable to what people put themselves through with traditional Asian Buddhist practice or tribal practices and so forth. Sooner or later, the monastery is going to come to you. The sun dance is going to come to you. And what matters is if you can relate to it that way, if you can remember that, "OK, I've developed these skills under pretty benign circumstances and I've sort of taken it slow. But, now I'm in a do-or-die situation and this is going to be my chance for transcendence."
Now, if you can remember to do that, then your life will be your monastery. You may not remember that, though. If you forget that, or things are too intense for you to implement this nice idea—so if you forget about how to do this, then just remember one thing: remember how to contact someone who is competent to guide you through it. Have someone in your life—one of your teachers, or several of your teachers—that you could contact that is going to walk you through it. It's been my experience that even experienced meditators—when the shit hits the fan big time—will be challenged.
That's sort of the bad news. But. the good news is even beginning meditators—if someone takes them by the hand and walks them through guided practice enough—even a relative beginning meditator can have a profound liberation experience with some physical or emotional thing that comes up in life if someone is willing to take the time to interactively coach them.
TS: Very good. Now, there's a chapter in The Science of Enlightenment and I want to make sure that we touch on it. It's called "The Power of Gone."
TS: Here's a quote from that chapter: "'Which technique would I pick as the quickest path to enlightenment?' is a question that I'm often asked. It's a difficult choice, but I think it would be the technique that I call 'just note gone.'" So, can you explain to our listeners this technique, "just note gone?"
SY: Yes. Different things work for different people. That's why it's hard to say, "Well, it should be just one technique." But, in this particular thought experiment, I'm imagining if I had to just choose one and were constrained—because normally, I would give people a range of choices and let them choose what appeals to them—but if it had to just be one thing, I think I would choose "just note gone."
We've all had the experience of the dog's barking, the dog's barking, and the dog stops barking. A plane passes over, you hear it, you hear it, it gets fainter, fainter, but then at some point, it goes from being faint to it's not there anymore. We have a mental image of something. It sticks around for a minute, then all or part of it evaporates. There's absolutely nothing esoteric about what I just described. Sooner or later, sensory experiences come to an end.
That would seem to be a trivial observation, but it turns out that it's highly non-trivial. It's another one of these acquired taste things, or developing a sensitivity. If you start to notice the instant when things vanish, that is pointing you towards something. The place where things go when they come to an end is the place from which they arise when they begin. So, each time you notice a vanishing, you are briefly having your attention directed towards what might be called the deepest level of consciousness.
Just before a sensory experience comes to consciousness, there's a process. It doesn't take very long—maybe 10 milliseconds, 20 milliseconds, 100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds—a fraction of a second. There's a process whereby something goes from not existing sensorially to existing. It's a kind of effortless simultaneous expansion and contraction that tastes like the dance of space itself.
Now, that happens before every single thing that we see, hear, or feel on the inside or outside. Everything we see, hear, or feel on the inside or outside—every sensory event—is preceded by a brief instant of primordial effortlessness that is both rich and vacuous, and connects us to nature itself. When you pay attention to the instant that something vanishes, for just a moment your attention is being directed toward that place.
With time, the experience of the moment of gone-ness becomes richer and richer. You might first appreciate its richness when you're going through some uncomfortable experience and, instead of focusing on the fact that the discomfort keeps coming, you focus on the fact that the discomfort keeps going. And at some point, you get a sense that there's constant relief. It takes a lot of concentration, of course.
As you know, I define mindful awareness as concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together. So, it takes a lot of clarity to detect the moment of gone, and it takes a lot of concentration to hold your attention on the gone-ings and not get immediately pulled into the arisings. But if you develop enough concentration and clarity with this, you'll start to get a sense that it's not so much "this too shall pass," but "this too is passing" for real, moment by moment.
So, the first taste of richness—of gone—might be that it gives you relief when you're in discomfort. Then, the next taste might be that you notice that there's a kind of tranquility that propagates from each moment of vanishing. The number of vanishings are not something esoteric. It's just any ordinary experience. You stay with it, stay with it, stay with it. At some point, all or part of it just goes kchunk! That's all I'm talking about. The dog stopped barking.
You might say, "Big whoop!" and initially, yes, it doesn't really mean that much. But, a sensitivity is developed with time and appreciation is developed with time. So, at first you might start to appreciate the relief. Then you'll notice that the moments of gone-ing sort of propagate a delicious tranquility. The fact that focusing continuously on the passing would bring relief makes sense logically. The fact that it might propagate tranquility—after all, it's a kind of nothing. In French, they have an expression coup du vide. It means "the blow of the void," the impact of nothing. So, the fact that a kind of tranquility would be associated with that—it logically makes sense. However, as your appreciation of gone grows, a couple things become evident that logically do not make any sense at all, but are part of the picture and indeed an important part of the picture.
You start to develop a sense of fulfillment associated with that gone-ing. Now, there's a word in Sanskrit that means both cessation, to come to an end, and fulfillment in the sense that you have quenched your thirst. No other language in the world has the concepts linked that way—a single word in the language that links the notion of passing with the notion of having everything you want or contentment or fulfillment. That word in Sanskrit is nirvana. N-I-R-V-A-N-A. The Pali pronunciation: nibbana.
So, the fact that paying attention to vanishings would lead to fulfillment is counterintuitive. It doesn't make any sense, but it does. Science is full of things that are counterintuitive.
There's another thing that can come from the gone, and that's that it leads to a sense of love, which doesn't make any sense at all because it's so impersonal and vacuous. Why should the best of the human arise due to contact with something that is utterly non-human? It doesn't make any sense, but that's the way it works.
Now, I can sort of try to explain why these counterintuitive effects occur. The gone involves a linkage to all of creation, and that's why it's fulfilling. That's also why it creates a kind of love—because you sense a fraternity and sorority with the great chain of being by contact with this primordial point, this still point of the turning world.
So, at some point, some of your—well, let me just backtrack. Some of your listeners may have had an experience of things sort of breaking up into a kind of vibratory energy. I'm pretty sure you've had experiences like that yourself. And then, if you sort of watch where those little bubble bursts go, they go into this absolute rest.
We were talking about Leonard Cohen a little while ago. He has a song called "Love Itself," which is a direct description of this experience. He talks about, "The light came through the window, straight from the sun above and so inside my little room, there plunged the rays of love." I can't remember all the lyrics. "All pretty in the sunlight, the flecks did move and dance and I was tumbled up with them in formless circumstance." He talks about, "I clearly saw the dust you seldom see, of which the nameless makes a name for one like me." He's describing the experience of breaking up into a blissful vibratory flow, which he calls love itself. And then he says, "Love went on and on," so this dissolution into champagne bubbles. "Love went on and on until it came to an open door. Then love itself—love itself was gone." [Laughs.] And he's describing what happens in deep meditation.
Vibrations disappear into shalom bimromav, the peace of God's own heaven, as it would be said in Hebrew. He likes to give that blessing. That's a blessing in Hebrew. Sometimes after performances—because he's a kohain, right? Cohen. Kohain, Kohanim, were the priests when Judaism was a temple-based religion—before the rabbis, back in the Biblical days. And so, there were priests called Kohanim or Cohens. There's a blessing and there's actually a mudra that goes with it that Leonard Nimoy put into Star Trek. You know—where he splits his fingers?
TS: That mudra goes with—?
SY: That mudra is used in Jewish worship. They invite the Kohanim—anyone with the name Cohen or Kahn or Kohani—you know, there's a million variations—if you have that name, you come up to the front and everyone shields their eyes. Underneath your talis—or maybe overtly—you split your hands like that and you give a blessing.That represents the rays of the Shekinah—the direct rays of God. So, that's why everyone averts their eyes.
Leonard likes to do that. He likes his Jewish heritage a lot.
So, there's this blessing: Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu ve'al kol yisrael, ve'imru amen—meaning, "The One that creates the peace of His own heaven, bring peace to you and to the entire community." Well, "gone" is "shalom bimromav." It's the peace of God's own heaven. It's the still point of the turning world.
TS: I'm so happy I asked you about "just noting gone," and I realize, Shinzen, that soon I'll be noting that our conversation is gone. But before that happens, I'm going to sneak in one final question because the last chapter of The Science of Enlightenment is called "My Happiest Thought." I'd love for you to tell our listeners what your happiest thought is.
SY: Well, I usually do a disclaimer before I say my happiest thought, because it might be mildly upsetting. [Laughs.]
TS: It's going to be gone soon. It's going to be gone soon. Our listeners are going to be fine with that. And they can have the taste of purification while listening to it if it really bothers them.
SY: To some people. So, Einstein had what he called his happiest thought. It was a breakthrough—a conceptual breakthrough that allowed him to make the theory of general relativity very plausible. There's special relativity, which was well established at one point. Then he needed to prove something called general relativity. In order to do that—you know, in science, it's tough to prove things. You have to convince skeptics.
So, he had this conceptual breakthrough where he realized that the effect of a gravitational field and the effect of an accelerating frame are indistinguishable in nature. So, if you want to make some statement about the effect of gravity—which is what general relativity is about—if you can show that that is relevant in the case of an accelerating frame—in other words, if I'm in a rocket ship and it accelerates, or even if I'm in an elevator and it accelerates. Let's say that the elevator accelerates upwards. I will get a sense that there's gravity pushing me downward onto the elevator. We all experience that.
Well, you realize that if you could show that in an accelerating elevator, the flow of time could be measured to change, then that would mean that it was also true that a gravitational field would bend time. So anyway, people don't need to understand that—but the point is, he called that "his happiest thought," because it allowed him—it was an idea that allowed him to create a true revolution in physics.
So, I have an idea that I don't know if it's true or not—but if it is true, it will allow us to create a revolution in world spirituality. And the idea is that there are things that are deep, important, and true about enlightenment that none of the greatest masters of the past have known—maybe many things—and these things can only be known through the lens of science. None of the ancient masters knew what we now know about neuroscience.
The traditional Buddhist explanation for what the brain does is it is marrow inside the bone of the skull. That's what the brain is. Well, it's not marrow. It's the most complex object we know of in the universe in terms of its electrical-chemical dance.
So, my happiest thought is that science will be able to reveal important new things about classical enlightenment, and as the result of that, there will be new technology that will democratize enlightenment.
You and I, just by living in North America, have a life of ease and comfort and power that would have been the envy of emperors and kings and queens just a few hundred years ago. I mean, the Sun King of France still had to piss in a pot, OK? We have democratized comfort and ease and power.
Now, yes, I know it's not fairly distributed over this planet. There's inequalities that are unacceptable. But, hundreds of millions of people—thanks to science and technology—have more knowledge and power and comfort than the most powerful potentates of the past. Science has the power to do that. Well, my happiest thought is that science will have the power to democratize enlightenment.
Now, humanity has done sort of OK with a fraction of a percentage of people being enlightened. Imagine if 10 percent, 20 percent, 80 percent of human beings were free from the limited identity. That would change the course of human history dramatically. I'm not saying it would cause all our problems to evaporate or there wouldn't be conflicts. Even enlightened people get into conflicts, disagreements. But, the implications for the quality of life on this planet for humans and therefore for all life on this planet by extension—the possibility there is—it's mind-boggling. And I don't know if it's true.
TS: Now, Shinzen, you said that some people get upset when you tell them your happiest thought. Can you summarize why?
SY: Well, a couple things. First of all, it sounds a little disrespectful to the masters of the past—like they didn't have all the answers. And a lot of people believe they do have all the answers. So, there's that.
Then, this opens a can of worms because—how much time do you want to give me? It only takes me three or four minutes to say this thought.
I know a dozen fears and objections that immediately arise in people's minds when you start to talk like this because it's pretty freaking radical. OK? The thing is: I have carefully thought through—for years—all of the possible ways that this scenario could go wrong. [Laughs.] All of the possible "yes buts." "Yes, but, have you thought that this could happen?" Well, you can goddamn believe I've thought that through, but you're probably not going to give me the two hours it's going to take for me to carefully respond to all the "yes buts" that people can immediately come up with. So, then they just think I'm an idiot.
TS: Your happiest thought is that, through neuroscience in particular and other kinds of scientific discoveries, we will find a breakthrough that will lead to enlightenment on a mass scale.
SY: My happiest thought is that that is not an unreasonable idea. I don't know that it's going to happen, but I am definitely a professional meditation teacher and I'm a pretty good amateur scientist. Everything I know about meditation and science tells me that could happen. It's not ridiculous. It's not unreasonable. Whether it will happen, that's a whole other question.
TS: Well, Shinzen, there's so much more we could talk about that you cover on The Science of Enlightenment, but I actually think with this very intriguing open question that comes with your happiest thought—this inquiry into the potential of science to democratize on a mass scale enlightenment—we'll close our conversation on your new book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. This book is several decades in the making, put together from many different talks that you gave over the years—all compiled into The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works.
Shinzen, thank you so much for being my guest on Insights at the Edge.
SY: It's been a pleasure. I look at that book and I say, "Tami and I had a baby!"
TS: We had a baby together and it's big, bouncing, beautiful, and helpful. It's beautiful.
SY: So, thanks for your patience. I can't believe you put up with all my mishigas for all this time, but in the end, you're right. Our little bambino is absolutely worth it. [Laughs.]
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.