Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done about 370 of them now, and if you would like to check out previous ones, please go to www.batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and you’ll see them all organized in various ways under the past interviews menu. This show is made possible by the support of appreciative viewers and listeners, so if you appreciate it and feel like supporting it, there’s a donate button on every page of www.batgap.com. My guest today is Shinzen Young. I interviewed Shinzen about two years ago, two years ago, August, and I just listened to that interview this week just to kind of like brush up and see what we’d covered so we didn’t repeat ourselves. And if I do say so myself, I thought it was a great conversation. I mean, Shinzen is a brilliant guy. He’s had an amazing life, and I think we really got into a lot of interesting stuff. So, if you enjoyed this interview, you might want to go back and check out that one too. You’ll find it on www.batgap.com. I’d like to read a little bio of Shinzen for the sake of those who are maybe just listening in the audio and haven’t read it on the website. Shinzen is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant. His systematic approach to categorizing, adapting, and teaching meditation has resulted in collaborations with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Vermont in the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience. Shinzen’s interest in Asia began at the age of 14 when he decided to attend Japanese ethnic school in his native city of Los Angeles. And incidentally, I’ll read this little bio of Shinzen. We spent an hour on his bio in the last interview, but we won’t repeat all that stuff in this one. We’re going to get right into other things. After majoring in Asian languages at UCLA, he entered a PhD program in Buddhist studies at the University of Wisconsin. As part of his thesis research, he lived as a Shingon Japanese Vajrayana monk, for three years at Mount Koya, Japan. It was then that he received the name Shinzen. He’s also been deeply involved in Native American spiritual practices such as sweat lodges and sun dances with the Lakota Sioux. Also, during the time in Japan, he became friends with Father William Johnston, author of Christian Zen. Father Johnston helped broaden Shinzen’s interest to include comparative world mysticism and the scientific study of meditative states. Upon returning to the US, his academic interest shifted to the dialogue between Eastern meditation and Western science. Shinzen is known for his interactive algorithmic approach to mindfulness and often uses mathematical metaphors to illustrate meditative phenomena. He is the author of ‘The Science of Enlightenment’, which is his newest book, which I just finished, well, read most of, ‘Natural Pain Relief’, and numerous audio offerings. Shinzen leads residential retreats throughout North America. In 2006, he created the Home Practice Program. These phone-based mini-retreats are designed to make deep meditation practice accessible to anyone in the world, regardless of their location, health situation, and time or financial constraints. So, welcome Shinzen.
Shinzen: Thank you.
Rick: Good to have you again. So, your book is entitled The Science of Enlightenment. And I thought it might be interesting to start by asking you just a couple of fundamental questions. The first is, what is science and what is it trying to accomplish?
Shinzen: Well, you’ll get a lot of different opinions as to the nature of science. I usually recommend that people just read the Wikipedia article on the scientific method. And you can see the different opinions that people have had as to what constitutes science. I think we have a general idea of what it is. There is some debate philosophically, and that’s a little bit above my pay grade, actually. I’m not really trained in the field of philosophy. So, I can’t, in all honesty, speak with a lot of confidence on the nature of science itself. I can say a few things from the point of view of a meditation teacher looking at science and from my own personal point of view, but you know, I can professionally make a comment about enlightenment for example, or meditation.
Rick: That was probably going to be my next question.
Shinzen: Yeah, but I’ll try to answer your question about science first because it’s a good one. But I just wanted to sort of give that little caveat that this isn’t my specialty like those other things are. But personally, when I think about science, I think about it as having two sides. There’s a method that’s called the scientific method that involves dimensional analysis. You take a complex system in nature and you sort of ask yourself, what are the fundamental variables? What are the basic dimensions? What are the atoms, the primes, the basis vectors that are the simple elements that combine to create this complex system? So one of the things that I think about when I think about the scientific method is this notion of divide and conquer. We’re presented with a complex phenomenon and we ask ourselves, well, what is this complexity? Can we reduce it to relationships between more basic independent components? A perfect example in mathematics would be analyzing integers into primes. That gives us a handle on the nature of natural numbers. Or analyzing the complex substances of the world in terms of like a periodic table of chemical elements. So one thing that is characteristic of the scientific method is, well, we do this careful analysis of what are the basic elements. Another thing that characterizes the scientific method is that we make experiments. And those experiments have predicted results and those results either show or they don’t. And so there is an empirical validation. We can’t just sort of weave some theory without backing it with experimental effort, experimental evidence. So there is the use of experiment and working with the consequences of what happens when you do experiments. And experiments can be reproduced by other people. It’s not just one person’s say so. Then another thing that constitutes the scientific method is that we mathematically model the system in terms of the aspect of nature that we’re studying. In terms of my favourite six words in the English language, which are how much of what, when, and where, interacting in what ways, and changing at what rates. So we sort of make mathematical models using these variables. So one side of science is this scientific method that involves breaking things down into their basic dimensions. It involves experimentation and it involves mathematical modelling. So that’s the scientific method. And then the other side of science is the body of knowledge that is built up over the centuries by applying the scientific method. And this is where the power lies because an individual human being may not be all that smart. But what science does is it distills the intelligence of generation after generation after generation of people. And we are the beneficiaries. For example, any high school student who learns calculus today will understand calculus better than Newton and Leibniz, the great mathematicians… and Seki is was a Japanese mathematician that independently discovered part of calculus in Japan. But in any event, any high school student can have a deeper understanding of calculus than those geniuses did because in the intervening centuries, other mathematicians vastly improved and we’ve distilled. And that happens in physics. It happens in all these areas. So one half of science is sort of, okay, it’s a way of gaining knowledge. The other half of science is it’s a body of knowledge that grows and improves with time. Now what’s interesting is that this a little bit parallels a notion in Buddhism, which is the nature of prajna. So prajna is usually translated as wisdom, and the archetypal representation of wisdom is the bodhisattva Manjushri. And Manjushri is portrayed with two attributes: he’s got a sword in one hand, and a book in the other hand. And the sword is the experiential that penetrates the veil of illusion and reveals deeper and deeper knowledge. And the sword is a way of gaining knowledge. And depending on the Buddhist tradition, that might involve observing as it does in mindfulness. It might involve working with don’t know as in some aspects of Zen. But there’s sort of a way of gaining knowledge that is meditation. And then there is the knowledge that you gain that can be written in a book and may grow with time, did grow with time as masters over the centuries continued to develop Buddhism. So the sort of a method to gain spiritual knowledge and then the body of knowledge that is gained and grows with time is what in Buddhism we call prajna, and that’s symbolized by this bodhisattva Manjushri. So it’s sort of interesting that there is a little bit of a parallel between the nature of science: it’s a method, and it’s a growing body of knowledge and the nature of prajna or spiritual wisdom. It’s a method which is meditation of different sorts. And then there’s a knowledge that is written down and evolves with time over the world and that’s symbolized in the bodhisattva by the sword on one hand and the book on the other. So I guess that’s what I would say about the scientific method and some possible parallels with Buddhist thought.
Rick: Right, well it would be fair to say in summary that science is a method whereby hopefully we understand nature as it is, irrespective of our opinions, beliefs, distorted perceptions and what not. We’re trying to attempt to understand the reality of the situation without any subjective overlay that might distort what actually is. And that perhaps the very same thing could be said about spirituality, that it’s an approach to understanding the essence of things, the reality of things, without any taint of subjective delusion or ignorance.
Shinzen: You’re asking me would I agree with that statement?
Rick: Would you, as a summary statement?
Shinzen: I would broadly agree with the outline, but there’s just one point that I think needs to be commented on. I would say for myself that I would not claim to have some knowledge of objective reality based on a lifetime of meditation. I would only claim that I have a knowledge of the nature of sensory experience. But what I know about sensory experience is deep, powerful and important. But how that relates to the objective reality that a scientist investigates, that’s a little bit of a tricky question. The tendency has been historically for mystics around the world to assume that the experiences that they have, either spontaneously or as a result of practice, that those experiences say something about the nature of objective reality. For example, the Buddha had experiences in his meditation of God realms and those were very vivid experiences and people that meditate can have those experiences. Now because of his time in his culture, apparently he assumed that those God realms objectively exist. He had meditation experiences of having had former lives. Those were vivid and a modern meditator can have those experiences and they will be vivid. However, those are sensory experiences. Does that mean that we literally have a multiplicity of lives? Oh, I think that’s a different question. Meditators can have the experience of floating through the air, of violating the laws of physics and so forth. These can be vivid experiences. But are we really violating the laws of physics? Well, people in ancient times assumed they were actually levitating or they actually did have knowledge of the future and so forth or could manipulate the material world. Yoga sutras devote a lot of space to exactly those kinds of things; siddhis as they’re called. Now these are vivid experiences and they’re significant experiences for any meditator. But do they mean that the material world actually is that way? Well, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Obviously, there’s got to be some relationship between objective reality that a philosopher, a professional philosopher or a professional scientist claims to investigate and the sensory reality that a meditator investigates. There’s got to be some relationship, but what that relationship is I think has to be handled very lightly. I’m not going to just immediately assume that because I have a certain experience that gives me special knowledge about the nature of the objective world. Bertram Russell wrote a book about mysticism as a professional philosopher, criticizing this very tendency that I’m talking about. So I think if we’re going to really cooperate with the world of science, we meditators have to have some humility about our claims. I would claim that I know things about the way sensory experience works that most people don’t know and they’re damn important, but I would not claim that I have special knowledge about the nature of material reality based on that.
Rick: Okay, well in the last interview you said that “science and spirituality will eventually merge and become aspects of a single approach to understanding”. And I would suggest that if we want to be scientific, then we can’t just blithely buy into these subtle experiences and talks of siddhis and all that stuff, nor can we categorically reject them. We have to be scientific you know, which is to say, let’s take them as testable hypotheses perhaps and see where that leads us. And maybe we’ll eventually discover that there is some clear correlation between subjective experience and objective reality, or maybe we won’t, but let’s investigate it systematically. And if there actually ever was an example which could be replicated of somebody levitating or doing one of these things that Christ and many others are said to have done( St. Joseph of Cupertino and many, many others) then that says something very interesting about the fundamental relationship between consciousness and the laws of nature, which I think has exciting implications in many respects, including for science.
Shinzen: Well, as far as having an open mind in the way that you just described, I would say, “Hell yes.”
Rick: Yeah. In fact, here you say in your book, “Mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. Formulating a clear description of mystical experience is required, prenuptial for the marriage of the millennium, the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. Making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on subjective experience is not the way to go,” which is what you were just saying. So, I guess the fundamental question is here, can mystical experience be systematized? Can it be rendered scientific? Can there be intersubjective agreement so that we’re not just sort of muddling around in fantasies and hallucinations, but that we actually perhaps are using the subjective technologies of meditation and so on to explore the nature of reality in a way which is real, in a way which is not just imaginary. But we’re actually exploring, we’re adding a tool to the scientific toolkit, namely our own nervous system, to enable us to discover things which existing scientific tools, such as telescopes and microscopes and so on, may not provide.
Shinzen: I think that there are two sides to bringing science into meditation. One is what I call bringing the spirit of science into the teaching of meditation and that’s quite doable at this point in history and I would say that that’s one of the things I’ve devoted my life to. So, that’s a phrase for me to bring the spirit of science into the teaching of meditation. So, the main aspect of the spirit of science is, or an important aspect of the spirit of science I alluded to before. It’s this notion of carefully analyzing the system that we’re interested in into its basic dimensions and having a precise vocabulary for talking about those dimensions. So, I call my approach to mindfulness, Unified Mindfulness. The idea is not so much to create a system of mindfulness, but to create a way of thinking about all forms of meditation by taking each aspect of the meditative endeavor and making a clear analysis of its elements. So, for example, mindfulness itself: what are the basic dimensions of mindfulness? Well, I would claim that it’s three attentional skills: concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity and then I’ll go on to explicitly state what I mean by those skills and give examples. I’m also going to claim that those three dimensions of mindful awareness can be further subdivided into sub dimensions. For example, there’s two sides to sensory clarity: the ability to discriminate elements or untangle, and the ability to detect subtle sensory occurrences. And then there’s two sides to equanimity: there’s the equanimity that you can sort of intentionally create by sort of opening to experiences or labelling in a matter of fact voice or keeping your whole body relaxed. That’s equanimity that you have some control over. And then there’s the equanimity that just happens to you. You fall into equanimity by meditating for long periods of time; it’s a numbers game. And then the more you fall into it, the more it becomes available. So there’s sort of like two sides to equanimity, two sides to sensory clarity and then there are several dimensions to concentration. The ability to hold something small, the ability to hold something large in attention, the ability to have momentary concentration on a sequence of sensory targets as they come up versus the ability to hold the attention on just one thing for a period of time. So there’s spatial and temporal dimensions to the concentration skill. So I give this very fine grained analysis of the basic components of mindfulness, and here I’m using mindfulness to basically mean meditation. I’m defining it very broadly, and then okay, what are the goals of mindfulness? Why develop these skills? Well, we can analyze… The quick answer is so that we can optimize total happiness, but what do we mean by total happiness? Then we can analyze human happiness into dimensions and sub-dimensions, and then we can show how those attentional skills facilitate the attaining of each of the different forms of happiness. So now we’ve got something that looks a little bit like a scientific theory. We’ve analyzed the practice into its dimensions. We’ve analyzed the result of the practice into its dimensions, and then we give an explanatory mechanism that links those skills to the results that we want: reducing suffering, elevating fulfillment, understanding ourselves at all levels, positive behavior change, ultimately a spontaneous spirit of love and service, getting enormous fulfillment from helping others. These are the five basic dimensions of human happiness in the way that I like to think of it. And I can show how those three skills optimize those five aspects of happiness. Well, this is beginning to look something like a scientific theory. There’s explanatory mechanisms, there’s a very clear vocabulary. It’s a technical vocabulary but it’s well-defined. So I call that way of working, bringing the spirit of science into meditation. Now why do we want to do this? Well, for two reasons: One is that I hope to make the classical results of meditation, which are enlightenment, available to larger numbers of people by showing them how to work smart. By bringing the spirit of science into the teaching of meditation, I hope that we can work smarter so that we can get results quicker and with less travail than the more traditional sort of renunciate monastic lifestyle. Now I’m not going to guarantee that that is the case. That’s just my hope. So one reason to bring the spirit of science into the teaching of meditation is well, maybe we can get results faster and easier for more people, we can democratize enlightenment on this planet or at least it will be a step in that direction. The other reason for bringing the spirit of science into the teaching of meditation is it then gives us a basis whereby we can collaborate with scientists, neuroscientists specifically. And that’s the second dimension of the science of enlightenment. So the first dimension of the science of enlightenment is well, informing meditation practice with the spirit of science. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that. The second dimension, we’re just beginning. Now that we’ve informed, we’ve created a science-like paradigm for how meditation works, we can now collaborate with scientists who will study meditative states in terms of biophysiology. And we may be able to come up with forms of knowledge that none of the great masters of the past had. And you remember I said there’s two sides to the wisdom, right? There’s the sword of Manjushri, which is the method of gaining wisdom, and then there’s how the wisdom is sort of stored and gathered. Well, maybe able to sharpen Manjushri’s blade by collaborating with scientists who will probably themselves be meditators in most cases. So they sort of know what they’re talking about. And as the result of that, we may be able to write new chapters in the Prajnaparamita literature that are radical innovations that then lead to technological innovations, that then make enlightenment go viral on this planet. I’m not going to predict that is going to happen, but I am going to say everything I know about science and everything I know about meditation tells me in my gut it could happen. I know that people are a little freaked out by all the shit that goes on in the world, but I’m a little less freaked out by all that. It’s not that I’m not freaked out, but deep down I see this slow glacial shift towards universal enlightenment on this planet and it may move fast enough to save us or it may not, but I do see it happening and that’s a source of, for me personally, enormous optimism.
Rick: Yeah, I agree with you. I feel the same way and it may not be as glacial as we think. I mean it’s subtle and it’s kind of underground, but you know, it’s like the Yellowstone caldera or something. You don’t know to what extent it has built up and it might blow at any time.
Shinzen: I love that metaphor, that’s a great metaphor. Yeah, it could blow. That’s right, I’m going to use that, I like that.
Rick: Good, it just occurred to me actually.
Shinzen: So you’ve got the intuitive wisdom, we’ve got your Prajna Mojo going now.
Rick: Yeah, we do. There was a nice quote from H.G. Wells that you put in your book. He said, “It is quite possible that in contact with Western science and inspired by the spirit of history, the original teaching of Gautama, revived and purified, may yet play a large part in the direction of human destiny.” So, “in contact with science, inspired by, revived and purified,” those are key words there I think. And the implication is that perhaps through the passage of time the thing has become distorted and impurified. It’s lost what the original teaching was, it’s gotten garbled like the party game where you whisper something and it goes around the room and by the time it gets back to you it’s a completely different thing. And so what H.G. Wells was suggesting is that maybe Western science can help us bring a kind of scrutiny to ancient teachings which will restore them to their original efficacy, potency. Want to elaborate on that a little bit?
Shinzen: Sure, that’s what Wells said, but my idea is more radical. My idea is that yes, we can get rid of certain accretions that may be getting in the way and that would be useful. And the science and critical historiography can help. Critical historiography can break down the entrenchments that certain sectarian approaches have about being the one true, only pure, original, etc. etc. Critical historiography militates against that kind of fundamentalist way of thinking about your own lineage. So that can be helpful. And also to bring a critical eye of science to things in general is a good thing. But remember that the historical Buddha himself probably believed a lot of things that are not consonant with science. I mean he lived almost 2500 years ago. We read Euclid. Euclid is great geometry, okay? It still basically stands. But we don’t necessarily believe in Zeus and Hera and Hercules, which Euclid probably did. His geometry stands, whereas his religious beliefs don’t. So I think there are things in the original teachings of the Buddha, discoveries he made that will absolutely pass the test of time. They’re as good as gold. But I think that we may be able to do better, not just purify or not just get rid of some accretions that are getting in the way or drop things that are not consonant with a modern view. But we may actually be able to make new discoveries that were not available to the Buddha. The Buddha probably thought that the brain was a bone marrow. That’s the way the brain is described in the Pali literature. It’s a form of bone marrow. And well, we now know that that’s not really what is inside your skull, okay? In fact, what’s inside your skull is the most complex piece of nature that we humans are in contact with. It’s amazing what’s in there and it’s not bone marrow. And there’s some relationship between the biochemistry of that chunk of matter and our experiences, both ordinary and spiritual. There’s a relationship and the relationship is highly contentious, but for sure there is some relationship and therefore it’s possible that we will understand things about the biophysics of enlightenment. I’m saying possible, not will happen because as I always jokingly say, Yogi Berra said, “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” So I’m not a prophet of, “Hey, the revolution is coming, and the golden age is coming.” I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I know that it’s not a ridiculous idea that that could happen and the that is discoveries about enlightenment that none of the masters knew, but that will vastly accelerate the ability of modern people to experience that. And therefore the phrase I use is “democratize enlightenment.” I just by living an ordinary North American life, I have more power and comfort and knowledge than the kings and emperors of the past. I mean the Sun King of France still had to piss in a pot, you know, I have a flush toilet. Okay, half the women in his court died in child labour. Well, we do a lot better now, statistically. We have power and we have comfort and we have knowledge that would have been the drooling envy of the most powerful and knowledgeable people of the past, just because I happen to live in the United States or the developed world. Now I know that there’s still a lot of inequality on this planet, but science has democratized power, knowledge and convenience. There are hundreds of millions of people that live better than kings and potentates of the past. Well, maybe science can do it again. Maybe science can democratize spiritual aristocracy.
Rick: It’s also democratized communications. 50 years ago I would have had to own a TV station to do what I’m doing right now, you know, and here we’re just broadcasting all over the world and thousands of people are watching it.
Shinzen: Right, and 1500 years ago, if you were a Chinese person that wanted to study Buddhism on its native soil, you would have had to go from China to India across Turkestan, where your chances of survival were not great and then you’d have to get back to China somehow. So you would be like risking your life. And when Xuanzang, the most famous Chinese pilgrim was named Xuanzang. And you know, there’s this whole thing about the monkey, if you go into like Peking Opera or whatever, you’ll see lots of plays about him, you can get them on the YouTube. So first of all, it was at the risk of his life, and secondly he like literally had to take donkey loads of gold to, you know, pay for this endeavor to get this stuff. So at the risk of your life and at the cost of a fortune, you would get teachings that you now get for free, massively on the internet. So you know, this is pretty good.
Rick: Yeah, I think it relates to what you were saying a little while ago about there’s a sort of upwelling of knowledge in the world that could save it. And you know, what you were also saying about science just now and how we have it pretty good compared to even the aristocrats of a few hundred years ago. I think sometimes spiritual types might have a notion that we’re going to go back to some agrarian, pre-industrial society and that would be the ideal. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I mean, the genie’s out of the bottle and you know, we’re not going to, unless there’s some catastrophe, we’re not going to revert to a pre-technological world. So I think if we want to gain some vision of what a more enlightened society might be, it will include both spirituality and technology. And I think as you’ve been alluding to, there will be a kind of a marriage of the two, a cooperation or collaboration of the two, which we’re going to be talking more about in this interview. But technology certainly has its benefits, like you said, childbirth or having a tooth decay, I mean, could kill you before modern dentistry. So there’s all kinds of good things about it we don’t want to let go. Okay, well any comments before I continue?
Shinzen: No, no.
Rick: All right.
Shinzen: Sounds good to me.
Rick: Yeah. Well one thing I wanted to mention, based on things you were saying, is the idea of a neurophysiology of enlightenment. There have been researchers working on that for decades now and they’re coming along, but I think the hope is that whatever enlightenment is, and not only the full enchilada, but various jhanas or various stages of samadhi or whatever else, this could all be mapped out and understood in terms of its physiological correlates. And I think that would have a number of values. One, it would be a sort of a confirmation of, you know, I mean there’s the whole notion of the master confirming that you’re enlightened. Well maybe you’d also want to step into an EEG lab and see what’s going on.
Rick: Yeah, if I could just jump in and make a comment. So I have a lot of sympathy for people that are in the early stage of their practice and early stages, sort of the first 10-20 years, okay. I remember how agonizing it was for me to try to reconcile the conflicting claims and maps of these various traditions. It was like excruciating. It’s like this one says this and this one says that and, you know, I’ve got to get this and will I ever get that? Some people who criticize the notion of a science of enlightenment point to the fact that there tends to be general agreement in the hard sciences. I mean there’s disagreement at the cutting edge of innovation, but there’s general agreement about things. If you take Newtonian physics and you learn it in Paris or you learn it in Kampala, or you learn it in Tehran, or you learn it in Sao Paulo Brazil or Burlington Vermont, it’s going to be the same. There’s not going to be like, “well actually Newtonian physics that they teach in Paris is completely wrong. Only the one that we teach in Burlington is right.” So people point out to what appears to be a lack of a unified paradigm among the meditators of the world. The most glaring example conceptually is half the enlightened people in the world say enlightenment is realizing there is no self and the other half say it’s realizing your true self, and this would appear to be that there’s either two completely different kinds of enlightenment or more likely there’s two ways of talking about the same critter. But it’s frustrating and so I think two things are going to repair that situation. One is something you already alluded to which is that there’s more communication now. People are willing to talk and senior masters who have a modern point of view are willing to respectfully discuss and sort of see if they can come to some sort of understanding that brings a more unified perspective. So there’s that spirit of communication but then there’s also what science brings to the table. Because this lineage might say this and this lineage might say that but let’s put them in the scanner and see what’s going on there. Now that’s not today’s scanner though. Today’s scanner is not very good. So today’s neuroimaging technology is not capable of arbitrating disagreements among traditions. It does not have the power to do that but 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, it may have the power to do that. So we’re now bringing in a sort of objective third party to the discussion and so the combination of the willingness of masters who have worked in disparate ways to discuss their experiences among themselves openly, combine that with what science may bring to the table from a third person or objective point of view; I wouldn’t be surprised if in this century we actually end up with some sort of fairly unified model for how all forms of meditation work.
Rick: Yeah, not only all forms of meditation, but all aspects of experience that meditation reveals or enables one to explore. And this whole point is very exciting to me. I’ve given a couple talks on it recently and brought it up in a number of interviews. But I think that the whole notion of a uniform map and the work toward arriving at one is a really important idea, a really important endeavor. I think it may take more than this century, it may take a few hundred years, but who knows. But in any case, it’s like if you think about what we do with maps. When Lewis and Clark first set out to explore North America, they had no idea what was out there in terms of the rivers, the mountains or anything else, and they encountered all sorts of difficulties that they might have circumvented if they had a better idea of the topography. So that relates to the notion that if we have a clearer understanding of the spiritual territory, we will not get waylaid, we’ll not get hung up, we’ll be able to sort of take legitimate shortcuts and save ourselves a lot of trouble if we understand what’s what. We might save ourselves from getting involved in some weird cult for 20 years or something, giving away all our money if we have a clear understanding of what enlightenment actually is supposed to look like. The other thing is that it’s inspiring to have a clear understanding of what the possibilities are, it’s a motivator. If you really understand how life could be lived, it should be the most inspiring thing in one’s life. Here we are today, 150-whatever years after Lewis and Clark, maybe 200 almost, and we have the whole continent mapped out to the millimeter with all sorts of technologies, and there are all kinds of maps, and they refer to the same territory, but they each serve different purposes. We have topographical maps and airline maps and gas pipeline maps and road maps and all these different things, all referring to the same thing, but each providing some value. So perhaps all the different traditions won’t necessarily fall into lockstep with one another and be saying the very same thing, but they’ll say, “Well, we kind of specialized in this aspect and here’s what we have to contribute, and we over here have this to contribute,” and yet we totally agree with one another, these are just sort of different fields of the same elephant.
Shinzen: Yeah, it will be evident that it’s the same country, not some other country that we’re describing.
Rick: Yeah, so that’s a fascinating thing, and it comes back to what you said before about science and spirituality merging to become aspects to a single approach to knowledge, because both will have to be involved in this. Otherwise, I don’t think that subjective, merely very spiritual people talking to each other, I don’t know if they’d ever totally reconcile their experiences and their perspectives, but when you bring in a physiological understanding to it, I think it completes the puzzle.
Rick: One thing I wonder about, we talked a bit about meditation, you were talking about it, and I also have been meditating since the 60s, a few hours a day on average, and based on what I learned I had a very different approach to it. And when you use the word “concentration,” I don’t know always if you’re talking about the actual act of concentration as a method or the quality of concentration that develops through whatever one has practiced, so that the mind is spontaneously concentrated, for instance, as a result of practice, not that you’re always having to willfully concentrate.
Shinzen: Yeah, that’s a very important distinction. And when I use the term, I say that you can think of concentration as the ability to focus on what you want to focus on. So that is different from the exercise that may involve some effort to develop that ability. So a good analogy would be going to the gym. You have to work to lift weights, but as the result of that, you elevate your base level of strength. So you’re not strong just while you’re pumped in the gym, you take that strength and it’s available to you all day. In the same way, many of the exercises that develop concentration do involve an effort when you do them, but as a result of that, they elevate your base level of concentration. And I define base level of concentration as how concentrated you are in daily life when you’re not particularly trying to be concentrated. So the distinction that you’re making between what might be an effortful exercise to concentrate and a person’s base level of concentration, that’s an important distinction. Because sometimes people say, “I don’t want to learn to concentrate because then I’ll just be allocating energy all day to just concentrating.” But once you understand the parallel with physical exercise, you see the flaw in that particular objection. Also, you’ll notice that I actually mentioned this before. I didn’t say anything about how broad or how narrow. Sometimes when people say concentrate, they think it must be something small. Concentration is a limiting of the attention. Now, the ability to hold something small is one of the dimensions of concentration. That’s the contractive side, but there’s also the ability to hold large pieces of experience at once. That’s a dimension of concentration also. Sometimes people will say, “Well, I don’t want to learn concentration because then I’ll always be restricting my attention and I won’t be able to encompass a larger field.” And that’s, that objection comes because of having a limited definition of concentration.
Rick: Also, I mean if we ask ourselves, “Well, why does the mind get concentrated on something?” I mean, if you’re watching a really good movie, for instance, you’re just lost in it. You’re totally focused on it because it’s providing some kind of gratification, some kind of happiness or fulfillment or something. So you don’t have to discipline yourself to pay attention to it; you’re just absorbed. So if you know consciousness or the deeper values of experience are really imbued with Ananda, if there’s bliss to be experienced at those subtler levels of awareness, then it would seem that the mind would be drawn to them naturally if given the opportunity, and that it wouldn’t actually even take concentration to allow the mind to move in that direction. It would do so willingly if given the chance. Now, then of course the question is, “Well, why does it wander off?” And that might be another explanation, but at least the inward stroke, it seems to me, could be effortless.
Rick: Well, that’s one of the main strategies for developing concentration. You use clarity. Remember I always say, “Concentration, clarity, equanimity,” right? So you use your clarity to notice the intrinsic pleasure of the concentrated state, and then that creates a positive feedback loop that motivates you to concentrate even more. That’s sort of the basis of the jhana practices. The problem with the TV thing is… the good news is you’re very concentrated. The bad news is you’re not consciously aware of that, so there’s little or no learning involved.
Rick: Yeah. Well, mea culpa, I might as well just say that I was a TM teacher for 25 years, and I’m not in the TM movement anymore, I’m not in the soapbox for that practice, but there was a certain logic to the mechanics of it, which was that subtler levels of the mind are intrinsically more charming or more gratifying, and that the technique was such that without actually employing any degree of concentration whatsoever, just very effortlessly repeating a mantra, the mind would settle down, and indeed, within minutes you were experiencing something more blissful, something more fulfilling, and the mind just settled, settled, settled, and very often would go beyond thinking altogether, pure consciousness, and then back out again. So there was a sort of an indoctrination.
Shinzen: Well, here’s a perfect example of where bringing the spirit of science into a discussion will clarify the situation, because we have distinguished between concentration as an ability and the exercises that a person may do in order to enhance that ability, and if you listened really carefully to the way I stated things, I said that some of those exercises may involve effort, but I didn’t imply that every exercise that develops, that elevates your base level of concentration will necessarily involve effort. And so your TM would be an example of a method that will elevate your base level of concentration, but without you making a concerted effort to concentrate as you do it. And I have a technique that also works on that same principle that I call “do nothing.” I describe it on the internet. So the do nothing technique, you’re not efforting to develop concentration, clarity, or equanimity, But you are setting things up in such a way that those things will develop with time. If TM works, then it would represent an example of that. Without making the effort to concentrate, you can still elevate your base level of concentration by establishing a simple structure. In the case of TM, it’s the mantra. In the case of do nothing, it’s something a little different. But they have a similarity in that if they work for an individual and different things work for different people, But if it works, it actually does dramatically elevate your ability to focus on what’s relevant in daily life, but without you having made the effort. But here’s also where you get into tricky things, okay, because some people get in their own way by making too much of an effort and that becomes problematic. Some people get in their own way by not making enough of an effort, and that becomes problematic. So the way that you… there is a temptation in the spiritual marketplace to compare your best to the other guy’s worst. So if the efforting approach doesn’t work, there’s a reason why, and the non-efforting approach is the remedy. If the non-efforting approach doesn’t work, there’s a reason why and the efforting approach is the remedy, okay, but what people will often do for PR value is they’ll say, “Well, if you do X, it will develop this problem, but we have the solution to that.” Well, what they really mean to say is “if you do X and things don’t work out, it’s probably because of Y and we have a solution to that.” But the reverse of all of that is also true, okay. If you do their thing and it doesn’t work out, there’s a reason why and it’s probably the thing that this other guy has a solution to. I would just say, I would caution anyone to just not buy the hype.
Rick: Oh yeah, I mean there’s a reason why I’m no longer in the TM movement and I’m definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of guy. I mean, having done this interview show for seven years and interviewed all these hundreds of people, I’m really open to everybody’s whatever works, you know, and 95% of the people who learn TM stop doing it. I don’t know the exact percentage, but most people drop out, so obviously it doesn’t work for everybody or maybe they started doing it wrong, but you just have to find what works for you. And like you say, there’s a phrase from the Vedas someplace that says, “Be easy to us with gentle effort,” so it kind of implies ease and effort in proper proportion.
Shinzen: Yep, that’s the basic dialectic.
Rick: Yeah, and basically whatever works, that’s really the bottom line. You know, if something’s not working for you, then maybe you should be doing something else, but you have to give something a fair shake before just giving up, you don’t want to be a dilettante. A couple questions came in, this is from Marie in the US. This is an interesting question: “Who or what is it that becomes enlightened?”
Shinzen: Yes, this question comes up over and over again, very common question and a very legitimate question. So different teachers are going to attempt to answer this in different ways, but unfortunately, usually the answer is not very satisfactory, because it’s something that’s difficult to put into words. So the real answer to your question will come from your own experience. So what makes this a difficult question to answer is the grammatical form of the question. The only way that we can ask questions, either in our mind or speaking to another person, is we have to put them in the grammatical form of human speech. And if you ask the question, “Who or what?” grammatically, it requires a noun or a pronoun as an answer. Nouns and pronouns are grammatically called “substantives”, they’re things. So the question constrains an answer that says “this thing” – it gets enlightened. But that’s not really the way it works.So…
Rick: There’s also that verb in there, “gets”, like there’s this thing that someone gets.
Shinzen: Yeah, first of all, it’s not a thing, and secondly, it’s not a getting. So the question is difficult to answer grammatically, directly. So then the answers that the teachers give always seem like they’re trying to avoid the question. Well, in a sense, we are, because the question is set up in such a way that the answer would be misleading. But here’s one way to think about it. I’m going to give you some ways to think about it. So one way to think about it is, let’s think about it as a different question. Let’s think about it as the question of “Who meditates?” Now, that’s not exactly the same question that was asked, but let’s just reformulate it. So most people have had the experience of getting in a car and arriving at a location, and you realize that you were not aware of driving the car, but you didn’t crash. So even though sort of you weren’t there, obviously someone was driving that car. Now, if I were to ask you, “Who drove the car?” how would we answer this question? Well, we might say that the habit of driving drove the car. Driving had become second nature enough that it didn’t require anything else. You just get in the car and somehow parts of you know how to drive without you being there. So for experienced meditators, they don’t really meditate. There’s no meditator there meditating. The habit of meditation meditates. The fact that you’ve meditated all these years means that when you sit down to practice, it just happens. The circuits know how to do it without you being there. So one facet of a possible answer would be, well, if we reformulate the question “Who meditates?” Well, the habit of meditating meditates. Or another way to think about it is that if we think of meditation as having three skills, concentration, clarity, and equanimity, then we could say that the sensory circuits themselves have developed more concentration, clarity, and equanimity. It’s not like me as the meditator has those qualities. Those qualities are in the fabric of my sensory circuits and actually the motor circuits also. So instead, often mindfulness is described as observing phenomena. That’s an okay description, but it’s not really accurate. The more accurate description would be that mindfulness elevates the base level of concentration, clarity, and equanimity in the sensory and motor circuits. So it’s actually a change not in the person, but in the neuronal circuits that underlie what they see, hear, feel, and what they do, say, and think. So it’s actually not so much observing things, as elevating the base level of certain qualities in your nervous system, in the fabric of the nervous system. And when those qualities pass a certain critical value, then enlightenment just sort of happens. That’s one way to think. That’s another way to think about it. Yet another way to think about it is any sensory experience, anything that we see, hear, or feel on the inside or outside, and any motor experience, anything that we do, say, or think, it doesn’t happen instantly. There’s a few tenths of milliseconds, a few hundreds of milliseconds or longer that is needed for the depths of the unconscious to process at the level of the nervous system so that an action can manifest through your muscles or a sensory experience can percolate up to consciousness. So every sensory experience and every motor experience has a subconscious thing that only lasts for a very short period of time that precedes the conscious experience. Well, it turns out that for everyone on this planet, that first mind, that first consciousness that Suzuki Roshi called “the beginner’s mind”. But in his book, the actual Japanese characters for beginner’s mind don’t mean beginner’s mind. They mean initial consciousness, “shoshin”. So, initial consciousness that only lasts for a fraction of a second is the primordial effortlessness of nature itself. It’s just like a ripple spreading on the lake. And one way to think about enlightenment is that you elevate the base level of your concentration, clarity, and equanimity until ordinary experiences reflect that primordial perfection. The other way to look at it is you develop the clarity to see that that primordial perfection is always there. And from that perspective, the answer to your question, who gets enlightened, is the person that has always been enlightened and is none other than the entire universe.
Rick: And that which is beyond the universe or more fundamental than the universe. I mean, enlightenment is often referred to as consciousness sort of waking up to itself, self-realizing the Self by the Self. And of course, that’s not Buddhist terminology, but it could be translated into that. Let’s spin to another question by her, which is related. “Is enlightenment a phenomenon or is it non-phenomenal? If it’s non-phenomenal, then how can the scientific method be applied to it?”
Shinzen: I would say that enlightenment is non-phenomenal, but our awareness of it is phenomenal. That’s a sensory experience. That primordial perfection is not a sensory experience, but a fraction of a second after it has occurred, the meditator looks back and has an experience of something that was not an experience. And we can certainly scientifically say things about that because it is an experience.
Rick: Yeah, also even though maybe the deepest value that has become a conscious experience in the state of enlightenment is beyond all relative consideration, it seems that it has its impact on the relative and that can be measured physiologically and so on.
Shinzen: And it can also be measured in terms of a person’s behavior and fulfillment in life.
Rick: Right, all that kind of stuff.
Shinzen: Absolutely, and there’s even a word in Sanskrit. We talk about technical vocabulary. This is one of my favourite words in Sanskrit, “Prista labda laukika jnana.” Okay, it’s like how many syllables is that, right? So, “Prista” means afterwards, “labda” means gained or gotten, “laukika” means ordinary, and “jnana” means knowledge. So, after a cessation experience, which by an objective clock could be a fraction of a second or could be hours, after a cessation experience, which is non-phenomenal, consciousness returns and looks back and that looking back is the “Pristalabdalaukikajnana.” That’s an ordinary sensory experience that represents something that was beyond sensory experience, and that we can probably look at neurophysiologically.
Rick: And I would even say that once that thing which is beyond sensory experience becomes stabilized so that it’s 24/7, it’s not something you need to look at or look back upon continuously in order to live, it’s just there. But you could reflect on it if you wished, and yet you can’t put your finger on it like you can on a table or something like that. There’s just sort of this intuitive knowingness that that silent, uninvolved, kind of unmanifest value is perpetual. Does that make sense?
Rick: Here’s a couple of questions from Stefan Muller in Germany. Part one, “Do you believe in stages of consciousness or enlightenment like the ten fetters in Buddhism and which do you prefer to use?” Which does he mean which? I mean, which stage? I’m not sure.
Shinzen: Which model.
Rick: Which model, okay.
Shinzen: I’m guessing which model. Well, I think that those models can be useful, but I would not get too fundamentalist about it. So I look at them and I find them useful. My favourite one is the ten ox-herding pictures from Zen, but that’s just my personal favourite. I like that one.
Rick: And then he asks, and I can help you with this if you want to dwell on it, but he says, “Do you know Maharshi’s model?” I think he means Maharshi Mahesh Yogi’s model, “and broadly what are the differences in the Buddhist models?” If you like, I’ll take 30 seconds to tell you his model.
Shinzen: Yeah, that would be helpful because I don’t have a…
Rick: Well, he outlined seven states of consciousness, basically, waking, dreaming and sleeping being the first three, which everyone experiences. Transcendental consciousness, meaning the turiya, fourth state, beyond the first three, eyes closed, no sensory experience going on. And then cosmic consciousness, the fifth state, in which pure awareness was maintained 24/7 along with ordinary waking, dreaming and sleeping. And then God consciousness, which he sometimes referred to as refined cosmic consciousness, in which the senses, the heart had expanded, the senses had become refined to the point where the celestial value of creation is routinely apprehended in our day-to-day activity. And then finally unity consciousness, in which the objects of the senses are perceived in terms of the self, in other words, the essential nature of what we are and the essential nature of what the thing is, it’s the same thing, and one appreciates that experientially as a living reality throughout one’s life.
Rick: The ordinary experience of oneness, basically. That’s it in a nutshell.
Shinzen: So, that last stage would be where there’s no fundamental separation between ordinary sensory events and the formless, which is their source? Would that be an accurate way to put it?
Rick: Yeah, kind of like the essential oneness of everything is one’s living experience, so that the differences are still experienced to some extent. And in Sanskrit there’s the term “lesha vidya” which means “faint remains of ignorance”, meaning there has to be some appreciation of difference or you couldn’t feed yourself or walk through a door. But that primarily unity has come to predominate.
Shinzen: Oh, I see what he’s saying. Yeah, the unified value of everything has come to predominate in your experience.
Shinzen: This is very interesting actually. I’m enjoying this a lot, hearing this from you. Did he have Sanskrit terms for all of those? Yes, and I don’t even know if I can remember them all.
Shinzen: Could you send me a place where I could see them?
Rick: Yeah, I could research that. I know that… yeah, go ahead.
Shinzen: Here’s what’s behind it. Very often if you want to have some sort of… you know, we were talking about having like substantive conversations between traditions. One of the tricks that you learn very early on if you do academic studies of these things is you always want to find out what the term in the original language was, because if you start just using translations into English, it gets very messy very quickly. So it would help me a lot to see what the Sanskrit words he used for those are. So you ran through it fairly quickly, but it pretty much maps onto my own personal experience, so it sounds pretty good.
Rick: Okay, that’s interesting. So you want to talk about your own personal experience? I know it’s kind of a Buddhist thing that you don’t talk much about your own experience of enlightenment.
Shinzen: I don’t mind talking about experience. I talk about it on the YouTube.
Rick: Yeah, so for instance, you know, we talked about waking, dreaming, and sleeping, and everybody experiences those, and then I’m sure you’ve had states of samadhi or satori or whatever, right? Where there’s just pure awareness without any sensory activity, yeah?
Rick: Many of those probably, and then was there a certain stage you reached at which that pure awareness, whatever terminology we want to use, was retained 24/7 even during deep sleep?
Shinzen: Well, I still can lose consciousness at night. I don’t necessarily… I’m not necessarily conscious all night, every night.
Rick: Right, and by conscious I wouldn’t mean necessarily sensory consciousness, not like you’re experiencing what’s going on in the room, but just awareness itself. Senses may be totally shut down, but awareness itself.
Shinzen: I would say that that pervades every night for me. Sometimes it does, but during the daytime, yes, definitely.
Rick: Yeah, and then there’s that thing about refined perception, and we talked about this a bit in the last interview, and you were talking about how in Zen there’s really no discussion about that sort of thing, kind of the subtle realms and you know, the beings who may live in those realms.
Shinzen: Well, there’s a discussion of it, they call it “makyo.”
Rick: Yeah, I’ve run into that.
Shinzen: They’re dismissory of it, but you know, because they see, especially in traditional cultures, how this can sort of shunt you away from the liberation path, but I have a long discussion of it in my book where I’m a little more sympathetic to it, I guess we would say. I don’t just dismiss it.
Rick: This is the Science of Enlightenment?
Rick: I didn’t get to read the whole book cover to cover. What do you say in the book about that?
Shinzen: I’m pretty sure there’s a chapter on there on the realms of power.
Shinzen: So what do I say? Well, I say a little bit what the Zen teachers say, but then I say something else in addition. So in Zen, the realms of power are called “makyo” in Japanese, and “kyo” means experience or realm, and “ma” is short for “Mara,” which means the devil, so that’s obviously a pejorative term. So the idea being that if you buy into the content of those experiences, that’s going to shunt you away from the direct path to liberation. So that’s sort of the standard thing. However, my take on it is informed by that, but also it’s a little broader because the other thing is, well, the good news is that if you’re having these power phenomena, which is basically the wish list for new age, you know, spirituality, it’s like, you know, encounter entities, gods, ghosts, ancestors, angels, power things, you know, remember your former lives or it’s maps on to a lot of shamanic experience and so forth, culturally around the world. Well, my thing is if those phenomena are happening, then that’s an indication that you’re dropping to a deep level of consciousness, so that’s a good thing. It’s actually a kind of feedback to tell you that you’re going deep, so in native cultures, this would be called the spirit world, and of course, it’s very real to those cultures. So there are the spirits, let’s say, and then there’s what we might refer to as the Great Spirit or the Source, which in Buddhism would be called the Dharmakaya. And I would take that as that primordial perfection, that formless doing that moulds ordinary and extraordinary experience moment by moment. So if you’re encountering spirits, it means you’re getting close to the Great Spirit. That’s good, but the Great Spirit is formless. So by paying attention to the energy flow that envelops the manifestation of those unusual phenomena, you’re keeping yourself pointed towards the formless source that is the Great Spirit. And so in terms of traditional Buddhist vocabulary, by observing the impermanence of the power realm experiences, that’s pointing you to the force that moulds them. We can draw a little bit of a metaphor from physics. Force is proportional to acceleration, okay? So as you’re watching how these things sort of vibrate and undulate, you can get a sense that there is a formless activity of consciousness that is moulding them, them meaning these spirits. And that’s the same thing that moulds the ordinary so-called physical world. And by doing that, you ride the spirit world directly down to the Great Spirit, but if you get either frightened or enchanted by the contents of the spirit realm, then you could go off in a horizontal direction and not realize it, and so you stop going deep, you just go out into the power realms, and our remote ancestors practiced shamanism and the spectrum of classical shamanism around the world is a spectrum of angles. One angle is you go out into the power realms and you don’t go any deeper into purification or get closer to the formless, and those people become one kind of shaman that’s sometimes called a witch or a sorcerer or a power person. Then at the other extreme are the people that just deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct until they find the no-self, true-self, formless source of it all, and that extreme is sometimes traditionally called a holy person, and then there are an infinity of oblique angles where your growth has a component of interest in the content of the power realms, but also a component of movement towards the formless, and so that spectrum is the real old-time religion of this planet. It’s what most people did for their spirituality for most of human history, so it’s something to be honored from that point of view, but it’s also something to be understood.
Rick: I think that was a great answer, very comprehensive, you know very balanced. I’ve run into these people who utterly dismiss any sort of subtle perception as makyo, and my response is, “Yeah, but people are having this stuff,” and I have friends who see angels and they’re not trying to see angels or anything else, but that’s their everyday experience, so it seems to be something that’s going on. But I think what you said, the key point there is that, I mean, you think of people like Jesus or great sages and saints, apparently this kind of thing was part and parcel of their experience, but their experience was grounded in something utterly fundamental, and so they weren’t distracted or caught up or side-tracked by these subtle experiences. And also, when we talk of the whole subtle realm, I mean, you mentioned spirits, I think it’s a whole potpourri of possibilities there, some of it very dark and some of it not, like Star Wars talks about, you can have powers and yet go over to the dark side. And so, I don’t think it’s something … if we really want to understand reality in its totality, if we want to have this map that we were talking about earlier, I think all this is going to have to be part of that map, because it is part of the whole picture of creation. But what you said I think is very good about how to put it in the proper context and priority with regard to what we’re really ultimately shooting for.
Rick: Here’s a question, Guy Davies in London asks, “Do you have any guidance on how to balance surrender and letting go of control with the power of focus and concentration? I experience intensity of energy and feel drawn to simply letting go and allowing the energy to move freely and concentration feels like manipulation of experience. Yet at the same time, I sense that deep commitment to shamatha or similar practice can serve very powerfully in supporting surrender to God.”
Shinzen: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of pieces in that question. We can look upon world mysticism as a dialectical process. There’s an interplay and it’s not just one polarity, there are a lot of polarities. So, one of the polarities is the degree to which we’re making effort during formal practice versus the degree to which we sort of let go of effort. And my personal philosophy is that there’s a place for both and that they’re complementary skills, not contradictory skills. So, I encourage people to sometimes bear down and try to implement an intentional procedure but also to sometimes ease up and totally let go of that and to explore both sides without thinking that if I do one, it’s going to militate against my ability to do the other. So, I would say basically sometimes sort of have that intention and that effort and other times let go. Just be clear which one you’re doing which and you may primarily at a given time in your practice prefer one approach versus the other but I think it’s valuable to at least occasionally try both. So, that’s one thing and then I should say that’s yeah, I think that’s enough said about that. Surrender is a tricky thing. I like to use the word equanimity because it’s an unusual word and therefore I can define it as a technical term. And one of the things that I say about equanimity is that it’s a relationship to sensory experience. It’s the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull. Essentially, in terms of traditional Buddhism, it’s a letting go of craving and aversion which is the push and pull, right, around the natural flow of the senses. Now, the reason that I bring up sensory experience and speak of equanimity as a relationship to sensory experience is that this then allows us to have a clear conversation that distinguishes equanimity from things like indifference and so forth. So, I would say that indifference or apathy is a relationship to objective circumstances and objective circumstances are known through sensory experience and through that only actually because even thought is a sensory experience, mental image, mental talk and such. So, we know about the objective world through sensory experience. But what’s happening in the objective world is a different critter from our sensory experience. For example, who has power in a certain country at a certain time is an objective circumstance. If I like the person that has power in a certain country where I live, say, then that person having power is going to produce a lot of joyful sensory experience for me. I’m going to have joy and I’m going to be chipper, etc., etc. But let’s say that I don’t like the person that has power in the country where I live. Then let’s say that they’re going to have power for at least four years. I’m not saying one way or the other about specifics. I’m not saying I like or dislike. That’s not my place to say. I’m just giving the general principles. So, it means that for the next four years, every single day, I’m going to experience rage, terror, grief, shame and confusion because this isn’t the way things are supposed to be. That’s what that means. However, that is a sensory experience. My ability to have equanimity with that sensory experience is my ability to have that sensory experience motivate and direct my behavior. It is the… and it militates against that sensory experience, driving and distorting my behavior and paralyzing me. And it also… my ability to have equanimity with the sensory phenomena that I just described, rage, terror, grief, shame in the emotional body and confusion in the mind. My ability to have equanimity with those will mean that although those may go off like a Vesuvius every day when I turn on Yahoo and see that leader, they do not obscure the primordial perfection for me. That’s because I have a relationship of equanimity to that sensory experience. So, it’s all good. It’s all good. It doesn’t obscure the primordial perfection. It motivates and directs me to effective action. But equanimity with a sensory experience does not mean acceptance of the objective reality that underlies that. The objective condition, there’s someone that I don’t like that’s in power, let’s say, for example. It could be in any country, any time. I’m just giving a general example here. I might not accept that. Yeah.
Rick: It doesn’t mean you don’t have preferences, but it means…
Shinzen: It means you… It’s important. It means you… Yes, you can have preferences with regards to the objective world. Okay. The thing is, so when you talk about surrender, I would say, yes, surrender to the experience of rage, terror, grief, shame and confusion, but not necessarily surrender to the objective condition that’s causing that sensory experience.
Rick: Yeah. So, I think it was yesterday, or the day before, you and I spoke and you mentioned that you had some kind of an interesting brain hack or something that you had developed. And before we run out of time, I want to talk about that. But there’s a point toward the end of your book where you talk about three goals for the rest of your life, with each goal more ambitious than its predecessor. If you like, I’ll just read these quickly. Goal number one was to reformulate the path to enlightenment in a modern, secular and science-based vocabulary. I wanted to create a system that is completely free from the cultural trappings and doctrinal preconceptions of traditional Buddhism, and yet is capable of bringing people to classical enlightenment. In my opinion, I have made significant strides towards creating such a system. Do you want to comment on that before I go to goal number two?
Shinzen: No, it’s good if they’re interested. I have a name for it, I call it Unified Mindfulness, and there’s two websites. There’s shinzen.org and then there’s unifiedmindfulness.com, and you can find out about it by going to those websites.
Rick: Okay, good. So your second goal was to develop a fully modern delivery system that would make the practice of that path available to any person in the world, regardless of where they may live, what their work or familial responsibilities may be, whatever their health situation may be, and whatever their financial situation may be. You believe your conference call-based monthly home practice program has made that feasible.
Shinzen: That’s the best I can come up with at this point. I’m also developing apps with two companies that will interactively sort of eventually be 24/7 personal mindfulness coaches with artificial intelligence. That will also be helpful, but right now the only thing that I have actually functioning, and once again you find that at shinzen.org, is a description of what we call the home practice program. So yeah, that’s the delivery system.
Rick: Cool. And then your third goal was to help develop a technology of enlightenment, a science-based intervention powerful enough to make enlightenment readily available to the majority of humanity. And you went on to talk about what you called your happiest thought, which is a phrase Einstein used. Your happiest thought. Most likely there are things that are true and important about enlightenment that neither the Buddha nor any of the great masters of the past knew, because to know them requires an understanding of modern science. We kind of talked about that earlier. Along with a new neuroscience-based model of enlightenment would presumably come new neuroscience-based technologies that could accelerate the practice of meditation, making classical enlightenment available to a significant percentage of the world’s population. And let’s spend a few minutes talking about that, and there were some objections to this that I thought were interesting that we might touch upon as we discuss it. So what was this thing you were alluding to the other day, some kind of a ‚ I think you called it a hack or a brain… something.
Shinzen: This is a contentious area and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. So the lose-lose situation for me is a really comprehensive discussion of all of the issues involved in this would take several hours. And I’m starting to get a little tired, so we’re coming on to a couple hours here. I talk about some of those issues in the book. There’s this list of predictable objections. As soon as you start to talk about this, there is this predictable list of yabbas.
Rick: Yeah, I can even read them for you since you’re a little tired. One is that the role of Maitreya, the next Buddha, is not to create a new version of the Dharma but merely to revive forgotten truth of the former Buddhas. Another objection is that you’re advocating some process that automatically zaps you with enlightenment circumventing any need for study or practice. I remember seeing some cartoon, it was this lady that had the enlightenment patch on her arm and she said, “I can get enlightened while cleaning my house.” And a third was that you’re advocating something unnatural, that we’re meddling perhaps with brain physiology in ways that we don’t fully understand and we’re going to screw ourselves up while attempting to enlighten ourselves.
Shinzen: Those are a few and there’s actually about a half dozen others besides that. And those “yabbas” are all legitimate. They need to really be discussed and honored and thought through. But we’re not going to have time to do that but I just want to say that it’s not like I haven’t thought about all of the possible objections or negative consequences of this notion. It’s just that when I think it all through and think about the probabilities as best I can guess, the preponderance comes down to there’s a high probability but not a certainty that this would be a very, very good thing for this planet. But so we’re not going to be able to, because I can just already visualize the raft of questions that are going to come based on what I’m about to say and we’re just not going to have a chance to address those. So the way that we’ve always had enlightenment on this planet ever since we had literate civilizations has been… there’s a conceptual map that we give to people and then there are these techniques. And then we encourage them to do the techniques and let time pass and the combination of this view plus these techniques will with time bring you to happiness independent of conditions. Now prior to literate civilizations, they didn’t have that. They didn’t need that probably. Just their life and their ceremonies would tend to move people in that direction. So, you know, originally humans just had a hard life and a simple life and probably a certain percentage of people just based on the lifestyle would come to this realization of oneness or emptiness or happiness independent of condition.
Rick: You think the difficulty of the life you think was conducive to that realization?
Shinzen: The simplicity and the difficulty because what are you going to do?
Rick: If that were true though, would we not see people in sort of African villages and whatnot having this realization? Maybe we are, I don’t know.
Shinzen: Well, a certain number of people I think would have, but I’m not saying, I’m not idealizing tribal life because other things militated against that, but I think that there would have been natural tendencies for some people just based on the lifestyle. But then literate civilizations arose and we developed something more systematic and that involves two components, a conceptual piece, hey, here’s some ideas about how to think about this and meditation techniques and then you do these techniques and as a result of that, things may get dramatically better with time. So our current paradigm is some ideas and at least one focused technique and then let time pass. I’m not rejecting that paradigm, but I’m saying that we may be able to, may, notice I said may, be able to add something to that. What we would add to it would be a technological boost of some sort that when combined with the concepts and the focused techniques would dramatically accelerate the process. Now when you do things that influence your brain, some people call those brain hacks, so that’s what I was referring to. I was referring to different ideas about what might turn into an enlightenment accelerator on this planet.
Rick: Yeah, and you’re not necessarily talking about surgical procedures. For instance, there are certain portions of the brain that if incapacitated by a stroke, like Jill Bulte Taylor can result in certain awakenings because they were suppressing some kind of experience by their activity. And perhaps those things can be temporarily and harmlessly suppressed just to give one a taste of a different perspective. And I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing you’re talking about as a brain hack, but we’re not talking hopefully about some kind of new age lobotomy,which actually, where we don’t completely understand what we’re doing but we do it anyway in the hopes that it’s going to have a good effect.
Shinzen: I would say that a good initial prospect would be something like what you talked about, not the ice pick into your orbits where we like damage your tissue forever, but something that suspends what’s getting in the way of the primordial perfection physiologically and therefore gives you a perspective from which you can optimally learn. So yes, that would be a logical place to start because if we think of enlightenment as something that we have to create de novo in a person, that’s very hard to do. But if we think of enlightenment as something that’s just waiting to happen and all we have to do is eliminate something that’s in the way, well that’s a much easier task. And in fact, the traditional formulations of Buddhism imply that latter point of view. If you look at the Four Noble Truths, the logical structure of it is, okay, there’s a reality called suffering. Suffering has a necessary cause called craving or non-equanimity. If you eliminate the craving, a positive happiness independent of conditions will automatically arise and there is a procedure that you can do that will eliminate the craving. So there is a sufficient intervention that will eliminate a necessary cause for non-perfection in your life. That’s the basic logic of the Buddhist formulation. So it is formulated not so much in terms of getting something but of getting something that eliminates something. So if that’s the case, then there may be things that we can do at a physiological level that temporarily suspend what gets in the way of what’s waiting to happen automatically, which is this primordial perfection. And so the trick is to try to figure out two things. What it is that we need to suspend and how we can suspend it in a way that is safe and fairly simple and reversible so that we might be able to accelerate people’s progress. So there are really two huge questions. One is what do we suspend and the second is how do we suspend it, assuming we’re using this paradigm. So those are the two questions that I am very interested in finding an answer to.
Rick: And I’m sure that psychedelics and entheogens are coming to people’s minds right now as they’re listening to this and people have been doing those things for thousands of years. And that’s a whole topic in itself about what those suspend and what the harmful side effects, if any, may be. Then there are things like isolation tanks, like that guy, John Lilly, was his name, and others have used.
Shinzen: I used to own one of those.
Rick: Oh, cool.
Rick: So there’s that sort of thing. I have a friend named Rob Cox who wrote a book called The Pillar of Celestial Fire and he contended that in ancient Egypt they actually had technologies that were in the pyramids and stuff that bathed people in subtle energy so as to accelerate their enlightenment. So I guess there’s the prospect of futuristic technologies, which may also have been ancient, that might enliven and awaken our physiologies even on a cellular level. And you know, when you think about it, if what we were talking about earlier, some kind of mass enlightenment is in the works in the world, then in a way the whole world might become an incubator for accelerated evolution where the collective consciousness is much more elevated and intense. And people who aren’t even aware that any such thing is happening are going to find their evolution.
Shinzen: Yeah, it’s a zeitgeist thing. It’s a sort of … I mean, the Maharishi talked about that and it’s reasonable that something like that might happen.
Rick: Yeah. Well, we’ve been going on for quite a while and you mentioned you’re getting tired, so I don’t want to keep …
Shinzen: Don’t you want to ask me what my ideas are about …
Rick: Oh yes, please. I just didn’t want to overstay my welcome, but please tell me, say them.
Shinzen: I’m that tired.
Shinzen: I have some candidates. Now that doesn’t mean I think that these are going to do it. It just means I have some candidates. I should say that, okay, at the very beginning of this interview we talked about the scientific method and I talked about part of the scientific method being experiment. Now, what makes experiment powerful is that you make a hypothesis and that hypothesis will entail consequences. So if X is true, then this thing will happen in the experiment. And so if this thing doesn’t happen, then we can assume that our original hypothesis was not correct. So if A implies B logically, then not B is going to imply not A. So we can eliminate things by the fact ‚ we can eliminate a theory or a process, a technology, by seeing that it does not create the effect that we would predict. So if A, then B, not B, therefore not A. It’s not the same as empirical proof, but that’s the way it works out logically. So there are many, many, many claims of, “Hey, I’ve got something that’s going to dramatically accelerate enlightenment.” You know, it’s this, it’s that, it’s this other thing. So here’s my thing. My thing is, here’s what I mean by… we’re going to make tangible what we mean by dramatically accelerate enlightenment on this planet. What we mean is that there would be tens of millions, hundreds of millions perhaps, of people that have attained what we in Buddhism call “stream entry” or what in Zen they call initial kensho. Now that’s a fairly well-defined stage. So if we are talking about tens of millions of people, hundreds of millions of people getting there in a relatively short period of time, say with a few years of practice, three or four years of practice, as opposed to 30 or 40 years of practice, that’s what I’m talking about. Okay, so anything short of that is not going to impress me at all. So you come to me and say, “Hey, I got the technology that’s going to, you know, this is going to do it. We need psychedelics or we need this or we need that.” So then I say, “Okay, within a generation, will that lead to 200 million stream enters on this planet?” And the answer is no current technology can deliver that. However, I have a dream and the dream is that there would be a technology that is that industrial strength, strong enough to change the course of human history dramatically for the better. So anyone that claims they’ve got something that’s super-duper-pooper, the hypotheses have consequences. If you really have come up with something that is going to be impressive by my standards, then within a generation, this planet will radically change. If what you’ve come up with does not reasonably bring about that effect. It ain’t cutting it by my standards.
Rick: Yeah, we don’t want to wait a generation to find out either. We should be able to test it now.
Shinzen: So you would start to see things, right? Presumably, something as powerful as I’m hoping for would spread exponentially. So it would definitely hit the mainstream media within a few months, okay, if someone came up with this. So my strategy is a place to start would be to look for two things. One, where we might cause a temporary safe suspending of the blockage and how we might suspend it in a way that’s temporary and safe, not invasive into your brain,OK? So you mentioned Jill Bolte-Taylor. So Jill Bolte-Taylor had a massive stroke that I think probably took out half her brain, okay, and her YouTube is pretty viral. Basically, she says the spiritual awakening that occurred as a result of that lesion, that trauma was worth it, which is like WTF, right? This is so good it’s worth losing half your brain over11!? That must be pretty effing good, right? But this is a scientist and this is a reasonable person, I’m paraphrasing, but essentially she’s saying this. So is there a kinder, gentler way, is there a kinder, gentler lesion that does something like that, that we can make a virtual version of?
Rick: Let me just interject a quick thought here. You were talking earlier about how marvelous the brain is and how it’s the most complex, amazing thing we know. It’s not bone marrow. I think it’s hubris to suggest that we can do away with any portion of the brain. Whatever enlightenment may be, I think to really live it as fully as it can possibly be lived, I think we want our whole brain and our whole nervous system to be fully enlivened to the extent they can be. We can’t be thinking in terms of doing away with any of them. Let me just throw in another thing here to make sure you address it, and that is that one objection that comes up is, you know, enlightenment is not just some experience. It’s, as I understand it, ideally a complete remake of one’s whole person, you know, the behavior and compassion and all these nice qualities. And so, you know, can you take a technology such as you’re suggesting, give it to a kind of a serial killer or something, and turn him into a saint? Or is there going to have to be a really thorough behavioral purification and modification? I’m thinking of Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana, who was a highway robber and murderer, and he, you know, he underwent this shift and went into samadhi for seven years, and an anthill built up around him, and he came out a saint. But I mean, can that be part of your formula also?
Shinzen: I’m going to suspect that additional training is needed, that just a zap is not enough. That all the other things that you’re saying are probably going to be needed, but that the zap might dramatically accelerate things.
Rick: Might inspire one to get the other stuff in order also.
Shinzen: Well, what I would assume is that, let’s say that we had this zap, that that would be presented as part of a larger program. It’s not like, “Hey, you’re just going to come in the office, we’re going to zap you, and then, hey, we’re going to send you out.”
Shinzen: Remember I said there’s perspective and there are techniques, and I’m not saying that we’re going to get rid of those. So part of the view or the perspective would entail all of the ethical and other things that you’re saying. That’s why I said that up front.
Shinzen: That’s still going to be part of it, and meditation techniques are probably also going to be part of it. But one of the things that makes the spreading of meditation slower at this time is that the rewards are not dramatic and quick. They’re initially subtle, and typically the really dramatic stuff takes a while. So if we have a way that the rewards can be dramatic and quick, that’s going to get people motivated to take this on. So if we survey different neurological conditions that might in some ways have overlap with enlightenment, you will discover that there’s a little-known and rather bizarre neurological condition that is a caricature not of stream entry, not of once-returner, not of non-returner. It is a caricature of “arhatship”. There is a known neurological condition.
Rick: And in case people didn’t catch that word, you said “arhatship”, which is enlightenment, right?
Shinzen: “Arhatship”, or at least full enlightenment in the sense of completely breaking the identification with the mind and body…that dimension. Now you notice that I said it is a caricature. I didn’t say it is “arhatship”, okay? It’s a caricature of “arhatship”. So if a human being looked like their cartoon, we would say they’re deformed. But still, the cartoon of the human in some ways sort of resembles the human. So there’s a caricature of enlightenment that is a recognized but fairly unusual medical condition. But it can be found on Wikipedia if you’re interested in looking into it. It’s called athymhormia. It’s known by other names also. My favorite name is the French name. It’s mostly been French doctors that have described this. Perte d’auto-activation psychique. Loss of auto-activation of selfhood. Okay? If you talk to — in the most extreme case, the purest case of athymhormic syndrome, if you talk to them, they have no deficits and they’re just like they were before. They’re normal. But if you just leave them alone, they flatline into a state of absolute no-self. They have not the slightest inclination to eat or to avoid pain. If you ask them what — they’re not paralyzed and they’re not depressed. They’ll sit there alert all day and when you ask them what were you thinking all day, they say absolutely nothing. I have no thoughts at all. They never complain about their condition or about anything else for that matter. They can feel physical pain normally but without a perception of suffering. They can’t do the bizarre thing of holding a cigarette to their skin or something and make a second-degree burn and they wouldn’t move. And if you ask them did they feel it, yes. If you ask them did they suffer, no. So we have perfect mental tranquillity. We have — remember the Buddha said desire, craving is the necessary condition for suffering. There’s no cravings, no complaints. What first alerted me to this was an article in Scientific American Mind that appeared in I think April of 2005 and it has the intriguing title “Drowning Mr. M” and it opens with this vignette of this person swimming in their backyard and suddenly they just are not inclined to swim or move or do anything and because their head’s in the water, they are breathing but they’re breathing water and they know they’re breathing water and they feel themselves drowning. They’re essentially being waterboarded and they know that they could just stick their head up or he knows he could just stick his head up but who cares. Breathing water, breathing air, being alive, being dead, he knows he’s dying but so what. They’re not so different anymore. His daughter comes out, sees he’s sinking to the bottom of the pool, screams, it activates his normal self and he kicks, flails up to the surface and doesn’t die. Well, I’ve been meditating for a long time and I can’t breathe water as easily as I breathe air. I mean I have some taste of not being my mind and body but it’s not that extreme. What we’re talking about here is something that is not subtle. It’s not subtle, but the weird thing is they’re normal. They just can’t auto-activate the self but if you activate them. So I had from the outside in the most extreme case, the most classic case, there’s actually no deficits. Now you may say what causes this? Well, it can be caused by things but it has to be lesions to a certain loop in the brain and the lesions have to be bilateral. They have to take out both sides of this loop that exists on both sides of the brain and the loop goes from cortex to the dorsal striatum to the globus pallidus to the thalamus and then back to the cortex. Now actually there’s about a half dozen loops like that and this is an area of neuroanatomy that’s described as the basal ganglia system. There are these parallel loops that all have that characteristic of going from cerebral cortex to striatum to pallidum to thalamus and then back to cortex. These loops do different things and if some of them get messed up, you get conditions like Huntington’s disease or Parkinsonism but if you get just the right trauma in just the right place on both sides to just the right circuit, it creates a thymormic syndrome. It creates a parody of Buddhist enlightenment or enlightenment. So I got to ask myself – if we were able to temporarily and safely and reversibly put you in that state, would you be able to learn how to meditate very, very quickly? If we think of meditation as… if we think of equanimity as being an important factor, after all the Buddha sort of implied that equanimity was the chief factor that brought about liberation. If we think of equanimity as an important factor but not the only factor, I got to ask myself, I’m not giving any answers but I’m certainly asking a question. I got to ask myself, if we physiologically induce perfect equanimity in a person and then from the outside, hetero activate them because they can’t do anything from the inside but if we, by an interactive guidance, hetero activate them to do a meditation technique, will the fact that they’re in perfect equanimity allow them to develop the other components more quickly? I don’t know the answer to that question but yes is not an unreasonable hypothesis.
Rick: And would they need to sort of go into the laboratory and have this thing induced every time in order to meditate satisfactorily or would their meditation not be very enjoyable if this thing hadn’t been induced and so they wouldn’t keep doing it?
Shinzen: Okay, so it is sometimes said in science that the important thing is the questions, they’re more important than the answer. So I just asked what I consider to be a very important question for basic science and for contemplative neuroscience and maybe for clinical medicine all around the world because what we may be looking at here is an alternative mechanism for anaesthesia, analgesia, addiction recovery. These people have no thoughts, that means they have no spontaneous thoughts, that means they have no spontaneous negative thoughts. What happens if we take a clinically depressed person and induce this? Will their depression be suspended? Well, it’s possible because they can’t auto-activate thought. Okay.
Rick: Or would they just be depressed and not care, kind of like in pain and not care?
Shinzen: Well, but that may be depressed and not care if it were really deep and clear could be the definition of enlightenment because you’ve given up, right? If you look at the Dukkha Nyanas or some of the emotional challenges that are described in the Theravada, they do sort of look like depression and anxiety, but you work them through, you make them healthy, so to speak. Anyway, that’s a whole other discussion. My point is to honor the question you just asked. So I said in science, asking the right question is important. I just asked a deep and important question and you just asked the next deep and important question that no one knows an answer to because no one’s ever asked it, except you and me. Which is, would there be a training effect that’s permanent? That when this is over, that person is fundamentally different. Now, with stream entry, it is “permanent.” Okay. You’re never the same again. So my question is, would this procedure lead to a permanent transformation such that you didn’t need the procedure again? A few times in the lab and you’re done. No one knows the answer to this question, but a yes is not unreasonable. It’s not ridiculous that that could be the case. So I’ve got a model disease here. In science, they talk about how great it is when you have a model organism. It’s like an organism perfectly made for your research. Well, I’ve got a model disease here. I’ve got a neurological deficit perfectly designed to answer questions about self and no-self, about the nature of craving at a physiological level because we know exactly what causes these conditions. I can name the nuclei. Okay. The dorsal medial thalamic nucleus, okay, the head of the caudate nucleus, the ventral palidum, the globus pallidus, okay. These are known specific regions of the brain. Apparently, if you take them out bilaterally and don’t mess with anything else, you get this thing. Now, that perfect storm doesn’t happen very often. You have to have just the right stroke or just the right tumor or just the right carbon monoxide poisoning to take out exactly that and nothing else. And then you get this Ware syndrome. So, my thing is, well, what if we could create — if we could temporarily bilaterally take those targets offline for a person that has already had a little bit of experience but maybe not a whole lot with meditation and then they are interactively guided to keep track. Would the fact that they are apparently in the deepest possible equanimity that a human can have, the kind of equanimity that allows you to be waterboarded and it’s not a problem, would that fact give us a place of neuroplasticity whereby we could quickly train them in the other things they would need besides that for, let’s say, stream entry? If, in fact, it works that way, then all we need to do is find a way of creating this modulation. However, that’s not so easy because these are small targets. They are very small targets and they are deep in the brain. They are not on the surface. So, small targets deep in the brain, to modulate those, especially to modulate them to impede them to the point of taking them offline completely, which is probably what you’d need to do. You’d need to not just downregulate. You’d need to suspend. Now, we know that you live, you’ll be okay if they’re suspended because people with these, with asymptomatic syndrome are alive. It doesn’t kill them. So, presumably, it’s not dangerous. But how do you reach such small targets so deep with a powerful intervention that takes them offline but in a way that they can come, like you said, okay, you hit the nail on the head. You have to do it in a way that you can bring them back and everything functions again. The only thing that’s changed is that their perspective is now altered from there’s a thing inside me called a self to either “I’ve realized my true self or I realize there truly is no self”, take your pick. And that new perspective is permanent based on what we did. So ‚
Rick: You know, you and I having done psychedelics back in the 60s and realised that you can have an experience that goes away but that changes you permanently because you’ve glimpsed something and you can never forget that glimpse and that such a thing exists you know, so the same thing could apply here maybe.
Shinzen: Yes, but what I’m hoping is that it applies here at a much more industrial strength level because remember my criterium. I think we could get the entire world high on psychedelics for the next 10 years and it’s not going to really help human history very much.
Rick: Yeah, we did that back in the 60s.
Shinzen: Yeah, you’re right.
Rick: We got a lot of the world high.
Shinzen: We’ve been there, done that and the age of Aquarius turned into the age of Donald Trump, so go figure. So we need something more industrial strength. So here’s the thing about neuromodulation, things that influence your brain, brain hacks. Brain technology is very limited. I don’t care what the advertising hype is. Basically, either the effects are very subtle or the effects are intense but you can’t aim them or they’re intense and you can aim them but they’re ridiculously invasive and dangerous. So what we need is something that you can aim very precisely, that’s very intense and that’s relatively simple and
Rick: That’s safe.
Shinzen: And that’s not invasive and that when you turn it off in a half an hour or so, the effects wear off and that’s what we’re looking for. So I think I know the targets. I just mentioned them. I have two candidates for the intervention that could modulate those targets. One is a new and improved version of transcranial magnetic stimulation, TMS. Problem with current TMS is you can’t aim it. Now there’s something called an H-coil and there’s some research going on that may improve our ability to aim TMS stimulation. If that got to be precise enough, that might do it and TMS has been around now for a while and it’s FDA approved for depression. So that’s one possibility. Then there’s another technology that has literally only been used on a human being a couple times. It’s completely cutting edge. TMS is relatively esoteric but it’s been used on tens of thousands of human beings. This other technology is in the investigation, the just beginning of the investigational stage. However, one of the times it was used, one of the handful of times it has been used on a human being occurred just two months ago. It was used at UCLA to wake up a coma patient, if you can believe that. And what you say is this other technology, low intensity focused ultrasound, LIFUP, low intensity focused ultrasound pulsation. You can look it up on the internet, you can read the story about how they woke the guy up at UCLA. It’s amazing. They directed a beam of focused ultrasound actually towards an area close to one of the targets that I’m interested in. But it was a stimulatory beam and it woke the person out of their coma. So, you heard it here first. I am suggesting that the circuits involved in the athymhormic syndrome might be something that we could learn from. I’m suggesting two ways of modulating, both of which are believed to be safe and they are temporary, they wear off. A precise form of transcranial magnetic stimulation that we can aim, or a low intensity focused ultrasound that we know we can aim. The question is, will it be strong enough to modulate in the dramatic way that I’m interested in. People often ask, “Well, do you have anything tangible to suggest with respect to what might be that technology?” Well, this is my best suggestion at this particular point.
Rick: And it’s all the more tangible because it’s not just theoretical. This is something you’re actually actively pursuing and you’ve got some funding and presumably there’s going to be some kind of experimentation, right?
Shinzen: Yeah, you’re right. It’s not theoretical. I’m on it. I am consulting on research where we are looking into exactly what I just described and that’s got me pretty freaking stoked.
Rick: Yeah, that’s great. So, I guess we should say to people, “Stay tuned.” And if it looks like hundreds of millions of people are getting enlightened all of a sudden, then as you said a minute ago, you saw it here first. So, that’s great. It’s really exciting. I really appreciate your practical attitude, you know. Well, first, your open-mindedness, like you’re not locked into any one thing. You’ve done a variety of very interesting things in your life in order to experience them first-hand and see what their value was. And you weren’t, you know, no fundamentalist bone in your body. And also, this whole marriage of science and spirituality, I think, is very exciting to me. I think it’s very important and I’m really glad that you’re a proponent of that and are doing active work, you know, to help to consummate it.
Shinzen: Consummate the marriage of the century.
Rick: Right, right, exactly.
Shinzen: The marriage of the century. If this works out, this could be very interesting, the offspring of the best of the East and the best of the West.
Rick: Yeah, you may end up having to change your name from Shinzin to Yenta. (Laughter)
Shinzen: Okay, that’s my claim to fame. I was the Yenta of the new age.
Rick: So let me just make some of the usual wrap-up points. I really appreciate you taking the extra time to talk. I know originally we said, “Well, we’ll go an hour and a half,” and we’ve gone maybe two and a half. But you know, you got a resurgence of energy, I think, when we started talking about this last point. So I’m really glad you hung in there with me and we had a chance to talk about that. Obviously, you’ve mentioned your websites a couple of times, and I’ll be linking to them from your page on www.vatgap.com. And I’m sure there’s a lot there to explore. Your book is very interesting. It’s interesting just to read the introduction to the book by the fellow who helped you put it together. It’s been a work of over a decade of really exhaustive, thorough perusal of all of your talks and writings and everything else, and the guy helped you congeal that.
Shinzen: guy is Michael Taft. He has his own web presence, which is very impressive also.
Rick: Good. Yeah, I read that introduction and I thought, “Well, this is going to be quite a book,” and it was. Unfortunately, the weeks rolled by and I didn’t get the chance to read it cover to cover, but I’m going to keep reading. So I’ll be linking to that book on your page on www.batgap.com. And anything else you want to tell people about personally what you’re offering, what you’re doing, any upcoming events or anything like that?
Shinzen: No, no, I think I’ve already said too much.
Rick: Yeah, they’ll find all that on your website.
Shinzen: I’ve said too much.
Rick: All right. So let me make my usual wrap-up points. I’ve been speaking with Shinzen Young. This is part of an ongoing series. There have been hundreds of them. Hopefully, there will be hundreds more. If you go to www.batgap.com, look under the past interviews menu, you’ll see them all organized. Sign up for the email notification if you like. There’s an audio podcast. There’s the donate button. And explore the menus because there’s just a bunch of things and the site keeps growing and changing to work in progress. So thanks for listening or watching and we’ll see you for the next one. Thank you, Shinzen.
Shinzen: And thank you for this wonderful work and this offering that you’re giving to the world. This is Katakarania. The Buddha said to praise a person, he would say, “You’re doing what needs to be done.” You are so doing what needs to be done and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Rick: Well, thank you. As the Beatles sang, “We’re all doing what we can,” you know. So thanks a lot, Shinzen, and thanks to those who have been listening or watching. We’ll see you for the next one.