Happiness Beyond Thought – Gary Weber

photo by a guy taking pictures

I think what’s so curious about Gary Weber is he’s not really religious, but he’s not really secular either. He diligently practices from a number of traditions, Rinzai Zen, Advaita chanting, yoga, and if you can accept the idea of progress in these practices, he has made some remarkable progress. He clearly looks for ways to lose himself in ritual. He makes a point of stressing that each person needs to find a practice that works for her. He’s very pragmatic and without pretension. He also describes a very curious experience of having his thoughts stop — not all thoughts, but self-referential, future/past thoughts. Whether you accept that this is an enlightenment experience or non-dual, or just something along the way — it’s fascinating. His website, happiness-beyond-thought.com includes many resources, including:

Quite an interesting guy.

Religious v. Secular — the Current Schism


photo by alexander mueller (creative commons)

Twitter spit out this very thoughtful article by the Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi, at Secular Buddhism: Aotearoa | New Zealand. The article is titled, “Facing the Great Divide”, outlines clearly the differences between secular and religious Buddhism. Bodhi is more than qualified to weigh in on the topic — his Amazon author page brings up 11 titles. The article opens:

“As the winding river of Buddhist tradition flows beyond the boundaries of its Asian homelands and enters the modern West, it has arrived at a major watershed from which two distinct streams have emerged, which for convenience we may call ‘Classical Buddhism’ and ‘Secular Buddhism.’ The former continues the heritage of Asian Buddhism, with minor adaptations made to meet the challenges of modernity. The latter marks a rupture with Buddhist tradition, a re-visioning of the ancient teachings intended to fit the secular culture of the West.”

What followed is a measured, well reasoned, well informed treatment of the topic, and if you’ve read this far I recommend you read it for yourself.

Upgrading Your Mental Operating System

Gary Weber recounts a moment of realization — his mind was full of crap. Here he talks about a possible remedy — upgrading his mental operating system. He describes the current OS as HS 1.0 (homo sapiens 1.0) and expresses the hope that perhaps it’s possible to make an upgrade. He describes HS 1.0 as, in the language of software “malware, crapware, bloatware”.

I started looking at my current operating system. We know our OS. Very poor signal-noise ratio, high bandwith consumption, high energy consumption, stress generating — nothing much good about it. This is about 76,000 years old. We broke off from chimpanzees 6 million years ago. This “I” that we have, this egoic system, is relatively new.

If you’re familiar with Weber, you’ll know that he had a remarkable experience about 15 years ago, which he shares in the video. Here, he shares his thoughts about freedom from thoughts, and how this state might be achieved more quickly than 20,000 hours of various practices.

Addendum: After re-reading this I thought it could use a little more explanation. One might reasonably ask, “Why would I want to get rid of my thoughts? How would I function without thoughts?” Weber actually isn’t realty talking about all thoughts. He is referring to a specific class of thoughts, basically thoughts about self. These are the thoughts that we have when we are not actively engaged in something. They tend to be about the past or the future. In other words, they are moments when we are not present. Weber makes a case that such thoughts are a useless energy drain, and that not having them enhanced his life. Many other basic cognitive functions continued without them. Worth a viewing.

Basic Meditation Instructions

Some quite nice instructions for meditations at the Secular Buddhist Association. Though they are basic, they touch on a good number of important issues, and offer some practical thoughts on technique. When you get to the article, you may want to skip to the “Starting a Meditation Practice” section, though the background information is good. Here’s an excerpt.

At first we can easily get distracted by what seems like a new and increased number of thoughts, but they’re not new, we’re simply stepping back and noticing them perhaps for the first time in our lives. It’s not a problem, they’ve always been there, and they not only lack substance, but each one arises and falls, just like the breath. They’re impermanent, coming and going, and you can start to build a skill in your meditation of just letting them be thoughts instead of powerful ideas upon which you have to act. Every moment, you have a choice, and meditation helps you begin to notice that and make the best choice you can.

If you lose track of the breath, that’s okay, and is in fact very normal and expected. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath. You’ll do this again and again, throughout the entire meditation session. This is what we mean by the practice.

It’s a simple idea that can be hard to implement, it’s a practice, not a perfect!

There are many ways to help apply your attention and sustain it. One way to do this is to count with each exhale, starting with one, put your full attention on the inhale, then count silently two to yourself on the next exhale, put your full attention on the next inhale… all the way to ten. After reaching ten, start again at one. Again, it’s perfectly normal and expected to lose count! Just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath, and start again at one.

Two Guided Mindfulness Meditations from Sam Harris

Harris also has a fairly thorough, if fairly typical, overview of Vipassana meditation (the link is below). The two guided meditations are in the Vipassana (mindfulness) style, and appropriately, Sam focusses on the the arising and passing away of the self. While that may sound a little odd to some, he seems to be a very down to earth guy.

The meditations can be found here: The Mirror of Mindfulness.

I wrote an article on meditation two years ago, and since then many readers have asked for further guidance on how to practice. As I said in my original post, I generally recommend a method called vipassana in which one cultivates a form of attention widely known as “mindfulness.” There is nothing spooky or irrational about mindfulness, and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. I will cover the relevant philosophy and science in my next book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, but in the meantime, I have produced two guided meditations (9 minutes and 26 minutes) for those of you who would like to get started with the practice. Please feel free to share them.

The Witness in Wings of Desire

The witness is a concept I first came across reading Ken Wilber. Of course, it’s a concept that predates Ken by eons. I won’t try to fully articulate it, because I’ll mess it up. I believe the witness, in Hinduism, is related to a divine, eternal soul. The belief in a soul is supposedly one of the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism, where strictly the latter has no comment on the existence of  soul or reincarnation. (In practice, there are a very wide range of beliefs and attitudes toward reincarnation, many of which would startle Westerners, and do not fit with the secular conception of Buddhism.)

In Buddhism we are asked, during meditation to observe (witness) or thoughts, emotions, sensations dispassionately, without attachment. (NOT detachment.) But wow did I digress. Here’s an excerpt about Wings of Desire and the witness, from Meditation Los Angeles:

I think that’s part of what makes Wings of Desire such a delightful film. The angels are witnesses. Deprived of actually living, they observe and marvel at many of the every day experiences the characters are having, without being swept up in the thoughts and emotions (which, I suppose, they are not having) of the moment. You might say their experience is dispassionate, but it is not without sympathy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but it was my impression that the angels are not distant, cerebral. Au contraire. My impression is that they were moved by the many of the experiences they observed.

This, I think, is a kind of ideal equanimity. (It makes me wonder if the film maker, Wim Wenders, is a Buddhist.) An equanimity that is not swept up by the emotions, sensations of everyday life, but nevertheless is deeply sympathetic to the experience. It is not empty or barren. There is kindness. And when we are feeling unkind toward the blah blah blah thoughts, kindness becomes invaluable.

Harvard Neuroscientist Blah Blah Blah

Here’s another one of these meditation researchers looking for effects on the brain. I don’t know if the research is any good, but the findings are in line with other studies – a thickening in particular areas of the brain. It’s implied that we should assume brain thickening is positive, and not that the brain is just getting fat. She refers to several areas of the brain in her findings:

Q: What did you find?

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3.  The temporoparietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

So, to summarize, potential benefits might include less thinking about self, better memory and emotional regulation, and enhanced empathy. If it were true, that would be pretty good.