Friday, December 14, 2007

Bliss Routine

The following meditation routine was originally taught by Craig at a Dharma Punx session. You willneed to block out 30-40 minutes in a relatively quiet area. A particularly good session will produce a mindstate of feeling complete awareness, concentration, and elation in the present moment. Even if you don't get an amazing experience out of it, this meditation will still be helpful in relaxing you and helping you to be more present. The routine is as follows:

1. Sit in a comfortable posture with your eyes closed and ground yourself fully, keeping energy in your spine to stay in an upright posture while allowing the rest of you to relax.
2. Scan your body from top to bottom and systematically relax areas of tension, starting with your eyes, jaw, shoulders, chest, stomach, arms, hands, legs, and feet.
3. After a few scans, note what cannot be relaxed at this time. From this point on, accept that remaining tension and don't even regard it as tension. You are in the most natural state you can be in at this time, so accept it as your current state and move to the next phase.
4. Begin bringing your attention to the breath. Pick a particular spot to focus on, like the spot where the air exits the nostrils or the expanding area where the air flows into the lungs. Watch that area.
5. When thoughts come up note them and gently move your attention back to that spot of the breath. If a line of thought completely derails you, you can briefly re-ground yourself, do a quick scan, and then return to the breath.
6. Continue focusing on following the breath and returning to the breath for the next 20 minutes or so. During this time continue to relax your body and bring your awareness more and more into your body, regarding the chatter of your mind as harmless noise as you exist wordlessly within your body, following the breath.
7. When you feel your concentration is good, scan your body again and pick a spot that feels particularly grounded and stable. This is often a chakra point, like the spot between the eyes or the belly button. Move your focus from the breath to that empty, grounded and stable point on your body, and start to really focus and concentrate on that spot. Let that spot ground you inside your body even more fully. You can do this for the next 5-10 minutes.
8. Towards the last 2 minutes of the session, move to the last phase. Open your concentration to all sensations in and around your body at once. Feel your breath, the aches in your back, the numbness of your legs, the air around your head and arms, the tension in your chest, the sounds around you and behind you. Accept it all and enter a state of complete awareness in this moment.
9. Open your eyes and let the visual sensations in as well. Compared to the narrow focus of the breath or the spot you picked, all the sensations of the body and senses are vivid and enveloping in the present moment.
10. To close, take a few deep breaths and then take a bow to thank yourself for the practice you are doing.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

After the Ecstasy The Laundry, by Jack Kornfield

The most impactual sections of Jack Kornfield's book After The Ecstasy, The Laundry are not written by Kornfield at all -- rather, they are the first-hand accounts of Catholic Nuns, Buddhist Monks, Jewish Rabbis, and Hindu Mystics, in their own words, as they describe both their ecstatic religious experiences and their all-too-human struggles. Many modern spiritual works read like a how-to-manual on how to achieve a permanent state of happiness and bliss, whereas Kornfield's goal is to expose the spiritual path, warts in all, for both its imperfection and its grace. Nor does Kornfield insist that Buddhism is the only path -- though his focus is on the buddhist path he seeks to highlight the familiar experiences and struggles common in all walks, both in his discussions and in the revealing and tender accounts he shares of others.

The most suprising revelation in the book is Kornfield's assertion that even beings who are enlightened still have struggles, doubts, depressions, prejudices, and family troubles after their awakening. Kornfield even warns us that those teachers that claim to have achieved a flawless ascent and tell us we can too have done more damage than anyone to the buddhist practice. Kornfield's assertion brings into questions our assumptions about what it means to be enlightened. We would like to imagine a Buddha to a Saint to be perfectly wise, moral, and faultless. In reality, though, enlightenment is a fundamental shift in how we approach ourselves and our world, but work remains to be done to apply that new knowledge to everyday struggles. To know something and to act upon it are two very different things, and life tends to throw us challenges that would cause problems for any human, regardless of their spiritual development, simply because we are still human. Buddhism and other spiritual paths transform us in amazing and satisfying ways, but it does so within the humbling confines of the human condition.

That there are qualities to life and being human that no amount of spirituality can overcome is the humbling goal of Kornfield's book, and in a larger sense the goal of Buddhism itself. Life is beautiful and precious, but it is also harsh and painful and this pain is completely unavoidable. Even a loving enlightened being will still suffer, struggle, and die. To accept this deeply painful truth is the path to transforming this life into something that is deeply powerful and fulfilling. Life is not conquered by conquering, it is conquered by utter defeat. In that defeat grows grace, love, rapture, and a lasting happiness.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Despite being extended into a full-length book, the vast majority of The Secret can be easily condensed into a page of text without leaving anything out. Much of the book is alternative phrasings of the singular concept or self-promotions on how effective this concept is. The book's internal self-promotion is in keeping with the main concept, which posits that a positive attitude towards something will make it more effective. Here is The Secret:

The Law of Attraction: For human desire, like attracts like. When the mind wishes for something the universe provides. Hence wishing for positive things and keeping oneself in a positive frame of mind will attract positive things to that life, and vice versa.

However, the universe only recognizes the positive or negative energy of a wish, not the exact phrasing of the wish. So for instance, if you are constantly worrying about being in debt and are making wishes to yourself like "I hope I don't go into debt" the universe only hears you focusing on debt and gives you debt. So positive wishes must be accompanied by a positive attitude and optimistic frame of mind to attract positive results.

To cultivate a positive frame of mind, the book recommends visualizing the thing you want and fantasizing that it is already yours. It also recommends getting out of negative attitudes and bad moods as soon as they arise because bad moods attract bad things to happen. Relaxation meditation, remembering happy moments of one's life, and doing enjoyable activities are recommended to bring one back into a positive state of mind.

Debates about the true effectiveness of positive thinking aside, the biggest flaw in The Secret is that it is a tool presented without accompanying moral guidance. If one wants to be rich or have a new car, sexual partner or job, one is simply encouraged to wish for those things, without questioning the true value of what one is wishing for. The book focuses very strongly on using The Secret for material gains, and does not discuss or encourage making wishes for the benefit, joy, or well-being of others. Even if The Secret works, it is an empty tool, allowing people to continue to focus on and wish for frivolous things -- new cars, theme park rides, lottery winnings --- that they do not really need for their own happiness.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Every City Has A Word

In "Eat Pray Love", Elizabeth Gilbert has gathered some interesting ideas -- one of them is that each city has a word. That is, each major city has a word that defines the undercurrent or essence of that city and its general inhabitants. For instance, Rome is SEX -- it is a city of relationships and delicious food and sensual sculpture and architecture, and people go to Rome to live a life of the senses. New York City is ACHIEVE, whereas Los Angeles is SUCCEED, which are very different things. Brussels is CONFORM.

In this same fashion, each individual has a word that describes their core essence. When someone's word does not match up with the city he or she lives in, that city may not be the city to stay in. My word might be YEARN or IMPROVE. What is yours?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Quantum Decisions

In quantum mechanics, the characteristics of a subatomic entity is fluid until the point where it is observed and measured. Until that moment, this entity is a possibility -- a probability wave, some have called it. When a measurement is taken, past and future coalesce into a concrete wave, particle, or whatever it ends up being for that situation, and then it is again unknowable until the next measurement.

In the same manner, one can approach the way one makes decisions. Too often, we waste enormous amounts of our time and mental and emotional energy mulling over past mistakes or future possibilities at times where we can do nothing about it. Instead, we spend those moments focusing on and enjoying the present moment as it unfolds, and only when it is time to make a decision do we pull the past and future together and take measurement.

We can think of ourselves as scientists and our lives as a quantum entity -- our lives are beyond complete knowing and control, and it is only during moments of decision-making that we observe our life and bring our past experience and future desires together into a new trajectory. Once we make our observations and set a decision particle in motion, its results once it's out of control is unknowable, but it is not necessary to revisit until it is time to make the next decision. Approaching our lives in a quantum way frees up most of our time to life comfortably in the present, while efficiently observing and measuring our lives only in those moments where we are able to do so.

The rules for making quantum decisions would be as follows:
1. Only think about your past and future at the time a decision needs to be made. At times where you can't make a decision about something, live in the present and allow your life to exist in its natural uncertain state.
2. Make decisions in a calm state of mind. Like a scientist, you want to observe your past mistakes and future hopes in an objective manner to remove irrelevant variables, so make decisions when you are clear-headed, well-fed, and well-rested, and not feeling emotional duress if at all possible.
3. After making a decision, forget about it. Once a decision has been made there is no need to think about it further until it is time to execute the next part of a plan or to re-evaluate due to new information. The in-between time is yours.
4. Leave reminders. The caveat to freeing your mind after a decision is made is that you will need something to remind you when to take the next action. This is a good thing -- why keep something constantly on your mind when it can sit in your datebook or electronic scheduler? Keeping external records means not having to keep things constantly on the forefront of your mind, so you can enjoy the present.
5. Make each decision fresh. When it comes time to make a new decision or re-evaluate, approach it with a clean slte and a new outlook. If you avoid looking at your past decisions as a template for your current identity and instead observe your current data directly, you may come up with solutions you have not seen before or make useful decisions you wouldn't have come up with otherwise.
6. No regrets. Not all your decisions will be good ones, regardless of how much time you've spent or how clear-headed you were at the time. While you should take bad decisions into consideration during your observation period to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, withdraw judgement and give yourself a fresh start. Your life begins anew each present moment, like a quantum probability wave forming and reforming.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007


The assumption supported in the nonfiction book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is that there is an unconscious mind that allows us to make split-second decisions and have spontaneous reactions. There are a few notable concepts related to this:

Thin-slicing -- the ability to survey a situation and pick out and focus on only the relevant data.

Blink -- to think without consciously thinking. When we have had a sudden insight, made a judgement call on someone or something, or reacted to something when there was no time to contemplate at length, our unconscious mind has blinked.

While the book never goes into much depth and mainly focuses on interesting anecdotes with occasional statistics, it brings up these main points on the nature of the unconscious mind:

1. Our unconscious mind is capable of analyzing complicated situations like the conscious mind can, but can do it much faster in part because it ignores information it considers irrelevant.
2. Our unconscious mind doesn't bother to directly communicate to the conscious mind its reasons for jumping towards certain judgements.
3. The values of the unconscious mind don't necessarily match up with our conscious mind and often directly conflicts.
4. The values of the unconscious mind are trained and can be retrained by experience and the messages embedded in those experiences, whether the conscious mind notices those messages or not.
5. The unconscious mind only communicates its findings indirectly through physical sensations -- sweaty palms, muscular expression, changed hormone levels, and wordless compulsions to act.
6. The conscious mind tends to make up plausible reasons why we felt a certain way or made a certain decision, because the unconscious mind does not offer implicit reasons for its impulses.
6. The unconscious mind is not infallible -- it can thin-slice using the wrong data or make snap judgements based on invalid stereotypes, so insight stemming from a blink should not be relied on without evaluation.

One of the most interesting details of this book is that the rapid decision-making the unconscious mind does seems to mainly be related to cutting out irrelevant information, which is something that can be done consciously via careful study and training. By training ourselves to isolate certain details and ignore the rest, we can teach ourselves to make conscious judgements with rapidity, but with the advantage that we can justify those decisions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wise Saying from Ram Dass

Your karma is your dharma.
This means that you should look to the events of your life, or your karma, as a source of spiritual learning, or dharma. So rather than waiting until you have free time to pick up a book and literally study the dharma, you can take your life unfolding in the present moment as a place of constant dharma teaching. What you take from life, then, is really dependent on how you approach the events you experience.

Monday, January 29, 2007

My Meditation Routine

Upon my sister asking about it, I ended up codifying the meditation routine I've developed for myself over the past year. It follows the Theravedan tradition of vipassana. Here is it, in case you might find it helpful.


Your goal in basic meditation is to cultivate a relaxed separation
between you and your thoughts and feelings. You are not your
thoughts, you are not your feelings -- you just are. The way this is
done is to sit for a while, following your breath, and when thoughts
and feelings arise you don't try to stop them, but don't fixate on
them or judge them either and just gently return yourself to following
your breath.

This seems simple, but people's typical experience (myself included)
is that we discover, upon sitting with ourselves without a television
or an activity to distract us, a torrent of thoughts and feelings that
repeatedly sucks them in. It's really hard to just be with yourself.
But learning to do so gives you the ability over time to see yourself
and your situations more objectively and with less anxiety and
self-inflicted suffering, because you've learned how to watch your
thoughts and feelings arise and pass and are no longer dominated by
them. Okay, so that's the overview, if I had to make it into a list
of instructions I'd put it like this:

BASIC SHAMATHA or Peaceful Abiding meditation
1. Sit in an upright position, not leaning back on anything, in a semi-quiet place for a period of time.
2. Keep your eyes open, and look at a spot on the floor 5-6 feet ahead of you. Don't drill a hole in the floor with your eyes, just look generally in that area without focusing on any particular spot.
3. Breathe naturally. Don't try to slow your breath, just breathe and you'll notice it slowing down after you've sat a while anyway. Each time you breathe in notice it and say in your own head "in-breath". When you breathe out say to yourself "out-breath".
4. This gets really boring, so thoughts will come up as your mind tries to occupy itself. Every time a thought comes up notice it and label it in your mind as "thinking" and gently return your attention to your breath. After the period of time you've scheduled (5 minutes, 8 minutes, 20 minutes) bow and thank yourself for the work you've just done.

VIPASSANA or Insight meditation
This is the next level and the most useful type of meditation for everyday life, but you should get good at basic Shamatha first. The first 3 steps are the same, but.
4. When thoughts come up, instead of labeling them as thoughts and moving back to the breath, gently turn your attention to the thought. This does not mean let yourself get absorbed in the thought. Be like a scientist examining your own mind. Do not judge the thought as good or bad, just look at it. Note the moment it arose, and then watch to see how long it sticks around and how it varies in intensity, and when it passes. Note also if certain types of thoughts or feelings come up again and how frequently.
5. Often during step 4, insights will arise as a result of objectively observing your own thoughts. Hold onto these insights and develop them further after your session is done. Insights don't always arise, but when they do they're often incredibly helpful because they're coming at a time of meditation, when you're seeing yourself most clearly.

When you get really good at Vipassana during meditation, start to expand out to do this during everyday life. You gain the ability to take half a step back in any situation and see yourself and your world with more clear seeing, even as you're absorbed in the intensity of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. I would recommend you don't skip the sitting mediation and try to jump straight to everyday Vipassana. You need to practice on the quiet, neutral area of the cushion before you try to apply to regular life, otherwise it's just too overwhelming to really make a difference.

One more thing to note: even after you start practicing Vipassana or insight meditation in real life, don't forget to sit on the cushion regularly as well. You need to keep practicing in a neutral environment to renew your practice, otherwise you'll tend to lapse back into old mental habits.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Conceptual Motifs of Larry Niven

Larry Niven has written many science fiction short stories and novels, filled with interesting ideas and fleshed-out worlds. Here are some underlying stuctural ideas I see coming up time and time again, particularly in his Protector and Ringworld series.

1. Multipurpose technology. We tend to think of tools in a specialized way -- build a tool for a purpose, and if we have another purpose, we build another tool. Items like computers and jackknives are compact collections of specialized tools. But in space travel, where storage space is limited and future purposes are unknown, tools will tend to be concepted in a multipurpose way, built to be adaptable, and human's perception of tools will tend to be more flexible as well. A flashlight becomes a cutting tool if the light is focused. A flying belt when attached to a man becomes a portable forklift when attached to heavy objects. The rocket exhausts of a spaceship doubles as a weapon. Niven invites us to rethink the way human tools will be built and used.

2. Alien Intelligence. In Niven's worlds, intelligent beings are not alike save for differing cultures and physical forms. Aliens, like Protectors, Kzinti, and Pearson's Puppeteers, process the world in completely different ways. Their perspectives and motivations are adaptive, logical, and yet utterly foreign. Niven's thought is that human intelligence isn't the only form intelligence can take -- intelligence itself is just another evolutionary adaptation, and many other configurations of thought and personal drives can lead to a successful species.

3. Human Survival Qualities. Niven asks the question of what would make Humanity a species that survives. The answer isn't merely intelligence, because that characteristic is just one of many tools, and other alien races can have intelligences that surpass our own. It is other qualities combined with intelligence that will make the human race survivable. Other authors have offered up human bravery and resilience as those other qualities, but Niven has a different take -- it is our Luck and Curiousity. The human race is bred for luck, having narrowly avoided extinction countless times during its history, and it will be dumb luck that keeps us alive in the far future -- luck to discover or find the right technology at the right time, luck to avoid extermination by other hostile species we encounter. The characteristic of curiousity comes from our origin as monkeys - we are bred to be curious, and yet cautious, about new things. We are afraid of the unknown, and yet we are drawn to it, and those conflicting drives propel us into the future. The Ringworld's protagonist, Louis Wu, is an summed portrayal of humanity's best survival qualities. He is over a century old, and continues to live because of his high intelligence, his dumb luck, and a cautious curiousity that leads him to continue to engage and challenge himself in his world, even while taking precautions. Niven suggests that without our monkey's curiousity, even the most intelligent beings would lapse into stagnation. And without a little bit of luck, even the most well-adapted species go extinct.

4. Increased intelligence reduces free will. While this concept only appears in relation to the Protector race, I find this one of the more interesting ideas. As one's intelligence approaches extremely high levels, one understands his situation better and better so the best decision to make becomes clearer. So in calculus terms, as intelligence approaches infinity, free will approaches zero. Beings of extremely high intelligence will tend to see their life as a chain of blindingly obvious decisions, because at each stage the optimal decision to make is so apparent that to act otherwise is just being stubborn and irrational. Niven's idea here is that human free will is dependent on the outcomes of our decisions being uncertain, and that highly increased intelligence leads to a reduction of each decision-making situation to this: choose the best rational outcome, or knowingly make a bad irrational decision. If this is the norm, where does real free will become relevant?