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Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Lesson in Patience

A NYC Taxi driver wrote:

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.

‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’

‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly.

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued in a soft voice…’The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now’. We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

‘You have to make a living,’ she answered.

‘There are other passengers,’ I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver,or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

Top 5 Reasons to go on a Yoga Retreat

Main-Yoga-Hall

When the weather starts getting cold the posters for yoga retreats just seem to be all I can see when I walk into a yoga studio. My heart skips a beat thinking about leaving on a jet plane with a suitcase full of yoga clothing.

Top 5 Reasons to go on a yoga retreat:

  1. You Deserve It: You put a lot into your life: work, family, relationships, friends and health. We all live very busy lives and sometimes we forget to stop and hit the pause button so we can create gaps to create. This creative time is necessary to cultivate our true self, an important decision on your personal evolution. We also come back inspired and ready to inspire others.
  2. Rest: When you get to surrender all the every day stuff like commuting and work you will be able to focus on letting go and relaxing. A retreat schedule is all about yoga, relaxing and eating healthy delicious food. You get to let go for the time you are there. Your biggest worry might be if you can fit another nap in your day. You will be able to contemplate, go for walks, recalibrate yourself and recharge. Who doesn’t need that?
  3. Gain Some New Perspectives: Changing your routine and surroundings will give you a new perspective on things you are working through or if you are stuck in your personal life, your goals or work like. A little change of scenery is good for everyone.
  4. Deepen Your Practice or Start a Daily Yoga Practice: When you get off the plane you will literally eat, sleep and dream yoga. Most retreats have two classes a day with optional meditation and restorative yoga. Whether you are starting a daily practice and life just seems to get in the way or you are really good at finding other reasons to roll out your mat, a committed week will shake things up.
  5. Community: Retreats help us immerse ourselves in the practice of yoga, surrounded by others on the same path. This is one of the most important anchors for maintaining and deepening our practice. It is inspiring and uplifting to be surrounded by other yogis around the world rolling out their mat everyday beside you. Being in a group is sometimes the perfect mirror we need to remember that we are all connected. We can get light bulb moments when we realize someone else is going through the same thing as you and learn new ways to deal with things. The bonus you will forge friendships from people you might have not met in your daily life.

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BIG NEWS: I am so excited to be heading out to Costa Rica to assist the Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre‘s Yoga Retreat, March 2-9th at the Blue Spirit Retreat Centre. You should come…remember all you have to pack your yoga clothes and a spirit for adventure.

xoDavid Good

 

 

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Love Letters to Yoga – From The Teachers of Octopus Garden

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Dear Urdhva Dhanurasana,
 
How I love thee! Let me count the ways: You sweep me up from under, sometimes right off one foot. You lift my heart and spirits and show me other ways to look at life. You help clear my head on those days I think I can’t even roll out my mat. You stretch me to my limits, and then, show me sweetness. Oh, how I’ll bend over backwards for you.
 
Love,
Elizabeth
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Dear Supta Baddha Konasana,

I owe you an apology. I used to think you, and the other quiet, unassuming members of the Restorative family, were perhaps less worthy of attention than your more well-known cousins in the Vinyasa family. After all, why would anyone want to encumber  themselves with straps, block, bolsters, etc. and and just lie around?
How wrong could I have been? Now that we’ve spent some time together, I’ve come to appreciate your subtle, gentle nature and the sweet, enduring gifts you so generously give. I’m blessed to have you as a friend and want you to know that you and your brothers and sisters will always be welcome in my home.

I hope you will be surrounded by all manner of lovely beings this fine day, and I will be looking forward to seeing you again this coming Sunday afternoon.

Marshal
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Dearest Meditation,

There was a long, long time where I just I didn’t have time for you. I was not in a place in my life where I wanted to commit to you and let’s face it, you were just so darn mysterious!
But this Valentines Day, my love, I want you to know that my old ways are in the past.
Let’s make a toast to a long life together.

Love, Jen
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Dear Breath,
I wanted to first apologize because most of the time I take you for granted. You are always there for me tirelessly working day and night. So please take solace in the times I bring you into focus during my yoga practice. I honour your strength, your committment and your loving embrace.  Please know that I celebrate you each time I step on my mat.
With love and gratitude,
Elisse
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Dearest Handstand…

I can’t believe all the years I spent worshiping you from afar, too shy to think you would notice me. I just thought you were totally out of my league…so strong and bold, with a view so completely different from mine. You have no idea how much time it took for me to even introduce myself, I fumbled around until I finally got up the courage. Time passes so quickly, it has been years, and I have to say that I am so happy that we spend so much time together now. I know that there are good days and of course some bad, but somehow you and I persevere together. When things are going well…there is such incredible harmony and balance, but even when things are not as smooth, just being there with you is the most important thing. I know this life is so short, and it fills me with immense joy knowing that you and I can spend a little time together everyday. I’m just the luckiest guy in the world.
 
Happy Valentines Day…
 
Hugs and Smiles,
John
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Dear Savasana,
I must confess that for a long time I thought you were useless, a waste of time, completely unremarkable.  Why, I thought, would I lie and do nothing when I could be doing something?  Why would I waste my time on you when I could spend my time with handstands? They are, after all, so much sexier.  The only reason I continued to connect with you was to avoid disturbing those around me.  When I was alone with you I gave you an obligatory 30 seconds.  But you persevered, you pursued my friendship in the face of unrequited love.  You enveloped me with your soft floatiness.  You revealed to me the amazing feeling of release that comes from doing nothing.  In the face of all odds you have become one of my best friends.  Thank you Savasana – I love you.

xo Lisa
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My sweet yoga,
I want to thank you for being my faithful companion throughout all these years. Our relationship has undergone so many changes. From the early years when I felt like I had something to prove to the recent years when I discovered love in your more subtle facets. Thank you for your constant steady patience while I navigated our relationship. You are my true love.
Yours,
Stacey
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Yoga…
You had me at legs up the wall. Candles with the lights down low, soft music and wait while I slip into something more comfortable. Soothe me, relax me and pamper me.  I am yours.

xoDavid Good
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Hey Padmasana, sweet lotus,

   I’ve had a crush on you for a while–you’re suave, but oh so unobtainable. I know we’ll probably never get together, but I want you to know that I dream about you. You’re older, more experienced, and so very elegant. I sense that you might hurt me–I am too young for you, alas. I know that I’m not ready now and might never get together with you. For now, it’s enough to tell you that I long to be with you.
Unrequitedly yours,
Elizabeth
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Dear Downward Dog,

I love you because you lengthen my limbs and invite breath to dance up and down my spine; I feel rooted and grounded and strong.
(And, when I close my eyes, I can imagine my dog beside me, taking the very same shape).
With love and gratitude,
Bryonie
Written by Elizabeth Palermo, Marshal Linfoot, Jen Helland, Elisse Peltz, John Veiga, Lisa Freeman, Stacey Hauserman, David Good, Elizabeth Harvey and Bryonie Wise.
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HAPPY VALENTINES DAY
FROM OCTOPUS GARDEN!
xo
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Words of Three Hundred Hours – Part II

Begin.

I walk into the studio space.
First day.
First weekend.
300 YTT at Octopus Garden Yoga Centre.

Sounds of excitement, nerves, shiny trills
Entering into a new phase of something wonderful.
There is already divine communion that doesn’t need to be spoken.
It is palpable in the airwaves.
I see old faces from the previous training, and a handful of new ones.
There is the unity of home, family, familiarity
And at the same time new discoveries of different voices, new insights, and a wealth of knowledge I am so excited to tap into.
Next chapter.
Next training.
Next
Next
Next
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the people in this room, some of whom I don’t even know their names.
All the same.
I know my life is about to change.

Our teachers enter the room with such pride; excitement sparkling back at us through their eyes.
They look at one another, as those smiles I have grown to know and adore so much spread across their faces.
We are ready to know one another.

Begin.

Weekend by weekend I am astonished at the integration taking place from our last training to this.  New information, however, is proving harder to penetrate.
Aching with information from Asana, Anatomy, and Mantra to Non-Violent Communication, Meditation, and Cuing… the moments I have of panic, sheer terror that I will never be good enough, strong enough, wonderful enough to be a yoga teacher are enough to rock my entire concept of my own reality.

What have I done? What am I doing here?

Then I’m placed in front of one of my teachers.
Her heart softens mine nearly instantly.
“You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
My trust in this fierce beauty allows her words to hit something deep in me
And my spirit lands right back into my body

Begin. Again.

Recalibration.
Sudden integration.
Transformation.
Realization.
There is a foundation building under my ankles and my toes that will hold me up when everything else falls a part.
My body/heart/mind are coming toward meeting each other in the middle.
It’s wonderful.
What’s even more wonderful is I know the rest of you feel it too.

Begin.

Summer came quickly.
Ecology Retreat Center.
A stand out in those 6 months.

To retreat.
To leave.
To re-connect.
To find yourself in trees, near streams.
7:00am hour meditation,
All day lessons in practice.
Waking up to moments of
Voila!
Your edges are softening,
You are holding yourself up every day.
You are watching the people that you love bloom and blossom
and break apart into pieces just to put themselves gracefully back together.
With a lightness and a bold strength greeting one another in romantic fury.
Your body is waking up
Your heart is opening to possibilities.
And your curiosity is incurable.

Begin.
To end.

Our last weekend.

We all don’t understand or comprehend
How this all happened so fast.

There is attachment.
To this safe space.
To these people.
Once again.
I’m learning that this does not change, these instances of mega-love that lead ultimately to a departure, a death, and ending of an era – whether the era is 3 days or 6 months or 2 years.
I know the chances of all of us being in the same room together again are low.

How do I let go?

In 6 months this room has transformed in front of our eyes.  
We all have found our footing, even if it’s still shaking with the opening of trust or the revival of our own heartbeats.

And we move our bodies to each others voices.
And we play and question and guess and realize that we know more than we once thought we did.
I glanced at all of you
Sitting circular across from one another
For our final check-in.
Wondering when my heart got this big?
How could I be in love with 30 people at once?
I want to take all of your classes at the same time and hear your voices and learn from your words and align with your cues and integrate your magic and love you from afar and dream about working together and creating space with each other and and and

This is what lucky feels like.
You have all made me so lucky.

Our voices rang with laughter.
Tears finding themselves in pools next to our toes.
When the veils fall and our lovely weaknesses come up to be held, we have surrendered to saving one another.
Holding space.
Expansive grace.
I am amazed at all of you and your ability to get vulnerable.
That is what I’m taking with me through the rest of this life.

Thank you.

And in our final embraces
Our breath
It finally hits me
What I’ve been waiting to hear from my soft spoken heart
Since I began studying with this group of people.

I realize that we did not enter this training to learn about Asana.
We entered it
to learn how to live.

And we begin.
Again.

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Written by Megan Marie Gates

Words of Three Hundred Hours

Words from the Students and Teachers
of the 300hr TT program

Final Weekend
September 2012

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Hearing loving kindness and compassion freaked me out a little bit

Practice has been someone over there that I don’t want to talk to

Difficult to jump into the heart

Like a baby who doesn’t want to be born

Hard to let go of teacher’s mind in your own practice

I’m going to be really transparent here

It’s not about you, it’s about me

I saw all kinds of things except for me

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Get away from self and the body knows how to move

Rock your hips back into downward dog and show off your real estate

Using body with sensation is really useful

Infuse the knowledge and transfer it to us

Letting it out would be much more powerful

Going inside transforms us into the best person we can possibly be

Everything is a mudra; a seal of inner bliss

Around me the breath was so strong

Love the mantra

Good at escaping; meditation forces us to stay

More comfortable in nature

Sacrifice is worth it even for a moment

Enlightenment—does it really exist?

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We’re all here, but hidden from plain sight

You already are that which you are seeking

You are a wizard of bliss, a detonator of kundalini

You are a cupcake

Your edge is where you’re most alive

Reaching for and holding two disparate entities in your hand

And being able to taste them

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Collected and Curated by Joanne Astley

6.4 What Is Meditation For? by Matthew Remski

Meditation is the willful exercise of our most recent faculty. To meditate is to consciously choose to enter an evolutionarily new internal space. Why? We have evolved to show ourselves a new ocean within. We want to dive in and observe its dream-like corals and currents. We have become aware of turbulence underneath us. It seems that by watching the movement, the movement becomes quiet. And the horizon of consciousness always recedes: there is always farther to swim. However, it would be good to be aware of when our exploration of consciousness becomes circular.Consciousness, built upon the flesh, can spiral stubbornly towards disembodiment. We are easily confused.


I’ve written that consciousness is the youngest child of the flesh, developmentally and anthropologically. And that a kind of forgetfulness amounting to arrogance leads it to believe that it came first, that it is the creator-god. This is the basis of much meta- physical posturing. But we are gifted with a natural constraint upon this presumption. Because the fact is that as we become self- conscious, we develop a more and more refined capacity to observe our phenomenological origins. The poignancy of this is on display in the laboratory as the geneticist peers through a microscope at the strands of her own DNA. She does not forget that she is looking at her origins through the lens of what her origins have evolved. She has many skills and a vast intelligence, but she knows she is looking at the source-code that has produced her very eyes, and, by exten- sion, her microscope. She is humbled by knowing she is just learning to read herself, and will never know the full story. Her continued learning expands the curriculum. As she learns, she expands the promise she can see glowing on the slide. She engages in a sublime feedback loop: each new datum of learning about her DNA expands the horizon of what she knows DNA to be capable of.


This might constitute one strand of meditative pursuit: to use consciousness to look at where you have come from and what you consist of, and how you became and remain conscious. It consists of contemplating this history and function of flesh: the very basis for your being able to contemplate at all. In practice terms, we might say that this strand is covered by the “mindfulness” category in contemporary meditation culture, in which consciousness does nothing active, but merely observes with quiet fascination where it comes from, what it rests upon, and the undercurrent waves of psycho-somatic sensation that ripple through it. This happens most easily through conscious focus on the breath, which is not only microcosmic to our entire livingworld, to how we relate, but also the immediate source of life. To watch the breath is to look at DNA as it rhythmically unfolds its code. And in the midst of watching breath, we feel things rise or pass through or wash over us. What are these things? Instincts, habits, sensations, memories of place and others, the autonomic roots of emotion. And we just watch.


At times, mindfulness meditation feels like gazing at a newborn, except that you are not the parent. You watch the beautiful simplicity of breath, the eyes finding focus, the twitches of digestion and spontaneous muscular expression and development. In time, baby finds your eyes. You look at him with love and tender-ness, and he grows very still, and then the mutual reflection of gazing begins to fill and overflow you both. You are both watching what you came from. He is watching his father. You are watching the root of being alive.

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Reprinted by permission of the author from threads of yoga: a remix of patanjali-s sutra-s, with commentary and reverie by matthew remski

For more information about Threads of Yoga Book Launch, click here!

How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science by Jeff Warren

www.dailykashmirimages.com

In March of 2012, myself and twenty other “adept” meditators participated in an experiment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. The experiment was a collaboration between a young Harvard neuroscientist named David Vago and a Buddhist scholar and mindfulness meditation teacher named Shinzen Young.

Over a period of one week, all twenty of us meditated in a makeshift retreat space inside the functional imaging laboratory. On a couple of the afternoons, we completed various behavioral and psychological tests. But the main event happened in the hospital. Every few hours, a meditator was selected from the larger group and taken down the road to the hospital’s MRI facility to have their brain scanned both functionally and anatomically (because of a metal plate in my neck, the result of an injury sustained years before, I did not particulate in the scanning portion of the experiment).

Vago and Young were attempting to tackle one of the biggest problems in neuroscience: what is the real resting state of the brain? In order to look at any kind of brain activity in an MRI study – the recalling of a memory, the movement of a body part, the focusing of attention – the neuroscientist must have a baseline resting condition with which to compare the active state. And so for years neuroscientists would tell subjects in the MRI to let their minds “just wander” between active tasks – as though “mind-wandering” were some sort of idle resting state. But recent research on the “default mode network” of the brain has shown that there is nothing at all restful about mind-wandering. In fact, the “resting” brain is massively activated; in particular, the networks that support something called “self-referential processing” – i.e., the endless ruminative story of me.

This is the all-too-familiar part of our brains that engages in constant comparison and scheming and worrying and fantasizing, the part that pours over conversations at a party the night before looking for insults and clues and conclusions. In other words, it is the thinking mind, or at least one aspect of the thinking mind, a mode most of us reflexively revert to when not absorbed by some specific task.

True rest, Shinzen Young argues, is something else, something meditators can demonstrate for sustained periods of time, in order to help identify the real ground of sensory experience.  And this was what our little group set our minds to doing.

Lying flat on their backs with the fMRI humming above them and three Tesla of magnetic activity scouring their brains, each meditator dropped into one of the four different rest meditations taught to them by Young: visual rest, auditory rest, body rest, and an open state known as “do nothing,” where the meditator surrenders all attempt to control his attention and just lets all thoughts come and go, while maintaining awareness. In an experienced meditator this creates a clear, open and spacious mind. When the subjects felt they had stabilized each of these states, they pressed a button. In between each of these active conditions, they would let their minds wander – again, in order to generate a contrast, but also in order to highlight how different mind-wandering was from these other flavors of deeper rest.

Except … there was a problem, something Vago hadn’t foreseen. The twenty meditators in the experiment had been chosen for the length and the consistency of their practice. But even here there was a demarcation between intermediate meditators and a few older practitioners who had been meditating for over twenty years. Their minds were different, both in degree, and, it seemed, in kind. They were no longer like the minds of regular folks.

The veteran meditators could do each of the resting states perfectly, but when it came to creating a contrasting condition, they were helpless. They had lost the ability to “let their minds wander” because they had long ago shed the habit of entertaining discursive narrative thoughts. They no longer worried about how their hair looked, or their to-do lists, or whether people thought they were annoying. Their minds were largely quiet. When thoughts did come – and they did still come – these subjects reported that the thoughts had a different quality, an unfixated quality.  The thought “This MRI machine is extremely loud” might arise, but it would quickly evaporate. Thoughts seemed to emerge as-needed in response to different situations and would then disappear crisply into the clear backdrop of consciousness. In other words, these practitioners were always meditating.

This turned out to be the least dramatic of Vago’s discoveries. With the two most experienced meditators, something even more surprising happened, something that, to the knowledge of the investigators involved, had never before been captured on any kind of brain imaging technology.

Lying on their padded gurneys in the center of the humming MRI in this famous research hospital in the heart of East Boston and Harvard Medical School, each of the two research subjects suddenly … disappeared.

Har-Prakash Khalsa, a 52-year old Canadian mail carrier and yoga teacher – and one of the veterans to whom this happened – describes his experience:

“It’s a kind of pressure or momentum. I was in one of the rest states, and as I let go of it, I felt myself heading into a much bigger dissolution – a bigger ‘gone’ as Shinzen would call it. It felt impossible to resist.  My mind, body and world just collapsed.”

A few moments later – blinking, refreshed, reformatted – Har-Prakash returned to consciousness, not at all sure how he was to supposed to fit this experience into the research protocol. He couldn’t indicate it with a button press even if he wanted to: there was no one present to press the button.

This wasn’t rest – it was annihilation.

For Har-Prakash, the experience was utterly familiar. He experienced his first cessation in 2003, after a particularly intense meditation retreat, and now they happened all the time.

“Sometimes it happens just walking down the street,” he told me.

In and out of existence Har-Prakash would strobe, often multiples times a day. It was no wonder he could live “in the moment” – the moment was literally always new. It was like waking up ten times a minute.

When I asked Young about the phenomenon he told me they were called “cessations,” or Nirodha, and were a hugely important theme in Buddhist practice. In fact, one of Young’s main jobs as the teacher of advanced meditators, he said, was to help his students acclimatize to these disconcerting little deaths, which often happened more frequently the longer the students practiced.

“It may sound dangerous, but somehow you always continue to function just fine,” Young said.

He told me about his own cessations, which, for example, happened while driving his car from his home in Burlington, Vermont, to where he runs a regular meditation retreat in Waterbury, a half-hour away.

“I’ll go in and out of cessation a hundred times. Time and space punctuated with nothing. But I’ve never even gotten a ticket, let alone had an accident. And that’s not just my experience. I’ve never seen a Zen master bump into a wall because for a moment, perceptually, he wasn’t there. Remember the material world doesn’t go away, this is all events in sensory experience. It’s consciousness. Causality is still there. Force fields are still there.”

Clearly, Young, like the two veteran practitioners in the MRI, no longer experiences reality the way most humans do. Attempting to describe how exactly his perception has shifted has become something of a journalistic obsession for me. In the mystical literature, commentators use one of a series of shorthands: “self-realized,” “awakened,” “liberated,” and, most loaded of all, “enlightened.” “A very clear experience of cessation,” Young told me, “would bring about classical enlightenment.”

Whatever you want to call it, after years of assiduous practice, Young’s sense of identity has shifted. Like the two experienced meditators in the study, he no longer has the same quality of discursive thinking. He spends more and more time in states of emptiness. And he no longer experiences himself to be a separate bounded self – rather, he feels himself to be part of a much larger selfless “doing.”

As both an observing journalist and a participating subject, I was in the MRI room while some of these events took place, and I watched Vago carefully. What would he make of these strange permutations of meditative experience? Although over the past ten years hundreds of scientific papers had been published on the neuroscience of meditation, few of them were brave enough to address the explicit goal of Buddhist practice, the end of suffering known as awakening or enlightenment (The name “Buddha” itself means “awakened one”).

There are signs that this may be shifting. Indeed, the year before, Vago and a consortium of Harvard colleagues published a paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science called ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?’ In its review of the different components of mindfulness mechanisms, the authors of the paper include an aspect they call “change in perception of the self.”

If in the early stages of meditation, the authors explain, there is a de-identification with some part of mental content. A more “drastic disidentification” around our core sense of self is said to happen at more advanced stages of practice. “In place of the identification with the static self, there emerges a tendency to identify with the phenomenon of ‘experiencing’ itself.” Both theoretical accounts and experiential reports, the authors write, “ascribe to the change in the perspective on the self a crucial role for development and maturity in meditation.” They then go on to summarize the few neuroimaging and self-report findings that could shed light on what might be happening in the enlightened brain (although they are careful never to use ‘the E word’).

In a science paper, this is simply a string of interesting words. In someone’s actual living experience, it is a complex and radical shift that time and again is described as the most important re-orientation of that person’s life. And not just in Buddhism. Although the language is different, throughout history, this shift from self-thoughts to an entry into the stream of consciousness itself has been described in all the world’s contemplative traditions, as well as in the secular literature.

There are many ambiguous maps and contradictory descriptions of enlightenment. In Young and in Vago’s hopeful view, a true “science of enlightenment” might be able to bring together and illuminate all the paradigms and experiences that lie at the heart of serious spiritual practice.

Why is this endeavor important, and what might its effect be on science?

On the individual front, we are looking at potentially revolutionary insights to help address human mental and emotional anguish. As a person’s identity shifts through the practice of meditation, time and again practitioners report dramatic reductions in personal suffering. Pain does not go away, of course. Pain really is part of the human condition. But one’s relationship to suffering can change.

What is the core dynamic here? It seems to involve a kind of “unfixating” from sensory experience in general, and then, as practice deepens, from our actual identity as separate autonomous individuals. In Young’s way of thinking, one of the skills the practitioner develops is equanimity, which he describes as a lack of gripping in the sensory system.

Experiences move more fully through the meditator, stirring up fewer disturbances, returning them more quickly to homeostasis. A sense of lightness emerges, an internal balance and capacity for fulfillment independent of external conditions. As practitioners struggle less with themselves, energy is freed up that can also be directed towards helping others.  The meditator feels more connection to the soul of the world, and to other people. Indeed, another aspect of the “awakened” mind is the unfettering of what many describe as a primordial compassion.  Our basic nature may be more loving and easy than we suspect.

These changes seem to happen along a continuum. Right now there is a huge scientific interest in mindfulness meditation because it is one way of moving people along this continuum, which even at the “shallow end” can have a dramatic effect on conditions ranging from stress-related complaints to anxiety, depression, addiction, pain management and more.

But as I’ve tried to show, more dramatic shifts can happen too. Any science of mind worthy of the name must try to isolate, describe, and understand the full continuum. Otherwise, the paradigm of the power of meditation is missing its cornerstone.

Once the full dynamic is better understood (which may or may not include important neural correlates), then it may be possible to bring the benefits of serious practice to people who do not have the luxury of meditating full time for twenty years. We may be able to fine-tune our meditation techniques – or, more controversially, use some form of techno-boost, as Young himself has suggested – in a way that allows us to literally change our minds and achieve a deeper level of fulfillment and connection in our lives.

As we get more clarity about the real elements of human experience, we may reach a time when, in Shinzen Young’s words, “outer physical science could cross-fertilize with inner contemplative disciplines to create a sudden and dramatic increase in global well being.” Young describes this as his “happiest thought.” Such a cross-fertilization could leave us with an enriched neuroscience, new tools for addressing human suffering, and a vastly expanded sense of human potential.

How might this cross-fertilization work in practice? I’ve already suggested that scientific understanding could make the benefits of serious meditation more accessible. But this is a two-way street. There’s another possible consequence – namely, that enlightenment itself might affect the scientific practitioner. Young often says the next Buddha may be a team of enlightened neuroscientists. What he means is that deep practice confers a quality of deep seeing. This is both literally true, in the form of extraordinary sensory clarity, and metaphysically true, in the form of deep insights about the nature of reality.

That these two may amount to the same thing is captured in a story Young tells about his own teacher, Jōshū Sasaki Rōshi (I’ll risk one last anecdote at this late stage in the column).

At 105 years old, Sasaki Rōshi is very likely the world’s oldest living Zen master. A good case could be made that he has been meditating longer than any other human on the planet.

One day in a public talk, with Young translating (Young began his monastic training at Mount Kōya south of Osaka and speaks fluent Japanese), the Rōshi asked an unusual question, “Do you know what the number one is?” Before the baffled audience could respond, he answered, “The number one is that which has the number zero as its content.” He went on, “Do you know what the number two is?” and again answered his own question, “The number two is that which has the number one as its content. Do you now what the number three is?” He continued in this vein, and as he did, Young, something of a math geek, had a revelation.

The Rōshi was articulating a fundamental dynamic of consciousness, one no scientist has yet reported, but has been described in slightly different language by Buddhists for over two thousand years. In the Rōshi’s way of seeing things, each sensory moment emerges when an empty source (Zero) polarizes into an expansive force and a contractive force. Between them, these two powers shape each nanosecond of perception. Again and again they mutually cancel and reunite, pulsing sensory reality into existence, creating ever-richer states of Zero that experienced meditators can learn to observe and even to ride (Young once told me this accounts for the bouncy vitality and spontaneity of some Zen monks).

Young realized the Rōshi’s exposition was remarkably similar to the modern foundation of mathematics known as “set theory.” And yet the Rōshi knew nothing of math – his 19th century education was essentially feudal. When Young pointed out this similarity, there was a long pause before his teacher eventually replied, in an unimpressed Zen deadpan, “Ahh… so the mathematicians have seen that far, eh?”

Of course, as Young himself is careful to point out, this may be a superficial coincidence. Many people are eager to make comparisons between spirituality and science (usually involving quantum mechanics), a move that in most cases just annoys real scientists, who have a more nuanced view of these processes. But then, the scientific tendency to make a vague generalization about “meditation” – a hugely complex set of techniques and processes – equally annoys contemplatives. This is one reason why the idea of investigators with training in both domains is so appealing.

What might we find as we begin to probe the intersection between deep self and wide world? Any honest scientist or philosopher will tell you that the relationship between mind and matter is still a mystery, perhaps our greatest mystery. Contemplatives from historic times to the present have argued that as we increase in perceptual sensitivity and openness, we begin to detect a more interactive and integrated relationship between our inner and outer worlds. Is this discernment or delusion? Only a genuine collaboration between science and advanced contemplation will tell us.

Fin.

Written by Jeff Warren

Click here for the original posting at Psychology Tomorrow Magazine.