Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dharma Talk 002: Mahasi Insight (Vipassana) Meditation Noting Instructions


Mindfulness meditation in the style of a Burmese Theravada Buddhist master.  Arguably the predominate style of vipassana (insight meditation or mindfulness) practiced in the Theravada world (roughly southeast Asia).  Arguably the fastest path to technical stream entry (cessation), the first stage of enlightenment in the Burmese tradition, the tipping point.

Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (text)
Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (mp3)

The mp3 linked above is a 46 minute recording of a British guy reading the text that is also linked above, but it ends up being a nice guided meditation, a relatively painless way to receive the instructions.   I originally found the mp3 on a Hawaiian Vipassana group website, but as it has disappeared from that site I am offering it here.  The text is from Practical Vipassana Exercises by Mahasi Sayadaw, pages 30-44.

Kenneth Folk - Intro to Mahasi Noting (mp3)

This mp3 is a series of instructions edited from some Kenneth Folk instructional videos, totaling not quite 33 minutes in length, and I'll go ahead and place a link here to Kenneth Folk Dharma.  The topics are:
  • What is Meditation?
  • Noting based on Six Senses
  • Body Sensations (1st foundation of mindfulness)
  • Pleasant & Unpleasant (2nd foundation)
  • Mind States (3rd foundation)
  • Thoughts (4th foundation)
  • Freestyle Noting
  • Pressure Release Valve
  • Working Through Difficulty

I think at one time I would have been quite dogmatic about this style of meditation, for the simple reason that it proved effective for myself and a number of friends.  Clearly, many methods work, and frankly, anything that is getting you to something like 98% aware during formal practice will likely get it done, however, here are some of the reasons that this style may be effective:
  • Regular noting at approximately one second intervals doesn't allow much time for mind wandering
  • The noting actually requires you to continuously prove that you are aware, unlike most methods that merely make a suggestion that one be aware
  • Coming up with the note requires one to use up a certain amount of mental bandwidth that might otherwise be used to wander
  • Practiced earnestly, it allows for a very high rate of continuous presence awareness, aka awareness of awareness
  • Freely noting from any points in one's awareness, "dancing" from one object of awareness to another, trains mental flexibility and gives insight into impermance
  • Similarly, continually breaking one's experience into little parts, deconstructing the experience, "busting it up", gives insight into no-self
  • The regular noting (around 3600 times per hour) provides a unique type of feedback, allowing the mind to see patterns it might miss otherwise, at times providing insight into dependent origination, the billiard ball like physics of the universe (for example: loud sound > fear > body tensions > fearful thoughts > realization > relief > relaxation)
  • This style is perhaps exceptionally good for interrupting the conditioned prejudice towards, and attachment to, thought

There are some minor differences between the original Mahasi instructions and those of Kenneth Folk.

Mahasi has a style of dogmatically repeating each note twice, Kenneth does not.  In some ways the repeating could allow one to "sink into" the experience behind the note, a practice that Shinzen Young has advocated, but I would tend to go along with Kenneth's instructions.  Beginners typically have more of a problem with mind wandering and need more to do to keep them on task.  I would consider Shinzen's approach appropriate for more advanced students.

Mahasi also places a lot of emphasis on the breath.  Kenneth does not.  The breath has been the focus of many meditative practices and is of use as it is always available, always moving, always here and now.  Mahasi makes the breath a "fall back" mechanism if nothing else is going on, which makes sense, noting the ever present "rising" and "falling" of the diaphragm.  But I tend to agree with Kenneth's version, making the breath no more important than anything else going on in awareness.  We are looking for an insight practice, not a concentration practice.

Kenneth also advises people to experiment with out-loud noting.  This is a powerful technique which tends to automatically increase awareness as compared to mental noting.  If you are having trouble with mind wandering while mentally noting, try a session of out loud noting, which can be done sotto voce.


A brief article by Gil Fronsdal on Mental Noting

How to Practice Vipassana Insight Meditation by Sayadaw U Pandita (a student and successor of Mahasi Sayadaw)

A fairly long and detailed description of noting and mindfulness practice from the Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society

For a slightly different, more sparse noting approach, here is a retreat handout from Shinzen Young that gives an outline of his approach.  In simple terms, the notes are see - hear - feel - in - out - rest - flow - gone.  The in and out terms refer to whether the phenomenon is "inside" or "outside" of the body.  An internal, imagined image would be "see in", while looking at the television would be "see out".  Discursive verbal thoughts can be labelled as "hear in".

Free books by Mahasi Sayadaw from the Association for Insight Meditation.

And the post on Getting Stream Entry.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mapping the Meditative Mind

Mapping the Meditative Mind is a presentation from the 2013 Buddhist Geeks Conference.  David Vago of Harvard Medical School talks about some of the latest findings in contemplative neuroscience, along with Shinzen Young.  Video is next to last on the page.

The changes in brain activity for advanced meditators are sometimes massive.  For example, a 60% increase in areas of the frontopolar cortex, in a field where changes of perhaps 0.5-1.0 % are often considered significant.

One interesting finding, although the sample was small, was that the decrease in posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) activation (seen in Brewer's work, for example) was confounded by two meditators with the most formal practice who I believe showed increases, although I think this may be change from baseline as opposed to absolute values.

I also thought it interesting that Shinzen's maps, which in this presentation were based on the hearing-seeing-somatic axes, did not include thought.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jud Brewer's Posterior Cingulate Cortex Hypothesis

From the article "The posterior cingulate cortex as a plausible mechanistic target of meditation: findings from neuroimaging."(pdf)

Brewer has found that advanced meditators have decreased activity in the default mode network (i.e. mind wandering network).  The default mode also has decreased activity when the mind is on a task (task network).  So this supports the idea of both the "non-task" mode of insight practice or vipassana, as well as the task mode of single-pointed concentration practice or shamatha. Although cumbersome and costly, real-time fMRI feedback on the PCC appears to have some promise.

"The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), has been implicated in self-referential processing, including past and future thinking."

"As one might hypothesize, we found that undistracted and distracted awareness corresponded with PCC deactivation and activation, respectively, across the sample of individuals. Additionally, other themes emerged, including effortless doing (PCC deactivation), contentment (PCC deactivation), and trying to control experience."

"In our real-time neurofeedback experiments described earlier, we observed some serendipity: in addition to reporting high correspondence between real-time neurofeedback from the PCC and the subjective experience of meditation, a few novices also reported learning several key premises of meditation practice after receiving real-time neurofeedback from the PCC during meditation. For example, one novice reported learning the difference between paying attention to the breath in a forced rather than a relaxed way (Fig. 5A). Another novice learned the difference between thinking about versus feeling the breath physically (Fig. 5B). In these cases, meditation with real-time neurofeedback from the PCC enabled novices to recognize and learn subtle differences in mental processes that are difficult to convey conceptually, and might otherwise hinder learning meditation, such as the difference between self-referential processes (thinking) and the embodied practice of meditation."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Osho (Rajneesh) and Psychedelics (Nitrous Oxide)

So apparently Osho was indulging in a bit of the old nitrous oxide.  Quite a bit of it.  Interesting gossip.

"Rather than prohibiting the drugs, what is needed is to produce drugs which lead people to samadhi, which give an indication: if a chemical drug can be such a blessing, what will the real thing be? It is just a dewdrop in comparison with the real oceanic feeling, the oceanic ecstasy."

Apparently Osho dictated 3 books while in the "dental chair."
  • Glimpses of a Golden Childhood
  • Notes of a Madman
  • Books I have Loved

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dharma Talk 001: The Axe and the Butter Knife

I thought I might use this as some kind of outlet for some thoughts from time to time.

The Axe and the Butter Knife

I recently checked out a nearby meditation group, trying to see if it might be a fit for me, if I might be able to contribute, maybe meet some people, etc.

It was a pretty standard group, fairly well read on Buddhism, a little bit of mindfulness practice, and some of that psychologizing or group therapy vibe.  And the people seemed to have practiced a bit, they seem to have some understanding of how to struggle with practice.

And yet it seemed pretty clear that no one was actually "getting it done".  The leader of the group was exploring and struggling with the meaning of the word "equanimity," for example.  Which is all well and good, fair topic, but I got the sense that she had never really experienced it for herself.  My thinking was that it's just not that hard to get to an actual experience of equanimity in meditation (11th nana), I mean, you don't even have to attain stream entry.

I was envisioning the task of enlightenment as something like chopping down a redwood, and it seems as if most of westernized Buddhism has insisted on using a butter knife.  So yeah, maybe I could help with that.  Say someone is using the dull side of the butter knife, I could point that out and suggest they try using the sharp side.  "Oh yeah, that's better."  Or I might point out that they could take a rock and sharpen the butter knife.  "Oh yeah, good idea."  Then again, some of them may not even want to chop the tree down - "nah, I just like to rub the wood with the knife every now and then".

I feel for these people and there is a level at which I'd kind of like to mention that I'm a lumberjack and I have this thing called an axe.  Would you like to try this axe thing?  "Ah, no thanks.  I'm real used to the butter knife, we use a butter knife here, and anyway my teacher uses a butter knife.  Everybody uses a butter knife."

I would say the axe is the Mahasi method of meditation.  At some point I'm probably too dogmatic about the technique, I suppose any method could work, as long as you can stay aware and present long enough.  I think about a theoretical measure of meditation that we could call "percent aware time", the percentage of time that one is actually aware and present, as opposed to spacing out or embedded in a train of thought.  I find that with a Mahasi type technique I can stay 99% aware.  I'm not sure how that would compare to other forms of meditation I used to do, I don't know, perhaps I was  hitting 85% or so?

I recall a guy I met through another meditation group, and after one of our 30 minute sits he commented that he was daydreaming for 20 minutes (i.e. 33% aware).  As a human being, I can understand how that happens, but I'd say that is probably not going to get the job done.  By the way, this was a guy with years of practice under his belt.

I have this theory that there may be some kind of tipping point with respect to percent aware time.  In my view, spending time daydreaming is anti-practice.  You're essentially practicing the opposite of what you're trying to do, you're practicing being embedded in thought.  I don't know where this tipping point may be, but I can say 99% seems to be effective.  Who knows, maybe if I had continued with the 85% method that would have worked out.

I think any method can work if you can stay aware like that, but there are a couple of other things that might be important.

A certain earnestness, a deliberate intent to stay aware and present, to let go of thought, to keep coming back to awareness.  There is a sense where you have to tell your mind that this is an important task.

Another point is that we have to keep on it, not only with persistence, but to keep it fresh with a sense of mild curiousity about our experience, a subtle investigative quality, a wordless exploration, feeling all those feelings and sensations and allowing them to be as they are without resistance or grasping.  Keep that axe sharp.

If you can bring those qualities and stay present, I suspect that any technique could work if you get the dosage right.

My take is that most techniques simply leave too much room for the mind to run off.  The beauty of the Mahasi style is that you keep the mind continuously busy by using up extra mental bandwidth with noting.

It is so strange to me that the axe is not a more popular tool.  How strange to be in an "insight" meditation group, the word literally coming from the word "vipassana", and yet the predominate form of vipassana used in Theravada communities is completely unknown.  Surreal.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Meditation Practice Journals from the old Kenneth Folk Dharma Site

EDIT: links fixed

This is a sampling of the meditation practice journals that were ongoing in the heyday of the old Kenneth Folk site during the flowering of the Pragmatic Dharma scene.  As Kenneth put it, these threads contain gold - the actual step by step progress and in many cases, instruction, of yogis systematically making their way through the nanas, jhanas, and paths.  Note that for the rapid progress we often see in these journals, one need not become a monk and devote decades of full time practice - an earnest practitioner with a daily practice can work their way thru a few Burmese paths in as little as a few years.

The primary technique here is the method of meditation espoused by Mahasi Sayadaw, in which practitioners endeavor to make a mental note of what is roughly predominate in their field of awareness, at a rate of about one note per second, silently, or out loud if necessary.  It is very difficult for the mind to wander when noting out loud at the rate of one note per second, and I suspect that is a big clue to the success of this or any method, practicing "original mind".  The approach outlined in this material (as well as tons of other stuff on the site and on Dharma Overground as well), what can I say, it worked for me.

A selection of meditation practice journals, mostly from the archive at Awake Network:

Edited to add: