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Shinzen Young: The Role of Compassion on the Spiritual Path

Nuggets From Shinzen Young's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Shinzen Young.

Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant who frequently uses concepts from mathematics as a metaphor to illustrate the abstract concepts of meditation and who is building a bridge between contemplative practice and hard science. His interest in integrating meditation with scientific paradigms has resulted in collaborations with neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere in the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience. He aims to bring a secular mindfulness practice to a wider audience across faith traditions using revamped terminology and techniques as well as automated expert systems. He is well-known not only for his particular way of combining Eastern and Western science and thought traditions, but also for his categorical, systematic approach to meditation, outlined in his recent book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works (2016).

We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...

  • Nipun: When you were 14 you saw a samurai movie that got you interested in Asian cultures. You learned Mandarin & Sanskrit in high school. What got you interested and kept you going back? Something you didn't find in Western culture?
  • Shinzen: I’m not really sure. I was in junior high. My friend was a 3rd gen Japanese american. We were friends because we had interests in common. The parents used to see Japanese movies each Friday, and one day they invited me to go with them. Yet I wasn’t necessarily attracted to Japanese culture. I was born during WWII, and my dad fought against Japanese. THere was no prejudice is my family, but things in Asian culture wasn’t considered cool. Unless you are old enough, you don’t realize how far our culture has shifted since then around Asian culture. Our neighbor had also been a Japanese POW too. SO my general attitude wasn’t particularly attracted, but I didn’t want to be rude so I went to the movie. We had to go to a little theater in skid row, walking over derelicts-- which was scary as a 14 year old. It was a double feature. The first film was a love story set in modern Tokyo, and i was so bored. The second film was a period piece in 18th century Japan. I was mesmerized by the 2nd film, but I can’t tell you why. THere was no cultural feature there that was anything like I was familiar with-- from gender di-morphism, to large swords, and much more. It was such a strange thing, but my interest was suddenly galvanized. The film had subtitles, so I could follow the film. There was a moment in the film when a samurai slit his belly. Why would he do that? I had so many questions for my friend parents. We went out to dinner in LIttle Tokyo afterwards. In those days, there was nobody but Japanese in Little Tokyo-- and me. It turned into a fantastic cultural adventure. It lead to Mandarin interest, and ultimately Sanskrit to understand the string of cultural influences. The experience was rather strange.
  • Nipun: One of your books it titled ‘Natural Pain Relief’. How would you describe pain to a layman and its role on the spiritual path?
  • Shinzen: This comes out of those experiences of going through traditional discomfort. After the fact its fun to talk about these intense training experiments. THe problem with talking about these experiments is that it turns people off because they think its irrelevant to their concern. Most people wont’ go to the monastery, but will have the monastery come to them. Life does that do you-- its fragile and unpredictable. Learning how to deal with discomfort-- emotional or physical-- sooner or later, everyone has to face that. SO its good to know some things when that happens. Doctors may be able to mask it, but that’s not always feasible. Sooner or later you are going to encounter discomfort of some form-- if you understand the physical side, you understand the mental and emotional as well. In my case, they insisted I sit totally still in full lotus for an hour, and I wasn’t very flexible. It quickly turned very uncomfortable. My approach is informed by the spirit of science. Let’s say you have physical discomfort. What are the basic sensory dimensions involved in that? Your knees might hurt, and it my be sending a spreading effect through the whole body. Another dimension is your mental reaction in real-time. Visual thought and auditory thought are two components of that. YOu could also have emotional body sensation-- fear, irritability, or half dozen other emotional flavors. Its a rich cocktail. By what mathematical function do we calculate your aggregate suffering? If you can experience all of the above with mindful awareness, your suffering will be less. I define mindful awareness as: concentration, XXX, YYY, I have an 80 page article called What is Mindfulness. If you’ve trained, you can handle all suffering in various streams without it cross-interfering and cross-amplifying to make something like a 50-level pain to 100K-level pain. When you can bring it into focus, there is also a joy of purification that starts to flow by keeping it at a 50-level pain.
  • Nipun: When have defined equanimity as love. Can you explain what you meant?
  • Shinzen: In that document, I was being poetic with the definition. In prose, equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience come and go without push and pull. Its ability to not interfere with whatever is happening without disrupting their flow. THe reason I described it as love is that when you are in love, you are 100% OK and open with a person as the perfect archetype-- that is equanimous. People say we’re living in troubling times. All times are troubling times-- just for different people. My general answer is: love deeply and act effectively. ‘Love deeply’ is equivalent to enlightenment. You are also asking about the relationship between liberation and service. This is a huge and important area. Liberation without service is not a complete path-- at least how i learned from all my teachers. Service without liberation-- or allocating reasonable time for that-- is burnout. Those with service but not sadhana quickly fall down this slippery slope. You sometimes even reverse intentionality and become what you oppose if you don’t have sadhana-- its a ‘freakout’. Its important that people do not do such service without an inner practice. Someone said, ‘don’t just do something, stand there’. LIberated consciousness allows you to experience “love first”. By that I don’t mean thoughts about love, but love itself. How do you know the current president of the US? Its not rhetorical question. Maybe you see them through TV. And you have a set of emotions and feelings -- whether you like or not. It all occurs as sensory experience in the moment-- moment by moment-- that’s how you know who president is, or really how you know anything. Those who have trained -- as soon as you think about a person -- or anything, the first thing you experience a thousand times a day is the formless womb molding each person into existence as an act of pure cosmic love. Its intrinsic in your experience. Christians call this practicing the presence of God. Its like you can’t leave Church anymore. Your senses are now spiritualized. In the instance of perception, even someone you don’t like, you tangible and irrefutably experience Source manifesting them even before you experience your reaction of not them. My Zen teachers emphasize that service is a consequence of enlightenment.
  • Nipun: Can you share more on the distinction between Bodhisattva and Arhants, in Buddhism?
  • Shinzen: Sure. If you ask me a question like that, I’m very tempted to give a lecture on the history of Buddhism. The distinction you are making is part of propaganda made by Mahayana Buddhists. Its not nearly as fundamental as every book would have you believe. There can be a distinction, but the way it’s formulated in the Mahayana literature is grossly exaggerated. Its true you have these different practice types. Some are drawn more to service than others. Yet that some books lead you to believe that there are two distinct paths is more of an optical illusion. These over simplified distinctions can be distorted. Some are more naturally drawn to service than others. The assumption that this is related to your lineage has not been my experience. I have found a lot of Zen teachers who are not so much in to service and lots of Vipassana teachers very much into service. I think what you are asking about is what makes the difference. A lot has to do with indoctrination. My teachers said a complete path involves service and meditation. My first teacher had a picture of a walking Buddha leaving the mountain. My teacher reminded me that its ultimately about leaving the mountain-- as a liberated person-- to serve.
  • Nipun: On taking the mist out of mysticism, you speak to the universality of this inner phenomenon. You find references everywhere in many traditions across faiths. What got you interested in interfaith? What are the implications of that?
  • Shinzen: That’s a juicy question. If you get theologians together, they will argue. But if you get experienced contemplatives together, they will understand each other. That tells me that there is a contemplative core in each religion. Depending on history and other factors, that core can be dominant or marginal.
  • Rahul: You're big into bridging science and spirituality. In fact, you've even said that you believe the next Buddha (Maitreya) could manifest as a team of scientist -- in particular neuro-scientists. That also implies that you, on the whole, quite optimistic about where science is heading. What gives you hope about innovations in science and tech?
  • Shinzen: I was very influenced by Leonard Cohen’s teacher, who framed everything in terms for expansions and contractions. It does seem to me that contemplative practices are infusing human cultures. Since I take the contemplative to be the core of unifying behind all religions, that is a huge source of hope. If we can can manage the next 100 years without a catastrophic collapse of human civilization, meditation and contemplative practice is slowly spreading. Its in corporations, psychotherapy, even in our military. If that could go on for another century or two, we could be in good shape. We many not have that century or two. Let’s say the window is closing-- a pessimistic view. Is there still reason to be hopeful? From my view, yes. That’s what Science of Enlightenment is about. The centerpiece is my happiest thought. There are things about enlightenment not even known by the greatest master of the past because they didn’t have neuroscience. Even the Chinese research mindfulness despite a non religious society. One way or another, there is some relationship with the electrochemistry of the neurology and success in contemplative practice. My own experience as a meditator is that there has been a global change in how my perception and motor movement occurs after 50 years. That has to be reflected in the physiology of the nervous system. We don't’ know what that is yet. The science is in its infancy.
  • Callers: What about devotion vs meditation? And how to deal with compassion fatigue, and the suffering of others?
  • Shinzen: My recommendation is to do what works. On burnout and compassion fatigue-- I have a set answer. If you want certain effects, you have to create certain causes. I am a big picture guy. What you should mostly thinking is not what you should do this week, year, etc Question is: what will be my rate of growth over my lifetime regarding this issue? If they establish 4 things, they have a high probability related to deal with burnout. Here’s what you should do: 1. Retreat practice. 2. Life practice 3. Get support - 1 competent teacher to guide the overall course 4. Give support. THis relates to those suffering with real world problems. Each practitioner is a teacher- whether you think of yourself that way or not, because teaching has many levels. YOU have the highest probability of doing that by doing those 4 things-- love first.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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