Maps of Emptiness
When the territory is empty, how does one map the way?
During a party last night, my friend pointed out that I haven't written a post in a while. I explained that I've been reading more than writing lately, and with so many interesting people creating content, it's been hard to find the motivation to add to the pile.
As we chatted, my friend mentioned that he had spent Christmas on a 12-day Vipassana retreat. When he returned, his colleague asked for a one-line business summary, to which he replied, "There is no shortcut to emptiness and equanimity." We laughed at the paradox, and I shared that one of the topics I've been exploring lately is shortcuts to meditation.
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What travesty! I know.
But I've done my fair share of inner work in the past, including two darkness retreats, a few hundred hours of meditation, and many workshops focused on inner observation. This has given me some appreciation for the vastness of the inner space and the multitude of paths through the void.
While "just sit and observe" is a common starting point for meditation, it's not the only approach. Vipassana offers one map of the inner territory, but "do nothing meditation" offers another, and so does TWIM. The point is that the inner abilities are multitudinous, and we must find the approach that works best for us. In essence, learning to meditate by "just sitting and observing" is like learning to play the piano by "just sitting and playing" - it's an option, but there are other paths to explore.
In this post, I'll take you through my recent explorations of meditation. It won't be comprehensive or neat, but rather a few crumbs from my journey.
This is my overall guiding formula:
A deeper intellectual insight into a facet of the mind transforms that facet.
So rather than leaving the thinking mind behind, I like to alternate insights with meditation on those insights. For me, this approach is both fun and efficient in moving closer toward inner equanimity. So let’s start from afar, with one map of maps:
There are many directions one could take here. I started from the place of greatest discomfort.
Map 1: Emptiness
There may be no Buddhist concept more important and unsettling than "emptiness". It's the cornerstone of the Buddhist view of the inner experience, expressed in the famous mantra "form is emptiness (śūnyatā), emptiness is form". However, for me, the word was more confusing than revealing, as I would not call the invisible realms "empty" - rather, they seem full of infinite possibilities. So, I turned to the Twitter hive mind.
"We have a mirror and we have reflections. The reflections are in the mirror, and you can't take a reflection out of a mirror. The reflection is both in the mirror and is the mirror, yet it's not the mirror itself. Without a mirror, there wouldn't be reflections. When you look in the mirror, you see the reflections, not the mirror. The mirror is the infinite, invisible host that generously shows itself in the form of its inhabitation. Just as if we were to introduce ourselves to someone in terms of all the bacteria that are running in our gut. That's what the mirror does. It says, "this is what inhabits me, this is me."
After exploring the concept of emptiness, I still find the term to be somewhat unintuitive for what it represents. I suspect that our understanding of the underlying concept has evolved recently, while the ancient word used to describe it has remained the same. However, trying to grasp the meaning of emptiness by alternately rummaging through the web and meditating on the collected insights did open up some attack surface into the void.
Map 2: Tanha and Dukha: Adventures in Suffering
Two more words that may not immediately resonate with an uninitiated Western mind are key to understanding traditional meditation techniques. These two words represent the first two of the Four Noble Truths of Buddha.
All I teach is dukkha and the end of dukkha (through the attenuation of tanha).
Yet again, we have key concepts with weird and unintuitive names. However, Nick Cammarata has offered perfectly fitting new words: "fast-grabby-thing" for tanha and "evil-vibrating-blob" for dukkha.
This one nugget of insight can save hundreds of hours in a monastery. For me, it clicked with what I call psychic yoga (another post coming) - the practice of inner movements.
As Nick suggests, we need a better way to talk about these sub-second timeframes and inner movements. The lack of common vocabulary grounded in the Western milieu is a major barrier to progress. There should indeed be a field of micro-psychology devoted to the sub-second timeframes. Until then, notice when you do the grabbing. It’s life changing. And then abstract that attention to other inner movements.
Map 3: Jhanas in Pajamas
The Jhanas are another traditional map in the Buddhist tradition. They are states of deep concentration that are cultivated through the practice of meditation. There are typically four initial Jhanas, each characterized by increasingly refined levels of concentration. Some teachers add several more Jhanas, where the fifth represents a state of complete equanimity.
However, let's keep it simple. Even mastering the first Jhana is likely a grand skill to have.
In the first Jhana, the meditator enters a state of deep concentration and intense joy. They feel a sense of physical and mental relaxation and a pervasive feeling of pleasure and happiness throughout their being.
Wow, isn’t that all we want from life?!
There are two distinct steps to enter the first jhana. First, find a comfortable position and concentrate on a single point, like your breath, until your focus becomes razor-sharp. (This may take at least 15 minutes, even if you are a skilled meditator.)
Second, shift your attention to a pleasant sensation in your body. Hold onto that feeling and don't let anything else break your concentration. With practice, you'll be able to create a positive feedback loop of pleasure that, according to some who attain it, beats orgasm hands down. But any rush destroys the required open-minded state, so don't expect instant results. Keep practicing and see where it takes you!
Whether you are into peace protests or peak peace, here are the best resources I found to learn to enter the Jhanas:
Rob Burbea’s talks
Leigh Brasington’s Right Concentration
If you are looking for the fast track, check out Mind Is the Gap, a Discord server run by Maija Haavisto, and her introduction into the practice.
Map 4: The Full Natty State
Sit back and relax, here’s meditation for the Netflix generation, with the perfect cocktail of visuals, insights, and pure entertainment.
Frank Yang is a YouTuber and performance artist who has made a name for himself with his unique blend of fitness, philosophy, and humor. With a style that is equal parts extreme physical stunts and surreal commentary, he is as big on social media as his claims about the “full natty state” - the supposed natural state of consciousness he entered. Whatever your opinion of Frank Yang, there's no denying that he is a one-of-a-kind meditation teacher who challenges our assumptions about what meditation is all about. These are some of my favorite videos to watch in bed to float right into non-duality-infused dreamscapes.
Map 5: Transhumanist Technopriests of Qualia
The center of gravity for a cutting-edge approach to meditation lies in the Qualia Research Institute, an independent think tank at the forefront of conciousness research. QRI draws from a variety of fields, including math, physics, psychedelics, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. Their research aims to shed light on fundamental questions about the nature of human experience, and develop new frameworks for understanding the mind and brain. QRI's output includes highly technical and theoretical academic papers, but also popularizing videos.
To enter this rabbit hole, check out Andrés Gómez Emilsson, a transhumanist neo-Buddhist with a keen interest in lavender perfumes, 5-MeO-DMT, sacred geometry, and the mathematical properties of conscious fields. His videos are a treasure trove of mind-benders.
And if that’s not psychoactive enough, you can go full Burny:
Burny also runs an unofficial QRI Discord server and Facebook group.
If you're into meditation and consciousness, there are so many maps and communities out there to explore. Traditional, psychedelic, transhuman... the options are as colorful as the inner world itself. But here's the million dollar question: do all these maps lead to the same destination? Or does it even matter which one you pick?
The answer, I suspect, is both yes and no, for that appears to be the nature of the territory.
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