Waking up Into a Dream
Mystical demystification, anonymous assailants, and the train to nowhere
You’re not paying attention. What’s the title say?
All day long, you find yourself waking up on this moving train. Over and over again, here you are, with no recollection of how you ended up here.
You later find out that your whole life, there’s been some nameless stranger following you around, anesthetizing you, and dragging your body onto this train. This is where you later wake up.
Every time it slips your mind that you’re being followed, the stranger strikes. Once you awaken, you fully embody equal parts frustration and rage. Once again, here you are. You’ve been here countless times before. And so you just do as you always do. You plan to get off at the next stop and board a train back to where you were.
Sometimes though… upon regaining consciousness, a residual torpor slowly blankets you and so you end up staying a while. Even though you had planned to get off at the next stop, you begin to take pleasure in the scenery passing you by out the window. You remember some of the sights you’re seeing from last time. You settle into this comfortable familiarity. There’s a mild warmth of nostalgia gently rocking you along. And so you keep riding the train for just a bit longer. And wasn’t there something that you ought to be getting back to? You can’t seem to remember. It must not have been that important anyway. So you ride on.
On these more prolonged journeys, you feel doubly bad once you alight. Not only had you been abrupty interrupted, but your failure to immediately turn around has taken you even further out of your way.
Who is this guy following you around and what does he want? He never harms you directly. He’s a nuisance more than anything. But the effort to get back to where you were every time this happens is wearing your patience thin. Not only is it wasting your time, but it also’s made you paranoid and doubtful of your ability to get anything meaningful done.
How best to deal with this anonymous assailant?
You could be more vigilant, always on high alert. But you’d never be able to immerse yourself in anything you’re doing.
You could see a neurologist. Inquire about experimental surgery to alter your brain in a way that will help you regain consciousness faster?
Or perhaps visit an apothecary to help you find a cure to your assailant’s anesthetic agent?
In your search for a solution, you stumble into someone. It’s not the assailant, but yet another one of his victims. She claims to have found a solution. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. She reveals that even though she hasn’t identified the assailant or been able to prevent him from targeting her, she’s found a trick to shorten the frequency and duration of these incidents — drastically. She explains to you that there is a way to return instantly to where you were every time you find yourself on the train. A way to derail any train you’re on that isn’t taking you to where you want to go. She reminds you of something that should have seemed obvious from the beginning. You didn’t board the train of your own accord. You have no obligation to stay on it a moment longer than intended. Even when the scenery is pleasant, there’s this lingering feeling that you would enjoy it more had you been the one who planned the trip in the first place. But you’ve helplessly given in to the joy of the ride over and over again. Sometimes you even find yourself trying to push the limit. You’ve come this far already, and so you wonder how far the train can go? You anticipate seeing it all the way through to its terminus. You haven’t made it quite yet… but maybe someday.
That’s the state you’re in when you’re not attending carefully to your mind. You might even find yourself reading a blog post without remembering why you clicked on it.
Your newfound ally who’s come to the rescue is describing mindfulness of course. Practicing meditation doesn’t prevent you from ever getting lost in a train of thought again, but it gives you the means to place your attention more carefully. You can become cognizant of your situation more readily and consequently less cavalier with your time. You may not think of yourself as a victim of this assailant. Unless you’re an arhat casually browsing Medium, you’re just oblivious. Even experienced meditators spend the preponderance of their time thinking without knowing they’re thinking, jerked around by conditioned thought patterns and behaviors. My objective isn’t to persuade you of that here though. This post is for people who’re already interested in the practice.
You’ve probably heard cute little analogies like this before that try to transcribe the practice of meditation into familiar concepts. If you enjoy them, wonderful, because I’ve included several more at the end here. This one, oddly enough, could apply to any form of addiction really. But here, I’m focusing solely on addiction to thinking.
Now that I have your attention.
As meditation creeps into the mainstream from its rarified provenance, a whole lot of mystery remains to unriddle.
You know how they say a person’s favorite word is their name? Well there’s an exception to every rule. And in this case, it’s quacks and charlatans. For this crowd, it’s not a moniker that entices them. Instead, the mere whisper of the word mystery brings them to climax. My aim in writing this is not simply to express derision for cheats and con artists. By my guess, they’re actually far outnumbered by the well-intentioned people who just aren’t qualified to speak on these matters.
The original title for this story was going to be What is Awakening? But as my bio suggests, I just couldn’t bear the spiritual hubris that would connote. I’m not the expert either. I’m not an arhat or a Buddhist scholar. But I like to analyze things and I can point you in the right direction.
Here’s what this article is not. This is not a piece describing what meditation is for the entirely unindoctrinated. This is also not an argumentative piece explaining the science of meditation. If that’s what you’re skeptical mind is after, I’d suggest Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s research, or even just start with this YouTube video). They discuss the deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex, the default mode network more broadly, and other neural correlates of mindfulness.
Instead, this article is targeted at people much like myself who’ve been exploring contemplative practice as laymen, who are probably past the point that they’ve validated that there’s a there there, but are frankly just a bit confounded by all the conflicting guidance and seeming paradoxes. I want to demystify all the — admittedly — poetic metaphors and witty Zen stories. As an alternative, I’d like to offer you some concrete pointers in the form of a Q&A. The As I’m providing aren’t mine. I’ve outsourced them. I’ve done the heavy lifting of studying, analyzing, and testing the methods of a number of different teachers. I’ve taken the instruction that’s worked best for me and distilled it into this little guidebook. Think of it as a navigation tool to help you wade through this vast terrain, evade the charlatans, and dispel the confusion of grappling with crazymaking advice. I want to help you assure yourself that you’re headed in the right direction, or redirect you if not. If I could have gone back in time and dropped something off with myself a few years ago, it would have been this. And although I’m stealing some of your time, I have nothing to sell so please spare me your cynicism. I just want to help other rational, secular thinkers explore this first-person science of the mind.
Guidance should be simple. The instruction should be straightforward. The real feat is the commitment to accepting the inevitable insights that you’ll uncover. It’s the resolve to actualize those insights over and over again in every moment.
How do you know you’re becoming more mindful and that meditation is actually benefitting you?
Joseph Goldstein says, “Intense experience becomes a kind of mindfulness alarm.” Sam Harris adds, “You realize this a problem for which you have a solution. And that’s not obvious early on. It’s not intuitively obvious at all that being aware of a negative state of mind should alter its effect.” Why does being aware that you’re mad, make you less mad? More generally, why does awareness of a thought or emotion change our relationship to it? It’s because it allows us to see through the ruse. It enables our minds to go, “I’ve seen this trick before.” Meditation practice is just an effort to recognize all these different states and amass a Rolodex of them.
How do you incorporate this in your practice?
Goldstein suggests when sitting, note, “This is what sitting is like.” Notice too other phenomena that arise. “This is what anger is like. This is what anxiety is like. This is where I feel joy in the body, etc.” Then, when these emotions or sensations arise in times of non-concentration, we immediately recognize them. They become familiar and no longer able to trick the mind into seeing them as any more than a mere play of physiology located somewhere in the body. You go from being angry to being aware of anger as a feeling somewhere in the body. Awareness is — in this way — like a snake biting its own tail until it consumes itself.
This is why in some traditions, like Goenka Vipassana, they stress mindfulness of body over mindfulness of breath. Mindfulness of body is intrinsically useful. Knowing that you’re breathing isn’t useful in and of itself. Knowing what emotions and feelings are passing through your body is. If you can notice and become curious about where in your body you actually sense an emotion — the raw physiology — the emotion loses its valence. You no longer judge it as being good or bad. It’s what is, there is no ought to be.
Also, being aware of bodily sensations is the easiest way to ensnare thought. Thought is the most elusive phenomena. It’s difficult to detect when we’re hypnotized by thought. Emotion, on the other hand, is brute and easy to detect. Importantly, it’s almost always connected to thought. We can use the bodily sensation of an emotion as a proxy to detect the thoughts that defile our minds.
What is Awakening?
Adyashanti says, “A recognition of lucid experience in which the ego structure may exist but is not defining it. The seat of attention is cast in a new light and there is a groundshift of identity change.”
What distinguishes Awakening from Englightenment?
“Enlightenment the attainment of a state in which this recognition [Awakening] is unshakably obvious all the time. The further along the spectrum of awakening you are, the more the awakened state becomes your baseline.” Notice the use of the word spectrum there. He believes this is an asymptotic goal. Becoming as conscious as possible.
What is equanimity in the context of meditative practice?
This is an excerpt from the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. It describes three stages of progression here. No, there are not three discrete stages in practice, but it’s a useful illustration that pairs nicely with my story about the train to nowhere.
The eighth-century Buddhist adept Vimalamitra described three stages of mastery in meditation and how thinking appears in each. The first is like meeting a person you already know; you simply recognize each thought as it arises in consciousness, without confusion. The second is like a snake tied in a knot; each thought, whatever its content, simply unravels on its own. In the third, thoughts become like thieves entering an empty house; even the possibility of being distracted has disappeared.
In the end, all experience is welcome, even cognitive dissonance itself. Here’s how I contextualize the third stage. I view it like a dogpile where all those piling on somehow come up with nothing. The thoughts have nothing to crash into but each other. This connects to other insights about the emptiness of all appearances, including the self.
To be continued… (if you have any feedback or edits as I work on this, please DM me. I want to chat :)