Shinzen Young on Mindfulness Meditation by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
In this installment of the Wise Counsel Podcast, Dr. Van Nuys interviews Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar. As a child in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Young desired nothing more than to become Asian, and worked very hard to learn Japanese, ultimately graduating from a Los Angeles based Japanese High School in parallel with his conventional English-speaking high school. He studied to become a Buddhist scholar in graduate school, but left the scholarly path while doing dissertation research in Japan when the allure of actually meditating became of greater interest than writing about it. The experience of becoming a meditator changed him profoundly, he reports. One of the ways this change manifested for him was that he no longer felt the need to avoid painful circumstances, having learned that he could tolerate great pain by learning how to not resist its occurrence, and how to divide it into parts by focusing on its various sensory strands.
Young studied various schools of meditation practice while in Asia, including the original Vipassana or mindfulness meditation as practiced by Buddha himself, and Zen Buddhist meditation practices which evolved later on after Vipassana became crossed with other traditions. Vipassana translates loosely into "distinct seeing". In the practice of Vipassana meditation the meditator learns how to focus attention to the various aspects of sensory experience that make up consciousness so as to separate them out distinctly. When these aspects of the sensorium are merged as is the normal case, people become trapped in what he calls a "limited identity". By learning how to keep the aspects of sensation distinct, that limited identity disappears and people become somehow free. Young thinks that this technique and the freedom that it produces is enormously important, and one of the most important human discoveries of all time.
As a westerner fluent in the practice of eastern meditation, Young has set himself the goal of making meditation more easily available to average western people. He has reformulated Buddhist concepts into language that westerners can understand, and has developed a website through which he teaches online classes so as to make meditation instruction available to most anyone regardless of location or financial resources. His third goal is to see Buddhism and the long training period necessary to learn how to become a skillful meditator become obsolete through the development of a merged western-eastern neuroscience and brain-based approach to meditation. It may be possible to understand what meditation does to the brain and to induce that state through the use of technologies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, for example. His analogy for this replacement process is the way that in physics, Einstein's ideas superceeded and expanded upon those of Newton without making Newton's discoveries any less important. In Young's view, Buddha was a Newton of spirituality, but he would like to see an Einstein come along to expand on Buddha's discoveries and insights. He believes that the next breakthrough in this area will be produced by "enlightened neuroscientists" who manage to merge the two great traditions (Buddhism and science) into one.
Young is happy to see that mindfulness practices are being integrated into western psychotherapy. He views the core meditation skills that mindfulness meditation teaches, which are concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity (which involves the ability to let sensory experiences happen without interfering with them) as vital and necessary components of any growth oriented training. He suggests that it will shortly become apparent to psychotherapists that outsourcing the training of mindfulness practices to skilled meditation teachers like himself will make the psychotherapy progress occur faster, more deeply, and be delivered in a cheaper and more efficient manner. He suggests that meditation is not a one-size-fits-all process, and that particular approaches to meditation are safer for some patients than for others. It is important that meditation and mindfulness training be delivered in a manner that tailors it to the needs of individual patients so as to avoid negative scenarios such as meditation taking apart someone's ego when they are already fragile. He is very interested to see where the marriage of mindfulness and psychotherapy will lead.
Dr. Van Nuys wraps up the interview by asking about enlightenment, and whether this is best considered to be a continuing process or a static goal you attain once and have thereafter. Young responds that enlightenment is truly difficult to explain, but it is best thought of as an evolving process. He quotes a teacher of his as saying (in translation) "today's enlightenment is tomorrow's mistake". There can be a moment of enlightenment, and then later you realize that you weren't as enlightened as you thought you were.