The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we'll be discussing the long-term effects of meditation. With me is Shinzen Young, who is the director of the Community Meditation Center of Los Angeles. He is also an ordained Buddhist monk, and an instructor in Vipassana meditation, as well as a Buddhist scholar. Welcome, Shinzen.


MISHLOVE: When we talk about the long-term effects of meditation, surely we have to begin to think about the nature of enlightenment in the various traditions which describe it, and many traditions do, and the stages which lead up to enlightenment.

YOUNG: Right. Well, enlightenment is a many-faceted jewel. It's a single jewel that has many faces to it. You can turn it and look at so many aspects of it. And that is, I think, one of the problems when people read books about long-term spiritual experience and practice. It can be very confusing, because a certain individual will describe it from a certain perspective, but there are so many other perspectives on it. So that's something that a person has to keep in mind when you're describing or dealing with the issue of enlightenment.

MISHLOVE: It almost seems as if to a lay person, the more the literature seems to describe the actual end goal, the state of enlightenment, the more difficult it is to comprehend.

YOUNG: Well, the people that have had those kinds of experiences are just trying their best to communicate it. But it is quite true; often the more directly they describe their internal state, the more contradictory it seems. Since it embraces paradoxes, unifies paradoxes, it can be a little confusing to people. Therefore if one is really interested in this issue, the best thing is to go out and experience it for yourself.

MISHLOVE: One of the terms that has often stuck in my mind -- I think it comes from the Zen tradition -- with regard to beginners in the meditation practice, is a phrase called, "the stink of enlightenment."

YOUNG: Yes, that's a pretty advanced topic. When you have meditated for a long time, you no longer carry with you the overt qualities of religiosity. Very often you've gone beyond that. You may know what miso is; I don't know if everybody that will hear this program knows what that is.

MISHLOVE: Miso is made from soybeans.

YOUNG: It's a soybean product, and it's very, very smelly. It has a distinctive odor. But in Japan they say that the highest-quality miso does not smell of miso, and the highest-quality enlightenment does not smell of enlightenment. But that's way down the line. Maybe we should start at the beginning, where a person is likely to start in their practice. Of course I'll be speaking primarily from the Buddhist tradition, but there's a certain commonality in meditative traditions all around the world.

MISHLOVE: I know you've studied some of the Christian contemplative practices.

YOUNG: Yes, in fact nowadays there's an enormous dialoguing and cross-fertilization that goes on between the Christian contemplative tradition and the Buddhist one, simply because we recognize each other's similarities. The thing I particularly like about Buddhism is that it has a step-by-step methodology that's very technique oriented, and gives you something to do, almost like a computer program, like a flow chart. That appealed to me very much. But by and large, around the world meditative traditions are basically dealing with the same material, so you come up with similar type experiences. So although what I say will be specifically out of experience on the Buddhist path, much of it is applicable to Christian, Islamic, Jewish mystical traditions also.

MISHLOVE: In these various traditions, what are some of the characteristics of the beginning stages?

YOUNG: Well, typically, if we take Buddhism, when you start out the first thing that you're going to be given is a meditation posture. It doesn't necessarily have to be the lotus posture of twisting yourself up into a pretzel. But some type of position where the body can be kept still and also get a very alert sense at the same time. So something that's likely to be upright and seated, because those are the two characteristics of the meditative state -- alertness and quiet and calm. To have one without the other is not meditation. So they at first teach you a posture that is conducive to those two characteristics. Later on you don't need the special posture; you can carry that out in day-to-day life. The first thing that's likely to be encountered is a meditative posture. This very simple thing, of just understanding the effect of posture, is probably one of the major contributions that the Buddhists are making towards the Christian contemplative tradition. It's not unusual nowadays to have Christian monks sitting in the lotus position to do their Christian meditation, simply because they find that more conducive.

MISHLOVE: It's better than sitting in a chair, for example?

YOUNG: It's better than slouching. So you get a position that's upright and relaxed, and you learn how to settle into that so you get your posture. It doesn't have to be the lotus, although I was in a sense fortunate. My teachers forced me into the lotus posture. It was very, very difficult, but I'm glad that I learned it now, simply because there comes a time when you want to sit many hours at a stretch, and although it's hard to believe, the lotus is much more comfortable for long sittings than a chair would be, once you get used to the lotus.

MISHLOVE: If the posture becomes so important, then, in the early stages, I would assume that this would also entail a lot of just simple awareness of what your body is doing.

YOUNG: This is very true.

MISHLOVE: A lot of people think that meditation means leaving the body somehow.

YOUNG: Yes, and I would not say so. That sort of gets us into what will come two steps down the line. First you learn a posture, you settle into it, and then you're given some sort of focusing exercise. It could be anything; it could be focusing on the breath, it could be focusing on the body sensations. Many, many objects are possible. What will happen, of course, as soon as you focus on something is that your mind will wander, and you'll bring it back, and it will wander again, and you'll bring it back, and it will wander again. At this point of course people often get discouraged. But if you keep working with it, a time comes when it wanders considerably less, and when the internal dialog, the constant conversation that we have with ourself, begins to fade into the background a little bit, things get calm and focused. At that time you will also notice that your breath will tend to spontaneously either slow down, or at least your oxygen hunger becomes noticeably diminished. What's happening now is that you are starting to enter into the first stages of a whole continuum or spectrum of steps of ever deeper calm and ever brighter alertness.

MISHLOVE: Is focusing really necessary? Isn't it true that in the Zen tradition they say just sit?

YOUNG: Well, there are several different approaches used in Zen. There are different schools of Zen. Whether you just sit, or whether you focus on an object, in the end everybody that practices meditation goes through the same sequence of states of calm and concentration. There are various ways to develop it. You can do it with a mantra, or you could -- well, let's put it this way. We say focus on an object. What we're really saying is rest your attention on that object, and let go of everything else.

MISHLOVE: You used the term mantra a moment ago. Can you define that?

YOUNG: A mantra is a simple sound that is repeated either out loud or to yourself over and over again. It has a calming effect. The basic idea, though, is even though we use the word concentration, what we're really talking about is letting go. You don't so much concentrate on the object as you let go of everything else. And it's sort of related to Newton, to paraphrase his first law of motion, if there's not some force vector to pull you away from what you're resting on, you will stay there. So just sitting and letting go, and the ability to focus on one object, turn out to be exactly the same experience. The interesting thing, though, is that not only does the mind become more focused in the sitting, but that carries out into your day-to-day life, so you go deeper and deeper and deeper, but that state of concentration also gets broader, by which I mean it envelops more and more of your day-to-day activities. The other important thing to keep in mind is that it affects not just your mental state and your focusing power, but it very much is an altered state of physiology with a very distinctive constellation of changes in the breath, the brain waves, the electrical conductivity of the skin, and whatever. So we're talking about something that's affecting the mind and the body simultaneously, and it gets deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper as time goes on.

MISHLOVE: So the beginning stages of meditative practice, I suppose, involve becoming acquainted with this realm of altered states.

YOUNG: Well, this is a particular altered state, which involves a habitual development of calm and concentration.

MISHLOVE: Calm and concentration.

YOUNG: That's right. It's very distinctive, and anybody that has experienced it knows what it's about. And it can get deeper and deeper. If you look at the world mystical traditions, you'll find that there's always a generic term to describe the whole continuum of states of focus, and then they will distinguish different benchmarks of different depths. So when you do studies on comparative mysticism, which is one of my interests, it's very interesting to see how they deal with this. For example, the generic term in Christianity for this sequence of states is oratio quies, or prayer of quiet, as opposed to the verbal prayer, which most people think is prayer. It was also called recollection, meaning not to remember, but to pull everything back. In Buddhism we call it by various names. One of them is samadhi, in the generic sense of samadhi. Then there are different benchmarks; it gets deeper and deeper. The other important thing to realize is that this is not the ultimate goal of meditation.

MISHLOVE: Samadhi is not?

YOUNG: Not in this sense of the word samadhi, in the sense of just developing concentration. In the Buddhist tradition the concentration is looked upon as a tool, somewhat analogous to a microscope. You have to have a microscope before you can see the fine structure of the cells of your hand, and you have to develop some of this concentration power before you can see the very significant deep structure of your own psyche, your own mind and body.

MISHLOVE: What's the value then of being able to watch your mind?

YOUNG: So far, just to recapitulate, we've had two things. First you have to learn a posture. Then you develop states of concentration. Now we're going to stage three: how do you use those states of concentration?

MISHLOVE: Let me also ask you this. What kind of time frames are we talking about?

YOUNG: Well, it's sort of on a bell curve distribution, just like anything else. Some people can develop pretty good habitual concentration within a year or so. Other people may take longer. But I would say a year to two years, if you really work hard at it and you've had good teaching, you should be able at least to a certain extent be able to preserve that in the midst of most of your daily activities. The way you learn to do it is, first you learn to do it on the cushion, then you learn to do it during simple activities like washing the dishes, or raking the sand in the temple, for example. Then you learn to do it in a little more complex activities like cooking a meal. Finally you can do it sitting in a television studio talking to somebody.

MISHLOVE: Is it appropriate for people at any age?

YOUNG: Yes, I think so. So once you've developed it, what do you do with it? Well, many things, and we don't have time to really go into it. Obviously just about any human activity that you can think of -- physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual -- is going to be enhanced if you bring more concentration power there.

MISHLOVE: I think the interesting question, if I want to know, should I get into meditation, should I really put the work in that's required, is: where will I be with this in five years, in ten years, in fifteen or twenty years? What can I expect?

YOUNG: I would say that within a couple of years you will be in a consistent state of heightened concentration and calm, which is useful in general. Within a few more years, by and large, you will be using that calm and concentration to do an incredibly profound and meticulous exploration of the phenomenon of thought and feeling. Now, you asked what is the use of doing that. You probably noticed that we tend to get caught in our thoughts and feelings. They have a certain sticky, gluey quality to them.

MISHLOVE: They appear to us to be really real. In fact they appear to be exactly what is real.

YOUNG: Well, it's interesting how we use this word real. Real means something to a philosopher; people argue what is real. But in the colloquial sense, real means it has the power to grab me and hold me. "This is real" means that it's got me. Now, what the Buddha discovered -- and this is the third stage, the stage of insight -- is when you start to apply that extraordinary concentration to observing the ordinary events of thought and feeling, you discover that they begin to lose that grabbing, binding, limiting force, and your thoughts and feelings -- in other words, your sense of self, start to become a comfortable home rather than a prison.

MISHLOVE: Is it as if one's habitual sense of reality begins to dissolve a little bit?

YOUNG: Well, I wouldn't want to say that, because that would scare people away from meditation. I would say rather that the sense of grippingness or holdingness, bindingness, starts to go. We can all see it in the macroscopic -- this might be a way to look at it. We can all see that something happened yesterday and we're inappropriately holding onto it today, and we wonder, "Why can't I let go of this? Why does this have such a grip on me?" It could be anything -- anger, something somebody said. What we don't realize is that it's not only in the macroscopic but in the microscopic instant, the instant right now as we're talking. Instant by instant there's a holding, a locking, a gripping around the flow of reality. And as you observe very, very carefully that locking and gripping gets washed away, and reality starts to take on a much more effortless, fluid quality.

MISHLOVE: I think I see. You use the word grip a lot, and I think what you're saying, if I can reinterpret it, is that -- well, for example, in the early stages of meditative practice one does learn, I think, to relax the muscles in the shoulders. We let go, we lose that kind of grip. Then in the deeper stages one must find more subtle ways in which we cling and grasp onto facets of what we think of as existence, and then we can let go there too.

YOUNG: Excellent. I would say that would be exactly the way I would put it. What is ordinarily called relaxation, even what is called deep relaxation, I would call surface relaxation. This mind-body process of ours exists at many, many levels of scales, finer and finer scales, and the more significant forms of relaxation take place at these very fine scales, and only meditation can bring that about.

MISHLOVE: It must require a very, very subtle kind of perception, because the normal everyday reality wouldn't see the fineness of it.

YOUNG: Well, that's why we develop those special states of concentration first. That then gives you the ability to perceive and relax at the subtle scale. Now, the interesting thing is that when you observe yourself at the macroscopic scale -- with the naked eye, so to speak -- you get what I would call psychological insights, insights into your individual personality structure. Now, those kinds of insights are very important, and I would never denigrate them. When you observe that same mind-body process in the special state of samadhi or concentration, you begin to get spiritual insights, insights into much more fundamental issues than just why I am the way I am, insights into things that are universal for all living beings. You understand the nature of suffering, how it is that sensation turns into suffering, and therefore how it is that a person can experience uncomfortable sensations without suffering. We're not talking about this suffering or that suffering; we're talking about generically understanding the whole phenomenon, whether it's suffering from anger, from compulsion, from physical pain. You get what every mathematician is always looking for, the generic formula that works for all of these. Well, that's a very deep kind of insight, and that can only be had by observing.

MISHLOVE: It's far beneath, I suppose, the level of personality or individuality.

YOUNG: Correct, correct. And yet the personal or individual arises upon that, and therefore you're looking at the source. When you go into a Zen temple, for example, there's always a sign that says, "Watch your step." They mean don't track dirt in the temple, but they also mean see where you come from. So you start to get insights into the nature of the whole suffering process. You get insights into the nature of fulfillment: is pleasure the same as satisfaction, or is satisfaction a certain way of experiencing pleasure? You see that clearly within your own mind and body. You get insights into the nature of how the sense of self and separateness arise, right now, moment by moment.

MISHLOVE: I suppose it might be like at first, as I look at myself, I might say, "I am Jeffrey Mishlove." And then I might say, "Well, I am a human being." And then as I get deeper I might say, "I am a being," and I get into the very essence of beingness.

YOUNG: But that's an idea. If you observe, then you would see where you come from, what is your source. You are part of nature, you are still part of the flow of nature, deep down within. The same effortless, spontaneous, just-happening quality that we find so enchanting and refreshing in the flow of a river is going on behind every thought and feeling that's coming up in your body right now. But you see that directly. You go back to your source, and you stay there. That's insight; that's the third stage.

MISHLOVE: That's lovely. I almost feel as you speak those words, it kind of awakens that flow.

YOUNG: Right. That's the treasure that lies beneath the lake, so to speak. But you have to be able to delve down there, and the lake has to become somewhat placid, and you can see what's under there. So at the third stage you begin to get these insights. These are not just psychological insights; these are liberating insights. They set you free from the stickiness of the mind-body process. You come to understand how can experience a oneness of things when it's appropriate to experience oneness, and how you can fully manifest the individuality of your personality. Out of that oneness you can actually feel your individuality produced spontaneously as part of the flow of nature.

MISHLOVE: Now this third stage would normally begin after a year or more --

YOUNG: No, usually more, maybe five, six, seven, eight years. It depends. This is your first enlightenment. We wouldn't call anything short of what I just described enlightenment. It's permanent, by the way. Sometimes people use this term "peak experience," which I dislike a lot. There's nothing in the Buddhist tradition that is a peak experience -- that something you experience and then come down from would ever be called enlightenment. You see what is there, what has always been there, and once you've seen it it can never be otherwise for you. However, whether you're concentrated or not concentrated, whether your life's going good or not going good, you always know, you're always abiding in the fluid source of your being. So that's stage number three. That is not the end of the meditative path, though. There is a fourth stage which is actually the bulk of your career as a meditator. What I've just described may take you five, ten, perhaps even fifteen years. That may seem like a long time to Americans, but the fact is one lives one's life anyway. I'm not talking about living in a temple, by the way; I should clarify. Most of my students are responsible members of society. It's just that they reserve a certain amount of time, about the amount of time that a person would give to a serious hobby, like your computer or your golf game. You reserve a certain amount of time and energy for this endeavor. In the lineage that I teach, the particular form of Vipassana, the teacher one step ahead of me is a very successful multimillionare entrepreneur. His teacher was a very highly placed bureaucrat in the government of Burma. So we're talking about people that are living ordinary lives, yet are also able to follow this path.

MISHLOVE: You know, there's a sense, I think, especially amongst Americans, to say, "OK, these Buddhist people practice for fifteen years. They've arrived at this state. What if we study their brain waves, and use biofeedback so that we can learn to emulate that brain-wave state?"

YOUNG: In a shorter period of time.

MISHLOVE: Then we can do it in maybe half an hour.

YOUNG: Well, this is what I was interested in for many years. I did a lot of work in biofeedback, actually, with that very hope in mind. And I still have not given up the possibility that there might be ways to enhance the efficiency of the training. At this point brain-wave biofeedback doesn't do it. It moves you in the right direction, but in and of itself is not going to induce enlightenment. Neither do any drugs do it that I know of. I wish there were easier ways. I personally am experimenting with ways that are not traditional, but still involve a certain amount of commitment and energy.

MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose it's not unreasonable for most of us to think that if we can expect that we're going to be around for another fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years in our life span, is there anything better to do?

YOUNG: Especially since it does not interfere with one's success in the material realm -- not in theory, anyway. You do not have to withdraw from the world to carry on an activity like that. What I tell people is, "Five years from now you'll be five years older. You can also be a five-year veteran meditator, and be five years older; or you can just be five years older." So it's a lifelong endeavor, but then again so is music, so is medicine, so are many things that we consider important. Let me say something about the culmination of the path of meditation.

MISHLOVE: Yes, we have about two minutes.

YOUNG: Most of one's life as a meditator is not spent in the first three things that I talked about. Most of one's life as a meditator is spent being of benefit to one's fellow beings. The whole purpose of getting enlightenment is that you achieve a kind of oneness, you understand oneness. And therefore from that flows absolutely automatically and effortlessly a life of helping your larger being. So when you start out, you start out to liberate a particular mind and body that you identify with yourself. Later on you identify the whole planet as yourself, and you work in different ways to be of benefit. But the important thing is that your efforts are without struggle, because once you're enlightened it just happens, you just channel it. And if things don't work out well, and your efforts don't bear fruit always, you're not brought down because you're liberated. So it's a way of making helping others more effective; that's all that enlightenment is about in the end.

MISHLOVE: You see yourself somehow perhaps as a cell in a larger body, working for the benefit of that whole body.

YOUNG: That would be one metaphor, right.

MISHLOVE: Well, Shinzen Young, it's been a pleasure being with you. I sense from the clarity of your expression that you have indeed experienced these states that you're describing, and that your words to us are more than just abstract philosophical repetitions of ancient texts, but there's a living tradition here that you embody. Thank you very much for being with me.


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