We all have lineages: teachers and influences who shape who we are. I think honouring them is important, both personally and politically (some thoughts on why here). Below I pay respect to my lineages, roughly in the order they landed in my life.
First Lineage: Mystery
Wow, I exist! What’s the deal with this existence situation? I’ve wondered about this since I was a kid; at no point did existing not seem … just … weird. Thus my first lineage and debt of gratitude goes to every human who ever wondered what it was all about. Also every human who ever looked at bugs and trees and rocks and suspected they were in on it. This is the lineage of mystery-ponderers.
Second Lineage: Exploring Consciousness
Wow, we can explore this mystery! Not just by rooting around the external world, but also by flipping backwards and exploring our own internal landscapes. As a kid I experimented with visualizing infinity; as a teen I practised lucid dreaming; as a college student I str-e-e-e-e-tched my brains out with psychedelics.
In my twenties, I read books about the human condition, completed a degree in literature, eventually got into the science of consciousness. An early influential book here was Charles Tart’s Altered States of Consciousness anthology, which came out in 1969 and actually had a big impact on the culture at-large. Tart helped popularize the understanding that consciousness changes, and that we can explore different states. Hypnosis, meditation, psychedelics – all of these were discussed in this single volume. In my early thirties I published a book about all this, The Head Trip, on the shifting terrain of subjective experience and how it’s reflected in the brain.
My second debt of gratitude goes to all those who have deliberately tried to understand the human mind, among them my friend Charles Tart and the many researchers, scientists and thinkers I profile in my book. This is the lineage of consciousness explorers.
Third Lineage: Buddhism and the End of Suffering
Wow, by exploring consciousness we can transform our own suffering! This understanding connected me to my next lineage, Buddhism. Buddhism of course isn’t the only system for addressing human suffering; you could argue every religion and contemplative tradition – and a good number of philosophical and psychotherapeutic systems – are also designed to do this, in their own imperfect ways. Buddhism was the first I came across that offered a tangible set of experiential techniques known collectively as meditation.
My third debt of gratitude goes to the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, that wandering meditating mendicant who worked out a systemic approach to all of this. This is the lineage of Buddhism (some thoughts on the complexity of lineages here).
Fourth Lineage: Mindfulness and Shinzen Young
Wow, I have no idea what I am doing! I keep going to these retreats, and I feel like I’m suffering less (in some ways), but in other ways I’m still suffering, in part because I don’t understand the dynamics of how all this works in consciousness, and how it relates to my personal situation. I don’t understand “dependent origination” or “karma” or “the skandhas.” And I really don’t understand “enlightenment” – I don’t understand how this phenomenon can possibly be true, given my humanistic education, which basically says the whole idea of getting saved is religious wish-fulfillment. I needed a model for thinking about spirituality that isn’t jammed with unrealistic ideals and / or obscure religious jargon.
Enter Shinzen Young, a contemplative neuroscience super-geek from Los Angeles. Shinzen was initially ordained in Japanese Vajrayana, but he was also influenced by S.N. Goenka’s style of vipassana, by Sasaki Roshi’s style of Zen, and by perennial philosophy more generally.
Shinzen was a godsend. Not only did he have a whole jungle gym of fascinating meditations to explore, he was also interested in language and rigour and the disambiguation of concepts. Shinzen’s meditation system is built from dynamic categories that anyone can relate to: seeing, hearing, and feeling; flowing or static; present or absent; expanding or contracting (or both), etc. He helped me see how consciousness in the moment is a bit like fluid dynamics, with certain behaviours and properties and fairly predictable rules of operation. He also gave me a way to think about the skills we bring to meditation – among them, concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity – how each of these “work” in each moment, and the different ways they get trained in different practices.
This is the Shinzen I encountered in 2008. For a good ten years I attended his retreats and recorded our regular phone conversations. He has thought clearly about so much in meditation and life – you can ask Shinzen anything, and he will eventually take it back to the rich phenomenology of our lived experience, never reaching past to some unfounded statement he can’t prove. If he does go there, it is usually with the caveat: “If I had to make a conjecture …” In this way I got to shine my Shinzen flashlight onto our human experience of the moment; he gave me a sense of the outer contour of what can be said with certainty, and what cannot be said at all.
Thus my fourth and greatest debt of gratitude goes to Shinzen Young, and through Shinzen to his own teachers, as well the many teachers Shinzen himself has influenced and trained, my peers and colleagues in the lineage of Unified Mindfulness. (For a taste of Shinzen’s precision nerdery, I recommend his original 1997 audio series “The Science of Enlightenment” – not the book, published 20 years later under the same title.)
So that’s the main stuff. Below is a bunch more rambling detail that I recommend you DON’T read, because, frankly, life is short, and you could be lying under a tree. It is useful for me to write down though, part of knowing where I came from, and who I need to thank for it.
More Lineages: The One and the Many
Uh, is there an overarching theme here? So happy you asked! Yes: an inquiry into what is separate vs what is distinct. Meaning: what parts of human experience do we all share, and what parts are separate and unique to the individual? Tapping into what is shared, living from that place, is thought to be the essence of the healing and transformation that happen through spiritual practice. Mystics and contemplatives since time immemorial all claim this is the answer to humanity’s problems.
So: what part of this is actually real? What part is accessible? And can people get there on their own terms, without depending on Gurus With the Answer? Trying to offer practical responses to these questions – Hell, trying to figure out if they’re even legit questions! – has been the focus of much of my life’s work. Here are some further lineages and individuals who’ve shaped both my views and my personal experience.
What is Shared
William James and Evelyn Underhill wrote my favourite books on varieties of religious and mystical experience, with a focus on perennial insights and the human progression into greater equanimity and connection and peace. Other important figures for me here have been Lex Hixon and Peter Russell.
My interest in nonduality predates Buddhism. “Nonduality” is a multi-faceted school of Indian thinking that explores what is shared through an inquiry into awareness itself. Different teachers articulate this in different ways. Notable influences here are Sri Ramana Maharshi, Rupert Spira, Frances Lucille, Adyashanti, Mukti, Lisa Cairns, Douglas Harding, Loch Kelly, and others.
A body is also something everyone shares. The physical practice of yoga was my initial way into embodiment and the wisdom of the body. I’ve had dozens of excellent yoga and movement teachers; two that stand out are my good friends Scott Davis and Therese Jornlin. Therese is also my Qi Gong teacher – not only has she changed the way I experience my body’s energy, she has also transformed my understanding of the breath and the wisdom of cycles. I also learned about embodiment through my training in Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing – thank you Jan Winhall – and in my academic study of embodied cognition and animal consciousness.
For many, ecology is their way into understanding “oneness” and inter-connectivity. For the past 10 years I’ve had the privilege of exploring “the ecological self” in person, alongside friends Paul Wapner, Kritee Kanko, David Abram and other passionate scientists and educators over at Earth Love Go and our hosts the Lama Foundation. Countless personal ceremonies and journeys have bolstered this view.
I’m also interested in the idea of practice. A practice is any activity or way of being that we engage in regularly and deliberately. There is a huge diversity here. And yet, there also seem to be certain core skills that get trained again and again across practice modalities. When we know these skills, we have both a framework for understanding any practice, and a way to increase the effectiveness of that practice.
Of all the skills, I am most keen on equanimity. Equanimity is central to understanding how healing and so-called “purification” work in practice. Once you understand equanimity, then equanimity starts to teach you about itself. It is a big part of how human’s age gracefully.
Another universal has to do with terrains of practice – common experiences, or perhaps life landscapes, that practitioners move through, regardless of technique. This is a complicated subject. Although every technique has technique-specific effects, I do think the human journey towards truth and wholeness has some landmarks that will be familiar to many practitioners, whether they’re coming at it through dancing or prayer or meditating on the breath. The best overview I’ve read on this is Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. For a possible Buddhist angle, there’s a way to interpret the influential “progress of insight” as a rapid cyclical version of these same terrains.
What is Distinct
Each spiritual path and tradition has elements that are uniquely and entirely their own. These differences matter. They matter in terms of their unique cultural and historical legacies. And they matter because different temperaments will be attracted to different aesthetics and styles of practice. This means each of us can find a path that suits us, and if we can’t find that path then we can absolutely create our own.
I founded the Consciousness Explorers Club as a way to explore exactly this pluralism. My friends James Maskalyk, Erin Oke, Avi Craimer, Jude Star, Kevin LaCroix, Tasha Schumann and others have been some of my fellow guides and explorers. The CEC is all about the empowerment side of practice – the idea of “being your own teacher” inside a supportive community of fellow practitioners and explorers, everyone sharing their own weird customized practices and learning how to guide each other.
This defiant DIY community spirit – part of the “democratization of mental health” – found inspiration for me in the philosophy and practices of “harm reduction” in the party scene, in the Mad Pride movement (also called the “Psychiatric Survivors Movement”), as well as the work of gay, trans and BIPOC activists to create their own systems of mental and emotional support outside of the mainstream.
You need a philosophy of difference if you want to successfully navigate any contemplative practice and scene. Too many teachers sell one-size-fits-all versions of practice to their credulous students. But no teacher is an expert on your nervous system.
I learned this first-hand in my early days as a practitioner, when again and again I would try to implement some reductive meditation instruction in my wild bipolar / ADHD nervous system (I’ve written a bit about my mental health struggles here and here). It didn’t always work out so well. I had to find ways to adapt the practices to fit my peculiar neuro-diverse situation. I also had to learn to pace myself.
For this, my Somatic Experiencing trauma training has been indispensable (thank you Berns Galloway and Peter Levine), as has my reading in trauma literature more broadly, as well as learning from Yogani over at AYPsite.com. I’m grateful to my friend Dan Harris and Ten Percent Happier (and now Calm) for giving me a forum for learning and talking about this, and I love that these apps feature different teachers and perspectives.
The notion of difference has also received an invigorating boost lately from POC teachers, who point to the “white-washing” that can happen in Buddhist practice communities, where a focus on some vague universal oneness can be used as a way to trivialize and marginalize the many challenges related to diversity and social justice. I’ve learned here from reading and teaching near Lama Rod Owens and Sebene Selassi.
I would not have made it through this life without the support of many healers, among them Diane Chung, Jan Winhall, Marlene Russell, Barb Ellias, and Laura McNeilly. This is also true of my writing community – Marni Jackson has been a great friend and writing mentor, as has Barbara Gowdy, and my friends Christine Pountney, Alayna Munce, Patricia Pearson, James Maskalyk, and Mary Albino, all of whom all hold it down in the writers-interested-in-how-to-be-human lineage.
A final note on the whole idea of service and passing it on: ultimately this lineage came from my mother, Susan Warren. Even as a semi-lapsed Christian, she has always been a good neighbour and a passionate contributor to many charitable causes. Thanks Mom! You are my greatest tradition. Dad is cool too.
No declaration of love and gratitude is complete without including my wife Sarah and my son Eden. They make it real.
Footnote 1: Why Acknowledgement is Important
It’s important personally, because it situates us in our life. We know where we are, by knowing where we came from and who inspired us. This orients us, the same way learning about our ancestors orients us and connects us to our larger human story.
It’s also important politically. Meditation is about learning to see some of the unconscious biases and distortions that happen in our minds and our behaviours – that cause us and others suffering – and no longer going along with them. This is part of waking up.
The same dynamic is true in mass society; we can collectively “wake up” and begin to see ways in which the whole culture has been acting unconsciously and causing suffering. One of these ways is cultural appropriation. For generations, dominant cultures have indiscriminately taken what they’ve wanted from other cultures, for the most part without acknowledgement or respect. This has caused a lot of pain: of being stereotyped, of being trivialized and marginalized and oppressed, of not being seen and respected. You may disagree with whether or not something is “appropriation,” but you cannot disagree with the suffering it has caused and still causes people.
I think we can mitigate some of this suffering by practicing appreciation instead of appropriation. We do this by acknowledging our influences, by offering respect to the contexts from which they emerged. And … this is not always easy to do in the polyglot 21st-century, when our influences are complex and overlapping!
Here’s a note about that:
Footnote 2: Why Acknowledgement is Complicated
It’s complicated because lineages are complicated. To give just one example, I want to acknowledge my debt to Buddhism – but, to which Buddhism?
I attended my first Buddhist meditation in my early 20s, at a Shambhala class in Montreal. I attended my first actual meditation retreat in my early 30s, at the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Scotland. Since then I have attended a large number of retreats from different Buddhist traditions and teachers and lineages, from Rinzai and Soto Zen, to Burmese-inspired vipassana, to more “American orthodox” style insight practices, to many others. For years I studied with Shinzen Young, who himself is a mongrel product of a number of lineages and teachers. I study with new people all the time, in and out of Buddhism.
It doesn’t help that Buddhism itself is a moving target – a dynamic living entity that morphs and adapts itself to different cultures and societies. The scholar David McMahan wrote a great book called The Making of Buddhist Modernism that shows how the meditation practices we think of as quintessentially “Buddhist” are actually cherry-picked from fringe Asian schools, which themselves had been deliberately re-worked by Asian teachers in response to their own readings of late 19th century Western mysticism.
So: who exactly are we acknowledging, when we acknowledge Buddhism? Everyone will answer this in their own way. For myself, I acknowledge the founder – Siddhattha Gotama – in every sit I do. I connect to him in my imagination, and through him, I visualize the various lineage energies flowing down to all the actual teachers I’ve met, who in their own ways have inspired and supported me. And then, at the end of each sit, I imagine passing it on, to everyone I know who might benefit from the teachings and the techniques. That’s one way to keep the whole thing dynamic and alive.
Thank you, patient reader, for being part of this lineage of exploration and love.