I would not be teaching meditation if not for Asian cultures. There would be no meditation apps, no secular mindfulness, no Consciousness Explorers Club. They made it all possible. Below I pay respect to these and other lineages, roughly in the order they landed in my life.
But first …
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, ie, to the larger community of humans around us. Part of meditation is 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. Or at least trying to no longer go along with them!
Well 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. Dominant cultures have always taken what they’ve wanted from other cultures. This caused and still causes a lot of pain: of being stereotyped, of being trivialized and exploited and plundered, of not being understood and respected. You may disagree with whether or not something in particular is “appropriation,” but you can’t disagree with the unhappiness it leads to.
I think we can mitigate some of this by practicing appreciation instead of appropriation. We do this by acknowledging our influences, and by offering attention and respect to the contexts from which they emerged. Most of us suck at this, myself included.
Here’s me trying to get better at it:
First Lineage: Mystery
Whoa, 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 belongs to every human who ever wondered what it was all about.
Second Lineage: Exploring Consciousness
Whoa, I can explore this existence! Not just by rooting around the external world, but also by turning around and exploring my own mind. So as a kid I experimented with visualizing infinity. As a teen I practised lucid dreaming. As a college student I, er, got high. A lot. No regrets!
Eventually I got into the science of consciousness. An early influential book for me was Charles Tart’s Altered States of Consciousness anthology, which came out in 1969. Tart helped popularize the understanding that consciousness changes, and that we can explore different states. Hypnosis, meditation, dreaming, psychedelics – all of these were discussed in this single volume.
So that’s what I got obsessed about next. In in my early thirties I published my own book about all this – about sleep and dreaming and hypnosis and blah blah blah and called it The Head Trip.
Thus my second debt of gratitude goes to all those explorers and scientists and autodidact weirdos who have deliberately tried to explore their own minds and then bore all their friends about it.
Third Lineage: Buddhism and the End of Suffering
Whoa, maybe this exploring can help me be less messed up! For most of the 20th century, the bulk of the scientific research on consciousness had focused on either external behaviour, or objective brain activity. Subjective experience was considered unreliable and unquantifiable. When I began writing Head Trip, this had begun to change – “first person approaches” were suddenly all the rage.
The question researchers were asking was: how to go about this rigorously? Who can we look to for expertise and insight?
Enter: Buddhist thinkers and practitioners, the new stars of the consciousness conferences that I had begun attending as a journalist. Not only did these meditators have brilliant scholarly models for understanding consciousness, they themselves had first-person experience with a range of fascinating states and mental phenomena that most Western researchers had hardly heard of. Hence: monks in labs, festooned with electrodes.
I was hooked, and not just on the nascent science. I began attending meditation retreats, studying with different Buddhist schools and teachers. I figured out that my real interest in consciousness wasn’t actually academic at all – it was personal. I was in agony! My mind had twisted me in knots, and now the simple act of getting still had begun to help me. I say “begun” because my mind immediately over-complicated meditation, and turned it into a whole thing that I’ve had to spent 20 years unwinding my way out of. So it goes with having a mind.
Buddhist techniques showed me one way to more peace and connection, and Buddhism in general gave me a beautiful and still influential personal framework for understanding my experience. You could say that Buddhism showed me what was possible. You never stop feeling grateful for that.
My third debt of gratitude goes to the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, that wandering forest rascal who worked out a systemic approach to all of this (some thoughts on the complexity of lineages here).
Fourth Lineage: Mindfulness and Shinzen Young
Except … I’m still messed up! I keep going to these retreats, and although I’m suffering less in some ways, in other ways I’m still suffering. Maybe part of this is I’m finding it hard to relate certain Buddhist concepts – like “dependent origination” or “karma” or “the skandhas” – to my own experience. Especially this whole ridiculous idea of “enlightenment.” I don’t understand how enlightenment can possibly be true, given my humanistic education, which basically considers the whole idea of getting saved to be religious wish-fulfillment. I needed a model for thinking about spiritual development that my way too literal over-thinking brain can relate to.
Enter Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young. A geeky contemplative neuroscience consultant from Los Angeles, Shinzen was initially ordained in Japanese Vajrayana, and then influenced by S.N. Goenka’s style of vipassana, by Sasaki Roshi’s style of Zen, and by perennial mystical philosophy more generally.
Not only did Shinzen have a whole jungle gym of fascinating meditations to explore, he was / is also a brilliant translator of Asian ideas and languages. 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, 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. Shinzen has thought clearly about so much in meditation and life – you can ask him anything, and he will eventually take it back to the rich phenomenology of our lived experience, rarely 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.
My fourth debt of gratitude goes to Shinzen Young, and my friends 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. Seriously – don’t read it. I have a problem with over-writing.
More Lineages: The Democratization of Mental Health
Uh, is there an overarching theme here? As a matter of fact, yes there is, so happy you asked! What I’m really interested in, is how to help every human on the planet find their way to their own supportive practice (and, perhaps, practice community), on their own terms, in their own defiantly weird and idiosyncratic way. This is the true democratization of mental health.
In order to make genuine progress here, then you need to understand what is separate, and what is distinct. Meaning: what mind-body dynamics are true for everyone, and which are unique to the individual? Based on this, are there any common interventions and practices that everyone should know about? And if there are, how do we customize these practices to meet the needs of the beautiful neuro-diverse population of humans? Can we do this without getting all Disney self-help prescriptive (shudder), or boringly social science reductive, or sending people down a religious rabbit-hole? Because there are existential consent issues here. No one likes having a worldview crammed down their craw – any worldview.
The tricky thing is, we need some religious insights. Religious and mystical traditions are the home of deep psychology. For thousands of years, in very different ways, they have pointed us to a profoundly different kind of relationship with reality – to a bigger big picture, one that is very healing. This has to be part of any informed discussion on the future of mental health.
Here are other lineages and individuals that have shaped my thinking (and experiencing) around all of this.
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 my interest in 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.
The body is also something everyone shares. The physical practice of yoga was my initial way into the wisdom of embodiment, and has helped to get me out of my head. 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 a lot 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, nature is their way into understanding “oneness” and inter-connectivity. The past 10 years I’ve had the privilege of exploring “the ecological self” / “deep ecology” alongside friends Paul Wapner, Kritee Kanko, David Abram, and other passionate scientists and educators over at Earth Love Go and the Lama Foundation. Countless personal ceremonies and journeys have bolstered this view.
Another over-arching passion is the whole idea of practice and its many creative expressions and manifestations. A practice is any activity or way of being that we engage in regularly and deliberately. Although there’s a lot of diversity here, there also seems 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.
I am particularly keen on the skill of 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. Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism has one overview on this. 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 friends at Ten Percent Happier and 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 personally learned a lot here from Lama Rod Owens and Sebene Selassie.
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 too).
No declaration of love and gratitude is complete without including my wife Sarah and my son Eden. They make it real.
Footnote : On the Complexity of Lineages
Acknowledgment is not always a straight-forward thing to do in the polyglot 21st-century, when our influences are complex and overlapping. To give just one example, I want to acknowledge my huge 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, inside and outside 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 fine book called The Making of Buddhist Modernism that shows how the meditation practices we think of as quintessentially “Buddhist” are actually cherry-picked from select 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. And sorry for all the words.