(This is a transcript of a podcast interview. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know.)
Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening, hardcore dharma, consciousness hacking, emptiness, and more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast. And in this episode, we’re gonna turn the usual host and interviewee tables around. Over the last year or so I’ve received a number of request to do an episode myself and I did attempt to do that actually a couple times but those efforts were a decimal failure. I am super interested in human interaction and what’s going on in another people’s minds and their opinions and so on. And it turns out that it just pontificating into the dry air in an empty studio. It was not inspiring for me and I was positive it would not be inspiring to listen to. So, I decided to go back to an interview format but with a wrinkle. I would have my friend, Erik Newton, interview me for the episode.
Erik is an interesting choice as well as an interesting human being. He is a lawyer that was the head of a very successful family law firm, which gave him the opportunity to take part in thousands and thousands of divorces. And as the result of his experience, two things happened. One, he created the wildly popular podcast entitled “Together” which explores quote the truth of human relationships unquote. And in that podcast, Erik uses his hard-won knowledge of the many failure modes of relationships to help couples understand how to come together. And the second thing that happened was that he experienced a profound spiritual awakening outside of any practice or tradition and that left him kind of floored for several years as he struggle to understand what had happened. And so, as someone with some understanding of awakening but who was also completely unfamiliar with the wisdom traditions, I thought Erik would be an ideal interviewer for this episode.
The interview we came up with is unusual and it covers a lot of ground and it’s exactly what I was hoping for. So, let me know what you think about it. And without further ado, here’s the episode that I call “Deconstruction Michael” with Erik Newton.
Erik: Michael Taft.
Michael: How is it going?
Erik: Welcome to your show.
Michael: Thanks Eric. Welcome to my show. [Laughs] This is an interesting experiment.
Erik: Yeah. You know, I love your show. It’s interesting… it’s nice to be back in the studio so thanks for inviting me.
Michael: It’s your studio, at least formerly.
Erik: Yeah. I feel like I’m the emeritus owner of the studio, you know, this was my studio and I have a deep attachment to it but it’s transitioning as all things do. [Laughs]
Michael: Yes, it has changed quite a bit since you’re here already.
Erik: Is it unfair to say that it’s falling apart a touch?
Michael: I would not venture to judge the change just to notice that it is in fact impermanent. Like all things.
Erik: Yes, it’s such a good metaphor. Yeah. So, I think it’s great to be back and it’s also nice to be on this end of the mic on your show because I listen to ever episode. We might even go so far as to say religiously [laughs].
Michael: Wow. Remember fan is short for for fanatic.
Erik: [Laughs] Yeah so thanks for having me here. So, you know, I thought it would be a good place to start by asking why the heck you do the show. I’m sure everybody thinks they know the answer but really, really why do you do the show?
Michael: There’s like kind of a multi-layered answer to that. One is that a couple of years ago I happened to be having this phone conversations with Kenneth Folk and the phone sessions, this talks we’ve had which were just like kind of friendly collegiate discussions were just so interesting and fun for both of us. And they went on for hours and hours and we were eventually like, why don’t we recording this? This is really interesting. Maybe other people would find it interesting. And so eventually, we did just that and you’ll notice that the first, you know, three programs are long conversations between me and Kenneth. And that was really the genesis or kind of the initial seed. But in addition to that, I’ve also just really wanted to have these conversations with various really fascinating teachers and philosophers and thinkers and human beings of other sorts. And so I thought, why stop here with these three conversations? Why not continue? because initially I thought maybe just put the three conversations up, you know, on YouTube or something and just have that paid out but honestly, once I kind of got the bid in my tears, I couldn’t stop making podcast. I just love doing it. And that’s another layer is that I just love this. These are the conversations I wanna have. It’s exciting to me, it’s interesting to me, and the fact that other people get something out of it is just gravy on that, you know. That’s wonderful and super stoop about that. And you know, it’s also my deep history, it’s my own background. I was the editorial director and the producer. It sounds true for a long time so interviewing spiritual teachers, editing the programs of spiritual teachers, thinking about what we might want to publish from spiritual teachers, all of that is my own kind of home based in a way. And so, coming back to it after a long while away just felt too good to stop [crosstalk].
Erik: You said that this is what you want to talk about. There’s something inside you that just keeps making this conversation interesting over and over. And at the same time, there’s something about this conversation that for me at least is like listening to a favorite song. You know, I get a lot of pleasure from listening to my favorite 80s love ballads [laughs].
Michael: This interview is now over.
Erik: [Laughs] That’s so true. I am cool to find myself with one sentence. [Laughs]
Erik: You know but it sound like it was just go to the sense of familiarity and the joy comes from that and also, you know, there’s the kind of a truth that I’m really hesitant to use that word ever in particularly on this show. But there’s a kind of truth that’s being expressed in the way that you approach this conversation about mindfulness and such. But you have had this conversation so many times and you’ve arrived at the same kind of answer so many times. Why are you continually fascinated by having it over and over.
Michael: Well, I’m not sure I agree with the characterization. I mean, I think that it’s rare that we ever reached any conclusion especially any firm conclusion. There’s like a lot of different potential conclusions or maybe places that one can land but I never feel like we actually firmly land in any of those especially if you listen to some of the podcast where the people I’m speaking with reached very, very different conclusions. And I’m kind of agreeing with both of them just to, you know, okay, let’s see where that person goes. And that leads to really the answer to your question which is, you know, awakening, enlightenment, meditation, spirituality, dharma, all of that, it is not a destination, right, and it’s not even really predictable even though many people claim it’s predictable. As far as I can tell, it’s much, much more like a journey or a practice of an art than it is like trying to get somewhere or trying to reach a foregoing conclusion. and in that sense, everyone especially, you know, you talked to the practitioners, they might understand the experience each other is having but their experience of it is so different that idiosyncratic vocabulary they have developed to their own to talk about it is completely fascinating and completely different.
Their sense of the journey… I mean, if I ever create a second podcast, I’m thinking of where we have like several spiritual teachers on here, like let’s say Shinzen and Culadasa talking to each other, you’ll have a sense of how completely different their ideas and concepts about the path are.
And so, it’s much more like talking to artist, it’s like talking to painters or something about the painting work they do. It’s a journey, it’s a practice. They have their own rich, deep relationship to it that’s about coming to it over and over again, day after day. You know how modern artist don’t talk so much about craft or so much about theory. They talk about their practice, you know, the thing that they do every day with the art. And so, it’s really related to that and to me to get in there, I mean, I just love getting inside of other people’s minds like, you know, what’s the most interesting kind of book? The most interesting kind of book in one way, you know, nonfiction, I wanna learn something but really, really the most interesting kind of book is a novel, very well-written novel. Why? Because you get inside somebody else’s head like fully, inhibit another consciousness or you have the feeling that you inhibit another consciousness and to me that’s always been I just love that and I enjoy doing that with for example, students or clients or whatever like part of being a teacher, being a good teacher is getting inside their head and understanding how they’re seeing and their worldview and then working with that worldview, you know. And so to me, it’s just like tremendously fascinating, fun, interesting, and I would say maybe endlessly fascinating, fun, and interesting to hear about like their practice here, about the worldview here, about and get inside the head of these amazing teachers.
Erik: Okay, that’s a great answer. Now you said something in that answer, you referenced the path. Everybody talks about the path in a different way. What the heck is with the path?
Michael: Well, that’s what I was trying to deconstruct. There is no the path that exist independent of all these practitioners who, you know, even though they’re using often some vocabulary that’s similar and mail post that are similar and so on, when you get in there and talk to them, it’s about as different as it could be, you know, that each of them has quite a unique take and many of them will insist that there is a sequence when there is a, you know, said path and all that. And okay, we can see similarities and we can talk about the systems and we can talk about maps and really focus on the similarities but I found every time it’s much more interesting to focus on the differences because that’s the really unique part of this, that’s where the beauty and the art.
Erik: But it is all a conversation about mindfulness, awakening, and enlightenment as you said at the outside. That’s the common thread here.
Michael: Yeah, whatever that means.
Erik: Yeah, whatever that means. Okay, great. [Laughter] Duly noted.
Michael: We could expand the definition to be pretty large.
Erik: I love having this conversation with you because you’ve had it so many times. You can’t be jiu-jitsued into a choke hold.
Michael: I probably can but so far you’re failing with your jiu jitsu powers.
Erik: Well, let me ask this question which is definitely not jiu jitsu. “Deconstructing Yourself,” how did you come up with the name?
Michael: So, you know, my main teacher for the last many years has been Shinzen Young and he’s a great teacher and we’ve had him on the show three times now, probably have him on a whole bunch more. He has so much to say. But he teaches a very complicated and highly effective but heavily frontloaded version of the past, version of mindfulness, right. There’s a lot to learn and the techniques are hard but once you put in the time to learn and do the techniques, most people find it’s worth it.
Erik: Just as a footnote, that’s a fascinating barrier to entry.
Erik: It must filter for a very specific kind of person.
Michael: It mainly filters for people who have a long-term practice already. So, they’ve got the basics down and they’re ready for something beyond the basics and also for people who are nerdy. It’s just a there’s a nerd factor that is very common thread. If you’re not into impromptu lectures on historical linguistics or some kind of abstract math, then you’re out.
Michael: Because there’s a lot of it.
Erik: Nerd, the superheroes of our age.
Michael: That’s right. Shinzen’s uniquely suited for the modern era. But in any case, I have now completely forgotten your question.
Erik: Deconstructing Yourself, how did you come up with the name? Yeah, it was Shinzen and I footnoted you.
Michael: So, one of the techniques that Shinzen teaches is a technique called “Focus In” and I think he has changed the name with it to something like Focus on Thoughts and Feelings, something like that and that’s an apt description. But basically, you are doing multi-channel vipassanā on thinking and feeling and you’re dividing thinking into mental images and mental talk, you’re dividing body sensations into regular type body sensations and emotional type body sensations. And then, you’re monitoring those four channels continuously, sometimes it’s three channels. But as I was doing that, you know, retreat after retreat, year after year, you know, what is this thing you’re focusing on this agglomeration of thought and feeling. I’m like, what is that? Well, that’s an ego. And what we’re doing is, you know, taking it apart and putting it back together and taking it apart and putting it back together, you’re just watching this deconstructing of self. And so, that phrase just came up in my mind one day and just landed this, oh this is what I’m doing, this is deconstructing myself. So, that’s where I got the name of the bug back in 2011 and continue to use that for the show.
Erik: Yeah. I love the idea of it because it’s almost as if what else would we do with ourselves all day anyway except for this process, you know, deconstructing yourself seems like the core and the most interesting thing to do.
Michael: Well, most of us are doing the episode, right? We’re reconstructing ourselves and trying to show up our previous reconstruction and all kinds of unsatisfactory and impermanent and ultimately few tile ways. However, that being said one of the most fascinating things to me is that if you get to a certain place in deconstruction, you get to a certain level of inside with emptiness where you get into a certain level of a not type experiences suddenly or maybe not so suddenly, it might take years but eventually reconstruction might become really, really interesting. All right. We’re taking everything back to, you know, the void, taking everything back to emptiness, you’re watching experience dissolve over and over again, watching the self-dissolve into spacious freedom over and over again, watching the world do that.
You do that enough and something really fascinating starts happening which is you start noticing the world coming back from them, the world reconstructing, and then the self-reconstructing back from that over and over again in this cycle of dissolving and reconstituting and falling apart and then falling back together. And that is a really, really fascinating dance and eventually I think it almost recreates like the history of Buddhism where in Theravada and Mahayana systems of Buddhism were focus on a knot, very focus on emptiness. But then after a while it becomes focused on reconstruction, like highly effective action in the world. And I see that as something that happened in the history of Buddhism but it also is kind of fractally recreated in the experience of individual practitioners where at a certain point, emptiness and form become equally interesting.
Erik: Yeah. I mean, at some point seems like instantly if you can observe this, that sounds like the most fascinating thing there is to observe.
Michael: Instantly or two years on a coach if you’re Erik Newton.
Erik: [Laughs] two years.
Michael: Right. Weren’t you just like hanging out an emptiness for like a couple years? Before reconstitution of form became more interesting.
Erik: Yeah, yeah, to varying degrees. One full month of absolutely no attachment to anything and just pure experience of business [laughs] and then be coming and going of that for a couple of years where I just couldn’t come in to myself to take any action. I just couldn’t [laughs] do anything except my podcast. I did host my podcast.
Michael: That’s effortless.
Erik: It was. Yeah. I trusted my procrastination, my procrastination about everything else. Yeah.
Michael: So, but you see it’s like there’s a while where it’s just… we’re just gonna hang out an emptiness, that’s the most interesting thing in the world. And then eventually, it started like, uh, the world keeps coming back.
Erik: Although I have to confess for me it was discomfort. It finally made me focus on the reconstitution bit.
Michael: And just because I can’t resist asking, you know, what about the emptiness of that discomfort?
Erik: Yeah. I mean, that’s the question, right? That’s definitely the place to look. But at the time that kept leading me to be more poor.
Erik: You know and I decided probably better for the sake of my relationship which was the one bit of many I could still attach to that I make some money.
Michael: Did you have any desire to [crosstalk].
Erik: Also I was really ready to die.
Erik: I mean I think I’ve told you that before, right? I was happy. I was, I mean, maybe I was clinically depressed [laughter] but I felt very happy. But I was also just become bored and I was just like, this is all fascinating and she might seen this played out so many times. And everything is perfect and everything is perfect. It’s really, really, everything really is truly perfect. If the Is-ness is complete and whole unto itself, then there’s nothing to fucking do.
Michael: Right. I don’t know if you are old enough to remember the Talking Heads song called “Heaven,” but the memorable refrain is that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. And that’s the exact idea, right? Of course, you know, in Buddhism we wouldn’t normally talk about heaven in relation to awakening. But that idea of, okay, the perfection in a moment it’s just already done. It’s already here and yet my heart keeps beating, stuff keeps happening. It seems like the two choices are like, well go, maybe hangout in a monastery somewhere forever or reengage with the world, start doing stuff again.
Erik: And also there’s a fallacy in the experience of heaven which is that it’s static. You know in the moment, it feels like it’s the totality of what is or it’s the fully big truth or something and also that it’s gonna be permanent but, you know, it’s actually the only way can be experience is through valance. And that valance require some suffering, you know, or an approximation of it. And so, this notion of heaven is the thing that we think the heaven is when we’re experiencing is actually just an elation.
Michael: Yeah, you know, check out the podcast, number three, right, where Kenneth Folk and I talk about the annihilation for an entire podcast. It’s… there’s something there, right? But the point you’re making is fascinating. To me, there’s again I just keep coming back to this historical understanding or perhaps misunderstanding, maybe it’s just a romantic notion but I think about, you know, at a high point of Buddhism in India, classical Buddhism in India where you’ve got this, you know, giant masses of practitioners working together in this big universities and stuff like. A lot of people are getting very awake to emptiness very early on their lives and at a certain point, there’s kind of a “what next” factor, you know, and that’s what they start getting into Vajrayana and into skillful action in the world in a really much more focused manner.
Erik: Yeah. It’s from that moment forward that things have gotten interesting for me. Yeah. It’s much more fascinating now. But that all brings me to a question for you. So, let’s get off on me because I’m far less interesting.
Michael: You didn’t notice me jujitsu flip the interview?
Erik: Look, I’m okay to be on the bottom part, on the mat a couple of times but well we got to get back to you, my friend. You walk this line in a really fascinating and skillful way between speaking to and coming from your own unique individual experience on the one hand and also being able to reference literature and other teachers on the other hand. And the reason I’m interested in that is usually people are in one or the other of these two caps. Either they’re talking only about the work of others and distancing themselves from their own experience or like me if they don’t know anything about anybody else’s work [laughs], I can only speak to their own experience and it seems like your balance is actually probably better and smarter. But how do you actually do that?
Michael: Yeah, thanks. It’s an interesting question for me. I think the answer is something really simple like because that’s just how I am. But to run with it a little further, you know, when I was a kid my parents bought me a full set of encyclopedias, right? And like that was back when we had books and I was said that encyclopedias took up like a whole wall of the house. And I like actually sat there and read those things.
Erik: All the way through?
Michael: Not all the way through but for my entire childhood and teen years, I literally read the encyclopedia and that’s always been kind of my mindset. I just like to read and I like to understand where things come from. I read a lot of history and philosophy and so on. And so, I’m able to make connections because of that that maybe other people aren’t. So but also I think, you know, there’s a downside to it which is it’s the broad, shallow version, right? I could connect it to a lot of different traditions and talk about a lot of different stuff but I also notice if I get in a Twitter conversation with someone like Jayarava who is a, you know, hardcore textual adept in the scriptures of Buddhism and so on. You know, there’s just nothing for me to say because, you know, this person know so much more than we about, the deep, deep, deep specifics of such and such a sutra.
Erik: And you know, help me out here with a none to all of those types of folks out there who may be listening to this, have great appreciation for their knowledge but I have to admit, you know, my normal identity-oriented way of being is to not pay very much attention to the academia or the scripture. And but there’s a value to it, right? I mean, speak to the value of it for me.
Michael: Well, you used to be lawyer [laughs]. You’re still a lawyer, right?
Erik: Used to is the operative concept here. [Laughs]
Michael: Yeah but I mean think about it like you want a lawyer to know what they’re talking about. If you go to a lawyer and understand all the precedents and all that and that’s what they’re for, right there we need specialist and everything. I’m beyond elated that elated that there’s people that have very deep scriptural knowledge or have very deep practice knowledge on their tradition that I don’t know that much about. I think some of us are just more about kind of making connections, cross connections, maybe having conversations. And again, it’s why even though I have my own practice and I really enjoy writing, I think that the podcast turns out to be one of the ideal forms for me because it is about connecting with people who are very deep into their own thing.
Erik: Well, I’m probably twisting your words here but it does seem like you maybe suggesting that scripture can get in the way of having an individual experience.
Michael: Yeah, I had no. [Laughs] I did not say that [Laughter]. I’m not against scripture at any way. I think it’s cool, you know, but I don’t give it any authority either. So-
Erik: What’s that distinction? Yeah, explain that distinction.
Michael: Well, to me it’s just obvious that everything is partially true which means everything is partially false to some degree or another. It could be a lot true and a little false, a lot of false and a little true. But either way, taking anything as The Truth is obviously problematic and broken. So to me, even just as a literature weirdo, as someone who, you know, my mom is a librarian, I was raised reading from the minute I was born. Probably if there’s anything I worship, it’s probably books. You know, just the fact that we have these writings from 2,500 years ago or probably more like 2,200 years ago, that to me is really, really interesting and the fact that there are people alive right now who study the crop out of that and become very, very adapt to interpreting and understanding those and all that is just a fascinating, beautiful, powerful thing and we can get a lot of wisdom out of it. And at the same time, I’m positive it is that the final truth.
So, it’s an interesting viewpoint and there’s a lot of interesting viewpoints and I’m most dedicated to understanding those viewpoints and at the same time, dedicated to not having any one of them be a permanent landing path.
Erik: Was there a time in your life when looking back you think of yourself as at that time having been a seeker?
Michael: Oh yeah, most of it.
Erik: Right. Okay. When that that shift?
Michael: Oh there’s a very particular time, you know, I definitely went through many, many years as a, you know, hardcore seeker if you ask me at that time what my life was about, it was about getting enlightened and that’s all I’m doing and I’m, you know, spending time underground meditating in India and going to Japan and attending zillions of retreats in the states and that was my identity really, you know. And while being fully aware even at the time of the problematic aspect of having an identity as a secret, it’s still I was like, yeah this is what I’m doing. And then, eventually even as my practice deepened, I still loves like, yeah this is what it’s about. And then, I went on a long retreat at the Insights Meditation Society facility called the Forest Refuge. I was there for a little over three months and, you know, there wasn’t any big event. It wasn’t like, oh my God, you know, I’m plugged in to God’s light socket or something. But when I came out of that retreat, I just wasn’t a seeker anymore. It just gone and it has not returned, you know.
Erik: What… I wanna understand that in a deeper way. So, let’s start with defining what is a seeker? I know I acknowledge I’m the one who ask the question but since you latch into it, what is a good definition of being a seeker?
Michael: Whether it’s good or not, the simplest one is a person who’s looking for awakening in a very earnest manner.
Erik: In one way or another, right? It doesn’t necessarily have to be any particular discipline.
Michael: Not any particular discipline but for me the definition includes “very earnest.”
Michael: It’s one of the top three or probably the most important thing they think they’re doing.
Erik: And so, when you came out of that three-month retreat, what component of that definition was lacking? What was absent?
Michael: I couldn’t find the motivation anymore. There was just no more sense of that drive to find awakening. It was just like it had completely dissolved and the identity of being someone who was looking for awakening, I couldn’t find that either. It was just not there.
Michael: And so, when you’re hungry, you’re hungry and when you’re not, it’s just like this fact, you don’t sit there and think about like, oh my hunger is gone now. Where did it go? It was very similar to that. It was just like this weird fact that seeker thing was just not there.
Erik: Except the hunger will come back and this-
Michael: Different hunger, you know, hunger for other stuff in a different way. It’s much harder to constituted an identity around it however.
Erik: Yeah. So, the earnestness was gone because there was nothing more to seek.
Michael: And you know, I didn’t say the earnestness was gone. To me, it’s still like the most interesting thing in the world to talk about this stuff and to practice it and be around people who do that but that core thing of I’m earnest about it because I want to be enlightened was just dissolved, you know. It’s very strangely vanished and like I said most of slipped quietly out the backdoor because there wasn’t a big moment of it like living, you know, in a half or something about the front door.
Erik: What else vanished with it?
Michael: A lot had already vanished before that, in the years before that even since my mid 20’s. A lot had vanished over time and I think that identity of being someone who’s seeking or being a seeker was one of the last, not the last but one of the last big kind of lumps of undigested selfhood that got digested in that retreat.
Erik: Yeah, it’s interesting how it happened to you over a long course of time. [Crosstalk]
Michael: I’m particularly dense. It took a long-ass time.
Erik: You worked so hard at it, you know, and I really admire that. And also what a fun experience, all retreats in India? Give me a break right now. What a great life that was.
Michael: I’ve had a great time. That’s for sure. I’ve been to a lot of interesting places.
Erik: And so now that you’re not seeking, you enjoyed talking, is there something that needs to be done that you’re doing that feels important?
Michael: Absolutely. I mean, I keep coming back to kind of a layer cake of things that are important that used to seem kind of separate or more separate and now have come together in my mind very clearly as a stacked thing that is important and it has to do with the absolute apocalyptic distraction of the natural environment. And the unbearable and horrific oppression of human beings and animals and the way that any kind of opening up could relieve or help that. I think that we are in a much more precipitously declining situation and people really understand and that our need to do something about it is acute. It’s time to take action in the world as far as I’m concerned. And I think that awakening can really, really help with that in a number of very direct ways. And so-
Erik: Awakening for the people out there in the world can help with that on a global scale.
Michael: Particularly people and places of power, people in positions of wealth or power, having some kind of even hint of awakening is crucial at this moment because it’s going to change their relationship to their power and money. And hopefully, change their actions in the world.
Erik: By way of asking more about that specifically, let me go a little bit, how do you relate to the notion of mattering this whether things matter or don’t matter?
Michael: Yeah. So, as we talked about in one way, we can just relax into perfect emptiness or nirvana or inaugural state in a way nothing matters at that point. Part of the definition is that in that moment maybe nothing matters although I would say that at least in a lot of Buddhist philosophy, other people suffering still should matter. We can get into the new answers of that but in a rough way let’s just say in the non-dual awakening place, right in the moment of that, if you really go to the nth degree of that, it’s possible that nothing matters. And yet coming back into the world that all meaning getting up to walk, being able to negotiate a rooms so you don’t bump another wall, etc. like having enough ego to not get hit by a car as Suzuki Roshi used to say, that’s enough of an ego to have a lot matter to have a real sense that other people suffering is incredibly important, your own suffering is important, suffering of others is very important, and also the suffering of animals in the natural world is important.
I mean, the minute you come back into duality at all, there’s something to do as far as I’m concerned and I mean that’s personal to me. I don’t put that to another people so much. I think it’s interesting to hear what they have to say about it and I don’t feel super judgmental about it but I do feel that, again, this is about reconstruction, reconstitution, total deconstruction, total dissolution, you come back from that. It’s interesting but it’s also in my opinion an incumbent I mean not only to have that be interesting but to continuously strive and I’m consciously using that term strive with effort to make a better self-arise, a self that is more concerned about others, a self that is more concerned about the world, and that demonstrates that concern in very skillful ways, and then you can go home and sit on your cushion and let go of that for a while completely.
Erik: Yeah. Does it hurt?
Michael: What it are you referring to?
Erik: Being present to anything that’s not right, being present to the suffering of others, being present to the potential and impeding destruction of our natural environment, being aware that that’s the case and, you know, holding this balance between everything being perfect and nothing mattering and being identified with it. It’s a problem.
Michael: Well, to a certain degree to have anything matter at all means that there are some suffering involved, right? I mean, those two things go together and you just use the important operative term which is balance. And so, it’s not the case that being more concerned in a way that carries you up more with anxiety and fury and despair is gonna help anybody, right? It’s not helping you, it’s not really helping anybody. So, there needs to be again a skillful relationship between caring and taking action and also being able to let some of that passed through you without, you know, creating damage. You wanna have it be sustainable.
Erik: Right. This is my game too and I don’t really know how other people play this game or the best way to play it. What I try to do and I’m curious if this is what you do also in order to become more skillful is I work to become more and more and more aware of illusion that I’m engaging with as an illusion even though I choose to engage with it.
Michael: Yeah, you’re saying it’s emptiness in the moment and then that’s exactly how you do it. You engage and you engage with a lot of sincerity and effort and at the same time or let’s say switching back and forth quickly because it probably can’t literally be at the same time but you notice the emptiness of it and let is just passed through you as a wind or whatever before going back to engaging.
Erik: And it only works if you play it fully, you know, I find for me, I have to fully invest myself in the experience when I’m invested I think.
Michael: Well, this is what so fascinating, right? It’s not that you’re like a disengaged, disembodied, floating, you know, being that nothing ever really bothers and you can just take this like sweeping skillful actions that bless everybody. That’s kind of a culture or fantasy we have that you’re gonna become sort of like the empowered version of a bliss ninny or something. And it’s totally not like that.
Erik: Bliss ninny?
Erik: That is such a great phrase.
Michael: Yeah. You’ve never heard that?
Erik: [Laughs] I’ve never. Okay. Yeah, the empowered version of bliss ninny. Yeah, it doesn’t exist. Yeah.
Michael: Right. I mean, I talked to a lot of awakened people, a lot and they all have problems and shoot that bugs them and stuff they’re working to do and you know, and I don’t see that as somehow like a flawed their awakening. I mean, I see it is absolutely beautiful expression of their humanity shining through their awakening, right? It’s both of those things together.
Erik: Yeah, it’s the essence of existence.
Michael: This is just something I was noticing today. It’s kind of cracked me up. I was noticing on Twitter, you know, I have a number of followers that come from the podcast or my teaching or whatever and I noticed if I make a statement on Twitter that is like I’m having a bad day or something really bugs me and I’m being like kind of not be bliss in any version of an awakened person. I lose dozens of followers like immediately. I’ll make that post and dozens have just dropped off like and maybe I misinterpret it or over interpreting it or whatever but is just cracks me up because it’s like wow, those people really expect that if you’re a meditation teacher, you don’t have feelings or something.
Erik: Yeah, you know, we didn’t mention this about the podcast that I’ve hosted for so long is about relationships.
Michael: Your very famous podcast, yes.
Erik: And some-
Erik: Thanks for plugging. The point I’m trying to get to is that I have listeners who think I must be perfect in my romantic relationship.
Michael: Yeah, you don’t have any problems with your partner.
Erik: Yeah. You know, I’m a guru or something and I’m really allergic to relationship gurus who express themselves in that way. And what I’m trying to do in that context is incorporate the challenge into the insight. From my perspective, the whole, the only way to approach relationship is to acknowledge that you are gonna hate your partner sometimes [laughter] and that it’s often gonna be because you’re being a dope no matter how well you know this skills.
Erik: And I found the same thing on Twitter. If I would ever talk about a challenge I was having, I would lose followers. If I ever talk about how perfectly blissful I was, I might gain a few. But both of those made me feel someone noxious. So, I’m trying to find this middle ground and I don’t know, I may be achieved it two or three before I just shut off Twitter.
Michael: Yeah and that’s the thing. It’s like it’s not like I care so much about how many followers I have. In fact, oftentimes I’m like, uh, let’s see how many I can lose today by just telling the truth [laughs].
Erik: But I mean, obviously it’s not about how many you have but this is a barometer for how communication is landing in the public’s sphere. And then for me, that gives me a sense of how to calibrate my approach to help.
Michael: Yeah. If you heard the podcast with Daniel Ingram, the second one where we were talking about teachers and teaching. I’ve talked about how I very consciously try to pop any bubbles of projection because even though bubbles of projection can really be skillful teaching tools and in another way, they just tend to lead to difficulties and complications and non-optimal teaching outcomes. and so, I just kind of cut with the chase and popped the bubble and if I’m teaching, I’ll just drop F-bombs right away or I don’t know, scratch my armpit or something and it’s amazing because it’s just like an instant popping of the bubble and sort of switching the gears into a different kind of relationship.
Michael: And it’s interesting though you just see over and over again how the dynamics of human interaction make it so that the world will reward you for pretending to be perfectly awake or the world will reward you for pretending that never have a problem with your relationship and in fact the more you do that, the more the world will reward you and yet that is just nonsense. It’s completely a lie.
Erik: And ultimately it’s a dead end.
Michael: It’s a dead end and it’s false.
Erik: Yeah. Well, let’s turn to a new topic. You wrote this article that I scanned briefly. Apparently, it’s getting some traction, some little controversy and if I understand you basically this article just try to create a really simple to sync definition of awakening. Is that about right?
Michael: That was the attempt, yes.
Erik: And how did you define it?
Michael: It’s a big question and we’d have to go into the whole article to answer that really but the short version is that I’m looking at non-dual awakening from the perspective of an organism who is creating representations in its brain via the signals that are going through its senses and that when you redefine awakening to be the understanding that the feeling you have of being you and the sense you have over the world being real are fabrications as we would say in Buddhism or representations in sensory awareness that are being created by the brain. It’s just too much more so sync way to understand awakening and also to instantly cut through a tremendous amount of let’s just say mythological and traditional and religious elements and teachings around that. And I’m fine. I’m not saying those are wrong or not true but for a modern Westerner who is whether they realize it or not probably raised as science is the truth. This is a very science-y way to understand it.
Erik: Yeah. And you know, one thing I really love about your approach to the response you’ve been getting is that you really get your critics on this one. You can really empathize with them.
Michael: I was one of them. I mean, I’ve certainly been involved in mysticism and spirituality to the nth degree or I mean, you know, I can do a perfectly adequate Vedic astrology reading for you if you wish. You know, I can read your tarot and do a good job, you know.
Erik: We should do that. I love that my tarot read some time.
Michael: I’ve gone there as far as you can go like that’s my background, so I deeply understand the critics but I also from that background understand what is to be gained by just sitting that aside for a minute and trying to look from this very different perspective. And what it is to be gained is a lot.
Erik: Well to me, the favor of explaining your critic’s perspective, I can take it for a moment and let’s hear it.
Michael: Well especially if you’re coming from the Advaita tradition like a typical non-dual tradition, the perspective I have is a dualistic perspective, right? I’m talking about an organism from a third-person kind of objective viewpoint and it’s already dualistic. And so, it’s already coming from the view of science and dualism as being somehow real. And if you notice in the article though I do keep saying and I used the word probably a lot.
Erik: Yeah you do.
Michael: And I’m doing that because I never wanna shut the door on this other stuff but just say just for now let’s look from this scientific dualistic objective perspective at how organisms are wired and think about the fact that your sense of yourself and the sense of the world around you is a representation in your brain. And suddenly all of awakening can be understood as seeing that representation. And when you then take that realization which by the way is just as powerful, just as real as getting there from this other paths, a lot becomes very, very, very clear very suddenly. And then after that, as far as I’m concerned if you wanna go back into the traditional ways of understanding or this Advaita ways of talking about it, great, you know. Go there but for me in a way I’m kind of a practical person. My favorite thing is working with my students and getting in there and helping them wake up. And I found that this particular way of working is just somehow clicks for Western minds.
Erik: Yeah, it does speak to the Western mind and, you know, it’s something you said earlier is that you’ve identified that we’re on the precipice of some real danger here and that one way to step back from that precipice is to have more awakening around us.
Michael: That’s right.
Erik: And so I can imagine you using to some of your critics like, guys, I get the criticism but let’s try this. Let’s try this a little bit because it might have some good practical impact.
Michael: Yeah and to me, if we’re into just the agile thing of the relief of suffering, you know, maybe this helps more people, you know. There were people with the Western mindset or whatever. So, just in a practical sense or we could say a upaya like skillful action. Maybe it’s really helpful. That was my hope in writing it. Also, back to the point about the world being in a rough place would definitely is. This is one of the reasons I’m so open to and excited to, you know, new technologies that are evolving that might help us to actually technological intervention to help people wake up and agile technologies like, you know, various molecules, various plants that help people wake up. That’s always been part of the path, the plant versions, the molecule versions have always been part of the path of human awakening for most of the world. It hasn’t necessarily been part of Buddhism but at this point I’m like, hey we have to take whatever shortcuts we can find if that really helps people to care more about each other and the world.
Erik: I don’t know exactly where you stand on the technological approaches. You’re definitely interested in them. You interviewed people who are experts on those areas. On the other hand I’ve heard you say to me personally like, you know, be careful with those. They can be quite dangerous and kind of productive. So, what is your current thinking on that realm?
Michael: I’ve been involved in what we would now call brain hacking sense, you know. In the 80’s, I was really interested in the blinky light, eye mask things they had back then that would, you know. I have LEDs flashing at the frequency of data brainwave states or alpha or brainwave.
Erik: Do those work?
Michael: Yeah a little bit, you know, they were interesting. I love that the 1950’s version of the Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs brain machine, their dream machine as they called it which uses like just analog technology to do something similar. And in fact one time, in bolder I got to hang out with William S. Burroughs and talked to him about like his, you know, like dream machine versus this blinky light machines and it was a very beautiful human. It was wonderful to talk to him. So, it’s always been interesting but it’s also something that from way back then I just noticed most of them don’t really deliver like they do something and it’s interesting but it’s limited especially those who are working just on the principle of kind of in training you into a certain frequency, brainwave frequency and you just get used to it very quickly and it stops having the effect.
These days, people are doing much more intense interventions and a lot of them aren’t so passive. They’re pretty intrusive or invasive and we just don’t know that much about it. I mean, that’s funny with psychedelics or plans or whatever, we’ve been doing that since the beginning of time. And so, the upsides and, you know, important downsides are well-known to us. But with the technology, we don’t know the upsides and the downsides that well yet especially we’re not very aware of the downsides. So, I just would caution people to trade lately there and we don’t wanna harm anybody and at the same time it’s a very powerful and interesting area of study. I mean, we’re getting, you know, new technology that’s trying everything. We’ve got transcranial magnetic stimulation stuff. We’ve got people just electrically zapping their brains.
Erik: I’ve done that.
Michael: Yeah. I bet you know. [Laughter] And there’s a whole bunch of them and some of them have real drop box, you know. Some of these devices are actually not that good for you and other ones that I’ve used specifically train you out of meditation. There’s supposed to be meditation trainer, you know, brain machines but if you go deeper than like day one of meditation, it starts to train you out of a concentrated, relaxed state.
Erik: Well, but here you are again like, you know, you’ve just given us all the warnings but so where should we move forward?
Michael: Well, I think that there’s always been the case with new technologies like think about the first people who tried out cars, you know, especially race car drivers back in like the teens and 20’s over the last century, they’re willing to just wipe out it and or the people who tried out all the crazy stuff with airplanes just to laugh to that. They were willing to break their bones and, you know.
Erik: And die.
Michael: And die ’til try it out. So, there will always be people like that but eventually we want a zero in on, you know, helpful, useful, powerful technology that’s not dangerous or, you know, that we can manage the danger.
Erik: Is there any one technology that you think is pretty well, you know, safe?
Michael: Most of the ones that are safe don’t do anything that interesting in my opinion [laughs]. So, we’re not there yet.
Erik: Okay, we’re not there yet. It’s interesting area of exploration.
Michael: Yeah. If I had to choose between, you know, like the molecular direction and the machine direction right now, it’s… I’m a 100 percent of the molecular direction.
Erik: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re sort of the early adopter stage with the machine direction. So-
Michael: Yeah. I have very high hopes but it’s a little too early.
Erik: Yeah. All right. Okay, fair enough. Okay but this was all a tangent from this question of, you know, how can we I guess accelerate the process so that we don’t step over the brink here as a society?
Michael: Another thing that’s accelerating the process is communication technology. I mean, the amount of information available about how to meditate, how to awakened, today it feels like it’s infinitely more which it’s not but it has that feeling of unbelievably a lot more than let’s say when I was a kid in Michigan in the 70’s, you know, there just wasn’t that much available and now it’s all available.
Erik: It’s all available, all of it and that might be the answer to this question but I’ve noticed an acceleration of awakening around me, you know, the little experience that I had at one point in our human history would have been quite extra-ordinary. And now, that was a pretty common place actually [laughter] nothing all that special about what I went through.
Michael: Well, it’s really funny if you go back to, you know, the early Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha would give a sermon and like 400 people would get enlightened on the spot.
Erik: Boom, boom, boom, boom.
Michael: Now, we can call that mythology or some kind of hagiography or whatever but what if it’s just true and it’s like not that hard if someone is speaking your language? You know, it’s interesting to think that we’ve been, you know, hearing all these stuff and translation for so long and with what’s a teacher aware of our culture and so on and slowly we’re adapting this material to our culture and some stuffs gets lost but other stuff suddenly gets a lot, lot clearer. It’s really interesting to listen to kind of talk about when he was in Burma and the way like even the cab driver understood the four levels of Theravada awakening and they all knew where he was at. They’re like, hey I heard you hit the third level, you know, as they’re driving [crosstalk].
Erik: That’s so great.
Michael: They had just totally normalized it.
Erik: Oh man, that’s so good.
Michael: I think that maybe our culture is slowly moving in that direction of normalizing this.
Erik: Yeah. I mean, we normalize indoor plumbing, why not awakening?
Erik: You know.
Michael: I like them both.
Erik: [Laughs] I’m telling with both of those things, you know. Food too. What’s the thing that makes you tickle inside when you think about it?
Michael: You know, I really love working with people. It’s super fun to hear how they’re doing and get inside their experience and just see the awakening growing bit by bit. It is so fascinating and beautiful.
Erik: Okay. So following that analogy or seeing the awakening grow bit by bit, maybe it’s like an amber. Yeah. Do you see yourself as somebody who’s maybe blowing on an ember just to touch or are you more just witnessing the ember?
Michael: Something in between. It’s like, oh yeah no, don’t pull in that ditch, let’s go this other way just a little bit. Oh yeah, I know that’s really cool but that’s kind of distraction. Let’s keep going this away. Just kind of nudging, nudging, nudging in a lightest way like in the direction. So, it’s not really fanning the flame in your metaphor but kind of like, oh you know, I’ve been on this path. Let’s just stay on track here a little bit.
Erik: Can you do that in a group setting? I know you work one on one with people which is gonna be really fun.
Michael: It’s different in a group setting because you’re not just attending into one person’s, you know, consciousness or one person’s psychology. And so it’s harder because you have to be more general but in another way it’s easier because, you know, human beings are group creatures and if you get the group focused in a positive direction, focused in the right direction, everyone can move forward really powerfully.
Erik: Yeah, which, you know, having that coalesced is an interesting process. We’re doing that right now, you know. I’m an at start-up now and I brought you into be our meditation teacher once a week, the start-up.
Michael: It’s so much fun.
Erik: [Laughs] It’s there there, great group of guys, all guys.
Michael: They inspired me to get my second giant screen out of storage and set up my computer now with two screens instead just one.
Erik: Yeah because that’s how they roll.
Erik: And some of them have three. Did you notice?
Michael: I did.
Erik: They’ve got three screens. [Laughter] A big ones but none of them are seekers. They were all interested. Oh yeah, meditation class. That would be cool, we’ll do that. And now, they’re diligently practicing week by week, day by day but they weren’t trying to become awakened, you know. In fact, they probably had never ever even thought about that as an idea or a possibility and it’s almost… in this way, it’s almost easier to a get a group of seekers to start coalescing around the process because, you know, that the seekingness is what sort of sticks them together. It’s the glue that binds [crosstalk].
Michael: And they’re inherently motivated.
Erik: That’s the phrase I’m looking for. Yeah. With these guys, it’s different, you know, they’re interested but you’ve got to approach them in a completely different way.
Michael: And it’s in a way that I really like. I mean, that’s why I wrote The Mindful Geek because I like talking to people who aren’t seekers and aren’t intrinsically motivated towards awakening and probably don’t even care about that because there’s a whole other thing that’s possible of just well, let’s look at moving in a direction where we’re getting some traction and getting some benefits out of this and start to notice what goes on.
Erik: But the early stages are harder, right?
Michael: In a way but in another way they’re easier because that type of group of people are not coming at it with a ton of preconceptions.
Michael: So, there’s a beginner’s mind which is really, really fresh and fascinating.
Erik: I mean, they’re definitely a beginner’s mind about it unrepentantly and unconsciously. But how do you get them to stick around long enough? Like these guys are sticking around for some reason. I don’t know maybe because I remind them every week. But what is the glue that binds them into staying and continuing?
Michael: I don’t know. I just try to again understand where people are coming from and see what they’re goals and motivations are, what they care about, and then talk to that because things like concentration, you know, let’s talk about concentration, that’s something that if you use it correctly is useful to any person. There’s nothing you do that concentration can’t help you do better. And so, okay, it doesn’t have to be concentrating on, you know, emptiness right now. Let’s just concentrating, be better at it or sensory clarity, hey you wanna enjoy your meal today? Let’s talk about sensory clarity, right? So, just figure out what people care about and it turns out that meditation can help them be better with that and, you know, the critic that classicist can have of that approach is that it leaves out a lot of the ethical component. But I do trust that the ethical component comes along with it. You know, the more that you learned concentration, clarity, equanimity, you know, these core skills of meditation, the more that you begin to contact your connection with other people, other animals, and open up with more sensitivity. So, I trust the process.
Erik: Yeah, I trust the process. And so, these guys you’re coming to with no preconceived notions, with no hope or maybe even awareness of an idea of awakening and yet if they practice diligently, they’re going to start to see parts of their identity begin to deconstruct.
Erik: And what happens, what happens to people who aren’t looking forward on that begins to occur?
Michael: Anything can happen, you know. It can be positive, it can be negative, it can be both, it can be neither, I mean a lot could happen but the main thing is that if you’re with the competent guy, you know, they’re gonna help you with that. But what I think is the most fascinating is what… if we just generalize in a way that might be reductive, what do you Silicon Valley, you know, teenage, bitcoin millionaire coders care about? Right. They’re gonna care about being really highly effective. many of them expressed to me the desire to connect better with other people because to be that good at coding, you might be a little a bit on the spectrum or, you know, spend a lot of time alone in the room so they wanna connect with others better. And also, there’s this some kind of understanding I found throughout the culture of Silicon Valley and this has been on the DNA of the Silicon Valley culture since the beginning which is the sort of notion of let’s say deep flow states or kind of like pick states. And in the early version, it would be altered states, subconsciousness, you’ve got the very well-known history of all the early pioneers in Silicon Valley being into psychedelics, into Yoga, you know, in a deep way into meditation.
So, there is some kind of understanding of that kicking around the culture. And so, okay, you want to learn to be in flow states with concentration, you wanna learn to connect with others with metta practice, you wanna learn to be in altered states of consciousness whether it’s a burning man or whether it’s, you know, in your coding each day or maybe in the woods just hanging out for a walk on Mount Tam or something. All of those goals can be addressed through meditation. And so, it’s not necessarily that I’m trying to sneak some kind of awakening in that, you know, it’s like, no, they’re legitimate goals can be legitimately address using meditative skills. And if they start to go deeper and further, I can work with that with them also.
Erik: Or skillfully guide them to put the practice down if they want to.
Michael: You bet or like back off.
Erik: Or back off.
Michael: You know, like take the foot off the gas pedal a little bit.
Erik: Yeah. I mean, it’s been great having you in there. There’s just a deeper sense of presence in the room now since we’ve been practicing with you.
Erik: So, thank you. Michael, this is great. I mean, really what an honor to be on your show, my favorite show.
Erik: What a pleasure to be back in the studio, my old stomping grounds. And just what a joy to talk to you.
Michael: Thank you so much for agreeing to do the interview and bringing your massive interview skills to this little recording. And you know, I love this studio so thanks for that as well.
Erik: 100 percent.
Michael: That’s it for this episode of Deconstructing Yourself. If you enjoy the podcast, please rate and review it on iTunes. You can also recommend it to a friend or plug about it on social media. Doing that helps it find its way to more people who may be interested. If you’re motivated to support the podcast, you can do that by contributing to the production cost on my Patreon page. That’s at patreon.com/michaeltaft. The money goes to support the recording, production, and bandwidth cost with this program which are substantial. By contributing to Patreon, you’re making it possible for me to continue to create and share this conversations each month. And there are some cool perks for high level contributors. I really appreciate your support.
If you’re interested in one on one personal coaching for your meditation practice and for your life especially if you have an interest in secular dharma, neuroscience high performance, and awakening, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
Music on the Deconstructing Yourself Podcast is a track by Peter Baumann entitled ‘Crossing the Abyss’ from his album ‘Machines of Desire’. Thank you for listening.