The following is a transcript of this podcast episode:
Michael: Hello and welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening, and much more. My name is Michael Taft and I’m a mindfulness coach, a meditation teacher, and an author, and I’ll be your host on this podcast.
This episode is the third in a series of conversations with my friend and fellow meditation teacher, Kenneth Folk. If you want to learn more about Kenneth, go to his site, KennethFolkDharma.com, or listen to the introduction we make of him in the very first session of this podcast. In this third session of Deconstructing Yourself, Kenneth and I feel the power of the dark side; we talk about nirvāṇa; we deconstruct the whole concept of nirvāṇa; we dive deep into the reality of death, look at the denial of death, and probably scare away all listeners.
And with that, let’s wade into the session that I like to call Masters of Oblivion.
Michael: So good morning, Kenneth. Here we are on a nice Sunday morning in different parts of the world.
Kenneth: Good morning, Michael.
Michael: Thanks. Hi. My apologies for being late. I got caught by the savage and unrelentingly hostile and cruel demon known as daylight savings time. We sprung forward and I sprung out of bed and it was already an hour late, so dukkha in action.
Kenneth: It’s especially cruel when you have to sync it up with somebody who’s in a country with a different timing from the daylight savings time. [Michael laughs] So the Brits, for example, I don’t think are yet on it. So that really messes me up with my students.
Michael: Exactly. So we’ve done a number of podcast discussions already. We’re old, seasoned hands at this at this point, using our ultra-high tech gear, and now syncing our recordings in different ways. So why don’t we just dive in with some interesting stuff? I saw the other day, Kenneth, that you were tweeting with Ian from Toronto, who is an interesting political writer who I often disagree with but who I find to be quite brilliant and interesting. And what was it you guys were tweeting back and forth? You had a whole tweetstorm about something.
Kenneth: Our latest discussion, which actually is ongoing today, has been about consciousness. And the basic question is: do you prefer to be conscious, or do you prefer to be not conscious? So consciousness – in Buddhist terms, I might say: do you crave life or do you crave death? Do you crave existence or do you crave nonexistence? And so this got into a tricky discussion. What do we even mean by ‘consciousness,’ and is that the same as ‘existence,’ and so on.
Michael: Yeah, so, I mean, to me, just straight off the bat here, obviously consciousness does not mean existence. There are plenty of things that exist that are not conscious.
Kenneth: Yes, and at the same time, we can say when I’m not conscious, and I submit that I am unconscious for several hours every night when I’m asleep and not dreaming, and I am unconscious when I get an endoscopy or a colonoscopy and they give me that drug, IV drug…
Michael: We can only hope!
Kenneth: [laughs] And I say “one hundred, ninety-nine,” and then nothing – I’m out, and then you come to after some period of time, and you say, “Okay, when are you going to start the procedure?”, because you have no idea that anything transpired in the meantime, and they say, “No, we did the procedure. You’re in recovery now.” So that’s what I mean by ‘unconsciousness.’
Michael: Yeah, I think we’re on the same page there.
Kenneth: Right. I think we can make this very simple. I think we can assume for the argument that a rock is unconscious.
Michael: Yeah, and of course there are those who would say, “No, the rock is conscious,” and I’m willing to entertain that at least a couple minutes a day, but… I definitely don’t know that as some kind of fact, that the rock is unconscious, but given that it doesn’t have what we would normally think of as the equipment to be conscious, and at least under normal conditions it doesn’t seem to be doing anything one would recognize as indicating it’s conscious, for the sake of the discussion and pretty much as an assumption, I usually hang out in the world where rocks are not conscious.
Kenneth: [laughs] I’m totally on the same page there. And I think it’s important, even if somebody else does hang out in the world where they believe rocks are conscious, for the sake of this discussion we want to define consciousness in such a way that rocks are not conscious. I believe this is important because if we can’t at least accept the possibility of unconsciousness, even as an idea, what happens is sneaking eternalism.
Michael: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s not even sneaking, right? As soon as consciousness is everywhere all the time, you’ve got God, eternity, a soul. The whole mass of ideas comes the minute you start talking about consciousness in that really special, like, ‘everything is conscious’ way.
Kenneth: Yes. And as soon as we have that, then we have no chance of accepting our own death. And if we cannot at least entertain the possibility of our death, there are some other ideas that we can’t get to.
Michael: Yeah. And just to interject here, I realize I’m speaking with you, who is a normal human being. I want to say that over the last month, I did get a special hat and no longer have any chance of dying. Going to live forever and be fully conscious all the time forever, so I’m just going to, for the sake of the discussion, roll with the idea that some people die.
Kenneth: [laughs] Nice. Wow! Well, as it happens, you may or may not be surprised that I do talk to people – generally young people – who know about Ray Kurzweil and the singularity and the idea that we might be able to extend life long enough, we might be able to defer death long enough to get to the point where you don’t have to die at all. So I think Kurzweil has even said that the person who will live for hundreds of years has already been born.
Kenneth: So that – I think it’s a fantastically interesting idea. I was talking to a molecular biologist, a researcher who specializes in stem cells and aging, just a week ago. And he said as far as he can tell this is pie in the sky. We’re just not even close to solving the problem of aging, because as we get older, there’s this trade-off between longevity and cancer. The older we get, the more we’re likely to get cancer. And if we can keep cells from dying, then cancer cells are encouraged, and so on. But this idea that we might not die, that a young person today might not die, is important because it’s new, because for the first time in history, I think, rational people are taking seriously the idea that they might not die. And if they believe that even a little bit, there are certain understandings that are off the table for them.
Michael: That’s right. And, you know, I also work with a lot of clients in Silicon Valley who take this idea of very extended life or even conditional immortality, where as long as you don’t get in an accident you’ll live forever – they take this idea very seriously. That book, Homo Deus, which is pretty interesting, talks about this, as well, as a serious goal of serious people. And so it’s really interesting because once you remove death from the table or the discussion, what we’re doing at all really changes, right? And why we would meditate, what we think consciousness is – all of that can really, really change.
Michael: Although I will say that most people who, in a scientific way, think we’re going to overcome death do not believe in consciousness as some sort of universal substrate.
Kenneth: Oh, okay. That is an interesting wrinkle.
Michael: Yeah, they tend to think that it’s an emergent property of the brain meat, and that the goal is to keep the brain meat fresh and happy, not somehow that you’re going to live on between bodies or whatever.
Kenneth: Interesting. So we have the materialistic living forever, and then we have the mystical living forever that depends on a consciousness that’s self-existing out there or in here. And what they have in common is they can lead to a denial of death, and therefore, I would argue, the impossibility of understanding what nirvāṇa means.
Michael: Yes. Have you run into any people in Asia – I certainly did – in traditional Asian culture who believe, for example, not only in reincarnation but in the idea that you can actually short-circuit reincarnation by doing certain practices and finding someone who’s, like, 16, who just died an hour ago, and then re-inhabiting – like your soul leaves your body, and then it goes and re-inhabits their body, and now you just keep on going?
Kenneth: [laughs] Wow. That’s kind of a serial vampire existence.
Michael: Oh, yeah. And I mean, they’re serious about it. They’re not kidding. [Kenneth laughs] In fact, even in the West, if you read the book Meditations on the Tarot, which is an extremely fascinating mystical text, written originally in Russian by a Russian mystic and translated into French and then English, there’s a whole thing in there about these essentially evil wizards who live forever by re-inhabiting bodies. I could go on. But there’s just so much material about immortality. And again, I’m not saying all of that is impossible, but man, I’m not sure I’m up for the serial vampire existence.
Kenneth: [laughs] Okay. So here we have it again. There are probably infinite ways to deny death. And so for those who are listening in the not-convinced-that-they’re-going-to-die camp, I think that’s okay. I’m not in that camp, but some people are. So I think for them it would be really useful to just take it as a thought experiment: what if, at some point, you just turn off? That is not an unfamiliar experience to any of us, because we go to sleep at night, and for some period of time we’re not dreaming and we can’t remember having any experience. So let’s assume that we are not having any experience, any subjective experience at all, and if we call that unconsciousness…
Michael: Kenneth, how do you feel about your nightly unconsciousness?
Kenneth: I think it’s wonderful!
Michael: Right? I mean, I don’t think I can say there’s anything else I enjoy more [laughs] than that kind of absolute off switch of deep sleep.
Kenneth: Right, the absolute off switch. There’s no downside to it when you’re in it.
Michael: Would you agree? I’m not saying I crave it exactly, but it’s definitely an extremely delicious nothing.
Kenneth: I so agree that I find it puzzling that the idea of oblivion is frightening – and I know it is; I know for a lot of people that’s a terribly frightening idea. And it’s problematic when I say, as I sometimes do, that the subjective experience, if you will, of oblivion, is exactly the same as the subjective experience or lack of experience of nirvāṇa.
Michael: Yeah, that is the same idea, right? Nirvāṇa is oblivion. It actually means oblivion.
Kenneth: I agree, and that’s surprisingly not well-understood or not well-known especially, I think, among Western Buddhists.
Michael: Yeah, we’re all polluted by an idea of heaven.
Kenneth: Yes. And even if you say that the original meaning of the word nibbāna or nirvāṇa, depending on whether it’s Pali language or Sanskrit, if you say that this is what it means, it means the absence of experience, people will argue with you about that. They’ll say, “No, it couldn’t possibly mean that. It never did mean that.” So all we have to do is accept that one legitimate definition of nirvāṇa is “out like a light, no experience whatsoever,” even if we can also accept that some people mean something else by it, but that there is a very legitimate tradition in Buddhism, going back, I would argue, to the earliest Buddhists, that defined nirvāṇa as “lights out, no experience.”
Michael: Yeah, the earliest Buddhists, including the Buddha, right? For the record, as you’re mentioning, nirvāṇa literally means “to blow out.” It literally means “extinction,” like blowing out a candle flame.
Kenneth: Blowing out like a candle, yes.
Kenneth: Again, just to define terms, say that we can imagine – even if we don’t like the idea – we can imagine that there is such a thing as no experience whatsoever, as in you have the same condition, the same state as a rock after you die and your body decays. So whether you believe that’s going to happen or not, we can imagine that it might happen.
Michael: To me, this is one of the wonderful things about meditation, is that you can just, as you get better at it, kind of access oblivion at will. And, you know, it’s not the only thing you’re doing, but that’s certainly available.
Kenneth: Yeah, accessing oblivion/nirvāṇa is – people are going to get really angry about this, so I might as well unpack that a little bit. When I say oblivion/nirvāṇa, we don’t have to even believe that they are the same thing. In other words, if you want to believe that nirvāṇa is some kind of a transcendent, amazing thing that happens, all we’re saying is that the experience of it from your point of view is exactly the same, whether you’re in oblivion or nirvāṇa. The general tendency is to spin oblivion into something terrible, scary, dark and desolate, and to spin nirvāṇa as something so beautiful it’s essentially ordained by God and the universe.
Michael: Yeah, and notice the Christian or Judeo-Christian world-view implicit in that. I mean, really, oblivion is some kind of bad, eternal death, and nirvāṇa is seen as not different in any important way from heaven.
Michael: I mean, maybe there’s no idea of angels or whatever, but there’s still this idea of eternal blissfulness.
Kenneth: Right. There almost always seems to be, implicit in the idea of nirvāṇa, something I’m going to like.
Kenneth: Or something that some essence of me that isn’t really personal me but is still conscious and aware is really going to like.
Michael: That’s right. And at least in my experience, as I’m saying, I can sit here and claim that I really like sleeping, what that really means is I like how I feel coming out of sleep. And correct me if you have a different opinion, but I think what people – or teachers, I should say – mean when they say nirvāṇa is something you will like or something pleasant, it’s the aftertaste. The coming out of it is what people like, the memory.
Kenneth: Yes, yes. Because by definition, that’s the only part of it you could know about.
Kenneth: So even if you want to say nirvāṇa is wonderful and its only attribute is peace, well, that’s interesting, because its attribute can be peace even if you never wake up. After all, there’s no agitation going on when you’re out like a light.
Michael: One presumes.
Kenneth: Right. [Michael and Kenneth laugh] The reason that we can talk about it at all is because it hasn’t happened permanently to me or to you. As you say, we wake up, and we come back, and we say, “Man, I feel great! I feel so rested having been out like a light.” So that is what nirvāṇa means for the sake of this discussion, and it’s very thoroughly rooted in traditional Buddhism. So once we have that “lights out,” once we have “Lights out, mofos!” as a bookend [Michael laughs], we can have this discussion.
Michael: Okay. Having established that…
Kenneth: Well, the reason that I’m so belaboring this is because I can spend hours trying to explain this to people and they’ll still believe that there’s some little shred of mysterious not-me who’s going to know about this. It’s really weird. So if this is clear, that there could be some kind of complete lights out, then we can understand what the Buddha was talking about. And this gets into something that you and I have joked about, Michael: the Buddha is not your friend.
Michael: [laughs] Exactly. You’re good at this, so please go for it.
Kenneth: Alright. It’s tempting or it’s commonplace to think of the Buddha as some kind of a friendly, goodhearted guy who is teaching you how to be happy. That’s not, I would argue, the essence of what the man was about or what he was trying to tell you. This is a crazy guy who left his wife and young child to go live in the forest by himself, to find out how to end his own suffering. This is an extraordinarily self-centered guy.
Michael: Yeah, someone who, as I always put it, like, “Annihilate your life. Go into the woods and starve yourself and do all these horrific ascetical practices just to try to stop feeling bad.” It’s a very unusual mindset. Think of anyone you know today who is like that.
Kenneth: Right. I don’t – even having spent years in monasteries in South East Asia, I don’t know anybody who’s like that, right? So even the monks who are renunciates on a continuum – they’re much more renounced than most people, by far – the ones I met were not so renunciate that they lived by themselves in the woods and only ate stuff that they begged once a day from other people.
Michael: Yeah, and it seems like they have friends and, in a way, a future that they’re thinking about, and people they’re helping. And if you read the Buddha’s story and kind of try to get inside the man’s head, this is someone for whom it was all or nothing, and just forget this world, forget it.
Kenneth: Forget this world. So he completely, in every possible way, turned his back on this world, and eventually came to the conclusion that the very best thing that could possibly happen to you is what? Is lights out, lights out like a candle, extinction, extinguishing the candle – nirvāṇa. That’s what the Buddha was about. So we have this bookend of this extreme renunciation. There’s nothing in that part of Buddhism about how to make your life better. It’s about how to turn your life off.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, there’s no sense that this is some kind of life-improvement program. It’s a life-extinction program.
Kenneth: Perfect. There is no sense that this is a life-improvement program. This is a life-extinction program. And once we have that idea established as a bookend, now we can say aha – so we have two ways that meditation can be valued: one is how can it help me win. And we see this a lot, and I’m fine with that. It may be that certain meditation exercises can help you win or help you make your life better.
Michael: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of science to support that, yeah.
Kenneth: Lot of science to support that meditation might make your life better. So, fair enough. And then there’s this other thing that comes from historical, early Buddhism, which is: you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose. Your birthright as a human, your birthrights are sickness, old age, and death. You’ve already lost, and it’s only going to get worse. Now what? So that’s the other way to value meditation, is: how do I cope with the fact that I’m losing?
Michael: Yeah, how do you deal with the flaming pile of wreckage called your life? How are you going to work with this intolerable situation?
Kenneth: Yes. And short of nirvāṇa, short of dying and going into your parinibbāna, which is the permanent extinction, the other part of Buddhism, the consolation prize for those people who aren’t dead yet, is some guidance on how to live. That’s the sīla or morality, karma training part of Buddhism. That’s the consolation prize.
Michael: So talk to me about that.
Kenneth: So from that point of view, if we’re not so lucky that we can just turn ourselves off, which I believe was clearly the Buddha’s main thrust, well, we’re still alive, and I am going to wake up tomorrow morning, and I’m going to lose because I’m going to get old and sick and die, and I’m going to watch everybody I know and love getting old and sick and dying all around me. How do I mitigate that disaster, the flaming wreckage of my life, as you say?
Michael: I don’t know. It may not be apparent to most people – I’m not sure. It may not be apparent to – you know, we’re a couple of grizzled old guys. Maybe it’s not apparent to younger folks. I don’t want to sound condescending so I’ll just say I don’t know whether it’s apparent or not. But this sense that life from one perspective can just be one continuous loss, it may not be a crucial truth to land on – I’m not sure – but it’s definitely an important place to get real familiar with, to spend some time hanging out there, as Trungpa Rinpoche would say, in total hopelessness. It, even as we’re talking about it, sounds so awful, and yet there’s something really interesting there.
Kenneth: Yes. I don’t know if this is odd or perverse, but I find it actually very comforting to just let it in.
Michael: That’s right. And I find that it’s one of the most difficult things to talk somebody into, but once they find it, once they really understand that you don’t have to resist that idea all the time, and they let it in, it’s oddly, or as you say, perversely kind of pleasant.
Kenneth: It is really quite a relief because it takes a lot of energy to deny death and to deny decay – especially as you get older.
Michael: I’m certainly decaying as we speak. [Michael and Kenneth laugh]
Kenneth: There’s a point beyond which you can’t miss it. When you talk to old people, it’s not uncommon for them to say something like, “I’m tired of this life. I hope I die. I just don’t like it anymore.” Now, as a young person, when you hear that, it sounds horrible. You’re thinking, “No, please don’t talk like that, Grandpa. You have so much to live for,” and so on. But from Grandpa’s point of view, from Grandma’s point of view, they have experience fatigue. They have already eaten all the great meals. They’ve already had all the great sex. There’s very little novelty in your life as you get older. And it turns out the novelty is one of the things that makes life enjoyable. So when Grandma and Grandpa say, “I’m ready to go, and really the only reason I don’t jump off a bridge right now is for you guys,” for the family and the loved ones, and maybe even for society if they’re thinking of themselves that way, Grandma and Grandpa are not necessarily depressed, even. They’re just reflecting their experience of their life as an old person. So even though it’s hard as a young person to take that in, it’s worth considering that you’ll be there someday as well.
Michael: Yeah, and you may be there sooner than you think, with whatever vagaries of life can occur to one. There are just so many things that can happen that land you in a place where you realize that this is it – okay, this is what life is going to be, and it’s not necessarily unending bliss. So there’s a kind of experience fatigue. I think a lot of people hit that. And if they are good at coping, that can become a very powerful resource. I mean, we think of those – in my mind, I think of those as wise elders who have kind of embraced the mortality and now they’re talking from that place. There’s a certain depth and wisdom to that, whereas I find – at least, again, this is just my sort of everyday opinion, but – elders who are really involved in their after-death program to sound like they haven’t learned anything at all.
Kenneth: Explain more about that, Michael. I didn’t understand what you meant by their after-death program.
Michael: For example, if they’re very seriously involved in what’s going to happen to them in heaven, or the people who they’re going to meet there, their friends who have passed away, or whatever religious tradition they’re from – even if it’s like “I’m going to be reincarnated” or whatever – it just tends to have this real – and again, this is just a flavor, it’s a feeling; I’m not saying that I know better somehow, but for me they have a flavor of being lost in a dream.
Kenneth: Yeah. I see what you mean. So that would be a person who is still in denial of death even as they approach it.
Michael: Yeah. Maybe even more strongly so.
Kenneth: Mm-hmm. If a person can let it in, if I can let it in that I’m going to die, then I can take more seriously the disaster mitigation project.
Michael: Yeah. And I don’t know about you, but for me personally, and also with many students, that letting it in can be very hard. I think there’s this, “Oh, yeah. I know I’m going to die. Of course” sort of attitude, like on the intellectual level: “Yep. Going to die.” But when, in experience, you start leading someone towards actual experience of extinction, they tend to panic! [laughs] And I guess understandably so, but it’s like, “Oh, that. That’s the place I’m avoiding like the plague. I’m expending every bit of my mental energy to not go there.”
Kenneth: [laughs] That’s right. And they can become very sophisticated philosophers in that moment.
Michael: Suddenly. [Michael and Kenneth laugh]
Kenneth: Suddenly. If I get very sophisticated as a philosopher and say, “Well, I don’t really know that I can ever be unconscious. Maybe rocks are conscious,” what I would say is let’s find out where that’s coming from. That might be coming from the fact that I’m absolutely terrified of the possibility that I might someday be unconscious forever.
Michael: That’s right. Is it possible that your highly developed position about rocks being conscious is just your pathetic terror in the face of death?
Kenneth: [laughs] That was beautifully harsh.
Michael: [laughs] It’s just a question!
Kenneth: Yeah, yeah. Is it possible that that amazing level of sophistication is all coming from my pathetic fear of death? It seems likely.
Michael: Have you ever seen this wonderful book from the early seventies called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker?
Kenneth: I know just a little bit about it. I’m interested in the idea, the idea of fear of death motivates everything.
Michael: That’s correct, yeah. And I can’t remember the special word either, but it’s this denial of death that motivates everything. And this book has been the source of several documentary films where they did experiments based on the ideas in the book, and you get all this scientific evidence about the length, the unbelievably twisted lengths people will go to avoid thinking about this, because it is the antithesis of what our society likes.
Kenneth: Right. Last year I tweeted something like, “If you understand that human life is bikeshedding, you can be my friend.” [Michael laughs] So this bikeshedding word comes from a study where it was found that a committee whose job it was to design a nuclear power plant would spend about five minutes discussing the engineering of the plant – they would say, “Okay, we’re going to turn that over to the specific engineers,” and then whack the gavel, “Okay, we’re done with that part.” And they would spend the rest of the day talking about the design, what kind of roof they’re going to put on the shed for the bicycles for the employees. [Michael laughs] So this has become known as bikeshedding.
Michael: Same as rearranging the chairs, the deckchairs on the Titanic. Same idea.
Kenneth: That’s it. So that’s what, from a certain cynical point of view, this is all human life is. On some level we do get it, that we’re going to die. We’re afraid of that, and we attempt to remain in denial of it. So everything else we do is rearranging the deckchairs, designing the bike shed. And here again, we’re being harsh and maybe even alienating anybody who would be crazy enough to listen to this podcast, but there’s something here. There’s something beautiful, some precious nugget to be extracted from just sitting here with it and letting it in. “Yep, I’m going to die.”
Michael: That’s right. I’m going to die. One of the things I want to share is that whenever we have discussions like this, I’m conscious of the fact that to people who haven’t been there or don’t understand this or aren’t willing to kind of let it in, these sorts of ideas sound terrible. However, for me, talking with you about this is a vast relief. It’s one of the few times during the week or whatever when I feel like, “Oh, now we’re actually sitting in some present moment relaxation, some present moment relief with a friend, where someone is not holding up that barrier,” just to be harsh again, you know? The person you’re talking with is not neurotically fixated on not thinking about this, which is very noticeable in the average discussion. So for me, it’s a vast relief to not have to hold that up with the other person, so thank you.
Kenneth: Mmm, yeah, me too. Thank you for the gift of non-death-denial. I’ve been thinking about being very immediate – so immediacy versus “aboutism.” On the one hand, I can tell you what’s going on for me right now. On the other hand, I can talk about it. So I thought of this quest – imagine that you say, “I want to find the most enlightened person in the world,” and you have some notion of what that would be like, so of course you would have to go to the Himalayas and find this person. For the sake of International Women’s Day, this is a woman. She’s up on the mountain and she’s the most enlightened person in the world. So you get there and you bow down or kneel down before her and you say, “What’s it like? What’s it like to be enlightened? What does it mean to be enlightened?” Now, if she’s really on her game that day, she’ll say something like, “Right now, I’ve got this itch next to my eye. And I can feel pressure against the bottom of my feet because I’m standing.” If she’s not really on her game that day, she’s going to say, “Oh, enlightenment is so wonderful! When you’re enlightened, it’s going to feel like this,” which is aboutism and is complete bullshit. So immediacy is the only way this makes any sense at all.
Michael: So unpack that a little bit for us, Kenneth.
Kenneth: It’s tempting to think that an enlightened person will never have a bad day, because after all, that’s what I want. When I’m enlightened, I don’t ever want to have a bad day. So in my fantasy version of magical enlightenment, whenever anybody says “What’s it feel like to be enlightened?”, you’re going to say “It’s a non-dual experience 24/7. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” But of course you can’t find anybody like that. There isn’t anybody like that because that’s not how it works to be a person. And so if it’s going to be real, if enlightenment is going to mean anything, it’s going to have to be a real-time report. When you say “What’s it like?”, that person is going to have to tell you about their gas pain.
Michael: Certainly I will. [Kenneth laughs] Yeah, that makes perfect sense to me. You’re going to get a real-time report of experience: “Here’s what’s going on right now.” And if you insist and keep asking this wonderful enlightened lady – and I suspect if there is a most enlightened person in the world they probably are female – if you really keep pressing her for answers, you know, she might start talking about it just because she knows that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s going to come back over and over again to just what’s arising in experience. That’s all you can really talk about with confidence.
Kenneth: Yes. This gets back to what you were saying a moment ago: it’s such a relief to not have to deny death, because what it allows you to do is just to sit here, and be in this body, and feel these aches and pains, and not expend tremendous amounts of energy to stop feeling them.
Michael: Yes. There’s this old idea that I’ve run into a lot in spiritual circles that addicts and junkies make some of the best mystics, or that recovered drug addicts are somehow very, very good at spirituality or meditation or going in this direction. And I have found that to be true, at least in a sort of anecdotal way, because those people love oblivion. That’s why they’re junkies in the first place. Oblivion is attractive, so it’s not as hard to guide them in that direction, whereas people who think that it’s only about life improvement (and again, just parenthetically, I will say it’s not that this stuff doesn’t improve your life or at least potentially could improve your life), but if you’re only coming from the life improvement, “I’m going to have a shiny new halo on my crown chakra tomorrow,” if that’s the goal or if that’s the direction, I feel like you will be sadly disappointed. That sort of attitude makes it very hard – just to use this kind of terminology – it makes it very hard to “get anywhere” in your practice because you’re resisting the essential realization at the core of this, which is what I’m finding so pleasant that you are pointing out over and over again, Kenneth: hey, this is, in a way, about total hopelessness and the peace of death.
Kenneth: Buddhism is for losers and those who will die one day.
Michael: Exactly. Including everyone listening.
Kenneth: [laughs] Yes. And the junkies, and the drunks, and the queers, and the losers, and the mentally ill, people who know what it is like to struggle and to lose, and in many cases to be persecuted and stigmatized, are better at this. Somebody who hasn’t experienced failure isn’t going to be able to let it in that ultimately failure is your destiny.
Michael: And again, letting it in sounds like some kind of huge problem, whereas, in experience – at least my experience, and I think your experience – letting it in is like letting go of the biggest burden you’ve ever carried. It’s like letting go of your Sisyphean boulder and just letting it fall to the bottom of the mountain and walking away. There’s a kind of ultra-relief in that.
Kenneth: Beautiful. And flying in the face of what I said earlier about experience fatigue, this one doesn’t seem to get old. Putting down that boulder in any given moment when you just let it in again – you just have to keep remembering – in any moment that you do and you put down that boulder, wow! This feels great! This relief hasn’t gotten old.
Michael: Now, in your experience, what’s your daily relationship to that? How are you remembering that or contacting that, sort of moment by moment?
Kenneth: It seems that suffering itself has become the goad, the wake-up call. When I feel myself becoming agitated or anxious or afraid, it’s almost like a little alarm goes off: “Wait, there’s something wrong here. There’s something going on. Oh, okay, this feels bad. This is suffering. Is there anything I can do about it? Oh, yeah, there is something I can do about this.” And in fact, I have a go-to move. And my go-to move is this little formula that I go through. I say, “Am I mindful?” And then I say, “I don’t know. Let me check.” And I go to the body and I find something. “There’s tightness on the left side of my face. It’s unpleasant and it’s getting stronger now.” I’m doing this in real time, of course. And what happens there is that apparently I’m allocating so much of my finite processing bandwidth to that sensation and exploring it that I forget to run the subroutine of being Kenneth.
Michael: Right. So presumably enough of your working memory is being diverted away from the thoughts and feelings of Kenneth onto simply this one focus object that the experience of being Kenneth disappears.
Kenneth: Yeah. It seems to be that simple. Apparently that does use up enough bandwidth that the subroutine that creates, you could say, Kenneth, just doesn’t run for 200 milliseconds, and that’s all I need. That is beautiful relief from a rather difficult situation of being Kenneth. And then the subroutine of Kenneth runs again, which is fine, but there’s no limit to how many times I can play the game. I can do this as many times as I want to in a day. “Am I mindful? I don’t know. Let me check.” And then the very activity of checking is the mindfulness and is the freedom, and the freedom, strangely enough, is from the subroutine of Kennething, what Thomas Metzinger calls the phenomenal self-model.
Michael: Yes, it’s interesting. Thomas, also on Twitter, Thomas Metzinger, the brilliant German philosopher that we’re always quoting and talking about, he was pointing out how in terms of evolution, there’s some kind of utility to consciousness and the conscious ego, the phenomenal self-model. Presumably it helps us or at least in the past helped us to survive. It was adaptive. But he’s also adamant that it’s essentially the largest creation of suffering in universal history. The whole idea that consciousness itself or awareness of oneself is the source of suffering in life is where he’s coming from, and I think it’s kind of interesting that he is very clear about this – like, “Yep, evolution evolved suffering, and it may be non-adaptive to get enlightened.” And yet, he’s certainly interested in that, and adaptive or no, it’s something worth exploring.
Kenneth: I think so, too. If we question our assumption that because something is adaptive in a Darwinian sense that it’s good – I mean, why do I have to think that? After all, I don’t have children. My wife and I have made a conscious decision not to have children. I think for a lot of people nowadays our lives aren’t just about continuing the human species. Arguably, that really never was what people’s lives were about. So the understanding of evolution and natural selection and how species adapt and survive and reproduce, that’s not consciously our motivation for most of us. And so that’s a long way of saying: what do I care about adaptive? I don’t give a shit about adaptive. I want to have a better life. And if I can do so by temporarily suspending the phenomenal self-model, even if that isn’t adaptive, that might be wonderful.
Michael: Now, just to get back into the nitty-gritty of the details, when you focus on a present moment sensation in the way you just described, is this typically at such a high level of concentration that there’s a momentary, actual extinction going on, or is it simply that the awareness of the phenomenal self is very low at that moment?
Kenneth: It’s the latter, although it may occasionally happen that there’s a little moment of unconsciousness, of nirvāṇa as we have defined it. That’s by far not what usually happens. What usually happens is I just sit there and I feel the itch, or I feel the discomfort of tickling in the back of my throat as now and vibration. It’s not non-dual. It’s not transcendent. It may or may not be deconstructing itself. It might be just the most ordinary thing in the world. It may be unpleasant. It may be pleasant. It may be neutral. And I think the very fact that I don’t put any demands upon it allows me to see it as it is. But the fact that the attention is going to that body sensation and not running the phenomenal self-model is the entire project for this particular exercise.
Michael: I mean, this is something that I just have no patience for anymore, is the idea that somehow an ego is bad or that we have to get rid of it. Even though I’m aware that, in a way, I was just saying that the ego is the worst thing in the world, I actually don’t believe that or work from that understanding almost ever. To me, egos are perfectly fine. They’re wonderfully useful. You gotta have one to not be psychotic and to function in the world every day. It’s completely necessary. So I find it almost either comical or tragic that there’s such an emphasis on the ego being bad, the ego being wrong, the ego essentially being a stand-in for the devil in religion, and the idea is that we have to either free ourselves from it or somehow eradicate it or even wipe it out entirely – we have to annihilate the ego permanently as a project. To me, this just doesn’t even make any sense at all.
Kenneth: I agree. I find that to be the most counterproductive self-hating stance: “I must eradicate the ego.” Well, after all, if I’m saying that, the ego is a process that’s operating that allows me to say it. So it’s preposterous on its face. And yet, you can find it in the literature. You can find it in some actually very good literature that has a lot to offer. But you’ll find this meme: “We must eradicate the self,” or “We must eradicate the ego.” It’s exasperating! It’s complete nonsense! What we’re talking about is a process that runs. I think of it as a subroutine that can run. And this is why I love the idea of the phenomenal self-model, because you can see that just by the terminology there it’s a model that’s being run. It isn’t a thing. It’s not that I have an ego, or I am an ego – no, this is a process that runs. When this process runs, it enables certain things to happen. It enables me to talk about myself. It enables me to imagine the past and the future – to time travel, if you will, in my mind. It allows me to plan. It enables all of the things that we think of as uniquely human in terms of accomplishments. We can build houses, and we can build rocket ships, and we can destroy the environment with our technology – I’m being silly. But we can do things that you can’t do without a phenomenal self-model. So we can take that for what it’s worth. It doesn’t have to be eradicated. It’s just that because the phenomenal self-model, the so-called ego or the self process enables suffering, if you suspend it, even for a moment, there isn’t suffering. There isn’t suffering in that moment.
Michael: I would say that – and maybe this is just a difference of vocabulary – you don’t even have to suspend it; you just aren’t paying attention to it in that moment. And so there may be some self-model processing going on in the background, but if enough of working memory, if enough of present moment attention is focused on something else, just in the way that flow state psychology describes at its far end, there’s no sense of anybody there focusing, and so in that way – not that it’s going to extinction; it’s just that it’s not being attended to in that moment, which is just as good.
Kenneth: Right, because whether it’s running or not is irrelevant to me if I’m not aware of it.
Michael: That’s right. And yet, it allows you to function in the world and still have many of these, what you would describe as mindful moments throughout the day. The threads of the ego are still running in the background, and yet you can experience total relief from that in the moment. I’m curious: how often do you run into this in your own experience with students, into the “I must wipe out my ego” viewpoint?
Kenneth: More often than not. Most students will come with a lot of knowledge, having read a lot and attempting to synthesize every mystical and contemplative tradition on earth, and ending up with confused, mishmashed, confused mush of a bunch of ideas that actually don’t go together. And so you have to sort that out, and it’s worth it to start pruning some unnecessary ideas. One of the first ones to be pruned is this idea that “I must eradicate the ego,” or that “I must have a no-self experience.” So something that comes up a lot is a student will say, “I had a no-self experience, and I’m pretty sure that was the right experience to have. If I could have that experience more, then I’ll be enlightened, or I’ll have that experience all the time.” So my approach there is to say, “Well, what experiences are you having now? Because this is your chance. This is your big chance to be awake. You can’t be awake in the past. And while it’s possible that when you were having what you’re now calling a no-self experience in the past, it’s possible that you were awake in that moment, but in this moment, if you’re talking about that experience, you’re probably not awake.”
Michael: At least not now.
Kenneth: Not now. There’s a really interesting thing that happens on the forums, the Dharma Overground, for example.
Michael: Kenneth, will you explain what Dharma Overground is?
Kenneth: The Dharma Overground is an internet forum where people go to share their experiences about meditation and awakening. Although people from any tradition are allowed to post there, and I think there are even sections for various traditions and ideas, it’s mainly built around the Mahasi-style Theravāda Buddhist approach as written about by Daniel Ingram in his book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. And people will go on there, on the forum, and I must say, I’ve done it – we’ve all done it. You go on there and you say, “I’m enlightened. I got enlightened to my own satisfaction. I’m sure that I got whatever it is I was trying to get.” And there’s some implication there that I’m good now – I’m not going to have a bad day. But six months later, that same poster will be on there and they’ll say, “Yeah, I got enlightened, it’s true. But that kind of enlightenment sucks because I’m having a bad day and I’ve been having bad days pretty regularly for a while now. So I’m going to get the next kind of enlightenment. So there’s somebody else down the street who’s got a different kind of enlightenment, and I’m going to work really hard, and I’m going to get that one.” So you get that one to your own satisfaction, and you might even get certified by your teacher, if the teacher hasn’t figured out yet that this is a bad idea. So the teacher gives you your lapel pin and your black belt, and you post about it: “I got it! Now I’m good! I’m not going to have a bad day!” And six months later, you’re back on there and you’re saying, “No, that one sucked. That wasn’t the best enlightenment again. I want to go and get the next one.” Now, how many times you go through that until you get the joke and then you realize, “Oh. This is happening, this tingling in my left thigh, and these visuals as I’m looking at paintings on the wall. This is happening.” When you get that, everything changes, because now you don’t have to think of yourself as having attained any kind of – you haven’t won anything; it’s just that in any moment, you could be awake or not.
Michael: Yeah, right? You can, right in this moment, have the experience of wakefulness or not. And it is going to come back to that, no matter what. I personally find it interesting to learn all these different techniques from all these different teachers, but I would hasten to add that it’s not that somehow I think that there’s going to be a vastly different experience at the end of that. It’s just more like being competent as a teacher for me means understanding a lot, a lot of different ways to come to that place or to help people notice that thing. This is always – 100% of the time the issue is that people are like, “Hey, I got it, but I’m still having a bad time.” That’s an interesting moment, right? It’s an interesting place. Like, basically all we can do at that point is say, “Yeah, let’s examine this bad time you’re having right now. Right now, let’s have a look at that.” And that’s the move. If you want to be enlightened right now, that’s the move, right? “What’s your experience right now?” It’s just fascinating, I’ll say, how often even someone who’s had a lot of awakening experiences, how often they resist that move. “No, I don’t want to look at who’s having that experience right now, or what that experience is composed of, even if it’s a feeling of my knee joint hurting. I just want to talk about it.” And it’s remarkable that over and over again, even for myself, and it sounds like for you, that’s kind of a training, like you remember to come back to the thing right now and not somewhere else, someone else, or in some other idea. Let’s just talk about now.
Which brings me to another point. In our vast and rich Twitter-loca, our Twitter realm, our friend Vince Horn has been asking a lot about how anyone knows anything. So I’m cognizant that as you and I are talking about this, especially because we tend to agree, there can be a sense that we know there’s no consciousness after death, or we know there is no God, or we know the truth about enlightenment, or somehow we have this special knowledge of ultimate reality. I can just kind of hear that sort of echoing in all the stuff we’re saying, mainly because we, like I said, tend to agree. So I’m curious about that. For you, Kenneth, do you feel like you have some sort of ultimate knowledge or some understanding of how the world really works? How do you relate to that?
Kenneth: I don’t feel that I have any kind of special or ultimate knowledge. And if anything, I would only assert my own uncertainty. I can say – I feel like I’m on pretty firm ground when I say “this seems to be happening,” so specifically this seeing seems to be happening, and this pressure, this twitching in my body seems to be happening. I feel pretty okay about saying that. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asserting anything more than that. So when I say it seems unlikely to me that there is a teapot orbiting Jupiter, as in Russell’s teapot – but I don’t know that there isn’t a teapot. I can say it doesn’t seem likely to me that there is a “sky daddy” God. But I don’t know that. So I will assert my own ignorance. I think it’s very fair to say “I don’t know.” I don’t think there’s any logical contradiction there. But it’s the only thing that makes sense to me to claim.
Michael: A common objection to this would be, “Well, you know, the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, and you still get up and do your job as a teacher, or go to the store or whatever. So how are you even functioning with this level of ‘I don’t know,’ or is this just some kind of philosophical game for you?”
Kenneth: Mm, right. Yeah, I’m functioning with it by making a lot of assumptions. I’m definitely going to assume that the sun will rise tomorrow. I have no reason to believe it won’t. I have a lot of reason to believe it will. And I’m going with the probabilities here. In fact, I’m not one of those people who thinks that, “Well, since I can’t prove that there is no teapot orbiting Jupiter, it’s equally likely then that there is no teapot.” What I’m saying is no, it’s incredibly unlikely that there’s a teapot. I’m going to assume that there isn’t one. But I’m not going to say I know for sure. There’s a difference.
Michael: Yeah, and for me, this is an incredibly important point – just because something might not be there or might not be likely doesn’t mean it isn’t. And so it’s something I want to really – I think it’s perfect to inject that at this point in the discussion: I don’t know. I have no fucking clue what’s going on. I mean, I don’t think anybody does. I often hear, “Well, that’s a truth claim, that you don’t think anybody does.” Hey, I’m willing to be wrong about that, and I understand that maybe somebody does. Please show them to me. I’d like to hear what they have to say. And on top of it, this isn’t just some kind of abstraction for me. I spend a lot of time in other belief systems. I mean, half the time I’m a crazed mystic, like looking at tarot and astrology and talking to people about their past lives. I can run that belief system and hang out in there and be completely fine, and coming from that place for hours or days, or inhabit the completely scientific world-view and hang out with my science friends and talk from that angle and really believe it. It’s, in a way, effortless to shift between these views once you realize you don’t know which of them is real anyway. And I think it boils down to getting it that being sure of something is just a feeling in your body. It’s an emotion. The feeling of righteousness or the feeling of surety is just a feeling. And it’s a really pleasant feeling, it’s a really addictive feeling, but it’s nothing more than an itch or a stomachache or a twinge in your eye.
Kenneth: I think that’s a hugely important point, that the feeling of certitude is just another feeling. It can’t be privileged as the one that’s trustworthy. It’s just something this organism does to make a decision. I’ve got to pick one. If you couldn’t do that, and there are some people with certain kinds of brain damage who aren’t able to do that, that’s a difficult life to lead.
Michael: Yeah, it’s very debilitating if you can’t make a decision.
Kenneth: Yes. So if we can see it that way – I like to imagine this giant graphic equalizer. I don’t know if anybody even still has those, but everybody used to have a graphic equalizer on their stereo, and it has all these sliders or faders that you slide up and down at various frequencies of sound. So I imagine this enormous, this giant graphic equalizer and every single thing, every experience, has its own little fader. Itching has a fader, a slider, and happiness – just basically anything you can imagine would have its own slider. Well, certitude, the feeling of self-validation – I know this is true because I know it in my bones: it’s just another fader. It’s not in any way special in that entire group. And when that thing is dialed up, when self-validation, certitude is dialed up to ten, slid up to ten, whatever’s happening right then, you’re sure that’s the truth.
Michael: It sure feels like the truth.
Kenneth: It feels like the truth by definition, because that’s what that slider does. And as you say, if we can see that all of this is on a level playing field, that every single experience you can have – whether it’s an itch, or whether it’s the feeling of being sure – none of them can be privileged over any of the other experiences – that’s an incredible insight. “Oh, this is happening. This seems to be happening. That’s what I can be sure about. As pitifully mealy-mouthed as that is, that’s the truth.”
Michael: Yeah, and I feel like the resistance to that, the idea that there must be some true truth that I can know in some kind of non-emotional way, that I can know for sure, for real, the resistance to understanding that that’s not available (or I’ll say probably isn’t available) is just more denial of death. It’s just more not getting it that you’re now hanging onto your truth or your belief or your certitude as a life raft against drowning in uncertainty and confusion. All I can say, at least from my experience and as a teacher, is please drown in uncertainty. Let yourself do that. It will be a vast relief.
Michael: But it doesn’t mean that I know there’s no truth, because obviously that’s the whole point: I don’t know. And what I find so fascinating is what you, imaginary other person, what you are calling truth is just a feeling in your bones. It’s just a sense, and you’re hanging onto that as some kind of immortality project. You’re hanging onto it as the thing, the ground to stand on.
Kenneth: And it’s understandable that somebody would. I mean, of course we want some kind of an anchor, and if my intuition, this feeling of certitude, can be the anchor, that would be lovely. But I think all of us can see how often it isn’t reliable – what I was absolutely sure about turned out not to be true. I can’t count on that, and I don’t like that. See, you don’t have to like it. There’s a logical fallacy called argument from consequences, where you say, “Well, I can’t face the implications of x being equal to y, therefore x is not equal to y.” [Michael laughs] That’s a nonsense argument.
Michael: Also called motivated reasoning, yes.
Kenneth: Motivated reasoning, right. “I need something to be true, therefore it is true.” You can own the feeling. You can say, “No, I really feel like I need this to be true,” without making the logical error. You can say, “No, I do feel like I need this to be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Michael: Right. And I can hear the brilliant skeptics in the audience raising the point, “Well, these two old assholes certainly sound sure about this!” [Kenneth laughs] “They certainly sound like they think they know the truth.” And I’m very open to that critique. You’re right. We sure do sound sure about this. However, I will say, and I mean it: I’m open constantly to hearing something different. I think different viewpoints about this are interesting, and I don’t mind taking them on and feeling what they’re like from the inside. What’s it like to feel sure about that? And how’s the world look? And what does that allow me to do, you know? Can I build a better airplane or whatever if I think this way? That’s all fascinating. I really, deeply, truly don’t know, and so I’m always wanting to have these discussions that we’re having, Kenneth, and put this out there. And one of the interesting and paradoxical difficulties is using “probably” language the whole time, right? It’s like, “There probably is no afterlife. There probably is no truth.” But honestly, I don’t know. And again, saying that is not some kind of facile, philosophical dodge. I mean, maybe it functions as one. But it’s just coming from experience. In my experience, thoughts don’t add up to anything, and certainty is a feeling in your body. And that feeling passes.
Kenneth: Mm-hmm, I agree. And I’m with you that if it does turn out that I’m wrong about this, and that you can plug your fingers into the light socket of reality and get the direct download, unmediated by your humanity and everything else, that’d be awesome.
Michael: Sign me up.
Kenneth: Yeah. And in fact, I’ve had experiences where I was absolutely sure that’s what was happening. Using the model that I favor now, my slider for self-validation, for certitude, was at ten, and so I felt it, I knew it in my bones: “Oh, I just merged with Godhead.” The reason that I no longer believe that, the reason I’m talking about this as just another experience now, is because I’ve had so many of those experiences. And they’re not all the same; they’re slightly different. So often what happens over a lifetime is you have this union with Godhead experience, and it’s fantastic; it totally changes your life. And then a few years later you have another one, and you go, “Oh, no, this is the real one. The one I had before, which wasn’t quite the same, I was mistaken about that one.” And this keeps going on. So this is similar to the theme we saw before where you keep getting new information and at some point you see the pattern: “Oh, it’s always going to be like this. I’m always going to have a new experience that feels totally real to me but isn’t the same as the old totally real experience. Uh-oh. Maybe my model was wrong. Maybe there isn’t a capital-R Reality light socket that I can plug my fingers into.”
Michael: Yeah, maybe the brain meat of evolved primates isn’t adequate for understanding reality. You know, we didn’t necessarily evolve to know the truth. Who knows? But I agree that you can have awakening experiences or even non-awakening experiences that feel incredibly true: “This is it! I have found it.” And it’s a rock solid feeling of total surety.
Kenneth: And ironically, the one thing that would allow you to continue to believe that for the rest of your life is to never have another one like that.
Michael: That’s right.
Kenneth: Because if you do have another one like that, it’s not going to be quite the same, and now, uh-oh. It’s like the fake ancient Chinese saying, “A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches isn’t sure.”
Michael: Yeah, the second awakening erodes some of the truth of the first and so on. They keep unvalidating or invalidating what came before them.
Kenneth: That’s a delicious cosmic joke, and I like the way you said it. The second awakening invalidates or erodes some of the validity of the first. What a hilarious, delicious irony.
Michael: Maybe I have a perverse psychology, but to me, that’s kind of cool! I don’t end up at, “Oh, that means it’s all stupid or meaningless.” In fact, to me, that’s allowing more contact with what’s happening in the moment. I’m not so caught up anymore in my brilliant realization number one or number two or number three. As they occur and invalidate the earlier ones, there’s a kind of sinking into total confusion, you could say, or just sinking into, as you would put it, Kenneth, you know, “Hey, how’s this itch on my eye feel right now?” There’s a tremendous opportunity for letting go into the moment.
Kenneth: Yes. So even if there is a capital-R Reality, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be able to directly download it in some unmediated way. And as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
Michael: Yeah. Many evolutionary biologists talk about how the human brain has probably evolved to not see the truth, again for adaptive reasons. If you really saw what was going on, according to them, you might kill yourself. And so it’s the ancestors of ours who had a kind of predilection towards self-deception who were actually more successful. So we might be evolved to see untruth.
Kenneth: Yeah, nice. So this conversation comes full circle, because just as we have to constrain a discussion by clearly defining words, just agreeing on what a word means, we understand our world by constraining experience.
Michael: Say some more about that.
Kenneth: If I could think every thought and not arbitrarily choose one of them as the one I want to go with, if I could feel everything that’s going on in the universe, there would be no way to make sense of that. If I could even remember all of my memories at once, there would be no way to make sense of that. So we have to get it down to a point where we’re sucking honey through a soda straw, to slow it down to the point where we can actually deal with it and function in the world. So I see a parallel between defining terms for a discussion and being a human. We’re so constrained, that’s what allows us to be humans.
Michael: That’s incredibly fascinating, Kenneth. And I think, as you said, that kind of brings our discussion back around to the beginning, so that’s kind of a nice place to close for this session.
Michael: So thank you for sharing your divine unknowing with us today.
Kenneth: Thanks, Michael. Always a delight.