All Your Loops Are Nonsense

“It is not necessary to search far and wide for what stops you from seeing shunyata. Simply realize that the way you perceive the sense world every day of your life is completely wrong, that it is the misconceived projection of your ego.

– Lama Yeshe, Becoming Vajrasattva

One of the most profound, all-encompassing, and difficult-to-practice lessons I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is this: without mindfulness and transcendence of the ego, you have no idea what you’re doing.

You think you’re in control, that you’re making choices and navigating this crazy thing called life, but without constant mental discipline, you’re really just following a series of nonsensical, preprogrammed pathways in your brain that more or less determine what you do.

This lesson, and its importance, recently came home in a major way.

I’d come back to North Carolina for a few months (I need a new visa/passport to continue my journey in India), and, to my dismay, quickly found my days just slipping away from me. I’d want to get up and meditate, or do yoga, or call old friends or camp or cook dinner or any number of things, but I wouldn’t.

Instead, I found myself – almost unconsciously – re-engaging with old habits, like waking up at noon or scrolling for forty five minutes on Facebook or playing Pokemon Black for eight hours in a row. These things weren’t bad, per se, but they weren’t what I wanted to be doing.

I got trapped by these old loops, and two weeks vanished without me even knowing it. As someone who strives to be constantly growing, practicing, and improving, this seemed wrong, to put it mildly.

What on earth was going on? Why was I doing this nonsense?

When I rationally examined my own behavior, I realized that most of the choices I made weren’t made the moment I acted on them, but earlier, when I mindlessly interacted with a certain stimuli and it led me to a certain predisposition. For example, if I woke up late and didn’t complete my morning routine, I’d be more inclined towards ordering pizza and a binge-watching marathon on Netflix that afternoon, instead of going for a run and cooking dinner.

The moment I turned on my TV, I’d think ‘eh, screw it, let’s watch some Stranger Things,’ but that thought wasn’t what caused my decision.

No, I ended up watching this show because, the moment I woke up late, I didn’t come to terms with the frustration, impatience, and self-judgement that went through my brain as a result of missing my routine. Instead of taking the 90 seconds to sift through this negative emotional dynamic, come to terms with the reason for my delay (maybe I stayed out too late the night before), and craft a new, positive plan for my day, I thoughtlessly swept this potentially unpleasant examination under the rug.

I did this – and we all do this – because to rationally examine the reason for our negative behaviors is to directly attack our own egos. Our egos don’t like this, and so they divert this analysis, instead getting us to reflexively engage in some sort of avoidance behavior.

Our ego wants us to think that we’re fine, perfect, bulletproof, that we’ve got it 100% figured out – or it’ll tell us the opposite, that we’re worthless, broken, and never going to be better.

Obviously, neither of these are true. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. In the words of a Zen MasterYou’re perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.

However, this Middle Way is a paradox, and much harder to relate to – and practice in our daily lives! – than either self-loathing or arrogance. As a result, when we are presented with our own negative actions, our knee-jerk tendency is to either uncritically dismiss it or viciously castigate ourselves for it. Neither reaction leads to much good; in fact, each leads into its own type of loop.

These loops can be short or long, ho-hum or catastrophic. They can be something as mindless as checking Instagram when we’re bored, or something as dramatic as sending ten desperate texts to an ex when we feel poorly about ourselves at the end of a long day.

However, no matter what kind of loop we experience, they all have the same base cause: they occur when we fail to fully examine our current (typically negative) situation, and, instead, distract ourselves with this or that thing. Herein we find their loop-like nature; when the distracting activity is done, we find ourselves right back where we started: bored, sad, angry, and so on.

This is the reason that when people talk about their negative choices and behaviors, they often sound like they’re not in control:

I know I shouldn’t have done this…

I don’t know what happened…

I couldn’t help myself…

From the perspective of being trapped in loops, these statements are pretty much true.

Without consistently and mindfully engaging with and resolving negative stimuli as and when they arise, we chain ourselves to a baseline level of stress and discomfort. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to avoid getting sucked into unproductive and self-destructive behaviors. Because we’re not aware of how our mind avoided dealing with our late morning, we can’t actually see the reason why we ended up staying up until 2 am watching Netflix. We literally don’t know what happened, and couldn’t help it.

Of course, none of this really bothers our ego, which simply (and illogically) justifies the behavior and keeps on its merry little way. In order to maintain the illusion that it is you and not a transitory collection of selfess aggregates, the ego is quite happy to play along with this nonsense.

Make no mistake about that: it is nonsense. All your loops are nonsense, founded on ignorance and a lack of examination regarding the fundamental nature of your mind.

Thankfully, there is a way around the nonsense, a way to cut through the loops. All it takes to break out of our self-imposed prisons is this: become constantly mindful. Learn to watch your thoughts every moment of every day.

Sounds impossible? It will seem to be – at first. Cultivating mental awareness and self-control is a lifelong journey, and even highly experienced meditators aren’t always able to control their minds 100% of the time. Starting to watch your mind is a little like starting to tidy a room that hasn’t been cleaned in 30 years – it’s going to seem like an incredible, insurmountable task at first.

Then it gets easier.

And easier.

You clear out a little corner, then a bigger area, and before you know it, half of the junk is gone. Things begin to seem orderly, almost organized, and you can start to really move forward, to really make progress.

This is the whole point; a loop keeps you stuck in the same spot, over and over and over again. It is only when we truly come to respond to outcomes, and not react along the same staid pathways, that we begin to get anywhere.

Swimming in the Heart

Fun fact: this sculpture was originally from a work called “The Gates of Hell.”

For most of my life, if you asked me where I was in the body, I would have pointed to my head. In the West, we’re constantly associating ourselves, who we are, and what defines us as living beings with our head and physical brain. On some level, this makes sense: the head is where our rational mind lives, where we perceive our thoughts as occurring, and where our primary sense organs are located.

However, I have found this to be a rather miserable mechanism for defining myself. Why? On the most fundamental level, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I get stuck in my head.

To elaborate: there appears to be an inherent dualism that comes with identifying ourselves as existing in our physical brains. We come to imagine that we are up here and the rest of the world is out there, and that there is a difference between the two. As a result, we get lost in loop after loop of conceptual cognition, often allowing our default mode network to make us miserable.

This, of course, is nonsense. On a fundamental level, to both the mystic and the scientist, there is no difference between you and anything else.

So, if thinking of ourselves as residing in our brains is an ultimately incorrect (and fairly depressing) framework, what should we center ourselves around instead?

The answer is quite simple: we should center ourselves around our hearts.

The heart-center is found in most of the world’s major religions

While, at first glance, such an idea has all the trappings of New Age woo, focusing our attention on our heart (or heart center, in between the sternum) is an ancient practice found in mystical traditions across the world. Orthodox Christian monks view the heart as the seat of unborn light of God. Tibetan Yogis consider it the home of the subtle clear light mind of enlightenment (interestingly enough, the Pali word ‘citta’ means both mind and heart). Adherents of Sufism claim that dissolving oneself in the heart is the quickest way to know the Beloved. Even the Aztecs viewed it as the seat of the individual and as a drop of the sun’s energy.

For the more scientifically minded among us, it’s worth remembering that the heart is, in many ways, a much more essential organ than the brain. There is a reason why we have the concept of brain-dead, but not heart-dead; the latter is just dead. There is also some interesting science behind the heart-mind connection, but it is a nascent field of study and full of less-than-rigorous concepts, so I won’t be covering it here.

Regardless of how you approach it, though, there is a effortless wisdom to identifying ourselves with our heart. It is the first organ to develop in a human embryo, and it is the one organ that we share with almost all complex living being on the planet, from elephants to earthworms (sorry, sponges!).

In more practical terms, the heart is in the middle of the body, and centering yourself there gives you enough distance from your thoughts to watch them without getting attached. When your thoughts, going on in your brain, are viewed from the perspective of your heart, they cease to be so immediate, and it becomes markedly easier to avoid empowering our emotional reactions and creating self-perpetuating loops.

Instead, by focusing on our heart and perceiving it as an indestructible center, and generating a sense of existential wonder, we are capable of rapidly experiencing a feeling of nondual, ocean-like bliss. Thoughts may come and go in our mind, but they are seen for the transient phenomena they are, and more easily transcended. Using this technique, we are capable of perceiving all things around us – and ourselves – as impermanent, unique to this moment, and blindingly beautiful. A friend of mine described it as ‘swimming,’ and I think that’s an excellent metaphor for it.

Like this, but with your mind and on land

Okay, this sounds pretty cool. How do I do it?

There are a large number of meditative techniques for focusing on the heart, and, if you subscribe a particular religion, you can easily find one that corresponds to your belief system. However, in the interest of saving you the effort of a Google search, I’ve shared the (self-invented) technique I use (and, like the Sufis, I try to do this more or less every moment of the day):

  1. Calm your mind by taking a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
  2. Focus your attention on your heart center, which is to the right of your actual heart, right above your solar plexus.
  3. Take a few moments to strengthen this focus.
  4. Imagine that there is an indestructible ball of light in this heart center.
    • If you’re religious, imagine this as the light of God.
    • If you’re more spiritual, this is the light of enlightenment.
    • If you’re more scientific, you can think of this as a ball of quantum chronodynamic binding energy (which, technically, it is).
  5. Notice how, when you focus your mind here, your thoughts seem more distant and removed from your immediate experience. Notice how they come and go within your mind, as if they were wind passing through the trees.
  6. Cultivate a feeling of wonder and amazement at the fact that you exist at all. Given the mind-boggling amount of complexity involved in you existing, this shouldn’t be too hard.
    • It is important that this is more of a feeling than a conceptual understanding, though you can use a thought or three to get this feeling started, like ‘I’m made of fucking stardust and so is everything else’.
  7. Now, expand your awareness outward, to the full extent of your sensory experience. Maintain your sense of wonder as you come to see the totality of your vision, hear the symphony of sound playing in your ear, and feel the multitude of sensations occurring within your own body.
  8. Stay here. Avoid focusing on any one thing. Instead, allow everything, including yourself, to dissolve in the transcendental totality of the moment.
    ……


Superpowers Must Be Earned

Any attempt to reconcile the more advanced and esoteric – some might say supernatural – aspects of the spiritual path with hard scientific data is faced with a conundrum.

On the one hand, what few studies exist of highly advanced practitioners (like Tibetan Yogis) reveal seemingly extraordinary mental and physical abilities. For example, highly realized Vajrayana monks are able to do things like raise their bodily temperatures by 15 degrees Fahrenheit via visualizing a ball of energy in their navel or experience a constant state of mental hyperawareness that is inaccessible to the average person. These talents are just a small subset of mystical powers described in ancient texts.

Given the unprecedented results of these studies, either claiming that you can’t rewire your brain to have what can be credibly called superpowers or categorically ruling out the possibility of further abilities seems foolhardy. This is without examining a literal mountain of anecdotal evidence, which points towards even more magical powers, like clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation, and the ability to take eight hits of acid and have nothing happen.

On the other hand, these studies are far and few between, very difficult to replicate, do not offer any clear causal mechanism for these abilities, and are vastly outnumbered by volumes of literature debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense. This makes it very difficult to assert that the abilities demonstrated are accessible to the average person.

For example, there is credible evidence (from the study linked above) that senior monks and nuns at Nepalese monasteries can actually work with their ‘energy’ or ‘subtle’ bodies – via a practice called g’tummo – to both produce physical heat and create genuine health benefits:

Traditional illustration of g’tummo – note the short A above the practitioner’s head

However, the results of Studies 1 and 2 also suggest that the neurocognitive component (“internalized attention” on visual images) of the..practice may facilitate elevation in [core body temperature] beyond the range of normal body temperature (into the fever zone), whereas the [core body temperature] increases during [the practice without visualization] were limited, and did not exceed the range of normal body temperature.

This would appear to offer convincing proof that the ‘subtle body’ is real and has tangible health benefits, an idea that would revolutionize much of modern medicine. However, drawing this conclusion is not so easy.

Before we explore why, there are few things to note here:

  • The ‘internalized attention’ described here refers to literally imagining your body as a completely clear deity with various channels, chakras, and seed syllables. This sort of notion is the textbook definition of the subtle body in Tibetan Buddhism (and many other esoteric schools).
  • All monks and nuns being studied had at least 6 years experience with this practice, including a three-year retreat that would likely include ~10,000 hours of practice.
  • The study offers no concrete causal mechanism for why such a visualization would create profound changes in temperature.
  • Voluntarily being able to place the body into a fever state would offer a wide array of health benefits and would serve as effective treatment to a variety of ailments that currently require allopathic medicine.

Given all of this, why is the notion of a subtle body (containing things like chakras) considered fringe or pseudoscience (especially in light of these stark and, arguably, revolutionary findings)? If the nuns tell you they’re concentrating on the short A syllable in their navel chakra and the scientists have nothing better to go on than ‘something something biofeedback brainwaves’, why do we completely disregard the nuns explanation?

This guy isn’t exactly in it for the fame

You can blame the New Age pseudo-gurus for this: the vast majority of people running around making claims about their subtle bodies can demonstrate next to nothing beyond the standard placebo effect (which, as an aside, is actually very powerful). More specifically, it is only in studies of people who have dedicated decades to meditation and practice that we find much evidence of things far beyond ‘the power of wishful thinking.’ These people are very few in number, usually don’t care to be studied, and often actively eschew any kind of publicity (they tend to see it as an obstacle to their practice). Their remarkability makes an intuitive sense; if you think of the brain as a trainable muscle, these folks have spent a long time in the mental gym.

It’s a little like if you were conducting a study about whether a human being is capable of a 55″ vertical (answer: yes), and your entire population sample was made of aging 9-to-5ers who hit the gym once a week. You can perform your study rigorously, repeatedly, and objectively, but unless you go add some NBA players into the mix, you’re always going to get the wrong results.

On a more personal level, throughout my own journey I’ve met a handful of people (Hindu saints, nomadic Qi gong healers, etc) who appear to have abilities that the average person does not. The one thing these people have in common? A profound and life-encompassing dedication to their practice. They devote hours every day to it, and, equally importantly, weave it into every moment of their life. It defines how they get up, how they go to bed, how they eat, how they work, how they date. In many ways, their practice is their entire life.

In short: Gaining superpowers takes a ton of work.

(But that doesn’t mean they’re not real).

Deity Visualization and the Placebo Effect

Quick, think of how to meditate!

….

….

….

What came to mind? Watching the breath? Letting thoughts come and go? Maybe dwelling on compassion?

What about something like this?

In the sky there appears a dark blue lotus
With mats of sun and moon.
Standing proudly on the sun mat
Is the wrathful figure of Vajrapani.

His immensely powerful body is dark blue in colour
And stepping to the right he stands with legs astride.
His expression is intensely wrathful
As he looks in all directions of space.

His right hand brandishes aloft a golden vajra
With which he overcomes the obstacles of all beings.
With his left hand he makes the demon-defying mudra
Whereby he subdues the spirits and demons of the six realms.

These lines, which seemingly out of a fantasy novel, actually are part of a meditation on Vajrapani, the Buddha of Spiritual Power* in esoteric Buddhism (pictured at the start of this article). They represent a type of meditation prominent in Tibetan Buddhism: visualization practice, especially on deities (called yidams). When you see a Tibetan Lama sitting in meditation, it’s likely that, rather than ‘thinking about nothing,’ they are perceiving a hallucinatory array of lights, syllablesobjects, palaces and deities parading through their mind.

As an example (and this is quite technical), in one of the the preliminary practices of ngondro, you imagine a specific Buddha, Vajrasattva, above your head in union with his consort. You then chant a mantra and imagine that the mantra activates the seed syllable ‘hum’, which causes the clear white light of enlightenment to shoot down from Vajrasattva into your head, purifying your body, speech and mind. At the end of the practice, you visualize Vajrasattva and his consort dissolving into that same clear light, merging with you, and instantaneously transforming you into a fully enlightened Buddha. In essence, you are trying to become enlightened by imagining you already are. This is a preliminary practice, mind you – full-blow deity yoga can get much more complicated.

Not exactly watching the breath.

These psychedelic and seemingly supernatural practices seem to be in direct contradiction to the common perception of Buddhism as a ‘scientific religion,’ that avoids the gods of Hinduism and the God of Abraham. However, to write off these meditative techniques as outdated, superstitious, or ineffective is quite close-minded. Indeed, there is a profound philosophical and psychological rationale behind visualization practice, which boils down to maximizing our ability to intrinsically manipulate our own neurochemical and somatic states through the power of belief. In essence, the visualization of the deity can be thought of as riding the placebo effect all the way to enlightenment.

What, what? Isn’t the placebo effect when something doesn’t work?

Technically, no. A placebo, in the strictest definition, is actually something that works in spite of having no active therapeutic ingredients.

In modern medical parlance, though, the term ‘placebo effect’ is indeed almost always used with a negative connotation. A placebo is considered something ineffective, faulty, a false prescription to be contrasted with ‘real’ treatments that ‘actually work.’

This definition makes perfect sense within the confines of a pharmaceutical trial. From a holistic perspective, however, it is ultimately self-limiting, as it essentially deems anything the body or mind does its own as ‘fake’ or ‘not effective.’

The irony is that modern medicine itself readily admits the effectiveness of the placebo as a healing method, especially if a patent has faith in the treatment. Placebos have been shown to substantially affect dopamine and mu-opiod levels, and have been clinically shown to reduce lower back pain, as well as relieve a large number of other conditions. In fact, within medicine, there is a term for this: the placebo paradox, where a doctor must choose between prescribing that doesn’t meet modern medical notions and not using a form of treatment that could help somebody.

Such an ethical bind assumes that the placebo is a sugar pill, something clearly false that nonetheless works because people have faith in it. In our secular world, this tends to be anything that isn’t an external allopathic treatment (i.e. medication or surgery). While there is no denying the ethical imperative to prevent people from following treatments that don’t work, our working definition of ‘legitimate medicine’ often writes off anything that doesn’t come in the form of a pill or a scalpel. Even demonstrating a statistically significant positive outcome in scientific studies isn’t sufficient to be viewed as reliable; if it were, the placebo itself, with a plethora of studies in its favor, would be considered a valid method of treatment.

But what does this have to do with Buddhist deities? Isn’t the notion of an external supernatural entity exactly the kind of thing we should be avoiding?

It is – but that’s not what a deity is in Tantric Buddhism. These deities, or yidams, are not magical beings that we summon or invoke to help us. They, on the most fundamental level, are us; they are aspects of our own inherent Buddhahood, of our own enlightened mind.

Vajrasattva: more real than your insecurities.

Indeed, yidams are considered a mechanism to discover ‘one’s own intrinsically pure awareness.’ This points to one of Buddhism’s fundamental truths, that of emptiness.  Buddhism views everything in existence as being transient and unreal, as having the nature of ‘a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.‘ To believe anything exists on any ultimate level is to be profoundly deluded. As Dr. Alexander Berzin puts it, “an impure appearance is an appearance of things as if existing in a solid manner – in other words, a crazy projection of something impossible.

As a result, in deity meditation practice, neither the deity and the practitioner are considered to have any inherent existence to themselves. In terms of ultimate truth, this is actually a more accurate view than the idea that you are so-and-so who lives in such and such place and so on. Even from a strictly scientific perspective, it is more accurate to describe your existence in terms of countless elementary particles in perpetual flux than as a specific person.

Okay, but how does this relate to the placebo effect? What’s the connection?

To put it simply, the practice of visualizing the deity during meditation is the perfect mechanism to make use of the placebo effect.

One key element of the placebo effect is that its effectiveness is, in a large way, based on the expectations that are attached to it. Believing that a placebo can cause a complete remission of back pain, for example, produces a stronger effect than just believing it will make the patient feel a little better. This is where much of the ethical dilemma stems from, as a doctor who passionately sells a placebo will give the patient greater relief than one who halfheartedly prescribes it.

In this regard, the visualization of deities represents a perfect vehicle for the placebo effect. Why? According to Vajrayana, successful deity practice results in nothing less than the purification of all obstacles, the attainment of omniscience, a series of magical powers, and complete enlightenment. According to the dynamics that undergird the placebo effect, such a profound expectation and goal will maximize the placebo’s potential benefits – that is, it will maximize your mind’s ability to intrinsically transform your body and mind. It is worth mentioning that while much of meditation focuses on mental transformation, deity visualization – such as the purifying light of Vajrasattva – also involves what can be considered energy healing, which affects the body directly and brings these techniques into the realm of physical medicine.

The instructions around deity practice continually encourage this level of trust in the effectiveness of the teachings. This is not blind faith by any means – Buddhism clearly rejects believing something simply because you were to believe it – but rather a sense of truth created by a profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy and the emptiness of all things. For the scientifically minded, who are skeptical of the more supramundane aspects of esoteric Buddhism, the empirical neurological results of intensive practice ought to speak volumes.

Regardless of how one comes to trust the techniques, that trust – and the transcendental expectations that go with it – is essential for the practice to work. Simply playing make believe won’t cut it. When you visualize a yidam above your head, for example, it’s extremely important to actually feel the deity there, even if it’s not a very clear visualization in terms of detail.

On a deeper level, you must actually believe that these practices have to power to radically heal and transform your body, speech, and mind. In the words of the great Lama Yeshe, ‘if you continue to hold on to the idea that you are basically confused and angry, [when you arise from the meditation after merging with the deity] you will manifest as a confused and angry person, not as a blissful deity.’

Where is the science behind all this? In many ways, there isn’t any – yet. As properly practiced deity yoga is an advanced and esoteric technique, it hasn’t been comprehensively studies to the extent of, say, mindfulness meditation or Vipassana. However, all studies that have been done demonstrate an extraordinary transformation in the minds of senior practitioners, right up to and including what can reasonably be considered superpowers.

One hypothesis I have is that the practice’s effectiveness stems from activating multiple neural networks at once: you’re working with your posture, your breath, your visual network, your auditory network, and your (imagined) somatic network as well. I would not be surprised if future studies show that cultivating all of these pathways through rigorous practice is sort of the meditational equivalent of rigorous physical cross-conditioning.

So that’s it? I just visualize one of these Buddhas and believe that it will make me enlightened and it will fix all my problems?

In a nutshell, yes. However, it’s incredibly important to have a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the notions of emptiness and universal compassion. If we believe that these deities – or ourselves, for that matter – are real, self-existent entities, and that we’ve actually become some sort of divine being, we’ve completely missed the point. Similarly, if we engage in these practices with just our own problems in mind, we run the risk of simply reinforcing our own selfishness by making us think it’s divine. Even the preliminary ngondro is to be done alongside a thorough study of traditional Buddhist sutras.

If deity visualization are practiced with the right intention and concentration, however, it represents one of the most remarkable and effective meditation techniques Buddhism – or any spiritual practice – has to offer. Indeed, I believe that deity visualization holds within it a seed to transform both our modern understanding of the placebo effect and, more broadly, the mind-body connection as a whole.

Plus, it’s just kind of awesome.

*For those new to Mahayana Buddhism, there are considered to be as many different Buddhas as there are grains of sand in the Ganga, of which Gautama Buddha is just one.