We’re joined this week by Brown University neuroscience researcher Willoughby Britton. In this episode Dr. Britton shares some of the details of a research project that she’s working on called, “The Difficult Stages of the Contemplative Path.” She goes into the purpose of the research project and also some of the research methods she’s using to establish a helpful subjective phenomenology for these difficult stages.
She also speaks about how she has collaborated with both meditation teachers and Buddhist scholars to help determine what the common experiences are for practitioners, and whether they have textual references in the Buddhist canons. And to make matters even more interesting, she shares what her personal experiences have been like, as she’s a committed meditation practitioner herself.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, The Dark Night Project.
- Willoughby Britton @ Brown University
- Britton Lab
- Willoughby Britton at the Buddhist Geeks Conference, on the Problem with Meditation – LA Weekly
- Cheetah House
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m thrilled to be on Skype today with a very special guest. I’m joined today by Willoughby Britton. Willoughby, thanks again for taking the time to geek out with us today. I really appreciate it.
Willoughby: Yeah, it’s great to be here.
Vincent: And I’ll just say a little bit about your background to kind of give the geeks a sense of your uber-geekiness because you’ve definitely bring in a high number on the geek scale, and we always love that. So you are a trained clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher. What does that mean exactly? It sounds like you’re in the lab most days looking at weird charts of brain patterns or something. What does it mean to be a neuroscience researcher?
Willoughby: It means that I can do neuroscience researcher in a wide range of settings. So I can study, I could study animals if I wanted to. I could also study humans and humans that have all kinds of variations in their mental states, so clinical populations. The clinical degree gives me a lot of possibility. And when the funding dries up from NIH I also have a job because the clinical end I can also see patients if I need to.
Vincent: So you’re kind of recession proof that way.
Vincent: We’ll see.
Willoughby: Yeah. Yeah.
Vincent: And you’re currently at Brown University where you’re doing research and that’s actually a big part of what we wanted to explore with you today on Buddhist Geeks. Because the research you’re doing is really relevant to the topics that we explore on the show. And the project that you’re working on right now is called the difficult stages of the contemplative path. And I was wondering could you just start off with giving us a brief description of the purpose of this research project and also maybe sharing your methodologies for how you’re doing it.
Willoughby: Yeah. So the end purpose, which I think is easy to lose sight of, is to create an adequate support structure for yogis who are encountering difficulties in practice. So that’s really where we’re trying to focus our efforts, but in order to do that we need to create subjective phenomenology–so really document all the difficulties that do arise. So there’s a couple of different ways that we’ve done that. One is to talk to really established teachers. People like Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, people in the IMS and Spirit Rock communities. We’re just starting to branch out into other tradition too. And really ask teachers that have seen lots of students come through their centers just a very open ended question, “What kinds of difficulties have you seen?” And so that’s the first question. And then we also ask them “Why did it happen in your opinion and then what do you do about them?”
So that sort of naturally turned into a description of a lot of students. They would tell these stories. And sometimes they would tell stories about themselves and then we’d say, “Hey do you want to give us an interview about that?” And then sometimes they would tell stories about their students and we said, “Well do you think any of these people would be willing to talk to us and sort of tell their own stories in their own words?” And that’s how we started getting in touch with a number of practitioners that have run into broadly defined difficulties. That the way that we got the phenomenologies, the subjective reports of what is actually happening.
And then the second stage was after interviewing a number of teachers and practitioners, we had sort of a laundry of, I used to call them symptoms, but I’ll just say experiences. Then we send them out to a number of Buddhist scholars in all the different kind of traditions: Tibetan scholars, Pali scholars, all different kinds of Buddhist scholars and we said, “Have you ever seen anything like this before in any of the texts that you study, are any of these experiences showing up?” We wanted to know whether this was something that was sort of known and expected within the range of contemplative practice and development or whether this might be something that’s new in America and maybe Americans are just meditating their way into insanity or states that just aren’t relevant. So we didn’t know. That was sort the second stage of the project was to get feedback from text experts. So that’s sort of an overview and the questions are very very simple.
The first question for our practitioners, that is somebody that’s been sort of identified as having some difficulties, we just ask them, “What happened?” And we want their language to be as plan as possible. We asked them not to use any jargon or lingo, stay out of the Pali and Sanskrit if possible; please don’t use words like Kundalini. We even try to not have them not use the word energy, but that’s a tough one. That’s the first question. Just really really simple language that we would be able to use in a scientific article, plain language, no spiritual language if possible.
And then the second question is, “How did you interpret this?” And their interpretation may have gone through many different iterations depending on how long they were experiencing different things. And so an interpretation might be, ‘boy I thought I was going crazy’, ‘I thought I have having a nervous breakdown.’ That’s a pretty common one. And then of course if they sought help through typical western medicine channels, a lot of them get diagnosis like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. Those are pretty common ones. And then there’s a number of other types of interpretation within the Buddhist tradition that are also available that we can talk about. So that was the second question is the interpretation. And I think that’s actually a really really important question.
And then the third question was, “What did you do, what was helpful and what wasn’t helpful?” There’s a lot of advice out there, and not all of it is actually that useful. And we want to know what people are actually doing in this day and age and what was actually helpful. So the idea is to have like pretty much a giant manual. It’s almost like a wiki to have a manual of a description, a very plain description, a sort of array, a buffet of different types of interpretations because there’s a lot of them and they don’t always agree. And then a really practical manual for how to navigate these states and stages.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. That’s really interesting. And as you’re describing that the question that came to mind is what got you interested in this line of research and part of me because I don’t really know academia very well I just think how did they let you do this. How did you get a chance to research this?
Willoughby: Yeah. There are a couple different things that came up. One was when I was doing my residency in psych I worked, actually, I still work at an in-patient psych hospital. And while I was there, we had two admissions from people coming off a Goenka retreat and I thought, “What are they doing up there?” This hardly ever happens but this was two in one year. So I thought this was interesting. And then, ironically, I went on a retreat. When I finished my residency I went on a retreat at the Forest Refuge, and actually had all kinds of difficult challenging states come up. And it was years before I ever realized, before I learned what they actually were. And I had a lot of the same reactions that I’d mentioned.
I thought that I had gone crazy. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean I really had no idea why I was suddenly having all these, like terror was big symptom of mine. And I found out much later that these were actually classic stages of meditation and I was woefully uninformed. Which I think is actually pretty representative of a lot of people. So we’re trying to sort of correct the lack of education.
Vincent: And it’s interesting cause we kind of have an interesting connection in that I know that a couple of the folks you’ve been collaborating with and I know had been very helpful are some teachers named Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk. And these are long time teachers and friends of mine and I also have heard them make similar critiques of mainstream Buddhist culture and I found a lot of them to be very accurate in my own experience. And part of their approach is to speak very openly about states and stages and to share things they’ve learned.
And I know that where you’re coming from with this is quite different in that you’re research methodologies are very much more in the sort of academic arena and the types of questions and types of methods you use are established. Whereas these are people they are just speaking from their own experience and some, you know, smattering of folks they know. But still there’s a kind of connection there. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about the stuff that you found from Daniel and Kenneth and also from the other teachers you’ve bee in contact with. What things have been helpful from those interactions in terms of moving your research forward and creating this manual.
Willoughby: Well the way that I found Daniel Ingram is actually pretty funny so I’ll tell the story. So I had a student working for me, Zach Schlosser. He’s a religious study student here, and he was in charge of sending out all these experiences to the Buddhist scholars and looking for textual references for them. So that was his job. You know we got a lot of Visuddhimagga references but he kept saying, ‘Oh I found this guy on the internet. His name is Dan Ingram. You should really check out. He wrote a book and it’s on the website. It’s a PDF.’ So I checked it out and I saw the cover of his book that has like lightning going out of this Buddha and you know the Arahat designation. And I thought, no way. And my student kept talking and I was just like you’re young, you don’t know. Like you don’t know anything and I just wouldn’t listen to him anymore. And then he started sending me these incredibly accurate descriptions of my own experience and also of the interviews that I’ve been doing of these practitioners. I mean it was just so accurate. And I was like where did they get this. And he’s like ‘yup, that guy Dan Ingram.’ So I thought okay he might actually know something. So we actually called him up and invited him up and invited him out here and did a day long interview which you’ve probably seen. It’s a very popular set of videos now where he went through all the stages of insight on video which is pretty interesting.
Vincent: Yeah. We’ll put a link in the episode notes too so that people can check it out.
Willoughby: Yeah. You know it some way it’s been interesting because I sort of assumed that this sort of dark side of dharma or whatever you want to call it was a secret. But most teachers will have just hours and hours and hours of things to say about it, I’ve never had a problem with a teacher not wanting to take an interview. I mean we’ve interviewed more than 40 teachers now. Jack [Kornfield] is really really vocal and engaged on this topic. He actually wrote a dissertation on the phenomenology of intensive Vipassana practice, insight practice. So this is really something he knows a lot about and is also passionate about. And I think he’s seen a lot of out coming out of his center. So the different teachers that I’ve interviewed had played different roles. Jack for sure has been sort of my cheerleader and champion.
He’s really encouraged me that the research is really important, that there are a lot of people that are struggling and need some guidance and to be transparent about my own experience. That this happens, it’s part of the path and if I don’t start talking about it then it’s still going to stay really hidden. So that’s been Jack’s role and we’re actually going to be writing some papers together. We’ve been working on a variety of different book chapters in papers. It’ slow going but that will be sort of a collaboration that we’re working on. Kenneth and Daniel are just fantastic examples of really embodying this openness. And I’ve spent a lot of time with both of them. It’s just so refreshing to be able to talk about experiences, any experiences. And I know that some of the hesitation about talking about meditation experiences, had to do with talking about attainments and about ‘how great I am that I’ve had this experience’. And I think one of the unfortunate trickle down effect of that hesitancy is that the really really difficult experiences don’t get talked about either. And I seen that all changing now. That people are all over the place talking about these different experiences and really helping people through this dark night phase much much faster than would have happened on their own. And a lot of people at least the first round of it went through it on their own and it lasted years. And I don’t think that’s necessary. I think that with new technology and with all this communication that this can be done much more communally and much more quickly.