Gary Weber has been a scientist, military officer, senior executive in industry and academia, and is the author of the book Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening. He has practiced Zen meditation, yoga, and philosophy for more than thirty-five years. In 1998, after over 20 thousand hours of various contemplative practices, his thoughts stopped (or very nearly so). We speak with him about what it has been like since then, experiencing nearly no self-referential thoughts or emotions. We also speak with Weber about how he is working with scientists to bring enlightenment to the Facebook Generation.
- Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening
- Happiness Beyond Thought Blog
- BG 259: Mapping the Mindful Brain
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m back again for another geeky episode and today we’re speaking with a very special guest. We’re joined today by Gary Weber over Skype. Gary thanks again for taking the time to chat with the geeks. We really appreciate it.
Gary: My pleasure.
Vincent: Cool and I’ll just share a little bit of background on Gary and his practice experience, which we’ll get into in more depth. But basically Gary has been a long time contemplative on the one hand having practiced all sorts of different approaches from yoga to Zen to Ramana Maharshi style, Advaita. In addition also has very long and illustrious career in the material science field having done his PhD at Penn State, and then having spent many years managing large organizations and large groups with huge budgets.
You said something like quarter billion dollar budget at your last job. It’s a bit more than most people manage obviously. So you have a lot of experience managing big organizations which in some ways that’s probably not the normal profile for contemplative practitioners, someone who is very serious about this stuff. Do you see a lot of other contemplativeS who have been in that kind of work?
Gary: No, I haven’t unfortunately.
Vincent: Why do you think that is? I’m just curious.
Gary: Well it takes a lot of time if you’re going to manage a thousand people for a budget that size it takes a lot of hours to do it. And you got to be willing to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to get your practice in before your workday starts. So I think it’s just that problem. I had a wife and two kids and so it was really hard to get in practice. You just made your sacrifices and got up early and did it.
Vincent: Got you. So you went sort of sleep deprived probably for several years.
Gary: For over 25 years. Yes.
Vincent: That’s awesome. I also wanted to mention that you’ve written a really great book called Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening. It’s really useful and short book on different practices and approaches to the path so great resource for people that are interested.
Gary: Thank you.
Vincent: Yeah. Now starting off I wanted to talk a little bit about your background on the contemplative side of things. I understand you’ve been influenced by a lot of different teachers, traditions, approaches. You don’t really locate yourself in one particular area per se. But I know that both the teachings of Zen, Ramana Maharshi, and others were really influential to you. So I was wondering if you could maybe share a little bit about your practice background and how that unfolded.
Gary: How it started was I was in graduate school and I was having one of these epiphanous moments where I saw that my brain was just raging with thoughts. It would not stop. There were nothing special, not really illustrious thoughts. It wasn’t going to cure cancer. It was just a bunch of garbage. And I just thought there had to be some way to manage this process. There has to be a better way to do this. I can’t live a life like this.
So I started reading everything, this was the 70s, and opened this one book. I was having lunch one time on the front yard of the university. And opened up the first line of this poem and it said “all beings from the very beginning Buddhas.” And I didn’t even know what most of that meant, kind of. I knew what it meant but then the whole world opened up for like 45 minutes, a space I’d never seen before. I have not done psychedelics, it just didn’t work out for me time-wise, but a huge opening.
And I turned the book over and here I saw it was a book of Zen poems. And that turned out to be one of the most famous Zen poems as your listeners may know that’s Hakuin’s Song of Zazen. So I said well I must go off into this Zen thing and start seeing what’s going on and get this situation back again. So I set off into Zen, end up doing a lot of yoga because I want to sit longer and longer times and yoga allowed me to do that. And I ended up going down both of those paths.
I was really attracted to Bassui’s work. Those of you who have read Three Pillars of Zen will recognize that there’s a bunch of pages in that Three Pillars of Zen but I felt [inaudible] about Bassui’s practice. Bassui practice was using natural questions. Who is this that hears? Where am I? What is this? I also found that in Ramana Maharshi teachings who is probably my main teacher through all this.
But Bassui worked just as well. And I just kept those questions and worked on especially for me who hears and where I am. Those seemed like none ambiguous questions. They were very clear, precise. They should be able to be answered right now. I was an empirical person by training, so I just went at this empirically and spent a lot of time.
When the page finally turned for me which was 25 years later, I had met many many people in many many places, had two main Zen masters, been through 4 or 5 teacher trainings in yoga, had met some big philosophers like Krishnamurti. And after 25 years and 20,000 hours of yoga and meditation the page just completely turn for me and my thoughts stopped. My narrative of blah blah thoughts just stopped.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. And I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of your description of practice is that this basic self-narrative thinking process stopping. That’s also not something you see a lot of, people describing that. So I was wondering if you could share sort of phenomenologically like from the inside what has it been like since then. This was what like 12 years ago I think I heard you say.
Gary: It’s probably 14 years now.
Vincent: Okay. What it’s been like in the last 14 years. I mean what is that like with very little or no self-narrative thinking.
Gary: Well I was very surprise when it happened. I had been hoping to decrease my thoughts but I didn’t think they would all stop. So I was left there, I’d done yoga posture, and I went up into it one way and came back down and all my thoughts had stopped and here I was with this thousand people in this quarter billion dollar budget to run with no thoughts.
So it looked that could be problematic but it turns out when I went to work there was no problem at all, which may say something about corporate management. No one noticed. There was nobody noticing the fact that I didn’t have any thoughts. There was no halo. There was no glow or anything. There were just no internal dialogue going on.
And the thing that surprised me was that even now, or also now, with no thought speech emerges. And the most fascinating thing for me was that you can still continue reasoning, planning, problem solving, you just don’t have this ongoing narrative gobbling up bandwidth. So it appears like the brain can recognize the difference between this emotionally charged self-referential narrative which blah blah goes on for most people and this problem solving which does not have an emotional content to it.
What I do is I go into and prepare for meetings, for example, in the corporate world, I would read all the work ahead of time, be prepared for the meeting and then I would just go into the meeting and just sitting there wait to see what came up. And low and behold amazing answers came up, amazing solutions came up to problems much smarter than I could ever have developed myself. They were far more elegant than I could ever have thought up.
So I began to trust that after a long time and I also give my talks the same way. You just come into the room. You’ve learned the stuff of course. You just start to begin talking and see what emerges. And it’s invariably much better than anything I could have thought up myself.
Well just to clarify, no thoughts to me, the description I use is really no self-narrative thoughts, no blah blah narrative. That may be there a few per cent of the day but that’s very very little. First thing in the morning, there seems to be a, probably short term memories from yesterday, kind of asking, well brain doesn’t really ask, but asking if it’s worth consolidating into long term memory. That happens first in scattered little chunks in bits and bites, not very many, first thing in the morning. And if my blood sugar gets really low I go hypoglycemic, the thoughts will tend to start up. The best example I have of my low blood sugar is the fact that thoughts start.
So other than that, the narrative isn’t there. You can still read and use that internal talking to do that, and frame problems, but that’s about the extent of it. So you’re not completely unable to think. It’s just a recognition that the self-referential narrative that goes on, certainly in my mind, was useless. It just was a nonproductive, generating all kinds of craving and anger and storylines that had no point or purpose.
Vincent: Nice. And you’re sort of connecting the lack of self-narrative thinking with also self-narrative emotion. And I’ve seen you talk about that before. Could you say a little bit about how those are linked and how they’ve been linked in your experience?
Gary: Well they fell away all together which was interesting. Just zip. My whole practice had been trying to deconstruct the “I”. Ramana Maharshi’s main thrust is “forget the objects just go after the subject” and that had never occurred to me to do that to focus on the subject. And if you look at your self-referential narrative it is all self. It’s I, me, mine.
We’ve done this exercise many times in workshops. If you just deconstruct that I, it low and behold works. If there’s no I there, no scaffold upon which to build self-referential narrative cause there’s no self then it all falls away. There’s no I there to grab a hold of I crave, I want, I desire, I lust, I whatever it is and that goes away. You don’t have to go out and stamp out desire or stamp out lust or stamp out craving if there’s no I there to hold the other end of that, it just falls away.
Vincent: I’m curious. Because you’d mentioned that in the realm of thought, what’s gone away or been attenuated to a large degree is self-narrative thinking. Is it true also for emotions that your emotional life still includes a range of emotions that aren’t sort of self-narrative in nature? I’m curious what hasn’t changed in all of this.
Gary: There has been a fundamental change in a lot personal emotions. If you think about all the emotions you have where there is an I deeply involved. I want this car or I want that person. That falls away and so the craving goes away. The desire for, well not desire, the initiation of the feeling towards wanting something, some of that is coded in. I mean if I recognize a girl for example. I mean there’s no problem with the body-mind recognizing that that’s a non-male but there’s no movement forward. It just stops. There’s just a recognition that that’s a non-male and then the whole thing just stops. There’s no carry forward. The same thing with limbic fears. I mean I don’t step in front of buses. I don’t walk off of cliffs. There’s limbic anger which can arise a spike very quickly but there’s no carry forward of that. Say someone cuts you off in traffic. You can see, you can feel the energy arise but it doesn’t go anyplace. There’s no chasing somebody down the highways. No chasing them off the road. There’s no anger. It just doesn’t carry forward.
So you don’t lose the typical neural responses thank goodness. What you lose is the desire leading up to them and then after they are over you don’t make stories about something that needs to be repeated together or something that was really done badly or something terrible. You just don’t have the storylines. So the emotions are there very quickly but then they fall away.
Vincent: And you know I noticed after a few emails back and forth with you that you often sign your emails stillness. Clearly that’s an important dimension of all this and I’m curious if you could say a bit about stillness, which I’m assuming is kind of left over when there’s not self-narrative thinking and desires kind of just running the show. Can you say a bit about stillness and why that’s important?
Gary: Well just trying to capture what it is. I mean it is ineffable. We’ve got libraries full of books about the ineffability of what this state is. That’s the best word I could come to and I didn’t think of that myself of course. But it’s the most clear way to capture this whole thing. That it is stillness. It is very very still, very quiet. And what happens interestingly is that the brain prefers the stillness. It isn’t like you got to make the brain be still.
I mean the brain seems to run a bunch of [what] we call Skinner box comparisons. Something comes in, some emotion comes in and now the brain has this calculus. It can either take stillness or it can take this candy that comes in. And it finds out that the stillness is so much more satisfying, so much more, so richer, so much deeper, so much more whatever, powerful that it just doesn’t pick up the other thing.
There’s no intervening here to shut down desire, to shut down craving. It’s just there’s nobody to pick it up and the brain doesn’t want to go there. The brain get so satisfied with the stillness and the brain keeps, we know some of this, the brain does keep working out how to functionally stabilize this still routine. We called it the routine.
It does change functional patterns. We don’t know all of the parts of it yet. But we do know that in meditation, that Jud may have mentioned, we do change functional patterns and all the brains that we saw in some big studies solve the problems the same way. So I think the same thing seemed to happen. You can feel it. You think it can’t get any more still but it does get more and more and more still.
Because the brain is working out that functional pattern. Like when you first ride a bicycle there’s a lot of activity in your brain. The hundredth time there’s almost no activity in your brain. The brain has it worked functionally. The same thing seems to happen with the stillness. It’s just the brain wants to do it. It likes it, prefers it, doesn’t want to be confused, cluttered, anxious.
It wants to be calm, still and ordered. That’s a Christian [inaudible] quote. And that’s what happens. It does go there and it wants to be there. To give it enough pictures of stillness, even if very short ones, the brain will create a new functional pattern and change it to this stillness. That’s what it wants to do.
Vincent: And I’m gathering from what you’re saying that in some ways it sounds like this is a sort of natural end point to some sort of development or evolution. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about that. Do you see this as a natural outcome or development of certain kind of evolution or development of the human being?
Gary: Well, I get that evolution question a lot. The question is we developed this ego a couple of hundred thousand years ago probably, and why did we develop the ego? It was probably useful when life was a lot simpler. We were living in a cave or something. And we had to do very simple communication. Out of that communicate came language. Out of language came this self-talking ability we have.
It was probably useful when you and I were deciding who is going to plant the seeds and who is going to plow the soil or who is going to go out and kill the gazelle and who is going to take care of cooking it. Very useful. But today, today’s world things have really changed. There’s a number that [Peter Baldwin?] told me. I was uptown just a couple of weeks ago with him, that 500 years ago we had 5000 thoughts a day. Now we have 55,000 thoughts a day.
It really has turned into an evolutionary disadvantage. I mean most of our stress, our unhappiness, our anger, our fixations are driven by this self-referential narrative. It is no longer useful and it’s no longer capable with the very limited capacity it has of handling seven plus or minus two things at a time in short term memory. It’s no longer capable of dealing with this incredibly complicated world. So it just gets frustrated in its inability to deal with it.
Vincent: That’s great. That’s very interesting. In terms of Zen two questions. One was there’s a lot of writing in the Zen tradition, different text of recording people’s teaching and stuff like that, where people will talk about no thought or non thought like that’s a very big phrase. I remember reading some of Dogen’s writing and it was like non thought was everywhere.
I’m curious because most contemporary teachers that I’ve run into they don’t tend to interpret that literally. But it sounds like from how you describe your own experience that maybe those are, at least in part, literal descriptions. I’m curious to hear what you think about that.
Gary: Well I have a Dogen Zenji quote that I use in my talks. It’s be without thought. This is the secret of meditation. You got even, no not even, Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The second sutra which is the foundation of yoga is: yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind.
Ramana Maharshi said: in Samadhi there’s only the feeling I am and no thoughts. Nisargadatta Maharaj, another big 20th century sage: to be free from thoughts is itself meditation. Even the Bhagavad Gita: with the intellect steadfast and the mind sunk into the self, allow no thought to arise.
So this is not something brand new. This is not new on the scene. This has been around for 2,500 years. It’s been described the same way. The fact that it’s not common now I think is people haven’t focused on. It’s certainly possible. I’m nothing special.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. The other question I had is I was reading one of your blog posts and you mentioned a quote from a 20th century Zen teacher who said something like enlightenment is capable of infinite expansion or something like that.
Gary: Endless enlargement. Yeah.
Vincent: Endless enlargement. Could you say a little bit about that? I’m curious how that lines up with your own experience, and then what you make of that in terms of what’s possible.
Gary: Well there is this vision, I think an incorrect one in the west and maybe in the east as well contemporaneously, that enlightenment is a one time fantastic event like an Olympic gold medal. In fact that’s not my experience nor is it the experience of many other people that I’ve talked to that had been willing to share about it. We got 50 trillion synaptic interconnections and 100 billion neurons. It would be kind of strange if all that flipped over, even saving 10% of it or 5% of it, you still got trillions of synaptic interconnections formed having to do with maybe the self. How could that completely all change in one moment. It would take place over time. And my experience has been just that. Even after the page turned you can feel things changing which is you can feel your brain.
But certainly the stillness gets more and more pervasive. It gets more and more worked out, and as [inaudible] report as well. Things keep coming up. We all have this in meditation where you see something you haven’t thought about or haven’t had this experience of for decades. It shows up. If nobody takes delivery on that package it gets weakened. We know this from our neuroscience, those synaptic interconnections, if we don’t reinforce them, they begin to open up.
As they open up then that particular attachment, that particular concretion in consciousness, loosens up and maybe goes away. So that works out over time even after you’ve had a big fundamental shift. This stuff keeps going on and on. This end of 19th century, early 20th century Zen master said exactly that. He says not many people, not many of my contemporaries, you know Zen teachers in Japan, say this. But in fact enlightenment is capable of endless enlargement and that’s been my experience. It just keeps going and going and going. There’s no one point at which there’s a bright line, either you are or aren’t enlightened. Everybody’s on the path. Everybody is awakening at some rate and you just keep moving further and further down that stream. That’s my experience.
Vincent: Okay. Awesome. Thank you. You’ve been collaborating with someone who we had on the show, his name is Judson Brewer, works at Yale. And you’ve been collaborating kind of the contemplative side of things as probably other ways. And what’s so interesting in my mind when I see someone describing experiences of awakening or things that have changed you know that’s not uncommon to see descriptions and see various phenomenological reports of different kinds of awakenings or different depths of awakening.
But what’s really interesting I think in your case is that not only are you describing it from the inside but you’ve also been part of various scientific studies where you’re put an fMRI machines, you do different questionnaires things like that. You’ve been under the microscope so to speak. And sure enough what you’re describing holds up in that context as well.
So I’d be really curious to hear both about your experience being a research participant in these things. And also on kind of what you’re working on, what you’re helping with, with respect to the sort of neuroscientific approach to consciousness.
Gary: I’m glad you brought that up. I think it’s terribly important for people who are trying to move this whole process forward to not hide behind some veil or some robe or some old story, but to get out there and see what in fact you do know. I mean what in fact can we look at neuro scientifically. One of the problems we have in this Yale work that I’m collaborating with a lot is getting subjects, getting quote “enlightened” subjects.
As a famous teacher there’s no upside in it for them. They go into the fMRI and it turns out it doesn’t look like they’re awakened at all, this is a big problem for them. So to me I think you have to have the courage to go out there and be studied, whether psychological test or computer test or fMRI or EEG or whatever it is. Get out there and see what you do know and not to expose yourself but to understand.
I mean to me it was about understanding. My thoughts had stopped and I didn’t understand that. As an empirical scientist I didn’t understand how that could possibly happen. We had no tools 15 years ago, but just now coming online, and it turns out low and behold they do yield a lot of insight. I mean the work that Judd is doing at Yale you can actually watch, as I’m sure Jud described, you can actually watch your key selfing centers, or center, real time.
And you can watch yourself go in and out of selfing, in and out of I-ing. That’s an important thing to understand for the next generation of folks to come on down the line. Because the more we can learn about what we’ve experienced, the more likely we are to be able to make their path a lot easier. I’m under no delusion anybody is going to do 20,000 hours of practice. Almost nobody does. We got to get it down to where people can do it in some reasonable time that will mean something to the Tweet-Facebook generations. It’s got to be very fast. It’s got to be very simple. And that’s what the whole Yale work is about now and this [inaudible] project we’re working on is to try to make it easy for people to do this thing and save a lot of time, thousands and thousands, hopefully tens of thousands of hours to make it happen.
Vincent: And what do you think the significance of that might be on a larger scale in terms of cultural or societal, do ever think what that means or what that might mean?
Gary: Well we’re working with three big philanthropies. I’m thinking if you met them or not. The three philanthropies a lot of this work, the major agencies aren’t interested in funding so we got philanthropy money. These guys are really heavily engaged. Jeff Walker in particular heavily engaged personally in what’s going on.
These guys believe, and I agree with them, we’re heading toward some kind of tipping point. There’s this feeling that things are really a mess right now. But there’s also a counter feeling that things are coming together in amazingly serendipitous ways that may portend some really positive direction coming out of this crisis we’re heading into.
I think that’s a big part of this. Somehow we got to figure out a way to make this thing better. And to me if we could somehow get people’s narrative down to one-twentieth of what it is right now, their lives would be better. They would not want the same things they want. They would not have the same cravings they do. They would not be abusing the environment. They would not be over consuming. We would not be fighting so much. The whole world might be able to change if we can just wind down our egos to a manageable level.