In this episode, taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2012, Daniel Ingram talks about the ways that contemplatives could learn from the Naturalists. The Naturalists excelled in meticulous exploration, descriptive science, and classification. Their example can serve as the foundation for the next step in contemplative advancement, where the vast spectrum of inner experience, could be described and cataloged in an entirely new way.
Daniel: Thanks everybody it’s great to be here. So it’s a jungle in there. I’m going to totally geek out during this talk I hope that’s okay with everybody. I hope this place can handle it. I hope I don’t go too far geeky even beyond what this place can handle. So the naturalist. We got we got Chucky Dee here. These guys were amazing. They were amazing. In the 17th to 19th centuries, particularly the 1800s, we had a group of people who were totally brilliant and totally fascinated by the natural world and what they found there. And they suddenly had leisure time and they had ships and they had societies and they had microscopes and they had magnifying glasses and telescopes. And they had the time to really explore. And they had a dedication to seeing what was actually out there and an openness to exploring what was out there and just finding it and describing it in meticulous incredibly clear terms that is unparalleled in anything we see in the modern meditation world today.
So this is just one beautiful example of the care they took to draw some of the little things they saw under a microscope. And you see the precision and the care with which they detailed each of these little magnificent structures. So that’s what I hope to bring today is a spirit of that kind of exploration and explain why that is so important for moving contemplative studies and contemplative practice forward. So when the naturalists got to the jungle they encountered a whole lot of amazing creatures and amazing amount of stuff. And when they looked through their microscopes they saw zillions of teaming little interesting things in there. And they saw thousand and thousands of plants and tens of thousands of insects and mammals and fungus and all kinds of amazing things that they had simply never seen before in their native countries.
And rather than say everything we see in the jungle is a tiger or everything we see in the jungle is a bug instead they got really really specific and ultra geeky about what all these little things were. So in the modern meditation world, unfortunately, a lot of what happens is that people tend to stay in their tents, their little own camps, with rifles at the ready and anything strange that comes by they tend to shoot at. They don’t even have the courtesy to stuff it and put it on their wall later. They just try to pretend it’s over there and we don’t like that animal over there cause we’re the animals over here and we’re just going to stay in a nice little tent and drink tea and pontificate. But the naturalist luckily yes they did shoot a lot of things unfortunately, you know, they were the British. Sorry. But they studied these things and they took them apart and they really explored and they took their skeletons and they mounted them in museums. And they really meticulously described them in a way that we have not done anything like with the world as subjective experience.
So anyway here’s another one. This is a German. We’re talking about the precisions of the German earlier. And this is someone who really appreciated the intricacy of this particularly beautiful starfish and really elevated descriptive science to art. And it would have been easy when they saw the teaming mass of life and complexity in the jungle to just say there’s no way we could possibly catalogue all that. But they actually did it. They actually did it. I mean how many new species are discovered every year. A trivial amount. Who goes and gets PhDs in taxonomy. Almost nobody cause it’s been done. You know all the life on the planet almost has been described. There’s occasional microbe, occasionally new virus, occasionally new things. Some of that microbiology cause microbiology moves a little faster, they evolve a little faster and there’s a lot of them. But really they kind of did it. And you think maybe it couldn’t have been done but they didn’t shirk from the challenge of describing the external world and the natural stuff we see there.
So again just a beautiful description. You know, there’s thousands and thousands of mushroom and yet they described all of them basically. I don’t think anybody finds new mushrooms anymore. Beautiful jellyfish. They’re really just totally amazing in that regard. So anyway, here we go. Now moving forward a bit. So let’s say a naturalist found a meditator in the jungle. Here’s a meditator in the jungle and how would they describe them. Well they are interested in a lot of physical characteristics. They would say this is eukaryotic part of the biosphere. It’s a polycellular organism with a spinal cord that’s biradial symmetry. It also happens to give birth to live young, has mammary glands. It feeds those. It’s also a hominid of like characteristics. It walks upright and it also has advance linguistic and tool making and learning capabilities. And they would say this is a Homo sapien sapien so that’s what they care about.
And they’re right and they describe all this and really extraordinarily well and meticulously detailed. But when we tried to go to mapping inner experience which is incredibly rich and incredibly vast and incredibly complicated, yet we totally fall down. So in comparison to the way they were able to describe limited organism and the massive range of life that’s out there in all it’s complexity we are positively medieval by comparison. So we are totally shackled by ancient systems that are incredibly limited, incredibly naïve. I spent a lot of time studying the maps and the terms and all these things and they are woefully inadequate to the task. I don’t mean to needlessly criticize the amazing traditions that have helped us to get where we are but we need to do way better. I know a tremendous number of meditators now. Not nearly as many I hopefully I will know after I get to know some of you and even more people.
But what I have learned is that the maps, which are very incredibly limited, simply totally fail to describe the richness of the inner life. They totally fail to describe the developmental progressions of what we see in terms of how people go through the path and what their individual experiences are like. They totally buy into certain package models such that if you get this thing you will naturally get all these other necessary abilities automatically, no questions asked. And they totally fail to describe the richness that we see. So what happens I ran into people such as Willoughby and Judd and so part of why I’m giving this talk and I’ve realized when I started thinking cause I got this science training. I actually have taken basically all the courses of PhD epidemiologist would take in addition to having an MD. You know I got published scientific papers and what not. Anyway but I realized that the language I myself was using to describe this field I care so passionately about was just total crap. And most of it is just terrible. It truly is useless. It’s just bullshit.
And I was buying into that and I had never really examined it from my own point of view. I’m like wait a second. Hold on. So there’s this whole segmented part of brain that had just totally failed to apply the things that I learned modern scientific method and my fascination and love of the naturalist to what I myself was doing in my own life, my own practice, and my own book and all these things. Anyway it was a real problem. And so I realized that we need to do a whole lot better when describing meditators given that I have all this scientific background and training. I of course turned to Dungeons & Dragons. Anyway being an ultra geek of the first order, thank you very much, I of course turned to Dungeon & Dragons. And I thought back to the character sheet. Because these contemplative neuroscientists were starting to come up with this sort of scales and these sheets and trying to figure out what we actually have there cause they want to do fMRI studies which I think is great. The most fun I had last year actually was a 3.5 hours I got to play in fMRI at Yale.
I don’t know if that’s a sad or beautiful commentary on the state of my life. I’m not sure. But anyway it’s a lot of fun. And I realized that they were using these trying to develop scales that you can actually publish in a journal like Science or Nature or you could put on the news or you could actually tell people about and have not be totally burdened with terminology that is basically just going to cause terrible reactions the vast majority of the time. And so I started thinking about my D&D days which there were a lot of them and I started to think about the character sheet. So the character sheets you describe these characters. And everybody will have different characters. How many people here have played Dungeons & Dragon? Anybody got a hand. Oh yes, thank you very much. Keep them up. Let’s add to this. How many people have ever played any kind of fantasy role playing game World of Warcraft or Star Wars or whatever these things are? Get them up. So a lot of people. So a lot of you will know what I’m talking about and the rest you just have to pretend. But we have a character here and this character is the geek.
If you can’t read this, I’ll read it for you. Some of you in the back you can’t see this. And the geek they had various attributes in Dungeons & Dragons. So they have strength and intelligence and wisdom and dexterity and constitution and charisma and this would be basically on 3 to 18 scale. Those numbers kind of meaning something in terms what you can do, 18 being better. I say how easy it was to hit you and how many hit points you have and how much damage you can take if you were attacked and all these things. And then various skill sets of the various classes and each character has their own little thing they do. But this here it says the techie may forego paper and pencil games entirely but when he plays he does as much as he can on this laptop. He plays World of Warcraft one out of every four hours he’s awake. He makes a living working on a tech support hotline and selling characters on eBay. He has four computers. Each with a different operating system just so he can say he has them. He likes techno, robots, and plans to become the next Bill Gates. His skills include video games, computer use, hacking porn sites, programming and the fetal position.
So, we have here a model for mapping spiritual development. Thank you. Or, the beginnings of one cause I realized that we have to come up with a better way of actually describing all the nuances of the individuals that are out there and drawing from the naturalist because there’s a lot out there. There are a lot of animals out there in the jungle. And they are very very different. So as I’ve gotten through these online communities in the internet I’ve actually got to meet a lot of these obscure really advanced, really skilled, really deep interesting practitioners that have done all these various practices and mixes of practices that are totally unique to them maybe their particular combination of what they did and for how long. And they each look really different. They each look really different. They have very different vibes and different interests and perspectives and different things they do really well and interesting things they saw that maybe not many other people have ever even seen. And so we don’t know that and the neuroscientists don’t know that cause no one has ever gone out and really ask.
Taking a meticulous survey of the inner life and really seen what’s out there. So I’m going on and on but anyway so I started thinking how we would map some of this stuff and this is a picture of Sister Jessie. And I thought well let me go back to something kind of traditionally Buddhist too and try to come up with a character sheet that kind of fuses traditional Buddhist criteria and maybe some modern scientific stuff and sort of nonsectarian language. So this is my paltry attempt of that in 20 minutes which is totally ridiculous. So this is Sister Jessie and I met her in Bodh Gaya. And she went to India, was in India and saw the staggering poverty and mistreatment of women and the state of the educational system and just got so angry that of course she decided to do a very Buddhist thing and sit in silence for year. And when she came out of her silence, I’m happy to report she was actually angrier than ever. She was even madder and more pissed off about the whole thing. And so she went sat for another six months. And then she came out a truly remarkable individual. So I started talking about morality. And she goes around helping people very selflessly in the villages around Bodh Gaya and just does tremendous work there.
It leads to, you know, you got all these different animals in the jungle and different visions of what we might be able to develop and grow. So in terms of talking about morality or training in morality or a virtue, Shila or Sheila whatever you want to call it. And so the question is we can ask ourselves what’s our own character sheet looks like or how we study this are two interesting question. Are we really kind? Are we actually really kind and how kind can you be. Do we actually know what a reasonably scale for kindness is. Like how kind can you get and what’s the real human range of kindness. I don’t know think we even know that or how to measure it. But we need to be asking those questions. Or, generosity like for ourselves like how generous are we and what’s the reasonable human scale like how generous could we be. What do the most generous people on the people look like? What the least generous people look like. Where do most people fall and how do we compare with that so we can reasonably assess our development as we go along and try to become more generous.
Or how is our sense of humor? You know are Robin Williams or are we you know. So where do we fall on this reasonable scale. And so how well do we relate to all the standard temptations of power or money or sexual things or drugs or substances and what is the ordinary human range. And how do development on these things correlate with any other kind of development in the spiritual world. I will actually say a lot of them relatively poorly but we’ll get that. So anyway this is just talking about you know. So when we try to figure out how to come up with scale for morality, how do we actually do that and what are actually the qualities and how do we measure them. And these are some of things I think neuroscience is thinking of.
[slide of Freud shown] Sigmund Freud obviously, Siggy. So western psychological health has actually added a tremendous amount of innovation to the Buddhist tradition as much as I’m known for kind of saying we got to do more than that. We do.
How well are we? Do we stay free from the personality disorder? How well do we avoid cluster B traits? How often do we use mature coping mechanisms? These are all relatively well studied things. How do these correlate with any other aspect of spiritual practice? I’m not really sure but I think those are questions we need to be asking and things that need to be on that character sheet of like what our character sheet and the character sheet of everybody else and how it changes as we develop. So anyway this is a [inaudible] well known for being a total power house of natural concentration ability in terms of jhanic ability and also powers. Speaking of powers. So the question for ourselves is how well do we actually do concentration practices or samatha practices. Are we interested in those at all? Have we developed those? So can we actually get into jhanas? Can we actually visualize well. How quickly can we get into jhanas? Which jhanas can we get into. How reproducibly can we get into them?
Do we need special conditions. Do we need a real warm-up to get into them? How deep can we take each jhana? How far down can even the first jhana or the second jhana go, not to mention certainly the higher ones. And have we really reasonably aspired that ourselves and what’s the range look like. So when you look at really good well trained meditators what do they look like. How many actually have these skills. We don’t even know this. Nobody has even asked the question because that naturalist perspective that wants to know what’s out in the jungle has totally not occurred because we’ve just kind of thrown our hands up with regard to the subjective. And then we come to other, let’s see if I can get this to work. Can we actually see or feel the nadis or the energy channels. Can we actually play with those? There are people who can and there are people who do. How many people can do that? What did it take for them to actually get there? Can we ourselves have we ever done it? Do we occasionally go there? Have we momentarily burst channels or had energetic phenomena or do we live there?
Are we someone who there are the channels and there we can see them and there we can move through. Again like we don’t even know what the realistic human range is. We don’t even know how many of these people out there who can do these things cause no one has actually done the hard survey work of tramping through the jungle and seeing what we find there. And it needs to be done so that we can reasonably figure out what the range is, how we study this people. And then of course the nearly vampiric appearing [Mahasi Sayadaw] who I’m such a fan of. So how well have we done in the path of insight realistically and what’s out there. How well have we done in terms of actually seeing agencylessness and what are the terms to describe this. To what degree does reality just seem to be doing itself? What aspect of things just seemed to be occurring?. How often does it seem that reality is just occurring, thoughts is just occurring, no self in them, action just occurring, effort just occurring. Have we occasionally glimpsed that? Do we go there sometimes?
Do go there a lot of the time? Do we live there full time? Has that now become truly our living experience as an embodiment of a deep understanding of a no self and how many of those people are out there. What do they look like? What’s the realistic range of human experience? How long does it reasonably take to get to something like that? Centerlessness. To what degree does it really seem? There is no center. There is no subject. There is no observer and there’s just phenomena manifesting luminous or just manifesting. You don’t even need to use luminous where they are. And to what degree can we see that. How often can people see that and again what did it take to get there. We simply don’t know that. It hasn’t been studied. We don’t have the data.
And then engagement with the world. So obviously we know who this guy is. Engagement with the world. To what degree are we actually making a difference on this planet with engage with our government? How do you even measure a scale of those things and how do they correlate with any other aspect of spiritual practice. It’s often assumed that if we have one we’ll have the other. If we have the others we’ll have the one. I don’t find that to be anything like the case.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientist had really studied these things and they are studying these things. It’s really exciting. I’m so thrilled. These people are actually doing this and someone is actually paying them to do this. It’s totally wonderful. And trying to figure out to debunk some of this ancient myths of the package things where we get all these things simultaneously or the sort of thing if you kind of meditate, meditate, meditate, maybe all of a sudden you’re enlightened without filling in the range of normalcy between here and there and what that kind of looks like as people go along. And hopefully the scientist will be doing all these things. Anyway, do I have anymore slides? I don’t even know. Let me see. So one last step. This is too funny. So as we try to come up with our own character sheet like the geek leader. The geek leader is an interesting fusion between socially inept and having remarkable influence usually several years older than the rest of his party. He talks about opening his own gaming store. And he knows the other look up to him and often uses his influence for personal gain.
I hope those of us standing up here remember this. And his skills include the scapegoat, denial, de-emming and the rally. Anyway I’ll leave you with these questions. I don’t have great answers but we need to be figuring out more realistic scales and models and realistic ranges of understanding what’s out there and I hope to inspire legions of PhDs to get out their PhDs in the subjective taxonomy of our internal experience and figure out how to because it desperately needs to be done. Thank you very much.