A Q&A with Shinzen Young

A Q&A with Shinzen Young

Here’s a great interview with Shinzen Young about his Unified Mindfulness system, why we meditate and how to find a good teacher.

Q #1: Why Meditate? What’s the whole point of it?
Shinzen Young: I’ve given actually a fairly elaborate classification of the reasons to meditate in terms of the notion of total human happiness. We meditate for our own personal unconditional happiness as well as for our personal happiness. And we also meditate so that we can best contribute to the conditional and unconditional happiness of others. That’s a model I give. So, from beginners the question will be, “why should I even bother doing this?” And essentially, the answer is that mindfulness practice is a certain form of meditation. And this form of meditation elevates your concentration, clarity, and equanimity. If you elevate your baseline of concentration, clarity, and equanimity then you’ll elevate your baseline of human happiness in the broadest and deepest sense or senses that a human being can be happy. So all the different ways that a human being can be happy including the deepest possible ways a human being can be happy, for all of the above, we do this practice. You might say that the centerpiece is sensory happiness independent of conditions and sensory happiness independent of conditions comes about when you’re able to have complete sensory experience of your body and your mind. And you have complete sensory experience of your body and mind when you cross a certain threshold of intensity of concentration, clarity, and equanimity applied to body sensations and the thinking process. Then your experience of ordinary body-mind becomes utterly extraordinary. And your relationship to your body and mind changes from your body and mind being a prison, to your body and mind being a home where you abide, but could leave anytime you want.

Q #2: Should I intentionally bring equanimity to intense sensory challenges, and if so, how?
Shinzen Young: You can intentionally bring equanimity to sensory challenges. There are ways of doing that. However, I would say that in the end the most significant learning about equanimity comes about by a process of discovery when it just sort of happens to you. You notice it and you notice its effect. That said, you can also cultivate equanimity. How can you bring equanimity to an experience? Well, you can try to physically relax the body. That tends to open the body and that tends to open consciousness. So if you can keep the body physically relaxed as very intense sensory phenomena are arising that’s something that you can intentionally do that would tend to create equanimity. You can also attempt to intentionally create talk that welcomes whatever is coming up or you can attempt to disregard talk that judges, or do a combined strategy. Replace judging talk with accepting talk. Because we have a certain control over internal talk. So you can use your control over talk and your control over the relaxation of the body to create equanimity to a certain extent. But there’s only a limited extent to which a person can do that. Mostly, you just wait for equanimity to happen. You drop in to it. It’s a numbers game. And then when you drop in to it, you notice it’s happened and you notice the effect of it on your sense of happiness and then that creates a positive conditioning loop. It’s important to also understand that if you can’t have equanimity, meaning you can’t control the tensing in your body and the judging in your mind, then have equanimity with non-equanimity. Go to that and just observe and accept the tension and observe and accept the judgments so that either you have equanimity or you have equanimity with your lack of equanimity, which is a second order equanimity. Those would be my recommendations.

Q #3: What are the 5 Basic Assumptions in Mindfulness Practice?
Shinzen Young: There are certain axioms or basic assumptions behind mindfulness. They lead to not only logical conclusions but when implemented they lead to experiential developments within a person. So I say that there are certain assumptions that underlie mindfulness as I would teach it. I think that they are very reasonable assumptions that they could be accepted by anyone. But they are assumptions. The first assumption is about the ability to focus on what one deems relevant whenever one wants. To have that ability is better than to not have that ability. That’s an assumption although some of the work in positive psychology would seem to prove that assumption. But anyway, we can take that as a basic axiom. In other words, it’s better to have the ability to concentrate on what you want than to lack that ability. Notice by the way, I said the ability to focus on what you deem relevant at any given time. I didn’t say that you necessarily constrain to go around as a concentration machine always in a highly focused state. But you have the ability whenever you want to focus on what is deemed relevant in that circumstance. So that’s the axiom of concentration. Then there’s an axiom that it’s better to be sensorially clear about what’s going on than to be sensorially mottled. That’s another assumption in mindfulness. Third axiom is that it’s good to be able to not fight with your self. At least have that ability. Sometimes you might have to fight with your self under certain circumstances but most people are always fighting with themselves in very microscopic subtle ways without even realizing that. And it’s good to have the ability not to fight with your self. That’s the axiom of equanimity. Then there’s a fourth axiom that I call Recycle the Reaction, which is as the result of applying the axioms of concentration, clarity, and equanimity your sensory experience may change. It may change temporarily in unpleasant ways or it may change in pleasant ways. It is even possible that strange experiences might arise. They do for some people, not for everyone. As the result of merely applying what would seem to be fairly innocuous axioms of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. The fourth axiom is really important because it tells you what to do if the first three axioms produce anything that’s challenging, either in the sense that it’s pleasant and therefore you might get addicted or in the sense that it’s unpleasant and therefore you might suffer or in the sense that it’s weird and therefore you might sort of freak out. As the result of applying the first three axioms, these might occur… not inevitably, I’m not saying they will take place for everyone, not everyone gets heavenly or hellish or bizarre phenomena. But just in case you do, remember the fourth axiom, Recycle the Reaction. And then there’s one final axiom. The fifth axiom which is if you forget the first four axioms the fifth axiom says, “Have the contact information of a competent guide and call or connect with them.” And they will remind you of the first four axioms. So those are the five axioms.

Q #4: How can I know if a teacher’s really qualified?
Shinzen Young: The very first thing that pops to my head when somebody asks me, “How do you know if the teacher is qualified?” is look at the students. The virtue of the teacher is only in the results that that teacher can get for her students. As far as I’m concerned there aren’t any teachers. There’s just the activity of teaching. And so what’s the effect? How are their students doing? Somebody once asked Tony Robbins what his qualifications were for doing what he does. He is a speaker. Maybe there was an implication that if you don’t have any degree, you don’t have any credibility: “What gives you the right to tell people what to do?” And he said, “I have a degree in results.” I like that answer. That’s what I look for. By those standards, there’s very enlightened individuals who are not very good teachers.  And there may be some teachers that haven’t had a whole lot of enlightenment or haven’t had the deep experiences of some of the great masters, but they get really good results with people and they can deal with anything kind of experience their students may go through. So those are the things that come to my mind. Look for body language and maybe that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you. You don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s something you develop a sensitivity to. Basically, what you’re looking for is to see is there a flow of empty energy, an effortless fluidity that’s animating this person. That’s body language. But that alone is not enough because it might just be crazy. So then you have to look for behavior. Are they a match? Are they an ordinary good person? And then what kind of results do they get with people?

Q #5: How do some people react to your ways of teaching?
Shinzen Young: Here are the things that people tell me they don’t like about the way I teach. It’s complex and subtle. I give a lot of precise definitions of things and I have a lot of categories and relationships between categories. So some people find this tedious. Of course, I would say by way of defense that I’m trying to create an all-encompassing framework within which the world’s contemplative/mystical traditions can be understood. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Meaning that sometimes a certain degree of complexity is simply unavoidable, if you are looking for wide applicability. But a lot of people get impatient with going back into elementary school or middle school or high school and don’t like memorizing definitions and terminology and so forth. So I understand that complexity and subtlety might be off-putting to some people. Some people say I’m sort of cold and intellectual. Well, it’s a personality trait. T.S. Eliot talked about the sharp compassion of the healer’s art. I think I’m on the sharp compassion side, which he compared to a scalpel. “The wounded surgeon piles the steel that questions the distempered part; beneath the bleeding hands we feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” So I think I might be a little bit on the cold and sharp side of compassion, as opposed to the more warm and heartfelt side. But that’s a personality trait. Some people find my irreverence to be off-putting. I am quite comfortable criticizing my own roots in Buddhism and sometimes I do that in a pretty irreverent form that some people find off-putting. And I can have a perhaps a little bit over the top sense of humor sometimes about making fun of the Buddhist tradition. So there’s three reasons why people say I’m a lousy teacher— complicated, cold, and irreverent. But I think there’s some good stuff there too. Check it out for yourself.