Shinzen Young’s 10-Step Model for Experiencing the Eternal Now

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Header image taken from here.


In pages 40-45 of his paper “What Is Mindfulness?” meditation teacher Shinzen Young describes a 10-step process for experiencing the Eternal Now: a sublime state in which all thoughts about the past and the future fade away, leaving nothing but total concentration on the present moment. The mind makes no distinctions between “before” and “after, “and all moments of time are seen as nothing more than instances of a single, eternal event that cyclically arises from and subsides into nothingness. I have been writing about this exalted state of presence ever since I started this blog, and Shinzen’s model is the clearest and most profound description of it that I have come across. I believe his model is based mostly, if not entirely, on his first-hand experience of entering the Eternal Now, which itself is the result of many years of extensive and intensive meditation practice. Thus, it is a rare and remarkable of “phenomenology done right” – the kind of brilliant introspection that can only be accomplished after wholly devoting oneself to the cultivation of insight into the fundamental nature of conscious experience. It is completely different from the “phenomenology done wrong” of academic philosophers, who aim to describe consciousness in an objective way yet are nonetheless biased by their own cognitive constructs. [1]

Below, I’ll walk through Shinzen’s model and provide my own commentary.

Step 1: Just Starting

Shinzen: “You attempt to keep track of what’s going on but spend a lot of time wondering what you’re supposed to be doing. You get lost in thoughts and preoccupied with bodily discomforts. You do a lot of thinking about thinking about thinking about….”

This is the stage where I’m currently at in my own meditation practice. It is nearly impossible for me to focus on anything for longer than 30 seconds! Thankfully, meditation is a lifelong process.

Step 2: Got the Form

Shinzen: “You’re familiar with the form of the technique. You can settle in and just do it. You track the sequence of sensory experiences in a matter-of-fact way without “tripping out” on the process too much.”

Shinzen’s model of mindfulness meditation (not the same as this 10-step model) is comprised of three components: concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Sensory clarity consists of detection and discrimination. Detection typically occurs through the noting of temporal events, in particular the exact moment that conscious experiences (such as the breath) begin and the exact moment that they end. Most of the time, we are so caught up in our internal monologues that we fail to notice the temporal boundaries of our experiences, including of our own thoughts. As our detection abilities increase, we become better at separating out the various strands of our experience. We can discriminate between three types of experiences that typically engender suffering: mental imagery, mental talk, and emotional body sensations.

Step 3: Detect Coarse Impermanence

Shinzen: “You start to get a sense that experiences come and go.”

As meditators develop more sensory clarity, they not only improve their capacity to detect the beginnings and endings of conscious experiences, but also notice graded changes in the intensity of those experiences as they arise and subside. A mental image doesn’t merely appear and then disappear; it gradually becomes stronger, persists, and then fades away.

On a more philosophical note, Theravada Buddhism claims that the “nature” of “all component things” (that is, all things that are composed of dharmas, which early Buddhists labeled as the constituent “atoms” of all phenomena) is to “arise and cease.” That is, the very essence of all phenomena, mental or otherwise, is identified with their impermanence. When understood in a non-meditative state of mind, this notion of impermanence sounds like an abstract metaphysical theory, detached from the seeming persistence of the objects and sensations that the demands of everyday life require us to engage with. But as our meditation practice deepens, we begin to comprehend impermanence on an experiential level, such that we attach less significance to the intentional content of conscious phenomena and instead appreciate the phenomenal quality of their coming-and-going. [2] For instance, when we feel a sensation of anger, we don’t fixate on what we are angry about; rather, we actually perceive the anger as fundamentally nothing more than the activity of arising and passing away, which is also the singular activity that characterizes and animates all phenomena.

Step 4: Detect Subtle Impermanence

Shinzen: “The individual sensory events are themselves ripply and vibratory.

Now, we start to get wavy. I recently experienced these ripples and vibrations when I was practicing kundalini yoga. After the session ended, I noticed that my entire visual field was flickering at a high frequency while my eyes were open. It seemed like my visual field had arranged itself into a series of uniformly distributed Gabor patches that were fading in and out very quickly. I have yet to perceive the wavy essence of mental imagery or mental talk, though.

Most of the time, we are unable to directly perceive the vibratory qualities of sensory phenomena because our stream of consciousness is actually very jagged, even though we describe it as continuous in our post-hoc intellectual accounts of it. As philosopher Galen Strawson once said, our stream of consciousness is “always shooting off, fuzzing, shorting out, spurting and stalling.” Our eyes perpetually flit from one object to the next, our attention jumps to new thoughts and emotions, and so on. We rarely pause to notice the gradual and subtle fluctuations in our experience of sensory phenomena as our attention flickers in and out, in part because we are so caught up in the urge to “get to the next thing.” Indeed, in his stellar book The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen states that, “as your visual mindfulness deepens, you would begin to see a smooth and continuous flow of visual welling-up and subsiding” as your eyes rapidly shift or “saccade” from one location to another. Shinzen continues, “[This flow] is very much like the graceful movements of a jellyfish, or seaweed in a tide pool, or like the movements of the earth if seen in time-lapse photography. The world becomes soft, pliant, and elastic.” Eventually, meditators becomes so experientially attuned to impermanence that they can even observe the “dancing of the stone Buddha”: the wavy fluctuations in their perception of totally stationary objects like a stone statue of the Buddha.

Step 5: Detect Underlying Wavelets

Shinzen: “Each vibration and ripple has its own arising and passing. Sensory events are a sort of “Fourier Synthesis” of component frequencies.”

Here, Shinzen’s model begins to accord well with the Qualia Research Institute’s Symmetry Theory of Valence, which claims that symmetry in the mathematical object of consciousness corresponds to the emotional valence of conscious experience (i.e. how pleasant or unpleasant it is). One measure of symmetry is the regularity of the oscillations in the brain. Normally, neural oscillations are actually highly irregular; while we tend to think that the brain waves recorded through MEG and EEG reflect sustained, periodic oscillations, my lab at Oxford has shown instead that they are composed of transient “bursting” events occurring in specific frequency bands. But if Shinzen’s depiction of these supposed wavelets is correct, and if they map onto real wavelets in the neural substrate of consciousness (two big if’s, especially the latter), then his model is powerful evidence for STV. In the previous step, the oscillations of the meditator’s subjective experience become more noticeable. Now and in step 6, they become more regular and periodic. Meanwhile, the meditator is likely perceiving new and extraordinarily rich flavors of equanimity and bliss as she goes deeper into her practice; in other words, her valence is ascending to new heights!

Step 6: Rhythmic Arising and Passing

Shinzen: “The circles represent “Zero”—the Nothingness from which each wavelet arises and to which it returns. The dashed line represents the boundary between preconsciousness and consciousness experience. (Preconsciousness experience has become conscious at this stage.) W stands for wavelet.”

Now that the meditator is really apprehending impermanence, she starts to develop insight into another key idea of Buddhist meditation: the nonduality of form and emptiness. The meditator already cultivated a taste of this nonduality beginning in steps 3 and 4 by perceiving that all conscious phenomena are temporary vibrations (form) that arise and promptly disappear (into emptiness). In step 6, the meditator comes into direct contact with the Zero or Nothingness that serves as both the origin and endpoint of all experiences. I wish that Shinzen explained in greater detail the phenomenology of this state in which all phenomena are recognized as “void taking the shape of a certain vibration,” as my friend and colleague Chelsey Fasano recently put it. (Note that Chelsey was speaking about a concept in Kashmiri Shaivism Tantra, which is separate from Buddhism.) What does it mean to experience the Zero?

Perhaps there is nothing that it is like to experience Zero, since an experience of Zero is, well, Zero. In his book The Mind Illuminated, Culadasa, a.k.a. John Yates, describes these experiences of Zero as “pure consciousness experiences,” (PCEs) or “consciousness without an object.” [3] Note that the experiences in step 6 of Shinzen’s model are not the same as the PCEs in Culadasa’s model, though subsequent steps, like step 9 or 10, may be similar or equivalent. In order to grasp these PCEs, we have to understand Culadasa’s definition of consciousness. Culadasa argues that consciousness is actually a collection of sub-minds, where each sub-mind is capable of receiving and projecting information from and into consciousness (sounds circular, doesn’t it?) (Fig 1S). In a PCE, which Culadasa calls one of the most profound states of Insight that meditation can offer, the “unconscious sub-minds remain tuned in and receptive to the contents of consciousness, while at the same time, none of them project any content into consciousness” (Fig 2S). After that, consciousness ceases completely; total Zero is experienced. Culadasa claims that these PCEs are brought on by profound experiences of emptiness. Because all the sub-minds are united in their agreement that the “phenomenal data” from the senses is totally empty of any essence or substance, they all develop a shared intention not to project any information or phenomenal content into consciousness.

Fig 1S. Culadasa’s “Mind-System.” Image taken from here.
Fig 2S. The Mind-System during PCEs. Image taken from here.

Intriguingly, Culadasa says that there is actually no such thing as an “experience” of pure consciousness, so the term PCE is in fact a misnomer. Rather, the apparent experience is actually a construct of the mind, produced after the experience has already ended. [4] So, the phenomenology of Zero is no phenomenology. Recall, however, that step 6 is not yet a PCE, as the meditator still witnesses the birth of form – and hence phenomenal content – in her conscious experience.

Step 7: Passings Become Rich

Shinzen: “The Nothing to which each wave and wavelet returns (–>O<–) becomes rich, providing:
• Tranquility
• Safety
• Fulfillment
• Love
Notice also that less and less does experience need to be “born,” i.e., arise into surface events. (Ordinary surface experience is less salient. Subtle preconscious experience now dominates awareness.)”

Shinzen’s claim that Nothing is Love supports my argument in a previous blogpost, in which I wrote that unconditional love is the experience of recognizing that we all fundamentally share the same consciousness. This consciousness is like a blank, empty canvas. Everyone paints a different picture of the world and of themselves on that canvas, resulting in different experiences, but the unembellished canvas is the same for everybody.

I am fascinated by Shinzen’s notion that we gain unprecedented access to our subtle preconscious experiences when we enter step 7. Neuroscientists have empirically validated that meditators are able to observe mental phenomena that would typically be inaccessible to ordinary conscious experience. For instance, meditators exhibit less attentional blink. This is the phenomenon in which people are unable to consciously perceive the second of two visual stimuli when they are presented in rapid succession of each other. Heleen Slagter and colleagues found that three months of intense meditation diminished attentional blink, so preconscious visual experiences rise to the level of conscious awareness.

However, studies on attentional blink only scratch the surface of the ordinarily preconscious experiences that advanced meditators are able to perceive. According to Shinzen, meditators develop the capacity to witness and then heal from their own “samskaras,” a Sanskrit word for distorting influences located in the deep subconscious. Shinzen’s description of purifying the samskaras is one of the most ambiguous sections of his account of spiritual awakening in The Science of Enlightenment. He says that samskaras “get worked through by pouring clarity and equanimity into the experience of the moment. That clarity and equanimity percolate down into the subconscious and give the subconscious what it needs to resolve/dissolve its issues.” Unfortunately, whereas the rest of his model is rich with detail, Shinzen does not elaborate further on the process by which sensory clarity and equanimity “resolve” samskaras.

Step 8: Arising Becomes Rich

Shinzen: “The outward directed arrows (<–O–>) indicate the pulling apart, the polarizing, of Nothing into expansive and contractive forces.
The inward directed arrows (–>O<–) indicate the reuniting (mutual cancelation) of those forces.
Experiences arise in the cleft created when Nothing divides into future (expansion, yáng) and past (contraction, yīn). They disappear when that cleft collapses, reuniting future and past into the Absolute Present of Nothing. This special Nothing is known to contemplative traditions around the world.
Latin – nihil per excellantiam (Western Christianity)
Greek – kenosis (Eastern Orthodoxy)
Hebrew – ayn (Kaballah)
Arabic – fana’ (Sufism)
Spanish – nada (St. John of the Cross)
German – nichts (Meister Eckhart)
Chinese – (Daoism)
Sanskrit – nirodha (Hinduism, Buddhism)
Sanskrit – śunyatā (Buddhism)”

In chapter 3 of The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen compares meditation practices across a variety of mystical traditions. He notes that the Buddhist experience of impermanence is connected to the Taoist concepts of qi, or energy, and shen, or spirit. More specifically, qi are the subtle waves that constitute sensory phenomena and become perceptible in states of heightened concentration. In step 8, meditators notice that these vibrations oscillate between two poles: yin, the contraction of space, and yang, the expansion of space. Shen is the experience of the simultaneous contraction and expansion of space. As Shinzen noted in the caption of this step, the direction of the interaction between these simultaneous influences determines whether phenomena arise or pas aways. When they diverge, experiences arise; when they converge, experiences pass away. Thus, in this step, meditators have advanced beyond the notion of impermanence as the coming-and-going of all things, and instead they understand impermanence as the bifurcating-and-unifying of the expansive and contractive forces that shape the vibratory energy animating all things.

Step 9: Time Begins to Warp

Shinzen: “All arisings tend to coalesce into a single polarization. All passings tend to coalesce into a single neutralization. Subjective time begins to feel less like a linear extension. Very little is happening and everything is happening.”

Now, Shinzen’s model truly starts blowing my mind. Step 9 serves as a portal into an experience of time that is similar, though perhaps not identical, to what Andrés Gomez Emilsson calls a “moment of eternity.” (I have written about moments of eternity and other “exotic experiences of time” in past blogposts.) Andrés defines a moment of eternity as follows:

Subjectively, so-called “Moments of Eternity” are extremely bizarre experiences that have the quality of being self-sustaining and unconditioned. It is often described in mystical terms, such as “it feels like one is connected to the eternal light of consciousness with no past and no future direction”…

In step 9 of Shinzen’s model, all moments of time collapse into a single event, which consists of an arising and a passing. It is unclear whether this singularity lacks any temporal direction, as it does in Andrés’ description of moments of eternity. That is, in step 9, there still may be a sense that arisings precede passings. I speculate that some, if not most, meditators in step 9 experience all arisings and passings as simultaneous. This experience would be consistent with the temporal phenomenology of other altered states of consciousness that I have discussed previously on this blog.

Intriguingly, Andrés states that moments of eternity significantly lower the temporal “symmetry detection threshold,” such that people who experience this state are able to witness the fundamental symmetry of different moments of time. In other words, nothing actually changes from moment to moment. Andrés argues that moments of eternity achieve this phenomenon in the same way that psychedelic tracers give rise to the perception of spatial (“wallpaper”) symmetries, as seen below.

As Andrés notes, the third tracer almost exhibits a standing-wave (i.e. stationary-wave) rather than a traveling-wave structure. At Step 1, novice meditators experienced their own consciousness as “solid,” consisting of temporally persistent objects and sensations that were sometimes rather hard to let go of. In more advanced stages, their consciousness became more fluid and therefore began to resemble a traveling wave, as they started to notice subtle, periodic fluctuations in all of their sensory modalities. Finally, in step 9, they literally perceive all of these fluctuations as instantiations of One Wavelet, undulating between the bifurcation and unification of space. The wavelet does not arise and pass with time, hence it is stationary; yet the activity of the wavelet is nothing other than arising and passing, hence it is also traveling. The One Wavelet which is the underlying Source of all phenomena is permanent in its impermanence and ultimate in its emptiness.

Step 10: Dance at the Source

Shinzen: “One abides in a metaphoric black hole outside time and space, participating in the pure flow of the Source.
The One Nothing is metaphorically a gravitational singularity. The boundary between surface and deep consciousness (represented by the dotted line) is metaphorically the Event Horizon.”

What more is there to say?


Footnotes

[1] Mike Johnson, CEO of the Qualia Research Institute, expressed a similar view to me once.

[2] Check out Andrés Gomez Emilsson’s “Guide to Writing Rigorous Reports of Exotic States of Consciousness”, hot off the qualia press. which makes this distinction between phenomenal character and intentional content.

[3] Thank you to Chelsey for telling me about Culadasa’s model.

[4] I have a friend who took a high dose of LSD and blacked out at the peak of the trip, yet she was paradoxically able to recall vivid memories of her peak experience afterwards. I suspect that she might have undergone a PCE!

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