Working with Shinzen Young‘s system of mindfulness training, which I’ve described here before, and thinking it through in the process-relational logic I’ve been developing on this blog (and elsewhere), is resulting in a certain re-mix of Shinzen’s ideas, and of Buddhism more generally, with Peirce’s, Whitehead’s, Wilber’s, Deleuze’s, and others’. Here’s a crack at where it’s taking me…

I’ve divided this into three parts due to its length. Part 1 builds on Shinzen’s “5 ways to know yourself as a spiritual being,” which presents five core mindfulness practices, to develop a basic classification of ways in which the human bodymind can know itself and the world. Part 2 deepens the model by pushing beyond traditional dualisms through incorporating what Shinzen calls “flow,” which is analogous to the central insight of process-relational philosophies about the fundamentally processual nature of subjectivity or mentality, objectivity or materiality, and the dynamic and interdependent relationship between the two. Part 3 provides some concluding thoughts and caveats.


As I’ve written here before, Shinzen Young’s system is one of the most comprehensive practical systems of mindfulness/meditation training I’ve ever come across. Based in the Zen (Shingon) and Vipassana traditions of Buddhism, but developed with reference to numerous other traditions including Vajrayana and Christian mysticism, the system is also deeply resonant with the process-relational themes explored on this blog.

What follows is an attempt to expand and develop Shinzen’s approach so as to encompass not only meditative techniques but the full range of options available to the human bodymind, whether meditative or spiritual in intent or not. This will be done with particular reference to the logical and phenomenological categories of C. S. Peirce and, to lesser degrees, the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead and the AQAL system of Ken Wilber.


Starting Out: Two Categories, Two Orientations

Shinzen speaks of five ways of meditation — “focusing in” (on subjective states or internal perceptions), “focusing out” (on objective states or external perceptions), “focusing on rest,” “focusing on the positive,” and “focusing on flow.” These can be lumped together into two overarching categories or modalities: observation (or noting), and cultivation.

Meditative techniques generally fall into these two categories. Some, like Vipassana or insight-based approaches, train the mind to observe dispassionately everything that arises in the mental field. Others work by cultivating specific states through the use of visualizations, sounds, prayers, chants or mantras, bodily postures and movements, feeling states (such as metta or “loving-kindness,” solidarity with all sentient beings, or identification with a particular deity), and the like.

The “five ways” can also be classified in terms of their orientation, which can be either toward “internal” or “subjective” phenomena, or toward “external” of “objective” phenomena. For the moment, let’s pretend those are mutually exclusive.

Shinzen’s “Focus In” is a form of observation focused on the “subjective” pole of experience, with specific reference to bodily-felt emotional sensations, visual images, and mental talk — or what Shinzen calls “Feel,” “Image,” and “Talk.” The goal of focusing-in is to tease out the component elements of subjective experience as it arises. “Focus Out” does the same with the “objective” pole of experience, with reference to the visual, the auditory, and everything else — or “Sight,” “Sound,” and “Touch” (with smell, taste, and the kinesthetic senses loosely subsumed into the latter). The goal of focusing-out is to “anchor” oneself in the present moment. In his more recent iteration of these methods, Shinzen calls these six, respectively, Feel-In, See-In, Hear-In, and See-Out, Hear-Out, Feel-Out (see his diagram here).

The remaining methods — “Focus on Rest,” “Focus on the Positive,” and “Focus on Flow” — all fall generally into the second modality of “cultivation,” since they require intentional focus on specific states and/or the intentional generation of those states (i.e., restful, positive, or flow states). In the more recent model these are all related to the triad of See-Hear-Feel, so we get See-Rest, Hear-Rest, Feel-Rest, See-Flow, Hear-Flow, and so on (though the directional orientation of rest and flow states, i.e. whether they are “in” or “out,” is lost in this version; but, as we will see, this may not be a problem at all).

All of these methods have the common goal of developing three skills or capacities in the practitioner: greater concentration, greater mental and sensory clarity, and greater equanimity in the face of life’s exigencies.These in turn contribute both to the practitioner’s happiness and, indirectly, to that of others.


Tweak #1: What Else Can a Bodymind Do?

So far, the discussion of meditative methods has implicitly presumed two things: a relatively inactive body (seated, or something like it), and a relatively cognitively settled mind. In other words, these methods tend to refer to what a seated meditator can do. Shinzen additionally speaks of “practice in motion” (which includes practice while doing yoga or moving around in other ways) and “practice in life,” but these are treated as extensions of the more basic forms of mindfulness training.

In the interest of blurring the boundary between meditation and life, and thereby building up a more general framework for understanding the bodymind and its possibilities, I would like to add activity in the world, or what we might call “normal body,” and regular thought processes, or “normal mind,” to the model.

To do this we would have to add at least one, and probably one-and-a-half categories to the two we have so far (observation and cultivation).

The “half a category” would simply be a recognition that the other categories are reflections or developments on a process that typically goes on more or less by itself: thoughts, actions, and significances arising of their own accord, in response to previous thoughts, actions, and significances. So the completely unreflexive mind would be a mind before any intervention whatsoever, including that of observation.

The full category I wish to add is that of interpretation, semiosis, or meaning-making, i.e. the making sense of things in the way we normally do this or in specific and cultivable ways, such as those of science or of some tradition of analytic learning or education. Semiosis or interpretive meaning-making is what, in Gregory Bateson’s terms, turns Pleroma, or the world of quantifiable but “meaningless” action and reaction, into Creatura, which is the world of meaning, sense, and “differences that make a difference” — the world in which there is (a) world.

It may seem artificial to separate interpretation from observation, as this would suggest that a “pure,” non-preinterpreted observation is possible, which is disputed by many influential cognitive and social-scientific models. But this distinction allows us to posit that there is at least a moment, or a “turn towards the things themselves,” in Observation (I’ll capitalize these three terms to indicate when I’m using them in a technical senss) which makes it  different from the more synthetic and dialectical orientation found within the Interpretation of phenomena.

Furthermore, neither Observation nor Interpretation normally occur outside the context of Action: all are connected to each other within the “enactive embeddedness within a world” that (embodied, extended, embedded, enactive) cognitive science takes as the fundamental status of human cognition. (I’m presuming that the “4E” version of cognitivism is the cutting edge of that particular field of study, so if you disagree with that and are still with me, you may start your disagreeing here.)

C. S. Peirce’s logical categories, however, suggest that a distinction ought to be made between these three, both because the moments are logically different (as I hope will become evident) and because anything less than three moments makes it impossible for us to distinguish between more or less accurate and coherent observations and interpretations. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I trust the usefulness of the triadic categories will become evident as we proceed.

The result of these one-and-a-half additions is a framework that looks like this:

(0) Free Activity:

Mindbody doing what it does; things arising as responses/results of previous arisings; the normal course of Pratītyasamutpāda or Dependent Origination, i.e. the causal nexus within which all things arise based on their dependence on all manner of previous arisings.

(1) Observation:

Noting the arising of things as they arise. To be consistent with Whiteheadian, Peircian, and Shinzenian interpretations, this noting should also be considered a “feeling”: one notes what has arisen, feels or “tastes” it, and then allows it to go on its own course without attaching anything of “self” to it. Here we’ve added a step to the normal course: it’s a very small step — mere (feelingful) observation — but a crucial one. Most forms of the first category of meditation mentioned above fall into this category of (minimal) action.

(2) Intervention:

Resisting and/or replacing normal arisings with others; cultivating specific states or modes; mental exercises with specific goals in mind. Most forms of the second category of meditation fall into, or at least find their primary home, in this second, more obviously active category.

(3) Interpretation/Meaning-Making:

This includes all manner of conceptual thought, deduction, reasoning, generalization, and realization. The latter term is meant to suggest that this third moment is not separate from the first two, but in fact includes and builds on them.

I’ve added numbers to make this schema consistent with Peircian phenomenology. The numbers don’t exactly correspond to Peirce’s categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, but they come to a useful approximation of them.

Recall that Peirce’s categories are logical categories: firsts are things in and of themselves: pure qualities, potentialities, singularities irrespective of any others; seconds involve encounters between two terms or entities, and are always characterized by activity and resistance, action and reaction; and thirds involve the mediation of two terms by a third, resulting in patterns, generalization, meaning, habit, law. Firstness is potential; secondness is Pleroma, brute actuality; thirdness is Creatura, the “worldness” that includes representation, generality, and meaning. These are not existentially separate: secondness requires firstness; thirdness requires secondness and firstness; and the actual universe consists of all of them, in endlessly differentiating proliferation.

Observation is a turning of the mind toward the firstness of what’s arising in the mental-perceptual field. To the extent that this “turning” is already an encounter between one thing and another — mental contents arising, and a mental observer that is produced through the very action of observation or “turning” — it becomes, or is always becoming, a form of secondness, not a pure firstness. But the point is to try to get as close to firstness as possible. If the observation affects what is being observed (as some argue always occurs, to some degree), then the injunction here is simply to “observe that, too.” It is the orientation toward the arising firstness that makes it Observation.

Analogously, Intervention, in this system, is not a mere automatic response. It is an intentional response, which involves a turning to what’s there and an action upon it or in response to it. Alternatively, it may be an action replacing what would normally arise: for instance, the recitation and focusing of one’s mind upon a mantra so that the mental field will not be taken over by other habitual activities. The goal is to cultivate particular states of mind, which may be restful (“meditative”), trance states of one kind or another, or states valued for their positive valence in a particular religious or meditative system (e.g., devotional, compassionate, solidaritous, identification with deity, etc.).

Finally, Interpretation in the sense meant here also involves the intention of making sense of the activity in question.

Each of these, however, has its common or “normal” forms as well as the specific, cultivated (or cultivable) forms they take within meditative or yogic training, and I will refer to both below. Furthermore, to say that action or interpretation is “intended” is to beg the question “intended by what, or by whom?” and one’s answer to this — for instance, by “the self,” or by “the process of conditioned arising that envelops a mental-bodily field,” or something else — already depends on an onto-epistemological interpretation of what arises. (If you believe there is an active self “behind” everything your mind does, then you’re already committed to a dualistic position that the rest of this article is intended to get us beyond.) But let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Now, here is where things start to get interesting. If we add the two orientations — “in” and “out,” that is, toward the subjective and objective poles of experience — and apply each of the three “movements” of Observation, Intervention, and Interpretation to them, we arrive at a more fully rounded conceptualization of the possibilities for human bodyminds, which looks as follows. (Note, however, that it still remains within a traditional dualistic understanding of self and other, subject and object, etc.) For simplicity’s and mellifluity’s sake, let’s replace the term “intervene” with the word “act.”

1a) OBSERVE IN: Observation of internal states

1b) OBSERVE OUT: Observation of external states

2a) ACT IN: Respond/resist/replace/cultivate internal states

2b) ACT OUT: Respond/resist/replace/cultivate external states

3a) INTERPRET IN: Generalize/theorize internal states

3b) INTERPRET OUT: Generalize/theorize external states.

Here we have added the two most basic activities of normal human waking consciousness to the picture. “Act Out” is equivalent to acting in the world. “Interpret Out” is equivalent to making sense of the world. The development of specific, reliable methods for doing the latter is something every society tends to engage in; in ours it is called “science.”

The combination of the two — acting (intervening-out) and processing those actions and their results (interpreting-out), or changing the world according to an analytical understanding of how it ought to be changed — is what most forms of critical social theory/praxis aim for. In less coherent forms, they are what people’s lives, at their best, tend to be about: doing things, reflecting on what we’ve done, and learning in the process to do things better. The movement between these is a continuous one between observation (awareness), intervention (action), and interpretation (theory), with a constant generation of Peircian “thirdness” — the realization of meaning, sense, and pattern — in the process.

Note, also, that we now have not only Shinzen’s Focus-In and Focus-Out techniques, but also his Focus-on-Rest and Focus-on-the Positive. Focus-on-Rest is a particular form of Intervention, i.e. the cultivation of restful states. (Or one can think of it as a combination of Observation and Intervention: first one finds restful states in one’s awareness, then one rests in them.) In meditation, these are typically internal states: for instance, the finding of spaces of silence in between the bits of internal “mental chatter,” and the resting in those spaces. But they can also be the finding and resting in restful states in the world of sight, of sound, of touch, or of any combination of these.

In this model, however, the cultivation of restful states can also involve the generation of external states, that is, through action intended to have an effect in the world. This is what people have done traditionally through, for instance, the creation, maintenance, and use of sanctuaries, temples, meditation rooms, altars, sand mandalas and tangka paintings, retreats and spas, and the like; through the practice and cultivation of silence; and through responding to others’ anger with quiet, empathic understanding, or to war with nonviolent resistance. Focus-on-the-Positive is the same sort of thing: it can include the cultivation of positive internal states and of positive external states. More broadly, this category is, of course, action for positive change of any kind, whether incremental, reformist, or revolutionary.

Here I should mention, however, that I’ve always felt a little bit of hesitation when I’ve heard Shinzen speak of focusing on “the positive.” The cybernetic holist in me always thinks “why just the positive?” Don’t negative (and neutral) states also have a role to play? In Tantra and in western magical practices (as in chaos magic), there is a place for the visualization and imaginative taking-on of negative states, such as those represented by wrathful deities. Perhaps we don’t want to encourage this sort of thing outside the appropriate circumstances, but since the framework I am building is intended to encompass not just meditative practice but all practice, and humans have a long-cultivated capacity to intentionally produce negative, or mixed positive-negative, states, then these should be accommodated within the model as well.



For Part 2 of this 3-part article, please click here.

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