I tend to get what seem like essentially the same emails again and again, to which I respond in what end up being very similar ways. Thus I have included the most common questions with the most common responses so as to make things more efficient.
First: check out The Dharma Overground (DhO). This is very important. There are lots of skillful, helpful, accomplished practitioners that post regularly there and respond to questions, and I tend to pay a lot of attention to what happens there, as I founded it, time permitting. The DhO is very much in the spirit of open, clear, straightforward, friend-to-friend dharma.
Q: I have a full time job/studies +/- kids/dogs/cats/aging parents +/- a partner, very limited time for retreats, try to sit some each day, and I want to get enlightened. Help me!
A: While I do know of someone who got stream entry on about 3 hours/day of sitting over a few years, and one person who got it on her first short retreat, for most people retreats of some reasonable duration are required. While opinions on how easy it is to get enlightened vary widely, and I much more on the "It can be done" side than most, it tends to require the sort of time commitment that any other serious endeavor requires. Thus, unless you happen to be unusually talented, if you really want to get what the Buddha was talking about, you will probably have to go on at least some retreats, and probably of a few weeks each at least, and this assumes that you will practice very well and can put aside dealing with your "stuff", which most just don't seem willing or able to do most of the time. While I managed to do this stuff while having jobs, relationships, graduate studies, and the like, it was nothing resembling easy or cheap. I gave up nearly all of my vacation time for years to retreats, my career development was delayed, I spent much less time doing other things so that I could sit daily (such as TV, time with friends/family), there were relationship stresses, money that was borrowed and often very tight, and the like. I still think it was the right thing to do, but I recommend being realistic about what this may cost on many fronts, particularly if you have children, who, in my humble opinion, deserve your time and commitment. Sometimes it takes some time for people to gently strip their lives down a bit in healthy and non-destructive ways to make some more time for the dharma. Others will make radical changes and go off in wildly new directions. I generally recommend that people try to find a local sitting group and/or some kind of teacher. Each person, situation, and time is different, but carefully consider that the life you will awaken to is the actual, ordinary life you live, so make it a good one, and realize that when your spiritual quest is over, there is still the laundry.
Q: I had this amazing experience (involving lights, visions, powers, energy, Kundalini, vibrations, meditating while dreaming, vortices, powerful bliss, spontaneus movements, deep releases, sexual feelings, profound "emptiness", non-duality, unity, cosmic consciousness, etc.) and now I: a) think I may be enlightened, b) can't find anyone to talk with about it, c) don't know what to make of it, d) my teachers wouldn't tell me what happened, e) am now on a spiritual quest and excited about practice, f) am depressed and freaked out, g) am not sure what to do, h) am confused, etc.
A: The vast majority of experiences that really blow peoples minds and cause big changes are something the Theravada calls the Arising and Passing Away (A&P) Event, aka the 4th ñana, aka Knowledge of Deep Insight into the Arising and Passing of Phenomena, aka Udayabbayanupassana in Pali, aka "The Wave" in massage terms, aka awakening the Kundalini in Hindu terms, aka the fourth stage of the first path of the Tibetan 5-path system, aka pseudo-nirvana in Jack Kornfield's clan's terms. In fact, if you are looking around at sites such as this one and a committed spiritual quester, the chances are quite good that at some point you have crossed the A&P. It is marked generally by some combination of profound openings, energetic phenomena, lights/visions, powerful dreams, bliss, rapture, and the like. I describe it in detail in my book, and have written a short essay about it with some of my experiences of it so as to try to add a real-world touch to the theory. It is a life changing and important experience that may repeat again and again. It can occur off retreat and even without meditation training. With each occurrence, it is followed almost invariably by something called The Dark Night, aka the Knowledges of Suffering, aka the Dukkha Ñanas, and other names, which I also describe in my book. This can cause all sorts of complexities. Many people are quite surprised that they could possibly have had a "real", traditional meditation experience. As the A&P contains key features but many of the specifics can vary widely, people may feel it does not perfectly align with stock descriptions and thus be confused. Most meditation teachers at this unfornate juncture in history will not tell people what has happened to them (assuming they even know what it was), and also will not warn them of what happens next, meaning the Dark Night. Thus, my advice is: read my book! This stuff is all in there. If something blew your mind: 98% chance it was the A&P, but look around at the other criteria, and read the warnings and advice. In general terms: go on more retreats, practice more, follow instructions carefully, and get stream entry as soon as possible. In the meantime, be nice to people when you can and try to avoid screwing up your life if possible.
Q: What is the best meditation practice for me to do?
A: The short answer is whatever works for you. I have my personal favorites, basically those that worked for me, and I give detailed instructions on them as well as other references for instruction on them in my book. In general terms, I like Mahashi-style practices, but there are many good wisdom and concentration traditions out there, and so really it depends on what you are trying to accomplish, what styles of practice fit with your makeup, what you have access to, and many other factors.
Q: I have some time to go on retreat and want a teacher who will use the map terminology, talk honestly about meditation territory, and not be freaked out or intimidated by goal-oriented practice so that I can get stream entry.
A: As teachers like this are so few, I tend to respond to this question as follows: a) if you can find one, great! Check out Mahasi centers, ask around, and best of luck. b) Be a light unto yourself! This means that the essential thing is practice. You do not need a teacher to tell you to practice with precise, every-second of the waking day mindfulness, direct perception of the Three Characteristics, and consistent technique, as you can remind yourself of this. You do not need someone else to tell you not to wallow in your psychological crap, as you can remember this yourself. You do not need a teacher to identify the stages of insight for you, as they tend to be obvious, occur in a very predictable sequence, and the instructions for dealing with them are essentially the same: keep practicing, notice each sensation come and go regardless of what it was, avoid solidifying pleasant states into a jhana, don't be fooled by thinking the A&P is stream entry or that the bliss will last: it is a trap, avoid indulging in your negativity or stopping practicing if and when you get to the Dark Night, and don't slack off or solidify equanimity into a jhana if and when you get to High Equanimity. This is how stream entry or the next path are attained. Thus: memorize the maps if you need to, as they can really help. Basically: the A&P is great, mind-blowing, energetic, kundalini-esque, blissful, powerful, surprising, etc., the Dark Night follows it and involves negative mind states and reactivity, and then if and when that breaks, that's equanimity. Simple! Then when on retreat, practice noticing every single sensation arise and vanish regardless of what happens, good or bad. Thus, if you can remember and apply a very few key instructions, any reasonably good retreat center will do. The few minutes that you get every day or two with a teacher, no matter how good, will mean little if you can't remember and apply these simple instructions. Thus, internalize the dharma, keep your practice on track, use good teachers if you can find them, but above all, realize that responsibility for the quality and results of your own practice falls on you. This is not kindergarten.
My current best recommendation is typically Panditarama Lumbini in Nepal. I haven't been there, but it gets great reviews. If you go there, keep three things in mind:
- Do not use lots of dharma map theory and terms. Keep your descriptions simple, sensate, down to earth, and phenomenological. Apparently, they find it pretty annoying when people come in all jacked up on advanced dharma theory talkin' out dey heads.
- Follow the given instructions exactly and respectfully. They are the teachers. You are the student. Learn from them and be humble.
- Don't tell them that I recommended you to them. I am not sure what the politics is here, but apparently it is real. Still: great place. Great instructions. Great results reported by numerous good friends.
Q: Will you be my teacher?
A: Not really. While I sometimes email people back, and while I do occasionally talk to people on the phone, in general I feel that people need to do it for themselves. My book contains a staggering amount of practical information, as do many others, there are numerous places to do the kind of long-term practice that makes all this stuff clear to the person who does that practice. If you are looking outside for answers, the best answers you will get from the "outside" will send you back to your practice. Whatever brief interaction we have, it will be trivial in comparison to investigative practice done well, though clearly there are times when people (including me) benefit from good dharma exchanges. Realize that I work a more than full-time job, am married, and thus, while more formal dharma is one of my favorite topics, it can only take up so much of my time. I hope to finally be worth nothing for the first time since I was 20 years old sometime around mid-2015 if I am really lucky, and perhaps then I will be able to work less. In the meantime, it's nose to the grindstone...
Q: You claim to be enlightened, and thus I have all these ideals that I want to project all over you, test out, and have you verify or deny them. I wish criticize you for your claims to attainments, convince you how deluded you are, or shower praise upon you, or any other sort of questions and statements on this general front.
A: I talk a lot about how preposterous most of the models of awakening are in my book, and so I tend to refer people there. Beyond that, the simple fact is that I am an ordinary guy who by following time-tested instructions achieved something that is rare only because those that take the time to do that are so rare. As to anything beyond that, please discard any and all dehumanizing and unrealistic notions of what this stuff is about and instead simply practice well. A fair number of mighty traditional scholars and dogma-heads have come at me with the expected responses to my claims, and unfortunately I don't think that anything productive has come from any of those tedious exchanges. The claims of some guy on the internet are only useful to you if they inspire you to practice well, follow time-tested, standard meditative instructions in sufficient dose, and learn to perceive the dharma clearly for yourself. Otherwise, best to let it go.
I have been open about attainments and on the internet since 1997 or so, so I have heard it all, every text you could possibly site, every concern about the conflicts between views about dharma theory and practice you could possibly dredge up, every strange ideal and projection you could possibly imagine, and some that you would likely never have thought of, as they were so far out there. Just like nearly any Google search will rapidly demonstrate your ideas are not unique, so I have had more emails and conversations about these topics that I could possibly count.
Q: Can I give you a donation?
A: I answer this one with a qualified "no". I make a pretty good living working as a doctor, and one of the reasons for that is to keep the money aspect of my dharma clean, meaning that I have no real financial temptation to water the thing down for mass appeal as is so common, as the chances of any normal donation that someone would give me making even a scrap of difference in my financial life are basically none. Thus, use that money to go on retreat, buy some good dharma book, support some local teacher who lives on donations, give it to some monastery or retreat center, or whatever. If you want to give it to a charity in my name, that would be great, and my favorite is Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
That said, if you just happened to be completely loaded (say $10,000,000+ range), overwhelmed with gratitude for my book or some email that you found unusually helpful for your own practice, and can't be talked out of giving me some huge chunk of change that you can easily afford, alright, you win... ;) I will find some skillful way to help people with it.
Q: Can I come sit with you/where do you teach?
A: Probably not. At this point there is no center where you can sit with me. To my profound dismay, the typical retreat center is populated mostly with people who for whatever reason are not much into the sort of hardcore, technical, goal-oreinted and non-psychologized dharma that I am into, and thus I suspect a lot of mutual frustration is avoided by me not teaching in mainstream dharma centers. I do have a hut and a small guest house that I have run a very small number of retreats out of for a very small number of people. Those were on a very special-request basis and who knows if I will ever do that again. I suppose in the abstract that I would be open to going somewhere and sharing the dharma in some capacity with the right group of people, work schedule permitting, but the subject has never come up in any practical or serious context, so this is all untested theory.