I have a friend, Chade-Meng Tan (陳一鳴), who is one of the original Google engineers (in fact, Employee #107!). He has recently created a program called “Search Inside Yourself” which is based on mindfulness.
A while back, he described in an email to me a significant experience (see below).
I gave him a rather extended response, which he just posted on his blog. If you’re interested, check it out:
Shinzen Young on the in and out of attention (and enlightenment)
(He was also featured in a fantastic WIRED article yesterday!: Enlightenment Engineers)
From: Chade-Meng Tan (陳一鳴)
Date: Sat, Dec 15, 2012 at 1:12 AM
Subject: mind of no thought and shamatha
To: Shinzen Young
In the past few weeks, I had been having increasingly frequent moments when my thinking stopped (at least the audio / narrative / chattering mind stopped) and the mind had enough clarity to abide in that space of no-thought. But everytime it happened, it’d only last one moment, because the next moment, the narrative mind would say, “Hey, look, no thought!” D’oh! 🙂
This time last week, I sat in a short 2+ days retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I made a huge stride forward during the retreat.
During the retreat, I became able to arrive at that mind of no-thought repeatedly, and each instance a little longer than it normally would (but still short enough to qualify as “a moment”). I investigated that mind and found that it has 3 features:
1. “Direct experiencing” is very strong, specifically the experience of sensation. There is brain science that shows the “direct experience” network to be mutually exclusive to the “narrative” network in the brain, and I think I have discovered it experientially.
2. Specifically, audio sensitivity is very high. In that mind, I became very sensitive to sound. At first, I wasn’t sure of the direction of causality, I thought it was attention to the sound that led to the mind of no-thought, since I was close to a water fountain at the time. So I moved far away from it to a “quiet” spot and found that, in that mind, I became very sensitive to the air conditioning sound. Hence, it seems like the no-thought mind lead to heightened audio sensitivity.
3. Seeing without seeing. I had a very strange visual experience, which I could describe only as “seeing without seeing”. I could clearly see, but I could not perceive visually. I investigated it and figured out what happened. In that mind of no-thought, the gaze of the eyes were fixated on one spot. I realized that when we “see” a scene, the eyes are actually scanning the entire scene and then the mind forms a mental picture.
When the gaze is fixated, the mind could not form the mental picture and hence it did not “see”. When I returned to seeing “normally” (ie, allowing the eyes to scan the scene), that subtle activity alone was enough to break the no-thought mind.
And then I realized something more profound. I realized that what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “awarenessing”, which is being here now and attending entirely to the present, specifically to sensations, creates the conditions for no-thought mind, which in turn creates the conditions for quietness of mind, which then creates the conditions for strong shamatha.
In other words, “awarenessing” is the secret ingredient of shamatha! Wow.
I just wanted to report this progress and, as usual honored teacher, any wisdom from you is greatly appreciated.