Shinzen Young Develops Meditations for Pain, Performance Anxiety, and Daily Life Available Exclusively in the Calm App
We're honored to welcome Shinzen Young, author, mindfulness teacher, and neuroscience research consultant to our growing family of meditation teachers in the Calm app.
He's developed 3 new sessions for us called ‘Untangling Physical Pain’, ‘Deconstructing Performance Anxiety’, and ‘Mindfulness in Daily Life’.
We sat down with Shinzen Young to learn about his mediation journey and neuroscience research. We also asked him for a few meditation tips!
How/why did you start meditating?
I started meditation practice in 1970 when I ordained as a monk in the Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) school at Mount Koya in Japan. Subsequent to that, I continued to live in various types of monasteries in Asia and in the United States.
My initial motivation to practice was two-fold.
The first, like many who became young adults in the sixties, I experimented with mind-altering substances. That opened my eyes to the possibility of accessing “altered states.”
The second, I saw enormous suffering around me and appalling potential for suffering within me.
Why is it so important for people to meditate today?
In a sound bite: Meditation optimizes happiness.
Here’s what I mean.
It’s possible to analyze all forms of meditation in terms of three core attention skills: concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Armed with these forms of mental strength, you can be happy in the deepest and broadest sense possible.
Broad: There are five dimensions to happiness--minimizing (physical, mental, emotional, and situational) suffering, maximizing (physical, mental, emotional, and situational) fulfillment, understanding yourself at all levels, acting skillfully in the world, and serving others from love.
Deep: The deepest forms of happiness are independent of conditions.
Have you ever had any struggles with your practice in the beginning? What do you still struggle with today?
I struggled hugely at the beginning of practice, and for the reasons that many people report. I had a lot of physical discomfort during formal sitting practice. My mind was racy and scattered. I was often an emotional train wreck. And, on top of all of that, I constantly agonized over the inconsistences and conflicting claims of various teachers and lineages.
Today, my main struggle is two-fold: (1) Trying to be a good person by the ordinary canons of humanity, and (2) trying to not make too many silly mistakes as I age.
Can you tell us about your neuroscience research, what you hope it will bring to the world?
When describing the deep end of meditation experience, many traditions state or imply that it’s really not so much about getting to a special good place. Rather, it’s more about noticing a profound Okayness that’s always been there. From that perspective, the issue is not how to get something new. The issue is how to get rid of something old—an inveterate pattern that blocks access to your Primordial Completeness. An example of this perspective is the logic of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism claims that all forms of non-happiness ultimately go back to a single necessary cause. The Buddha called it tanha—grasping, i.e., push and pull around the natural flow of inner and outer sensory experience. Nirvana (essentially, happiness independent of conditions) arises automatically as you work through that habitual grasping.
A lot of theoretical and clinical evidence points to the possibility that grasping itself may depend on some physiological condition. In other words, it’s possible (but by no means established!) that a certain pattern in the brain has to activate for a state of grasping (i.e., non-equanimity) to arise. Perhaps we could develop a physiological process that gently suspends grasping at the biophysical level, and perhaps that, in turn, would create a state of heightened neuroplasticity within which meditation skills could be cultivated with less struggle and effort.
I’m not claiming this will be the case. I’m only claiming that it’s an idea worth investigating.
To suspend a deep pattern in brain function, you need to reach specific brain areas with a precise form of modulation. The problem is that most forms of neuromodulation are either 1) complicated and invasive (deep brain stimulation and such) or 2) they’re imprecise and difficult to control (transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial electrical stimulation, most forms of neurofeedback…). There is, however, a relatively unexplored form of neuromodulation that is both non-invasive and very precise. It’s called low-intensity focused ultrasound. Low-intensity focused ultrasound is similar to diagnostic ultrasound, but instead of forming the image of an organ, the goal is to modulate the function of that organ through imparting acoustic energy in a certain pattern. The process of depositing acoustic energy in matter is called “sonication”.
I and my research partner Jay Sanguinetti are looking into the feasibility of SEMA (Sonication-Enhanced Mindful Awareness) Training. We call it sonication-enhanced training to emphasize that it’s not some sort of zap or replacement for meditation, just hopefully a somewhat more efficient way to go about the process. If you’re interested, check out what Jay has to say here.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started meditating?
This is an interesting question for me. When I read it, the first thing that popped in my mind-space was “Nothing in particular,” meaning that I was blessed with teachers who essentially told me everything I needed to know.
Here are a few highlights:
You should practice for two reasons: To benefit yourself and to better serve others.
Any depth you attain during seated practice, you should aim to maintain during ordinary activities.
There’s an aspect to meditation that entails calming, but there’s a complementary aspect that involves sensory clarity.
You’ll make optimal progress if you work directly with a personal teacher / coach who’s both very deep and with whom you share communication rapport.
Keep up the structure of your practice for your whole life, every day, no matter what.
Your insights will mature over the years and decades; don’t fixate views around the nature of practice.
One way to describe how consciousness works at the deepest level entails reinterpreting the South Asian concept of Arising and Passing in terms of the East Asian concept of Expanding and Contracting.
About Shinzen Young
Shinzen Young is an American meditation teacher and neuroscience research consultant. He is known for his innovative “interactive, algorithmic approach” to mindfulness, a system specifically designed for use in pain management, recovery support, and as an adjunct to psychotherapy. After majoring in Asian languages at UCLA, he entered a PhD program in Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. As a part of his thesis research, he lived as a Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) monk for three years at Mount Koya, Japan. It was then that he received the name Shinzen. He has collaborated with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Arizona. Today, he guides meditation retreats throughout North America, leads numerous mindfulness centers and programs, directs Brightmind, and consults widely on meditation-related research.