I remember walking around SXSW several years ago— the giant technology, music, & film festival in Austin, TX — with a name tag that read: “Vincent Horn, Buddhist Geeks.” I was there to participate on a panel exploring the relationship between Buddhism and the Internet of Things. Almost every time someone read my name tag they had something interesting to say about Buddhism, mindfulness, and meditation and were happy to share their thoughts with me. ;)
The general consensus from the people I talked to ended up being: “I’m interested in meditation & mindfulness and have (often) tried it. Also, Buddhism seems cool, but I don’t have the time to learn such a huge system.” Of course, they’re right. Buddhism is a massive system, and mindfulness meditation is all the rage — even those dudes on Billions are doing it.
Frankly, what first got me into Buddhism to begin with was meditation — the mind training system. I had to wade through the system of Buddhism — spending several years studying it at college and well over a decade practicing with a variety of Buddhist communities — to be able to discover the practices and ideas that ended up being really life changing for me. I’m totally glad I did, but dang did I have to wade through some crazy shit too!
So the question both my teaching partner & I have had for the last several years is: how do we take some of the awesome and life transforming things we learned from our time training and studying in various Buddhist contexts and make that accessible and relevant to folks like the ones I was hanging out with in Austin? One of the big keys in answering this question for us has been in the concept of unbundling.
Part of what’s happening in the digital revolution we’re living through is that all of the old bundles of knowledge — and the institutions that carried them forward — are being broken apart into the individual components that make them up (see my talk, “Buddhism, Unbundled” for more on this topic). Here’s how this force is described on the encyclopedic unbundler, Wikipedia:
Unbundling is a neologism to describe how the ubiquity of mobile devices, Internet connectivity, consumer web technologies, social media and information access in the 21st century is affecting older institutions (education, broadcasting, newspapers, games, shopping, etc.) by “break[ing] up the packages they once offered, providing particular parts of them at a scale and cost unmatchable by the old order.” Unbundling has been called “the great disruptor”.
Unbundling explains part of why “mindfulness” has become such a popular term (and why “compassion” is soon to follow), how education has started to go online with Massive open online courses (MOOCs), and also why large media companies like HBO and Showtime are pulling themselves from the big cable companies and going it alone (successfully).
As we looked at our own history of mind training we saw there were a number of core practice styles — ones that you could find not just in a single tradition, but repeated across virtually all the traditions. What’s more, some of these styles had already started to become unbundled from their original context (mindfulness, for instance). So instead of trying to conserve the original institutions, and models that we were handed, we’ve decided to go with the unbundling. That’s how we came up with The Five Styles of Meditation: Concentration, Mindfulness, Heartfulness, Inquiry, & Awareness.
Modular isn’t just for Homes
Here’s the thing though: It’s not enough to unbundle and unravel things — we still need to make meaning out of all the little bits that are left over. And that’s where modularity comes in. With a modular design approach, one can build a multiplicity of new systems out of the individual parts (or modules) — i.e. one can rebundle a meditative path of their choosing.
In our modular approach, these five styles of meditation have become modules (or core components) in a larger system which has many different possible configurations. One can practice any of these styles alone or one can begin to combine modules and get different combinations of practice (ex. Mindfulness + Awareness = Mindful Awareness). Some of these combinations have a beautiful harmonic effect — like the sound of multiple musical notes making a new chord — and they’re very attractive for certain people that want to get deeper into meditation.
Paradigms of Training
Each of these styles of meditation is also a training paradigm. What I mean by paradigm is akin to how the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn used the term: “a framework of concepts, results, and procedures within which subsequent work is structured.”
These training paradigms — concepts, results, & procedures (i.e. practices) — are really important, because without a coherent training model it’s difficult to gain traction and make progress inside the paradigm you’re practicing within. Having a clear sense of what the practice is, how to do it effectively, and what it’s designed to lead to is foundational for learning. If we don’t know where we’re going (results), what we’re doing (procedures), and why we’re doing it (concepts), nothing much happens.
So, the modular approach to meditation is about stripping down a variety of different training paradigms (i.e. the five styles of meditation) to their bare bones. These different minimized paradigms leave much for the practitioner to fill in, while still maintaining all the needed structure to work as designed.
As an example, of one of the things the practitioner can determine with a modular approach — that wasn’t previously available in an institutional approach — is what their intention & motivation is for doing the training. One person may want to learn to practice concentration meditation so it’s easier to learn some of the other styles of meditation, while another could learn the same style to improve their golf game. Still another person could do the same training to experience extraordinary states of altered consciousness, while yet another person could do this training to develop a more stable and focused mind while doing activist work in the middle of a war-torn region. With this unbundled, modularized approach to meditation we aren’t telling people why they should be meditating, but rather how to do it well.
One of the reasons this is so important is because it simplifies things while also handing the power back to the person interested in practicing meditation. If you want to learn meditation you get to choose what kind of mind training system you design. You don’t have to adopt and learn a bloated system right off the bat, receive a special spiritual name, be expected to change your clothes, religious status, etc. You can bypass all of that and jump right into what interests you about meditation.
At the end of the day we believe that modularity increases the degree of choice a practitioner has, while at the same time transferring authority away from pre-established systems & lineages, which can’t help but impose a monopoly of meaning upon these techniques. This moves meditation into the hands of new generations who can work together to create meditative paths and meditative solutions to our most pressing human challenges.