On Sunday, I was joined by Kenneth Folk for a rich and timely dialog entitled “Awakening is Possible, But So What? — A Pragmatic Approach to Intersubjective Awakening.”
Kenneth Folk considers himself a “ruthlessly unsentimental” and pragmatic dharma teacher. This is because he is willing to toss anything out, including the Buddha, if at any point he doesn’t find those teachings really helpful. His dialog was especially timely, as mindfulness is rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance: both intellectually through the confluence of Buddhism, neuroscience and psychotherapy, and culturally through the embrace of pop culture and the corporate world, especially the tech sector, including gatherings like Wisdom 2.0 and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” classes.
In observing the development of “mainstream mindfulness”, my sense is that much of it is simply a popularization of beginning practices—which is not necessarily a bad thing! There is a tremendous practical value in applying practice to cultivating everyday well-being.
But there is another pragmatic stream that’s fiercely rational and agnostic and also rigorously avoids metaphysical presumptions that I find much more interesting. It’s grounded in deeper sustained meditative practice and is experimenting in actively evolving dharma in various ways, including intersubjective practice and awakening. I see Kenneth Folk as one of the most interesting voices in this influential edge of evolving dharma.
He is passionate about demythologizing the process of awakening, which he defines as “the ability to see experience as process in real time.” One of his most radical assertions is that awakening is not only possible, but it’s possible for almost everyone, a kind of democratization of enlightenment. And as a pragmatist, he points to his own awakening and ongoing experience as proof of this.
I resonated on one level, but I also asked, as did one of our listeners, whether or not Kenneth was trivializing or “watering down” awakening, or simply disregarding the most profound kind of awakening by referring to his own experience. After all, the traditional view of awakening is that it is rare and world-shaking, opening us to higher human capacities and enabling people to operate at a whole different level.
Kenneth responded that rather than a rarified or exalted state, awakening is actually a point on the continuum of human development. He says that 2500 years ago the people around the historical Buddha were “popping like popcorn” with awakening. The traditional texts describe thousands of “arhats” around the Buddha. So, he says, it follows that now we are capable of doing what was done 2500 ago. Strip away the hagiography and mythology, what he calls the “cartoon saint” image of enlightenment, and awakening becomes a predictable stage of human development.
And what does “seeing experience as process in real time” look like? Kenneth says that because we are constrained by our biology, it is counterproductive to make an enemy of negative emotions and states or to set a fantasy goal of eradicating them. He suggests that a more realistic and higher goal is what he calls “meta-okayness”- a grounded equanimity that is so robust that it can even allow for suffering, anger, and all negative states to arise.
I acknowledged that this description of awakening corresponds with the radical teaching that the highest realization freely coexists with all states of mind and emotion. And I also pointed out that even people who respect and honor the ancient schools often think it’s absurd to put decades of mind/body purification between us and freedom.
Kenneth described his primary method for teaching students to achieve meta-okayness. He calls it “The 3 Speed Transmission”:
1st Gear— What is happening? Objectify experience. This perspective comes from the Mahasi Theravada teaching of noting, objectifying and labeling experience. It begins by objectifying body sensations. If you can name them, you’re not embedded in them. So you notice sensations and note to yourself: “Pressure, tightness, tension, release, coolness, warmth, softness, hardness, tingling, itching, burning, stinging, pulsing, throbbing, seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing.” If I am looking at something, it is not me. Then you objectify the feeling-tone. Are sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? If you can sit quietly and attentively for five minutes and note pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral every few seconds, you are no longer embedded in that layer of mind. Then you objectify mind states like curiosity, happiness, anxiety, amusement, sadness, joy, anger, frustration, annoyance, irritation, aversion, desire, etc. These mind states are not “you;” we know this because if there is a “you” it is the one who is looking, not what is being looked at. Then you objectify thoughts. You can categorize them: “planning thought, anticipating thought, worrying thought, remembering thought, rehearsing thought, etc. The content of your thoughts is not relevant except to the extent that it helps you to label and therefore objectify them.
2nd Gear— To whom is it happening? Who am I? This perspective is based on the Advaita Vedanta teaching of self-inquiry. In it you notice the apparent subject as an object. You turn the light of attention back on itself. Who knows about this experience? Are you causing this experience in this moment? To whom is this happening?
3rd Gear—Surrender entirely. This experience has already arisen, and it is as it is, so there is nothing to do. Or that you can do. It is what it is, with or without your participation. This does not mean that you must be passive. Surrendering entirely, means surrendering also to activity This is the truly non-dual perspective and awakening.
Kenneth says his students are awakening. His claim is that awakening is not only possible; it doesn’t even have to be rare. But then the question arises: But so what? This is when Kenneth and I arrived at the crux of our dialog—how can awakening impact a world which faces a confluence of complex crises? The possibility of intersubjective awakening becomes a vital consideration. And intersubjective awakening is possible. Ken says that given the fact that there isn’t anybody “in here”, in the individual, to wake up, it’s just a valid to say that a relationship can awaken—there isn’t anybody in there either! Or a culture! But there is something going on as a process, and the group can awaken into shared awareness of that process as that very process.
Our conversation went much further, and I think it makes a valuable contribution to the evolution of dharma and practice. I hope you listen in and enjoy!