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Jay Michaelson on 'Evolving Dharma'

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1. What was your prime motivation and inspiration in creating your new book "Evolving Dharma Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment?"

This is really the book I wanted to write right now. I wanted to tell the story of a phenomenon that is rapidly changing the Western world—the mass adoption of meditation—but I also wanted to tell it from a personal point of view, about my own winding road in practice and how it's impacted my life.

It's corny but I really do think that contemplative practice may change the world. I don't know of a better way to help us become better animals than we might otherwise be.

2. Would you share with us how you official got started on the path of Buddhism?

In college and later in graduate school, I studied mystical texts and was entranced by the possibility of profound mystical experiences. Yet I never tried to have them for myself – not until later in life. I came to meditation for experiences of transcendence, only later to find out that they weren’t what really matters. I discuss all of this in the book.

3. Could you share some thoughts with us about meditation from your perspective?

Meditation is not religion, not spirituality—it's a technology of upgrading the mind that can enrich one's life, including one's religious life. We're used to the idea of physical fitness. Time to get used to the idea of contemplative fitness, and practice at least as diligently.

4. What about the next generation of Enlightenment? What do you mean by that?

The very notion of liberation, or enlightenment, is evolving. We understand what it looks like in neuroscientific terms, and we're in a more mature position to appreciate it experientially. Liberation involves building up your pre-frontal cortex so that it can mediate between even the most intense impulses from other parts of your brain. This shifts how we understand meditation itself -- what it's doing, what it's about.

5. What exactly is a brain hacker?

A “brainhacker” is a meditator who knows that what she’s doing is hacking the brain – improving its functionality, building feedback loops, that sort of thing. What the brainhacker is doing may be no different from what any yoga or meditation practitioner is doing, but the attitude – pragmatic, non-woo-woo, enthusiastic – is distinctive.

6. Who are some post modern Buddhist monks you'd like to tell us about?

Well, as the book describes, increasing numbers of contemporary Western practitioners are returning to very old forms of contemplative life, including monasticism. They're doing this not out of a sense of piety or traditionalism, but for postmodern, pragmatic reasons: this way of living works. It's a fascinating development.

7. This is a wild card question. What would you like to share with us from your book that our readers might find interesting?

I'd love to clear up certain misconceptions. One found among meditation "outsiders" is that you need to be a hippie to meditate. Not so!

For meditation "insiders," it's that you're not supposed to make progress in practice. I understand why this idea was once useful, and it's true that meditation is not really about getting anywhere or accomplishing anything. But, and this is an important but, it is possible to get better at not getting anywhere. All the Asian contemplative traditions have notions of a path, of development, of a dharma that evolves over the course of one's practice. Yet in many streams of Western Buddhism, this idea was not just lost but deliberately omitted in translation.

8. What are you up to next book wise or projects wise and any links you'd like to share with us? Thanks for this interview.

My next book depends on fate! The book based on my doctoral dissertation, "Jacob Frank: The Great Jewish Heretic," is under review at an academic press. And a proposal for another more mainstream book on LGBT issues, What is Homosexuality For? is under review as well. Or I may get my poetry manuscript in shape so it jumps ahead of both. I've got stuff to keep me busy.

Brought to you by North Atlantic Books

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