Zen and Instagram Yogis

Shunryu Suzuki’s role in spreading Zen Buddhism in America cannot be understated. While he never accomplished the widespread recognition that another Suzuki, Daisetz, achieved a half-century before Shunryu's arrival in San Francisco in 1959, his dedication to the sitting practice of zazen influenced a generation of seekers interested in the internal mechanisms of quieting one’s mind.

What appealed to more earnest meditators was Shunryu’s devotion to the practice, not the results. The prolific Daisetz often discussed satori, moments of ‘instant enlightenment’ that can occur when sitting with a koan or focusing on one’s breath. Shunryu avoided such discussion, emphasizing the significance of the mundane, everyday discipline. 

In this sense, Daisetz was more aligned with Gopi Krishna, who wrote books on the rising of Kundalini from his meditative yoga practice, while Shunryu is closer to Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher who predominantly shunned ideas of enlightenment for the integrity of the inner work itself. All four of these thinkers contributed greatly to twentieth century spirituality in America, approaching the task of self-realization from different perspectives.

The first abbot of San Francisco’s Zen Center, the organization grew tremendously under Shunryu’s leadership. The offshoots City Center, Green Gulch Farms and the idyllic Tassajara Zen Mountain Center came into being during his time. And while he was not nearly as productive a writer as Daisetz, he did leave behind Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, arguably one of the most important texts about the intricate workings of Zen published in the English language.

Rereading this classic work after a number of years, I was struck by the resolute impact of his sparse language. No glamour resides in this slim volume. If he chastises, it is to whittle down excess. The book is a powerful reminder that spirituality, like any religion, is something that one practices, not something one simply is

Flipping to his chapter on Right Effort, one of Buddha’s prescriptions for living a noble life, Shunryu writes

If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra.

Lately there have been a number of stories about yoga practitioners and teachers posting an endless stream of photos of themselves in postures on Instagram and amassing large followings, some into the hundreds of thousands. This NY Times story set it off, and Yogadork quickly followed suit with another perspective. Since that time, many others have chimed in. 

The essential arguments for snapping posturing selfies include: inspiring others; displaying confidence and courage; the artistic element; alignment tutorials. These are all valid arguments: seeing people doing yoga has a similar effect as posting shots of delicious cuisine. It whets the palate. Some photos can certainly be art. Alignment is sometimes off, though not always. It's safe to say that most often Instagram yogis are extremely bendable, which is not a proper representation of the larger public that practices yoga.

Whipping out your phone on occasion is harmless. A drunk yoga pic at a party—‘Look, I can handstand after my fourth glass of wine!’—yes, that happens—is much more suspect.

Without making this about the ‘intention’ of the yoga discipline—postures were but a small component of a much larger system—the emphasis on the poses is a bit much. I’m all for exercise and don’t believe that the evolution of yoga into a physical fitness format is a bad thing. Yet when it’s stripped of all other elements and becomes purely about the postures something critical to the practice is lost.

More importantly, it’s the ‘something extra’ that Suzuki referenced. I don’t find it odd that the Buddha and Patanjali both devised eight-step disciplines in achieving a deep self-awakening, the philosophies intersecting at points. Jumping out of your ‘seat’—the original translation of the word asana—to make sure you’re framed properly is not going to help you along either path.

First, something extra needs to be removed.

Image: Yellowj/shutterstock.com

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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