Big Mind Process
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The "Big Mind Process" is a technique developed by Zen teacher Dennis Merzel that merges Western psychological techniques (specifically Voice Dialogue therapy) with Buddhist conceptions of self and mind.
Japanese Soto Zen founder Dōgen Zenji uses the phrase in his Tenzo Kyōkun (Instructions to the Chief Cook); as does 20th-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in talks collected in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
Big Mind indicates an awareness of reality that transcends the merely personal, or wholly subjective.
Voices of the Self
According to Merzel, the self can take on many personalities, which are subsumed in our unconsciousness. By giving voice to those personalities, they become accessible to the consciousness. Merzel describes "the voices of the self" as follows,
Each of us has innumerable voices, or aspects, within us. To get a clearer picture of how they operate, think of yourself for a moment as a large corporation with many, many employees. How many? Nobody knows. It's a little bizarre.
Nevertheless, Dennis Merzel has outlined a number of "voices of the self":
- The Protector
- The Controller
- The Skeptic
- The Damaged Self
- The Victim
- The Vulnerable and Innocent Child
- The Dualistic Mind
- The Seeking Mind
- The Mind that Seeks the Way
- The Follower of the Way
Endorsements used in the book
Ken Wilber, in the foreword to Big Mind Big Heart, states:
Let me state this as strongly as I can: the Big Mind process founded by Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism. It is an astonishingly original, profound, and effective path for waking up, or seeing one's True Nature.
At the cover of the book Bernie Glassman is quoted:
A gift to the many Westerners who would like to awaken and live in the world with effectiveness and compassion.
Also at the cover of the book, Hal Stone & Sidra Stone, creators of Voice Dialogue, are cited:
The popularity of Genpo’s work clearly indicates that there are many people whose selves come alive when invited out in this way, and that, for them, this work strikes a deeply resonant chord.
According to Brad Warner,
Big Mind™ is irresponsible and dangerous. But there is a lot of irresponsible and dangerous stuff going on in the world of this type of cheesy vaguely Eastern feel-good-now spirituality. The reason I have focused so much attention on Genpo Roshi’s rotten Big Mind™ scam is because it pretends to be related to Zen. Not only to Zen, but to the Soto tradition of Master Dogen. Genpo has even stolen Suzuki Roshi’s phrase “big mind” — first used in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — and trademarked it for himself (SFZC really should make a legal complaint about that, since they own the copyright to Suzuki’s works). But Big Mind™ has nothing whatsoever in common with real Zen practice.
Barbara O'Brien wrote,
What always (to me) made Big Mind™ sound hinky is that it is marketed as enlightenment on speed dial. By using Genpo's techniques, the pitch said, you could save yourself years of sitting zazen before realizing satori. Big Mind™ is taught mostly through seminars that charge a hefty enrollment fee, beginning at $150, which I'll come back to in a minute. I understand some people have paid as much as $50,00 for quickie enlightenment.
Michael Johnson, a masters graduate from the University of Utah, conducted a randomized clinical trial of Merzel's Big Mind process to
... test the hypothesis that a Zen training method using a self-based dialogue approach called Big Mind (Merzel, 2007) produces significant changes in subjective experience that are similar to the spiritual experiences of long-term meditators during deep meditation and, second, to examine whether the effect brings about any lasting positive psychological improvements in both spirituality and well-being measures.
The participants appeared to score higher on various measures after participation, but the reported effects may also result from factors such as group effect, suggestibility, and/or simple expectation, and the study may have limited generalizability due to the high level of education of the participants.
According to Johnson, meaning can be found through self-transcendence, which he describes as de-identification with externally based constructs of self. Meditation practices may lead to such de-identification, but may take many years of practice. According to Johnson, the "transcendental goal of meditation" can also be achieved "by limiting or entirely avoiding prolonged sitting meditation practices", for example the dialogue-based pointing-out instruction in Tibetan practice.[note 1] According to Johnson,
A person without any formal meditation or spiritual training thus has the potential for immediate apprehension of his or her own deeper spiritual reality leading to profound self-transcendence, and the corresponding sense of peace.[note 2]
The trial was conducted on twenty-eight highly educated participants with no prior formal Zen or meditation training, and compared for homogeneity. Fourteen of them participated in a one day dialogue-session with Dennis Merzel, while the other fourteen formed the control-group. The intent of the session was to bring awareness and understanding of specific modes of functioning through dialogue-based methods. The participants were asked to first contact and then assume the role of a common self-identification motif, or mode of functioning. Having identified with that motif the participants then engaged in a dialogue with the Dennis Merzel, speaking from this mode of functioning.
The study used a number of well-established measures to examine changes in traits associated with subjective well-being, spirituality, and mindfulness. The questionnaires also included state measures based on meditation depth and both attention and consciousness using descriptive characteristics of subjective state.
A repeated-measures analysis of variance showed statistically significant differences between the treatment and control groups for all parameters measured.
According to Johnson,
The data suggest that a large portion of novice participants without any formal meditation training can have profound spiritual experiences with persistent enhancement of well-being.
According to Johnson, the Meditation Depth Questionnaire (MEDEQ) scores, which is based on the experiences of advanced meditation teachers[note 3] and measures dhyāna, not insight, "appear to be comparable with advanced meditators reported in other studies."[note 4]
The phenomology of Consciousness Inventory (PCI), which needs at least 60 participants to be statistically reliable, was used by Johnson "in a semiqualitative manner". According to Johnson comparison with phenomenological descriptions of "deep states" of meditation as reported by Gifford-May and Thompson added "additional evidence" of similarities with many dimensions of the PCI, and of similarities with D.T. Suzuki's descriptions of kensho, spontaneous realizations of oneness, or one’s true nature.[note 5][note 6] Dennis Merzel himself reported an "intuitive sense from the training interaction that the majority of the group had experienced kensho."
The FFMQ also showed significant changes. Two of the four factors of this questionnaire, "act with awareness" and "observe," are viewed by proponents of mindfulness training as requiring an active and prolonged attentional training process. This increase was partially unexpected, because of the short duration of the method used in the current study.
Johnson notes that the reported effects may also result from factors such as group effect, suggestibility, and/or simple expectation, and that the study may have limited generalizability due to the high level of education of the participants.
Johnson concludes that the Merzel's dialogue method is worthy of further investigation. According to Johnson, voice dialogue may be a quick method for inducing enlightement, which may be an "enormous benefit for the spiritual development of individuals". It may be more effective than "pointing out instruction" methods since therapeutic techniques are congenial to the more "self-oriented" modern Western mind. According to Johnson, the inducement of profound effects in a short time may also be beneficial for "clinical populations where prolonged meditation-based interventions may not be practical."
- Pointing-out instructions require a thorough preparation. Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche: "Traditionally, when the pointing-out instruction is about to be given, the students or disciples have already toroughly prepared themselves."
- See also Spontaneous kenshō for Merzel's own experience of spontaneous kensho, and Ramana Maharshi for the classic modern example of spontaneous awakening.
- According to Johnson "more than 19 years of teaching and practice", whereas Piron (2001) states: "an average of 19,7 years of meditation experience and of 10,2 years of teaching that technique".
- Only the scores for the dialogue group and the control group are given in the article; scores from those "advanced meditators" are absent in the article. In what way they are comparable, and what this means, is not explicated in the article.
- Suzuki has been criticized for his idiosyncratic presentations of Zen, which neglect the historical and social context, and are non-representative for the Zen-tradition. See also Zen Narratives.
- The article does not give the descriptions with which these "many dimensions" were compared, nor how they were compared and which criteria were being applied.
- Dōgen Zenji; Kōshō Uchiyama (1983). Refining your Life: from the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment. Translated by Thomas Wright & Kōshō Uchiyama. Weatherhill. pp. 18 & 38. ISBN 978-0-8348-0179-0.
- Merzel 2007.
- Brad Warner, Big Mind™ Sucks (Part A Million)
- Barbara O'Brien, Another Zen Master Scandal
- Johnson 2011, p. 203.
- Johnson 2011, p. 207.
- Johnson 2011, p. 201.
- Johnson 2011, p. 202.
- Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche 2003, p. 128.
- Johnson 2011, p. 204.
- Johnson 2011, p. 206.
- Piron 2001, p. 56.
- Sharf 1995.
- McMahan 2008.
- McRae 2003.
- Johnson 2011.
- Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche (2003), Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World, Rangjung Yeshe Publications
- Johnson, Michael (2011), A Randomized Study of a Novel Zen Dialogue Method for Producing Spiritual and Well Being Enhancement: Implications for End-of-Life Care, Journal of Holistic Nursing 29 (3): 201–210, doi:10.1177/0898010110391265
- McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, The University Press Group Ltd, ISBN 978-0-520-23798-8
- Merzel, Dennis Genpo (2007). Big Mind Big Heart: Finding Your Way. Salt Lake City: Big Mind Publishing. ISBN 0-9771423-3-7.
- Piron, Harad (2001), The Meditation Depth Index (MEDI) and the Meditation Depth Questionnaire (MEDEQ)
- Sharf, Robert H. (1995), Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited
- Big think interview with Dennis Merzel - includes an explanation of the Big Mind Process