Over the past month I have been practicing the staged system outlined in John Yates (a.k.a. Culadasa)’s book The Mind Illuminated. I kept a journal of my daily practice, which I will publish here.
My most recent posts were about the renunciative worldview associated with the Buddhist Sutric tradition – and yet Vajrayana has been my chosen practice and primary worldview for twenty-five years. Inevitably my ideas about Sutra are embedded in Vajrayana perspective. I regard detachment, renunciation, purification and equanimity (all Sutric descriptions of meditative experience) from an etic perspective. That’s not to say that I haven’t had and appreciate some of those experiences. However, ‘inside’ Vajrayana, they have distinct, different functions. They may even be described uniquely using the language of Tantra or Dzogchen.
So I decided that to better articulate differences, and to widen my view, it would be helpful and interesting to experience the path to equanimity, sometimes called Samatha-Vipassana, or insight meditation, from the inside. Because of my long-term background as a Tantrika, my experience of the staged path of Samatha and Vipassana cannot approximate that of someone approaching these practices fresh, as their first explorations into meditation. Even so, I have found the process immensely valuable and enjoyable; I’ve had some new insights and unexpectedly different experiences in my daily practice. I think that sharing them here might be helpful for other practitioners wanting to understand the differences between types of meditation from the Samatha-Vipassana and Vajrayana traditions.
My core meditation practice since the mid-90s has been a set of meditations called the four naljors of Dzogchen Sem’de. This meditation formed the experiential base for all accompanying yogic and Tantric practices that I’ve engaged with. Naturally, over the years my practice led to a variety of experiences, some mundane, some non-ordinary.
Experientially I am approaching the Mind Illuminated meditations from what I suppose is an unusual starting point. My experience relevant to this system is that I can usually sit effortlessly, without physical pain, for as long as I want, in a state of presence of awareness with an absence of stuff such as thoughts and emotions arising in mind, (called ‘né-pa’ in Tibetan). This is a vibrant, clear experience of ‘empty mind’ in which there is a continuous presence of awareness and a heightened awareness of the senses, including sounds in the environment1. I can usually intentionally sustain this state of mind in any context, e.g., walking around a noisy shopping mall, or when somebody gets irritated or angry.
I chose the Mind Illuminated as the path of Samatha-Vipassana I wanted to engage with for several reasons. It’s currently quite a popular approach to meditation in the tech industry and I’d like to write later about the confluence of tech work and meditation. Several people have asked me questions about their experiences with the system in relation to approaching Buddhist Tantric practice. It’s well articulated as a stage path, carefully detailed and available as a complete system in one book, without the requirements of attending retreats or getting involved over time with a community – this suited my immediate purposes. Perhaps most importantly, the language and worldview remain true to their Sutric origins. In fact, whilst the interpretive framework is mostly cognitivist representationalism, it’s still clear how each practice relates to its Hinayana or Mahayana lineage. I appreciated this detailed relation to sources.
Additionally to my purposes in this project, I’m generally interested in the process of becoming meta to systems. How does a meta-systemic awareness develop? What does meta-systematicity look like in its application? The path to meta-systematicity can occur organically or with intention. The view from meta-systematicity is always etic to discrete systems, however, one can develop the capacity within a known field to move between etic and emic views. In this project, I’m intentionally ‘learning the experience of’ the Mind Illuminated system, in order to have a more complete understanding of how its parts function, so I can later relate it to my understanding of Buddhism and meditation as an encompassing field.
Following this post, every day I will post a day from my journal so as to reflect my process chronologically. That way I hope you will get some sense of my growing, progressive appreciation for the system. I’m probably going to refrain from commenting until afterwards, but I will leave the WordPress comments open and read them, even though I may not reply straight away. After I’ve posted pages from my journal, I’ll begin some commentary and analysis.
- Connection with the sense fields is maintained, without involvement in the content of senses arising, unlike in some systems where experience of the senses is intentionally subdued or stopped.