The Mind Illuminated, a journal: Day 12


These are reflective notes on my experience of practicing Culadasa’s 10 stage meditation system. The notes in this post are from my twelfth day of practice in the system. For an introduction to this project, see this page. Occasionally I will post-edit the journal. Any post-editing is [in square brackets like this].

‘Awareness’ is used across meditation systems to mean consciousness of the present moment; cognizant experience. I’ve been using it generally to mean ‘presence of awareness’, a phrase I’m familiar with in connection with Dzogchen practice. ‘Presence of awareness’ may, or may not, include the presence of thoughts and other stuff arising in mind. Presence of awareness is harder to maintain with conceptualization than without it, but it’s still possible for the quality of awareness to remain sharp, clear, full and bright when thoughts are around, even when they are abundant.*

In the TMI, ‘awareness’ has a technically specific meaning. It is used synonymously with ‘peripheral awareness’ to mean “a general cognizance of sensory information; mental objects like thoughts, memories, and feelings; and the overall state and activity of the mind. Any or all of these may be present in peripheral awareness simultaneously. Unlike attention, which isolates and analyzes specific objects within the field of conscious awareness, peripheral awareness is inclusive, holistic and only minimally conceptual…The function of peripheral awareness is to assemble context and search for salience, monitor for flagged issues of importance, and initiate automatic motor responses when appropriate.” (p. 428, Glossary.)

My use of ‘awareness’ in a more general sense may have been confusing. From here on in this series, I’ll use ‘awareness’ or ‘peripheral awareness’ when I am referring to awareness as described in the TMI above and ‘presence of awareness’ only when I want to refer to an experiential state that is significantly different from peripheral awareness.

Peripheral awareness in the TMI is distinct from attention, or exclusive attention. My notes in the margin above suggest that exclusive attention in the TMI trains and disciplines what we’d call ‘discursive mind’ in Vajrayana (the hoppy, skippy mind that jumps around involuntarily in and out of focus) into chosen, concentrated attention instead of its habitual fleeting, involuntary, multiple attentions. Awareness is developed alongside it.

This doesn’t happen in the four naljors Vajrayana meditations. Thoughts are always left alone. They dissipate into a non-conceptual state of presence of awareness in shi-ne meditation. Subsequent meditation postures and practices train maintenance of expansive awareness with returning content of mind.

It’s clear that both styles of meditation significantly change our relationship with thought processes, but the style in which they do so is quite different. I am curious about how these distinct, changing relationships with thought take effect in the long-term. I suspect the experience of long-term concentrative practice may be quite different from the long-term expansive presence of awareness. Does training attention, with its focus on discipline and exclusion, lead to a distinct psychological experience? If so, how does that differ from one in which thoughts, feelings, sensory experiences are reintroduced as the material of practice, the means by which we continue to find the presence of awareness?


Day 12

1 hour sit: 

  • Calm, quiet, somewhat more expansive than thus far. I found my breathing was quite shallow & very light, attention less intently concentrated/focused at the breath, but still remained aware of the sensations of the breath.
  • Continued with some occasional body focus. If I bring the spine to attention and find the connection of the breath to the spine, it causes a lot of pleasurable sensation, movement of sensation from the back of my neck down the spine and out into the arms. 
  • But for the most part, I didn’t bother with this, it felt a bit overly intentional/manipulative. It would’ve been very easy to just sit there absorbed in pleasurable, lovely sensation. I’m not sure that’s the point. Or, at least, that might feel a bit like a feel-good massage of the central nervous system, which is fine but not a new experience for me and not really where I think I need to focus to understand this system. 
  • Therefore stayed with the light breath: a clear, quiet, empty sit. I wouldn’t say it was ‘flat’ exactly, or even boring, but there was something that felt ‘not right’ despite being thought free, calm, peaceful. I’m not sure what this was, maybe a very faint non-verbal, visceral sense of muffled ennui. But felt immensely calm.


Second sit, 1 hour:

  • Although mostly keeping a very detailed focus around the sensation of the breath, I was aware of generally feeling really good, pleasant, with a lightness of body.
  • One short proprioceptive weirdness in my head & neck, but all that subtle body ‘reorganization’ has settled now, not experiencing any spasms or twitchies. 
  • Experienced again the very, very still state in which any movement seems impossible & unnecessary. I’d characterize it as ‘total stillness’; the lack of movement is definitive. It’s a very calm, very tranquil state. 


Third sit, 50 mins: 

  • Mind was sometimes clear, quiet, easy, sometimes more concentrated, effortful, requiring a bit more deliberate focus to stay fully present.
  • Noticed a few inarticulate thoughts, as though buried deep, or like they were muffled a long way under water, towards the end of the sit. Mind was a bit less clear at that point. 

I’m having an experience which I can only describe as ‘vibratory’, which is an awful word which I’ve been trying to avoid using. However, ‘pulsating’ is too slow and undulating. Imagine the sound a woodpecker makes, speeded by an order of 10, translated into consistent sensation throughout the body…yep, well that’s it. [I still can’t think of a better word, so please understand that when I use the word ‘vibrations’ I’m talking about a specific sensory experience, not a conceptual, mystical idea about how things are.]


*Né-pa, which I’ve referred to previously in this series, is ‘presence of awareness with an absence of thought/stuff arising’. “Presence of awareness” is used more generally in the description of many other Dzogchen practices, in which thoughts or other mental contents may arise.

5 thoughts on “The Mind Illuminated, a journal: Day 12”

  1. Wish to take a very mild exception to this passage, viz. “ This intensely concentrated ‘time-reduction’ method associated with mindfulness is alien to Vajrayana. Rather than breaking time into smaller and smaller pieces, with minute attention to the detail of passing moments, Vajrayana leans into an expansive experience of continuity. Tantra, ‘rGyüd’ in Tibetan, means ‘continuity’. The Sutric path perfects the mind moment technique, possibly at the expense of a wider view. Vajrayana, particularly in the inner paths of Anuyoga and Dzogchen, emphasizes ‘all-seeing’ awareness, possibly at the expense of relevant detail. In Sutra, awareness is slowed to encourage conscientious response. In Tantra, awareness is expanded to encourage congruent activity. “

    I would claim that at least _some_ Vajrayana teachings do emphasize the momentariness.
    Specifically, Trungpa’s early teachings about “the gap” and later teachings of (ordinary mind) emphasize DIScontinuity, not continuity. In fact, he once spoke of tantra as being the “continuity of discontinuity.” Also, Namkhai Norbu often used the phrase “instant presence” to translate rigpa. Also practices such as “Distinguishing Mind (sems) and Rigpa” (Khenpo Gangshar in Crystal Cave) only work if you are….well… distinguishing, which is moment by moment by moment.

    Arise, abide, cease. The closer we look, the quicker it gets. That direct presence that in a non-spatial manner encompasses the act of experience and its contents (qualia or not) is rigpa translated variously as awareness, instant presence, direct insight. Initially, on it being pointed out to us, we experience it as a flash, a discontinuity in our solid world. This is like a flash or “instant presence” because the flimsy stage drop of ego-laden experience is cut. Not cut by an intentional act but by finding ourselves released. However, it is only a flash because we habitually bracket it by a before and an after. Instant presence did not begin a second ago and will not cease a second later because positioning between a before and an after is a clunky misstep not the direct contact of naked awareness. Absent the futile imposition of these brackets, like trying to dam and contain the ocean with pieces of string, instant presence encompasses no less than space and time. Is this an ontological or an experiential claim? Not sure.

    A “ moment” is a slippery construct – not that you were building any castles on it. There is nowhere in the continuum to anchor and nothing other than the continuum itself to separate out. We chop them into manageable chunks such as subject and object, this and that. We have a series of moments that blur in our confused perception to become something solid, perpetuated by tenacious, fear-based clinging. This blur is not the continuum of totality. The concatenation of moments that creates the seeming solidity and regularity of our world can be cut. In fact that concatenation is in a state of “already cut.” This is khregs.chod.

    So sometimes it works to “expand” as you write, sometimes to “cut.”

    Nowhere in what you have written in this series do I detect a valorization of the moment. That’s good.

    1. Y’know, I did feel a bit squeamish writing that paragraph. In retrospect I think it overgeneralizes too much. What I wrote doesn’t always hold true: there are some Vajrayana practices that involve meticulous detail. I’ll add a post-edit pointing to your comment.

      Specifically, Trungpa’s early teachings about “the gap”

      Yes, there’s a similarity to the mindfulness method of paying attention to moments ever decreasing in length in the Tibetan teachings on bardo (which Trungpa’s gap teachings are connected to). A bardo practice of noticing each passing ‘phase’ in terms of its changing qualities is taught in the Aro gTér.

      and later teachings of (ordinary mind) emphasize DIScontinuity, not continuity.

      Yes, agreed, there the experience of ‘timelessness in each moment’ is connected to discontinuity.

      In fact, he once spoke of tantra as being the “continuity of discontinuity.” Also, Namkhai Norbu often used the phrase “instant presence” to translate rigpa. Also practices such as “Distinguishing Mind (sems) and Rigpa” (Khenpo Gangshar in Crystal Cave) only work if you are….well… distinguishing, which is moment by moment by moment.

      I appreciate you picking up on the similarities. I was contemplating just this at the time of writing.

      I think there’s a significantly different feel to the Vajrayana practices, due to their expansive, rather than concentrative, methodological direction, which fits with the emphasis on continuity in the overall framework. At least, that’s been my experience so far. I can’t comment on whether those distinct experiences would converge in the long-run​ because my Sutrayana-style shamatha-vipassana experience is still limited. I suspect they may not. Everything I’ve heard about where deep Abidhamma-style mind-moment practice leads sounded quite different to the continuity of discontinuity, and to the spontaneous presence of rigpa.

      1. Thank you for your response. Good points. IMHO, or should I write, “in my humble experience” the “overall framework” in either of the two domains you indicate wears pretty thin as one deeply engages. Yes, in some sense, it’s accurate to talk of the “methodological direction” to Vajrayana or Sutric practices. OTOH, there’s no direction and any felt sense of direction is just more stuff. Ro.gcig BTW, I am not implying valuation and judgement are bad and their absence is good. If I understand what you are doing in your “experiment,” you are comparing two different methods of cultivation. You are noting similarities, differences, etc. Really good, juicy, honest stuff. But both methods of cultivation, if sincerely trod, will see through/bring into question/deconstruct/drop the “overall framework” and their “methodological direction.” That’s a feature, not a bug. So, perhaps, at one point in time, one point in the cultivation of the yogini, there’s a difference between what you are calling Vajrayana and Sutric cultivation. And, at another point in the cultivation of the yogini, there’s not so much difference. Does that make sense?

        When I write, “there’s no direction,” I am not sure if I am making an ontological claim (you know how some dharma folks say “well, _ulimately_ xyz.) or a cultivation/experiential claim. A lot of conceptual mischief gets done with the weasel word “ultimate.” I guess my statement is bringing into question “stages of the path” or developmental landmarks, etc. Stuff/nyams/shit happens. Threading it into a progression is subsequent – both in a temporal and logical sense and should be questioned.

  2. This sounds like what I was doing the last time I had an hour-a-day meditation practice; take up the center of attention with the breath sensations, peripheral awareness is still a thing but confined to the periphery, you start to feel the “vibrations” of sensation and thought, as in, you perceive a periodic flicker in some sensations or mental phenomena that I’d guess is the actual speed of one of the perception levels in the brain.

    I’m kind of confused by how this is different from shi-ne — how do you get to a state of “no thinking” without the forced-attention-on-sensations thing?

    1. The method is to remain uninvolved with whatever arises: thought, sensation, visual stuff, internal narratives, whatever, without losing awareness. Attention is a kind of mental involvement – it’s not a synonym for awareness, though it can seem that way! The practice of shi-ne is to remain aware _without_ any particular focus, so it’s quite different from shamatha in that respect. That’s often difficult to start with so you begin with some intentional attention, for example on the breath, but once you’re stable in that practice you lighten the attention, let go of it. You’re not concentrating more and more on the detail of the sensations of the breath, you’re doing that decrementally, as soon and as little as you can without losing presence of awareness.

      I responded to a similar question in a tweet thread recently:

      The questions I’m most frequently asked are about differences between shamatha and shi-ne practice. I’ve decided to set up a FAQ page and to include this question on it. I’ll put a short, generic reply there with the intention of expanding the question into a page too.

      It’s quite difficult to describe the experiential difference between these two practices. Because Shamatha relies on attention, focus and precision, descriptions can be fairly clearly defined. Shi-ne requires maintaining conscious presence while releasing reliance on clear definitions, so describing the experience is always nebulous and might sound a bit vague in comparison. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that the more precise and prescriptive my explanation, the more liable it is to get re-configured as Shamatha. Saying that presence of awareness can be experientially clear and sharp but without focus sounds paradoxical, because it’s qualitatively different to our habitual, polarizing experience. Normal human experience distinguishes focus, concentration and conscious awareness from lack of focus and unconscious involvement. Shi-ne ruptures the membrane of that particular duality.

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