The Mind Illuminated, a journal: day 20

Jhanas, monasticism and renunciation are conceptually and historically connected

These are reflective notes on my experience of practicing Culadasa’s 10 stage meditation system earlier in 2019. The records in this post are from my 20th consecutive day of practice in the system. All these posts are published retrospectively, with some added commentary. There is a page summary of my TMI series with links in the site overview. For an introduction to this project, see this page.

Day 20

I sat for 4.5 hours in three sessions today. There’s a sense in which I think I’m learning to calibrate a movement between concentrative ‘depth’ and expansive awareness. In the language of TMI, I think that would translate to the distinction between stable attention and peripheral awareness.

I find the intentional dissociation in the internalized, concentrative state quite ‘unnatural’. My somewhat inadequate description of this sensation is that it’s like a whole-body fizziness with deeply cocooned awareness. There’s no sense of being in situ. It’s like a suspension of contextual presence so as to expand ‘into’ sensational consciousness. The sensation isn’t relational or reactive.

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The Mind Illuminated, a journal: Day 10


These are reflective notes on my experience of practicing Culadasa’s 10 stage meditation system. The notes in this post are from my tenth 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].

The passage from the chapter on stage 5, above, describes an increase in “the feeling of gentle pleasure” as one progresses through the stages. This is in keeping with my experience of the system so far. I think it’s also true to say, as predicted, that my “overall energy level” during meditation has dropped somewhat, alongside the increase in pleasant contentedness.

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The structure of Buddhism

my Buddhist structure chart

George Box: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.”

Culturally, I have the impression we’re leaving post-modernism behind and that it hasn’t worked. Anecdotally I hear expressions of confusion and lostness. It’s like we’ve come adrift from the past; we’re floating around in a sea of debris trying to make sense of it all. We’re confronted with multiple mashups without reliable tools for discerning which to engage with and which to discard. Approaching Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation can be like this. How do we know what will work and what won’t?

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Living contradictions


Image by Nicolas Nova: flickr

The contradictions of Sutra

Practices that derive from Sutra center on liberation from Samsara, the cycle of habitual grasping to attraction, aversion and indifference that causes suffering.

The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the cessation of Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth, causing ‘dukkha,’ in Pali, dissatisfaction, often translated as suffering) are core Sutric teachings. Our patterned habits of attraction, aversion and indifference cause us misery. Our attachment to ego makes us self-serving. We are habitual ego-reinforcers, but we can develop detachment and equanimity through concentrated meditation which will enable us to further let go of striving and grasping. Then we will see that our desires and habits cause us unhappiness at a deep level. We can begin to erase even the most subtle traces of conditioning, perhaps even achieving states of cessation, eventually becoming an arhat or experiencing nirvana.

Different presentations may use the language of mindfulness, jhanas, stream entry, no-self, detachment, loving-kindness, compassion, emptiness. Sutra-derived worldviews have in common the theme that if we follow a correct path we can develop virtues in a self-reinforcing cycle of purity or wholesomeness. We will find it incrementally easier to detach ourselves from impurity, misdemeanour and ill-intent. We can develop a release from our grasping self to the point that we no longer experience desire. We might even achieve a state of nirodha and have all sensation cease. In Sutric systems, these experiences are highly desirable. States of intense desire, negative emotions, bad thoughts, are undesirable.

A system that advocates separation from one side of a polarity to achieve its opposite is dualist. Examples of such polarities are ‘good vs bad’, ‘pure vs. impure’, ‘right vs. wrong’. Dualism fixes the meaning of polarities and our selves in relation to them. Sutra is dualist in practice. Some versions simultaneously extol nondualism.

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Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering

Dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma
wikimedia commons

Sutra dominates

When most people say ‘Buddhism’, what they are referring to is Sutrayana, the path of Sutra.1 I use ‘Sutra’, for short. Sutra is the dominant form of Buddhism available today. It is so dominant that it might be fair to say it has a monopoly on Buddhism. The majority of Buddhist practitioners do not know about alternatives.

Sutra centers on the idea that complete liberation from suffering is possible. By doing the right things, being the right way, eventually, we can extricate ourselves from a cycle of perpetually self-inducing misery. Many secular presentations of meditation have adopted this underlying framework. The language is the same, barring removal of the most prominent forms of magical thinking.

Is this realistic? The only way to eliminate suffering is to cease sensation. This is the purpose of meditation practices intended to achieve no-self and liberation from Samsara. Is this what you want?

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Back from a long absence

A house in the mountains

At home in the mountains


I last wrote here six years ago. Recently I received several apparently unrelated requests to post here again, so I have been thinking about how and whether to do that.

In 2006 I left the security of permanent employment and home ownership. Since then I’ve been travelling, with only a case, a backpack and a laptop bag. In a back-of-envelope calculation, I realized I’ve stayed in well over 200 places over the last decade. I’ve always been lucky to have a roof over my head, though sometimes it’s been a near scrape.

My practices during that time, other than the Four Naljors silent sitting meditation (my daily ‘base’ practice), were martial and yogic practices of Dzogchen Long-dé in the tradition of Ling Gésar.  I made a couple of trips to Nepal, including spending some time in retreat there. I’m also a practitioner of chöd, yogic song, yidam and various other Buddhist Tantric methods. Continue reading “Back from a long absence”

Is Vajrayana hacking the West?

Come back when you finish preliminaries
“Come back when you finish preliminaries”

In my last post, I categorised justifications for the idea that Westerners are ill-suited to practice Vajrayana. Those justifications – that our values are incompatible, we can’t commit, our lifestyles do not provide conducive circumstances or that our karmic connection is lacking – are anecdotally common. Sometimes they are not stated outright but hidden in conciliatory language. My versions of these justifications are stripped down: I wanted to expose them in their most simple form, to make them easier to spot in articles and conversations.

In this post I highlight some generalisations underlying such justifications, then I examine the notion that Western culture is to blame.

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