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.1
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?
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.]
- 1.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.