What exactly is Awakening?

Estimated time to read: 31 minutes

Culadasa, John Yates, Ph.D., is the director of Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha in Tucson, Arizona and author of The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Using Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science.  With over four decades of dedicated experience in the Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhist traditions, Culadasa was ordained as an Upasaka in 1976 and received ordination in the International Order of Buddhist ministers in Rosemead, California in December 2009.

In this episode, Culadasa joins us for the full-hour to discuss his reasoning behind writing The Mind Illuminated, his optimistic outlook on the conjunction between neuroscience and meditation and his future book!  Also, we discuss:

  • Why some struggle to find success in meditation.
  • The difficulty in learning through escotericism.
  • The Mind Illuminated’s start on the Yahoo Discussion Boards
  • How we can use science to produce meditative states.
  • How meditative states can cultivate insight into permanent traits.
  • The problems with modern day “teachers” and the confusion they cause.
  • Some excellent advice for everyone!

Join us together as we unravel and discover more about Culadasa and his meditative guide, The Mind Illuminated.

Quick overview

3:05 – What was your experience with Transcendental Meditation back when you started?

5:00 – There have been manuals written in the past about how to work with meditation, what led you to write this specific book?

8:04 – Since the book has been written, has there been additional studies about meditation in the field of Neuroscience that uncovered more about how our brain works when meditating and deepening that practice?

13:58 – Can we use aids in our meditative practice like neurofeedback, apps, music or psychedelics?

18:42 – Is meditation a gradual process?

21:23 – Is there a way to ‘predict’ if someone will awaken?

24:10 – Is there something called ‘potentiality’ where someone is more ‘potent’ to achieve deeper states of meditation quicker? (Culadasa explains why the amount of hours meditated is a poor measure of development)

26:38 – With the internet and online communities, youtube videos, books, and podcasts, I’ve noticed there are people who don’t seek out a teacher in real life. What else, if anything, do people seeking awakening need to add to their practice if they have been using text-based resources and online forums, chats, communities as support but have basically been trying to figure things out without a teacher and with no in-person interaction. Is this a valid way to practice the path of meditation?

28:04 – How important is a lineage or validation behind a meditation teacher? (Culadasa explains a bit about the historical background of lineages)

32:44 – How do we discern what a good teacher or lineage is for us?

34:06 – Do you believe different traditions, approaches and meditation masters should unify in a greater community to foster meditation and mindfulness throughout the world? What is your vision for this?

37:31 – Is there still a need for different approaches with an approach like The Mind Illuminated?

40:58 – Someone asked more about the somatic and felt emotional practices you do or recommend. How important are body-based practices to complement the TMI method? Do you have any advice on integrating qi-gong, yoga and aikido with TMI?

41:22 – Is therapy important on the path of meditation?

44:33 – How do we become a ‘complete’ human being if not through meditation?

46:58 – Is it possible to become fully enlightened in this life?

51:23 – Are the Siddhi’s mentioned as a result of meditation a byproduct of meditation or storytelling?

55:36 – What will the new book be about and what can we expect from it?

58:51 – When will the book come out?

63:09 – What could you give as an advice specifically aimed at those who practice according to The Mind Illuminated. (Some incredible advice for anyone practicing with The Mind Illuminated, talking about obstacles in the practice)

Full Transcript

Episode Length: 1:12:44

Christiaan: In this episode of the Project Mindfulness Podcast, we talk with the author of “The Mind Illuminated”, a complete meditation guide, integrating Buddhist wisdom and brain science.

Benjamin: Honest and open to all religions, all traditions, all ages and all levels of experience.

David: Radically accessible, pragmatic and an eye opening.

Benjamin: Simply for everyone. 

Christiaan: Welcome to the Project Mindfulness Podcast, we’ll take you on a journey across the globe and talk with other meditators about their practice, the lessons they’ve learned and what they want the world to know.

Good day and welcome to season two of the Project Mindfulness Podcast. This is episode number one of season two and I’m Christiaan Neeteson, thank you for joining us. In this episode I have a talk with Dr. John Yates or Upasaka Culadasa. We talk about his current book, The Mind Illuminated, a book that bestselling meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, raves, brings a path of meditation to life. We talk on why he wrote it and what are important things to know when reading it. We talk about his new upcoming book, what the Buddha really taught, online internet forums and insights to somatic and psychological aspects of human development and what exactly is awakening? Before we dive into the episode, I want to announce that we are organizing a giveaway. We have three signed copies of The Mind Illuminated that you can win if you participate, head on over to projectmindfulness.com/giveaway to find out more on how it works and how you can participate. More information can also be found in the description of this episode. On the 5th of August, we will announce the winners and end the raffle. Enjoy listening to this episode and make sure to listen all the way to the end where Culadasa shares an important advice from meditators wanting to improve their practice. Today, joining me on the podcast is Culadasa, who is a meditation master with over four decades of experience into Tibetan and Theravada in Buddhist traditions. As a former professor, he taught physiology and neuroscience and later worked in the field of alternative medicine. He’s the author of, A Physician’s Guide to Therapeutic Massage and the writer of The Mind Illuminated. The Mind Illuminated is a complete meditation guide, integrating Buddhist wisdom and modern science written for a Western audience. Thank you so much for joining me today on a podcast. 

Culadasa: Well. Thank you for inviting me. 

Christiaan: A pleasure to have you here, I would like to start from early on in your journey. In your book, it’s mentioned you’re always a seeker for the truth, you mentioned diving into Christianity and from that in the 60s, learning about transcendental meditation from the Beatles. Now I hear transcendental meditation come up regularly in our community where some say it’s a scam and other says it’s a cult. What is your personal experience with transcendental meditation back when you started?

Culadasa: Well, I found it very useful. I had been trying to meditate for a couple of years with very limited sources of guidance for those that are familiar with Patanjali’s, a yoga sutra. I was trying to use that book and some other books that I’ve gotten from the Vivo commander, the dances society and hadn’t, didn’t really have much success meditating on my own. And, when I was introduced to, TM, I found like, I felt like I was really meditating for the first time. So much so that, I became enthusiastic and was going through the process that’s required to become a teacher TM. My views on TM have changed since then, but at the time I found that, a wonderful introduction to what meditation was really about.

Christiaan: Right. And from there you mentioned you bought a sitar and found someone to help you fix it and you learned a about the Buddha Dharma and sort of made it your own, is that correct? 

Culadasa: Yes, that’s correct.

Christiaan: Yeah. And there have been like manuals written in the past about how to work with meditation, how to apply it. And what led you to write this specific manual?

Culadasa: Well, it was a discovery of how many people were meditating, had been meditating for very long time and, were basically by the standards that I’ve been practicing in, according to the standards that I was practicing to, and the instructions that I had had and the way my practice had developed over decades of study, I realized that most of these people, in spite of all the time that they’d spent in practice, wouldn’t even have qualified as a, well, they’re just still beginners. They wouldn’t be considered to be truly meditators yet. Well, I had no intentions of becoming a teacher, I did become involved in online discussions of Buddhism and meditation and, I ended up, sort of ,becoming a de-facto teacher online because people ask so many questions about meditation, which I was able to answer and help them. So, The Mind Illuminated grew out of a document that I had created and posted on a Yahoo discussion group. It covered the first six stages and then a few years later, let’s see, quite a few years later, I guess now that I think of it, I decided to go ahead and complete that and write it up thoroughly because yeah, I felt like I had something to contribute and there were a lot of people out there who needed the benefit of this kind of guidance.

Christiaan: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. I mean, for me, reading a bit about it and I know a lot of people in our community also benefit from using it because it seems to speak very clearly to a western audience as opposed to maybe a more, mystical or esoteric audience. It’s very straight forward and very pragmatic, at least that’s how I, yeah, how I find it.

Culadasa: And that was my intention.

Christiaan: Very good. Yeah and since the book has been written, has there been additional studies about meditation in the field of neuroscience that uncovered more about how our brain works when meditating and deepening the practice?

Culadasa: Well, there is ongoing work and there have been, new information has come out about some of the neural correlates and various meditation states. I say that one of the most interesting things is branch of study that is called a cognitive neuroscience or something, just cognitive science where, as much emphasis is being put on the different functional aspects of various mental activities as is the neurophysiology behind it. So, now this is an area where the interesting thing is that, many of the things that are described in the original Buddhist literature and many of the things that I discovered in my own meditation experience and described in The Mind Illuminated are subsequently being validated in a cognitive neuroscience. For example, the distinction between attention and awareness, which I was aware of from, the perspective of neuroanatomy and the kinds of functions that were associated with the two different sets of brain areas that were associated with attention and awareness. Well, subsequently there’s been a lot more work done, along the same vein and there’s a greater illumination of these different mental capacities that meditation has training. And I would add to that, I have recognized in some of the recent neurocognitive science literature, what I would describe as a very accurate description of what that particularly mental skill known as Vih-pah-sa-nah, would be the correct pronunciation but I think most people are familiar with the term being pronounced Vipassana, and there is a very widespread misunderstanding that the word Vipassana means insight and it’s often used interchangeably with insight. Grammatically there’s a degree, there’s a sense in which that’s correct, but in terms of our understanding, our normal understanding of the word insight, Vipassana does not refer to that, Vipassana refers to a particular way of using attention. And there is something that’s called, predictive processing and another area that’s called, information integration theory. This is a description of the way that the brain and the mind process information and different ways that attention can be used. And so, there’s been some significant clarification that’s come out of that work of what exactly is that the Buddha meant by Vipassana. So, yeah, there’s a lot of good work being done, there’s a whole lot more work needs to be done. A lot of people are interested in various forms of brain stimulation and neurofeedback, even experimentation with various psychoactive substances, basically trying to find a way to augment the meditation practice and to bring people to awakening, hopefully more quickly in the process of this. Of course, the same kind of work is revealing more and more about the underlying neural processes that are involved in, meditation development over time.

Christiaan: Right. And with these new neurofeedback methods like EEG or, other ones that possibly can assist us in practice, sometimes I hear that, you know, people, some people use music for instance, to start with the meditation practice or they use certain things. And then, there are certain people who say, no, you really have to do it yourself. And like with psychedelics and what with neurofeedback methods. It seems that there is a slight danger coming up that we become dependent on these, ways of doing it. Even simple meditation apps. What is your vision about that? Do you think it’s okay to use these neurofeedback methods to deepen your practice? Or would you say, no, you really need to do it yourself?

Culadasa: Well, ultimately you need to do it yourself. Now these things can be helpful. There’s, and when you say neurofeedback, there’s a broad range of, very different methodologies that are referred to there. There’s one particular form of neurofeedback that we have used and found was actually very helpful, in allowing people to progress more rapidly in the development of stability, attends of attention and more powerful mindfulness. Now, most neurofeedback is intended to induce a particular state, by providing feedback, based on the particular frequency of the EEG signal or combination of frequencies. So, it can help to induce a state, now that can be helpful and in some ways. But what we’re talking about with meditation is not states, we’re talking about eventually producing permanent traits on, the brain is rewiring itself when you are practicing meditation properly and the, if you’re developing the particular mental skills and capacities that are necessary for awakening, this involves a significant change in the way that your brain works. This happens over time. If you meditate for an hour a day and then you just shift those back to ordinary, you know, your ordinary way of thinking and behaving, then the time it takes for those changes to become significant is going to be very, very long. If you meditate for longer times or if you go into intensive retreats, it will accelerate that process because you’re asking the brain to do something that it does that it’s not used to doing in your normal daily life, and you’re doing it consistently for more and more time. So, although the brain can do that temporarily at a fairly high energy cost and inefficiently, the response to increase hours of meditation consistency every day and doing longer retreats can only, accelerate and enhance the changes in neural function that allow you to have the ability, to have insight, to see things more as they really are and to have this recognition penetrate deeply into your intuitive perception of the world. So, things that induce states like neurofeedback can be helpful with that, but more in the way of just showing the brain how they get to particular places. What has to happen is you have to ask the brain to do that over and over again until it changes itself in some fundamental ways so that that becomes your new norm. And then at that point, mindfulness and some of the other qualities that you’re developing in meditation becomes part of your daily experience. And as you can imagine, that in turn only accelerates the process even more.

Christiaan: Right and is it accurate to say that in a way your mentality training yourself as a weightlifter, lifting weights and is it true that you need to build that up and it takes time? Because I remember also from reading your work is that you say sometimes someone can suddenly go to a stage nine for a little while in a practice or that can happen, but ultimately it seems like a gradual process, is that accurate?

Culadasa: Well, in order to become a permanent shift in perception, in way of perceiving, that leads to a permanent shift in the way you respond to life events and the way you behave, that is a process that appears to be much more global in the mind brain, and it does take more time. Yeah, it does take some time for that to occur. Now it is possible to temporarily enter states that correspond to insight or states that correspond to the advanced stages of samatha practice, samatha-vipassana. Yes, people can have an experience of stage nine, things like this. These are temporary states. You don’t know exactly what caused them, and so they’re not reproducible and not only that, but the brain hasn’t undergone the necessary changes in order for this to become a permanent trait. So, these states are wonderful, they give you an idea of what’s possible. Many people who come to meditation, come to meditation because they’ve had a profound insight experience. In other words, they’ve had a period of time where they perceive the world from the perspective of somebody who has mature insight, but it doesn’t last, it’s something that they’ve always wanted to experience again and so they’re attracted to meditation because this promises to be a way to make that a permanent part of their personal experience.

Christiaan: Right and this experience of awakening or genuine, is that something that just you can predict? It’s random? Is it like the one that you also talked about, so when someone really has a change of perspective, that leads them to start meditating? Because when I read, I practiced in myself and when I, you know, there’s this whole thing about gradual versus a sudden enlightenment that was, in the history of Zen, very important. And is there really no way, so to say, to predict when someone will awaken?

Culadasa: Well, let’s put it this way, at this point on, we don’t, you know, when I say awakening is an accident and practice makes you accident prone, and acknowledge the fact that sometimes people experience, awakening very early in the meditation process and sometimes even without that. What I’m doing is acknowledging that we don’t really completely understand, what is happening that leads to an insight and causes the insight to mature, to become awakening. Now I think I have a pretty good grasp personally of some of the essential features of that, but not enough so that I could predict whether a particular student is going to experience insight and awakening at stage four or stage six in the process that’s described in The Mind Illuminated. What I do find is that, by stage seven, sometimes as early as a, not infrequently, as early as stage six, people begin to have a profound insight experience. And these often set in motion the process of maturation of the insights. But I can’t tell when they start meditating, whether they’re going to be somebody who has experiences with that very early on or whether it’s going to, you know, take a little longer.

Christiaan: Right, because, the term potentiality is something my teacher uses to sometimes describe it. And I know that there is this idea that some people are so to say more potent, but there is, for me, it seems like such a mystery why. It’s like, it seems such a mystery to why someone seems more potent to, you know, get to the state of unified mind quicker than someone who maybe practices for way longer. It doesn’t seem to correlate necessarily always with the amount of time someone practices. And I think not only speaking for myself, but for other people too, that can be very frustrating to see that happen.

Culadasa: That is, yes, one of the poorest measures of somebody meditative development is how much time that they’ve spent practicing. Unfortunately, most of the research has been done on meditation has used that supposedly as a standard, somebody who’s had, more than a 2000 hours of experience compared to a group, a cohort of people that have more than 10,000 hours of experience or somebody who’s a beginning meditator compared to someone who has so many thousand hours of experience. It just doesn’t correlate. There’s a lot of individual variations. There’s also so many different things that are called meditation and the strength, each of these has certain strengths and weaknesses. If you’re lucky, somebody might be matched up with a form of meditation that something about the way their own mind has been conditioned, that will work better for them and, they’ll have more success with it. But okay, so there’s this fundamental difference in all of these different meditation systems. There’s fundamental differences within a meditation system of how well the teacher understands what they’re teaching and how well the student follows the instruction, the measure of how many hours somebody sits on a cushion tells you absolutely nothing at all about what’s going on in their mind as they’re sitting there on the cushion. So, things really serve as much of an indicator.

Christiaan: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Another question is with the Internet and online communities, YouTube videos, books and podcasts, I’ve noticed there are people who don’t seek out a teacher in real life. What else, if anything, do people seeking awakening need to add to their practice, if they have been using text-based resources and online forums, chats, communities as support, but have basically been trying to figure things out without a teacher and with no in person interaction, and is this a valid way to practice the path of meditation?

Culadasa: Well, it’s a, I wouldn’t recommend it. I think that it’s best to practice with somebody who has personal experience of what they’re teaching and has been trained to teach in the method, not just to practice the method. Because you can attend a series of retreats and classes and things like this, you might have insight, you might reach one of the paths of awakening, but that doesn’t mean that you have understood that method you practice fully enough to teach it to someone else. So, then the, yeah, there’s all these different things enter into it, so.

Christiaan: Right, yeah, that makes sense. And how important is it that a teacher is validated because I think that has been happening in the East, but you also see it in the West that there’s people coming up who practiced for a long time and they claim a certain attainment or they claim a certain insight and they don’t seem necessarily connected to a lineage or to a person who validates that. How important is the validation or that sort of lineage behind it?

Culadasa: It’s very important Christiaan, not, well, that ,you’re not quite asking the right question here because the trouble with lineages is that when it’s not necessarily the case that the next person and the lineage really has understood fully what the previous teachers and that lineage have taught. And what we see with the entire history of Buddhism is that the content of what’s taught in these lineages does get distorted over time. And, many people aren’t aware that in the Theravada, a meditation almost disappeared completely, about a millennium ago, and that it was essentially rediscovered and reinvented during the colonial period and this is what’s referred to as Buddhist modernism. So, the meditation methods that we received from Japan, Thailand, Burma, all these other places are basically, are reinvented both versions of Buddhist meditation that date back only to the 19th century. Most people don’t realize that. So, this is a problem with lineages. So, even the kind of lineages that we look at today, only date back for a limited time. Even the Tibetan lineages don’t date back that far, although their contact with the rest and colonialism and the changes to their practices didn’t undergo the same kind of change that Buddhism did everywhere else during the colonial era. The problem is right now is that there’s a lot of people who don’t really understand, what the Buddha taught. And because they don’t understand it, they end up reinventing what it means to be awakened. So, you have a lot of people who are claiming to have obtained various paths anywhere from stream entry to hot, and they’re basing this on definitions that really don’t correspond at all to what the Buddha taught. Now, they can attract people to them as students because of their supposing attainments. But, you can, well, the best that you can expect from that is that you might achieve the version of awakening that this person has either invented for themselves or subscribes to. If you look at these discussions online, you’ll find, what will impress you most if you read them, first of all, there’s all these people speaking as though they’re very knowledgeable, but if you read enough of these online discussions, what will come across more than anything else is just how massive the confusion is out there.

Christiaan: Yeah, that makes sense. That has been my experience too sometimes and reading about it, how people also, they make such an absolute of certain teachers or lineages and, not to discredit it in any way, but is there a way for someone like me or someone listening to discern what is worth their time, so to say what working for them and what might be a good teacher or lineage to connect to? 

Culadasa: Well, I would say if you see the characteristics that correspond to what you would like to develop yourself in a lineage of teachers, and if over time, those characteristics are consistently manifested, then it makes sense that that’s a teacher to go with.

Christiaan: Right, makes sense. And it’s a very good advice. Thank you. So, in the book you talk about the 10 stages of meditation, which seems to indicate a common aspect to a lot of meditative traditions and approaches. You also mentioned, a sort of so to say, holistic approach to these traditions, incorporating different aspects into the method as a unity. Do you believe different traditions, approaches and meditation masters should unify in a greater community to foster meditation and mindfulness throughout the world? What is your vision for this?

Culadasa: Absolutely, I would love to see meditation teachers get together and discuss very openly with each other on the methods they teach, what they see, the kind of results they see ,to work together, to try to understand more thoroughly, what the particular techniques that they teach and use are intended to what affects they’re intended to produce and share that information. You talk about the 10 stages, now if you look at those 10 stages, they just follow a very, very straight forward developmental progression. The same way a child has to learn to crawl and then stand up, before they can walk and to walk before they can run. Or you could think of, I have so many other developmental progressions, everything from learning to play, learning a particular skill like playing an instrument or a sport or something like that. But I think the best comparison to me would be any kind of childhood developmental process that you want to look at. You know, you build, you start at the beginning, you build something that serves as a foundation for the next level of skillset. And the reason that I like childhood development models as a, something to use as a metaphor for meditation is that you are actually producing changes in the way your brain and mind work. Just as a child from learning to crawl, to learning to walk and then run is undergoing changes in their body and their brain to allow them to do that. And they’re achieving those changes by doing particular things. If you had a child and they were never given the opportunity to move around, they might reach the age of which most children were walking and running. But if you took them out of whatever container you kept them in and ask them to walk and run, they wouldn’t probably have a lot of luck.

Christiaan: Right, makes a lot of sense. 

Culadasa: It’s a developmental process and it has a logic to it. The more we can understand it, then if we look at the various techniques and we understand, we see what they do, then we can choose the ones that are going to best bring about this developmental process. The step further is to understand them so thoroughly that we can begin to tailor them to individuals. 

Christiaan: Yeah. And if this method works and it works for a lot of people, is there still a need for different approaches? Or is this the magic bullet? 

Culadasa: Well, from my point of view, it needs, I could expand on what I’ve written there, I could modify and clarify parts of it, expand and extend it. What, you know, I see some things that are obviously missing from traditional practices. There’s a somatic component which should be a part of these practices. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, things like that, they are spiritual practices that tend much more toward the somatic and energetic. Related to that though, is that there could be a lot more in the way of psychological healing and practices that are conducive to psychological healing to dealing with emotions and things like that, incorporated into meditation. And I encourage, I have a 100 or so, students that are teachers in training and I’m encouraged as, many of them are therapists, many of them are much more, body centered than I am. And I encourage them to take what they learn from me and to improve upon and make the method more effective by introducing some other practices that emphasize both the bodily and the emotional aspect of ourselves. Ken Wilber has pointed out this, it’s a deficiency that he finds in meditation and mystical practices in absolutely every tradition, not just Buddhism, but every tradition. He refers to it as a cleaning up, which would be, which would correspond to dealing with your psychological and emotional baggage, growing up and showing up and all he’s pointing out that this was the weakness of these mind focused meditation practices is that they’re leaving out a lot of what is very important. So, there’s room for improvements, as well as just taking all of the various techniques and methods that have been developed in different places at different times and figuring out how they all fit together and how best use them.

Christiaan: Right and it seems to leave a lot of space actually for development. So, to say combining, a therapy combining these somatic practices into meditation, is that something that you also work with? Because from my understanding, The Mind Illuminated focuses very much on meditation, but do you have any advice on integrating, for instance, Chi Gong or yoga and Aikido in combination with The Mind Illuminated?

Culadasa: Well, all of those, I do encourage people to consider taking up those practices. I definitely do.

Christiaan: Right? And so, therapy is also still very much part of human developing. It’s not that through meditation alone we can come to a state of, yeah–?

Culadasa: The one of the things that we stress in The Mind Illuminated and you won’t find it to, near the same degree, if you find it at all in most current meditation methodologies. And that is dealing with emotional, psychological issues that arise, internal conflicts, things like this. This is an extremely important a thing. It has to happen. And in many meditation systems you’re encouraged to just, even though emotions and that kind of stuff come up inevitably as a part of meditation, you find some, many systems just basically tell the meditator to leave that aside and continue doing the practice. And so, they don’t get dealt with, then they can come up all at once in a massive form when a person begins to undergo the process of insight leading through awakening. And those insights can’t develop until a certain amount of that kind of psycho emotional baggage has been dealt with. So, they go through a very traumatic transition to awakening, which is not necessary. But, at the same time, meditation is not therapy, it, meditation produces a great therapeutic benefit. Sometimes it can be the equivalent of the years of psychological therapy and its benefit, but there’s sometimes, it just this, there’s some, sometimes it doesn’t work, and somebody has to combine it with therapy. Other times meditation clears out what needs to be cleared out in order for insight to develop and for awakening to occur but there’s unresolved stuff that remains in the mind and there’s nothing in these meditation systems at this present time to deal with that. So, this could explain some of the bizarre behaviors that everyone wonders about by people who are acknowledged or who claimed to be awakened.

Christiaan: I’ll be honest, my idea of the Buddha when I first came to know about Buddhism wasn’t`, maybe the best idea was really having a, a sort of complete human, which might be true. It might not be true, but I saw it as this sort of, complete human and from that I thought, okay, well if I practice, you know, these meditative aspects, I will become a complete human too.

Culadasa: Well, and you will. You know, there are four paths that are defined in Theravada in Buddhism and that the Buddha described in his own teaching. And actually, there are more paths than that, it continues on. So, these are degrees or levels of awakening. Now when you get to fourth path, you come to be in a place where, if you have unresolved psychological material and you get some help with resolving it, you can resolve it very quickly and very easily compared to someone else. But it still has to be done. There are still those things there that have to be dealt with if you want to become a complete human being. Now, when we look at the sutras, we find a lot of superlatives being applied to the Buddha. And then if you look at descriptions of what it means to be a Buddha in the, once Buddhism turned into religion, the Buddha began to take on more and more godlike properties and people expect a degree of perfection and somebody who is achieved, for example, a third or fourth path of the awakening, but it’s just totally unrealistic. But somebody at those levels can achieve a much greater degree of, you know, I hate to use the word, they can approach that ideal of perfection much more closely if they realize that there’s still some inner work that has to be done rather than just enjoy the place that that they’ve arrived at. 

Christiaan: Right. Yeah and from that, is it possible to become fully enlightened in this life? Is it?

Culadasa: Well, what does fully enlightened mean? Yeah, my experience is that, so far at least it’s open ended. And as a matter of fact, what I have learned, what I do, the deep knowledge and understanding that I have, it’s not conceivable to me that the kinds of things that people would posit as fully enlightened or fully awakened, would be achievable by a human being in the sense that there is always more, there are limits to the knowledge that our human mind and brain are capable of assimilating. Compare us to animals that lived 200 million years ago, you know? Oh yeah, capacities are just way beyond those or just to other animals that live in the world today, lizards. Now assuming that evolution continues and the same trend that it’s shown some, for the last billion years or so, a thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand years from now, there are going to be organisms with mental capacities that uh, exceed ours to the same degrees of ours exceed amphibians. And so, what does, do you get my point? What is about fooling them? Also, an essential part of waking up is realizing that you are not a separate self, you are a process within a much greater process that is unfolding. And once that fully sinks in, no matter how much you may personally be free from suffering, how much you may personally feel like you’re experiencing and almost godlike state being in human form. No matter when you truly realize that you are not separate, then you haven’t got over, you haven’t completely overcome your suffering Duka, until all sense of beings achieved that. And that’s exactly what the Maya Yana recognize. That’s what the Buddhist vow is all about, realize that you are going to separate then you know, over complete enlightenment if you are, if we really were separate entities which is antithetical to what it means to wake up anyway, you know, if we were separate entities then as a separate entity, you could achieve, some kind of a perfect, ultimate complete enlightenment. But since the most fundamental principle that you learn in this process is that you’re not a separate individual, well then, it’s pointless to speak about an individual achieving.

Christiaan: Right, yeah, that makes a lot of sense and from that, in the past, when you read about a meditation in the East, have been, you know, these, sort of say, cities mentioned as like supernatural powers that someone developed through meditation, is that a byproduct of, of storytelling or is there really some aspect that, you know, yeah. If that makes sense as a question?

Culadasa: Oh, yes, it does. Some of the higher powers are real and they may appear supernatural, but they’re not but they just, they appear that way because of limitations in our understanding of what is actually natural. Others are the product of storytelling and sometimes behind them, there is a truth that the story that’s being told is metaphorical. Now, the ones, part of our non-separateness, actually relates to, a kind of nonduality. I mean there’s a nonduality of self and others, but there’s a deeper kind of nonduality which is the nonduality of mind and matter of the physical and the mental. We recognize science has explored the interconnectedness of everything that is physical. If mind and matter are of the same stuff, then the same must be true of mind. And in fact, it is and this is one of the things that you will learn from meditation, it’s one of the things you will discover, is that a mind is interconnected. And so, things like being able to, essentially recall the lives of people that have lived in the past or closely related thing is to know what’s going on in the mind of somebody and somebody else in the present, what’s referred to as seeing at a distance or hearing at a distance or just different manifestations of the same thing, putting your mind into resonance with another mind. And even this is even true of a mind that, of someone who has already died because that is still part of the present moment, the entire history of the universe is part of the present moment. So, yes, since mind is interconnected, you can tap into that the same way that a historian or an archeologist or paleontologist or, a cosmologist or astronomer and things like that can tell the history from what’s present today. You can tell the history of the universe, of evolution, of everything else. So, yes, that’s true. Now when you get to tie things like, multiplying your body and being in multiple places at once, walking through walls and things like that, these are in the category. There’s just so many supernatural qualities that have been, oh, omniscience is another one that have been attributed to the Buddha and to highly awakened people. And as I say, some of these are really metaphors for something that is, it’s just a reflection of a much more profound understanding of reality that an awakened person has compared to most people.

Christiaan: That makes the most sense to me too. When I read about them and heard about them, some of them, like being able to read people’s minds seem to be more about someone so sensitive that they could understand from, for instance, body language or certain signals, what the other person really was trying to say or what they felt and those really made sense. But some of them, yeah. They go a little bit beyond the realm of–

Culadasa: Yes, it goes beyond the realm of body language and things like that, definitely.

Christiaan: Yeah, I’ve heard you talk about the process you are in of writing a new book. Could you tell us a bit about this book? What will it be about and what can we expect from it?

Culadasa: What it will be about is my understanding from the sutras and other traditional literature of Buddhism and to some degree of other traditions as well. And my personal experience and the experience of my students, of what insight is, how and why it develops, what’s necessary for it to occur and how insight leads to awakening. Why the Buddha chose to divide the continuing process of awakening into the four paths? And he defined those four paths on the basis of 10 fetters and it’s because those four paths, involve significant as in the same way that, TMI is developmental for developing, Samatha with Vipassana or you know, Samadhi, with Vipassana and Sati. These are the four paths of awakening and the 10 fetters that the Buddha described, they’re the same way. They’re just a basic fundamental, you got to do, first things first and then you do the next thing that you have to do. And then this makes it possible to do the thing after and so forth. So, it provides a very good description of how you arrive at the goal. So, what I’m going to be discussing is what it means to be awakened and what it means to have insight, what are the skills that we need to develop? And I’ve named the three main ones there is as Samadhi, Sati and well, Vipassana and explain the process from my experience, as I say, from the experience with my students and from everything I’ve read and studied in my lifetime, how this works, how it happens, maybe to help sort, of all these people on the Internet to sort it out where are they really are in the development of the paths of awakening and the development of insight. So, I’m not saying that this is the absolute ultimate answer and for the next 2,500 years, everybody should be following what I say in this book. Definitely, my understanding, my experience extended by the experience of hundreds of others and everything that I have been able to read and study and understand and something like about 50 years of working on this project. 

Christiaan: That’s incredible. And is there a date already set for that or a certain aim for when you would like to publish it? 

Culadasa: Well I’d like to see it be ready for publication within a year from now or say. But one of the things that’s happening in the process of writing this, is that, and I have a couple of people co-researching this with myself, is that we’re discovering so much of the new work in cognitive neuroscience and, we are going back to the sutras and we’re examining line by line and word by word, many sutras and, different versions of the same sutras and the picture keeps developing and getting clearer. So, just, you know, when I started to work on it, I was starting sort of with this assumption that, well, okay, I’ll just basically put down what I know and understand. But then of course you want to validate and verify certain things. So, you go back to the sutras, or you go to the corresponding neuroscience. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve opened up a whole new area that adds more clarity and illumination to what it was that I intended to do in the beginning. 

Christiaan: Right, so it keeps evolving. 

Culadasa: It keeps evolving and it’s wonderful and it’s so exciting. You know, it’s like the, what I mentioned earlier, the meaning of the word with Vipassana and the degree to which the misunderstanding of that word has created so much incredible confusion. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that I was wanting to be able to clarify but I didn’t, when I began, I didn’t actually, you know, I was making the same assumptions that everybody else was about what that word meant. We went back to the sutras and found there’s no way in the world it could possibly mean that, it doesn’t. We’ll say that it does, but it does, it’s more, that’s more importantly is it very accurately identified a particular mental skill and capacity that must be developed. And then we go to neuroscience and find, ah, it’s being described, cognitive science is describing it. There are theories of how the mind works that are actually laying this information out so I can go back, and I can put what was, I can say to myself, what was it the Buddha was really trying to communicate? He didn’t start using the term Vipassana, so it’s in what are referred to as the latest, straight of the suttas of his teaching. And it appears, not that many times, it only appears in, I don’t know, less than 20 suttas and it always appears in combination with the word Samatha except for two sutras. But it always carries a particular meaning that absolutely doesn’t correspond to what everybody is assumed it might. What that means is that based on that mistaken assumption, people have been prevented from recognizing in a clearly conceptual and articulable way exactly what it is, that you are trying to do when you were doing a meditation that is called the Vipassana meditation. So, you know, yeah, that’s exciting.

Christiaan: Oh, yeah, I’m excited to read that. And, The Mind Illuminated is also very clear guide on meditation and how to navigate our practice. There is already incredible advice contained in this book, but still I will like to ask you, what would your advice to anyone listening to the podcast right now? But in terms of what you found to be most important in your path along the way of practicing meditation, what could possibly help, you know, other people are practicing that they can take away from this talk and yeah?

Culadasa: Well maybe the best thing I could do would be to say, I do believe that anybody who chooses to follow the path that’s described in The Mind Illuminated is going to be successful, but the biggest obstacles to their success are going to be:

1. Striving First of all, striving, striving is self-centered. It assumes that there’s somebody that is making this happen and you will get in your own way and you will get stopped and you’ll become very frustrated. So, strive, there’s no place for striving. What is required is simply to form clear intentions around the instructions for the stage that you’re at, in terms of what’s actually happening in your meditation each time you sit down and meditate. And that can change even in the course of a single meditation, but it’s obviously going to change over time that corresponds to the stages. So, all you do is form the intention to follow the instructions for what to do and precisely those kinds of things are happening, and you’d be diligent about doing it. Most striving just trust in the process; the instructions are all really simple.

2. over-interpret And the other thing that holds people back is they will over-interpret, they will mistake the means for the end and, there’s a lot of different techniques and practices that we introduce for people to use at every stage. And what I find, a lot of type A personalities, especially that they will lose sight of what the goal is for the particular stage that they’re at and end up spending a lot of time trying to be absolutely perfect in the performance of the techniques that are suggested, not, as I say, losing sight of the end and focusing on the means and thereby holding themselves back.

3. Assuming from reading And another obstacle is when somebody assumes that they know and understand something because they read it and they don’t actually do the practice. Now the biggest problem with this is people who have practiced in some others tradition and then they come to The Mind Illuminated, they will read The Mind Illuminated and say, oh, well, I’m obviously at stage five. And so, they’ll start off practicing in stage five, but there are certain skills that are unique to stages two, three and four, but they haven’t developed to the same degree. And so, then this becomes an obstacle. Or sometimes people will just be in a hurry, you know, I want to get to these advanced stages and, so they won’t develop the skills that they need to the degree that they need. Fortunately, this is self-correcting, they’ll find themselves suddenly unable to practice it.

You know, the example of somebody that figured they’re a stage five and they started practicing that way and it seemed great and then they tried to move on to stage six, then they find all of a sudden, they’re back at stage three. Well, what happened? Well, they ran into a situation where it revealed the fact that they hadn’t developed a certain skill to the degree that they needed. So, that’s my advice about using The Mind Illuminated as a way to achieve the skill.

4. Surrendering The other thing that is really important is learning to, now there’s a variety of words we can use, and then this kind of relates to the striving thing, striving being an extreme form of it. But it’s, there’s a lot of letting go even to the point of surrender, just surrendering to what is happening rather than resisting or trying to mold your experience to meet some preconceived notion of what you think it should be, or this can be a tremendous problem. In terms of, in order to assimilate insights, you’re going to have an insight experience and you can say, oh, wow, right, this is the way things really are and then that kind of wears off and you have the memory of it. But, what you need to do is to let go of the tendency to chase after things and to cling to things and to think that you’re the one doing things and allow yourself to just allow these things to unfold in a very natural way and all the way along. And, you know, on that concept from the very beginning, we are telling people, notice that you are not in control of your mind. All you can do is hold intentions. Notice that there is no one part of your mind that is always, the, I, the who’s in control. As you go along in the process, give up, keep giving up this idea that I’m doing it, that there’s an agent here inside my head that is responsible for making things happen. And if you do that, by the time you get to stage six, stage seven, that aspect of self-paying has largely disappeared. This, and if you’ve been carrying your practice over into daily life, you’ve been discovering more and more in daily life, how much the idea that you’re doing things, that you’re the agent in charge, is just an illusion. But every aspect of insight, maturation and development involves a kind of surrender, a kind of letting go and a kind of relaxing into it. And so, that would be the most important pieces of advice that I would give to somebody regardless of what practice they’re following is. And the unfortunate thing about a lot of practices is that they’re all in the form of, do this, do this, don’t do that, don’t do that, if that happens, go back to mounting or whatever it is. You know, and rather than encouraging all the way along to notice the reality, to see that actual fact that there is no agent in charge. Ultimately the moment of awakening the first path is a way, as a moment of total surrender. And, the more a person practices that letting go, then the sooner that’s going to happen and the more easily that’s going to happen, more painlessly it’s going to happen.

Christiaan: That’s beautiful, Culadasa, thanks again for joining me on the podcast and for your interesting talk. There’s a lot to take away here and, I’ll make sure to relisten to it again and again to take it up in my practice. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Culadasa: You’re most welcome and thank you Christiaan

Christiaan: If you enjoyed what Culadasa talked about, make sure to check out his website mentioned in the description of this episode. We give away three signed copies of his book in our raffle. Make sure to head on over to projectmindfulness.com/giveaway. Shout out to our patrons Amber, Xmgaw, Zjee, JupiterGirlX, Candace, Tim, Kate, Chris, Justin, Disies, Krish, FIzzy Elf and Yuri! Thank you very much for supporting us. Next week I am talking with Mark Lesser about Mindful Leadership. Mark worked together with Facebook and Google to implement mindfulness into the company. Remember to subscribe to our podcast, if you enjoyed this talk. We are able to do what we do because of your help. If you would like to support us without making any donations, you can leave us a review on the platform you are listening to. And this way, more people will be able to benefit from this podcast. Thank you for listening and have a great day. 

Christiaan Neeteson
Christiaan Neeteson
Christiaan is passionate about building a supportive, healthy and positive community. He hosts the podcast, creates meditative music and is the co-founder of Project Mindfulness.

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