Modified: October 07, 2022
Pointing Out the Great Way Level 1 retreat notesThis page is from my personal notes, and has not been specifically reviewed for public consumption. It might be incomplete, wrong, outdated, or stupid. Caveat lector.
This page contains my notes from the Pointing Out the Great Way Level 1 mahamudra meditation retreat course I took (over Zoom) in October 2021 with Dan BrownAs Dan passed away in spring 2022, this turned out to be the last retreat he taught. and Dustin DiPerna. As with all of my notes, parts of this are likely confused, wrong, incomplete, or all three: this is an record of my experience, not a definitive account of the Pointing out the Great Way teachings.
Scroll to the end for my personal reflections on the retreat.
What am I expecting? What are my goals and intentions?
- My goals are:
- learn as much as possible about what meditation is and why you would practice it
- experience the power of mediation---intense emotion, or otherwise non-ordinary mental states
- relate honestly and authentically to the instructors and other students in the course.
- I'm doing this mostly out of curiosity. I want to understand consciousness, and attention, and how my own mind works.
- I want to get to the point of feeling motivated to and capable of starting a practice that improves my life. Am I committing to a regular practice? I don't think I can commit without a sense of direction. The meditation I've done so far hasn't notably improved my life. Blindly continuing doesn't seem like the right thing. But if I can learn enough to feel like I'm going somewhere, or build a relationship with a teacher that I trust is going somewhere, that could unlock something powerful.
- I do want to be more intentional and less reactive in my own life. I want to develop my sense of agency, in a way that's positive but not fragile. I also want to deepen my sense of self love. I want to relate openly and authentically with others.
- In my life during the next few days, I will:
- Minimize computer use except for Zoom, music, and writing in Roam. I do want to write reflections on what I'm learning.
- Prioritize sleep.
- Go for a run every day.
- Avoid eating to excess. Calorie restriction is good for my life goals and helps keep my mind clear.
- I am not going into this with a blind trust of teachers on spiritual or metaphysical matters. I do trust them to know the meditation tradition and to guide me in it.
Guru practice: imagine Padmasambhava in front of you.
- White light shoots from his third eye (forehead), like a shooting star, into your third eye, signifying ???.
- Red light like a laser beam shoots from his throat into your throat, burning away anything negative about your body.
- Blue light gushes like a waterfall from his heart into yours, clearing your mind, leaving only pure awakened awareness, no negative states.
- Then all three come at once. You have everything you need.
Posterior cingulate cortex corresponds to 'mind wandering mode', the default mode network. Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is ???
Three turnings of the wheel:
- First: Theravadin buddhism. the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. 'no-self'.
- Second: the self is a construct. it is empty. we're not getting rid of the self, or denying the self. we're just recognizing its constructiveness and emptiness. There's a vast timeless field of awareness in which everyone is connected.
- Third turning: mahamudra, dzogchen. Focus on buddha-nature.
- Awakening is like the sun. It might be clouded over, but it's always shining. Sometimes you can't see it, but it can be pointed out. Your true nature is always right here.
- Positive qualities are more important than negative qualities. Sanghay? practice: eradication of all negative states and flourishing of all positive states.
- Conduct matters. Your actions have a positive influence.
Historical teacher: ray-chung(?). Levels of mind:
- First: coarse, thoughts and emotions, where we usually focus.
- Second: subtle mind (?)
- Storehouse: vast timeless awareness, interconnected field
- Awakened: limitless, nonlocal, no reference points. nondual.
- Flourishing of all positive states (sange).
- seventh: buddhahood, all three budda-bodies operating at once
- More advanced levels correspond to 'gamma activity' in the ACC and in the parietal system.
Mantra: gate, gate, pāragate, pārasaṃgate, bodhi svāhā
- from the heart sutra. contains the entire path.
- First articulated by Nagarjuna.
- translates as "gone, gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond, ooh what a realization".
- awareness goes beyond thought
- awareness goes beyond self
- timeless, limitless, boundless awareness ('gone way beyond')
- awakened awareness
- ooh what a realization: must have the metacognitive awareness to recognize the value
- What Nagarjuna said is that you can take a view that negates the coming and going of time. There's a constancy to awareness. Tree-sin-ha is a Chinese teacher that also has pointing out instructions.
- Then we move beyond individual information processing. Individual thoughts are 'particularizing' or 'partializing'. Whenever we think about something, we think about that thing in particular, but that stops us from seeing the thing as a whole.
- The view is the meditation.
There are three maps in this lineage:
- first (level 1): from ordinary mind to a taste of awakening
- second: stabilizing the awakened awareness.
- third: sange: eradication of negative states.
- We'll work with a specific map of the nine stages of concentration. (called ??? from 500-something). The mind is like a wild elephant that needs training. We call it the elephant path.
- Skills that we learn and tools to achieve them:
- Isolate the object. Pick the signal from the noise.
- Learning to stay on the object.
- Learn to recognize distraction as it's forming.
- Staying completely: give the full strength of your mind to the meditation object.
- There is no correct object of concentration. But we'll use the breath.
Seven points of posture: (tradition: lun-ay (?))
- feet and knees. knees on the ground --- in cushion position, your body is a tripod with your knees and your butt. I'm still not totally sure about the feet. In seated position, feet are flat on the floor.
- straight spine. try waving like a blade of grass.
- upper trunk is lifted. like having wings, or preparing to bench press (I think).
- back of the neck is elongated (hold hand a few inches above your head, and try to touch the hand with your head). you can even tuck down the chin slightly if it helps elongate the back of the neck.
- gaze is angled down, eyelids slightly open. (extend your hand at a 45deg angle downwards in front of you, focus on the spot where your middle finger is, then remove the hand.) eyelids 30% open, unfocused.
- tongue touches roof of mouth
- hands: right over left, rounded, just below navel. not resting.
Posture is important. Being too relaxed encourages mind wandering mode. The goal is even muscle output. Standing is also possible.
- Steering wheel to control attention.
- Metacognitive intelligence: notice when you're distracted. Be a smart driver who's paying intention.
- Intensifying: bring more energy to the practice. You say 'there's a bear', and they look, you don't see it. Then they looked more carefully, then more carefully, and finally they see it.
The result of concentration is 'shi-ne': you find as you concentrate more deeply that the background noise becomes calm.
First meditation: the three-point object. rising breath, falling breath, and sense of the body as a whole.
- the points don't have to be even. the focus on the body is just so that you always have something to be focused on. it might be a brief flash, or a long period, it's all fine.
- the breath is the motion of the breath.
- strategies for concentration (like counting) are limiting. You don't need a strategy. Have confidence that you can do the thing directly.
- don't visualize the three points, as a triangle or a shape. that's a strategy. it's a conceptual focus. focus on the direct experience of the breath.
Second meditation: spinning sword and extraordinary perspective
- extraordinary perspective: go into the meditation as a meditation master. you know how to do this. there is no self doubt.
- spinning sword. thoughts emerge as motion in the field of awareness, which becomes a thought, which becomes a chain of thoughts, which becomes a daydream. Use metacognitive awareness to cut off those thoughts as soon as you can. Notice how far your thoughts are getting.
- Also use the sword to cut off thoughts about the practice itself.
- Catching the edge to intensify is like catching the wind in sailing. When you find it, ride it. Don't lose the meditation object.
- "Intensify" -> develop more intimacy with the breath and body. It's not a physical tightness, it's not effortful.
Shorter, high-quality practice is better than longer practice. Don't train yourself to daydream.
Vast expanse and dark cave: you'll find your energy level affecting your practice. You can adjust it by adjusting your span of awareness.
- If you're drowsy, imagine that you're meditating in a vast expanse full of bright light. Keep your attention on the meditation object, but in the back of your mind, know that you're in this wide-open space full of light.
- If you're agitated or over-excited, imagine that you're meditating in a small, dark cave. Not too small, but safe and still and dim. Keep your eyes open, and keep your attention on the meditation object.
Seven factors that potentiate awakening (factors of awakening):
- mindfulness: paying attention to the task at hand
- metacognitive intelligence. know what's happening in your mind and how to direct it, without explicit thought.
- balanced energy
- lightheartedness. be lighthearted in situations that would suggest heavy thoughts and self-doubt. go about your daily life but don't be overwhelmed by it.
- calmness of mind
- TRUST: trust yourself, trust that you have everything you need (not a teacher or a book---trust yourself).
- Intensifying is trust that you can see more.
- six perfections:
- generosity of spirit
- Dan's tradition adds: mental toughness. no excuses. get it done. don't let anything get in the way of your practice.
exemplar practice: imagine someone who embodies a quality you want to develop
- imagine a scene where the exemplar is exhibiting the quality in a strong way, observe what it's like
- imagine the exemplar sitting in front of you embodying that quality, interwoven with the fabric of their being.
- take that being and transform them into a ball of light, bring them over your head so they come down into you and explodes out from your heart
- imagine yourself in a scene where that quality is your strength.
- Finally imagine yourself meditating with that quality as your strength.
- (I chose lightheartedness, with SuccessfulFriend and NameRedacted as exemplars)
- Do the exemplar practice before going into concentration meditation. Trust that it will influence your meditation.
Two types of metacognitive intelligence: thinking about thought, and awareness of thought. Awareness is immediate, like system 1.
Pre-meditation routine: every time. Cue-induced learning.
- posture (seven points)
- set the intention towards awakening for the benefit of all beings
- call forth the retinue of all masters of the lineage. imagine them as a supportive field with no judgement
- ask that they remove any obscurations from your path
- ask for the activation of all the positive qualities of mind
- ask for their views. (the view is the meditation).
- exemplar method---choose a positive quality.
- You never start from scratch. The cues remind you where you left off the last time.
Once you're staying at 60, 80, 90%, a common problem is partial staying---you're on the object all the time, but part of your mind is on the background.
The seven-point object trains complete staying:
- beginning of the rising breath
- duration of the rising breath
- end of the rising breath
- beginning of the falling breath
- duration of the falling breath
- end of the falling breath
- felt sense of the body as a whole
The idea is that you're so busy that you can't think about background stuff.
Selective intensification: find the points of the object that are least clear to you and intensify them.
Another advantage of the multi-pointed objects (three, seven, etc) is that they train mental pliancy---the agility to rapidly switch between objects.
If you find yourself trying to control the breath, search for the agent who's trying to control the breath.
Don't anticipate the breath. Don't get to the points of the object before they happen.
The elephant path:
- staying all the time
- then complete staying
- dealing with energy variations
- then---overcoming subtle dullness. nonconceptual stillness.
- Subtle dullness is like being in the hot tub. Pleasant, relaxing, kind of sleepy.
- Coarse vs subtle mind
- the object becomes insubstantial, lightlike, streaming, harder to find. But you still concentrate on its imprint.
- Like a rocket---at first, you need giant booster rockets (intensification). But once you're in space, a tiny force has big effects. You need to ease up, but just the intention to ease up is enough.
- It's like an old radio with a coarse-tuning knob and a fine-tuning knob.
- eventually you get to automatic staying. the one-pointed object.
- the last stage is to guide the mind with just intention. making the mind 'serviceable'. the mind is a trained instrument.
Beyond the last stage, the path splits:
- a lower path leads to absorption states (jhanas), where ordinary perception disappears. some people think this is going too far---you want to use the mind to observe perception, not to get rid of it. These are tempting, but ultimately this path is a dead end. It's a path to nowhere. The 'bodhisattva path' (?).
- The upper path leads towards special insight practices, such as emptiness, eradication of negative states, and ultimately enlightenment. The 'Buddha' path. This is a better path. The intention is to help people, not to get absorbed in special states.
- three buddha-bodies:
- infinite ocean of timeless awakened awareness
- sacred world of the mandela
- it breaks your heart that not everybody gets to live in this sacred world. you break into a million pieces, but you are all of those pieces.
All the Tibetan traditions use the elephant path. But the Theravadin tradition doesn't. They get caught up in the jhanas and don't have the concept of intensifying.
Re the yoga sutras: something about a different perspective on moment-by-moment vs continuous (like particle vs wave duality). Dan recommends
- Nichua (?): translation
- Magudana (?): modern commentary (1970s?)
In a peak performance mode, everything is well organized and crystal clear. That's what automatic concentration is. It's not dull. It's alert and crystal clear.
Dan says: no need to abstain from tea and coffee. When he was in Burma, all the monks drank coffee.
We're going very fast. We've found there are a lot of limiting beliefs about how quickly you can go. But you can surprise yourself. there is no speed limit.
Review your progress after meditating:
- How much of the time were you on the meditation object?
- Were you completely on the object?
- Was your mind clear and alert?
- Did you get to the subtle level of mind? Was breath insubstantial?
- Was the concentration automatic?
- Did you feel a sense of orderly flow? It's not subtle. It's a profound state.
- Was the mind serviceable?
The path shows itself to itself by itself. You don't have to do anything. Wait for the path to show itself to itself. You already have the wisdom.
Intensification is a process of the mind, not the body. Don't look for a shift in the body. It means curiosity, intimacy, interest, staying close.
When you drop the seven-point object, focus on the continuous flow of the breath and the body. It's the same object, but it becomes more orderly and unfolds by itself.
If you feel sleepy while meditating, also try:
- stand up while practicing. even in the middle of the practice.
- try lifting your gaze.
Someone talked about feeling fear when they clear their mind. Like being in the water and by clearing their mind they're not watching for sharks. Dan's response: "Watch out for the meditation sharks." :-)
Hindu vs buddhist view of meditation:
- Hindu: events unfold as a continuum, all the same stuff. One event transforms into the next, into the next.
- Buddhist: each event is an individual packet, an individual instant or moment.
- Both are valid perspectives, like wave/particle duality. But we'll focus on the moment perspective.
We've been taking the perspective where the event of the rising breath, or falling breath, or felt sensation of the body, is in the foregound, and the mind is in the background.
But today we'll try inverting that, taking the mind perspective. Focus on the field of awareness within which all of those occur. The event is still happening in the background.
- The awareness co-occurs with the event. The awareness and event arise together as a packet. Each moment.
- Or, the awareness registers the event.
The mind perspective is associated with nonreactivity. It's spacious freedom. It's generally better than the event perspective.
I asked Dan and Dustin about the visual field. It's right that we're looking with our minds, not our eyes. But focus on trust in myself, I will get it. And the visuals can be part of the experience of the event.
- Don't narrow your perspective.
- You've got a whole story about what happens. Let the story go.
The field of awareness is an expanse. It's not narrow. It has no size, no shape.
- It doesn't change, but as you intensify, it gets bigger, vaster. And you lock onto it more clearly.
- It's loving, unconditionally.
- Dan says: you can't lose the field of awareness. It's always with you, always right here.
The special states you end up in are different depending on your mind. The three special states are:
- nonconceptual stillness
These are distractions along the path. Don't get attached to any of them.
Dan says: be aware of the tendency towards conceptualization, but don't let it lead towards self-doubt.
Awareness is not necessarily awakened awareness. Awakened awareness is:
And it means having a direct experience of those. Not just a lack of awareness of bounds, but a direct experience of boundlessness.
Transition towards emptiness practice. But first we'll talk about compassion. There are two types:
- Compassion towards suffering beings. Story of Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms helping different people.
- Compassion in our common humanity. Focus on everyone, but especially forgotten people. A model for this is a mother's love. A typical practice would use a mother as the exemplar, and then move to us displaying that love towards all beings. But in Western culture, mothers are pathologized, seen as the source of problems. So this practice doesn't work as well in the West as it does in Tibet.
Five functions of attachment:
- protection and safety
- attunement-the parent is curious about the child's state of mind.
- self-esteem development. the best parents are delighted and effusive about everything the child does.
- self development. the best parents develop a child that has a strong, willful, independent sense of self. they're not threatened by this.
Treatment protocol: visualize ideal parents. Focus on the positive qualities.
Visualizing ideal parents is really powerful. And it was powerful that Dan cried at the end of it.
Once you have healthy attachment, that helps you open up to common humanity practice. Exemplars of common humanity practice:
- Dalai Lama: spoke with cleaning ladies while being late to a talk
- Bobby Kennedy
- film on youtube about the assassination: the real manchurian candidate. the assassin was programmed by hypnosis; Dan worked with him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCU2MCxjAJ0
Dustin says: you need to become as whole as you can in your attachment system, so that when you give, it's freely given.
Don't see yourself as self-sacrificing. That's a limiting belief. You are boundless.
Emptiness is similar to the constructivist movement in Western psychology in the 60s, 70s, 80s.
- Perception is reconstructed. We don't see everything. We register impressions, abstractions. In a bank robbery, we don't see every detail.
- Memory is reconstructed.
- Emotion is reconstructed.
Emptiness is a search process. It's a high-speed search, using awareness. You search for the self. emptiness is about unfindability. You can't find anything substantial. It keeps slipping away.
- You actually have to look. You can't think your way out of it. Imagine you're in a house and you think you hear an intruder. You can't just think your way out of it. You have to search for them. You check the closets, behind the furniture, etc. Then you become convinced.
You negate the substantiality of the self in order to affirm awareness as your base of operation. That's the true test of whether you're doing emptiness correctly.
The self has emergent properties that are useful: it creates continuity across time and space.
Three steps of emptiness:
- emptiness of self
- emptiness of ?
- emptiness of time and space
- Target selection: familiarize yourself with the object of the search. Think about your general sense of self. Or (less good) specific personality traits.
- High-speed search: look for that sense, using awareness, everywhere in the body.
- Look at what remains. This affirms awareness.
You need a sense of self in order to do emptiness practice. "You have to be somebody before you're nobody." Otherwise the meditation is threatening. Components of self development:
- Sense of agency
One of the results of emptiness practice is that it reduces the 'grab' of the self, which can create reactivity.
Visualization of impermanence:
- imagine all the places you've lived, how exciting it was to move into them. where are they now?
- all the possessions you've had
- all the relationships you've been in. people you're no longer in touch with.
- imagine your body. the changes it's gone through.
- imagine realizing you're growing old.
- imagine you're approaching death. the elements of the body dissolve. hearing goes away, touch, smell, sight go away. breath stops. conscious thought goes. all that's left is awareness.
- (then some stuff about reincarnation and the after-death experience that I didn't quite get because Dan was mumbling, but also would have been skeptical of anyway)
Emptiness of thought. When a thought arises, where does it come from? You can't find a source. When a thought stays, is there anything substantial about it? When a thought disappears, where does it go? You can't find anywhere substantial. As you look, you shift your basis of operation from thought mode to awareness.
- Does thought have substantial characteristics? No, it has no shape, size, color.
Emptiness of emotion. Search into the body to find something substantial about the emotion. You can't. Then search for the self that's experiencing the emotion. Where is the angry self? The afraid self? The loving self?
- Anger reveals itself as determination. Fear as alertness.
- Both negative and positive emotions obscure. But positive emotions can be useful. All emotions are empty, but some are useful.
- Padmasambhava described emotions as a strong gust of wind. They arise, they blow through you, and they dissipate.
Seeing the emptiness of everyday thoughts is important. But people also have subtle thoughts about meditating. We still need to get rid of those. Those thoughts might be seen as 'justified', but they lead to meditation becoming too conceptual.
- Thoughts are still there. They are like clouds, insubstantial, transparent, ephemeral. They can still be rich.
- Even the field of interconnectedness is a thought, and it's empty. Everything is empty, including emptiness. Awareness is insubstantial (but it still exists). Awakened awareness is insubstantial (but it still exists).
When you get to the realization of emptiness, don't become indifferent to continuing any further. You want to develop a sense of intense curiosity.
Emptiness of perception: we'll take the 'mind only' approach. For each of the five senses, we take the view that it's not "out there", it's part of the mind's awareness. Then that it's just a construction.
- Ultimately you live in a world that is a magical display. The view of things as insubstantial constructions makes them richer and more beautiful, not less.
- Dan had a student that tried this and ended up feeling like a little god. That's why we practice emptiness of self. Yes, the rest of the world is a construction, but so is the self. Other people and our relationships with them are constructions in our mind, but not any more or less than our self is.
Viewing everything as mind only shouldn't lead to nihilism or solipsism. Your intent is compassion, to help all beings along the path.
(discussion of lineage---reminder that we're about to receive precious secret teachings)
Emptiness of time and space. Instructions are from Nagarjuna, who allegedly lived for 450 years. His style was to find the middle of two extremes:
- internalism vs nihilism
- something exists, but it's not permanent
- one or many: are we all manifestations of the same stuff, or is it all different?
- middle path: it's the
- coming and going
- these are analyses of the coarse-level mind. the breath comes and goes
- rising and passing away
- mind-moments rise quickly and pass away quickly
- Extreme views: time exists, time doesn't exist
- middle view: time is a construction of mind.
- As the breath arises, we take the view that it was always here. As it falls, we take the view that it stays here.
Ocean-and-waves practice. View everything as vast, timeless, boundless awareness. Things that arise---reactivity---are waves. Everything that comes forth is another wave.
- This is like, or starts with, the mind perspective. But it's also timeless and boundless.
- Don't visualize an ocean. It's just a metaphor for the vast scope. The currents and waves in the ocean are still part of the ocean. That's a metaphor for nondual awareness.
- "If you're trying to make something happen, search for the agent that's trying to make something happen. Stop trying. Let the view be the meditation."
- Do seven-point concentration work before ocean and waves practice.
Personal note: I'm finding this part of the retreat frustrating because it feels like it's moving too fast. I don't feel like I have complete staying on the basic breath, but we're trying to hold 'sophisticated' views like ocean-and-waves. And at the same time, there's a lot of emphasis on lineage, which I think Dan and Dustin genuinely hold sacred---I don't think they're faking---but I can't help but step outside and view it as also functioning as a bit of theater that hypes up people's expectations that these teachings are really special. And that show might be really useful for some people in allowing the instructions to break through. But I find myself noticing that aspect of it, and instinctively resisting it, and then doubt creeps in because I imagine that the fact that I've "seen through" the show means that it won't work for me. Like: this is a new relationship, a first date, and at every moment I'm evaluating whether this is quite the right fit for me. Sometimes I have doubts about whether it is. That doesn't have to mean I can't get something out of the experience in this moment. It doesn't mean I have to doubt myself.
Emptiness-liveliness: all mental content is emptiness-liveliness. Just like the ocean has the same salty taste everywhere.
"One taste" practice. Three stages:
- same taste. thoughts, perceptions: they all have the same taste. It's all the ocean viewing its own waves.
- sealing practice. notice each event right when they begin to form, and 'seal' them as emptiness-liveliness.
- two stages: immediacy and range. leads to automatic emptiness.
- as you're setting it up: it takes intention to notice each event as emptiness-liveliness as it occurs. eventually you don't have to try as hard: the events just arise as emptiness-liveness and the practice goes by itself.
- the range aspect: notice all events and mental content as empty. your limiting beliefs are empty. all boundaries are empty.
- Each event that arises seems magical, like profound primordial wisdom.
'special' is just a label. don't label your experiences as special or not-special. You'll see the realization in the unfolding.
Even to think that your experience is just 'neutral' is itself conceptualizing: it's comparing your experience to some other idea of what it should be like.
Funny story from Dan: he was practicing in his office in Newton with a student, then went outside to walk around in a state of exhilaration. The student had long hair, looked like Jesus. Apparently someone came up to the student and asked him to bless them. Dan asked the student, "What did you do?" "I blessed them."
Non-meditation meditation: the meditation goes on automatically; you don't have to do anything.
- the sun is always shining, even if there are clouds. awareness is always with you. you don't have to do anything.
- some clouds have to do with partiality. thinking about the self is partializing---dividing yourself from the whole. trying to do something is dividing yourself from the whole.
- Automatic emptiness is a clearing agent for doing. Doubt is empty upon arising.
- 'Particularizing' is the last cloud. Try going outside and looking at the stars. Try seeing them as an unbounded wholeness. It's hard. The very foundation of our information processing system wants them to be particular. But with the awareness of the vast expanse, the particularizing still happens, and you see it happening, but it's all part of the vast expanse.
The view is the vast expanse: limitless, timeless awareness. Nondual. hold the view. Then one of two things will happen:
- you'll recognize that there's an aspect of this awareness that's nonordinary: intense, sacred, has sparkling immediacy.
- Don't make them into things or look for them. But these are guidelines to notice awakened awareness when you see it. When you recognize it, you've become awakened.
If you set up the view: the path will show itself to itself by itself. Don't get in the way.
- You don't need to take lessons or insight from the view. That's disrespectful of the view, it's being scared that the view won't be there in the future. It's always there with you, fresh.
"Do not particularize. Mind is without."
- you're not going to stop particularizing, but you'll do it in a way that doesn't interfere with seeing.
Lion's gaze: imagine you throw a stick for a dog. The dog looks at where the stick goes. The lion turns towards the thrower.
Someone shared the impression that they weren't expecting anything big to happen now. That there's a muscle that needs to be trained. (I feel basically the same way). Dan pointed out that that in itself is a limiting belief. What if there were no muscle that needs to be trained? You have everything you need right now. You can notice awakened awareness at any moment.
Re nonduality: "inside without outside"
Someone felt pain while meditating. They tried to notice that it was empty, and it disappeared, but then it came back. Then they saw that it was empty, and it disappeared, but it kept coming back. It kept cutting through.
- Dan says: you're trying to make it go away, but it's not going to go away. It's empty, but it's not going to go away. So stop trying.
Someone felt strong "energy currents" in her body that were distracting.
- Dan said, never let the energy run wild. Set the intention to direct all the energy to the 'junction' just below the navel, and hold it there. You don't have to do anything, just set the intention.
Personal note: Dan did a meditation that went through the entire path, and I really felt like I got a stable-ish view of limitless, boundless, awareness. I don't know that it was awakened---I didn't try to make it sacred, and I didn't notice a particular magic to it, or more than a hint of nonlocality. But it was peaceful and effortless.
Even a mistaken view is wisdom, because realizing the mistake helps you see the path more clearly. That's part of the path showing the path to itself.
How to practice:
- Daily concentration, ocean-and-waves
- "Identify your favorite clouds." What tends to grab you in your daily life? Thought? Self? Notice this and do a special practice once a week on that specific thing.
- Take ocean and waves off the pillow.
Gretchen says: stop trying to be an A student. You want to be like a B or a C student.
King of Samadhi: while holding the view of unbounded wholeness, direct your attention back to the three-point object. The view supports the concentration, and the concentration supports the view.
I learned a lot. I now understand concentration practice, the elephant path, emptiness practice and the path towards setting up 'the view', and the exquisiteness of non-meditation meditation, where everything is so easy.
I don't think I got any immediate benefits. I don't feel happier, more fulfilled, or like I had any great revelations. I didn't experience any mental states that I'd consider particularly profound. If meditation practice were always and forever just like the past week was for me, then I'm not sure it would be worth doing. But I'm almost a total beginner; I expect it'll get better with practice.
I did have experiences of really 'getting into' meditation. It wasn't profoundly joyful or anything, but I did have several concentration practice sessions where I was disappointed when the time was up, because I thought I was doing well and wanted 'just one more try' at going deeper.
Some people did have really profound experiences. And they thanked Dan profusely, told him they loved him, and talked about how full of joy and gratitude they felt. It got a bit alienating at times when there was a line of many people waiting to speak and almost all of them said roughly the same version of "wow, thank you so much. that was incredible" when my experience was kind of meh.
There are aspects of the organization where I can see why some people might get the impression that it's a cult. A lot of students express devotion to Dan and what an honor it is to study with him. With almost uniform language they talk about how blown away they are by the power and the precision of the teachings. There's a lot of theater about how precious the teachings are, how they are secret lineage teachings not given to everyone. There are hints of great benefits: of living full-time in a magical reality, of personal transformation, of purifying all negative states. The teachers use very particular language, repeated over and over again, including phrases like "stop thinking", which is both a warning sign of a cult and the entire point of meditation, so it's understandable both why they say it and why I have a hard time with it. It's at least implied that this is the path---Dan brought the teachings directly from Tibet, where he was given them by the great masters. To continue on the path, you must keep studying with teachers from this organization. And a number of people who have worked with Dan seem to have had un-amicable partings, including a few former teachers who were too "proud", which I take to mean that they dared to disagree with Dan. This all made (and makes) me a bit uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Dan and Gretchen and Dustin are all genuine and warm people, and clearly reverent of the material they teach. They're not faking it. Dan came to all of the sessions, did most of the teaching himself, and was endlessly patient with answering questions, even when he was clearly exhausted and barely able to speak. He has Parkinson's; he doesn't have to be doing this at all. He and Gretchen are clearly a loving couple, and he went out of his way to tell Dustin how proud he was of him, several times; he's a good, caring teacher. He emphasized that these aren't his teachings, they're transmitted down the lineage. He never claimed to be enlightened, and emphasized that we shouldn't expect anything in particular from practice or be motivated by personal gain. And there are benevolent explanations for everything: Dan really does believe these teachings are precious and transformative, and he also sees the motivational value in helping students believe that as well. An ongoing teacher-student relationship is likely necessary to a continued healthy practice. Higher-level material really does require that you've mastered the foundations first. And if it's a cult, it's not a very profitable one: the retreats aren't that expensive, and 1:1 followup calls cost less than therapy or violin lessons, and are needed much less often. So I really do believe that they're doing this with the best of intentions, and that they really want to help people (and clearly succeed in many cases).
Dan's work on attachment disorders, and imagining ideal parents, is clearly compassionately motivated and profoundly impactful. It's the kind of work I wish I could do. It uses psychological insight to make a really dramatic difference in real people's lives, helping to fix an aspect of them they thought would always be broken. I found it moving, and I never even thought I had a problem there. For that alone, he's a model and a hero to me, and I'm willing to cut him a lot of slack on other stuff.
I know that I want to keep practicing. The benefits I've heard of are profound, and that's not just from this course but also from other sources I trust, like NameRedacted and Nick Cammarata. The question is how I go about it.
- It makes sense that I should work with a teacher, as a source of both motivation and feedback. Money is not really an issue there. So Dan, Dustin, or Gretchen would be the natural choices.
- But, I don't feel like I have complete trust in any of them. Dustin and Gretchen come off as almost too spiritual; they are clearly not scientists, and in the end I don't think I would trust their opinions as to how I should think above my own. Even Dan, I question a bit: he's quite certain about a lot of things I don't think it's really possible to be certain about, and the credulity with which he talks about feats like rainbow body gives me pause. And his health is failing, so I don't want to burden him, and it's not clear how long he'll be able to continue as a teacher.
- I also don't want to blindly trust in an authority figure. I have enough self-confidence on psychological stuff that I really want to understand things myself, and develop my own perspective. I want to see the subject from multiple angles. Other groups or approaches might speak more profoundly to me. The Mind Illuminated is highly recommended and I want to read it, even if Dan doesn't recommend reading books.
- For now: I'll start my own routine of daily practice. I'll read some of the Mind Illuminated during the rest of this week. I'll sign up for a followup with one of the teachers when I see what their availability is. It's not like a meeting is a long-term commitment.
Would I recommend this course to NameRedacted or others? Yes, but with caveats. It hasn't changed my life (yet), and I don't think Dan has unique wisdom or the only path. If you just want to start a meditation practice, you could do worse than just opening The Mind Illuminated. As a retreat, the amount of actual meditation was less than it could have been, and there was a lot of time wasted on fawning 'questions' and experiential self-reports (though many of the actual questions were pretty useful to hear). But we covered a lot of material in six days, I learned techniques and perspectives that I think will be quite valuable, and I don't think I would have absorbed nearly so much so quickly from just reading a book and trying to practice. I was definitely better than just being thrown into a silent room for the equivalent amount of time. So if you have six days and want a solid introduction to meditation, this will give you that, probably as well or better than any other retreat I've been able to find. Just don't put it on too much of a pedestal.