I'm in book bliss.
Someone emailed me with a book recommendation, "The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness," and I'm loving what I've read so far -- the first couple of chapters.
Here's a few early thoughts about the book.
First, it confirms my belief, which isn't shared by some religious fundamentalists (Eastern mysticism variety) who've been frequent commenters on this blog, that there are many forms of useful meditation.
In fact, the inward looking, world-denying, mantra-focused type of meditation favored by Sant Mat/Radha Soami Satsang Beas, which I embraced for 35 years, is much different from what is likely the most common form of meditation in the world: mindfulness based on Buddhist principles.
This is clear from the opening pages of The Mind Illuminated. The primary author, John Yates, lays out in summary form the ten stages of meditation practice discussed in the book. The final stage, Stage Ten, is described in this fashion:
When you have mastered Stage Ten, the many positive mental qualities you experience during meditation are strongly present even between meditation sessions, so your daily life is imbued with effortlessly stable attention, mindfulness, joy, tranquility, and equanimity.
Since Yates bases the ten stages on his study of ancient Buddhist writings, which often are largely incomprehensible to the modern reader, Stage Ten is firmly in line with Buddhist teachings. Yates writes:
The modern road map offered in this book combines experience, tradition, and science. It is a synthesis based on firsthand experience, and expanded on through the shared experiences of many other dedicated practitioners. To make sense of my own meditations and find guidance about where my practice should go next, I turned to my teachers, the Pali suttas, and the commentaries of several Buddhist traditions.
Over and over, these traditional sources gave me the information I needed and provided an appropriate context to fit the pieces together. By integrating this information and my own experiences with the insights of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I've "reverse engineered" traditional meditation instructions to create a contemporary map of meditation.
So there is no mention of God; no mention of supernatural entities; no mention of heavenly realms separate from this world.
Instead, Yates writes clearly about how the human mind works, and how meditation can help it function better. It's great how the book is based, as noted in the quote above, both on Buddhist tradition and current neuroscience.
Second, in my reading this morning I was struck by the wisdom of clearly distinguishing attention from awareness. A Glossary in the back of the book defines these terms.
Attention: The cognitive ability to select and analyze specific information and ignore other information arising from a vast field of internal and external stimuli. Attention is one of two forms of conscious awareness. Peripheral awareness is the second: we pay attention to some things, while simultaneously being aware of, but not attending to, others.
Awareness: As used in this book, awareness always has the same meaning as peripheral awareness. It never means attention, nor does it refer to covert or non-conscious awareness.
Any meditation approach that doesn't combine the benefits of attention and awareness is like a bird trying to fly with one wing. Both are needed. When we drive a car, we can't focus all of our attention on staying in our lane and keeping a safe distance from the car ahead of us.
We've got to have peripheral awareness also. What if a car unexpectedly runs a stop light at an intersection? What if a child chasing a ball runs into the road? There are so many things we need to be aware of, other than what our primary focus is.
This is why mantra meditation, where a word or words is repeated (usually soundlessly) as a focus of attention, is very limited. Repeating a mantra was emphasized by the RSSB teachings that I followed for so many years. And not only during the time of meditation, but as much as possible throughout the rest of the day.
I eventually realized that this had some major drawbacks.
I found that when I put too much attention on the mantra, I distanced myself from the reality of what was around me. Like, the person I was talking with, or nature, if I was out on a walk. I also observed that many RSSB devotees acted a lot like robots, lacking spontaneity, naturalness, social awareness.
They were so focused on keeping their attention from scattering out into the world, they were clueless about what was happening in the world -- the exact opposite of mindfulness, which requires a wise balancing of attention and awareness. There's a time to be focused on one thing, and there's a time to be aware of the entirety of what surrounds us.
I'm sure I'll have more to say about The Mind Illuminated as I read more of it. For now, I simply can say that I highly recommend it to anyone who is meditating, or wants to meditate.