Annotations for

The Mind Illuminated

By John Yates

52 Annotations


My training in brain science deals with neurons and synapses, while my study of meditation is concerned with matters of attention, introspective awareness, and investigating the nature of subjective experience. But in many ways, I’ve found that the two modes of understanding the world are more complementary than one might think, and they’ve given me a unique insight into how mindfulness actually changes the brain and our perceptions of the world around us.


When I discovered Buddhist meditation, the many pieces of my life so far began to fall perfectly into place.


Theravadin Mahasi-style “noting” meditation practice.


meditation falls in the category of “first-person” science, which is only gradually gaining legitimacy among traditional scientists. In the science of meditation, the mind itself is the laboratory, and the various meditation practices and techniques constitute the experimental apparatuses that are utilized in this research.


It is a science in the sense that it is objectively verifiable through repeated testing and replication of results. Everyone who accurately performs the same “experiment” in meditation reports the same results.

That's interesting. It would be worthwhile to replicate these experiments and discuss findings in a meditation group


One great example of this is the distinction I make in this book between attention and awareness. Despite hundreds of thousands of meditators practicing over millennia, it has never before been clearly conceptualized and articulated that the ordinary mind has two distinct ways of “knowing,” even though these different ways of knowing have so much to do with achieving the goals of meditation.


Although some will resist this statement, I believe we will eventually find that all mental phenomena, without exception, have their neural correlates. This has led many scientists to become staunch materialists, insisting that the mind is merely what matter does when organized to an appropriate degree of complexity. I am not one of them.

Why not? The argument follows from the observation


Historically, the prevailing view in cultures throughout the world has been dualism, the idea that matter is one thing and the mind another. However, close examination renders this view untenable. As a result, two reductionist interpretations have always existed side by side with the dualistic view, each eliminating one side or the other of this dualism. Materialistic reductionism asserts there is only matter, and the mind is at best an emergent property of highly organized matter.


On the other hand, meditation and other spiritual practices often make it clear that our subjectively experienced reality is mind-created—exactly the realization I had in my teens, although I arrived at it from a different route. This realization often draws people to some form of idealism, the other reductionist interpretation, which asserts there is only mind, and that matter is an illusion, a mere projection of the mind to account for experience.


I am a non-dualist. Primarily as a result of meditation experiences, but supported by rational analysis as well, I hold strongly to this fourth alternative view. There is only one kind of “stuff,” and both mind and matter are mere appearances. When looked at from the outside, this “stuff” appears as matter, and as such has been the object of scientific investigation. But when examined from the inside, this exact same “stuff” appears as mind.


peak experiences aren’t the ultimate benefit of meditation. While bliss, joy, tranquility, and equanimity are delightful, they are also transitory and easily disrupted by sickness, aging, and difficult life circumstances.


While this book is a kind of technical manual, it’s also an artist’s handbook. Meditation is the art of fully conscious living. What we make of our life—the sum total of thoughts, emotions, words, and actions that fill the brief interval between birth and death—is our one great creative masterpiece.


To live life consciously and creatively as a work of art, we need to understand the raw material we have to work with. This is nothing other than the continuously unfolding stream of conscious experience that is our life.


The art and science of meditation helps us live a more fulfilling life, because it gives us the tools we need to examine and work with our conscious experience.


In other words, for your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind.


For life to become a consciously created work of art and beauty, we must first realize our innate capacity to become a more fully conscious being. Then, through appropriately directed conscious activity, we can develop an intuitive understanding of the true nature of reality.


This book is the result of discovering how few longtime practitioners have ever experienced any of the more exalted states of meditation, much less the profound realizations that it offers. What I learned is that, even after many years of trying, people weren’t making the kind of progress they should have. The sincerity of their aspirations and the amount of time they spent practicing were definitely not the problem. What they lacked was a clear understanding of exactly which skills they needed to cultivate, in what order, and how to go about doing it.


me 2,500 years ago, the Buddha presented meditation training as a sequence of developmental stages in a series of verses known as the Ānāpānasati Sutta. Each verse describes one step in a progressive method for training the mind. Yet, these verses are short on practical details, and so cryptic as to be incomprehensible to any but the most experienced meditators.


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.


Keep in mind that all these source teachings were intended for monastics living in supportive communities of meditators. There wasn’t much need to provide basic instructions and practical details, or to give examples. This isn’t the case for modern lay practitioners. Most are practicing with little guidance, and often on their own


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. Attention isolates some small part of the field of conscious awareness from the rest so that it can be identified, interpreted, labeled, categorized, and its significance evaluated. The function of attention is discernment, analysis, and discrimination.


I offer you a clear map of the process that describes the whole journey, step by step: what needs to be accomplished at each Stage and how to do it, what things are better left until a later Stage, and what pitfalls should be avoided. Otherwise, the contemplative path can seem like traveling from New York to L.A. with directions like “turn right” or “turn left,” but without a road map, or a description of the terrain. Some people might make it eventually, but the majority would get lost. However, an accurate map will let you know where you’re at, and where you need to head next.

This is what I need. The instructions I've got from guided meditation apps have often felt vague and contradictory. I don't know what order to apply them in


But to do this, I first need to clarify an important set of terms commonly found in meditation literature, showing how they relate to each other and to the goal of Awakening.8 These terms are: śamatha9 (tranquility or calm abiding), vipassanā10 (Insight), samādhi (concentration or stable attention), and sati (mindfulness).


Awakening from our habitual way of perceiving things requires a profound shift in our intuitive understanding of the nature of reality. Awakening is a cognitive event, the culminating Insight in a series of very special Insights called vipassanā. This climax of the progress of Insight only occurs when the mind is in a unique mental state called śamatha.11


Śamatha and vipassanā are both generated using stable attention (samādhi) and mindfulness (sati). Although it’s possible to cultivate either śamatha or vipassanā independently of one another, both are necessary for Awakening.12


The complete state of śamatha results from working with stable attention and mindfulness until joy emerges.

Sounds like arriving at a flow state through deliberate practice


Śamatha has five characteristics: effortlessly stable attention (samādhi),13 powerful mindfulness (sati), joy, tranquility, and equanimity.


Vipassanā refers specifically to Insight into the true nature of reality that radically transforms our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world


meditation also produces many other very useful “mundane insights,” such as a better understanding of our own personality, social interactions, human behavior in general, and how the everyday world works. It can give us flashes of creative brilliance or intellectual epiphanies that solve problems or help us make new discoveries. These useful insights are not vipassanā, however, because they neither transform us personally, nor our understanding of reality, in any profound way.


The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual.


The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings. The five most important of these are Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, and the illusion of the separate self (i.e., “no-Self”).16


The fifth, Insight into no-Self, is the culminating Insight that actually produces Awakening, because only by overcoming our false, self-centered worldview can we realize our true nature

I've had the Fifth Insight, on my first experience with LSD. But the insight did not last and I could not use it to create a persistent behovioral transformation.


For both śamatha and vipassanā, you need stable attention (samādhi) and mindfulness (sati).22 Unfortunately, many meditation traditions split samādhi and sati, linking concentration practice exclusively to śamatha, and mindfulness practice exclusively to vipassanā.


Stable, hyper-focused attention without mindfulness leads only to a state of blissful dullness: a complete dead end.


You simply cannot develop mindfulness without stable attention. Until you have at least a moderate degree of stability, “mindfulness practice” will consist mostly of mind-wandering, physical discomfort, drowsiness, and frustration.

This describes my meditation practice since the last 4 weeks to a tee.


brief episodes of śamatha can occur long before you become an adept practitioner. Insight can happen at any time as well. This means a temporary convergence of śamatha and vipassanā is possible, and can lead to Awakening at any Stage


Therefore, Awakening is an accident, but continued practice will make you accident-prone.


Beginners are particularly encouraged to read the appendix on walking meditation and to incorporate walking immediately into their daily practice.


WALKING MEDITATION is both a powerful practice in its own right and an indispensable complement to sitting practice


walking meditation is just as effective as sitting for developing stable attention and powerful mindfulness. It’s even more effective for some things. The best way to make rapid progress is to combine the two.


Walking, like breathing, is an automatic activity, and the ever-changing sensations with each step provide a continuous anchor for attention.


Never treat walking meditation as a “break” from your practice. If you really do need to take a break, do something completely different, like going for a stroll or taking a nap.


Begin doing the walking practice for fifteen to thirty minutes at a time. In general, you will likely find that thirty minutes is a good period. As you get into the practice, you may find you want to walk for an hour or more at a time.


Still, no matter which technique you happen to use, always remember to keep an attitude of interest, exploration, relaxation, and enjoyment. The more meditation becomes associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure, the stronger your motivation and the faster your progress.


Next, speed up as if you were in a hurry to get somewhere. Notice how at first you need to pay more attention than before to direction, obstacles, and footing, but then peripheral awareness quickly takes over that job. Once that happens, you’ll soon find yourself thinking of things totally unrelated to where you are and what you are doing, and may even forget that you’re supposed to be meditating. It’s much more difficult to keep yourself in the present by attending to the sensations in your feet: they’re just too brief and changing to serve as an effective anchor. The full activity of walking, however—arms swinging, legs moving, torso pivoting, and so forth—works far better as an anchor for attention when walking quickly.


his means your attention can move from your feet to anything happening in the moment that you find interesting. However, these must always be intentional movements of attention! If you are outside, there will be sounds, interesting and attractive visual objects, and odors. Intentionally allow the mind to observe and explore them. Feel the warmth of sunlight, the coolness of shade, and the breeze touching your face. Investigate and engage fully with these things, taking it all in.


Again, always stay in the present. Explore and fully experience your surroundings with both attention and awareness, but don’t get lost in thinking, which takes you away from the present.


In the course of learning to keep attention from getting captured, you’ll also discover how to observe thoughts in peripheral awareness.


Likewise, being aware that discursive thoughts are coming up in the background, or even being aware that you had been engaged with those thoughts just a moment before, is part of being fully present.


The walking meditation just described should feel pleasant, relaxing, and easy. Sitting practice can easily become too goal-oriented and intense, so the relaxed quality of walking provides a valuable antidote to excessive striving, keeping your practice in balance.


Therefore, the best way to support and reinforce your sitting practice is to combine it with at least half an hour of walking meditation per day.


If you take your time, studying the ideas and putting them into practice, you’ll overcome psychological challenges, experience extraordinary states, and learn to use your mind with amazing proficiency. You’ll discover an unprecedented inner calm and gain a deep understanding—even a direct experience—of ultimate truth.