The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (John Yates)

The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (John Yates)

The Book in a Few Sentences

A masterful inquiry into consciousness. Learn how meditation works and how to move skillfully through the ten stages—from monkey mind to unified mind.

The Mind Illuminated summary

This is my book summary of The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (John Yates). My summary and notes include the key lessons and most important insights from the book.


…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 experiential 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.

This book is my offering to all Truth seekers everywhere who are on their own special journeys.


  • My purpose in writing this book was to create a detailed and comprehensive meditation manual that is easy to use.
  • Direct knowledge of the true nature of reality and the permanent liberation from suffering describes the only genuinely satisfactory goal of the spiritual path.
  • To help you progress as a householder, 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.
  • 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 vipassana.
  • The Insights called vipassana are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings.
  • 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.

An Overview of the Ten Stages

  • The more clearly you understand the Stages, and why they happen in the order that they do, the quicker and more enjoyably you will walk the path toward happiness and freedom.
  • The secret to progress is working with the specific obstacles and goals appropriate to your current skill level.
  • Diligent daily meditation combined with occasional longer periods of practice, will be enough for success.
  • The Novice—Stages One through Three
  • The Skilled Meditator—Stages Four through Six
  • The Transition—Stage Seven
  • The Adept Meditator—Stages Eight through Ten
  • In reality, all we’re “doing” in meditation is forming and holding specific conscious intention—nothing more. In fact, while it may not be obvious, all our achievements originate from intentions.
  • Once again, repeatedly sustained intentions lead to repeated mental actions, which become mental habits—the habits of mind that lead to joy, equanimity, and Insight.

First Interlude: Conscious Experience and the Objectives of Meditation

Attention and Peripheral Awareness

  • Attention singles out some small part of the content of the field of conscious awareness from the rest in order to analyze and interpret it.
  • On the other hand, peripheral awareness is more holistic, open, and inclusive, and provides the overall context for conscious experience. It has more to do with the relationships of objects to one another and to the whole.

The First Objective of Meditation: Stable Attention

  • Stable attention is the ability to intentionally direct and sustain the focus of attention, as well as to control the scope of attention.
  • Having focused, sustained, and selective attention is a much more peaceful and engaging way of experiencing the world. It’s also the most valuable tool we have for investigating our minds and coming to understand ourselves.

Intentionally Directing and Sustaining Attention

  • Intentionally directed attention means just that: we make a conscious decision about what we pay attention to.
  • Formulating the conscious attention to focus on the meditation object provides a new piece of information for unconscious processes to take into account. 
  • Holding this intention, together with returning our attention to the breath over and over whenever we get distracted, informs the unconscious weighing process that keeping the focus on the breath is important.
  • In order to truly master directed and sustained attention, we have to overcome this tendency for attention to alternate. 
  • Exclusive attention to one object, also called single-pointedness, is very different from alternating attention.

The Second Objective of Meditation: Mindfulness

  • Mindfulness allows us to recognize our options, choose our responses wisely, and take control over the direction of our lives. It also gives us the power to change our past conditioning and become the person we want to be. Most importantly, mindfulness leads to Insight, Wisdom, and Awakening.

Normal Functions of Attention and Peripheral Awareness

  • Generally, attention translates our raw experience of the world into terms we can more easily understand, which we then organize into a picture of reality.
  • Attention analyzes our experience, and peripheral awareness provides the context.
  • Strong peripheral awareness helps tone down the self-centered tendencies of attention, making perception more objective.
  • We are responding to something in almost every waking moment, whether it comes from the environment or from within our own mind.
  • Everything we think, feel, say, or do from one moment to the next—who we are, and how we behave—all ultimately depends on the interactions between attention and awareness.
  • When attention focuses intensely on an object, the field of conscious awareness begins to contract, and peripheral awareness of the background fades. In this state, awareness can no longer ensure that attention is directed to where it’s most necessary and beneficial.
  • The goal, therefore, is to increase the total power of consciousness available for both attention and awareness.

Increasing the Power of Mindfulness

  • Increasing the power of consciousness isn’t a mysterious process. You simply do exercise where you practice sustaining close attention and strong peripheral awareness at the same time. This is the only way to make consciousness more powerful.

Stage One: Establishing a Practice

Practice Goals for Stage One

  • There are two goals for Stage One. First, you’ll learn how to prepare for practice, and to use a simple method to enter meditation gradually.
  • Second, and more important, is to establish a consistent daily practice where you meditate to the best of your ability throughout every session.

The Meditation Object

  • Although you can choose just about anything, the breath is ideal for cultivating attention and mindfulness. First, the breath is always with you. Second, it allows you to be a completely passive observer.
  • …relaxation and happiness play an important role in the process of training the mind.

Step One: Focus On The Present

  • First, close your eyes and spend a few moments becoming fully present. Take in everything presented to the senses.
  • A helpful phrase to remember when dealing with distractions of any kind is, let it come, let it be, let it go

Step Two: Focus On Bodily Sensations

  • Once you have become fully present with every kind of sensory stimulus, limit your attention to bodily sensations.

Step Three: Focus On Bodily Sensations Related To The Breath

  • As you sit quietly observing the body, your attention will naturally gravitate toward the sensations of movement produced by breathing, since little else changes while sitting quietly.

Step Four: Focus On Sensations Of The Breath At The Nose

  • Now direct your attention to the sensations produced by the air moving in and out of your nostrils.

Counting as a Method to Stabilize Attention

  • Your goal will be to follow the sensations continuously for ten consecutive breaths.
  • …try this: consider the beginning of the out-breath as the start of the cycle.
  • Another approach is to silently say the number during the pause at the end of the out-breath. This “fills the gap” and helps keep the mind on task.
  • Once you’ve succeeded in counting to five or ten, keep observing the breath sensations, but stop counting.

Creating Solutions

  • The simple act of consistently sitting down and placing your attention on the meditation object, day after day, is the essential first step from which everything else in the Ten Stages flows.
  • The more you succeed in seeking out the pleasant aspects of meditation, the more motivated you’ll be and the more you will look forward to practicing.
  • I suggest fifteen or twenty minutes each day for the first week or two. Then, increase the length of your sessions in five-minute increments weekly or every few days until you reach forty-five minutes.
  • …I strongly recommend at least one daily forty-five minute sit as a minimum.
  • Joyful effort and diligence are the right attitude.
  • With spiritual practice in general, and meditation in particular, small measures repeated consistently produce huge results.

Second Interlude: The Hindrances and Problems

1. Worldly Desire

  • Worldly desire (sometimes called Sense Desire) is when we pursue, delight in, and cling to the pleasures of material existence. This also means desiring to avoid their opposites.
  • That said, meditation doesn’t involve repressing worldly desires. It gives us direct, experiential Insight into the many ways that desire leads to pain and anxiety. This Insight frees us from being ruled by desire so we can cultivate its opposite instead, non-grasping and equanimity.

2. Aversion

  • Aversion (sometimes called ill will) is a negative mental state involving resistance. Its most extreme form is hatred, with the intent to harm or destroy, but any compulsion to get rid of or avoid unpleasantness, no matter how subtle, is Aversion.
  • Simply put, there’s little if any room for negativity in a mind filled with bliss. This is one of the reasons it’s crucial to always seek out pleasurable feelings and encourages positive mental states during practice.

3. Laziness and Lethargy

  • Laziness mostly appears as procrastination. Its counterpart, Lethargy, is a tendency toward inactivity, rest, and ultimately sleep. Both involve a lack of energy.
  • There are two antidotes to Laziness and Lethargy. The first is to motivate yourself by thinking about future rewards.
  • The second antidote is to just do it. This means that you plunge in despite resistance, and then engage with the task fully. 

4. Agitation Due to Worry and Remorse

  • We feel this kind of Agitation when we’re conflicted about the past or concerned about the future.
  • The best antidote to this kind of agitation is to take up the practice of virtue…virtue is the practice of inner purification which results in good behavior. 
  • Similarly, as the mind becomes more joyful with continued practice, Agitation Due to Worry and Remorse dies down. Joy overcomes worry because it produces confidence, optimism, and the certainty that one can handle whatever challenges life may present.

5. Doubt

  • Doubt is healthy and valuable when it motivates us to question, investigate, and try things for ourselves.
  • Doubt becomes a hindrance if, instead of reevaluating the situation rationally, we respond only to the emotional uncertainty it creates.
  • The ultimate remedy for Doubt is the trust and confidence that come from success, and success depends on persistent effort.
  • Success leads to trust in the practice and in yourself.

Stage Two: Interrupted Attention and Overcoming Mind-Wandering

  • You may feel like you’re trying to tame a wild animal, or even that meditation is making your mind more agitated. In reality you’re just becoming aware of what’s always been going on in the mind. 
  • There are two primary goals for Stage Two: shortening the periods of mind-wandering, and sustaining attention on the breath for longer periods.

The Problems of Forgetting and Mind-Wandering

  • Forgetting means we forget the meditation object, as well as our intention to focus on the breath.
  • Mind-wandering is what happens when after you’ve forgotten what we were doing: the mind will wander from thought to thought, often for a long time, before we “wake up” to what is happening.
  • We place our attention on the breath, but the mind produces distractions
  • By cultivating stable attention, meditation calms the wandering mind and creates inner peace. When attention is accompanied by greater awareness, we have strong mindfulness, meaning we can refocus and stabilize our attention wherever and whenever it’s needed.

Awakening from Mind-Wandering

  • A critical moment occurs during mind-wandering when you suddenly realize you’re no longer observing the breath: you abruptly “wake up” to the fact that you weren’t doing what you had intended.
  • Even though you were preoccupied with something else, some unconscious part of your mind made you consciously aware that you were supposed to be attending to the breath.
  • It happens unconsciously, but when the “findings” become conscious, you have an “aha” moment of introspective awareness.
  • Cherish your epiphany and encourage yourself to have more of them. Conscious intention and affirmation powerfully influence our unconscious process. 

Directing and Redirecting Attention

  • You want to continuously cultivate your ability to intentionally direct attention to any object you choose, regardless of its intrinsic interest. This is how directed attention leads to stable attention.

Focusing on the Meditation Object Without Losing Peripheral Awareness

  • Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness. Instead, to cultivate mindfulness, do just the opposite—allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings to continue in the background.

“You” Are Not in Control of “Your” Mind

  • Even the simplest instruction like “Keep your attention focused on the breath” reveals how the mind, in a sense, has a mind of its own.

Calming the Monkey-Mind

  • “Monkey-mind” describes an especially agitated state where attention jumps rapidly from one thing to the next, like an excited monkey. 
  • The antidote that calms monkey-mind is to become “grounded in the body.”
  • Always recall that success comes through repetition with a relaxed attitude, rather than from effortful striving.


  • Consider every obstacle an opportunity to learn about the mind.

Stage Three: Extended Continuity of Attention and Overcoming Forgetting

  • The main goal of this Stage is to overcome forgetting.

Sustaining Attention Through Following and Connecting

  • As you progress through the stages, you will follow the breath with ever closer attention in pursuit of ever more detail. 
  • In Stage Two, this meant identifying the beginning and end of both the in- and out-breaths, as well as the pauses separating the two. 
  • Your first goal in Stage Three, if you haven’t reached it already, is to discern each of these with equal clarity.
  • Next, you’ll practice recognizing individual sensations that make up each in-and out-breath.

Cultivating Introspective Awareness Through Labeling and Checking In

  • With introspective awarensss, you’re aware of what’s happening in your mind as you continue to focus attention closely on the breath. You’ll train and strengthen your capacity for introspective awareness through the practices of labeling and checking in.
  • For example, if you catch yourself thinking about your next meal or something that happened yesterday, give the distraction a neutral label such as “thinking,” or “remembering.”
  • Instead of waiting for introspective awareness to arise spontaneously, as you’ve done until now, you intentionally turn your attention inward to see what’s happening in the mind.
  • Train yourself to check in regularly with introspective attention. Checking in should become a habit.
  • When unpleasant sensations arise, ignore them as long as you can. Resist the urge to move for relief. When the discomfort becomes too much to ignore, turn your attention toward the pain and make it the focus of your attention.
  • Dullness in meditation comes in many different degrees, ranging from strong dullness such as drowsiness to subtler forms like feeling a bit “spaced out.” As with distraction, dullness is another form of scattered attention.
  • Here are a few “antidotes,” roughly in order of strength from mild to strongest, for rousing the mind from dullness:
  • Take three or four deep breaths, filling the lungs as much as possible, and hold for a moment. Then exhale as forcefully and completely as possible through tightly pursed lips.
  • Tense all the muscles in your body until you begin to tremble slightly, then relax. Repeat several times.

Meditate while standing up.

  • Do your walking meditation.
  • Worst-case scenario, get up, splash cold water on your face, then go back to practicing.
  • Another way to keep the mind energized is through intention.

Third Interlude: How Mindfulness Works

  • The practice of mindfulness leads to both psychological healing and profound spiritual insights.
  • Unconscious conditioning is like a collection of invisible programs. These programs were set in motion, often long ago, by conscious experiences.
  • They lie dormant until they are triggered by something in the present. When that happens, we often get so focused on the triggering event and our own emotions that these unconscious programs don't take in any new information about the current situation. That's why they don't change.
  • The practice of mindfulness works because it provides new information to these programs.

Level One: Moderating Behavior

  • Mindfully acknowledging our emotions and taking responsibility for our reactions lets us recognize more options, choose wiser responses, and take control of our behavior.

Level Two: Becoming Less Reactive and More Responsive

  • Those people who have cultivated mindfulness are more attuned and less reactive. They have greater self-control and self-awareness, better communication skills and relationships, clearer thinking and intentions, and more resilience to change.
  • Attention and awareness provide the unconscious mind with new, real-time information that is directly relevant to what's happening right now.
  • With this new information, reprogramming can happen at the deepest levels of the unconscious.
  • Whenever some event triggers one of our "Invisible programs,” we have the chance to apply mindfulness to the situation so our unconscious conditioning can get re-programmed. Anytime we are truly mindful of our reactions and their consequences, it can alter the way we will react in the future.
  • Of course, it's much harder to stay mindful when it matters most, in difficult situations. That's why we need to intentionally practice mindfulness in everyday life, especially when it's easy, like when you're driving a car or eating a meal. Then you'll build up the skill and the "Mental muscle" to stay mindful in the face greater challenges.

Level Three: Reprogramming Deep Conditioning

  • … when our minds grow stable and quiet, all kinds of deep memories, thoughts, and emotions that drive our unconscious programs can come to the surface. Then they can be purified by the illuminating power of mindfulness.

Level Four: Mindfulness, Insight, and the End of Suffering

  • Unquestionably, the most valuable effect of mindfulness is it's ability to radically reprogram our deepest misconceptions about the nature of reality, and about who and what we are.
  • Our gut intuition tells us we are separate selves in a world of other people and objects, and that our individual suffering and happiness depend on external circumstances. 
  • This may seem like common sense, but it's a misperception that comes from our innate programming, and which is continually reinforced by cultural conditioning.
  • As we practice mindfulness, however, we accumulate more and more evidence that things are very different from what we believed.
  • As paradoxical as it may seem, the craving to avoid suffering and pursue pleasure is the actual cause of suffering.

Stage Four: Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distraction and Strong Dullness

  • The goal of Stage Four is to overcome gross distraction and strong dullness.
  • As your mind grows calmer and more stable in this Stage, you will experience a deep purification. Stored unconscious residues from the past well up to the surface and are released.
  • … you want your attention to the breath to be a stable anchor as you keep watch over the entire ocean of the mind with introspective awareness.
  • It's like standing back a bit from the meditation object—just enough to keep the breath at the center of your attention while you take in everything else happening in the mind.
  • By using the breath as an anchor while you mindfully observe the mind, you’re "watching the mind while the mind watches the breath.”
  • Pain is a dynamic sensation with many subtle qualities. Investigate them. Notice if it is sharp, piercing, burning, aching, dull, etc. Notice if the sensation feels solid and unchanging, or if it fluctuates in intensity, area, or location.
  • How much of the "pain" you're experiencing is inherent in the sensation, and how much is your mind’s reaction to the sensation?
  • … pain is quite useful for developing stable attention and powerful mindfulness. Make good use of it.
  • As the mind grows calm and everyday distractions fall away, significant material from the unconscious starts to well up into consciousness. This is a very significant event in the progress of your practice.
  • Lord to fully embrace everything that surfaces. They are hidden parts of your psyche. More importantly, understand and rejoice in the fact that, when this material comes to the surface, it's an act of purification and a critical step toward developing śamatha
  • The strategy for dealing with emotions, thoughts, or images is simply to ignore them for as long as you can. Then, just like with pain, when something becomes too strong to disregard, make it your meditation object. 
  • Don't resist, avoid, or reject this potent material. It will only go back into the unconscious and resurface again later. Acknowledging, allowing, add accepting are the antidotes to avoiding, resisting, and rejecting.
  • If you have the thought, "I am angry,” replace it with the thought, ”Anger is arising.”
  • What are the specific bodily sensations that go with this particular emotion?
  • By simply allowing material from the unconscious to come up—by mindfully bearing witness and not reacting—you reprogram the mind more deeply than you ever could through intellectual analysis. You’re purifying your mind of all the afflictions you've accumulated throughout your entire life.

Purification of the Mind

  • It's not uncommon for meditation to bring up things that might otherwise have stayed repressed for our whole life. The best thing you could ever do for yourself is to confront and work through this material.

Learning to Overcome Strong Dullness

  • As you become more skilled at dealing with distractions, strong dullness will become your next major obstacle.
  • When the dullness isn't as strong, just expanding your peripheral awareness can sometimes be enough.


  • You have mastered Stage Four when you're free from both gross distractions and strong dullness.

Fourth Interlude: The Moments of Consciousness Model

  • Our everyday conscious experience of the world—the thoughts and sensations that arise and pass away—appear to flow together seamlessly from one moment to the next.
  • However, according to the Moments of Consciousness model, this is an illusion. If we observed closely enough, we would find that experience is actually divided into individual moments of consciousness.
  • Therefore, all conscious experience, without exception, consists of individual, brief moments, each containing a single, static chunk of information.
  • In all, there are seven kinds of moments. The first five are obvious, since they correspond to the physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
  • The sixth category, maybe less obvious, is called the mind sense, meaning it includes mental objects like thoughts and emotions.
  • Finally, there is a seventh type of consciousness, called binding consciousness, that integrates the information provided by the other senses.
  • … all conscious experience gets filtered through either attention or awareness. They form two distinct ways of knowing the world.
  • Individual moments of awareness provide information about a lot of things at once, but the information has only been minimally processed.
  • Attention’s job, on the other hand, is to isolate specific objects in order to analyze and interpret them in more detail.
  • … the contents of moments of awareness usually comes from the physical senses, while the contents of moments of attention usually comes from the mind sense. What had been a sound in awareness, simply attributed to "traffic" becomes a concept like "traffic noise" when made into an object of attention.
  • … one of the attributes of every moment of consciousness is a kind of life force or vital energy. Non-perceiving mind moments carry much less of this vital energy than do perceiving moments of consciousness. Therefore, the energy level of the mind depends on the ratio of perceiving to non-perceiving moments.
  • The stronger our intention to attend to a particular object, the more moments of attention will subsequently be focused on that object.
  • Intention also exerts a powerful influence on how many of the upcoming mind moments will be perceiving rather than non-perceiving.
  • In other words, you use mindfulness—the optimal interaction between moments of attention and moments of awareness—to gradually develop stable attention.


  • As the proportion of non-perceiving moments increases, we experience more subtle dullness.
  • A strong intention to perceive in every moment of consciousness is the real antidote to dullness in meditation.

Stage Five: Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness

The goal of Stage Five is to overcome subtle dullness and increase the power of mindfulness.

Overcoming Subtle Dullness

  • Subtle dullness has three characteristics: (1) the vividness and clarity of the meditation object decline; (2) both extrospective and introspective peripheral awareness fade; (3) there is a comfortable, relaxed, and pleasant feeling. We need to learn to identify these characteristics in order to know when subtle dullness is growing deeper.
  • Dullness of any kind is always pleasant, except when we actively resist. Consider things like alcohol, drugs, and forms of mindless entertainment. These all provide a much-sought-after kind of pleasurable dullness. We become relaxed and pleasantly numb.

Fifth Interlude: The Mind-System

  • The Mind-System model, however, recognizes that consciousness is only one part of the mind—a much smaller part, actually, than the unconscious.
  • Once again, all moments of consciousness have intentions associated with them—intentions that we may experience consciously as an impulse towards some mental, verbal, or physical action.

The Unconscious Minds

  • The unconscious part of the mind-system is divided into two major parts: the sensory mind and the discriminating mind
  • The sensory mind processes information from the five physical senses. In contrast, the discriminating mind, the greater part of which is called the thinking/emotional mind, produces moments of consciousness with mental objects, Such as thoughts and emotions. It's the part of the mind where reasoning and analysis occur.
  • The sensory and discriminating minds are each composed of many individual sub-minds that function simultaneously and autonomously
  • Like major divisions within a corporation, each with many departments serving specific purposes, each sub-mind independently performs its own specific task in the service of the mind-system as a whole. 

The Sensory Mind

  • This sensory mind is only concerned with information coming in from the “outside” by way of the physical senses.
  • The job of each of the sub-minds is to process and interpret raw sensory data as it comes in. First, the sub-minds create sense-percepts from the raw information, mental representations of the actual stimulus received by the sense organs
  • Next, these sense-percepts I recognized, categorized, analyzed, and evaluated in terms of their immediate importance.
  • Along with each sense-percept, the sensory sub-minds also produce a hedonic feeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. For example, the somatosensory mind will evaluate a cool breeze on the skin as pleasant, but a mosquito bite as unpleasant.

The Discriminating Mind

  • The sensory minds don't project every sense-percept they generate into consciousness, but those that do become available to the discriminating mind. It assimilates that information, further processing these sense-percepts and transforming them into more complex mental representations—in other words, into perceptions.
  • The image of a black-and-red bird Voss becomes transformed into the specific conceptual object: “red-winged blackbird.” 
  • The discriminating mind might then add its own emotional overtones, such as an experience of “happiness" at seeing and correctly identifying such a beautiful bird.
  • … the discriminating mine consists of many separate sub-minds, just like the sensory mind. Each sub-mind performs specialized activities and has its own particular function and purpose. This can be anything from performing arithmetic, to caring for a baby, to deciding when a situation calls for you to get angry.
  • Each sub-mind only takes from consciousness the information relevant to its particular job and ignores the rest. After the selected information has been discriminated and recombined in various ways, the result may be projected back into consciousness.
  • As each sub-mind requires more and more information relevant to its purpose, it organizes that information into its own continuously evolving model of reality.
  • Each sub-mind also evaluates all new information, and produces hedonic feelings of pleasure or displeasure in response.
  • These hedonic feelings in turn trigger craving in the form of desire or aversion. All of this becomes the source of intentions that produce mental, verbal, and physical actions in an attempt to satisfy desire and aversion.
  • … different parts of the mind may have different agendas. We experience this as "internal conflict" over what to do in a given moment.
  • One part of the mind wants to meditate, but other parts would prefer to have a drink, read a book, nap, or engage in a sexual fantasy.
  • These conflicting desires are evidence of different sub-minds functioning independently within the discriminating mind. Each of these sub-minds wants “you" to be happy, but each has a different idea of the best way to do that.
  • The activities of the sensory and discriminating sub-minds don't just determine what sensations we perceive, or what thoughts and emotions arise in consciousness. They also dictate the movements of attention.
  • The level of activity of the sensory sub-minds depends on how much external stimulation is present.
  • On the other hand, the discriminating sub-minds remain continuously active, even during sleep…
  • For example, say you forget where you left your wallet, or you can't think of a specific word, no matter how hard you try. You give up and go do something else, then suddenly, minutes or hours later, the answer pops into your head.

Functions of the Conscious Mind

  • The conscious mind acts as a universal recipient of information. It can receive information from each and every separate, unconscious sub-mind. In fact, all conscious experience is simply an ongoing stream of moments of consciousness whose content has been projected into the conscious mind by unconscious sub-minds.
  • Then, when information enters consciousness, it becomes immediately available to all the other sub-minds. Therefore, the conscious mind also serves as a universal source of information.
  • … all the unconscious sub-minds can interact with each other through the conscious mind.
  • The conscious mind is simply a passive “space” where all the other minds can meet. One, and only one, sub-mind can present its information at a time, and that's what creates a single moment of consciousness.
  • The conscious mind doesn't actually do anything. Everything that appears in consciousness—decisions, intentions, actions, and even the sense of self—actually comes from the unconscious mind.
  • “How is all this relevant to my practice?” The answer is, you've been using executive functions this whole time to train the mind in meditation!
  • Collectively, unconscious sub-minds use the information projected into consciousness to interact with each other in solving problems, making decisions, and creating new responses to situations. In other words, this collective interaction of sub-minds, and its resulting outcome, is the executive function process.


  • In one form or another, intention drives everything we feel, think, say, and do. Intention even determines what goes on in our minds, Including what we pay attention to and ignore.
  • As we progress in our practice, we repeatedly invoke the top-down intention to pay attention to breath sensations. In response, the somatosensory mind learns to consistently produce moments of attention to the breath.
  • Next, consider the bottom-up process involving unconscious intentions, which obstructs our meditation by producing spontaneous movements of attention.
  • Many different sub-minds are always projecting their objects and intentions into awareness, so when we meditate, we experience lots of distractions.
  • Each unconscious sub-mind decides on its own which content is important enough to need executive processing, and it projects that into peripheral awareness.
  • If the mind-system concludes the sound is important enough, attention will shift to it. However, if the decision goes the other way, the intention to attend to the sound will be blocked.
  • …when that content is consistently dismissed or ignored by executive functions, it will eventually stop being presented to the conscious mind.
  • On the other hand, any object in peripheral awareness that gets attended to will continue to be presented.
  • The best decisions come from the fullest participation of every part of the mind-system, which is one reason why increased mindfulness is so valuable in daily life.
  • To stay focused on the breath over long periods requires an ongoing, uninterrupted consensus.
  • Individual sub-minds are highly responsive to conscious intentions.

The Narrating Mind

  • The narrating mind is a sub-mind of the much larger discriminating mind. It takes in all the information projected by other sub-minds, combining, integrating, and organizing it into a meaningful summary. The narrating mind then produces a very specific kind of mind moment called a binding moment of consciousness.
  • When the visual mind processes information from the eyes, an image is formed and projected into consciousness. But in this “seeing,” there is only the seen. 
  • Then the image appearing in consciousness is further processed by the discriminating mind, where it’s elaborated on using various ideas and memories to achieve a conceptual understanding of what’s being observed. The image may be recognized as an “oriole,” for example.
  • The narrating mind then assimilates these events, weaving them together into a series of causally connected episodes: “I saw it, I recognized it, I enjoyed it.” That information is projected back into consciousness, where it becomes available to the other sub-minds.

The Sense of Self and Other

  • The “I” of the narrating mind is nothing more than a fictional but convenient construct used to organize all the separate conscious experiences occurring in the mind-system. 
  • Our very concept of Self is none other than this narrative, “I,” the center of gravity that holds the story together. 
  • Likewise, the “it” is another imaginary construct of the narrating mind, a convenient fiction imputed to exist in order to link the different parts of the story together. 
  • The truth is we never actually experience any entity corresponding to “it.” All that was experienced were the image, concept, hedonic feeling, and any emotion that arose in consciousness. 
  • The narrating mind uses this “I-It” or “Self-Other” structure to organize the information coming from the many different sub-minds in a meaningful way. But the discriminating mind assumes the “I” and the “it” are actual entities, concretizing the Self-Other construct so it seems real and substantial.
  • Thus, the narrating mind’s fictional “I” becomes the discriminating mind’s ego-Self, and the “it” is seen as the cause for the hedonic feelings and emotions that arise. That fundamental misperceptions leads to the generation of intentions rooted in desire and aversion.

The Enduring Sense of Self

  • Meditation is all about investigating your actual experience, so I invite you to notice how, when something happens, the “I” gets imputed only after the fact.
  • …the narrating mind just takes the ongoing flow of information in consciousness and organizes it into a meaningful story, attributing everything to the imaginary entity called “I.” The discriminating mind then mistakes this “I” for an actual individual, rather than a product created by a collection of sub-minds.

Metacognitive Introspective Awareness

  • Introspective awareness means being aware of the mental objects appearing in peripheral awareness, such as thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, and so forth. Metacognitive introspective awareness is the ability to continuously observe not just mental objects, but the activity and overall state of the mind.
  • The results are astounding: the mind-system creates an entire world from its own mental representations, which it constantly adds to and revises; it assembles a vast and complicated web of views about the nature of reality and the Self; and through the processes of learning, reinforcing behaviors, and developing new motor skills when needed, it acquires more and more automatic programs for doing things.
  • Particularly important are the powerful feelings of happiness and contentment that arise as the mind-system begins to work together as a more cohesive, integrated, and harmonious whole. This is called unification of mind

Stage Six: Subduing Subtle Distractions

  • The goal of Stage Six is to subdue subtle distractions and develop metacognitive introspective awareness.
  • …you subdue subtle distractions by not giving them the energy of your attention.

Conscious Intention

  • Conscious intention is the key to developing exclusive attention. Simply hold the intention to observe all the fine details of the meditation object. At the same time, hold the intention to ignore everything else. That’s it!

Experiencing the Whole Body with the Breath: A Method for Developing Exclusive Attention

  • Experiencing the whole body with the breath is a faster and more enjoyable method that makes it much easier to completely ignore distractions.
  • Just as with the body scan, you first direct your attention to the great at the abdomen. Then, making sure that peripheral awareness of the breath at the abdomen doesn’t fade, you shift your attention to a particular body part, such as your hand. 
  • Define your scope of attention to include that area only. Then further refine your scope to include. Ignore all other sensations by excluding them completely from attention, but let them remain in peripheral awareness. Next, move to another body part, perhaps the forearm, and do the same thing.
  • To put it bluntly, not only don’t we experience the world directly, but the “reality” we live in is a massive collection of conceptual constructs that takes a unique form in each of our minds.

Cultivating Metacognitive Introspective Awareness

  • Specifically, metacognitive introspective awareness means being aware of the ongoing activities and current state of the mind. This is different from just being aware of mental objects, such as particular thoughts and memories, which are merely the constructs of the mind.
  • We can be metacognitively aware of two types of mental activity. First, we can be aware of what attention is doing. This includes where attention’s being directed, the sensory category of the particular object, how attention moves, and its vividness and clarity.
  • The second aspect of metacognitive awareness is being cognizant of the state of your mind. This refers to its clarity and alertness, the predominant emotion, hedonic feelings, and the intentions driving your mental activity. 

Metacognitive Awareness and the Narrating Mind

  • Holding a strong intention to be an objective observer of your own mind causes the narrating mind to increase its formation of binding activity, thus producing more moments of metacognitive awareness.
  • Meditative absorptions are flow states that occur in meditation, and are traditionally referred to as jhāna

Sixth Interlude: The Stages of an Adept

  • The real point of adept practice is reshaping your mind into a powerful instrument capable of the kind of investigation that produces Insight and Awakening

An Overview of the Unification Process

  • Stages Seven through Ten involve a profound unification of the mind…the many discriminating and sensory sub-minds start working together in harmony. This unification is what gives rise to Śamatha.

Pacification of the Senses and Meditative Joy

  • As the mind grows more unified, you will experience both complete pacification of the senses, and the arising of meditative joy.
  • Once the bodily senses are fully pacified, there will be a dramatic change during meditation in how you experience ordinary bodily sensations, proprioception, and the mental image you have of your body.
  • But the most constantly reported experience is one of perfect stillness accompanied by a wonderful sense of comfort and pleasure that uniformly pervades the body.
  • As the visual sense becomes pacified, however, an inner illumination typically arises, which eventually dominates our visual field, replacing all other mental imagery.
  • Our usual awareness of external noises, inner dialogue, remembered or imagined sounds, or “tunes in the head” gets replaced by a kind of white noise.
  • Pīti is is a Pali term often translated as ecstasy, delight, or rapture. Not everyone experiences all the transitional grades of pīti. 
  • What matters most is making the mind into a serviceable instrument for achieving Insight.

Purification of the Mind

  • The body and mind are not distinct, but rather make up a complex, interconnected whole that can be called the “body-mind.”
  • Sadness makes us pessimistic, lacking in confidence, and consequently we worry about all kinds of things.
  • As Insight accumulates, your understanding of yourself in relationship to the world changes.
  • …there are five key Insights that lead to Awakening: impermanence, emptiness, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, the nature of suffering, and the illusoriness of a separate Self. The fifth, Insight into no-Self, is the culminating Insight that actually brings Awakening.

Stage Seven: Exclusive Attention and Unifying the Mind

  • Stage Seven is about the transition from being a skilled meditator to an adept meditator, one who can consistently achieve and effortlessly maintain exclusive attention and powerful mindfulness.
  • Effortless requires complete pacification of the discriminating mind, which is also the essential first step in unification of mind. Until there is unification, unconscious sub-minds continue to be at odds with each other, creating instability.

Habituating the Mind to Exclusive Attention

  • Constant repetition habituates the discriminating mind to exclusive attention and increasingly powerful mindfulness, until we have the experience of complete pacification and effortlessness. 
  • Whenever we sustain exclusive focus, the mind-system’s executive functions are overriding the intentions of other sub-minds. This override trains unconscious sub-minds of the discriminating mind not to project their content into consciousness.
  • So, diligence underlies both vigilant introspective awareness, as well as the effortful intention needed for exclusive attention.
  • But what truly produces effortlessness is the fact that unconscious sub-minds no longer try to take over. Effortlessness means attention is placed on the object and stays there because there’s nothing in the background trying to draw it away. Then, and only then, is there complete purification, meaning diligence, effort, and vigilance can cease.
  • This can be a dangerous time for your progress because of boredom and doubt, but it’s easier to tolerate if you understand what’s going on and are expecting it.
  • But the real antidote is confidence in your abilities and trust that it’s a process that just takes time to mature.
  • …observe the three primary forms that thought takes: self-talk, visual images, and kinesthetic “feelings.”

Unification of the Discriminating Mind and Recognizing Effortlessness

  • Through the pacification process, sub-minds of the discriminating mind start coming together around the common intention to focus on the sensations of the breath. With this growing consensus, there are fewer dissenting sub-minds to project distracting mental objects into peripheral awareness.
  • Letting go is the best way to discover if the time is right to drop all vigilance and effort. If distraction or dullness returns, you know you need to keep making effort. However, if exclusive attention continues, mindfulness remains strong, and joy and happiness arise, you’ve achieved effortlessness. 

Seventh Interlude: The Nature of Mind and Consciousness

  • As you progress through the higher Stages, the entire mind-system continues to unify, becoming ever more cohesive and harmonious, and ever less fragmented and conflicted.
  • This process has three profound effects: mindfulness keeps improving, as does the “magic of mindfulness”; deep unconscious material rises to the surface, allowing for further purification; and profound Insight becomes more likely.

Increasing the Power of Mindfulness

  • From Stage Seven on, the quality of mindfulness improves dramatically.
  • …we can easily see how mindfulness can keep increasing in power into Stage Eight and beyond: as more sub-minds unify around a particular conscious intention, the audience for the contents of consciousness grows larger.
  • This also helps us understand why a martial artist or an athlete in the zone can be totally alert, but still not have the mindfulness of an adept meditator: only a limited number of sub-minds are involved in fighting an opponent or running for a touchdown. When the fight is over or the athlete leaves the field, the cacophony of conflicting sub-minds resumes.
  • For an Insight experience to actually reprogram our intuitive view of reality, the relevant information must reach a large enough audience of sub-minds. What makes a mere Insight experience into a transformative Insight is how many sub-minds of the mind-system share in the experience.

How a Cessation Experience Becomes Transformative Insight

  • A cessation event is where unconscious sub-minds remain tuned in and receptive to the contents of consciousness, while at the same time, none of them project any content into consciousness. Then, consciousness ceases—completely. 
  • During that period, at the level of consciousness there is a complete cessation of mental fabrication of any kind—of the illusory, mind-generated world that otherwise dominates every conscious moment.
  • The sub-minds of the discriminating mind have the Insight that everything ever known, including the Self, was nothing but a fabrication of the mind itself. 
  • The sub-minds of the sensory mind have a slightly different Insight: the only kind of information that ever appears in the mind that isn’t purely mind-generated is the input coming to them directly from the sense organs.
  • …every sub-mind tuned in to consciousness during cessation must assimilate the event into its own representation of reality. As with any Insight experience, the new information forces a reprogramming of how all future experiences are interpreted and responded to. 
  • Realizing that all phenomenal experience, including the Self, are mental constructs, and therefore “empty” of any real substance, radically transforms how the mind functions.
  • …the more sub-minds are tuned in during the event, the stronger the understanding will be. 
  • …it’s not that hard to acquire a conceptual grasp of these truths. But only Insight can establish this understanding at a deep, intuitive level.
  • If the mind was completely unified, then every sub-mind within the mind-system would be affected simultaneously, and there would be a complete Awakening of the entire mind-system.
  • However, if the mind was only partially unified, there are two possibilities: no transformation, or incomplete transformation.
  • The only reason the particular information exchange process we call consciousness is “special” is because we experience it subjectively. And that subjective experience seems to be limited just to information exchange occurring at the highest level in the mind-system. 
  • According to the Mind-System model, all intentions are generated in the unconscious mind. The role of consciousness is to allow, suppress, or modify these intentions before they produce an action.
  • The content of consciousness is actually the output from many different sub-minds and sub-sub-minds. It consists largely of binding moments; all the individual bits of sensory information have already been extensively combined, analyzed, and interpreted before we ever become conscious of them. This means that our conscious experience of ourselves and the people, things, and events we know as “reality” is made up entirely of highly processed mental constructs.
  • The cost associated with all this integration is a huge loss of information at every level of binding, which reaches colossal proportions by the time it reaches consciousness.
  • Although conscious experience is dominated by perceptions derived from high-level binding moments and narrative moments of consciousness, its richness comes from individual sense-percepts and lower-level binding moments.
  • This richness increases proportionally when the content of consciousness shifts toward more low-level information processing, and away from complex binding, abstract thinking, and storytelling.
  • With stable attention and powerful mindfulness, we can witness events in the mind-system that simply aren’t accessible to the untrained mind.
  • Thus, sustained, selective attention can give us access to the many different levels at which raw sensory data gets converted into our familiar conscious experience. The exceptional power of awareness and attention then allows us to observe these different levels of information processing with great clarity.
  • This type of information never becomes conscious except as part of rare drug experiences or brain injury—or in meditation.

The Nature of Consciousness

  • The radical interconnectedness of the brain is what makes it so unique and powerful.

Stage Eight: Mental Pliancy and Pacifying the Senses

The goal of Stage Eight is complete pacification of the sense and the full arising of meditative joy.

  • You’ve mastered Stage Eight when your eyes perceive only an inner light, your ears perceive only an inner sound, your body is suffused with pleasure and comfort, and your mental state is one of intense joy.

Meditation on Dependent Arising

  • In this meditation, you follow mental events as they occur in sequence. Specifically, consciousness of a sensation or thought (contact) is followed by an effective response (feeling), leading to desire or aversion (craving), then to the arising of an intention to act (“becoming”), and finally to the action itself (“birth”).
  • The meditation on dependent arising can have a powerful transformative effect, especially when combined with the practice of Mindful Review (Appendix E).

Meditative Joy

  • Happiness is not an emotional state but a specific feeling—the feeling of mental pleasure.
  • Joy causes happiness and increases bodily pleasure.
  • Joy seems to be the default state of a unified mind. With ordinary joy, the immediate trigger is the prospect of fulfilling some worldly desire, and the sub-minds of the mind-system unify around that desire.
  • Once some joy and happiness are present, absorption intensifies the joy and happiness, and a temporary but very strong unification results. When we repeat this often enough, our mind becomes habituated to unification.

Finding the Still Point and Realizing the Witness

  • …you’ll become aware of an even greater stillness at the core of your moment-to-moment experience. This is called the Still Point.
  • As you keep observing, you may also discover the so-called Witness, the subjective experience of a pure, unmoving, and unmoved observer who is unaffected by whatever is observed.
  • Go to the Still Point, the place of the Witness, with a question: “Who or what is this witness?” “Who is watching?” “Who is experiencing?”

The Luminous Jhānas

  • These are deeper than the whole-body or pleasure jhānas, and are called “luminous” because the object of meditation used for entering the first jhāna is the illumination phenomenon. This inner light is often called a nimitta
  • Jhāna practice is essential to mastering Stage Eight.
  • The nimitta must develop on its own.

Entering First Luminous Jhāna

  • It’s a surrendering that draws the mind into the experience of the moment. 
  • The bliss of physical pliancy floods the body with pleasure, pervading and saturating it everywhere.
  • First jhāna is characterized by profound calmness; a clear, sharp perception of the nimitta as the object of attention (vitakka and vicara); and awareness of joy, pleasure, and happiness (piti-sukha). The mind is, of course, in a highly unified state (ekagata).
  • The luminous jhānas are an extremely effective way of advancing your practice.

Getting Stuck

  • The antidote to aversion is deliberately cultivating love, compassion, patience, generosity, and forgiveness toward everyone, including yourself. The antidote to worry and remorse is practicing virtue in every aspect of your life.

Stage Nine: Mental and Physical Pliancy and Calming the Intensity of Meditative Joy

  • In Stages Nine and Ten, you fully unify the mind, moving from a state of highly excited meditative joy and happiness to one of serene joy and happiness. The resulting śamatha of has five qualities of mind: fully stable attention, powerful mindfulness, joy, tranquility, and equanimity.

Calming Pīti and Maturing Joy

  • For the intensity of pīti to calm, you need to be able to sustain it until the intensity peaks and starts to subside, giving way to tranquility and equanimity. 

Meditating on the Mind

  • Meditating on the mind itself involves bringing attention and awareness together in a completely open state. Essentially, you’re fusing attention and awareness. To achieve this, you expand your scope of attention until it includes everything in your field of conscious awareness, both extrospective and introspective.
  • You’ll eventually have the sense that attention and awareness have merged and become indistinguishable. The holistic quality of awareness and the analytic precision of attention are both fully present.

Insight: Emptiness and the Nature of Mind

  • By observing the nature of the mind in both its active and passive states, it eventually becomes clear that all objects of consciousness are constructs of the mind. All we’ve ever known is what the mind itself has produced.
  • The mind creates its own “reality,” made entirely of cognitive-emotional constructs produced in response to unknown, and ultimately unknowable, forces acting on the mind through the senses. 
  • The one thing we can be sure of is that the true nature of that unknown source is quite different from anything the mind projects. This is what is referred to as the “emptiness” of all phenomena.
  • The mind is as empty as the objects that arise within it. With this further Insight, it’s no longer possible to believe in your mind as the Self.
  • The Insight experience triggering this last Insight is often a cessation event and, as with the cessation discussed in the Seventh Interlude, takes the form of a “Pure Consciousness Experience,” or “Consciousness without an Object.” Our subjective experience of time stops. There is no sense of Self in this experience, no Witness—nothing.
  • The more you engage in this practice, the deeper this Insight will go, penetration bit by bit, ever deeper into the most hidden recesses of your psyche.
  • It’s especially important not to be deceived by mere intellectual understanding.
  • Equanimity is non-reactivity to pleasure and pain. In other words, equanimity arises because you’re already happy and satisfied.

Stage Ten: Tranquility and Equanimity

  • The goal of Stage Ten is for the qualities of śamatha to persist after you rise from the cushion.
  • Therefore, the key to extending śamatha in everyday life is to support joy and reinforce equanimity through mindfulness.

Final Thoughts

Śamatha and Vipassanā: The Limitations of Śamatha

  • Yet, never lose sight of the fact that śamatha and vipassanā must work together. They are like two wings of a bird: you need both to arrive at your ultimate destination.
  • Always remember that even though śamatha is extraordinary, it’s still a conditioned mental state. When those causes and conditions cease, śamatha dissolves
  • When enough of your “buttons” get pushed at once, śamatha will fail. However, the unification around Insight is far more profound, and it’s permanent.
  • Yet after Insight, the various sub-minds become unified around a shared Insight into impermanence, emptiness, suffering, no-Self, and interconnectedness. From this flow a corresponding set of shared values: harmlessness, compassion, and loving-kindness. Now each sub-mind operates as an independent part of a much greater whole, working for the good of that whole.
  • The illusion of separate Selfhood, with all its attendant suffering, is gone.

Appendix A: Walking Meditation

  • The practices of walking and sitting meditation are essentially the same: stabilize your attention while sustaining or even increasing peripheral awareness.

Walking Through the Stages

  • 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.

Step-by-Step Walking Meditation

  • Whenever introspective awareness alerts you that you have forgotten what you were doing and the mind has wandered, STOP. Then gently direct your attention back to the sensations of walking.

The Intentional Pause

  • When some distracting sense object strongly draws your attention, instead of reinforcing your attention immediately on the feet, take a little time to explore the distraction. No matter what it is—a sound, a breeze, or maybe the pleasant warmth as you step from shade into sunlight—just stop where you are, even in mid-stride.
  • Take time to examine and enjoy it fully. Once your interest wanes, direct your attention back to the foot waiting to move and start walking again. The idea is to maintain intentional control over the movements of your attention back to the foot waiting to move and start walking again. The idea is to maintain intentional control over the movements of your attention as you take in the totality of your experience. 
  • In sitting meditation, you allow extrospective awareness to fall away, and metacognitive awareness becomes primarily introspective. In walking meditation, however, extrospective awareness always remains strong. This means the metacognitive experience is one of watching the mind while the mind simultaneously attends to sensations in the feet and remains aware of the environment.

Appendix B: Analytical Meditation

  • Analytical Meditation means just what it sounds like: thinking about something.

Topics for Analytical Meditation

  • Topics for analytical meditation fall into three general categories. First are teachings, doctrines, or other ideas you wish to understand more deeply. Second are problems you want to solve or decisions you need to make. Last are experiences, thoughts, or realizations that seem to point to a valuable Insight.

Problem Solving and Insight

  • There are four stages to solving a problem: preparation, incubation, solution, and verification.
  • The conscious mind readily solves “simpler” problems, whose solution only requires that logic be applied to the information that is immediately available. But the unconscious mind excels at solving complex problems with unusual features.


  • But intuitive insight solutions must first be validated by logic—unless you’re willing to proceed on the basis of a wild “hunch.”
  • …neither conscious analysis nor intuitive Insight is inherently better. But they complement each other perfectly. 

Appendix C: Loving-Kindness Meditation

  • This meditation conditions your mind to readily enter a state of ease, peace, love, and happiness.

The practice is based on this simple formula:

  • May all beings be free from suffering.
  • May all beings be free from ill will.
  • May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.
  • May all beings be truly happy.
  • There are three parts to this practice. First, you generate these feelings as strongly as you can in your mind.
  • The second part is to generate a strong wish for others to experience these same feelings.
  • You might have to practice loving-kindness for weeks or even months before you are ready for the most difficult people in your life, but that is your eventual goal.
  • This is one of the most powerful meditation practices known for transforming the way your mind works.

Appendix D: The Jhānas

  • Used in the general sense, jhāna means any kind of meditation where attention is quite stable, as opposed to novice meditation with its mind-wandering, gross distractions, and dullness.
  • …all states of absorption in meditation, of any degree, are jhāna, provided they are wholesome, stable, and associated with the jhāna factors.