Excitable Reads: The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa

Have we convinced you to give meditation a try, but left you wondering where to start?  Allow me to recommend a book that helped me establish and develop a strong meditation practice. The Mind Illuminated, by Culadasa, Dr. Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves, offers the depth and quality of guidance you’d expect from a top-notch textbook while being a lot more enjoyable to read.

Culadasa, a.k.a. Dr. John Yates, is an ordained Buddhist minister who also has a doctorate in neuroscience.  This positions him perfectly to explain the psychological transformation you’ll experience as you develop your meditation practice, and that I suspect you’ll appreciate as a Third Factor reader.  Though he does discuss Buddhist concepts, he does so in a way that is accessible to secular practitioners and others with a “paths are many, truth is one” approach.  I might also add that Buddhism has more to offer Dabrowskians than simply a way to calm their overexcitability: Buddhist meditation is basically a way of cultivating the level IV dynamism known in TPD as subject-object in oneself.  Here’s the dynamism as Dabrowski defined it in the glossary of Psychoneurosis Is Not an Illness (1972):

SUBJECT-OBJECT IN ONESELF. One of the main developmental dynamisms which consists in observing one’s own mental life in an attempt to better understand oneself and to evaluate oneself critically. It is a process of looking at oneself as if from outside (the self as object) and of perceiving the individuality of others (the other as subject, i.e. individual knower).

Meditation, of course, is a formal practice designed to do precisely this: to observe your own mental life to better understand yourself and the thoughts and feelings that are directing you, consciously and unconsciously.  It is a way of treating yourself as an object, which tends to also help you perceive others as subjects in their own right.

Getting Started With Meditation

First, though, you have to practice.

Successfully establishing a habit of sitting down on the cushion is arguably the biggest hurdle you’ll face as a meditator, so The Mind Illuminated devotes the whole first chapter to clearing it.  I myself discovered the book when I signed up for a meditation course and our instructor assigned the first chapter to help us get started.  It anticipated and addressed all my initial struggles so effectively that I bought the whole book, hoping that the rest of it would be equally helpful.

The Mind IlluminatedAnd I was not disappointed.  The Mind Illuminated breaks your meditative progress into stages, based on a model originally described by the Indian sage Asanga; this book appears to be the first to make this model accessible to modern English-speaking audiences. Stage One guides you in confronting the obstacles to your practice in a way that really helps you solve them, provided you truly want to.  Stages Two and Three address the difficulties you’ll face once you’ve started regular sits, including mind-wandering, drowsiness, and pain.  By Stage Seven, you’re working on unifying the mind.  If you’re diligent (and Culadasa insists that this can be done a lot faster than you might expect if you have a good guide), you’ll reach Stage Ten, where you focus on tranquility and equanimity.  For the record, I’ve gotten to Stage Four, and can attest that that Stages Two and Three did indeed provide really effective guidance on developing my capacity for sustained attention.

Each stage begins with a clear statement of goals so you know where to focus your efforts.  This always left me eager to try out what I’d read, which helped me strengthen my habit of sitting each night.  It became my routine to read a segment of The Mind Illuminated right before my evening session and then spend thirty minutes practicing what I’d just read.  The book also includes diagrams and illustrations that had a knack for addressing just the problem I was facing that night.  For example, a diagram in Stage One lays out a four-step method to secure your focus on your breath.  By Stage Nine (“Mental and Physical Pliancy and Calming the Intensity of Meditative Joy”), we are invited to compare a picture of a wild and joyful mountain stream to that of a great river that, as the caption says, “carries more water and has far more energy” despite its calmness.  (Hey, though I’m not there yet, that kind of image does make me want to keep practicing!)

Enriching Your Practice

The Mind Illuminated is also chock full of details to sate your intellectual appetite—which also helped me stop asking questions and get back on the cushion.  In addition to the stages, the book contains several chapters called “interludes” that don’t offer goals for practice, but fill in a lot of useful background knowledge. (For example, the Second Interlude, “The Hindrances and Problems,” discusses things like agitation and laziness—precisely when you’re ready to talk about them.)  Through the stages, the interludes, and the several interesting appendices, the authors explain relevant terminology in a way that helps novices rather than overwhelming or confusing them.  And if you forget some of the terms, you can flip back to the robust glossary, where you’ll find definitions for things like “samatha,” “narrating mind,” and “peripheral awareness.”

The best thing I can say about The Mind Illuminated is that it kept me engaged with the practice without letting me trick myself into thinking that reading about meditation is the same thing as doing meditation—a trap that I suspect will catch many intellectually overexcitable people if they’re not careful.  This book managed to strike just the right balance.  Though I’ve read a lot of other good books about meditation that enriched my understanding, this one got me solidly on the path from the start, and is sure to be useful to me for a long time.  I hope it’s useful to some of you, too.

Interested in checking it out? 

Want to chat more about this book, or other meditation books that worked for you?  Join the conversation over in the Third Factor Third Place!

Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org + posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.