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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Nov 30, 2018


The Mind Illuminated is a guide to Buddhist meditation by Culadasa, aka John Yates, a Buddhist meditation teacher who is also a neuroscience PhD. At this point I would be more impressed to meet a Buddhist meditation teacher who wasn’t a neuroscience PhD. If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. “Come learn advanced meditation techniques with Scott Alexander, whose lack of a neuroscience PhD gives him a unique perspective that combines ancient wisdom with a lack of modern brain science.” I think the world is ready for someone to step into this role. But Culadasa is not that person, and The Mind Illuminated is not that book.

I am trying not to read too many books on spiritual practices until I’m ready to practice some spirituality. I made an exception for TMI because lots of people recommended it to me for its description of how the brain works. This seems like the sort of thing that Buddhist meditation teachers who are also neuroscientists could have insight on, so I decided to check it out.

Tradition divides meditation into two parts: concentration meditation, where you sharpen and control your focus, versus insight meditation, where you investigate the nature of perception and reality. TMI follows a long tradition of focusing on concentration meditation, with the assumption that insight meditation will become safer and easier once you’ve mastered concentration, and maybe partly take care of itself. Its course divides concentration meditation into ten stages. Early stages contain basic tasks like setting up a practice, focusing on the breath, and overcoming distractability. Later stages are more interesting; the ninth stage is learning how to calm the intensity of your meditative joy; apparently without special techniques “overly intense joy” becomes a big problem.

I usually hate meditation manuals, because they sound like word salad. “One attains joy by combining pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is a state of bliss which occurs when one concentrates focus on the understanding of awareness. Happiness is a state of joy that occurs when one focuses concentration on the awareness of understanding. By focusing awareness on bliss, you can increase the pleasure of understanding, which in turn causes concentration to be pleasant and joy to be blissful, and helps you concentrate on understanding your awareness of happiness about the bliss of focus.” At some point you start thinking “Wait, were all the nouns in that paragraph synonyms for each other?”