Book review: The Mind Illuminated

If you’re looking for a book that will not just introduce you to meditation, but provide you with clear and careful instructions that will take you all the way from beginner to full on yogi, this is the book for you. It’s big – over 500 pages – but don’t let that put you off: that’s just because it’s covering a huge amount of ground.

Now, before we go any further, something needs to be said: the author of this tome, John Yates, aka Culadasa, became involved in a bit of a scandal recently (2019). The details don’t matter, suffice to say he was involved with (consenting, adult) women who weren’t his wife (or, it’s perhaps important to note, his students). He’s apologised to all involved, he’s still with his wife, and he’s resigned from his position as the head of his “sangha” (that’s a Buddhist community of practitioners). None of this should affect your view of this book: I bought it because it had just about the highest rating I’d seen for a meditation book on Amazon/Goodreads, and, well… it’s superb.

The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness

What’s so great about it? Basically, The Mind Illuminated (TMI, hereafter) describes in detail a structured, systematic, entirely secular, ten-stage path all the way from your first sit, through to Insights and potential Awakening. Each stage has guidance as to what you should be doing to progress, as well as a description of what you’re likely to be running into trouble with, and how to deal with that. TMI’s path is suitable for the beginning meditator to follow, or for a more experienced meditator to pick up further along.

The stage descriptions are detailed and specific, with a clear progression and explanations. It uses a small technical vocabulary that is explained up front, and that you’ll easily pick up and be able to understand. The author generally uses English words for this vocabulary, while noting the Pali originals, and uses words that have a specific meaning here – things like Attention, Awareness, Subtle Distractions, and Dullness. This is extremely helpful, I found, and made my own understanding of what was going on much clearer.

The distinction between Attention and Awareness in particular is key, and the explanation here is very clear:

Attention singles out some small part of the context 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 awareness.

This dual aspect of meditation is vital – it’s not all about concentration and attention, it’s also about maintaining awareness of the larger context whilst keeping attention stable on a single object. A difficult balancing act for some of us!

Of course, it would doubtless take most of us a number of years to progress through all ten stages, and indeed many of us (myself included) will probably never make it to the end. This doesn’t matter, though: each step brings additional benefits into your life. You can gain further benefits by undertaking some of the other practices detailed in the appendices – Walking Meditation, Metta or loving-kindness meditation (my favourite!), and Analytical Meditation (for working on specific problems in your work or life).

So that’s it in a nutshell. It’s my new go-to manual, beating out my previous favouriate Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. Don’t get me wrong, I love MCTB: if you do get half way up the ten-step ladder, it will brilliantly show you what the view from there on to the top looks like. But even the author of MCTB, Daniel Ingram, recommends this very book – he says of it

Essential reading for anyone interested in meditative development from any tradition … this is the most thorough, straightforward, clear and practical guide to training the mind that I have ever found.

TMI is also better for me than other classics like Mindfulness in Eight Weeks: The revolutionary 8 week plan to clear your mind and calm your life and Mindfulness in Plain English. Both of which are great introductions, and Mindfulness in Eight Weeks is very useful if you’re coming to meditation to help with stress and anxiety, as it integrates meditation with Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR), a clinically-validated technique to help with anxiety. TMI beats these for me, however, because of the Why? factor.

What do I mean by the Why? factor? I mean that The Mind Illuminated explains why you are doing the various things at each step. Why am I counting the breaths? To focus attention. Why am I doing a bodyscan in this way? To build peripheral awareness. Why do thoughts keep popping into my head? Because of subminds.

And what’s a submind when it’s at home? That’s the other thing I very much liked about TMI: in a series of interludes between the chapters on the ten stages, the book lays out a theory of how the mind seems to work. It’s somewhat science-based, in that it is in line with some of the most current theories in neuroscience. The model presented is of the mind as a group of many smaller subminds or “agents”, each with a specific purpose, which compete for attention. (If you want more on this, the best popular explanation I know of is Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind .)

Finally, if you do get into this book, there is a wealth of other material around TMI out there – of particular note is the subreddit, and various YouTube guided meditations or dharma talks by the author, Culadasa.

And really, yes, it’s a great book.

I know I’m a bad person

Friendly wasp having a drink

What do you think of yourself in the world?  How do you compare yourself to those around you?  Do you remember all the bad things you’ve done in your life, all the mean things you said?  Could you write a list of them? Is it a long list, or a very long one? 

There are two answers to this: the first is that no, you can’t remember doing any bad things, and you’re a brilliant person.  Your Superman/Wonderwoman list of good deeds is equaled only by your modesty and self-deprecating nature.  You positively glow in the dark from all that goodness, and small children and squirrels are naturally attracted to you, bringing you flowers that they want to plait into your hair (or offerings of nuts and seeds if they are the squirrels). 

I put it to you that this is unlikely.  Instead, you are probably going to answer that while it’s true that you may have been a good person on a few occasions, your thoughts have by no means always been pure.  You fear that inward annoyance with your best friend and/or partner has leaked out more than once.  That time when they were super-happy about that thing at work, and you’d just had a crappy day? You weren’t exactly supportive and cheerful for them.  Your life sucked, and frankly, their good mood was just annoying, so although it wasn’t your finest hour, you said what you said anyway.

If you fell into the first category, then off you go and play with the squirrels.  If you’re still with me at this point, then here are my thoughts.

My first thought is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up about this.  The world is bad enough as it is without you adding to your own burdens, with a thick layer of guilt.  Yes, you aren’t always as kind or thoughtful or helpful as you might be.  Nobody is 100% good.  Even Superman (see Superman III for full details).  Give yourself a break.  

My second observation is that it’s not about what you did or did not do in the past.  You really can’t change the past.  The past is gone, finished, done, fixed, over with.  (Unless you have a Tardis, and then you should be careful not to accidentally cause the death of any of your grandparents.) 

It’s actually about what you do next.  If you can improve the life of one living creature by 1%, then you’re making a difference.  If you can smile at one person, then you’re making a difference.  If you can offer a wasp a drink on a hot day (did you spot the wasp in the photo?) then you’re making a difference. 

Note that I say it’s about what you DO, not what you THINK.  You might think bad things, but it doesn’t matter, what matters is what you actually do.  Do one good thing, even while you think the mean thought.  That’s what counts.

If meditation tells us one thing, the first half of that thing is that we are endlessly distracted.  We try and pay attention to the breath, and thirty seconds later, we’re off again, thinking about squirrels and wondering how they remember where they’ve buried all their nuts? (Full answer to that one over here.)

The second half of the thing we learn in meditation is that we can notice that we’ve been distracted.  We can come to full attention again.  Yes, we are distracted by our bad thoughts and deeds.  But we can come back to full attention, and follow one breath, or do just one good thing, before we’re distracted again. 

Things arise, and they pass away again.  That’s the nature of our life, our breath, and of literally everything else in the universe.  Every atom in your body will fall apart eventually (probably).  So to will your bad moods pass, and your chance to do one good thing will arise.  Seize it.  Every single tiny good deed counts.  Just do it, then you can get back to your crappy day.


Sometimes, my day just sucks

Let’s face it, some days are pretty awful. 

Maybe it’s something dramatic – you are laid off at work, or someone near to you is diagnosed with something really bad, or you return to your car to find a huge scrape down one side and no note of apology under the windscreen wiper. 

Maybe it’s something that might appear trivial to others – you tread on an errant piece of Lego and spill your cup of tea on your clean clothes.  Or maybe you’re just having a bad day, for no reason other than the chemicals in your brain are conspiring against you this week. For whatever reason, these days are tough.

I’m not now going to tell you to “be positive” or “look on the bright side” or “cheer up”, because if it were that simple you wouldn’t be here in the first place (or not for more than ten minutes).  Nor am I going to tell you that “the universe will provide”, because it won’t – it generally seems to be utterly indifferent to our fate, if capable of the odd moment of awe-inspiring beauty.  And I certainly can’t guarantee that “it’ll be all right in the end”, because, again, life isn’t like that.  

All I can suggest is you sit with it.  Sit upright, sit with dignity, breath, and look at it.  Breath in, and know you’re breathing in; breath out, and know you’re breathing out.  Don’t shy away from the pain or the sadness – in the end, we all die, you know that.  Sit with it.  Let it come, let it stay, and then let it go.  Your life may not improve instantly, but what you’re after here is some calm.  Equanimity is not a bad place to be, even in the worst of circumstances.  You are free to be still for a few moments, even in the middle of a storm.

And, sometimes at least, we may notice that we are applying a rather dark filter to it all.  Generally, things aren’t maximally bad.  We lost our job, but we found another one a few weeks later, and even if it doesn’t pay quite as well, the commute is shorter, and we’re still here, struggling on. The diagnosis was bad, but it allowed us a few months or even days to say what we wanted to say.  Our tea-besmirched clothing can go in the wash, and being ten minutes late isn’t the end of the world.  

I hope your day is one of the good ones, but if it isn’t, meditation is there for you.


Overcast with clear spells

Every day, we start the day with a certain set of expectations, and our own set of strengths and weaknesses to bring to bear on them.  Some days seem to work out ok, while others just seem to run off track, despite our best intentions.  

And the same is true of our meditation, of course.  We sit down to meditate, and one day it might seem to flow really easily.  We will follow along with the breath, or the scan of our body, accurately witnessing what’s going on, without much distraction.  The next day we sit down, fired with enthusiasm, and this time we hit a wall of worry, or thoughts about what we should buy for dinner or today’s chores keep popping into our mind.  

So there is a wide range of experience.  And the first part of the trick in meditation, if there is one, is to accept them all.  All kinds of thoughts and feelings will appear, we will have excellent days and terrible days.  Don’t dwell on the bad ones, and smile on the good ones. It’s all grist to the mill.  

The second part of the trick is to see that this day-to-day, and minute-by-minute and even moment-by-moment change, is an essential part of life.  It is literally built in to the fabric of our universe – quantum mechanics tells us that even the hard vacuum of empty space between galaxies is a seething mass of energy, at the sub-atomic level. 

Even the emptiness of interstellar space is bubbling with energy

The Buddhists talk of the three characteristics of existence, and one of these is Impermanence.  All life, they say, is like a flowing river, and moment by moment it changes, even if we stay in the same place and stare at one spot.  Modern physics has just rediscovered this 2,500 year old truth and given it new clothes.

This can be a ray of hope in times of distress, because in truth we do know that even this horrible experience will change.  It will pass down the river.  And when things are good, it should also encourage us to enjoy the moment, because this good moment too will sooner or later move along. 

No reason not to enjoy it when it’s here, though – actually, all the more reason to enjoy it!  Our thoughts are like the hundred million stars in the milky way (featured above from my back garden).  On a clear night they sparkle with awe-inspiring beauty.  On a stormy night, you’re going to get wet out there trying to look at them, so come inside, and wait for it to pass.  For it will pass, even if it sometimes takes days.  Get yourself some hot chocolate in the meanwhile.  You’ll get to enjoy them again, never fear.  That’s the truth of existence.


Forget, then remember

Have you sat down and done your meditation today?  If so, you will at some point almost certainly been distracted from your concentration on the mediation object (such as your breath).  Perhaps this was by a noise, or a sensation in the body, or by a thought, or by a shadow or sunlight falling across your face. 

The Buddhists talk of the six “sense gates”: sound, touch, smell, taste, sight and thought.  We might accurately say, then, that your distraction arrived via one of these six gates.

But you must also have noticed that you were distracted – because you are right now reading this email, you must have stopped being distracted at some point!  Either you noticed and returned to your meditation, or your time was up and you noticed that instead.  

So either way, you were successful – because noticing is actually the most important part of meditation.  Concentration is good, because it allows you to focus very accurately, and you can then note what you’re focused on.  In concentration meditations, we direct our focus to our meditation object (the breath, or the body, for example).  But you can also direct the focus on the object that arrives through one of the sense gates – your so-called “distraction”.

Importantly, this means you shouldn’t scold yourself for loosing attention.  Instead, recognize that your attention just shifted to the visitor through one of the gates.  You can greet your visitor in a friendly way with noting: “oh, a sound”, or “hey, a thought”, or “ah, the beautiful smell of my coffee!”.  In open meditations, that’s all we do – note whatever comes to our attention.  In concentration meditations, we then simply direct our attention back to the meditation object.   

It really is that simple: we forget, then we remember again.

And don’t forget to remember to meditate today, if you haven’t already!


Enjoying your chores

My wife Claire is the Bread Maker in Chief our household.  She makes a couple of loaves a week, often sourdough, and it is marvelous stuff.  But about once every three months, I have a go myself, and the other day I made these great looking croissants.  

Croissants are, however, a lot of work.  Over the course of several hours, you have to repeatedly take the rectangular slab of interleaved dough and butter, turn it, roll it, carefully fold it over itself, and put it back in the fridge.  In truth, it’s not that it’s a lot of work: each rolling out and reshaping only takes 5 or 10 minutes.  It’s mostly that you have to do it a number of times, so you end up interrupting your day to do this same thing every hour, to achieve the many fine layers that make croissants so delicious.

And they are delicious, too.  The end result is amazing.  With just butter, the classic strawberry jam, or especially Nutella.  (Almost everything is amazing with Nutella, now I think about it)

Here’s the thing, though: no matter how fabulous the result – twice as good as shop-bought ones, I assure you – you have to enjoy the process of getting there.  Otherwise it isn’t going to happen.  Like many of us, I find it hard to make myself do something unpleasant just to get a happy outcome.

But if we’re not careful, we find ourselves stuck in these loops all the time in our life: I’ll be happy when I’ve got a new car (which will involve scrimping and saving in the meantime), or when I’ve lost this weight (which will involve a difficult diet), or when it gets to Friday night (when this endless work week has finished).

This is Conditional Happiness: I’ll be happy if X happens, or when I’ve got Y, or not until Z.  All of which is very unhelpful, as it means you’re not letting yourself be happy right now.  That’s not good for you. You need to stop that, right now. 

Mindfulness can help: pay attention to the little details of whatever it is you’re doing. Look at the smallest part of it, the tiniest step, and see beauty in the precision and detail there.  God is in the details, they say.  

Sometimes, it helps to remember that there is always someone who absolutely loves the thing you’re doing.  Think why they might enjoy it, and see if you can find the same.  

We can also take joy in the step by step progress of the work.  One good trick is to focus on the smaller number, so if you have to swim 50 lengths for your exercise, start by counting up (I’ve done the first one, five, ten lengths), then switch to counting down when you’re over half way (only twenty more to go, only ten, last five!).

I enjoy making the croissants.  My wife loves the process of making bread.  Sure, the results are great, but it’s the process that’s just as enjoyable.  

Seeing shouldn’t always mean believing

I love optical illusions.  This particular one shows our brain trying to make sense of perspective – the two horizontal boxes are the same width, but the top one looks wider than the bottom one because of what look like the “railway lines” behind them.

There are lots of theories about what’s going on in our brains when we see things like this.  But what we know for sure, is that our brain is telling us something about the world that isn’t true. 

This happens all the time – I know, for example, it’s happening right now, as you read these words.  The image in your eye is picked up by the retina at the back of your eyeball.  One part of the retina is called the “blind spot“, because there are actually no optic nerves there – it’s where all the nerve connections are routed off back to your brain.  But we don’t see a blank spot in our vision.  Instead, our brain just covers it up, with the average of what’s around it.  

That’s our brain again, making stuff up about the world.  So when someone seems to act completely out of character, or you see something wildly implausible in the news, or you start getting stressed about something that happened – or is about to happen – you shouldn’t immediately think that this is the way the world is.  Investigate.  Do a little digging.  Is there another perspective?  You might even find that your brain, or someone else’s brain, was making stuff up again.


Humans are creatures of doubt

Robin hopping on decking

Buddhists talk about Doubt as one of the “five hindrances”.  It’s important to distinguish between two different meanings of the English word doubt, though. 

The first is helpful: it’s about inquiry, investigation, and examination.  We shouldn’t automatically believe or disbelieve things we hear, we should be curious – that kind of doubt is helpful.  That’s what the robin in today’s photo is doing: he is just thinking “is there anything I can eat here?  Let me check it out.” 

The second is unhelpful – it’s self doubt.  I don’t think animals doubt themselves.  This is a human thing.  We wonder if we’re doing it right, if things are going to work out ok this afternoon, if we look like an idiot in this new coat, if we should have said that thing the other day to our sister…. and so on.

This kind is the Hindrance: uncertainty, indecision, flipping back and forth between doing or not doing.  You perhaps know the story of the donkey stuck between two identical bales of hay, unable to decide which to eat first, starving to death.  Animals would never actually do this.  It takes a special kind of human stupid to be like that – at work, we used to call that “analysis paralysis”.

The suggestion, once again, is to be mindful.  Notice that you are doubting in this way.  Step back from it, observe it thrashing about.  Think how this decision will look in ten minutes, or ten hours, or in ten days (or ten years, if it’s really big!).  Imagine you know now what you will know then.  Then choose.


New guided meditations uploaded

I have uploaded two guided meditations for you to use:

  • The first is a ten minute body scan. This is suitable for total beginners, either as a guided meditation, or for you to use to relax and help yourself go to sleep.
  • The second is a simple ten minute breath meditation, where we use the breath as the focus of our attention. Again, this is suitable for complete beginners.

Enjoy these, and let me know if you would like others!