Culadasa Interview: Attention, Awareness, and the Great Adventure
A transcript of episode 10 of the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.
Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening and more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast. In this episode I’m speaking with meditation teacher, neuroscientist, and author John Yates, also known as Culadasa. Culadasa has the honor of being the most requested guest ever or so far for the Deconstructing Yourself podcast. After decades of dedicated Buddhist practice, Culadasa exploded on the scene a couple years ago with his groundbreaking book The Mind Illuminated, which is an erudite mixture of neuroscience, traditional Buddhist practice, and Culadasa’s own ideas about how to make the most of your meditation practice. It’s really a comprehensive guide to meditation. So I was definitely excited to do an interview with Culadasa, and I’m very happy to be able to present it to you now. So without further ado, I give you the episode that I call “Attention, Awareness and the Great Adventure.”
Taft: Culadasa, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.
Culadasa: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Taft: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Out of all the many people I’ve had on the podcast, when I announced on various social media channels that I was going to interview you, I certainly got a major flood of interest and questions and people very, very excited about it, so you’re a big hit out there in meditation land right now.
Culadasa: [laughs] Well, that’s good to know.
Taft: There is actually a reddit subreddit about your book, The Mind Illuminated. Which, for listeners, if you have not read The Mind Illuminated, it’s quite a powerful and fascinating and helpful text on meditation. So integrating Buddhist wisdom and brain science from Culadasa. Anyway, in that subreddit, there were a lot of questions for you from many, many, many fans, and by far the biggest one is—I was surprised to learn that almost everyone asked about—they were asking you to compare your system with of all people Shinzen Young’s system.
Taft: I know you two know each other, and I think it turns out that there’s a lot of folks out there who both work with you and work with Shinzen so they were definitely interested on how his model of mindfulness, based on concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity, lines up—in your mind anyway— lines up with your model based on the balance of attention and awareness.
Culadasa: Yes. Well, I find that he’s using different language and coming really from a different direction but the two models are actually quite complementary to each other. Models of what mindfulness is. Now, his identifies concentration—that’s a word that I don’t like that much, because it has a lot of other connotations, but I think what he means by it is exactly the same thing that I mean by stability of attention. And that is most definitely a part of mindfulness. It’s not just stability of attention, though, as you probably know of the different forms of concentration that are spoken of in the suttas and the commentaries is something called khanika samādhi…
Taft: …Continuously moving concentration?
Culadasa: That’s right. That’s basically where the object of your attention can move from one object to another and it can remain on that object however long or however briefly you choose for it to. But there is total engagement of the attentional faculty with that object, for however long it remains there. And maybe one of the greatest differences is that unless you choose to allow attention to move freely the movements of attention will be a reflection of what your conscious intentions are.
Taft: Yeah, it would be fun and interesting, I think, for you to unpack that a little further.
Culadasa: Sure, sure. The first thing that we develop in terms of attentional stability is to take a meditation object—I like to use the sensations produced by the breath—and it’s important to distinguish that I’m talking about the sensations, the actual fact of the sensations that you experience directly, not any sort of conceptualization or visualization, although that is there, but you’re doing your best to focus on the sensations. So the breath is a continually changing object, but at the same time it’s repetitive, so it has all the advantages of a fixed object. So you train your attention to follow the unfolding series of sensations that make up the breath. This gives you great stability of attention. This is the quality of stability that is most important. Normally, your mind would allow your attention to rest on something until either something more interesting comes along or until it feels like it has exhausted the interest of what you’re paying attention to and then it will move to something else. The other thing that your mind normally does is allows your attention to alternate. You may be paying attention to one thing, but your attention is flickering back and forth with other things in the field of conscious awareness at the same time. It’s alternating attention that’s taking place. So stability of attention can be refined to the point that not only is there no longer this tendency for attention to wander off in search of something more interesting but you also stop this rapid flickering back and forth of attention unless you want it to take place. So alternating attention ceases as well. What this means is that the quality of your attention in each moment of consciousness is very solid and clear and in the case of the breath it will continue to follow that sequence of sensations until you choose to have it do something else. If you placed it on something that was unchanging it would stay there until you chose to change it. But if you give it permission to move, it will land on each item that arises that attracts attention to it. And it will be fully with it until something else attracts it to it. Or if you choose to follow closely—I talked about following the sensations of the breath as they unfold, but when you have this quality of attention you can actually follow the sequence of the links of dependent origination as they unfold. The stability of attention that I’m talking about is not dependent upon the object; it’s a faculty of the attention itself. It’s a quality of the attention itself. It goes where you want, stays as long or as short as you want, and is totally engaged with the object of attention for as long as it’s there.
Taft: Would you say that as this develops to that level of stability, does attention require effort to stay in a place you want it to or is it relatively effortless?
Culadasa: Well, by the time you’ve achieved that quality of stability, it has become effortless. In the beginning, it requires effort, although I prefer to describe it more as sustained intention. Because it’s not that the word effort isn’t correct or it isn’t accurate, because it is, there’s a certain expenditure of effort to make this happen. But the word carries a lot with it that doesn’t belong. A kind of striving or grasping. And so that’s why I prefer to describe it as a sustained intention to keep the attention on the meditation object. So there is that. As you go along, the mind becomes more habituated to attention remaining wherever you choose to place it—and I use the term advisedly “you”, “advisedly” because the mind itself is the “you.” But anyway, as the mind becomes habituated to this relationship between movements of attention and conscious intention, then it becomes effortless. And actually there is an interesting challenge that the meditator encounters. They’ll reach the point where the mind has sufficiently habituated to this behavior that they can do it effortlessly, but then they’re so used to exerting effort to sustain attention, you know, always being vigilant for a movement of attention, then always bringing the attention back, that it’s actually a bit of a challenge to relax and stop doing that. So that’s an interesting part of the process.
Taft: Backing up just a little bit, you were describing, you know, your understanding of attention and stability of attention versus Shinzen’s term.
Culadasa: So the relationship between concentration and stability of attention. I think within the system of śamatha-vipassanā that I teach, we probably take attentional stability to a greater degree than Shinzen does. Although, any of Shinzen’s students who practice ardently enough, long enough, are going to achieve that. But there isn’t the specific process that we undergo, intentionally achieving that degree of attentional stability. Okay, so then that’s the relationship between concentration and stability of attention. Clarity: now, what Shinzen is referring to as clarity, as long as we’re including the sixth sense of the mind in that, it corresponds to what I refer to as awareness. I refer to it initially as peripheral awareness so it becomes clear to the person who is learning to use this faculty that awareness is something different than attention. Attention is more focal and these are in fact two completely different modes of conscious perception, they’re two completely different modes of knowing that are served by different areas in the brain. It’s something in my own meditation practice and development—it seemed to me that the instructions that I was receiving from my teachers and from texts and things like that implied that I should have a kind of single-pointed focus of attention such that everything else was excluded from consciousness. And my experience was that that was extremely hard to do, and when I did achieve it, it was a very non-productive state for the mind to be in. So I gave up on that and I allowed myself to be aware of—in other words, allow all these other things to be in my consciousness at the same time that my attention was focused on my meditation object, on the sensations of my breath. And this made my meditation enormously easier, and not only that, by doing so, I realized that I could tell when there was a tendency for something to draw my attention away and so that I could correct for that before it happened. This was a wonderful realization. And then in perusing the neuroscientific literature, a description of these two different perceptual modes that were served by two different brain regions, and the qualities that were ascribed to them, I realized, “Wow, this is exactly what I’m experiencing, and I find that I’m able to use this faculty of awareness to help me improve the stability of my attention.” What I was also finding is that the more stable my attention was, that the more powerful was this peripheral awareness that I had of everything else. This made a huge difference in my own practice and it’s at the core of what I teach. Just to make it clear, I like to use the analogy—it’s a very close analogy, in fact, with vision. With vision, we have a focal point of vision, and we have peripheral vision. They’re qualitatively different, and they’ve actually processed by different parts of the visual cortex of the brain. The relationship between attention and peripheral awareness is very directly analogous to the relationship between the visual focus and peripheral vision. So that what you’ll notice is if you focus your eyes on say a spot on the wall across the room, or some object that’s a few feet away from you, and you keep your visual focus more or less stable, that your peripheral vision begins to become richer and fuller and now you’re seeing a much larger picture. Now, at a subtle level, there is a certain, what’s called nystagmus, a very small movement of your eye. But your eye is not really scanning your visual field when that happens, so that’s not what’s accounting for this. Peripheral vision corresponds to peripheral awareness. Your field of conscious awareness is like your visual field as a whole. But you’ll notice in this little exercise that I’ve described, that if you move the focal point of your vision from one thing to another to another to another, the quality of your peripheral vision rapidly deteriorates, whereas if you stabilize your attention, then as I said, all of these things stand out in your peripheral vision. The same thing happens when you stabilize attention. Even when you just stabilize attention a little bit, your peripheral awareness becomes much clearer. That’s, I think, a great analogy for comparing these two. Now, back to clarity. [laughs] When your attention is not rapidly alternating with several other things at the same time, there is greater clarity and vividness of perception of the object of attention. And when you have allowed your peripheral awareness to develop, basically it’s a faculty that we all have and use but we underuse. Culturally, and perhaps species-wide except for aboriginal cultures, we suffer from serious awareness deficit disorder. [laughs] A different kind of ADD. But as your peripheral awareness becomes powerful, then there is a greater clarity of everything that is in your field of conscious awareness. Now, the things that occupy—the contents of your field of conscious awareness, can be distinguished as mental objects, objects of introspective awareness, and those things that are outside of your mind: sensations in your body, vision, sound, tactile sensations and all these other things. So we can say you have extrospective awareness and you have introspective awareness. And that’s why I say in order to draw a direct correlation with what Shinzen’s talking about, the sensory clarity has to include a mind sense as well.
Taft: Which it definitely does.
Culadasa: Which it definitely does. Right. So what is really more important to the insight and awakening project is not extrospective awareness. If you were a martial artist, extrospective peripheral awareness would be of paramount importance. Your life may depend on it. But if you are looking inwardly to discover your nature, and in fact you have to look inward to discover the nature of that which lies outside as well [laughs], introspective awareness is really important. This is the aspect of awareness that is most underdeveloped in us. So this is a different kind of clarity. This is a clarity about the processes that are going on in our mind. The kinds of thoughts and feelings, the shifting mental states, and the clearer it becomes the more you become aware of how there is this constant internal movement in your mind. The movements of attention are only one kind of movement. In the field of peripheral introspective awareness there are thoughts arising and passing away, there are emotions arising and passing away. There are feelings, and the sense of pleasant and unpleasant, arising and passing away. There is an overall mental state which is continually shifting, largely as a result of these things that enter and leave your field of conscious awareness. And so clarity, that kind of clarity, comes through introspective awareness and in its fullest development it’s what I describe as metacognitive introspective awareness. It’s as though your mind’s eye has been elevated and it can now see the landscape of your mind as a whole, including attention and peripheral awareness and the relationship between the two, the interaction between attention and objects in peripheral awareness. Now this is the kind of clarity that we’re going for, and I believe that it is very similar to the clarity that Shinzen is talking about and going for as well. I’d love to hear Shinzen’s response to this, but his method doesn’t stress achieving this kind of clarity, but just as I said about stability of attention, anybody that practices his methods—and I use the word plural, “methods”, here—diligently, does develop that kind of clarity that I refer to as metacognitive introspective awareness. So we’re both on track about mindfulness here. Now, he brings into it the quality of equanimity, which is something that we allow to develop in the method that I teach, we go through a process—a very powerful kind of equanimity develops. But we can practice at any time bringing equanimity to our experience moment by moment. In order to do that, though, we need to have a certain clarity of introspective awareness. We have to have achieved enough clarity that we can see when the mind’s in reaction and just choose to observe that reaction and just let it go, not driving it away, not squishing it, it’s just recognizing it, that it’s there, and in that recognition, allowing it to pass away. And when you have this kind of clarity, then you begin to experience more and more equanimity as a part of your experience. Now this brings us to my definition of mindfulness. I would define mindfulness as the optimal interaction between attention and awareness. Now this is assuming that you have good mindfulness, powerful mindfulness, strong mindfulness, that you have developed some stability of attention and you have developed some degree of powerful awareness, particularly introspective awareness. Once you have that, you can begin to optimize the interaction between attention and awareness. Actually it begins to optimize itself, because now both are fully functioning on a continuous basis, rather than having attention dominate and awareness being pushed off to the side. But the highest form of mindfulness is what in Pāli is referred to as sati-sampajañña, or this is “mindfulness with clear comprehension”, as it’s often translated. What does this mean? This means that you know, the mindfulness part is that you know what it is that you are thinking, feeling, saying and doing. Where the clear comprehension comes, as the mindfulness becomes more powerfully developed, that manifests as not only knowing what you are thinking, feeling, saying and doing, but why those particular thoughts, and emotions, speech and action are arising. In other words, you are aware of, metacognitively aware of the sources from which these are arising. In addition to knowing what you are thinking, feeling, saying and doing, and why you are thinking, feeling, saying and doing it, you also know whether or not the thoughts, the feelings, the speech and the action that you’re engaging with is consistent with what you want them to be. What you want them to be in terms of, are they consistent with you being the kind of person that you want to be and aspire to be. Are they consistent with your desired outcome of the situation you’re in, in the moment? Are they consistent with your beliefs about what is wholesome and unwholesome? And this is not just applied to meditation, this is not just mindfulness in meditation, I think that’s clear from the description. This is something that applies to every situation in your life. So this is the ultimate development of this optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness. You are paying attention to what is most appropriate in the most appropriate way, and this is being guided by this powerful metacognitive introspective awareness.
Taft: A question that comes up for me around that concerns the depth to which even extremely powerful mindfulness can penetrate into the sort of preprocessing circuits of the brain. I understand you’re describing knowing where all these streams of thought and action are coming from but isn’t there a lower limit beyond which conscious perception cannot go?
Culadasa: I’m not totally sure what you’re asking here. A lower limit. Maybe you could explain that a little more.
Taft: The way I understand the brain… Let’s just restrict the question to the thinking process, knowing what one’s thinking and especially why they’re thinking it. Any particular thought is bubbling up from a very large number of parallel processing thoughts, very deep in the unconscious, and those get voted up and voted up and voted up until finally a thought that is important enough starts to rise to the level where introspective awareness can notice it at all.
Culadasa: Yes, yes. You described it perfectly.
Taft: But beneath that, sometimes I would describe it as you can feel a thought arising and be unaware of its content and you know that here comes one, but understanding why that’s there, or literally every step of where it came from seems to not be possible because there’s a lower limit of how deep into the unconscious your introspection can go. That’s the question that’s coming up for me, there’s sort of a black box down there at a deep enough level, so how would you respond to that?
Culadasa: Well, yeah, I agree with that totally, yes, now that I understand what you mean. Yes, if you think of the brain and the mind—either or both—as consisting of a hierarchy of information processing systems which at the lowest level is just a very primitive level of processing that takes place, but the results of that processing are then passed to the next level where they’re combined with information that has also come up from that same lower level, they are processed and the results of that processing is passed up to a higher level. And so eventually, I mean this is the bubbling up that you described, eventually the bubbles reach the boundary—there’s not really a boundary between conscious awareness and unconscious awareness, more like the penumbra of a flashlight beam or something, it’s a gradation. But you reach the point where they begin to reach the level of consciousness. Now, when they reach the level of consciousness, then this is information that becomes available to other parts of the mind that have not been involved in that information processing. And they, in a sense, because they’re not a part of the particular information processing pathway that produced a particular piece of conscious experience, if information from too far down in the process arises in consciousness it doesn’t make sense any longer. Now if we go to the physical sensations, I can describe this in terms of a physical sensation and then you can see how that would correspond to different kinds of emotions, different kinds of thought, so many different kinds of mental processes that we carry out. But in the sensory realm we have what are usually referred to as the five physical senses, which is not really a complete description because it omits proprioception and it fails to recognize that what we call touch, tactile sensation, actually consists of a whole family of different sensations. But we’ll leave that aside. Let’s take a particular sensation, let’s take vision. Normally what arises in consciousness is a fairly highly processed object, where there are boundaries, there are colors, there are edges, there is shape, there is form, all of these different things have been combined into something that is recognizable and that we’re familiar with. Now, as we go down in the levels, we could consciously recognize and are comfortable perceiving just the lines and edges and contrast, that’s fine, take the color out and we’ve got lines and edges and contrast. We can remove the various levels of contrast so we just have lines. In many cases it still makes sense. But if you go to a level of visual information processing beneath that, you’re going to reach a point where it no longer makes any sense to the eye. Well, here’s another example. I’ll bet you that most of your listeners have had, and that you’ve had as well, have you ever been driving at night and suddenly there’s something that you see ahead of you and you just feel your mind struggling to identify it and it can’t identify it? You don’t know how to respond to it or anything like that, but then it will suddenly become recognizable that oh, there’s a curve ahead, there’s a guard rail, and it’s got a florescent paint on it so it shows up. Have you ever had that kind of experience?
Taft: Absolutely. There’s that moment of discomfort and strain while you are waiting for the brain to figure out what it’s seeing, and it even tries on different possibilities and then there’s a further moment where suddenly it resolves and you know what it is immediately.
Culadasa: Right, you get enough information that has been sufficiently processed at a deeper level that now it’s recognizable, and you immediately shift into your comfort zone, you know exactly how to respond. [laughs] Same thing happens when you’re following the breath at the nose. You know, really you start out and there’s all this conceptual overlay, that you have a body, that the nose is a part of the body, there’s this stuff called air that is moving in and out, there’s space, and there’s such a thing as in- and-out, and all that stuff. As you continue to observe the sensations of the breath, the conceptual part starts to fall away and there’s just sensations, there’s warmth, there’s movement, there’s coolness, there’s various kinds of tactile sensations that are associated with the in and the out-breath unfolding in a series, and you have this experience of “I don’t even know whether these sensations are part of the in- breath or the out-breath.” Then if you keep closely following the sensations of the breath, you come to a place where it just degenerates into like a sort of vibratory phenomenon, which might be pleasant for some people but for other people it gives them an extreme form of that same discomfort that I talked about, you know, you see something ahead of your car when you’re driving on a highway at night, it becomes so uncomfortable that the mind jumps back to a level that things are recognizable. But what you’re actually having is a potentially valuable insight experience. You see how your mind is actually creating your world of objects and conscious experience out of a kind of raw data that is meaningless. So, yeah, there’s a limit, there’s definitely a limit and getting to that limit can be a wonderfully illuminating experience, too. Or it can be terrifying.
Taft: It seems like some people do definitely have sort of—bounce off that a number of times and find it jarring or harsh or anxiety-producing. But if they stick with it then it tends to show its pleasant side also.
Culadasa: That’s right. It can be very, very pleasant. [laughs]
Taft: [laughs] So, please, continue with your definition of optimal interaction between attention and awareness.
Culadasa: Okay, so, mindfulness—one example in meditation, how you see mindfulness makes you become more mindful by contributing to increasing stability of attention and increasingly powerful awareness. So a process that normally takes place is that we’re focusing our attention on our meditation object and attention is alternating with objects in the background. One of those objects becomes interesting enough that this alternating attention starts to spend more and more of its time on this object. There can come to be the point where this object is occupying more of the attention, over time, than is the actual meditation object. If that state persists where you’re paying more attention to, say, a distracting thought, or a sensation in your body, or it could be a sound, most common would be a thought, so you come to this place where attention is resting more on the distraction than it is your meditation object. The next thing that will happen is that you’ll forget that you’re meditating. You’ll forget about the meditation object. It will pass completely out of awareness, it will no longer receive any attention—perhaps in the background of awareness but if it’s ignored a little bit longer your meditation object is gone. And what happens usually after that is when your mind is finished with that thought it moves onto something else and something else. And then you wake up and suddenly realize, “Oh, I’m supposed to be meditating and I’ve been doing this other thing instead.” Now this process, as we stabilize attention and as we develop stronger and clearer peripheral awareness, particularly introspective awareness, we can see this process as it happens. We begin to recognize when a distraction is beginning to dominate our attention and at that point we can focus our attention more closely on the meditation object, right? So this is an example of a more optimal interaction between attention and awareness. Awareness is information attention that is not fulfilling the intentions that we’ve come this activity with. This is one thing, about the relationship between attention and awareness anyway, that’s probably important in order to understand the things that I’m saying: anything you become conscious of appears in awareness first. And then attention then selects its object from peripheral awareness. So it’s important to recognize this. Perhaps you, and I’m sure your listeners have heard about, I mean, a long time ago when people first started doing experiments with meditators, they found that people doing certain kinds of meditation would not produce the usual evoked response to a sudden sound like a loud hand clap or something like that. The reason for this is that that sound would arise in attention and the meditator had developed their degree of mindfulness well enough that at the level of peripheral awareness—it had sort of arisen in peripheral awareness, peripheral awareness is clear enough that it can identify the sound as something that need not be attended to, that’s not important, that is not a threat, that is not a possibility of some desire fulfillment. And so therefore the evoked potential that would normally be produced, as the attention shifted to that object, doesn’t happen.
Taft: It’s a very fascinating experience. Like someone will drop a dish and some part of awareness knows there was a loud sound and it’s almost expecting a reaction but…
Culadasa: …it doesn’t happen. [laughs] Yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful example of it. Yeah, so, awareness is where everything comes first. There’s a fairly minimal amount of processing that takes place, but it’s an important evaluation. It also is much more relational than it is object-focused, it’s more concerned with the relation of things and whether or not they’re appropriate or expected or unexpected or inappropriate and things like that. So it can, when it’s functioning properly, make sure that attention is directed to the things that attention should be directed towards. And that attention does not become preoccupied with things that aren’t important. Awareness also provides a context, awareness is the big picture aspect of consciousness. It’s where you know who you are and where you are and what you’re doing, where attention easily forgets this. Now, somebody who is not particularly mindful, somebody does or says something that pushes their buttons, and they tend to react out of conditioning and very often regret whatever it is that they said or did afterwards. A mindful person, on the other hand, always doesn’t lose the context of who they are and where they are and who they’re dealing with, and so the button gets pushed, they know their button’s been pushed, but they realize that the conditioned reaction would not be appropriate, that perhaps this person that’s pushed their button is someone that they love and they care about and therefore the nasty comment that was about to be generated would not be appropriate, that it would produce consequences that were at variance with what they would like them to be. So this is the kind of interactive role that attention and awareness play. Attention also serves to direct awareness. In a particular situation attention is being paid to certain types of things because there’s some good reason for it. You may be at work and it has to do with your job, you may be performing some other kind of activity, anything from operating a piece of machinery, anything you can think of, so awareness is guided by these activities of attention. Awareness knows what is the most relevant kind of information that arises in the field of conscious awareness. The function of attention, when it isolates something, zooms in on it, is it analyzes and evaluates it in a way that goes beyond the capacity of awareness. Then it either lets go of it as being judged not of continued value, or else it can lead to behaviors that are appropriate in response to whatever that is. So attention tells awareness what’s important in a given situation, and so then awareness then—having its context defined, can guide the movements of attention so that they occur in the most effective way. Think of how often our attention becomes so preoccupied with something that we fail to be aware of other important things that are happening in our environment. And this would be a classic example of a failure of mindfulness or the so-called absent-minded professor. [laughs] That sort of thing. Right? Totally preoccupied with our attention in such a way that we walk into the wall or do something stupid.
Taft: Awareness suffers at that point.
Culadasa: Well, the whole of us suffers, but it’s because awareness has collapsed.
Taft: The quality of awareness goes down. So do you find people are able to achieve these levels of optimal interaction, and if they do, are you seeing them not only having exemplary behavior, which I can see happening because they’re able to have enough room to decide what actions to take, and are you also seeing them have the kind of situation described in the suttas where they never experience certain emotions or never experience certain types of negative thoughts and so on?
Culadasa: Well, this is not something that is a direct result of mindfulness. Somebody can have very powerful mindfulness and they still experience emotions, they can experience unwholesome emotions, and they can entertain those unwholesome emotions. It depends on the whole rest of the person’s psyche and their value system and their worldview. I mean, each of us lives in our own private universe that we’ve created in our mind. So mindfulness by itself doesn’t guarantee exemplary behavior or wholesomeness of action, and it certainly doesn’t lead to an absence of emotions. You can use mindfulness to train yourself in wholesome behavior, this is what makes it very powerful in the particular practice that’s referred to as the practice of virtue. Now the practice of virtue consists in not engaging in the kinds of speech, action or livelihood—I can expand on the last but I won’t right now— not engaging in the kinds of speech and action that are unwholesome in the sense that they are driven by craving as desire and aversion, and that they are a reflection of self-attachment. The reason that a person would engage in unwholesome speech or behavior is that it would be self-serving in some way. What makes it unwholesome is two things. First of all it would be unwholesome in that it might be to the detriment of the well-being of others, but it’s also unwholesome in the sense that it is predisposing that person to act out of self-centeredness and craving. So it’s actually making that person more enslaved than before to craving, in terms of their thoughts and their feelings and their speech and their action. But it’s also reinforcing the bonds of attachment to self. So the practice of virtue, done properly, means going through your life engaging in wholesome behaviors, and the effect of it is that craving arises as desire or aversion, but what you do is you refrain from speaking and acting out of that desire and aversion. And that has the opposite effect of acting out of desire and aversion: it weakens your enslavement to the compulsions of desire and aversion. In doing so, you’re denying your self-interest by refraining from engaging in unwholesome speech and action, and so you’re loosening somewhat the attachment that you have to self. You see how mindfulness applied in the form of the practice of virtue in daily life is actually moving us towards the—we’re practicing the behavior of an awakened person but we’re actually forming our future selves to be an awakened person. We are moving ourselves, we are self-creating as someone who is at first less and then ultimately not at all attached to the self notion, and as a person who at first no longer is driven by but ultimately no longer experiences craving and aversion. Now, you could use mindfulness to train yourself to behave in these ways, and it’d be quite wonderful, and it’d be quite effective, but there will always be the tendency if you stop practicing mindfulness or if you find yourself in a situation where you lose your mindfulness, of going back to that self-centered, craving-driven pattern of behavior. So the important thing about awakening is that it changes at a very deep, fundamental way, our perception of who and what we are and our relationship to the world and what the actual source of our happiness and suffering is. And so now you enjoy very powerful mindfulness, but what makes this mindfulness even more powerful and what makes you less vulnerable to losing it are these deep shifts in perception and fundamental ways you perceive reality.
Taft: To expand upon that, what is your general advice for people who have had some level of awakening? How do you recommend they move forward after that?
Culadasa: I think it’s very important that they fully understand the Eightfold Path and its significance and they practice it in its entirety. This is something that I’ve never seen really addressed in the traditional literature of pretty much any traditions that I’ve explored but you can be awakened— awakened in the sense that you have attained a shift in understanding of the nature of things—but you haven’t developed in terms of your behavior and your inner, internal processes, you haven’t developed the natural consequences of this knowledge, of this wisdom that you have attained. What this means, usually you speak of wisdom and compassion as being conjoined. And to the extent that wisdom means recognizing the interconnectedness of absolutely everything and recognizing that there is no separate self, naturally gives rise to a certain degree of compassion. But you can develop wisdom, but that compassion, that nascent level of compassion, of true compassion that arises with the first stage of awakening, can remain undeveloped. And so you can be out of balance with a rather primitive degree of compassion and a lot of wisdom. And this helps us understand some of the things that happen when we see individuals who are regarded as awakened engaging in behaviors that are inconsistent with that awakening. It’s a failure within their mind to fully integrate and fully develop the characteristics of an awakened being that are a logical consequence of the knowledge that they have attained. So they can sit there as a fount of knowledge and yet be guilty of various kinds of financial misdeeds and exploitation, including sexual exploitation, all these other kinds of things, and we look and them and say, “How can this be? How can this person be so wise and still behave in such a way?”
Taft: And this is actually rather common.
Culadasa: It’s far too common. So awakening is just the beginning of a process of much deeper spiritual development. And the Eightfold Path properly understood, the dharma as a whole properly understood, gives us the guidelines that we need to develop that. As an awakened person, mindfulness is naturally much more powerful. And you’re capable of this kind of personal spiritual development so a much greater degree than somebody who’s not awakened. But, I mean, people would love to believe this, that all of a sudden like a snap of your fingers I’m awakened and now “Hey, I’m there, I’m done,” and it’s just not the way it works. [laughs] It’s wonderful if you reach this huge, wonderful new level that you’re not going to really fall back from, but there’s still so much further to go.
Taft: And how would you suggest someone go about treading that new path, post-awakening? What is the methodology there?
Culadasa: I think one valuable guideline is in the Ten Fetter, Four Path Model that is provided in the suttas. Now this is something that I don’t think is often very well-understood, but it is one of the most brilliant pieces of guidance that has ever been generated, you can really thank the Buddha for spelling it out in the terms that he did, in terms of overcoming the fetters. A stream entrant has overcome certain very specific fetters, which are attachment to the ego self, but they still feel like they’re a separate self. But they know that this is an illusion, they have an ego—you need an ego to function, without an ego you can’t keep your laundry separate from somebody else’s. But the ego has become transparent and actually they’re in the perfect position to cultivate a strong, healthy ego that serves not only themselves but everyone else. So the first fetter that’s overcome is this attachment to the ego self, and so it’s seen for what it is and it becomes something that can be dropped when necessary and used when appropriate. The second thing that they do is that they overcome the belief in—the way it’s usually stated is rules, rites, and rituals, and I would translate that as they overcome the belief in magic. They have experience a profound insight into paṭiccasamuppāda, into dependent arising. And I’m not talking about the links of dependent arising. The links of dependent arising are a different pedagogical tool for teaching how the human mind works and how we shape ourselves. I’m talking about it in the fundamental sense of causality: that there is nothing at all that stands outside the realm of causality, of causes and conditions. Everything is a result of causes and conditions. So there is the falling away of the belief in magic, and magic is essentially believing that there is anything of significance or value that lies outside of the laws of causality. I’ll just point out that the kind of philosophical logic that you can apply to this would bring you to the conclusion that anything that was not part of greater causality would be irrelevant because it could neither produce effects nor be affected by the realm of causality. So that’s just something in passing [laughs]. There could be something like that, somebody could believe in something like that and I’d say that’s fine, you know, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have any relevance [laughs]. So that’s the second fetter and then the third fetter of course is doubt. Up until the point of stream entry there can be, and there will be, and there actually should be a question in a person’s mind, “Is this real? Or am I pursuing a fairy tale?” And as a matter of fact a lot of people find upon stream entry that they were following a fairy tale, you know, partly due to the fact that westerners like to call awakening “enlightenment.” The Tibetans have really contributed to this enormously and made enlightenment into this thing that somehow you have all these supernatural powers and you can walk through walls and all this other kinds of stuff. Awakening doesn’t do that. And so the falling away of doubt about things like that is a good thing [laughs]. But the doubt that you want to fall away is the doubt that can impair you, that can hold you back, that keeps you from throwing yourself 100 percent, totally, wholeheartedly into the continued practice of the dharma. So these fetters fall away. If we look and see what remains, craving hasn’t fallen away. The inherent sense of being a separate self, even though the ego self has become transparent, we still feel like separate selves as stream entrants, right? And we still experience craving and we’re still driven by it. Maybe not as strongly as before, but we’re still driven by it. Now, the second path, the Buddha defined in terms not in the way of the falling away of another fetter, but another very important step that happens that allows for the falling away of the next fetters, and this is a tremendous weakening of the power that craving and self-attachment have over you. They actually may strive to find some sort of self to account for the sense of being a separate self. They’re in a position of knowing the self that they thought they were is an illusion, but at the same time feeling like they’re a separate self, and so especially if they are attached to notions of reincarnation and things like that, they may find themselves striving to find some kind of other version of self to fill that gap, or to explain that. And of course consciousness is one of the favorite things that people cling to for that. But the result of it is that there’s a remnant of self-clinging, and then there’s also craving. So now what happens if a person continues to practice the Eightfold Path in its entirety, including meditation and as a part of their meditation there should be a repetition, to the degree that they’re capable, and it’s not always the case that a person can do this, but to the degree that what led them to stream entry was a practice that was structured enough that they can create the same causes and conditions that arose that allowed them that breakthrough to awakening, then they can have what’s referred to as a fruition experience. And if they repeat this, the more often they repeat this then the more they consolidate the insights that brought them to stream entry. So continuing to practice the Eightfold Path in its entirety, including meditation, is a very important thing. What it’ll do is it will eventually lead to a place of a recognition, and this tends to happen—it tends to be kind of a shocking realization when it happens— sometimes very uncomfortable, a person can become very miserable when they realize this, they realize that in everything that they’ve done, well, almost everything that they’ve done, there are exceptions, but in almost everything that they’ve said and done and almost all of their thoughts, what is behind so many of their emotions is craving, and that wherever there is craving there is suffering. Even where the craving is very, very subtle, that there is suffering and that there arises within them this huge wish to overcome craving. They see craving as the problem it is. This empowers them in the face of craving. This disempowers craving itself, because when they experience craving and they recognize it from a place of mindfulness, they can work to uproot craving. Now, it doesn’t happen that everybody approaches second path from the point of view of craving, because some approach it from the point of view of self-attachment. They’ll have a similar shocking realization, it’s actually going a little bit more to the root of things, but it’s not necessarily any more effective. But they’ll realize that there is this undercurrent of self-attachment that is almost always there, that only rarely does it fall away. But on those rare occasions when it does, there is a kind of peace and happiness and comfort that is not there the rest of the time. There is an even greater liberation than the one that gave them the glorious afterglow that a lot of people experience when they achieve stream entry. So it corresponds pretty much to the experience I described of people recognizing the ubiquitousness of craving, they recognize the ubiquitousness of self-clinging. The same thing applies that they actually attain second path through the realization of this, which empowers them to be more mindfully aware of self-clinging and its presence and to not be so tightly bound to it. This then sets them on the second path and the work through the second path to uproot self-attachment and craving. And it’s interesting, one of the things that people often spontaneously do but can be guided to do by a careful teacher—and there’s a certain danger in this, too, that’s why it’s really valuable for somebody to have a teacher in their progression through these paths—there is the tendency to actually seek out situations that elicit craving, or that elicit self- attachment in order to confront it, in order to overcome it, in order to uproot it. You can see how there’s a certain danger in this, but this is also the most powerful and effective way to get to the place of achieving third path, which is defined as a falling away of desire and aversion for things of the sense realm. There still remains desire and aversion in their subtler forms of desire for being and desire for non-being and the corresponding aversion, but they are now liberated from the kinds of craving for things of the self realm. They can enjoy life fully but they are not enslaved by the compulsions to pursue the pleasant and to attempt to destroy or avoid the unpleasant, which are actually the causes of a kind of suffering. So there’s a much greater freedom from suffering. What they remain—they’ll have this inherent sense of being a separate self, this feeling, okay, this feeling of somehow I’m still a separate self. And they still do have these remnants of craving which are related to that sense of being a separate self, I mean, you can probably see—it’s not hard to understand how as long as you have that sense that you are a self, that there can be related to that desire for being and desire for non-being. Or aversion to being or aversion to non-being. It’s a subtler form of suffering but it’s a very real form of suffering that is still present for somebody who is on third path, and it’s something that they need to work through. I think maybe I’ll cut this description short just by saying, the work of third path and the attainment of fourth path is when that inherent sense of self is transcended and the fetters associated with it are eliminated as well. So there’s no longer this craving for being or non-being. One of the fetters is conceit, it’s the conceit “I am”, that is removed entirely. And there is the restlessness of spirit that until a person has approached fourth path they’re not even that aware of but there’s this inner agitation, this subtle discomfort that is associated with being in this place of the conceit “I am”, and the cravings for being and non-being. So that is how the fourth path was defined by the Buddha, and that’s the arhat. I’ll just add one more thing to this. The Buddha stopped there. The process of spiritual development on this path does not stop there by any means. It is not the case that you get to a place where you’re an arhat and that’s done and okay that’s the end of the process.
Taft: Well, that’s very fascinating. How would you describe the directions it may go after fourth path?
Culadasa: The early experience of fourth path is as though in a lot of ways you’ve left many aspects of your humanity behind. I mean, there’s very rich compassion but much of what makes us human has been at least temporarily inhibited. I can’t draw as strongly upon literature because there’s not a lot of literature that deals with this, but the essential thing as far as I know is that there is a return of your humanness, but I think maybe to borrow some of the language of the consciousness hackers it’s now a transhuman form, or we could borrow on Integral Theory and speak of it in those terms, you’ve reached a sort of transcendent level of human, and so you become fully human again but are in this transcendent place. I’ll just maybe leave it at this point, that you will experience from there something that will probably have happened to you in the course of first, second, and third paths already, which is that you’ve reached a point where it’s like, “Wow, this is, you know, I’ve arrived, I understand it, I’m here, this is wonderful,” you know? And you’ll be at that plateau until something will happen and it will open the doors and you’ll realize that no, you’ve just been on a temporary plateau and there’s so, so very much more yet to learn and explore and to be empowered by.
Taft: Thank you for that description. You know, I”m reminded of how when the Buddha went forth—the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama—went forth as the story tells us, he was motivated by fear of sickness, old age and death. I’m curious how, as one progresses along the path, one reflects back on those motivations or on those fears and how that develops. I mean, I’m noticing a huge amount of gray hair, and my one leg doesn’t work right anymore, and as we age and encounter sickness and the possibility of dying, I feel like this hits the actual bare metal of the practice, like what it’s really about.
Culadasa: Well, certainly what falls away is the fear. Sickness still occurs, old age still occurs, death still occurs. There are still many sources of pain. Suffering is overcome, but there’s still pain. That’s one thing that I like to restate the first noble truth as “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” So you haven’t overcome the pain, the sickness, the old age or the death. What you’ve overcome is the fear. We fear pain because we suffer in response to it. This is the story of one of the suttas, the Buddha’s asked about this and he said that for a worldling a painful event is like being shot with two arrows, that the first arrow is the injury that produces the pain, and the second arrow is the mind’s reaction to it, which is a rejection of it. That rejection of it, that’s a form of craving, that’s the aversion to it. And it produces an enormous amount of suffering. The amount of suffering is so much greater than the pain itself that to overcome suffering makes pain more or less irrelevant. I love the way Shinzen puts this in mathematical terms, that suffering equals pain times resistance. And the resistance is the aversion, it’s the craving. Of course, you know, if you have ten units of pain and you meet it with ten units of resistance, you’ve got a hundred units of suffering. If you reduce the resistance to two, you’ve only got twenty units of suffering. If your resistance becomes zero, there is zero suffering. So pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Sickness, old age and death—they become a part of the great adventure that it is to be a person. These five aggregates constitute a person, and this is a person who is on an incredible adventure. I feel sorry for the people whose interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching is that this existence is the worst thing that could have possibly happened and the sooner it’s ended the better. It is an incredible adventure. You don’t know how long it’ll last, you don’t know what will unfold, you don’t know what wonders you’ll be able to experience, what challenges you’ll be able to overcome, but sickness, old age and death are part of the great adventure. They’re not something to be afraid of. There’s no shortage of challenges associated with these. But to the degree that you have overcome three or five or all ten of these fetters, you’re far, far, more well-equipped to meet these challenges in the best possible way.
Taft: Well, that seems like a perfect note on which to end. So thank you so much for joining us today, Culadasa.
Culadasa: It’s my pleasure. I always enjoy talking about these things and there’s often not an opportunity to go into them to this degree, so I really thank you for the opportunity to be able to do that. And I sincerely hope that your listeners find something of value in what I’ve had to say.
Taft: I’m positive that will be the case. Thank you again.