(A transcript of Deconstructing Yourself podcast episode DY 022. Please let me know if there are any errors in the text.)
Michael Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening, Rick and Marty and more. My name is Michael Taft your host on the podcast and in this episode I’ll be speaking with meditation teacher, neuroscientist and author John Yates, also known as Culadasa.
Culadasa has been practicing Buddhist meditation for over four decades mainly in Tibetan lineages. He’s the director of Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha in Tucson Arizona where he teaches meditation and Buddhism from a modern progressive scientific perspective. His groundbreaking book, The Mind Illuminated, is a modern road map to Buddhist meditation for a Western audience which combines age-old wisdom teachings of the Buddha with the latest research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. And now without further ado I give you the episode that asks the question are more people achieving stream entry these days? Culadasa welcome to Deconstructing Yourself.
John Yates: It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Michael Taft: It’s a real pleasure to have you on the show. So since the last time we talked it seems like there’s been quite a bit going on out at your retreat center. Now where is that located again, is that New Mexico?
John Yates: In Arizona, yes southeastern Arizona. My wife and I have been running a small retreat center here for many years but we’re getting too old to do that and so Dharma treasure are nonprofit organization is taking over and so what that means is that Nancy and I won’t have to do the work of running the place, we can just enjoy having a retreat center. Nancy wants to be able to spend more time visiting our children and grandchildren in Canada and I’ll have more time to work on my book. Dharma treasure is going to hire someone to run the retreat center and so we have a place in Tucson to stay and so I’ll be here on a regular basis about once a week, sometimes more often, sometimes spending longer periods of time. Nancy will come and go as she pleases but I’ll have time to work on writing and teaching and she’ll have time to enjoy the rewards of all the work we’ve done over the years. So that’s the idea. Yeah.
Michael Taft: That’s great. Wow and so you will have guest teachers teaching?
John Yates: Yes we initiated a resident teacher program and we began that in January and we’ve got resident teachers through next January we’re going to start looking to fill those spots for the next year. Daniel Ingram is going to be the resident teacher in the month of September. So some of the listeners might be interested in that.
Michael Taft: Yeah definitely and how does it work Culadasa? So I’ve never actually checked out how you were doing retreats there. Do people come and stay for a specific length of time or is it come and stay for as long as you want during this particular teachers stay or how does it work?
John Yates: Its people can come and stay for as long as they want. We encourage people to stay for at least six days. We do sometimes make exceptions for people who want to do shorter retreats but we’ve had people stay for as long as a year, eight months, six months at a time there’s not really a limit on how long they can stay here. They are in solo retreat but they have regular meditation interviews with me and with the resident teacher. We are also still going to be doing group retreats here probably about four times a year.
Michael Taft: I see so in the group retreats it’s got a schedule and so on but the rest of the time it’s self-guided practice.
John Yates: That’s right, yes.
Michael Taft: Yeah, wonderful. And where is the center exactly?
John Yates: Well we’re located in southeastern Arizona about 60 miles from the border with Mexico and 60 miles from the border of New Mexico in a canyon in the Dragoon Mountains, it’s a really spectacularly beautiful place. It’s called Cochise stronghold Canyon.
Michael Taft: Cochise stronghold, okay. And how many people can stay at the Center?
John Yates: For group retreats we can squeeze in up to 20 but that really is you know squeezing, for solar retreats we can really comfortably accommodate half a dozen or it may be eight something like that.
Michael Taft: Yeah, so it’s a nice intimate little Center in a beautiful location that sounds amazing.
John Yates: Our niche is small intimate retreats. So even our group retreats or they’re not large, like I say we can squeeze in 20 but you know 15 works better.
Michael Taft: How often do solo self-guided retreatants get interview time with the teacher?
John Yates: Well it depends on what they feel like they need and it varies. I would say from three times a week for some people and then there some people feel like checking in with a teacher once a week or well some people do it as needed, they’ll even note when they feel like they’d like a meditation interview. So yeah, that’s the range.
Michael Taft: Yeah. So interesting I did a three months retreat at the forest refuge and you know we had interviews about twice a week and that seemed just about right and three months was a nice period. I remember when I started there was another person starting who confidently declared they were going to stay there a year and then fled after about two weeks the hope of silent retreat.
John Yates: Well so far we haven’t had anybody leave early. We’ve had people come to stay for a certain amount of time and then say, is it all right if I stay longer?
Michael Taft: Yeah, that’s great, wonderful. Okay, so what are you seeing? You’re probably getting some of the more dedicated and I would guess advanced practitioners out there. What are you seeing in terms of the practice landscape in our current culture?
John Yates: Well, it’s exploding. There are a lot of the people that come who have been meditating for many years and other traditions and generally what’s happened, they’ve come across the mind illuminated and found it very helpful. I would say that probably more than half of the people that we see coming here and significantly more than half of the people that I see coming to other classes that I teach have a fairly long history of meditation and a whole variety of different traditions, but there is a significant proportion of new meditators both those who come here for retreat and those who come to other classes, that’s what’s really impressive and not just impressive but very gratifying. A very important thing to see this explosion of interest and appreciation of the value of meditation and the value I think of the wisdom teachings of the Buddha.
Michael Taft: And do you feel like a sense that might illuminate it has come out that the people who are arriving at your retreat center are generally more practiced, more on track, more able to imbibe what you’re doing there effectively?
John Yates: Yes, very much so, very much so. You know as I mentioned a lot of people come who have been practicing and some other tradition for a while, what happens quite commonly is that because of their previous practice they will come across the mind illuminated and will be under the impression that they’re at for example stage six which they will be in terms of their practice except that there’s some of the skill sets that are developed in the earlier stages that they haven’t yet had a chance to develop. And so often the form their retreat takes is it takes them about a week or so or sometimes they come and they say, I’ve been stuck for a while and I want to get them, but sometimes after a week or so they’ll realize that there’s something that isn’t working quite the way that it should and so what we’ll do is we’ll actually look into how well they’ve developed the skill sets from the earlier stages and discovered that they have some work to do but which they can do very quickly because of their past experience generally. There are exceptions to that. There are people whose meditation has led them to sitting in dullness and it’s very hard to train yourself out of dullness if you’ve been doing it for years intentionally but that just takes a little longer that’s all.
Michael Taft: And what would you say is a standard way to work yourself out of sitting in dullness?
John Yates: Basically just to learn to recognize it and that is the key is learning to recognize when dullness is present and when it’s increasing then all you need to do is wake yourself up fully and depending on how strong the dullness is you might have to meditate standing up for a while to do that, if it’s not so strong you can just take some deep breaths or clench and release your muscles a few times. These are all techniques that are described in the book and the objective is to bring yourself to a state of wakefulness where dullness won’t set in again for at least three to five minutes and there’s a physiological basis for that. So if you start slipping into dullness again more quickly than that, it means that you didn’t fully rouse yourself and you need to apply a stronger antidote to the dullness next time. We call that sinking when somebody there in dullness, they maybe take a few deep breaths and then as soon as they started meditating again the dullness comes back and so if there’s sinking taking place if you don’t have that minimum of three to five minutes of clarity before the dullness returns, you haven’t fully roused yourself. So what this is doing is it’s training the mind not to go into dullness and that’s why complete arousal from the dullness is important in this.
Michael Taft: Do you find people are resistant to that like they enjoy the dullness or they take it as a sign that they’re in deep meditation?
John Yates: I find that people have felt that way but as soon as they know what dullness is and they realize that it’s an obstacle to further progress then no, they’re really happy to give up that pleasantness actually being fully alert and aware is far more satisfying than whatever pleasure is associated with dullness.
Michael Taft: That’s right. You know one of the things that’s been changing socially even in the past few years since your book came out but especially let’s say over the past decade, you mentioned Daniel Ingram and he’s famous or infamous depending on your viewpoint in the meditation world for being pretty open about his meditation attainments and now that’s becoming more and more standard or it’s not so shocking to people that we have deep meditators running around saying, you know that they’re at this or that level of their meditation attainment, I’m just curious are you finding lots of people showing up saying that they’re, I don’t know, at some particular level of attainment and it being true or not true or what do you see?
John Yates: Well yes. I certainly am seeing so much of that. I’m glad that Daniel is outspoken. I tend to be outspoken.
Michael Taft: For the record, of course I’m a big fan of Daniel so me too.
John Yates: Yeah right. So I think it’s really important. I think that one of the reasons that the practice of the Dharma has degenerated so much in the last 2,500 years is because of this inappropriate lack of open communication and discussion, it has a positive side because you don’t create expectations and it doesn’t lead to a lot of scripting and that is one of my criticisms of the approach that Daniel takes is that he essentially scripts a lot of people to believe they’re having experiences that they’re not but there’s a tendency for people to do this anyway. But I think it’s far more important if we get enough people talking about this out in the open and we clearly identify what it means to experience insight and how it changes you and what it means to achieve stream entry or our hardship or anything in between, the more people talk about it, the more clear it will become and the more people will realize that the fruits that are being talked about in the Dharma are not those kinds of experiences that the mind can generate as a result of scripting. I guess put it this way. Daniel’s openness has created a problem of a lot of people thinking they’re achieving things that they aren’t, but more openness by more of us will lead to just the opposite situation because it’s the emphasis on experiences and there’s a lot of different ways that you can have certain experiences but that’s not what it’s about, it’s a difference between states and traits. You can induce temporary states but what we’re talking about with insight and awakening are what become deeply ingrained traits and once that distinction becomes clear you can generate States as a result of scripting, you can’t script yourself into permanent traits.
Michael Taft: And if you could then it would be worth do it, right?
John Yates: Absolutely. Well, you know to a certain degree that is part of proper practice of the Eightfold Path, right thought intention, right speech, right action, right Livelihood are in a sense behaving as though you are already wiser than you really are at that time. I sort of faked it till you make it thing but it’s a very different thing than what I’m talking about. By behaving as though you weren’t clinging to self and by behaving as though your actions were ruled by craving, you actually weaken the hold of craving and itself clinging. So in that sense, behaving as though you were more awakened and had more insight than you do, here is a positive thing and it is a part of the method Buddha taught but there’s a distinction between that and what I was describing before.
Michael Taft: Yeah that makes sense. In one way pretending that you’re doing it is doing it enough that it’s beginning to retrain your brain networks to be a little more that way, right? So it’s kind of helping you to kind of ease your way in that direction little by little.
John Yates: Exactly, yes. Every time you act out craving and selfishness you’re just reinforcing those patterns that are already there. Every time you have the craving and self-centered desire to do or say something or even think and entertain a particular emotional state, every time you deny that then you’re weakening those neural pathways that have been developed over all these years and reinforced by our culture.
Michael Taft: Yeah. Okay, so here you’re noticing more people claiming this or that do you think that’s actually happening even if as we all agree some people are mistaking certain experiences for a more permanent kind of awakening or a more deeply life-changing kind of awakening, do you see that there actually are more people say we’ll put a bar on it more people achieving stream entry than before?
John Yates: Oh there are most definitely a lot more people achieving stream entry than before. I’ve been practicing and associating with other practitioners since about I guess 1972 and within the community of serious Buddhist practitioners, the number of people are achieving stream entry and second path has increased quite a bit and I’d say just the last five years, four or five years.
Michael Taft: That’s so fascinating. Now to what do you attribute that increase?
John Yates: Well with our Western rational scientific background more and more people are approaching meditation would say more critically and are more interested in what works and something’s not working for them, they will look for something else. So I think that’s been part of it. I mean I’m not trying to blow my own horn here but I went through that whole process for decades and then put that down in my book and so I think my teaching and the mind eliminated has contributed to that. Now I recognize fully that the population that I’m observing in this way are people that have been working with me or practicing using my method and I’m seeing a lot of people, they’re achieving stream entry or second paths, some achieving third path and even fourth path but I have the sense of the people that are coming to me that there’s a similar increase taking place elsewhere. As I said, I think there is a tendency for Westerners who are really serious about the awakening project and they’ve undertaken it to approach it more or less the way that I did and to basically look for what works and try to understand what’s really happening and are less likely to be trapped by these fantastic experiences or the deep pleasure of sitting in dullness and things like that. So I think that maybe what I did was to articulate for the benefit of everyone else, a process that’s been happening in fairly recent times, as the mystique in the glow of all these wonderful Eastern teachers these Lamas and these saya Dodds and things like that as the global and fascination wears off, people are looking more and more at, well does this make sense or not, is this working or not, should I have these fantastic experiences and I feel really good about it, but after a few days there’s nothing like that, it’s gone, so obviously that’s not what we’re looking for. I think maybe I’m kind of a forerunner but I’m certainly not the only one and that’s what has always been with everything, like any new discovery tends to be made by a lot of people at the same time. So that’s my interpretation.
Michael Taft: There’s the historical precedence where each culture sort of needs to learn about meditation and learn about Buddhism from another culture and then slowly begin to make it their own or make their own version of it where the teachings get reinterpreted from within their own culture and so that’s happened over and over again, it all throughout South Asia and East Asia throughout the millennia and it seems like we’re going through something similar here and it’s interesting because one of the big things were bringing to the table usually for the better is just that whole Western kind of practical scientific viewpoint. Is this working or not and what works those kind of questions?
John Yates: You know there is a problem with this. This is really great but it is not at all clear from the traditional teachings and from the commentaries and exactly what it is that is being talked about and so it’s a wonderful time we lived in because 150 years ago most people never got more than 50 miles away from where they were born. Right now with the internet and everything else we have access to all of these traditions, Buddhist and otherwise and we have of the Western scientific paradigm, Western way of thinking, we have all kinds of resources and so that’s the positive side of it. The negative side about what were we talking about earlier, I’m agreeing that there are more people who are stream entrants than there used to be but the downside of it is that there are far more people who think they are stream entrants or think they have had some insight or think they are practicing Jona who acts we aren’t and that’s because the source material that people are drawing upon is hugely subject to interpretation and to misinterpretation. And I’d say the biggest problem that has happened is that as I mentioned earlier, the confusion of states with traits, the Association of particular experiences with particular attainments. Oh you had this experience therefore you must be blah, blah, blah, oh you had that experience you must be a stream entering, so that’s the other side of the problem. What I have found in all my years of working with this is really decoding what are these insights and what is actually happening and the best description I’ve ever come across the stages of awakening is the four path model based on the ten fetters which is presented by the Buddha.
Now it’s not obvious what those descriptions mean but when they are experientially verified and there’s a distinction made between experiences and permanent transformations then they begin to make total sense.
Michael Taft: So I believe that we dug into the details of this last time we talked but just for the listeners, can we work with that first path, the stream entry, description and just talk about what that looks like when it’s an actual permanent trait change versus some kind of super cool experience?
John Yates: Yes and I just like to preface this by saying that many people become stream entrance without ever having any kind of SuperDuper experience or even being able to point to exactly when it happened. So it’s not about the experience at all, it’s about the changes in the traits, the permanent changes and perception that the person has. So stream entry the way the Buddha defined it was overcoming personality view is basically realizing Anata and the way this manifests is that it’s essentially the ego self that has become quite transparent but as a part of that the person has also realized that they are not really separate from everything else. They have had insight into impermanence that everything is processed. They realize that they themselves are a process and they had insight into the suffering that comes from clinging to things as though they were substantial.
And this is something that to a greater or lesser degree continuously permeates the way they experience the world. So even though they still feel like there is separate self, they know that they really aren’t at some level. Of course this will cause some people who are stream entrants to really struggle with this because what accounts for this feeling that I’m a separate self and especially if they have subscribed to the supernatural aspects of the Buddha Dharma that is being taught by various Buddhist traditions then they’re looking for whatever it is that’s going to be reincarnated, it’s interesting. But the important point about it is that they see their ego as something manufactured by their mind. They realize that they have multiple personalities that they put on and take off like clothes in the closet, they realize and are more or less continuously aware to a greater or lesser degree of the truths that they’ve seen and the insights that have been achieved. The second thing that the Buddha defined extreme entry by was there’s no longer a belief in rites and rituals and rule and things like that as having any power of their own.
Now what this translates to is basically the Buddha says, everything without exception except for Nirvana is due to causes and conditions that there is no such thing as magic, you just don’t know the causes and conditions. So this is an important realization of a stream enter that becomes a part of the way they see and understand the world is that everything is due to causes and conditions and actually all of these things are tied together. The recognition that everything is processed is very much related to the fact that everything is causally interconnected and that in turn is very much related to the insight into the fact that what I think of as myself is also processed and is also the result of causes and conditions and so in that sense they’ve realized the emptiness of the self.
And the third characteristic is that there’s no longer any doubt about the validity of this Dharma. Now other kinds of doubt may arise for a person but they have directly experienced a personal internal transformation that causes them to see everything differently than they did before and they’re quite aware of that difference so there’s no room for doubt. So these were the criteria that the Buddha laid out and experientially I know exactly what that means and what I do now somebody comes along and they’ve been practicing in some other tradition and the first meditation interview with me, they announced, well I’m in first path or the second path, I asked them a few questions. I encouraged them to talk in a way that whether I can see whether their perception of the world has undergone the particular shift that the Buddha described in terms of those fedders having fallen away and if they claim to be a second path, I talk about craving and their experience of it and so forth and I can tell whether or not they’re at second path and frankly quite often, they’re not. They’ve had some kind of experience or series of experiences and have decided based on what they’ve heard, read, based on what they want to believe that they’re at first a second path.
Michael Taft: And what sorts of questions would you ask someone to kind of suss out their level of let’s say first path whether that’s real or not?
John Yates: Well it’s a bit different in every situation because I want to get them started describing what their ordinary experience is without triggering them saying what they feel like they’re supposed to be saying. And so I’ll usually let them start the conversation about what it’s like being a stream entrant and then I’ll ask questions. For example, a particularly kind of question that I almost always get into fairly quickly is, how they feel about their relationship to other people and how they feel about their relationship to things that happen to them in their life, you know since your stream entry have you had any problems, have you lost a job or had a partner leave you or anything like that greater or lesser things like that? And I’ll just let the conversation unfold and how they are perceiving reality becomes quite evident by the things that they say you know in a way that isn’t contrived.
Michael Taft: Yeah. So interesting now some of these ideas seem like they could be helpful even if you only understood them on a conceptual level so you’re not a stream enterer, maybe you’re even a beginning meditator and so you have not had that experience but let’s say you’ve simply got a good grasp of them conceptually. Is that something that you feel could still be helpful in a person’s life it seems like it really could?
John Yates: Oh yes. I believe that that would be enormously helpful, like we have a culturally established worldview that is probably about 70,000 years old I’m not an expert on the history of our species but I believe about 70,000 years ago there was a change that took place that we have a culture that sees the world in a certain way and it’s worked extremely well for us and there’s certain parts of our brain, certain parts of our mind that are responsible for that and which is why in evolutionary terms were in enormously successful species except that we’re a totally unsuccessful species on the verge of creating our own extinction. Anyway, it causes us to see the world in a way that is functionally useful but not as real as it could be and the insights that we talk about, these are a more accurate description of the reality we live in.
So those insights of course, there’s the three characteristics which most people are familiar with them they think of as the quote insights. But if we look at what the Buddha taught and what he said about [inaudible] dependent arising. Now what I’m referring to here is dependent arising in terms of the causal interconnectedness of everything. There are the links of dependent arising which is an application of that to the processes that go on in the human mind but the basic doctrine that he taught of the interconnected causality of everything when Ananda said to him, Patito Simon Baba Lord that what a wonderful teaching and so clear and so easy to understand and the Buddha responded it says, Noah, now it’s not easy to understand to understand [inaudible] is to understand the Dharma to understand the dark is to understand that each assignment product. So although we don’t usually recognize it as one of the insights, it is an extremely important insight in addition to the three characteristics and then there’s a better one that is equally important and it was recognized in early Buddhism and early Buddhist teachings and there’s been at least a couple of scholars who have an ally oh I think is one of them and there’s a Japanese person, that’s an excellent work to show the emptiness. The idea of emptiness was part of early Buddhism and this would be the fifth of the insights that collectively they represent a much more accurate view of the world.
So we see the world, we see ourselves as being a separate entity. We think that there’s only one of me. Okay? And we think that is more or less permanent. I’ve been in the same self ever since I was born and I’ll continue to be say the same self until I die and if you have ideas about the afterlife that you know I’ll be the same self that goes to heaven or I’ll be the same self, that’s reincarnated and everything else. So we have this view of being a separate abiding self. We have a view that the whole world is made up of other separate abiding selves, people, animals, rocks, trees, everything, there are all these things and so we see the world made up of these discrete objects.
We see the source of our suffering and the source of our happiness as being dependent upon our interactions with these other things. So there’s the self and there’s the other and there’s interactions and to make myself happy, first of all I have to figure out and understand how things work and then once, I do I’ll know how to manipulate things to get what I want.
This is the worldview that we all share. We believe that our understanding of the world is a reasonable representation of reality. So you see now what I’ve covered here are the opposites of those five insights. They’re the opposite of interconnectedness, we see ourselves as separate. They’re the opposite of impermanence in that we see things as arising, existing for a while and then passing away and the insight into impermanence is the recognition that there are no things that arise and pass away that arise and a bite for a while and pass away that there is only change everything has changed. So there’s the separateness which is countered by the realization of petit Astana Prada, there is the sense of things having some relative degree of permanence which is replaced by the realization that there is only change, there’s only process. We have the realization that things don’t have a nature of their own of being the way we perceive them. We recognize, this as emptiness. Emptiness is not ontological, it’s epistemological.
What is empty of being what it appears to be are the concepts and ideas that appear in our mind, you know the person, the lamp, the table, the dog, the bird, all these things they are fabrications of our mind admittedly they’re derived from some reality external to our mind but what they are is a fabrication that is based more on our past experience and our beliefs and things like that then it is on the reality of whatever it is that’s out there which we really can’t know, all we can know is information coming from our sense organs. And so this idea that we culturally believe we have a reasonable representation of reality in our mind which gives us the power to learn to manipulate it to achieve our own hands is completely an illusion because the world that each of us lives in is one that we’ve created and as I say it has more to do with our past experience and conditioning and our physiological limitations than it does with the reality that exists outside of ourselves.
So that’s where the emptiness kind of suffering. The idea that I’m gonna make myself happy through certain kinds of interactions with this separate world that I perceive based on how well I can figure it out and learn to manipulate the situations and that the unhappiness that happens to me comes from something outside of myself. So if I can avoid it or even better destroy it then I’ll save myself suffering in the future. So the realization of the truth of suffering, well it’s stated by the Buddha in terms of the first two Noble Truths, it’s the realization that pain is one thing but suffering is generated by the mind, suffering is something that happens in reaction to the things that happen to us and that it’s a resistance to what is that’s the craving, it’s the craving for things to be different than they are, the craving to have things or to hold onto things, the craving to avoid certain things that this is what gives rise to our suffering but pain is something that we would have anyway. The Buddha distinguishes between the phaeton of unpleasantness that’s due to the body that’s bodily in origin and the Veda of unpleasantness that is due to the mind and that’s the suffering.
The insight into suffering is that as long as we’re living in a world of delusion in terms of our cultural beliefs what is counteracted by the insights to the degree that we are in delusion and we’re clinging to those false beliefs, we are condemning ourselves to an ongoing process of suffering. We’re in this casino where we really can’t win but we always playing the game where we think, well if I try hard enough and if I’m good enough at the game, I can have more happiness than suffering. So really what we have is two different worldviews and there is nothing about these five insights that can’t be completely understood rationally, intellectually and when examined with any degree of care at all is discovered to be true. So just for people to know that even if at the intuitive level, they still feel like the stuff itself believe there is separate itself, even though that they believe there’s a world of objects out there that they can manipulate for this they have their own happiness etc. if intellectually they know better, then this makes them far more open to different ways of thinking and behaving.
So it is a value even if somebody doesn’t experience insight, the content of the insights and the delusional nature of what the insight is counteracting is quite understandable and in itself can and will change the way a person behaves.
Now imagine that we lived in a community, a society, where even though people still felt like separate selves and it seemed like the world consisted of separate objects that were manipulable but the cultural norm was the knowledge that this wasn’t true and that all things are interconnected, we have a totally different kind of society as a result of that.
Michael Taft: Currently America seems to be undergoing a very difficult time and in this country the political norms are eroding even past where they were before, there seems to be rampant lying, rampant corruption, it’s very bad and worldwide there is the collapse of the environment and the fact that climate change is beginning to go into its extreme version which seems like something that will only get worse. So how can these insights that you’re describing which are so powerful for the individual, how can they help us as a society to begin to overcome some of these very, very big challenges that we face?
John Yates: I think the key to that kind of shift happening is that there be enough people who don’t just understand these things intellectually but who have actually realized them personally and whose perception of reality corresponds to those insight. Once we reach a tipping point of people who actually have realized these insights then the kind of intellectual understanding that I’m talking about would become much more common and we would end up with the kind of culture that its foundation is that tipping point of people who have realized the insights but the cultural norm in terms of way of thinking is according to an intellectual understanding of those insights then we would be in a much better position to work cooperatively to confront the terrible challenges that are coming up, fairly soon, we don’t know how soon but one thing that’s obvious is the more we use technology to lay the inevitable the worse for the inevitable becomes, yeah, I’m hopeful because somebody’s done to work, I can’t remember who it is and I should know these things that I’m talking about them but somebody’s done some work and done a simulation and basically they found that when 10% of the population totally believes something to be true that that’s the tipping point at which it becomes the cultural norm.
Now to have 10% of the population to have realization of these insights and to be at least the first path and some of them at second, third and fourth path, that seems like a lot, that seems like you’re asking a lot but I think it’s within the realm of possibility if we survive long enough. I think that the method for achieving insight and awakening are improving enormously for the reasons that we discussed previously but then there’s also people working with various other technologies, various other ways of inducing altered states of consciousness that are more conducive to seeing things the way they really are and by the way that’s the way the Buddha always described it, he didn’t talk that much about enlightenment, he talked about awakening but more often than that what he said is, the phrase that he used was, seeing things as they really are and that’s what we’re talking about.
So I think a tipping point of 10 percent of the population that sees things as they really are and a cultural norm which involves an understanding just not that many intellectuals around but if people who accept the content of the insights as being true in the same way they have doctrines and political doctrines and things like that then we’ll be in a position to deal with the problem so we have. How important this is? There are different estimates but the thing that people have looked at this closely all agree on is that the carrying capacity of the planet Earth for human beings has been exceeded by several fold. That means that there is going to be one way or another a massive reduction in population. This could happen as described in Bible you know the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, war, famine and pestilence and all these sorts of things, all of which are things that global warming and overpopulation are conducive to any way but in a society where there were enough awakened people that the cultural norm was to see things more as they really are we would be much, much better prepared to deal with this enormously terrible thing that is going to happen in the most humane and compassionate way possible.
Right now the belief is that everyone is selfish and that nobody does anything except for ultimately selfish reasons and that altruism and even the Dalai Lama speaks of enlightened self-interest. I’d say the common belief is that nobody does anything for the benefit of others except out of enlightened self-interest and if that’s the truth then as we approach this apocalyptic scenario, everybody is going to be looking out for themselves, their family group, their ethnic group and we know what that leads to, it leads to war and bloodshed. People are going to be fighting over water, energy, resources, food, you know as climate change things don’t grow in the same place, tests that didn’t exist in certain areas show up, all these sorts of things. I would like to believe that that tipping point is achievable and that the work that many of us are doing right now is going to lead to that tipping point. So that’s the optimistic side of me. The skeptical side of me says, now is probably not going to be enough time.
Michael Taft: Well to emphasize the optimistic side a little bit, I’m curious, do you have any suggestions for people who want to take their meditation practice a little more seriously and begin to bring it into their daily life a little more completely, I’m thinking along the lines of what our friend Shinzen Young would call micro hits where people are doing mini meditations all day long in their work at home life to help them begin to embody these insights more completely, I’m curious if you have some suggestions for those types of practice in life type things?
John Yates: Yes, the way I would put it is that they learned to become more mindful in their life and for me when I say that what I mean by being mindful is having a very high level of awareness, awareness of what’s going on around them in the context of their actions and a very powerful introspective awareness that allows them to see and understand what their own motivations are and whether or not their actions are actually conducive to their goals and the kind of person that they want to be.
So in meditation, if you develop what I referred to as peripheral awareness, if you develop that part of your mind, when I said something happened 70,000 years ago, what I specifically mean is that there developed a cultural shift which favored what are often thought of as left brain functions which are related to attention which breaks the world down into separate things, you see if there’s one of the delusions that insight overcomes but that part of their brain that processes information by focusing on individual parts and ignoring the whole and the relationships have things to everything else and recognizing things in a more holistic way, that has come to dominate, that has made us extremely effective and powerful in the world because by breaking things down in a way that we can understand them and manipulate them, we’ve created cars and airplanes and cell phones and hydrogen bombs and all kinds of other things, but there’s another whole part of our brain, mind or nature that is usually described as sort of right-brainish which sees things holistically and in terms of their relatedness and what happened is you’ve got to keep in mind that the human brain is only about half formed when a person is born and the first few years, at least the first five years of a person’s life the way the wiring of the brain takes place is as a result of the conditioning from outside and so the caretakers for an infant right through to the caretakers in preschool and kindergarten things like that, every contact that an infant has while their brain is completing its development is reflecting the set of cultural beliefs that are the delusions that we refer to in Buddhism and so our brain becomes wired to see things from the perspective of those delusions and to be dominated by the Faculty of attention.
This other faculty, there’s actually more inhibitory fibers going from the left of the brain to the right side of the brain then vice versa as a matter of fact a large proportion of the fibers. So what we learn in the first few years of our life is to suppress the part of the brain that sees things from that right brain holistic hallo centric rather than egocentric point of view. So this is what we’re changing through our practice. We’re rewiring our brains. And what we’re redoing is we’re developing awareness even if you look at something like maja see noting style practice, what is the person doing? They’re placing their attention on the rise and fall of the abdomen but every time something in their peripheral awareness appears strongly enough to draw attention, they label it, as they get better at stabilizing their attention on the abdomen then their peripheral awareness is alerting down pence a will intentionally shift attention to something and note it until it goes away. Then they proceed to the point where they’ve developed peripheral awareness to the degree that they are no longer labeling, they’re no longer noting, they’re now noticing, they’re just noticing these things as they happen and attention isn’t shifting.
Well, what I’m teaching is the same thing but whereas in that method there’s no explanation of what you’re doing. I explain what you’re doing is you are learning to use this other faculty, this faculty of peripheral awareness you’re learning to use it introspectively and extraspectively and this I believe is what the Buddha meant by sati. He recognized we had these two ways of knowing, Samadhi refers to attention and sati refers to awareness especially introspective awareness. But this hasn’t been understood clearly subsequently. I mean people experientially have realized it but without being able to articulate it in other words the left brain hasn’t been able to fit awareness into the context of the creation of a world of discrete parts. So a person comes to experience mindfulness without being able to identify exactly what it is, that’s why we have all these different definitions and nobody can agree. But what it is is fundamentally having this very powerful awareness.
So an answer to your question what you’re learning to do in meditation is what you want to carry out as well in your daily life. You want to gain some control over the movements of your attention, otherwise you can’t have awareness. Attention needs stability, it needs to be stable in order for strong awareness to develop, but it’s that development of awareness which we call mindfulness. To have that mindfulness in daily life it becomes like doing your practice 24 hours a day. Well, initially not during the time you’re sleeping but eventually it comes to the place where it’s even happening when you’re asleep.
Michael Taft: And so in a specific and practical way this is for example, if you’re washing dishes, you’re paying attention to washing dishes, you’re not lost in thought about something else. If you’re driving, you’re paying attention to driving and not doing the kind of totally unconscious driving that most people are used to, is this the kind of mindfulness you’re referring to?
John Yates: Exactly, exactly. And if you’re thinking about something you think about that thing and you maintain awareness while you think about it. So you notice how your thought development and the emotions associated with certain pathways that your thought process goes down, you actually become much better at problem solving because you’re allowing these other parts of your mind to actually contribute to the problem-solving process.
Michael Taft: Yeah, it’s an interesting point because in the cultural misapprehension of meditation, there’s this idea that it can never involve thinking or somehow thinking is a big mistake whereas actually you can be incredibly mindful of thinking. It’s a little tricky but it’s not somehow not part of the definition.
John Yates: Well you have to learn certain skills. You have to learn skill and stabilizing attention and you have to learn the skill of maintaining a very powerful state of awareness particularly introspective awareness of what’s going on your mind and especially that form of introspective which is what I refer to as metacognitive, your awareness is just watching the processes of your mind.
So once you’ve developed that skillset then what I’m describing becomes extremely simple. You can be thinking about something, you can be writing, you could be having a conversation with somebody, you can be filling out your income tax return and still maintain a very high level of awareness about mindfulness.
Michael Taft: Yeah. So in terms of feeding the optimistic side of imagining the future a little more, I’m curious about what you think of some of the methods people are developing for potentially speeding up some of these insights, you know living here in the Bay Area, I’m around two major groups of people who are trying to speed up the insight in one way or another and those groups are the consciousness hackers as we would call them the people who are trying to develop various forms of either neuro feedback or even inducement of neural states through devices, through technology like transcranial magnetic stimulation and so on to help people realize some of these insights directly either more quickly or more deeply and the other big major group that seems to be suddenly on the rise is the psychedelic research that’s suddenly becoming so popular again. So I’m curious if you want to dig into either or both of those and what do you think about their potential for actually catalyzing some of these insights more quickly?
John Yates: The things that they’re doing so far are creating particular States and there is a value in inducing a state where somebody temporarily sees something from the point of view of an insight, one of the insights that I discussed, because it lends itself to making the person’s mind more open to recognizing at a deep intuitive level that this is the way things really are. So that’s the value that it has. It creates temporary states which we could describe as insight experiences.
As a matter of fact myself and a lot of the other more well-known meditation teachers actually had their start with psychedelics which opened their mind to the fact that there were completely different ways of seeing things but you couldn’t consistently replicate those with psychedelic substances and they didn’t last and that’s what turned their interest to Eastern philosophies and meditation and I include myself in that group.
So let me put these in more general terms. I distinguish between insight experiences and insight. Now an insight experience is an experience in which you see things from this different perspective that corresponds to one or more insights. Everybody has those, everybody has insight experiences. But what they do is they ignore them, they brush them off, they don’t fit with the cultural worldview that they are so deeply immersed in, but they accumulate there in the mind. All of these experiences that all of us have had realizing in some former and other the causal interconnectedness of things, all people whether they practice or not have experiences of selflessness and they don’t even notice them because they’re used to interpreting their experience in terms of self so they discount experiences of selflessness that arise, everybody has experiences that correspond to all the insights.
So what are we doing in meditation is we are developing the skills to be able to recognize those insight experiences as meaningful in a way that will cause a deep intuitive shift to take place in the mind and the way that we understand and interpret the world, our fundamental underlying worldview we have the skills to recognize them rather than the mind automatically just compartmentalizes them.
Once again, let’s look at a very, very simple method for inducing an insight experience which is the [inaudible] method. So you reach the stage of the arising and passing away at home, oh my goodness isn’t this fun and then the mind shifts to the focus on the dissolution of everything’s and at first that’s really neat too, this is different you know, but then an unconscious level a feeling of uneasiness dissatisfaction it leads into the dukkha nanas, but let’s ask ourselves, why on earth would it be that just focusing the mind on the fact that everything passes away, why would that cause a person to recognize that there was nothing but change? Well, it’s because we already have had tens of thousands of experiences in the course of our life that have pointed to the same thing than we’ve disregarded it. The same is true with all of the other insights. I mean you’ve heard people say we’re already awakened, we just don’t know it, and that’s exactly how I interpret that. We’ve all had these what were potential insight experiences but they didn’t become insight experiences because we didn’t recognize them for what they were at a time and what will happen in meditation is you will have insight experiences that don’t lead to insight with electromagnetic simulation or all of these other technologies neural feedback various psychedelics, we will have insight experiences that stand out and we recognize and they don’t get just brushed aside but they don’t become insight.
What I distinguish between insight experiences and insight is an insight at the deepest intuitive level by which we interpret our ongoing experience moment to moment and day to day in terms of those insights. In other words when those insights replace the previous diluted way of seeing things then you have insight otherwise you just have insight experiences and this goes back to the problem that we were talking about before is that people are having insight experiences in meditation and then they believe they have achieved that particular insight because they had an insight experience, they recognize that as such, but until it’s penetrated so deeply into their mind that it changes their ordinary daily perception, they have an achieved insight.
Michael Taft: And do you feel that this is a gradiated experience, is it a gradient where you can be sort of like a 50 percent stream enter and then a 70 percent stream enter or is it precipitous and digital?
John Yates: Stream entry itself is by definition the way the Buddha defined it and the way it’s defined in the early commentaries is it is a yes or no experience. You can’t have 50 percent a stream country. What you can have is some in completely developed insights which allow you to have experiences that mimic stream entry and that tend to be states that arise and pass away.
Now when it comes to insight itself I mean it really is accumulative. I mean you’re accumulating all these insight experiences all your life except that you don’t recognize them as such then you have an insight experience, it doesn’t necessarily change the way you see the world but it allows you to see things from that perspective more easily and more often and the more you do this and more you see things from that perspective then it’s going to lead to being a true insight to transforming the way your mind processes experience. So that is something that can happen in a graded way. It can happen in a more precipitous way but usually what that is, is that’s the culmination of a series of cumulative insight.
Now the way stream entry is defined is you have to have all of these insights present at the same time and when you have all of these insights present in your mind at the same time in an adequate state of equanimity then there is coming together, there is a culmination and that culminating insight is on a tie. So you’ll have all these other insights developing and then the part of your mind that is most resistant to changing the way you perceive yourself in the world is perceiving yourself as separate and permanent and abiding separateness, that’s the hardest thing to overcome and so all of these other insights, well as a matter of fact all of the insights are pointing to exactly the same thing, they’re just different aspects of the same thing.
But the other four insights that I mentioned causal interconnectedness, impermanence, emptiness and suffering all of these other insights are pointing to the emptiness of self to anatta and what strain entry is, is when the accumulation of insight experiences to do with no self, the other four insights are fully developed that precipitates that fundamental breakthrough that is stream entry and those perceptions then you no longer have any obstacle to those perceptions becoming your new norm. Now the path of stream entry is a path. So it’s a yes or no thing. You have all five of these insights now and they’re all affecting the way you perceive reality but there’s still a process of maturation that has to take place, you still have this inherent sense of being a separate self, you still have all these habitual ways of seeing things and responding to things reacting to things.
The first path, the path of stream entry is the process of those insights maturing to the point that you recognize at a much deeper level how there is still an attachment to self even though you know that you aren’t the separate self anymore, there’s still attachment to self and there’s still craving and really what leads to second path you might describe it as a more profound insight into suffering and no self than what you had that led to stream entry and so then there’s a second path and a third path. So it is graduated in that sense and it is even the case that somebody who is second path will sometimes revert to first path perspective as part of the process. When you get the third path, you can also fall back or temporarily jump forward into fourth path.
Stream entry is the most clear-cut yes or no boundary in the entire process. So insight is a cumulative process and each of the paths are cumulative and even the relationship between first and second path, second and third path, third and fourth path, this is also not only cumulative but there’s some back and forth movement that happens.
Michael Taft: You know Culadasa before this interview, I made a post on Reddit, I tend to use social media and I made a post on Reddit telling people that I was going to be interviewing you and asking for the community of practitioners who are very interested in your book and in your work to post any questions that they wanted me to potentially ask you and one question was voted up by far the most and that question was essentially asking about the purity, shall we say of your secular worldview, most people think of you as a purely secular materialist and yet this person had read that you said, “people can definitely tap into the minds and memories of other people both living and dead” and so this particular questioner was shall we say confused by that statement and I’m curious then for listeners, how would you respond to that? Is that part of your secular worldview or are they misunderstanding you?
John Yates: Well, let me just explain first of all I would not consider myself as a secular Buddhist or as a materialist. Now, first of all I’m not a secular Buddhist in the sense that I disagree with much that falls under the label of secular Buddhism. Same thing, I wouldn’t call myself a pragmatic Buddhist because there’s a lot of things that are under that umbrella and a lot of developments taking place under that label that I don’t agree with.
The best way I would describe it is, I don’t teach Buddhism, I teach the Buddha Dharma. I have studied the suttas and I believe like when I read a [inaudible] the things that the Buddha really said stand out and so what I teach is Buddha Dharma, I teach what I believe the Buddha taught that I would best be described as perhaps a naturalist Buddha in that what I do is I take Buddhism and I remove all of the supernatural and just set it aside and say, okay, most of this stuff has come from other religious beliefs both before and after the Buddha and don’t really have anything to do with the Buddha Dharma, so I teach a naturalised Buddhism which I call the Buddha Dharma the two teaching of the Buddha is a naturalised Buddhism.
So as far as materialism goes, I’m a non-dualist and I’m a non-duelist based on my own experience and I clearly understand non-dualism. Well, first of all the dichotomy of mind and matter is one that has been ripped to shreds for centuries by philosophers of all kinds. It doesn’t make sense the, mind matter dualism.
So there are two ways that people have tried to resolve this problem. Materialism is one. That’s saying all there is, is the stuff we perceive as matter and that mind is something that arises out of it. And the other is to say that all there is, is mind and matter is something that the mind creates to explain its own experience to itself, idealism. So there is materialistic monism and there is idealistic monism and I am neither of those. I am a non-dualist.
The fourth possibility is that there is neither matter nor mind but rather that there is something that appears to be matter when we look at it from one perspective might call the outside, when anything you look at from the outside appears is matter, anything that you look at from the inside in other words experience subjectively you experience as mind but it’s the same stuff and there is no matter and there is no mind, there is suchness and suchness lifts one way looking out and another way looking in and so I’m not a materialist.
Also from my own experience I realize that there is an interconnectedness of mine, our individual minds are porous they can become open and we can derive information from the whole realm of mine.
Let me put it this way. Maybe this is a way that people could understand it. From a non-dualist point of view everything that we see as the behavior of matter, the laws of physics and the behavior of matter that we experience in our daily lives, if there is only one stop then everything that we see as an attribute of matter must have a corresponding attribute of mind because they’re really the same stuff seen from a different perspective. Now, [inaudible] everything in the material world is interconnected and interpenetrating will go beyond just the causal interconnectedness but an interpenetrating nature of [inaudible]. This was very well developed in the Hawaiian school of Chinese Buddhism but anyway, we see that everything in the world is causally interconnected things that we see as separate objects interacting with each other all of the time. That must be true of mind as well. And mostly our perceptions are limited and I think this is getting back to the same thing that started 70,000 years ago, certain parts of our mind because the way our brains are culturally wired after we’re born. The certain parts of our brain dominate and other parts of our brain are repressed or inhibited. I mean they still there that they play a role and we can rewire our brains but what this other side corresponds to is being able to see the interconnectedness from the mental perspective that we see as an interconnectedness in the material perspective and I’m sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with so-called spooky action at a distance with the fact that…
Michael Taft: Quantum entanglement.
John Yates: Quantum entanglement. So there is something corresponding to quantum entanglement that is true of individual minds. Individual Minds can be seen as being analogous to individual objects and everything from rocks interacting from each other and other material objects interacting with each other to quantum entanglement, all has its counterparts from the mental perspective and my personal experience has confirmed that.
I mean at one point I wanted to figure out what all of this reincarnation stuff was about because as a result of my realizations, I realized there was nothing there that could be reincarnated. So what is this all about? So I did those practices and I had past life experiences but over time I came to realize that these weren’t past lives of mine not like a string of beads, you know, but rather yes these were memories, this was knowledge of other people that had lived at other times. I even had experience of past lives that were contemporaneous with each other in interacting with each other and then there just grew this understanding that eventually dominated what happened every time that I would do this practice. There was the realization that this is exactly what happens watch a movie and I become really identified with the character in the movie. I’m not that character. I never was that character. I never will be that character but in the moment I identify with it as if I was and I realized all of these past lives that I had experience, my mind was responding to them in the same way it did somebody I would identify with in a movie or a story.
So it became clear to me that, yes, our minds are interconnected. So I began to look for signs of it everywhere and I see signs of it everywhere. They’re uncommon because our cultural worldview suppresses it but one of the places that they are most obvious for me is very often when I’m teaching knowledge will come through me, understanding will come through me that I didn’t know that I knew that I would actually say, I didn’t know this until I heard myself say it and I have felt for years as though when I teach, I’m opening myself up to the wisdom of those who have gone before me and that it comes through me and my teaching.
So first of all if you take the non-dual perspective that I talked about, this no longer becomes something supernatural, it just means it’s a level of understanding that we haven’t arrived at an explanatory basis for but it still cause an effect, it’s still subject to the same kind of validation that science is based on that is real.
And just because we don’t see things that way at the moment, just because we haven’t achieved a collective non-dual perspective doesn’t mean that these things are magical or impossible or anything like that. And I think any person who thinks about it carefully enough will find at least a few instances in their life where they have experienced some kind of mental connection with other people, living or dead that can’t be discounted or ignored and that would fit into this particular paradigm that I’m describing. So I’m not a materialist, I’m a non-duelist and once we investigate and understand phenomena from a non-dual perspective then the phenomenon of information exchange between what appeared to be discreetly separate minds is going to be just as secular as anything else.
Michael Taft: That’s fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer that question I know there’s a lot more there but timewise we should bring this to a close at this point. So as usual, it’s wonderful to have you on the show and thank you.
John Yates: Well thank you. I really enjoyed it and thank you very much and thank you to all your listeners as well.
Michael Taft: That’s it for this episode of deconstructing yourself. If you enjoyed the podcast please rate and review it on iTunes. You can also recommend it to a friend or blog about it on social media, doing that helps it find its way to more people who may be interested.
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