Note: you can listen to the original podcast interview here.
Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in mindfulness, meditation, awakening, Mahamudra, and much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast. And in this episode, I’m speaking with meditation teacher, neuroscientist, and author John Yates, known to the world as Culadasa.
Culadasa has been practicing meditation for over four decades and is the director of Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha where he teaches meditation and Buddhism from a modern, progressive scientific perspective. His groundbreaking book The Mind Illuminated is a modern roadmap to Buddhist meditation for a Western audience, which combines age-old wisdom teachings with the latest research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
Culadasa invited me to come down to his retreat center in the rugged mountains of southeastern Arizona to do this interview with him in person. We sat face to face in a small, sunny room, and had a conversation as the desert winds howled outside.
Now, without further ado, I give you the episode that I call “Culadasa on Meditation and Therapy.”
Michael: Culadasa, it’s so nice to speak with you again.
Culadasa: It’s wonderful to be with you again!
Michael: This is the first time we’re doing this in person, so we’ve done two interviews via the telephone, but today I have the pleasure of being down at Cochise Stronghold at the Dharma Treasure retreat center with you in person. So this is a real treat.
Culadasa: Yes, this is a real treat for me as well, and I’m so glad that you’ve had the opportunity to come and see this beautiful place we have here.
Michael: Me, too, especially the chickens. I’m really having an experience with the chickens.
Culadasa: Everyone loves the chickens, yes.
Michael: They’re quite good at meditating.
Culadasa: Yeah, I never thought of it that way, but yeah [laughs], meditative chickens.
Michael: I was sitting this morning on a zafu and zabuton looking out the screen door, and you know, there’s a little carpet on the outside patio to get the dirt off your shoes or whatever, and some chickens were pecking around out there. One of them came up and thought like, “Oh, this carpet looks kinda nice,” so she just roosted right there for the whole meditation, just sat with me. It was really fun.
Culadasa: Yeah, fun chickens, yes.
Michael: [laughs] Good, so, today we’re going to talk about a topic that’s been coming up quite a bit recently, and in the most general way the topic is the Venn diagram of what stuff meditation can handle and work on and improve and awaken and enlighten in a human being – that’s one circle of the Venn diagram – and the second circle is what Western psychotherapy can work on and improve and heal and awaken in a human being, and the overlapping part of that diagram, where they kind of both can handle certain topics very well, and then specifically, you know, I want to end up talking about the parts of the Venn diagram that maybe psychology only can handle…
Michael: You know, where meditation really can’t go there, or has a harder time going there, or maybe even just can’t even touch that material at all. Because you have been, you know, a lifelong meditator, an adept, you’ve made this your study, as well as a neuroscientist, I think it’s interesting to get your take on the places where perhaps meditation is the most powerful and fruitful, and the places where maybe Western psychology really has something to offer to the average person here in the West in a way that meditation doesn’t. And then, furthermore, I think there’s some personal experience with that of yours that I think would be interesting to get into. So with that as kind of a general introduction, I’ll just throw the ball in your court to begin with.
Culadasa: Sure, sure. Well, as you know, what we put a significant emphasis on in The Mind Illuminated is the purification of the mind of psychological and emotional trauma and internal conflicts that will tend to come up in the kind of meditation we do. Once attention stabilizes, the mind becomes relatively quiet, things do tend to come up, and we put a lot of emphasis on not ignoring those or in any way failing to take advantage of resolving those kinds of inner stuff. You know, everybody has stuff.
Michael: Baggage, inner conflicts…
Culadasa: Right, baggage, inner conflicts. Everybody has it. It’s interesting – every now and then there will be somebody who says, “I had a perfect childhood. I don’t have any stuff.” Then they find out. [Michael laughs] I’d say my observation is that in a meditation practice that allows those things to come up, where the meditator has the tools to work with them and bring them to some kind of resolution, actually the way I think of it is that they represent parts of the mind system – they sort of encapsulate a pattern of behavior that has arisen because of past circumstances or internal conflicts that is manifesting in the person’s life already and is creating problems for them. It comes to the surface, and when it comes into consciousness, then it allows for an integration with the rest of the mind system. I think of it as that particular part of the mind, that is has been conditioned to produce a kind of behavior in a particular kind of situation and then sort of shuts down again once it’s produced its reaction. As a person develops mindfulness, that whole process of stimulus, reaction, and consequences in particular becomes conscious and it allows for the rest of the mind system to see what’s going on. It allows for that part of the mind that is responsible for these behaviors to recognize the consequences and that what they produce is not really beneficial. So this leads to a kind of reprogramming of those parts of the mind.
Michael: So for example, we could say – this is totally fictional – let’s say I don’t like being told what to do, and whenever someone tells me what to do in a commanding way I have an anger response: I’ll yell at them or, you know, speak sharply or whatever. And for whatever reason this reaction is kind of hidden enough from me that I don’t notice it too much. But as I start doing mindfulness, this reactivity of this particular pattern starts to become clear.
Culadasa: Yes. That’s a very good example. So what we could assume is that the reason that you have that pattern of reactivity is that – it doesn’t need to be a single or isolated traumatic event; it could have been a pattern that extended over years of being addressed in that kind of way, was painful, was disturbing, and so there formed in relationship to that an anger. Perhaps at a certain age, that anger was able to come forward and it was successful. The scenario you raised kind of reminds me of the things that happen with people during adolescence. So they might have had a very domineering, commanding father or parent or both parents or some kind of caretaker, caregiver, and the resentment builds up, and they reach adolescence and they respond with anger. This reduces the unpleasantness that they experience, and perhaps even is successful in changing the kind of behavior that happened. So now it gets established for the rest of that person’s life. There’s this tendency when any kind of situation that has any sense of what that childhood experience was like will trigger an anger response. And that can even manifest in subtle ways, just little flashes of irritation in a conversation with somebody that triggers that.
Culadasa: The accumulation of these kind of things can be considerable. With mindfulness, you might begin to recognize them in your daily life. And through that recognition, if you hold that in mindfulness, if you recognize what’s happening, and if you recognize the consequences of that in particular, then those parts of the mind can reprogram. In meditation, as I say, when you get to the place where the mind is relatively quiet – actually very quiet compared to the typical, normal state of most people, where their attention is continuously moving and when it’s not engaged in something in particular there’s all this inner chatter that fills the mind; there’s not much room for things to come up. When attention becomes stable in meditation, then there is an opportunity for things like that to surface. So they might initially show up as an emotion or as a memory or as some kind of imagery that might not even have anything to do with that person’s own experience. They have the opportunity then to work with that and bring about that kind of integration that I talked about. I think this is very important. One of the things that has caught the attention of a lot of meditators and meditation teachers recently is what Willoughby Britton refers to as ‘adverse effects of meditation’ and Daniel Ingram refers to as ‘the dark night’ and things like that. People can have some pretty severe psychological distress – not only severe, but quite prolonged – when they begin to experience insight.
Michael: So the meditative insight actually starts to, you know, penetrate some of these areas of the unconscious or some of these behavior patterns in a way that’s very disturbing or very uncomfortable.
Culadasa: It’s the nature of these kinds of insights that they are basically saying, “Reality is not the way that you thought it was.” And of course this is going to be disturbing to the mind [laughs], in many ways. And that can serve as a trigger for bringing a lot of this stuff up at once. Like I say, everybody has a lot of this stuff. I think there’s a tremendous value in a meditation that makes it possible and actually encourages and gives a person tools to work with these things because then this is much less likely to happen. With the birth of insight and the transition to awakening, there might be some transient experiences of uncomfortable emotions and things like this, but there’s not this explosion of all kinds of buried psychological stuff that just tends to come up. But in terms of what you mentioned, first of all, when this stuff starts to come up, sometimes it’s more than meditation is sufficient to handle. And those are the kind of situations where I would, and I think most conscientious meditation teachers would – especially now that a lot of these things are being brought to light – that the meditator would be recommended to seek some kind of therapeutic assistance. And that’s really important, not just in terms of the fact that they’re having a difficult time in their meditation there, but that something that is of that magnitude, that’s the kind of stuff you really want to have resolved long before you start getting into insight territory. So, yeah, we can see in those situations that, whereas meditation seems to work pretty well with what we might call ordinary degrees of neurosis, that it’s not unusual for somebody to have had something that kind of goes beyond that, and once it starts to come up they’re going to need more than what meditation alone can offer – although the meditation that they’re doing can facilitate the therapeutic process so much so that more and more therapists are starting to use meditation or meditation techniques as a part of their therapy. So the two are really quite complementary.
Michael: Would you think that more samatha-style meditation is helpful with this material, or more insight/vipassana-type meditation, or do you think those two distinctions are not important here?
Culadasa: No, I think those two distinctions are actually quite important. Samatha means serenity; we translate the Tibetan shinay as calm-abiding. Samatha is what provides the opportunity for these things to emerge. And they emerge in the background of our conscious experience, they emerge in awareness. That’s why it requires the stability of attention so that attention isn’t usurping all the conscious power of the person so that these things can’t be seen and can’t be dealt with. Most vipassana practices are so heavily attention-oriented, although there is an implicit development of awareness in them, the interaction of attention and things that arise in awareness is to direct the attention at something that is arising strongly in awareness and note it largely with the objective of having it go away. [laughs] Right?
Michael: Yeah, mmm-hmm.
Culadasa: Rather than engaging it, allowing it to expand and reveal itself. Samatha is just the opposite in that there’s the relative quietness of mind that allows this to come up in Stage Four, where attention has become stable, where this is really likely to come up in the method described in The Mind Illuminated.
Michael: So you mean Stage Four of your system.
Culadasa: Yeah, Stage Four of that system. Then the next place is Stage Seven. Now, at Stage Seven, you have exclusive attention. At Stage Four, your attention was still alternating with things in the background. So while compared to the ordinary non-meditator experience or the experience of a meditator who hasn’t reached that degree of stability of attention, it is tremendously quiet, but there continues to be these very brief flickering movements of attention from the meditation object to various distractions. And so when a person achieves that exclusive attention then it’s like you’ve reached a whole new level of quietness of the mind with regard to attention and its tendency to sort of usurp conscious power and cause some degree of collapse of awareness. And so there will usually be another whole round of these kinds of purifications that arise, and they tend to be the things that are either really, really deeply buried – too deeply buried to have come up earlier – or else kinds of things that have been so integrated into the person’s personality that they’re essentially invisible. Now they come clearly to light in terms of both the causes and the consequences. An example is one person who’s meditating, who’s in that stage, and he came to an interview, you know, basically in a state of shock. He had this clear realization that he had been going around his entire life judging everyone and everything, and he hadn’t been able to establish lasting relationships, romantic partnerships, that even people he respected and considered friends and things like that, that he was always judging. When this came to light, it was a huge thing for him.
Culadasa: But it’s an example of the kind of thing that gets integrated into a person’s personality. Of course he got in touch with where that came from in terms of his psychological development through childhood and adolescence. But the most wonderful thing about it is that he no longer found it necessary to go through life judging things. And this has a lot of important implications for the process of insight as well. That’s one of the reasons this is a good example. Because, well, it’s almost an old saw to say that an important aspect of mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation…
Michael: It’s part of the definition, yeah.
Culadasa: Part of the definition, yeah, and insight requires nonjudgmental observation. Not so often mentioned or recognized, the actual assimilation of insight in the way that leads to awakening really requires a lot of ability to be in a nonjudgmental mode, because your whole worldview is being shaken at its core and it’s not a good time to be in a mode of judging your life, judging yourself, judging other people, things like that. So it makes a good example. But it’s another place where there’s an opportunity for these kinds of things to be purified, to be recognized by the mind system as a whole, to become integrated and assimilated, to lose their power, to stop being a kind of default mode that the person slips into.
Michael: So are you saying that because samatha is concerned with focus and concentration and getting that more and more exclusive and more and more one-pointed that progressively subtler forms of kind of neurotic distraction slowly reveal themselves to the meditator? As they’re trying to stay focused, they start to notice these things that pull their attention off into these neurotic concerns?
Culadasa: Yes, I am. Although I should clarify something. In almost every aspect of discussion of meditation or discussion of cognitive processes in general, there has been always this emphasis on attention, and a failure to recognize that there’s another mode of knowing, a completely separate aspect of conscious experiencing, that has different characteristics and is occurring simultaneously with attention. So people tend to associate samatha with the stabilization of attention, which is the samadhi component, and to not recognize that an extremely important part of developing samatha is the sati component or the awareness. It is possible to enter into a very single-pointed state of attention with no awareness. The easy way and the common way is to enter into a state of sustained subtle dullness where the mind just rests on the chosen mental object but there is no sati, there is no awareness. There’s another way – it’s much more difficult to achieve, and so I don’t see it nearly as often, but people can achieve the same kind of single-pointedness, the same collapse of awareness, but without the dullness. But most commonly it’s associated with a dullness. Without the awareness, without the mindfulness component, you’re not going to get the kind of purifications – as a matter of fact, it’s pretty much a dead end. I’d say, if anything, that’s probably what’s given samatha a bad rap in a lot of circles.
Culadasa: But, of course, if we look at the suttas and the Buddha, he was really big on samatha, right? So samatha, properly practiced, the way that you achieve that stability of attention, the way that you eventually achieve exclusive attention, is by developing very powerful introspective awareness, which helps you to recognize when attention is moving, or about to move, or where things are arising in awareness that have the potential to capture attention or cause movements of attention. So if you develop samatha in this sense, this is where these things come up. And when they do come up, then you can use awareness and attention in an appropriate way, interacting with each other, so you can direct your attention at what’s occurring. And the best way to do that is direct your attention first to the bodily sensations that are associated with an emotion that’s arising, and then when you’ve reached a state of relative equanimity with those sensations in your body, then you can address the way the emotion manifests in your mind. Then you can move from that to whatever imagery or memories or any other kind of mental content that arises in association with it and be able to hold it in attention, which gives you an opportunity for that integration I was talking about to occur.
Michael: What you just described, I would have called vipassana.
Culadasa: Well, as a matter of fact, to do that requires that the mode of your attention is the vipassana mode, the vipassana mode of attention. You know, if you look at the definition of vipassana – or[pronounces differently, a little like wip-uh-sana]
would be proper pronunciation, but – passana means seeing, and the prefix, v or[pronounces like a mix of v and w]
, it’s a very soft v, that prefix has, oh, I don’t know, six or eight or ten different meanings associated with it. They’re all things like beyond, through, so forth. ‘In’ is one of them given in the PTS dictionary, the Pali Text Society’s dictionary. That’s the one that’s been seized on and people have translated vipassana as insight, which is, in a sense, technically an accurate translation, but it misses the meaning of the word vipassana in Pali. It’s a mode of attention where what you’re seeing into is what is really the object of your attention; what you’re seeing beyond is the obvious, expected, the preconceived model of reality that gets overlain on whatever the actual object is of your attention. So vipassana is using attention in a passive and penetrating way to observe. Rather than imposing interpretations on what you’re looking at, you’re just taking it in, you’re allowing it to be there the way it is, and that’s why it leads to insight. It’s also why it leads to these insights into your psychological baggage, as you’re using it in exactly that way. So it is the vipassana component of it – which is another thing that is not recognized, but if you practice samatha in I think the way it was intended to be practiced, you are training your mind in vipassana at the same time.
Michael: Yeah, that makes sense to me. The distinction is more pedagogical than actual.
Culadasa: Yes, you could say that. But I think a really good example of that is if you meditate on the breath, then you’re not going to train your mind in the functional mode of attention that we call vipassana, because all you’re going to see is breath, and breath is this complex conceptualization that is filled with all these assumptions of body and nose and in and out and air and everything else. If the object of your attention is the sensations of the breath, that’s there in the beginning, but as you go along, you know, because you’re looking at sensations and if you’re practicing following and connecting, you keep going beyond the concepts of breath and air and all of that stuff to what’s really happening. So samatha training has a vipassana aspect to it, too, and it has the sati, the mindfulness aspect to it as well. So all of these are what you’re employing to basically work through these aspects of your mind that are problematic in one way or another.
Michael: Okay. So that’s how practicing samatha can help a dedicated meditator work through a lot of their baggage and material, and hopefully have less of a distressing type experience like Willoughby Britton’s talking about or less of a dukkha nana/dark night intense experience like Daniel’s talking about. And you’re using the meditation practice to help work with your stuff. But what about the other case that we both know of where people have reached very high levels of meditative capacity, they’ve got a lot of insight, maybe they’re at some level of awakening, and they seem to have, in a way, missed a whole pocket of material, or several pockets of material. It’s like they think they’re doing fine, but maybe everyone around them is aware that they’ve got these behavior patterns that do not seem awake at all. And yet the meditation has somehow missed that.
Culadasa: Yes, yes.
Michael: So this is like spiritual bypassing.
Michael: Whether it’s intentional or not.
Culadasa: Whether it’s intentional or not. This is what’s really important to recognize, because there are a lot of misconceptions that if somebody is awakened to any degree, there’s an unrealistic expectation of a kind of perfection that they’ve achieved.
Michael: Or that they’re just never a jerk.
Culadasa: Yeah, that’s right, they’re never a jerk. But to put this into context, there seems to be a certain level of the stuff that we’re talking about that it’s necessary to deal with to achieve awakening, but it’s sort of a minimal level. And, you know, we spoke in terms of dukkha nana, dark night, adverse effect things. What I think that is indicative of is that if that hasn’t been sufficiently dealt with earlier, it has to get dealt with in one way or another at that point. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to get resolved; it may just get reburied a little more deeply.
Michael: Pushed out of the way.
Culadasa: Yeah, pushed out of the way, or bypassed in some way. That allows a person to go ahead and achieve first path, second path, third path, even fourth path, and it’s unrealistic to think that everything has been resolved. What meditation and what the progress of insight is going to do is it’s going to resolve enough of it to allow you to basically undergo the shift in perception that we refer to as awakening. And what’s left? Well, a lot of the things that change as a result of a process of awakening actually help to push these things aside, to bypass them in one way or another, whereas before somebody has achieved, say, first or second path, these would have been sufficiently problematic in their life that, in one way or another, they would be aware of them, whether or not they did anything about them or were at a place of just taking for granted that I have these, quote, “personality characteristics” that are a bit difficult.
Michael: Yeah. So it’s in their face all the time; it’s hard to ignore.
Culadasa: Right. But then when you get to the place where, you know, you have the falling away of personality view, so now the ego structure itself is seen as transparent, and it’s via the ego structure that a lot of this stuff manifests. So it’s wonderful to no longer have that attachment to the conceptualization of “who I am,” to be free of the burden of that, to not have to react to threats to my ideas of who and what I am and things like that. But it also, at the same time, allows you to just dismiss in the same way whatever problems that you have that are there. The degree to which your experience of suffering and craving is diminished is just going to be more of the same – you’re going to direct your equanimity towards these problematic things when they do surface, and let go of them, and of course that’s not going to do anything to eliminate them; they’re going to still be there.
Michael: It’s so interesting how so much of the training I received in vipassana was about more or less ignoring the content of sensory experiences or internal experiences and observing the manifestation of the activity, the activity of the sensation, or the arising and passing of a sensation. And of course that leads directly to insight, right? Noticing it as activity, not as content. But the thing that I also noticed afterward is that, you know, you can get pretty good at just ignoring the content. So you’re having these emotions or you’re having what turn out to be pretty uncharitable thoughts or whatever, or just difficult material arising, and when it arises as just activity, it can actually be pleasant.
Culadasa: That’s right. [Michael and Culadasa laugh]
Michael: It’s just this kind of buzzy, tingly, vibratory material. The suffering component seems to just be erased…
Michael: And you’re still experiencing it in one sense, but in another sense, it’s been kind of reduced to this almost like signal or code or something, and the kind of meaning of the psychological material is lost.
Culadasa: Yes, yes. [laughs] It’s all of the wonderful gains that you experience – if you don’t mind me calling them gains, because I feel like that’s what they are…
Culadasa: It’s a really profound improvement in the quality of your life, right?
Michael: And in the way everyone else’s life around you…[laughs]
Culadasa: And everyone else’s life around you. And so it just gets really easy to just not even recognize and appreciate these things. As a matter of fact, the more you progress through the path, I think the easier it becomes literally in terms of your conscious awareness and any potential impact that arises, in the form of dukkha and things like that, to just totally slide right on by. I mean, you talk about bypassing, you become if anything less aware of them.
Michael: So how did this arise in your own experience?
Culadasa: Well, this is going to be fairly autobiographical.
Michael: Oh, good.
Culadasa: It’s a personal experience. But when I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, and by the time they located it the tumor I had in my right lung was, oh, larger than a golf ball, maybe about the size of a tennis ball or something. It was pretty large. They’d found at least one metastasis to a lymph node and so forth. One of my students, his stepmother was an oncologist. I might be mistaken about this, but I think she was actually head of oncology at UCLA. Anyway, Dr. Mary Hardy is her name. She practices integral medicine now. She’s an integral oncologist. So when it became known that I had lung cancer, Chris told me who his stepmother was, and offered to arrange for me to have a consultation with her. And I had a very, very interesting telephone conversation with her. She started out asking about my medical history. And my medical history is that up until November of 2007 I had all my life enjoyed just superlative physical health. Very active, very outdoorsy person. Oh, when I was younger I was a bodybuilder and all of that kind of stuff, you know. Had scans, and my heart and my arteries, everything was in great shape.
Michael: That’s very lucky.
Culadasa: Yeah, I was very, very fortunate. When I’d go in for my regular checkups my primary care physician would say, “Ah, my healthiest patient is here!” Then in November of 2007, we were actually moving the meditation here on site, and I noticed I had a tremendous decrease in strength. I was concerned about that, so I went to see my primary care physician. We went through everything. With my background, I’m very aware of the nature of motor neuron disease in the spinal cord. I had, for years, been having severe muscle spasms and what’s called fibrillations – that’s where you look at, say, for example, you’d look at my calf and it would look like there were all kinds of worms crawling around. These were muscle fibers within individual muscles just contracting and sort of twitching away, which I had ignored; they’d been going on, I don’t know, and getting worse, for a number of years. I had ignored them. But then when this weakness came along, and she measured various things, had me do a very simple test where you sit in a straight-backed chair and you stand up without using your arms, without using your upper body, and I couldn’t do it.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Culadasa: Sent me to a neurologist, and I was diagnosed as having ALS. I was told to expect to be in a wheelchair within the next two years, and the life expectancy would be maybe about five years. I lived with that diagnosis for a year, and then discovered that Lyme disease, chronic Lyme disease when it invaded the nervous system produced the same symptoms as ALS.
Michael: Oh, you’re kidding me! So it was a false diagnosis.
Culadasa: It turned out – I got tested as soon as I found that, and it turned out that I did have chronic Lyme disease and probably had it for ten years, something like that. But my immune system had just simply held it in check up to that point. At that point, for whatever reason, couldn’t hold it back anymore, and I started suffering the consequences of it. So this was a very interesting thing, that here I was, life-threatening – actually death-promising [laughs] – disease, and it is magically transformed into something that is treatable. So I was treated for Lyme disease over a period of almost eight years, and as far as I can tell, I’m completely free of it and have been for quite a few years now. During that period, though, I developed a series of intestinal problems that the surgeon and the pathologist – I’ve had four abdominal surgeries, I’ve had, by now, I think about six sections of my small intestine removed because there’s this transmural – mural means the wall – transmural fibrosis of sections of my small intestine. So they would just become so fibrosed and so narrow that nothing could pass through them. And nobody has ever determined a cause for it. So that was part of my medical history that I related to Mary Hardy. Then when I got over the Lyme disease, I was in the best health that I’d been throughout this whole ordeal that started in 2007. I was training with weights, getting myself back in shape, all this kind of stuff. And I started to notice that I was losing a lot of weight and that there were days that I just didn’t have the muscle strength. I can’t remember exactly what led to it…
Michael: So something still wasn’t quite right.
Culadasa: Something still wasn’t quite right. So it led to a CT scan of my chest – well, first it was an x-ray, I think in about June, and it showed something that the radiologist couldn’t quite identify; it looked abnormal, led to a CT scan, and in August of 2015 I discovered I had this huge tumor. You know, they did a needle biopsy, they confirmed that it was malignant, so on and so forth.
Michael: And this was in your lungs?
Culadasa: In the upper right lobe of my lung, yes. So this was when I had the conversation with Mary. And what she said was, “When I hear your medical history, there is something that’s trying to kill you. And there’s some other part of you that’s managed, so far, to survive all of its attempts. But now it’s brought in the big guns and you’re not going to be able to beat this one,” [laughs], she said, “unless you find out what it is.”
Michael: So her take was that there was psychological material that was causing these illnesses.
Culadasa: Right. I think what she had discovered in the years of her practice is that there was this pattern, and she could see that diseases were often related to psychological problems. This is what, I think, led her to switch from standard oncology to integral oncology – in a sense, trying to get to what the real cause is, the underlying cause, you know. Why does a person’s immune system fail to catch these abnormal cells before they become a metastatic cancer? And as she put it, “something is trying to kill you. Unless you figure out what it is, it’s going to succeed. And you better find out soon because” – [laughs] – “pretty serious situation that you’re in.” I took that to heart, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. As a result, other than contemplate the possibilities, reflect on my past history, things like that, I didn’t really do anything with it. Then, one of the students in one of my teacher training classes is Doug Tataryn, and he does something call bio-emotive therapy, and he offered to do a series of sessions with me.
Michael: Is this under the broad category of psychology or…?
Culadasa: Yes, right. It’s within the broad category of psychology. And it’s a very interesting methodology. Basically, what we did is he asked me to describe, you know, what my current life situation was like. He asked me to describe what were the aspects of it that I would most prefer to be different, that were, you know, to some degree unsatisfactory. Then on the basis of that, he would formulate these statements. He would say, “Close your eyes and repeat this and see how it feels in your body, see if this resonates with you or not.”
Michael: Would you mind sharing an example of how that works or what that sounds like?
Culadasa: At the time that we began this process, my time and energy was being consumed by the process of Nancy and I trying to retire from what we’d been doing, running this place, which is a major undertaking. I wanted to write, I wanted to focus more on teaching and things like this; I didn’t have the time for it, you know. So he’d start off with statements like, “I feel like I can’t do what I’d like to do because I have to do other things to meet the needs of others.”
Michael: Good, so you formulated a sentence like that and you were to then say it out loud.
Culadasa: Yeah, repeat it out loud, and just see how it felt in my body. So that particular statement was just right on, so he followed up with other statements, some of which I didn’t resonate with, so, “no, that wasn’t it,” so he’d try a different one, take a different tack. But there began to emerge – I could feel in my body emotional reactions to these statements. Maybe I need to give a little background to this. As a result of my practice, I had reached a point where emotions would arise but they really had no power over me, but I could choose to allow those emotions to express themselves if they served a purpose. Well, it’s sort of a downweighting of emotions – negative emotions were strongly downweighted, and positive emotions were not downweighted at all. So this was the place I was coming from as a meditation teacher. I just never really experienced anger; when something would cause some anger to arise, I’d notice it and let go of it, and, you know, it wasn’t there. Negative emotions in general were just not part of my life anymore. So it was a process of getting in touch with a lot of these emotions that, you know, I hadn’t been making space for because I saw them as unhealthy, unhelpful, so on and so forth.
Michael: So, in essence, you had bypassed them.
Culadasa: Yes, it’s a bypassing. I think it’s a very common bypassing, too, when somebody reaches this particular stage on the path. I mean, this is a big of a digression, but I think it maybe helps to put the whole thing into perspective, the rest of our conversation into perspective…
Michael: Please digress.
Culadasa: Okay. So this is a stage at which the sense of being a separate self completely disappears. I mean, prior to that, at stream entry, you know, there’s no more attachment to the ego, the ego becomes transparent, but you still have this feeling that I’m a separate self; it still produces craving; you have to work through that in the next path, and so on and so forth. But this is a stage where that very primitive, that very primal sense of being a separate self falls away. Now, what I know about this from a neuroscience point of view is that there’s a part of the brainstem which was the earliest concentration of neurons that was brain-like in the evolution of brains, and there are nuclei there that were responsible for maintaining homeostasis of the body, and they still do that today. One of their major purposes is to regulate homeostasis in the body, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygenation of the blood, you name it, just every aspect of internal bodily maintenance. With the subsequent development of the emotional brain, the structures that are referred to as the limbic system, evolution provided a way to guide animals’ behaviors on the basis of emotions and so these same nuclei then created ascending fibers into this limbic system, from the brainstem into these new neural structures that constituted the emotional brain.
Michael: So this very old structure that regulated the body linked up with the new emotional structures.
Culadasa: Right. It linked up with it, and the result was a sense of self. Okay? You can see the enormous value of this to an animal, to an organism. A sense of self. My goodness. So now these emotions can operate in a way that serves to improve the survival, reproduction, everything else of this self, right? Great evolutionary advance. So now we have organisms with a sense of self. Then the further evolution of cerebral cortex, all of these other higher structures, then that same sense of self became integrated into that as well. So there we have the typical human being with this very strong, very primal sense that “I am me. I am a separate self.” We can create all kinds of mental constructs around this, but even cats and dogs and deer and mice and lizards and things like that have this sense of self. We elaborate an ego on top of it. So there’s these two aspects to self in a human being. One is the ego self, the mental construct that’s been built around this more primal sense of self. So this is a stage at which that primal sense of self disappears and what usually seems to happen is, at the same time, there is a temporary disappearance of all emotions. I think that we’ll probably eventually find out that the neural mechanism by which we bring about this shift, that these two things are linked, because the sense of self is – its passageway to the higher brain centers, which constitute the field of conscious awareness that we live in and all of the unconscious drives that we’re responding to, the limbic system, the emotional brain, is the link.
Culadasa: So something happens that interrupts that link. The emotions come back online, but they come back online in a different way from that point. So instead of being overcome by fear, anger, lust, joy, whatever, these things arise and they’re something that you can either let go of or not. [laughs] That’s the place where I was.
Michael: They seem very ephemeral…
Culadasa: Yes, right. They’re very ephemeral, and very easy to deal with, and there is a tendency for other people to see you as less emotional and truly you are because you’ve downregulated a lot of more negative emotions. But you’re by no means nonemotional; you’re still human, you still have the full gamut of human emotions available to you. But you do get out of the habit of giving much leeway to certain kinds of emotions. And the work that I was doing with Doug pushed me in the direction of, “Let’s go ahead and let’s experience some of those emotions. Let’s see what it feels like to experience the dukkha of wanting things to be different than the way they are.” So that’s what we did. And I started getting in touch with these emotions and their relationship to my current life situation where I wasn’t fulfilling my greatest aspirations because I was doing a lot of things that – stuff that had to be done, but that I had no interest in, but I had to do it and that’s what occupied my time. So then the next thing was to start trying to get to the root of this. So we began talking about my early life history. I had an extremely traumatic childhood. My father went to Europe during World War Two when my mother was maybe a month pregnant, and came back – here was this two year old son who was the primary object of her affection, and he had pretty severe what would today be called PTSD, but it was unrecognized in those days and untreated. So for a combination of things that I totally understand and recognize now and everything, it was a very abusive relationship. And in addition to that, my mother had certain psychological issues. She suffered from personality disorders. She had a very difficult childhood herself – she grew up during the depression, her father died when she was three years old; don’t need to go into that, but the result is that she was a brilliant woman with some pretty severe personality disorders. This was part of the problem with my father. She had developed a really unhealthy emotional attachment and relationship with me. I really never attended school very much, and so I was really living within her sphere pretty uninterruptedly until I was 14 years old. Her views of reality were pretty different than consensual reality, but I had assimilated these. We moved to a different city, actually a rural town outside of the city we lived in. I was entering high school, a brand new high school, and they were pretty strict and they didn’t put up with this, you know, “You come to school two, maybe three days out of the week.” I was bright; I got all the way through elementary and junior high school with pretty much straight As with almost never attending school, but that just didn’t cut it then. So I found myself in a totally new social environment. I had undergone none of the socialization or acquired any of the social skills that all of my peers had. And perhaps the most traumatic thing I had experienced was the realization that what I understood of the world and people, et cetera, just didn’t match the way everybody else saw things. I was seeing things through my mother’s disturbed, basically psychotic perception of reality. Like I say, she was a very brilliant woman, very capable, and very frustrated at being a mother rather than – she wanted to go into medicine, she had a beautiful voice, she sang with the Houston Opera. She could have made a career out of that. There were all kinds of things that she could have done, and all that pent-up frustration added to some personality disorders and everything else. But what came up in my work with Doug was that I basically lived the first 14 years of my life fulfilling her needs and not really undergoing a sort of normal growth process. In our discussion, I could trace that to other events in my life. Now, I left home when I was 15; that’s a whole other story, but I left home. I spent a lot of time on the streets, things like that. There was a period of time when I was put in a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed as a severely emotionally disturbed youth, so on and so forth. But there was a pattern established of basically allowing myself to be responsible for filling the needs of somebody else. And then through an act of anger, leaving that situation, but not in a healthy way. As I recounted my stories with Doug, I could see the pattern in this. To spare those people who were involved, I don’t need to say who they were, but I had spent years at a time basically doing the same thing that I had done with my mother, not doing what I wanted or needed to do but rather basically living to serve the psychological and emotional and other needs of someone else, and then reaching a point where the dissatisfaction and the frustration of the situation resulted in a sort of eruption of anger and I would terminate the situation, and usually do it in the worst possible way. [laughs] Anyway. This sort of thing. This was arising over time in bits and pieces, and I’m getting in touch with little snatches here and there. And then we had a group retreat here. We have a young woman who’s been a student of mine now for, oh, I guess 12 years. She has what used to be called multiple personality disorder. I think maybe they’ve got a different name for it now.
Michael: Spectrum disorder or something like that.
Culadasa: Yeah. Anyway, she always speaks in the plural, “we,” and she talks in a meditation interview, “Well, some of us, especially the younger ones, are kind of afraid of what we’re doing because of some of the things that are coming up, and…”
Michael: So she’s right out there with the multiple…
Culadasa: She’s right out there with it, yeah. And she’s got these different personalities, and I’ve conversed with different ones of these at different times, and, you know, worked through different things. Anyway, I went to Tuscon to pick her up because she would always volunteer to come and help serve group retreats, do the cooking and cleaning and things like that. And was conversing with her on the way back, and that night, I just had this epiphany. It’s like, I’ve got in touch with a buried personality. It was a very simplistic one. It was a childish one. And it was between the ages of five years old and fifteen years old. And it had a very simple emotional repertoire of fear, sadness, and anger. Having been with a person with really overt multiple personalities that I had interacted with, it allowed me to put all these little bits and pieces into a coherent picture, that, okay, there’s this being inside of me that is trapped as a child/early adolescent, and whose predominant experience of life is fear and sadness and then eruptions of anger. I could see that having happened over and over again in my life, really clear picture emerged. And then that led me to seeing another aspect of my personality, a simpler one, a more mature one, but it was an aspect of my personality that was essentially trying to compensate for the harm that I had caused in my explosive dissociations from these situations in the past, starting with leaving my family. So I was very driven to accomplish things, to do things that were of benefit to others, so on and so forth.
Michael: So it’s a compensatory personality for the other one.
Culadasa: Yes, compensatory for the other one. And in retrospect, I could see how the compensatory personality was part of what kept recreating the situation that the other personality [Michael and Culadasa laugh] had developed in the context of.
Michael: It’s a closed loop.
Culadasa: A closed loop there. And I could see – without going into details, and trying not to identify specific people in this, but I could see that I was repeating that pattern. Regardless of all my meditation, regardless of all of my practice, everything I learned, insight, everything else, here I was repeating this same pattern. Didn’t even know about it.
Michael: So it was utterly transparent to the meditator.
Culadasa: Yes, utterly transparent. The thing is, the Dharma itself provided perfect rationalization for this compensatory part, right? Yeah, I mean, you know, “be of benefit,” “practice compassion in the world,” you know, all of that kind of stuff. Well, that’s good stuff, that’s real stuff, that’s valuable stuff, it’s just unfortunately it was hitchhiking on the back of something that wasn’t so healthy. [laughs] Yeah. I got in touch with what you would call a massive neurotic pattern that was underlying my behavior and entirely in spite of whatever degree of insight and awakening that I might lay claim to or ostensibly have. One of the almost immediate outcomes of this is I could see the same thing going on in other people that I knew who were pretty highly evolved on the spiritual path, and also I began to look at those people that I didn’t know but who were pretty notorious – well, I think we all know the names of these people.
Michael: I assume you mean famous or infamous teachers perpetrating all kinds of malfeasance on the world.
Culadasa: That’s right, yeah. Infamous teachers perpetrating all kinds of malfeasance, yes, that’s a good way to describe it. One in particular was – I have a poor memory for names, but the roshi who was at Mount Baldy…
Michael: Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Culadasa: Sasaki Roshi, yeah. When it came out that he had been sexually aggressive with his female students and that he rationalized it that it was in their own best interest, that it was an act of compassion, that he was trying to break down their barriers and things like that, you know, I looked at it and I said, you know, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is just a guy that talked a good talk and wasn’t really as awakened as he was purported to be.” But now I can see that it’s just as likely that there was something going on there that he was out of touch with, that he rationalized his behavior and sincerely believed he was acting out of compassion. Once again, it was a behavior, in this case one that was pretty harmful to people, that was piggybacking on some unresolved psychological stuff in his past.
Michael: You could see the situation where maybe the depth of his meditation was actually obscuring some of this.
Culadasa: Absolutely, yes, was obscuring, yeah. Because I could see once you get on the paths of awakening and the farther you go, the easier it is for these things to be obscured. All the normal cues and clues, they tend to go away with all of the other, problematic aspects. So these things can get pretty well disguised, bypassed, unrecognized, so on and so forth.
Michael: I’m curious, in your case, was simply noticing these two subpersonalities enough to sort of integrate and resolve their issues, or did you have to do quite a bit of work with them?
Culadasa: No, I had to do quite a bit of work with them. I wish the recognizing them had been enough, but it was a huge step to kind of be conscious of them and actually be able to kind of interact with them in a sense. But the only way that I could really get in touch with them enough to try to bring about some integration was to allow them to manifest. And so I did.
Michael: In session, or even out in the world?
Culadasa: Oh, this was out in the world.
Michael: Okay. [laughs]
Culadasa: This is where it happened. And so what my wife had to go through – she, “What’s happened to you?” Because sometimes I would experience extreme sadness, you know, and so out of character for me. “Why are you so sad? Why are you so discouraged? I mean, everything’s going really well.” And all I could say was, “This is what’s happening right now, and I have to let it happen.”
Michael: “That’s what’s coming up,” yeah, “who knows why.”
Culadasa: Yeah. And the same thing with the anger. I’d have flashes or anger. Like I said, there were years before that where I never expressed or experienced any kind of anger at all. People had commented on it and so on and so forth, you know, what a mellow guy I was. Even now, sometimes those flashes of anger come up. But the good thing about it is, I mean, at the worst the anger would sometimes last for hours or even a day or two. Same thing with sadness, might last for several days or a week at a time. Now sadness hasn’t come up for a long time. The anger will come up in brief flashes, and when it does, I can recognize what the source of it is, that there’s some aspect of my behavior and my activities and my relationship with somebody that is clearly the same trigger that was always there, and so there’s the same kind of reaction. And when the expressions of anger would occur, they would also trigger this compensatory, you know, “I’ve got to do something for other people. I’ve got to sacrifice my own needs for other people.” So there was a process of working this out that I had to go through. Now, that part of my work with Doug was mostly – I was reporting the process to him as I was going through it and he was helping me dig for cues and clues to help in the integration process. Interestingly now I feel really highly resolved with these things, and my health, my cancer is essentially in remission; that could change any day.
Culadasa: But I say thank you so much Mary Hardy; you were right on. And thank you Doug, because it gave me the opportunity to go ahead and deal with and work through this in this way. And the result is that, you know, I’m already pushing the limits of life expectancy that I was originally given. No one knows what’s going to happen the next day, and I don’t pretend to. But my internal feeling is that I expect to be around for at least another five or ten years in spite of the fact that that’s not consistent with the statistics. [Michael and Culadasa laugh]
Michael: Yeah, I think the first time I interviewed you was maybe almost a year and a half ago, and you seem remarkably healthier than at that point.
Culadasa: Many people are saying that.
Michael: Yeah. Now, thank you for sharing this story. It’s very powerful and extremely fascinating. It brings up a number of questions for me. One is, do you think that even your teaching of Buddhism, even your teaching of meditation, now needs to include pointing towards psychology or pointing towards “maybe you need to go see a therapist” as an integrated part of the practice?
Culadasa: Yes, absolutely. It certainly does. And this includes, in particular, those people that have achieved to first or second or higher paths. I share my experience openly with teacher training students, and with those students who are on the paths, I want them to be really aware that there almost certainly are some aspects to their psyche that really should be dealt with, not to ignore them and not to mistake them for something other than what they are. Interestingly enough, some of them are actually seeing therapists. Quite a few of my teachers in training are therapists themselves. Needless to say, they’re amongst those therapists who already include meditation in their therapy, but now they are including therapy in meditation as well [laughs], in teaching meditation.
Michael: Now, you’re one of the chief people responsible currently for helping to evolve the teaching of the Dharma in America or in the West. As we’re learning how to meditate better and how to understand the teachings more completely, we could say that the Dharma is evolving in the West, right? Would you say that there’s a possibility of actually kind of merging the two things in some way, or do we just want to point – in the way that we might say, “Oh, you’re a meditator, but you have cancer. Go to a physician,” we could say, “You’re a meditator, but you have these issues. Go to a therapist.” Is that how you see the future of this, or do you see Buddhism and psychotherapy actually starting to become more of a path, an integrated path?
Culadasa: I would say both. Initially, the first – that I do encourage meditators, when things come up, to take advantage of therapies. One of the other things that I have learned, and it’s a different story and I don’t need to go into it but, there is a tremendous somatic component that is in all of this, that is extremely important. Now, the obvious somatic component is the fact that no matter whether or not emotions arise into consciousness, there’s no way that the nervous system can block the emotions manifesting in the body. So in this process of meditation and awakening, we need to be working with the body/mind as a unit, recognizing that. So there’s a lot of therapies that have a somatic component; there are some that don’t, in which case I would encourage somebody to not only augment their practice with therapy wherever and whenever it seems like it might be appropriate, but also if the therapy doesn’t include a significant somatic component then do something that does. If you don’t do yoga, do yoga. But don’t do yoga as an exercise, do yoga as a spiritual practice. Do qi gong or tai chi or the other martial arts. I have a student who is a master in – I would recommend it if somebody had the discipline and the inclination – it’s the one where you’re always using the opponent’s strength…
Michael: That’s aikido.
Culadasa: Aikido, yes, thank you very much. All of these things I think are important adjuncts to the spiritual path. The somatic connection has so much to do with the psychological and, as my case illustrates, and I think probably far more cases than we realize, has a lot to do with the health of the body. The health of the mind is reflected in the health of the body.
Michael: What about the fact that the different expressions, the different historical expressions of Buddhism, treat emotions quite differently? You know, if we’re talking about Sutrayana or Theravada, early Buddhism, there’s certain emotions that you’re just essentially supposed to eliminate. And as we get up into Vajrayana, you know, they’re talking about transmuting or transforming, actually having all those, quote, “negative” emotions, but allowing them to express their enlightened nature. And, I mean, you can see how either of those paths could lead to bypassing.
Michael: But I’m curious where you’re at now, having all these years of practice, being quite realized, being a famous teacher, and also having now done all this psychological work, what’s your take on emotions in practice?
Culadasa: Well, here’s where we sort of get to the second part of your earlier question. There’s no question that from the time of the Buddha to the present day, in these various traditions, there’s no way that anybody could avoid recognizing that emotions needed to be dealt with in one way or another. And the complete suppression of them is one extreme, and the attempt to transform even the most unwholesome emotions is the other extreme. But these are premodern approaches that developed when we really didn’t have much science of mind. And so I think that we’re not only in a position to essentially revive the teachings of the Buddha and hopefully facilitate people in achieving awakening much more quickly and in much larger numbers, but we’re also in a position to go beyond what these traditions have had access to. One of the ways of describing the Buddha was “the great physician,” right?
Culadasa: He diagnosed the disease of human suffering. He identified the cause, craving, clinging to the self. And then he prescribed the cure, the Eightfold Path. And one way of looking at meditation and spiritual practice is the recognition that what we regard as normal is sick. [Michael and Culadasa laugh] So, I mean, the people that the Buddha was diagnosing were people who were considered normal by any kind of standard of the time, and exactly the same thing is true today, although, granted, meditation does attract more people with more psychological problems than the average.
Culadasa: It’s not representative in that way. But nevertheless, our conventional view of reality that is responsible for the vast majority of problems in the world and for most of our individual suffering, it is a pathology, and meditation and Dharma and awakening are the cures. Now, this is where we come to the second part. I think that the integration of meditation as one way of dealing with the psychological ills, not just of the individual but of societies, the global culture as a whole, the species as a whole, that meditation, Dharma, and awakening is one form of therapy. Up until now, psychological therapies have been mostly reserved for those people who were so much more dysfunctional than the acceptable norm that they needed something else. But I think these things need to come together because it’s only a matter of degree. At this point in time, and since psychological therapies came into existence, we’ve been taking people from a dysfunctional state to a normal state of dysfunction. And I think the intent of the Dharma has been to take people from a normal state of dysfunction to a state of minimal or no dysfunction. So now that we recognize that they’re both on the same spectrum, we should start incorporating the knowledge and wisdom from both, that will everybody, no matter where they are on the spectrum, towards the minimally or nondysfunctional end of the spectrum.
Michael: Culadasa, thanks so much for speaking with me today. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you.
Culadasa: Well, thank you, Michael. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Yes.
Michael: Thank you so much.