Mailbag: Insight Meditation, Breath Meditation, Shinzen Young, and Daniel Ingram Critique

I received an email from my student PP, which turned into a fairly long interview with some very important and detailed tech and guidance.

PP wrote:

When do you think I should start insight meditation? I remember you mentioning something about it on Skype in May.

I’m not sure what to advise here. If I could go back and do it all again, I would avoid Daniel Ingram’s stuff. It had some cool bits in it but I think overall it’s not what the Buddha intended.

Shinzen Young is still my main influence. His core principle is simply: “observe all with mindfulness and equanimity”. I didn’t just keep that to my meditation practice sessions however – I interpreted it as meaning do it all the time. I’m not sure if that was good or bad. It led to all the PPM techs, though.

If I could go back I would probably do Shinzen Young’s method, but only during predetermined meditation sessions. I would do 30 minutes every day, and just do that every day forever and treat it as a “systems reboot”. Meanwhile, while not meditating, I would just get on with my life, and not set any goals with meditation. So, I wouldn’t try to get enlightened or gain stages on the Path of Insight or whatever.

My meditation would look like this:

  1. Sit and get as comfortable as possible – then make the decision to not fidget or adjust myself for the next 30 minutes, and set a timer.
  2. Watch the breath. A light kind of attention, not intense like concentration meditation. Thoughts should be able to come and go. The breath is just something to return to.
  3. Any thought or body sensation that occurs, let it arise as it wishes, observe it with mindfulness and equanimity, then return attention to the breath. You can make brief verbal-thought notes in your mind about the thought/sensation if you like, but don’t dwell. This kind of noting could be along the lines of, “Pain”. “Fear.” “Warm.”

After a while of this, the thoughts just start floating by like clouds. After some more time there are very few thoughts and there is a very peaceful state which persists for some time afterwards. It is perfect before bed for a deep, often dreamless sleep. This meditation is how I cured my insomnia all those years ago, in like a week.

What I’ve just described is going to be the main content of my Basic Breath Meditation guide which is going up at some point.

So obviously this meditation is NOT concentration meditation, and there is no diligent investigation of sensations so it is NOT hardcore insight meditation. HOWEVER, this meditation alone got me to the Knowledge of Mind and Body, the first stage on the Theravadan Path of Insight:

It’s a really nice stage and state to reach. The mind suddenly opens and “pops” into clarity. For me, this happened while I had my eyes open so it was really noticeable. 🙂 My primary experience of this stage was as follows:

  • Noticing that verbal thoughts no longer “hurt”. Before this moment, verbal thoughts had this kind of “tug” on me, which caused a kind of pain. It’s hard to describe, but basically I only really became aware of this “tug” verbal thoughts have on your mind and body once it had disappeared. It was like the mooring ropes had suddenly been cut on a huge ship, allowing it to float freely without pulling me all over the place.
  • The mind — my awareness of my surroundings — suddenly became very spacious. It was like objects now sat in “space”. Before this, they tended to be more tightly woven into my awareness — again, like they were “moored”. Thoughts themselves also now had space around them. I noticed that thoughts kind of float around like objects. At this point I instantly began to get a LOT more control over my thoughts, and this moment kickstarted most of the tech that I then developed on PPM. If you haven’t reached this stage, you will probably find a lot of what I write to be extremely difficult to practise. I often take it for granted that the majority of people in the world have not reached this stage, one of the most basic forms of self-awareness.
  • I could now see objects through a “gap” in awareness. So it was like looking at them through a completely clear hole, with fuzz in the periphery. Verbal thoughts actually interfere with eyesight. They make things fuzzy, like they are being pulled around. Suddenly, I was looking at something and I could see it clearly. That was a strange and elating experience. It began to happen after every practice. Another palpably amazing moment was when I was talking to my brother and he was in this “clear gap” and I could now clearly see how my body responded to him and how the whole thing fitted together, and stuff he said which might have bothered me before just kind of floated around. I remember just laughing at one point.
  • I then began to have other, regular, “unified” experiences. For example, I saw an aeroplane taking off and, while it was in this “clear gap” in consciousness, I could literally feel the weight of the metal bird as its engines hauled it into the sky.

I did not know about any of the “Stages of Insight” when all this happened; it was just a wonderful surprise which resulted in a permanent shift. And I did that with just the breath meditation above. So practise that daily, and I think it will only bring good things.

If everybody just reached this stage — which only took me a few months of regular practice — then the world would be a completely different place. It would be unrecognizable from the world we live in today. Before reaching this stage, people “are” their thoughts. There is no space, and they are gripped and pulled around by them. Just the breath meditation above, practised daily, will cut the mooring ropes and let thoughts and objects float freely in awareness.

I want to make an important point here regarding practice:

  • The real gains get made when you switch up to meditation sessions of 30 minutes or longer. In my estimation, one month of 30 minutes’ meditation a day would be equivalent to a whole year at 15 minutes a day. The difference really is that exponential. Many guides in the West, e.g. the sort you might see in Cosmo — but even “proper” meditation guides, e.g. books such as The Presence Process — advise 15-minute sessions. I know why they are doing this — they are trying to get you to actually meditate, and don’t want to scare you off by telling you to do 30 minutes. But they are being too light on you. You must do meditation in sessions of 30 minutes or longer. If I could go back and advise my younger self, this would be a main instruction I would give. Start at 30 minutes. This is one of the only areas where I will not go easy on you. The difference between a 30-minute meditation and a 15-minute meditation is enormous.

To bring you back to your original question, “When should I start insight meditation?”, I would say that, if you want to get enlightened, pursue a path, and in other words do “hardcore insight”, my advice would be to definitely get a real-life teacher, and also shop around before diving into any particular path. There are dozens of schools to choose from, and it needn’t even be Buddhism. Personally I like Shinzen Young’s methods. If you don’t want to get enlightened or pursue hardcore insight, you needn’t. It’s completely up to you. I do not considered myself “enlightened” and no longer take it particularly seriously as a concept. That in itself might point to something some may consider “enlightenment”. 😛

PP wrote:

Thanks for a very detailed response! Why did you decide to stop using Ingram’s stuff, and is there no benefit at all in continuing concentration meditation for me?

A long story short, I drew very similar conclusions about Ingram’s methodology (as outlined in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha) as the following guy. This is a comment I just happened to see on a YouTube video: Daniel Ingram – Buddha at the Gas Pump Interview. The comment was written by a guy called Jordan Benjamin (who I do not know; like I say, this was just a random find).

His comments near the top are rambly and quote scripture, e.g.:

Arahats don’t have jobs as Md’s they are also incapable of killing lying stealing ANY sexual activity and intentionally taking intoxicants

…which made me think he was just a crank. However, I scrolled down and found this absolute gem by him which summed up, in that moment, pretty much exactly where I was at in my views regarding Ingram.

I’ll just paste the full comment here as you can’t link to YouTube comments any more:

The outcome of the practice recommended in the book is not the outcome of practicing the Buddha’s teaching, which is nibbana (“unbinding”), the end of dukkha (usually translated as “suffering” or “stress”). The product of Ingram’s practice as recommended in this book is a state of endless cycling through something which Ingram, borrowing from St John of the Cross, calls the Dark Night, some of whose stages are Fear, Misery, Disgust and Desire for Deliverance (as well as nicer sounding states like Equanimity). There is no end to be reached, just a state of endless repetition of these stages at four succeedingly higher levels which are called by the same names as the Buddha’s four stages of awakening, although they are clearly not the same thing at all. Rather than being the end of dukkha which the Buddha taught, this is more “being OK with dukkha made worse by the practice”. It seems difficult to understand why anybody would want to do this, unless it’s to get the same kind of satisfaction that you get from ascending the levels in a computer game. Ingram even has the term “technical meditator” for someone who can call up these stages of the Dark Night at will, almost as a show of skill. It seems to have little to do with the end of suffering, which is supposed to be the whole point of meditative practice.

The fact that the expected practice outcome is cycling though dukkha is not made clear in the book. The reader is allowed to assume that the objective is the same as the Buddha’s, nibbana. It only becomes apparent from Ingram’s website. This website has attracted people who appreciated the open and pragmatic ethos of the book and is one of the most hospitable places on the internet for discussion of dhamma practice. The differences between the teaching in this book (usually called “MCTB”) and those of the Buddha are openly acknowledged on the site, including the fact that “MCTB arahat” (Ingram’s claim to attainment) is not the same as “sutta arahat” (as described in the Pali suttas, the record of the Buddha’s teaching conversations during his life) and the fact that the MCTB map is not the same as the Buddha’s “ten fetter model”.

Ingram himself has recognised that he has further to go (which “sutta arahats” don’t) and a couple of years ago started practices inspired by a teaching called Actual Freedom, coached by some of his former pupils. Part of this practice is attaining states called “Pure Consciousness Experiences” (“PCEs”) and Ingram has written freely about his attainment of these states and the fact that the experience of “PCE Daniel” is far preferable to that of “cycling Daniel”. More recently he has written about a “veil” being torn away that had existed unknown between him and the world.

It seems to be emerging that the “Space Invaders / shooting aliens” noting practice (you’ll have to read the book!) that Ingram teaches is what produces the “attention wave”, “phase problems” and the perceptual instabilities and vibrations that he calls the Three Characteristics (the Buddha actually never used this term, and meant something different by the term Three Perceptions which he used) and it’s what pushes people into the Dark Night. The Buddha taught a very different whole-body awareness practice that did not separate samatha (calm and concentration) and vipassana (insight) and he described nothing remotely resembling the Dark Night. There are many discussions on the website involving people trying to locate themselves on the Progress of Insight map and more often than not it seems difficult or impossible to do. There have been discussions placing the same person right at the beginning and right at the end of the Progress based on the same practice report, so vague and confusing are the signs of each stage. People seem to end up scripting their experience to follow the maps as far as they can, or dropping the maps altogether and taking up other practices that they find more helpful.

Ingram is in the process of starting to prepare a second edition of the book and it will be interesting to see whether he still teaches the practice leading to the dark night (in contrast to the Buddha’s practice leading to the end of suffering) or puts it aside in favour of his more recent and apparently more productive practice. If he retains the current content hopefully he will at least correct the title to something less misleading.

For a serious practitioner this is a “must read”, not just for its historical interest as a stage of the development of the teaching of the dhamma in the West, but also for its analysis of many of the problems of modern Buddhism. We must be grateful to Ingram for opening up a discussion of dhamma practice based on the idea that you’re doing it for a purpose and you can get results. However, the practices described in this book are not those of the Buddha and they do not lead where he went.

Back to your question: Ingram’s stuff on concentration meditation is still pretty good in my opinion, especially his descriptions of the jhanas. However, his guidance on how to actually do concentration meditation is not detailed enough in my opinion, hence why I have done my best to write several guides on the matter. You could continue practising concentration meditation if you wanted to get the more spectacular jhanas. Good concentration skills are always of benefit to have. It is always good to have a reliable way to feel great at will, and concentration meditation allows you to do that.

However, at your stage right now, if I were you I would swap to the breath meditation I described above for a month and see what you think. You can always practise both! These meditations are not exclusive. Just be very clear with yourself about which meditation you are going to practise in any given session. The best way to do this is via a formal resolution:

  • “For the next 30 minutes I am going to practise concentration meditation.”
  • “For the next 30 minutes I am going to practise breath meditation, allowing thoughts to arise and pass with a gentle awareness of them.”

Literally say the words in your mind, or out loud, so you feel a sense of determination in your body. There is a sensation you get when you decide you are definitely going to do something. A formal resolution generates that feeling, which “seals in” the intention behind that session and makes it a thousand times more likely to manifest. Formal resolutions are infinitely useful for a wide range of things, and not just in meditation. The coverage of formal resolutions in MCTB is another of its good points.

PP wrote:

Thank you for another very detailed and interesting response. I had a very good concentration practice last night, and I feel like I have to give it at least another week or so before I take any time off from it, just to see where it goes.

Great! Yes, I advise following your gut in this way. It often lets you know when you are about to have a breakthrough. Breakthroughs can also occur spontaneously, as mine did with the Knowledge of Mind and Body awakening described earlier. Meditation is a box of chocolates! 🙂

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20 Responses

  1. AJM says:

    What would you say is the difference between the “noting” by Shinze Young and “shooting space aliens” by Daniel Ingram? Aren’t those essentially the same thing?

    I don’t know why, but noting is pretty much the only thing in Shinzens techings I didn’t like. It somehow seemed forced and mechanical. Especially if you tried to do it all the time.

    • Illuminatus says:

      Hi AJM,

      “What would you say is the difference between the “noting” by Shinze Young and “shooting space aliens” by Daniel Ingram? Aren’t those essentially the same thing?”

      No. Firstly there’s a difference in scale. Whereas Shinzen may say, “Warm”, Ingram would zoom in and break that down further into myriad little electrical currents or sensations or whatever which he would then “shoot”. Shooting, at that scale, well in my experience you don’t get time to note. Ingram’s work is all about noticing the Three Characteristics (impermanence, not-me, doesn’t-satisfy) in every sensation. You can learn to notice the Three Characteristics without verbalizing, same way you can notice the sky is blue (a quality) without saying “blue” in your head every time.

      However MCTB, if memory serves, starts off with noting similar to Shinzen’s. It’s unclear in the book where that tails into “shooting” dozens of sensations per second (which clearly you wouldn’t have time to verbalize), but it does. By the end of the book that’s where we’re at. That lack of clarity is one reason I don’t like it.

      On The Science of Enlightenment (TSoE), if memory serves, Shinzen talks mainly about observing sensations with mindfulness and equanimity. He does some noting but is fairly loose with it, and so is Ingram. TSoE is the only Shinzen product I’ve been through, and it was 7 years ago, so I’m not sure how accurate this assessment is.

      What I liked about Shinzen is that he did not get too “technical” with things. “Observe with mindfulness and equanimity” can be interpreted in myriad ways, so the student can find a way to interpret it which matches his “hardware”. He also did not cover maps (besides his “insect” experience indicative of some of the Dark Night zones). Ingram is very technical in places with both technique and maps and this, in my experience, tends to lead the student down specific paths which may or may not be a good match for him.

      Let’s get back to noting. I’ve covered the difference between Shinzen “warm”, “itch”, “fear” noting, and Ingram’s space invader shooting.

      Now I will talk about scale again, this time within noting itself. You can zoom in on a sensation and “note” it in greater detail. I did this with my “How I Beat Depression” post, where I saw the sensations as little bubble things arising and popping in the stomach area. I literally said, “Bubbles” and other descriptions until I had “learned” to “see” them like that (at which point verbal noting is no longer required). That is taking a whole from the right brain (dysphoria) and breaking it into parts with the left brain via noting, then passing it back to the right brain as innocuous images. It gets reassembled into a less urgent, less distressing “whole”. “Enlightenment” can be seen as establishing a super-innocuous reality by breaking it all down via this investigation (just one of infinite interpretations of “enlightenment”). Ingram tends to focus on sensations at this scale. Shinzen, if memory serves, tends to focus on mid-level scale. So he’s happy to leave “warm” as “warm” (provided it can be observed on that level with mindfulness and equanimity). But sometimes in his teachings he will zoom in. He leaves it quite loose like this.

      Ultimately, it’s about what “zoom” you’re comfortable with. If a “whole” is terrifying (e.g. being raped) but you’re comfortable zooming in and dealing with the sensations of being raped on the micro-level, observing them with mindfulness and equanimity (Shinzen) or noticing the Three Characteristics (Ingram), then allowing it to be reassembled as a more innocuous whole (“just another experience”) then that is your prerogative.

      Back to my meditation, in the post above. I intentionally leave zoom level up to the student. That’s because I think it should be flexible. Sometimes you are in a nice state and a whole situation comes into mind and you are able to view the WHOLE THING with mindfulness and equanimity. The beauty of the breath anchor is leaving that one stable thing to come back to — to “ease off” if it’s too much, then go back in slowly, or break it up into more manageable parts. In this “flexible zoom” sense, I’ve had noting which takes the form of short sentences, e.g. “Oh, so THAT’s why I behaved like that” or “I disliked this BECAUSE…”. It’s a flexible mishmash and collaboration of brain hemisphere modes. Ingram would regard that as “everyday insight” rather than “actual insight”. I say that, because life is lived on this scale, meditation should be able to operate on this scale at least some of the time. Again, Shinzen is more loose with the scale. Ingram is not. Ingram wants more zoom every time. His style is, “If you can get more zoom, take it.” I’ve had the crazy experiences he says that will happen (Face of God fruition, fractal imagery etc.) as a result of this high level of zoom, but it did indeed lead to CYCLING as criticized by our YouTube guy. When Ingram fell back to meeting life on the scale it presents itself to him, via Actualism, he stopped cycling.

      My take-home message is: take the level of zoom that’s going to work on each particular situation. More zoomed-in tends to be more mind (left brain); more zoomed-out tends to be more body (right brain). Those are loose metaphors. I tend to like the zoomed-out levels, which is why I focus on bodywork so much in my posts nowadays. E.g. you can analyse fascia pain via zoom-in and find equanimity with it, or you can learn to unwind it (body level) and actually fix it. Fixing it will cause less chaos in the mind. Yet you would still want the skill of breaking things down for situations that cannot so easily be fixed as just changing something in the body. There are definitely “concepts” (mind) which need to be improved at times. Although I’ve been on a bit of a “body trip” lately, e.g. my Basic Anxiety guide, conceptual levels do still exist. Updating those is the main purpose of all the morality and core lessons/concepts in any spiritual practice. I’ll be focusing mainly on concepts in my forthcoming Basic Social Skills guide.

      Ultimately mind and body are inextricably linked and the “zoom level” is a decent enough guide to tell you where you are making the separation.

      “I don’t know why, but noting is pretty much the only thing in Shinzens techings I didn’t like. It somehow seemed forced and mechanical. Especially if you tried to do it all the time.”

      In my breath meditation, noting makes up about 10% of my total time spent in meditation. I “allow” noting when it seems like it “needs to happen”. Again — very loose, and geared for the student to find his own balance matching his “hardware”.

      Level of force can also be adjusted in my meditation. E.g. if I really need to ditch some intrusive repetitive thought pattern I can force it to fall away by “noting” the word “Ignore!” while observing the sensations — imagery and thoughts — which make it up. This is a kind of forceful “mindfulness and equanimity” (though I doubt Shinzen or Ingram would consider this equanimous). The Buddha does however instruct one in FORCING unhelpful thoughts from your mind in intractable cases, so it is completely in line with his teachings. I’ll be putting instructions for all this in my Basic Breath Meditation guide. The short version is you move awareness further back in your head physically so you’re “watching” consciousness more (less involved at all levels) then on “Ignore!” you allow the contents of consciousness to fall downwards. This releases endorphins and purges the thought pattern. You can do it several times. The goal is to get back to breath each time, more quickly and flowingly, so you can learn to have your experience interrupted less by unhelpful thoughts.

  2. AJM says:

    On another note. Based on your instruction above I may have attained Knowledge of Mind and Body last night in the bad. I was just watching the breath and mental images/talk and occasional body sensations and then things kind of “popped” in my head and I was watching thoughts. There was a bit of vertigo at the times where it seemed the “thought” and the sensations associated to it were staying “still” and I was moving around the sensations and not the other way around like it usually is.

    Do you still think stages of insight and fruition are leading towards liberation and that they should be somehow applied differently from what MCTB describes or that you shouldn’t follow stages of insight as describes in MCTB?

    • Illuminatus says:

      It could have been Mind and Body. In my experience though, there was no question that some permanent shift had taken place. Whether you call it Mind and Body or something else, or just notice it, I think the key thing is that it was very noticeable for me and was permanent. Don’t get too hung up on the labels. This whole thing can be fluid or rigid. The more rigid it is, the more you will end up following the path of the author of the method/map (e.g. Ingram = cycling).

      “Do you still think stages of insight and fruition are leading towards liberation and that they should be somehow applied differently from what MCTB describes or that you shouldn’t follow stages of insight as describes in MCTB?”

      I didn’t get liberated from MCTB (and am not liberated permanently by anything, currently). It doesn’t sound like Ingram was, either (cycling). My own method I started getting into, which the presence walks from The End of Social Anxiety were based on, ended up so close to Actualism that they are basically the same thing. The only difference is that I used Shinzen’s “observe with mindfulness and equanimity” instead of “how is this making me feel right now?” (followed by choosing the happy path instead, as per Actualism). Looking back, I’d rather have injected more happiness into it. Shinzen made me extremely stoic, where in fact Shinzen himself seems very cheerful. TSoE could have used some more happiness stuff IMO but that would have diluted the mindfulness/equanimity message, possibly.

      Actualism seems to have liberated Ingram (possibly — you can never know another’s experience). I’ve felt extremely liberated by my own version of Actualism so long as I was practising it. For some reason I often get right to the edge with such methods then back off at the last second, almost like “choosing” to stay in The Matrix or “playing the game” or whatever you want to call it (dukkha; suffering). I don’t know why I do this though I am dimly aware that the choice is being made at the time.

      Personally I would say Actualism has a good chance of bringing liberation if actually followed diligently, say, every day for a year. MCTB — no.

      The purpose of my breath meditation in the post above is not liberation but is instead “everyday insight” performed every day with the (informal) intention of staying in the game — living life — and treating life as a game worth playing rather than trying to escape from it (liberation). That’s why I compare it to a systems reboot.

      I think liberation somewhat scares me in a “better the devil you know” sense (not knowing what’s on the “other side”) — but I definitely faced that fear and jumped into it as hard as I could via MCTB. It brought less duality but did not “liberate”, however. Maybe the methods, whatever they are, just approach an asymptote of “less duality”. The Buddha certainly says however that total liberation is possible (though, in that case, why differentiate between Arahats and Buddhas?). In the end I decided not to give too much of a shit about it any more, but just found my basic breath meditation brings a higher quality of life so is worth doing.

  3. James says:

    The problem I ran into with zeroing in on a sensation is often times it would “stop” the sensation, and just kind of cycle it.

    Where has paying attention to my breath, a sensation will pop up, and be released/relaxed via my rythem of breathing.

    • Illuminatus says:

      As I said in my post and its comments, my breath meditation is not for enlightenment, so this comment is just for your question re zeroing in on a sensation, and just takes its references from Ingram’s method plus personal experience of that method.

      “The problem I ran into with zeroing in on a sensation is often times it would “stop” the sensation, and just kind of cycle it.”

      There is an ownership in that cycling, though, an “I” of ownership, which is felt as a kind of tension between the sensation and its observation.

      “Where has paying attention to my breath, a sensation will pop up, and be released/relaxed via my rythem of breathing.”

      Breathing moves attention way from that particular sensation, giving a “release” of the tension of owning that sensation. However, if you pay attention, your mind just went onto some other sensation — maybe not body, but something in your thoughts/concepts, e.g. the feeling of having released the tension (which feels good) and there is tension in that ownership as well.

      Basically, you are trying to let go of that tension in all things, and it goes right down to the tiniest sensation or largest perception — the tension is not in the sensation, but the ownership of it. When you start to let a lot of these go, you get a kind of refreshing “drenching” feeling, like when everything feels better temporarily after throwing up. This is Equanimity. Then you have to find the tension in the ownership of Equanimity and finally you can get a Fruition, but this all takes ages.

      My breath meditation above will lead to crude Equanimity because you let a lot of things go, but it won’t lead to that real drenching feeling of letting things go on the “atomic” level (same thing as letting go on the big level, it’s just more readily apparent when in deep enough jhana to actually examine the atomic).

      To skip to the drenching feeling to see what Equanimity is like, you can:

      – Throw up. The first “wave” of relief is Equanimity. If you continue “feeling all right” then that can be studied for seeing the ownership even in that (the “I” of “who” feels all right).

      – Be in severe pain, then take a proper painkiller like tramadol or some other opiate. You get strong, persistent “drenching” waves as it hits and you release ownership of the pain sensations (even though it’s all artificial, that release in tension is still palpable as crude Equanimity). In this case the waves will repeat so you can study them more.

      – Take LSA or LSD. The drenching feeling is regular as you release ownership of sensations which then dance before you hallucinogenically (Arising & Passing Away). LSD is better by far.

      The reason I believe Ingram’s method causes cycling is that the tension is in the constant examination of such sensations. Then, finally relief is gained from such stringent examination as the body or mind “claps out” and you get a Fruition. As mentioned in the critique from our YouTube guy, the method itself causes the “attention wave” via the stringent attention placed on sensations.

      I believe this cycling doesn’t apply to Actualism as that method is based on following the experience “as it wants” rather than trying to pause and examine it. It’s hard to get into the Actualism flow (it’s all difficult, really) but when you do it really is that blissful fairytale life is supposed to be. It’s like walking around in a dream — no different, in fact. But because it feels so awesome, I try to grab hold of that awesomeness, think things like “I can’t wait to write about this on PPM!” then the awesomeness is gone and the flow is broken. So Actualism is a mental habit more than anything, of not trying to hold onto anything. I believe several months non-stop or maybe a year would probably be long enough for mental retraining. I get to the good stuff within, say, a walk, then something like paying my bills will pop into my head and I’ll have to force my attention back to the experience right now. Then that will slowly fall away. Then I’ll get home off my walk and be back to “real life”. The lengthy mental retraining is to retrain even THAT into part of the flow. Then even really BAD things into part of the flow. So Actualism is about not taking ownership in the first place, in my opinion.

  4. James says:

    “There is an ownership in that cycling, though, an “I” of ownership, which is felt as a kind of tension between the sensation and its observation.”

    This is extremely well put, and adds a ton of clarification for me, thanks.

    • Illuminatus says:

      Thanks. I’m on the tail-end of an LSD trip, and was pretty high when I wrote that. LSD is basically “free jhanas” plus “free Arising & Passing away”. It gives jhanas 1-8 and custom jhanas but the draw of Arising & Passing Away keeps one coming back to that state. Also, jhana 8 (Neither Perception Nor Yet Non-Perception) is hard to stay in due to the stimulation of the drug. I would say I got to Reobservation (a lot) with dashings of Equanimity (examination of which would fall back to Reobservation) on that run but had to give up because my body was knackered by that point.

      Trying to let go the ownership of I for a lot of that night (and failing, though learning a ton) has made me wonder about my previous “Fruitions”. That ownership last night appeared to be present in the bonds of every atom. I started shaking all over — very fine shakes — when I was approaching letting the finest bonds go. I never got there.

      Then again, the line between man/Creator is so blurred on LSD, it’s hard to distinguish whether I am creating Ingram’s prophecy (and living/suffering through it) because it’s more at the forefront of my mind than anything else when it comes to meditation (I really got into that stuff hard). When I came up with my Three Inverse Characteristics post I seemingly got Fruitions easily, but now I’m doubting if they really were Fruitions. Or am I just making this harder for myself to add more challenge and extend this distraction from eternity?

      See, LSD fractally cycles your mindset and extends it infinitely to be the whole Universe. If you’re alone when you trip, you end up seeing the whole Universe as being alone and constantly creating distractions for itself to stop itself pondering eternity alone. That’s why you see so many trip reports on Erowid where the poster met God and realized they were Him/it, and that there is no Other, so he creates them then lets them forget they are Him so they can meet each other and rejoin. I’ve seen many saying that. Here’s one:

      I also wrote exactly the same principle down in a Word document several years ago. It was post-meditation, but pre-psychedelics. It’s a lonely and frustrating headspace.

      Do I chase “true Fruition” (liberation) or just settle for Life? I’m leaning towards life in the long run but reckon I’ll have another few stabs at liberation to see if it’s even possible.

  5. James says:

    I’ve done my fare share of psychedelics, and never viewed the universe as alone.

  6. James says:

    I’ve never done LSD.

    I’ve done DXM, where I cycled through death and rebirth. I mixed DXM and DMT once and got a really harsh the universe is ending experience.

    I mainly get wisdom about living the life of a human from the experiences, here are some from dxm:

    “Lazyness is self destruction”

    “Death is what makes life fun”

    “You are what you repeat”

    Most psyc drugs I’ve done have been plant medicines. Ayahausca and San Pedro mainly – I was searching for healing when I took them, the setting was on my own or with a friend.

    I’ve written up several of my trip reports on Aya and I’m finishing up latest one with San Pedro. I can send them to if you’d be interested in checking them out.

    • Illuminatus says:

      Thanks James, those insights are great and are what I slowly but surely began to arrive at. I’d love to see your trip reports – thanks!


  7. John says:

    I can almost see Daniel, in my mind’s eye, smiling and nodding in agreement at much of Jordan’s comment. Or, if not agreeing then at least acknowledging that many of the concerns raised have merit. But Daniel comes across as a genuine explorer, specifically *not* willing to simply take the Buddhist “scriptures” the way a Christian might take the Bible or a Muslim the Q’ran. And he goes on to apply that suspicion of dogma, replacing it with paying attention to what works (for some definition, yes for sure, of “works”), as much to his own views as to anyone else’s. So I’d caution against an overly energetic dismissal of him and MCTB, without actually talking to the guy first. I’ve never failed to be impressed with his humility and openness, and his appreciation of the central challenge in all this that our very language isn’t particularly good at handling non-duality. It’s perfectly possible that a perceived divergence between him and tradition is merely that — perceived. Also, he knows the Arahat claim is controversial. He’s not an idiot. He makes it because his assessment of the costs vs benefits weighs in favor of the latter. (I disagree, and I’ve told him that, but reasonable minds may differ, and he is a reasonable dude.) As I say, go talk to the man! 🙂

    • Illuminatus says:

      I have had a pendulum-like relationship with my views on Daniel Ingram’s work. After the above piece I had experiences which brought me back to his work. Then, after that, I’ve settled into a more mid-line position, able to understand and appreciate his views (while holding some different) from a position of having my own insight. I will publish a mailbag soon going into this more, once I get permission from the correspondent.

      But contrary to what you wrote above, I think a book should stand on its own and one shouldn’t have to meet the author to figure out what he’s trying to say. I have spoken to Daniel on the Dharma Overground and he is a nice guy, always willing to help, and I like him very much as a person. But, again, being a nice guy doesn’t have much to do with whether your book is useful or not.

      • John says:

        That’s fair, to a large extent. OTOH, as I said part of the problem here is the limits of language and so I think we have to allow for a much higher degree of ambiguity and apparent contradiction, both within any given Buddhist writing, and among several of the same. One problematic result of that is that Buddhism is rife with *needlessly* enigmatic aphorisms, and Daniel at least does very well, I feel, in dodging that nonsense.

        Nevertheless, at its heart Buddhism seems fundamentally to run into the kind of problem described by Wittgenstein where only those who already “get it” will fully understand what is being said. After all, can you think of *any* Buddhist writing (canon, commentaries, or contemporary) of any real substance that does *not* suffer from that same issue? Of course even looking beyond the book itself doesn’t completely solve the language problem; perhaps nothing can. But it can help.

        I think one of the general messages you get from Daniel, and this becomes clear only after reading not only MCTB but also *around* it, is similar to one reportedly given by the Buddha I his final moments, and that we also find reflected in later Christian writings: work out your salvation in fear and trembling. I think what we see in Daniel, and then recorded in MCTB, is just a regular guy working out some salvation, showing in the process to many people that they may well want to give it a try themselves. For that alone– just documenting his experience, bumps an’ bruises an’ all –I think he deserves a medal.

        But, Illuminatus, I suspect you already get this, having seen your pendulum swings damp into a carefully considered position you’re happy with. that sounds similar to my own experience (although still ongoing), so we’re probably in agreement here, no? Dan’s a good guy, thoughtful, smart, and experienced, with some good stuff to say, but also some more on the “meh” side, depending on one’s starting position and dis-position. For me, that’s all I expect from anyone, be he a 21st century MD, or a perceptive, and persistent little rich kid from circa 500 BC. Looking forward to that mailbag you mention!

        • Illuminatus says:

          I love Daniel, even though he’s a socialist. 😛

          My #1 problem with the book/ his method is as follows: He divides meditation neatly into “concentration” and “insight”. Then he says that you can’t get insight with concentration alone. In my experience however, concentration is THE VEHICLE for insight. You won’t get anywhere without concentration. Concentration is just constantly throwing up stuff for you to look at. I was practically forced to look at all that stuff while concentrating because it becomes so evident.

          During my first 6 years of practice I didn’t know much about Buddhism, and didn’t have MCTB. I knew nothing of the stages of insight. I just concentrated, while following Shinzen Young’s main rule of “observe everything with mindfulness and equanimity” (and I now realize that is a type of insight). This did not appear to me as two separate techs, “concentration” and “insight” — it appeared as a single process. There is good evidence that the Buddha thought of meditation in this combined way, too (with jhana/concentration being THE VEHICLE), and there is a good essay about it which I will try to find the link for.

          I only starting splitting the two up after reading MCTB. There IS a benefit of splitting things up (which, by the way, is a very left-brained thing to do, and Daniel is a super-left-brainer if you know the “tells” to look out for). This benefit, for me, was learning the map of the jhanas. I had no idea you could go so deep into absorption, since before I was always doing this combined concentration-insight thing. So, with all that experience of concentration built up in my practice, turning my attention only to absorption in the object let me advance through the jhanas relatively quickly. So that was awesome. I think the descriptions of the jhanas are some of the best bits of the book.

          The downside of the split is that I started doing insight without first getting much absorption, since Ingram basically SAYS that “insight is the important bit”. My focus went almost entirely onto insight. This was a disaster and wasted a couple of years, probably. The concentration is way more important.

          I think however there may be an aspect of different methodologies/approaches working better for different neurotypes.

          • Illuminatus says:

            “That’s fair, to a large extent. OTOH, as I said part of the problem here is the limits of language and so I think we have to allow for a much higher degree of ambiguity and apparent contradiction, both within any given Buddhist writing, and among several of the same. One problematic result of that is that Buddhism is rife with *needlessly* enigmatic aphorisms, and Daniel at least does very well, I feel, in dodging that nonsense.”

            Well you’ve identified the problem, and that is that insight is experiential and cannot be conveyed with language, much like how a colour cannot be described in its own right. One solution is to compare a colour to other colours, or to objects that have that colour, so an implicit definition emerges: this is where the Buddhist aphorisms come from. I have actually found many of those to be very useful. They are enigmatic because they point to something far removed from most people’s experience of the linear subject->object, a->b causality experienced in the day to day.

            Ingram approached this problem by making very clear-cut distinctions. In this way, he gained clarity, but also trimmed a lot from the experience in the process. This always happens the more distinct you make your language.

            The advantage of using very clear language is that, IF someone who responds well to your specific style of language comes along, they can understand it and action it well. The disadvantage is that if that person does not respond well to your specific style of reducing the experience down to words, then he will struggle to follow your method.

            This is the basic problem of trying to transmit any experience via language. What I just described above is also the source of Ingram’s decision to split concentration and insight — it was useful for him. It’s one representation of the whole, and different people will respond to it in different ways.

            I am very right-brained and absorb “gestalts” (whole pictures) easily and can action them easily. A Buddhist example is the instruction (for jhana) to: “fill your mind with delight”. I read that once and easily applied it, and was very grateful for it. All those flowery lingual depictions of jhana, like “a mind as clear as a full moon”, were very helpful for me. A more left-brained person however would likely need specific step-by-step instructions. So, I believe there is a neurotypical aspect to the different responses to different lingual representations of the experience of meditation/enlightenment.

            • Arpan says:

              @ Illuminatus: I had a question regarding this.
              Many jhana teachers advocate developing access concentration to the point where you can feel a good amount of piti and then, when the breath goes extremely faint, they advise shifting attention to piti itself.

              I, personally, can develop a significant amount of piti in a very short amount of time( usually a couple of minutes..and never more than 10 to 15 min) using Do Nothing or similar low effort techs. I believe , I naturally have more knack for Equanimity than Concentration(in reference to Shinzen Young’s definition of mindfulness as a 3 faceted phenomenon: Concentration, Equanimity and Sensory Clarity).

              Do you think that in such a case one can skip the effort to develop access concentration via breath or other object and just develop good amount of piti with Do Nothing/low effort tech and then focus on the piti to develop jhanas ? If so, is it a more efficient method. I have just started experimenting with this, some advise before i put in the time would be appreciated 🙂

              • Illuminatus says:

                Switching to piti early will result in a “soft” jhana.

                To get the hard luminous jhana you need to stay hard with the object. Piti can be experienced but you cannot switch to the piti as your main object. By the time the hard first jhana arises you will be forced to fully experience the piti and it will merge with the main object, so the “breath” will become “piti” and “you” will also merge with that to become one object.

                The mental link you need to make is that concentration itself creates the piti. The piti is the side effect of concentration on the main object. Once you realize that concentrating on the main object is the source of piti it will become clear that you have to stay with the main object longer and longer if you want more piti.

                • Arpan says:

                  I do understand this fact about concentration and how letting go amd concentration are just different facets of the same thing. But I inadvertantly tend to develop some tensions in my head in concentration oriented techs(therebis progress but abysmally slow). Maybe this would get relieved if i take an object not associated with face/head.

                  Yes, teachers like Leigh Brasington who focus on piti do tend to land up in soft jhanas. But can’t a hard jhana be worked out from within a soft jhana ? If this is possible, it would be really helpful in the sense that one would be able to work from a state of pleasantness(soft jhana) , which would for sure cure my “tightness” too. I found this question posted and answered with conflicting opinions on forums like DhO. i tend to just give up on hard jhana once a soft is reached. If this is possible, I would put in some work.

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