Integral Yoga and the Buddhist Stages of the Path

I was just studying John Yates’ (also known as Culadasa) marvelous book on the “stages of the path” in traditional Buddhism (the book is ‘The Mind Illuminated”). Jan and I have been looking at it, as it has a number of suggestions we will be incorporating into our meditation e-course that we’re developing.

I suddenly “got” how extraordinarily simple it is, in essence. Culadasa says that by following this guide (not necessarily his version; he’s not that self involved) it is possible for any diligent person to reach complete mental silence within a few years, perhaps even a few months.

One of the keys is the distinction he makes between selective attention (very much McGilchrist’s ‘left mode”) and peripheral awareness (bottom up processing, non linear, holistic, etc; “right mode”).

Most meditators – in modern times, that is – thrust themselves into the process brutally employing selective attention, and spend months or years fighting with their minds. Many teachers advise “relaxing’ but then, we moderns “relax’ with the same mode, and end up struggling with that like everything else.

Culadasa has a description of a balanced process so brilliant that it is extraordinarily simple. We do engage with the meditative object – the breath, or whatever – with selective attention, but “mindfully” balance that with an open, gentle, soft peripheral awareness.

He goes into tremendous detail – even explaining how the instinctive and ancient emotional programming (more closely associated with the archaic, magical and mythic structures) – originally served a very good purpose (“originally” meaning several hundred million years ago for our animal ancestors and 10s to 100s of thousand years ago for our human ancestors) but now serves primarily the apparently separate mental ego, which distorts the whole process.

He portrays a process over the 10 stages of the Buddhist path toward “shamatha” – an effortless state of inner silence, peace, happiness, and utter contentment – as an increasing (and natural!) integration of attention and awareness, and by stage 8 or 9, a shift from effort to increasing effortlessness, as “something” takes over (something that is ever-present!).

One of the most practical, immediately effective meditation manuals I’ve ever come across.

It was particularly remarkable to me to compare it to Alan Wallace’s “Attention Revolution” (terrible title; the publisher’s choice, not his) which outlines the same path, but from a Tibetan Buddhist/Dzogchen perspective. Culadasa uses breath as the main object throughout all the 10 stages, though in subtler and subtler ways.

Alan introduces “settling the mind in its natural state” at stage 5 (in stage 4, you’ve reached the point where every time you sit to meditate, you can fairly easily stay with the breath the whole 45 minute or hour session, though thoughts and other distractions still are very present). At stage 5, for Alan, you shift – now you simply rest in “the space of awareness” and observe rising and passing away phenomena in the mind. by stage 8, you shift to “awareness of awareness”, not even attending to the mental phenomena at all, and with this, thoughts begin to die out altogether, as they are not fed by attention.

This is the stage when effortlessness begins to be predominant. Something else begins to guide the whole process, and beyond stage 10, a self-perpetuating inquiry occurs which reveals what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present Origin,” and ultimately, results in the non-dual realization of “One Taste” (Rigpa, the Self). Beyond that, Sri Aurobindo tells us of a Divine, Intelligent “Force” or Shakti which profoundly transforms every aspect of our mental, vital and physical consciousness, resulting ultimately in a perfect integration.

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One thing that particularly struck me was Alan’s description of the effects of increasingly stable concentration from stages 5 to 10. As i was reading, something seemed very familiar. I took a break, looked at Bases of Yoga, and I realized the description, not only of “settling the mind in its natural state” but of the effects of concetnration was almost exactly the same as Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of the “quiet mind.”

In fact, the instructions Sri Aurobindo gives for developing the quiet mind are in some cases identical as Alan’s guide to “settling the mind in its natural state.” I found this fascinating because Dzogchen is not actually a Buddhist practice, but a meditative tradition indigenous to Tibet that predates the 7th century introduction by the Indian Padmasambhava. Furthermore, the qualities that emerge, as described by Alan, from stages 5 to 10, sound very much like Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of quiet, calm, peace and silence (I don’t have the page here but it’s early in Bases of Yoga – free online at Auro e-books).

Sri Aurobindo has many times written that it is in the silent mind that one finds the conditions most favorable for surrender, which speaks to me of the vital importance of the understanding of the (non linear, of course) “progression” from the quiet to the silent mind.

I know there’s a lot of ambivalence about getting inspiration from “other paths,” (though Mother herself found the Dhammapada useful enough to offer commentary on it in the early 1960s), but being rooted in integral yoga, I find that it can be extraordinarily helpful to get insights like this that have very down-to-earth, practical ramifications.

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Here’s Alan Wallace’s description of the first 4 stages, with regard to concentrating on breath awareness, plus a little bit more on the later stages.

STAGE 1. You’ve completed this stage when you realize how noisy your mind is! (generally, before people start meditating they actually beleive their minds are fairly stable. After meditating for a few weeks, you realize you’ve got a psychotic roommate living in your head who never shuts up!

STAGE 2. You’ve completed this stage when you get to the point where, when you completely lose track of the breath, you realize it within 10-20 seconds of the time you got off track.

STAGE 3: You’ve completed this stage when you have – say, within a 20 minute meditation session – at least several instances when you can stay with the breath for at least 1 minute. You may still have all kinds of thoughts and other distractions you’re aware of in peripheral awareness, but your main focus of attention remains the breath. Alan estimates that most people who are reasonably stable psychologically can get to this stage within a few weeks of dedicated practice.

STAGE 4: You can reliably sit to meditate at any time, and you will stay with the meditative object throughout your meditation session. At this point, in Alan’s description of the stages, you’re ready for “settling the mind in the natural state” (which uses a subtle object, the contents of the mind, as the focus of attention, rather than a gross object, the breath, as the focus).

STAGE 5: Now your practice shifts to what Sri Aurobindo calls “the quiet mind”, in which the “substance” of the mind remains still, and even if a thousand thoughts pass through the mind, the stillness remains.

The practice from hereon becomes noting subtler and subtler distractions, rejecting or gently letting them go, sinking deeper and deeper into utter stillness and silence until the whole process becomes effortless. What makes it integral rather than Buddhist practice is that the meditative focus is undergirded with the aspiration to open to and surrender all of the mind, vital and physical to the Divine Force.

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