Beyond Awakening

The Sun Beyond the Clouds of Self

by Terry Patten | May 6, 2013

With Daniel P. Brown

On Monday, May 6th, I was joined by Buddhist scholar, meditation teacher, psychologist, and trauma and attachment expert Daniel P. Brown—a notable event because he rarely grants public interviews!

“The Path to Everything Good” is a riveting transmission of practical spiritual instruction, woven together with scientific and psychological insights, and grounded practical advice. Several listeners wrote to me that they plan to listen to this recording again and again. It’s that rich.

Dan speaks clearly and with great specificity and detail. In the process he does something I’ve never seen done quite so well. High Tibetan Buddhist “Mahamudra” practice (instead of seeming ornate and esoteric and complex) comes across clearly, simply, powerfully, and experientially. Listening to this conversation you may discover a Tibetan Buddhism you’ve never seen before.

In Tibetan Buddhism there’s a cultural convention against describing meditative attainments, but there’s an obscure tradition of “pointing out” instruction that speaks very specifically and in detail about what each stage of the practice is really like, and which offers very practical advice about how to progress, stage by stage, all the way to awakening.

Dan illuminated crucial aspects of the “three maps to awakening” of Tibetan Buddhist “Mahamudra”: 1) the process of building steadiness of concentration, 2) the practice of emptiness until there is stabilization of awakening, and 3) the practice of realizing full Buddhahood—“everything good”.

Dan pointed out that that there are 80 positive qualities of Buddha Mind, and that they can be consciously cultivated. This evolution of awakening practices (going from merely ending suffering to cultivating positivity) can be traced to the “second turning of the wheel of Dharma”—the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism. He likened each turning to a scientific revolution, bearing innovations, discoveries and insights that were absent from the prior stage. He outlined them for those unfamiliar with Buddhism

The First Turning concerns the Four Noble Truths, and liberation from suffering. Dukkha (the mind’s tendency to make more of what it wants and less of what it doesn’t want), Impermanence, and Anatta (no self) are the three insights to awakening on this path.

The Second Turning concerns Emptiness practice. After 500 years of the First Turning, a new insight sprung up —Emptiness, or “just a construction of mind.” Relative truth was distinguished, and the realization that to touch ultimate truth, you have to see beyond the reification of constructs, such as time.

The Third Turning, concerns the essence traditions and the idea that we are always, already awake as part of our hardwiring. The sun (awakening) always shines, but habits cloud over our Buddha nature. The practice is to clear up the clouds.

Dan points out that Westerners, so prone to distraction, need the “elephant path” (so called because training concentration is like training an elephant). He distinguished concentration from the practice of mindfulness, which is marked by a continuity of non-reactive awareness and no intensification. Dan called ADD “a metaphor for modern culture”. Even though highly skilled concentrators from the Tibetan tradition can do 7 things at once, most of us only think that we are “multitasking”. In reality, we are being distracted by each new task or stimulus and eroding the efficiency of our engagement with all of them.

But despite the fact that we are a highly distractible species, “the elephant can learn to settle down.” The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that’s activated in concentration. Because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, practicing the elephant path, increases the strength and volume of the ACC. Eventually with practice, you can stabilize concentration and sustain a capacity to pay careful attention, even in our ADD culture.

Dan discussed the sense of self too. It’s necessary and healthy as a central organizing principle, for coherence and continuity across time, space and state. The problem is that we forget that it’s a representation. There are two consequences to this forgetting:

1. “Grab” — we get severely attached to both negative and positive experiences which leads to suffering.

2. “Obscuration” — The structure of the mind, the self, becomes a cloud over the true nature of awareness. This obscures the “sun” of our primordial awareness and freedom, the most primary dimension of existence that exists beyond time.

Buddhist “Emptiness” practice is to stop thinking of these structures of the mind as independently existing. Then, you see something about the nature of awareness. He described a “high- speed awareness practice of unfindability” where we target the self, emotion, or time and roam the body and being in search of it, until it recedes from awareness. What’s left is the field of awareness itself.

When the Nagarjuna came along and turned the Dharma wheel, he took Emptiness one step further, with the insight that things seem to come and go because of time, which is a construct of mind. This insight means that if something arises, I take the view that it was already here. And if it goes, I take the view that it never leaves. Thus, everything is interconnected because it doesn’t operate temporally in time.

This “all-at-onceness” is the gateway to Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. And this will change your ethics because you become aware that everything you think and do affects everything in the field. All is interconnected. This is a profoundly different view of the universe than what came before.

Dan acknowledged that any experience of awakening is accompanied by deep compassion and spontaneous gratitude and devotion. However, he pointed out that it is not stable. One must engage in practices to nurture and stabilize it. So there’s another world of practices to bring that awakening to full Buddhahood. Still, for all of us, what’s built into the hard wiring of awakening is compassion and service for others. That is “the path to everything good.”

Toward the end of the dialog, a caller asked Dan to further elucidate the high speed awareness practice of, “Emptiness of Emotions”.  He responded by taking us through a powerful exercise of roaming through the body-mind for the underlying emotion. Following fear, we can come to the realization that fear is actually alertness.

The high point of the conversation for me came at the end, when Dan gave a gorgeous explication of the mantra of the Heart Sutra, wherein he outlined the whole path to awakening, hidden in plain sight, by the few poetic words of the mantra: “Gaté, Gaté, Paragaté, Parasamgaté. Bodhi! Svaha!”


Join us on Monday, May 6th at 5pm Pacific for a dialog with Daniel P. Brown entitled “The Path to Everything Good”.

I highly recommend you tune in to this dialog, for two important reasons:

First, Dan Brown is a remarkably erudite, compassionate, and articulate psychologist, Buddhist scholar, and meditation teacher, who very rarely gives public interviews. I’m excited and honored to invite you to encounter him.

Second, I’m confident you’ll gain valuable, deep insights from Dan’s discussion of the nitty-gritty step-by-step process of awakening as set forth in the Indo-Tibetan mediation tradition and rendered accessible in his precise, easy-to-understand language.

I had the opportunity to meet and to practice with Dan this past January when I participated in an extraordinary 8-day retreat he led with John Churchill in Boston, focused on the unique “Pointing Out Way” through which he introduces students to the high Tibetan pure consciousness practice called “Mahamudra”.

In addition to his illuminating lectures and guidance, I had several personal and wide-ranging conversations with Dan. We talked about many things, including the animating question of this series, “How can higher consciousness and spiritual practice enable human beings to rise to meet the unprecedented challenges of our time?”

Dan points out that each of the four primary levels of the Mahamudra path has something useful to say on this topic. His way of talking about it expresses his unique gift. Although he knows the ancient Tibetan teachings in detail (having translated many of the source texts) and he cleaves very closely to the tradition, he describes them in very clear, direct, no-nonsense language. He is an Irish working-class son turned world-class Harvard psychologist and sports fan, not an exotic person from a distant culture, so he is able to bring the precious gem of these teachings alive in a remarkably accessible way.

Here’s the essence of how Dan lays it out:

The first stage of the path is concentration, which is an antidote for the distractability that is epidemic in our lives now. We have become a culture of distractability. We multitask which creates the illusion of doing more but it costs us in terms of awareness, clarity, awakening and even ordinary productivity.

The second stage is basic emptiness training. Recognizing the emptiness of self and all that is arising helps us recognize and free ourselves from all the thoughts, feelings and experiences in everyday life that have “grab”, which is the cause of suffering in everyday life.

The third stage is understanding our profound interconnectedness with all of life. This is the basis of ethics, the transformation of competitiveness and aggression. When it truly shifts our perception, it’s an antidote for selfishness— the worldwide epidemic lack of consideration for others and the environment.

The fourth and ultimate stage is the fluorishing of everything good. This is “Buddha training”, the level of practice where you systematically release all negative karmic impressions from the “storehouse mind” until there are none left. That is “Dharmadhatu” or exhaustion, also called “the stainless mind”. It matures into a clean experience of life in which there are no more negative states at all, just the 80 positive qualities of a Buddha mind.

You’ll discover that there’s a whole path to Awakening available in the tradition of Buddhist meditation, much more deep and profound than many people realize. It goes far beyond just being less reactive and more calm and present. Mindfulness is important, but awakening and enlightenment are what changes everything.