Our way is to put the dough in the oven and watch it carefully. How this physical body becomes a sage is our main interest.
We are not so concerned with what flower is or what dough is or what a sage is. A sage is a sage. Metaphysical explanations of human nature are not the point.
– Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Lately I’ve noticed an upsurge in recommending The Mind Illuminated – meditator friends in real life, posts on Reddit, and elsewhere on the internet seem to be bumping this book to the top of the “what to recommend when a beginner asks me about meditation” list.
In an effort to simply everything that is going to be said below into a tl;dr up front:
My main worry is that The Mind Illuminated, compared to other ways to introduce beginners to meditation, places the newbie at a high risk developing a “checking” habit – a discursive thought pattern of checking in on technique or worrying of everything is as it should be in the mind.
Before we continue, disclaimer: My experience is my experience, based on my place on the path and my interaction with the content. This post may be relevant to your circumstances, or maybe not.
It should be said that at the time of picking up the book, not long ago actually, I’d already done the hard work of struggling to establish a regular, disciplined practice.
I’d heard great things, plus the book had the phrase “brain science” in the title – it seemed perfect for what I was looking for. And as I ran through the book it felt great – “FINALLY! This is one of the best breakdowns I’ve EVER read!” I thought.
It might feel as though there are these monks doing meditation and spouting off esoteric, ambiguous, and confusing instruction. And then here comes along Culadasa and The Mind Illuminated speaking “MY” language.
And I have to say, I think the world of meditation and those exploring the mind need to do a better job writing in the way that Caludasa writes. But, I worry that the manner of instruction in this particular book (not related to the relatability) might lend itself to an over focus on concepts.
And so this led me to trying to “think my way out” of any problems that arose. I fear beginners might ask questions like:
What was that, forgetting or mind-wandering?
Ah, crap, what was the solution for that again? Following? Connecting? Mindfulness?
Was that gross distraction or subtle distraction? What kind of antidote do I need?
Is this unification of mind? (well, not anymore :P)
There are certainly more and less skillful ways to teach beginners anything: baseball, guitar, meditation. The question I hoped to raise here is: Is the method in the book one of the more skillful recommendations to make generally to absolute beginners who ask, or does the rich detail and emphasis on terminology distract beginners. In this case, would an introductory book with a simpler method be a better first recommendation?
Without a doubt, the book is a tremendous achievement. But I I wonder if it is not a better description of meditation experience, struggles, and solutions many meditators know, rather than an ideal manual for beginners.
Maybe this metaphor will help: Imagine a professional soccer player having retired, wanted to write a book about learning to play soccer and the professional sport. The book he/she writes is a wonderful account of what it’s like to play a professional sport, and a wonderful account of how it felt and the major things experienced in going from a beginner to professional.
But, for whatever reason, young soccer players found that reading this book didn’t actually help them become professional soccer players. It’s not that it was inaccurate, it’s just that it the manner in which the book described the process of becoming a pro seemed to be less productive than the simple instruction of going out and finding people to practice with.
It reminds me of this quote from the book: Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye:
When you start thinking you just gotta, gotta, gotta get to the bottom of everything and experience whatever you envision as complete, unsurpassed, unqualified whiz-bang-with-cheese-on-top enlightenment, you’re moving in the wrong direction. The enlightenment you’re searching for when you search that way is always gonna be way off over there somewhere. Never here. Never now.
I hope this post can help kick off a discussion and sharing of experiences to better inform the community and the next generation of beginners looking to pick up the perfect first meditation book.