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Deconstructing the Mind 1: Daniel P. Brown on Meditation as "Pattern Recognition in Reverse"

This article summarizes how Daniel P. Brown described meditation as "pattern recognition in reverse", as a process of successive deconstruction. The post refersmainly to his 1981 dissertation on Mahamudra meditation stages and his later simplified descriptions of the "quick path" using the Heart Sutra as a model.

The article shows on way in which way Dan Brown used Western cognitive science to provide a foundation for concepts and techniques of meditation. It shows that some concepts are still used today (the "icon").

The article also shows in a short digression in which way Dan Brown´s would have to be updated, taking into account the more top-down oriented models of the cognitive processes developed today (e.g. "the Bayesian brain").

Note: I wrote this post with the help of Claude 3 Opus. It was mainly used in summarising and simplifying his descriptions in the highly academic dissertation.

An image of Daniel P Brown and a symbol for a book

"Deconstruction" is a fairly modern concept: for example, meditation teacher Michael Taft (a student and collaborator of Shinzen Young) has called his website "Deconstructing Yourself" and has provided his own version of sensory deconstruction processes.

In modern theories of the Bayesian brain, this deconstruction can be conceptualized as a successive "reweighting of priors" (see, for example, Shamil Chandaria), the common thread being that what we seem to perceive is not reality itself: it is some kind of abstract representation, or model, or prediction. Meditation is then interpreted as a successive dismantling of layers of this construction.

The article gives an overview of the construction/deconstruction processes, then gives some details on Dan Brown's take on Bohm's concept of implicate and explicate order, and explains the term "icon" in detail.

In addition, there is a section on how Dan Brown also applies the concept of deconstruction on a more detailed level, namely in attention/concentration training.

Daniel Brown´s view of meditation as deconstruction

Daniel P. Brown's work as a meditation teacher has always been based on the Mahamudra concept of stages of meditation. The following high-level concept of stages is used in this overview:

  • Preliminaries

  • Concentration

  • Insight

  • Extraordinary Practices

The stages of meditation allow for a systematic deconstruction of the information processing system. The meditator gains insight into increasingly subtle levels of mental construction, from conceptual to perceptual to pre-perceptual, until the fundamental nature of mind and reality is realized.

Remark: obviously, the claim that this is the "fundamental nature of mind and reality" is an ontological statement that one may or may not agree with.

The map of the information processing system provides a framework for understanding this process of meditative deconstruction.

Structure and levels of the information processing system

Based on cognitive science in the 1970s and early 1980s, Dan Brown presented a nearly exclusively bottom-up model of information processing. Since then, neuroscience (and more recently AI) has contributed a view that focuses more on the top-down, model-building, and predictive capacities of the mind. Thus, the following summary must be seen as historically limited. For example, today it is known that the top-down information flows in the brain vastly outnumber the bottom-up flows.

Within the scientific bottom-up frame of the time, the information processing system has the following structure and levels.

1. Implicate energy transformations involve subtle quantum energy exchanges and interactions that enable future interactions.

2. Temporal Information-Processing:

  • Organism and stimulus interact, creating wave-patterns of information.

  • Wave-patterns become discrete temporal events, obscuring their connections.

  • Discrete events become more stable and are briefly stored.

  • Attention focuses on events, turning them into separate entities.

3. Observation and Sorting:

  • Distinction between subject and object is created.

  • Relevant temporal patterns are selected, irrelevant ones are deselected.

  • Internal effort matches temporal patterns; unmatched info is disregarded.

4. Perceptual Construction:

  • Initial fleeting pattern recognition from discontinuous information.

  • Unstable patterns are synthesized.

  • Perceptual scanning allows object constancy.

  • Sensory categorization, response to internal info, and anticipation occur.

5. Conceptual Construction:

  • Categorical processes become automatic; perceptual readiness and reality-closeness develop.

  • Conceptual association and reasoning take place.

6. Personality Construction:

  • Affective-motivational and attitudinal mechanisms are activated.

  • Exploratory behavior and effort invested in perceptual processing

Deconstruction in meditation

In essence, in Daniel Brown´s theory, meditation reverses the process of construction. The meditator walks back, starting with the highest level of construction (the self), back to a "quantum field" or "implicit order" (here Dan Brown was inspired by David Bohm).

The multi-level information processing system is relevant to the stages of meditation in the following ways:

  • In the Preliminary Practices, the meditator dismantles manifest affective-motivational and attitudinal patterns and develops self-focused awareness.

  • In the Concentration stages, postural and perceptual reduction enables selective attention on a single stimulus. The stabilized meditation state leads to formless, non-conceptual awareness as perceptual transformations deconstruct the object.

  • In the Insight stages, the meditator first develops self-awareness of discernible mental events and balances the subject/object distinction. Next, temporal flux is observed as psychological moments and finally transcended in an experience of radiant, unimpeded continuity.

  • In the Extraordinary Practices and stages of enlightenment, all events are perceived as an interdependent dance. Quantum energy transformations enable a simultaneous experience of relative and ultimate truth.

This diagram should illustrate the idea. The left column uses the terminology of the dissertation. The right column uses the terminology that Dan Brown often used to describe the "quick path" (for example, in the extensive "Sacred Sundays" interview.

A diagram showing the bottom up and top down processes of construction and deconstruction

It is here, at the very end, where Dan Brown 40 years later, in the Fitmind podcast interview, describes the world of the yogi in terms of fields ("Buddhafields"):

So a funny thing happens. You still see the world, but you start seeing the world as a sacred world. The Buddhafields aren't somewhere you fly off to remotely.
They're always right here. Everything is right here. The whole world of the sacred mandala is here.You see all people as deities in that mandala. You only see the sacred world 100% of the time. You live in total positivity. It's a remarkable state. 
And then what comes out of that is the embodiment of enlightenment. There's what we call the threefold embodiment of enlightenment.
There's an infinite vast expanse. It's an empty expanse, it's knowing awareness, it's totally vast and limitless and stable all the time. In that ground of that expanse, there's the sacred world of the mandala, and all the Buddhafields are always right here.
It's a spectacular view. It's substantial like rainbow light. But as all the deities of the mandala and all the retinue deities are here all the time, you live in that sacred world. And that's called the Sambhogakaya, the Dhammakaya, the Sambhogakaya
. And then thirdly, what will happen is that you'll live in that sacred world all the time, and it will break your heart more and more than everybody's clueless about this. And that replace what we call the seed of aspiration. Aspiration will grow to a certain intensity, and sometimes it will explode into a million pieces. Those are called the Namanakayas, the emanations. The ultimate of multitasking.
So now there are thousands of copies of yourself, all guiding beings along the path. Because you can't stand it, they don't see this, and you help them out. Then you get all three Buddha bodies at once.
The infinite, vast, limitless, expansive, knowing awareness, brilliantly lucid knowing awareness, the sacred world of the mandala, and all the beings of Buddhism helping, guiding people along the path. You get all three at once, simultaneously, stable. It's accompanied by awe, usually.
Game over, that's stable. You finish the path. That's full enlightenment.

Deconstruction as recursive process

The preceding text was based on the 1981 dissertation. This section expands the idea of deconstruction. It is based on Daniel Brown´s attention training.

Here, the deconstruction is conceptualised as a consecutive recognition by the meditator of more and more "subtle" mind movements or mind moments.

We usually do not recognise that we are spinning stories in our mind (the daydreams). Meditation starts with the recognition of coarse constructs (stories, daydreams), and progresses back the the source: a never-ending stream of unelaborated mind-moments.

Specific metaphors and mind exercises are used to train this consecutive deconstruction: for example, the initial metaphor of "catching the snake (of thoughts) as its head", just as it is leaving its hole.

Or, later the technique of "sealing", that refines the art of recognising mental events at their source by elaborating on the dimensions of immediacy and range:

  • Immediacy: the point in time at which awareness "catches" a movement

  • Range: the types of mind movements (thoughts, emotions, sensations, phantasies

A picture showing the stages of throught elaboration and deconstruction
(modified from retreat material)

Implicate and explicit order (David Bohm)

In his text, Daniel Brown references David Bohm's theory of the implicate and explicate order concerning the subtlest level of the information processing system, which he calls "implicate energy transformations." Dan Brown suggests that at this level, the energy transformations transcend classical psycho-physics and follow the laws of relativity.

According to Bohm's theory, the universe can be understood as having two aspects:

  • The explicate order: This is the manifest, observable reality that we perceive in our everyday experience. It is characterized by distinct, seemingly separate objects and events in space and time.

  • The implicate order: This is the deeper, underlying reality that gives rise to the explicate order. It is a holistic, interconnected domain where everything is enfolded into everything else. In this realm, the distinctions between space, time, and separate objects break down.

Brown suggests that the implicate energy transformations at the subtlest level of the information processing system correspond to Bohm's implicate order. He notes that this level involves quantum energy exchanges and acausal interactions, outside the ordinary boundaries of space and time. This is of course a wide-ranging theory in the area of consciousness reseach and -philosophy.

By referencing Bohm's theory, Dan Brown suggests that the deepest insights of meditation correspond to the (then) cutting edge of theoretical physics. Both presume a unity under the apparent diversity.

In terms of the construction/deconstruction process in meditation, the reference to Bohm's theory is relevant in the following ways (with some interpretation by the author if this post):

  • Construction: The normal waking experience of reality, characterized by distinct perceptions, concepts, and a sense of self, can be understood as the explicate order. This is constructed through the hierarchical process of information processing, from quantum energy transformations up to conceptual and self / identity levels.

  • Deconstruction: The process of meditation involves systematically deconstructing the layers of the information processing system, from gross ("objects") to subtle ("fields"). As the meditator gains insight into increasingly subtle levels of mental construction, they begin to access the implicate order that underlies the explicate order of ordinary reality.

  • Enlightenment: In the most advanced stages of meditation, the meditator's experience is said to transcend the boundaries of ordinary space, time, and causality. With some fantasy, this can be understood as a direct realization of the implicate order, in which the interconnectedness and unity of all phenomena are directly perceived. Here, Dan Brown talks about the "Buddha-Fields" with their visions, where the meditator lives in a completely different reality.

"Icons" as a shared concept between different theories of consciousness

The concept of the icon in this text is drawn from the field of cognitive psychology, where it was first proposed by George Sperling in the 1960s. It is an important concept in understanding the flow of information from sensation to perception and memory.

It provides an insight into the detailed underpinning in cognitive science of Dan Brown´s overall theory.

In the context of the information processing system described in the text, an "icon" refers to a brief sensory memory trace, specifically in the visual domain. It is a type of short-term storage of visual information that persists for a short duration after the original stimulus has disappeared.

Key points about the icon:

  • It is part of the early stages of temporal information-processing.

  • As the duration and stability of discrete events increase, the icon becomes more stable, rather than decaying quickly.

  • The icon represents a pre-attentive, global representation of the visual stimulus before it undergoes more detailed processing.

  • Attention can be focused on the information held in the icon, leading to further processing and consolidation of the information.

In the context of meditation, the text suggests that as a meditator progresses through the stages of practice, their ability to stabilize and sustain attention on the icon increases. This enables them to gain insight into the normally fleeting and subtle stages of perceptual processing that occur before the constructed experience of a stable, conceptually understood perceptual world.

The "Icon" in the theories of Donald Hoffman and Thomas Metzinger

The term "icon" is still a key term also in the constructionist theory of Donald Hoffman ("The Case Against Reality"). It is also used by the philosopher Thomas Metzinger ("The Ego Tunnel").

Donald Hoffman and Thomas Metzinger are both prominent philosophers and cognitive scientists who have written extensively about consciousness and perception.

For both Hoffman and Metzinger, "icons" refer to the brain's internal, model-like, symbolic representations of external reality or the self - representations evolved to be pragmatically useful rather than accurate or realistic depictions of the world.

In their works, the term "icon" refers to the internal representations or models that the brain constructs to interface with the external world. These icons are not direct representations of objective reality, but rather useful "data structures" evolved to guide behavior and decision-making.


  • Donald Hoffman's "Interface Theory of Perception" proposes that what we perceive as objective reality is actually a user interface shaped by evolutionary forces to be a simplified, icon-like representation that allows us to navigate the world successfully and pass on our genes. The icons are evolutionarily fit for survival, not necessarily truthful depictions of reality. He usually explains this thought by a user deleting an icon on a computer screen (the user is not really deleting something looking like the file-icon, for example.

  • Thomas Metzinger's work "The Ego Tunnel" describes consciousness as producing a phenomenal self-model or "ego" which he considers an object-representing "icon" in the brain's self-model. This iconic representation of the self as a whole is distinct from the process of conscious experience itself. He too uses the computer-screen for illustration.


Brown, D. P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation).

This dissertation is a free download. It is a massive, highly technical volume that nevertheless gives an unparalleled insight into the education of a yogi.It draws on the knowledge of cognitive science as of the late 1970s, so it is not the newest in this regard. The University of Chicago library entry:

Original URL of PDF:

Brown Daniel P & Ora Nadrich. (2018, August 31). Sacred Sundays with Dr. Daniel Brown, Ph.D. [Video]. YouTube.

A very broad and comprehensive interview given when Dan Brown was not yet overly affected by Parkinson

A forum review by several people is here:

Chandaria, S. (2022, October 30). The Bayesian Brain and Meditation: A predictive processing account of radical changes in the character of phenomenal experiences [Video]. YouTube.

Brown, D. P. & FitMind. (2020, August 12). The Science of an Optimal Mind - Dan Brown, Ph.D. | The FitMind Podcast [Video]. YouTube.

Hoffman, D. (2019). The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes.

Metzinger, T. (2010). The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (First Trade Paper). Basic Books.

Taft, M. W. (2024, February 8). Deconstructing Sensory Experience — a transcript. Deconstructing Yourself.


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