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About the precision of Daniel P Brown´s pointing out instructions. Listening analytically to a meditation on awareness. Comparing Daniel P Brown to John Astin.

A slide showing Daniel P Brown

Listening analytically to meditations

Unfortunately(?) these days, every time I hear OPM (other people's meditations), my analytical mind kicks in. "How do they do it?"

And then I compare it to the precision of Daniel P Brown's pointing out instructions, through which I was first introduced to Mahamudra/Dzogchen meditation.

These particular pointing out instructions were the hallmark of the "Pointing Out the Great Way" school. Dan Brown even tried to copyright them and threatened to sue misuse. This was a somewhat unusual approach in the Buddhist community. I don't think it just made him friends, despite the immense admiration he had.

And then, having familiarised myself with his style, and as a trained (even if not practicing) hypnotist I am often dissatisfied with what I hear from other teachers. For example, I may consciously notice that a particular instruction in meditation is not conducive to actually following the instruction. Or that the speed is too fast.

I suppose I am clinging to perfection, or my hypercritical part is playing itself out...

But what can I do? It's probably the same phenomenon as when I listen to piano music as a pianist: the left side of the brain is more active in musicians when they listen, because they are also looking for technique, etc. Other people may just be enjoying the music. I listen for phrasing and dynamics (for example) and compare Angelo Benedetti Michelangelo's way of playing Debussy with Martha Argerich playing the same piece.

It kind of spoils the fun, so what I really like is listening to music with psychedelics. That takes away the critical part: even mediocre harp music can seem like a symphony of angels. Really...

Daniel Brown´s approach to formulating "hypnotic" pointing out instructions for meditation

So what's so special about Dan Brown's pointing out instructions?

Dan Brown was a professional hypnotherapist, among many other roles and skills. So he came from a professional background where to be effective you have to be very clear in guiding the client to follow you into a trance ("induction") and then to follow the instructions for change ("utilization"). I know this because I have a certificate in hypnosis. So I also know the principles behind it.

Daniel Brown followed the grand master of hypnosis Milton Erickson, as described by Havens and Wolters, in "Hypnotherapy for Health, Harmony and Peak Performance":

And this is what Dan Brown the hypnotist said about himself in my 2021 retreat:

“I have spent 40 years learning the textual tradition and the technical language, and the last 20 years refining the wording for each of the meditation instructions”

And here he talks with Michael Taft, in the "Deconstructing Yourself" podcast.

Michael: Yes, sounds beyond amazing. For you, what do you see as the biggest difficulty in making this material clear for a Western audience?
Dan: Well, it’s all in the wording of the pith instructions. The pith instructions are usually kept secret, so they don’t get disseminated widely, so they don’t get distorted or misused. If you get the right pith instructions at the right level of practice they work. We’re just trying to put them in a form that works for Westerners. I’m a psychologist with a background in hypnosis, I wrote four textbooks on hypnosis. And one of the things in hypnosis that we learned is the wording of suggestions matters a lot. So we’re always changing the wording of the meditation instructions to get them to work the best way for Westerners.

The importance of visualisation for excellence

The topic "peak performance" was important for Dan Brown: he gave seminars to executives in the US, Australia and China, using elements of hypnosis.

Here you can hear him speak about visualisation and hypnosis.

Most professional athletes learn to use visualization to improve their performance and use that just before they go into an actual meet. And that improves their performance. This goes back to an old technique in psychology.
It was actually discovered in the hypnosis field. It's called audio-motor responding. If you have the person imagine closing their eyes and imagining a certain mode of performance, they can visualize their performance much better and the motor system will respond to the visualization.

The importance of precise visualisation in hypnosis and meditation

But, it´s not only the audio-motor responding of top athletes for which precision is necessary, for example by giving the right sequencing of actions. It is also important for purely mental activities like hypnosis and meditation.

For example, as a hypnotist, you have to plan exactly which formulations and metaphors

  • can be executed in the client´s mind

  • don´t clash with others

  • are inducive to lead to "letting go" into trance

  • avoid creating resistance in the client

  • lead to smooth transitions between instructions to not create unintended breaks in the client´s internal processes


To follow instructions is not easy if instructions are muddled, imprecise etc. Therefore, every hypnosis training starts with learning how to create a smooth experience for the client..

And here we come back to meditation:

The same is true for meditation. Following incoherent or incomplete or muddled pointing out instructions is hard. Meditation excellence requires good instructions. This is one of the reasons why the POGW training was built as a sequence of necessary skills, acquired step by step as ever more complex mental operations - however, eventually leading to the highest skill: the meditation of non-meditation.

An example: pointing out the nature of awareness/space as unbounded, unlimited, having no edges

The following example shows - by contrasting - how precise Dan Brown was in guiding the "mental operations" (his term) representing the unboundedness of awareness space.

So I recently heard a meditation by John Astin, "Resting as Awareness".

Here is an extract of John Astin´s meditation. It uses the "space" metaphor to point out the unboundedness of awareness.

You sense how open and spacious this awareness is.
You also sense how free it is, how unconfined, how boundless it is. How there really are no edges or borders to this open space of awareness. In a sense, there's nothing there.
It's like space. It's empty.

(This isn´t meant as general critical take of John Astin. It´s just a detail example I found by accident).

The problem with edges and boundaries

From the point of view of Dan Brown's method, however, the instruction "you sense how boundless it is" is inadequate. It doesn't necessarily give the student, in particular the novice, the means to actually "experience" infinity. It simply relies on the student being able to feel to intuitively feel it, without telling them how to feel it or what to do when it goes wrong.

But what if there's a problem for the student in sensing or feeling unbounded space? What if in the student's mind there is a representation of boundaries, edges, limits of that space?

First, it's actually not easy to represent something limitless in the mind.

Second, as a therapist he was probably aware that "emptiness" is not everyone´s favorite place to be.

Thus,of confronted with his inability to sense internal space, the student may end up meditating conceptually, that is thinking about space and emptiness rather than experiencing it.

Dan Brown´s way of guiding to the experience of unboundedness

Here is an example for Dan Brown´s recursive or looped pointing out instructions.

First, I will quote from his theoretical exposition in his translation of "Self-Arising Three-fold Embodiment of Enlightenment: [of Bon Dzogchen Meditation]" . This is one of his eight translations from Tibetan in a style that is accessible, although it met the criticism of some professional translators.

Then, I will quote a series of pointing out instructions from a Pointing Out the Great Way meditation given in a retreat, and in a similar form, in public.


Notice that the meditation is a pretty direct translation of the theory Dan Brown gave in his introduction!

Dan Brown´s theoretical exposition of the need to experience no boundaries as the basis for the realisation of enlightenment

Pointing out limitlessness serves as the basis for the realisation of enlightenment. In order to fully experience limitlessness, it is important to see if the ordinary mind has imposed any mental constructions of edges or boundaries upon limitless space .
If so, the practitioner "opens" (...) his or her awareness directly into any edges or boundaries, like pouring space into space, until the edges dissolve like mist into the atmosphere. The practitioner continues this process until all residual impositions of edges and boundaries disappear and there is a direct experience of genuinely limitless empty awareness/space (p 117)

Dan Brown´s pointing out instructions to experience limitlessness of space

Dan Brown turns quoted theoretical statement into pointing out instructions in the following typical meditation section.

Now investigate if this field of knowing awareness-space extends in every direction, like an infinite vast expanse. Boundless.  If the ordinary mind imposes any edges and boundaries on this awareness, you can move right into the boundaries and edges with your awareness. When you move into the boundaries with your awareness, they immediately dissolve like mist dissolving into the atmosphere.
Keep moving into all the edges and boundaries. It is like pouring space into space, pouring awareness into awareness. If the ordinary mind imposes edges and boundaries somewhere further out, just keep moving into those edges and boundaries with your awareness, until it is perfectly clear to you that this awareness is boundless, edgeless.
This field of knowing awareness space is timeless and changeless on one hand, and boundless, edgeless on the other hand, like a vast ocean of changeless, boundless awareness  

Notice how this is constructed as a looped (or recursive) process and uses additional metaphors:

  • as soon and as long as there is another mental experience of a boundary of the imagine "inner" space, the student is instructed to move into it, thus extending the imagined space (repeat...)

  • imagine it as "pouring space into space, awareness into awareness". This uses the "mixing" approach of leading into non-duality.

An aside: as an ex-programmer before AI times, I would write the first instruction like this:

Imagine boundless space
As long as there is an imagined boundary
	Move into edges and boundaries
	Pour awareness into awareness
	Pour space into space

Occasionally Dan Brown suggested that is training is like "giving a code", a fixed algorithm.

And lastly, this instruction implies that the student uses "metacognitive awareness": while following the instruction to imagine boundless space, they must also monitor whether they in fact imagine boundless space, or whether there is a perception of boudaries.

That precise instruction is much more likely to achieve the intended result than Astin's "you sense that...". With Astin's approach, there's no guarantee that the student senses anything.

As his student and co-teacher John Churchill said:

One of the beauties of this tradition is the precision with which it gives language to those things which in other traditions might be just like the mute. ..
And then what you'll find is those distinctions will only help refine your precision and practice, rather than get in the way.



Austin, John. Resting as Awareness

Brown, D. P., & Taft, M. W. (2020b). Awakening and the Path of Liberation—FULL TRANSCRIPT. Deconstructing Yourself.

Churchill, J. (2012b, January 18). Living Meditation 2012-03-28 John PART 2 [Video]. Vimeo. 

Gyaltsen, S. T., Gurung, G. S., & Brown, D. P. (2022). Self-Arising Three-fold Embodiment of Enlightenment: [of Bon Dzogchen Meditation] (English Edition) (2nd ed.). Mustang Bon Foundation.  

Walters, C., & Havens, R. A. (1993). Hypnotherapy for Health, Harmony, and Peak Performance: Expanding the Goals of Psychotherapy/Helping Clients Discover the Pleasures of Trance (Har/Cas). Brunner-Mazel Inc.


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