A roller-coaster, high-intensity, hypnotic scientific introduction to Mahamudra
These are notes of what I consider the best introduction to Buddhism and meditation I could have got.
(Note April 2023: this post must be updated with the material by Blaschke 2017, and cleaned up )
It got it through a 6-day online retreat with Dr Daniel P Brown.
Dr Daniel P Brown (deceased 2022) was a highly unusual and somewhat controversial meditation teacher with many other roles in society. His obituary in the Americal Journal of Clinical Hypnosis gives an overview.
I attended one 6-day online retreat with him in February 2021, and I received a very unexpected, intellectually and emotionally moving introduction to Mahamudra and Dzogchen. I was privileged. I believe there was only one further retreat that he could support, having more and more problems through Parkinson's.
This is a very grateful review of the 6-day Level 1 retreat given by what was then the Pointing Out the Great Way foundation.
I attended this retreat as a beginner. My knowledge of Buddhism and meditation was limited to Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated". Thus, my perspective was that of a novice. If you want further impressions on Daniel P Brown´s teaching by participants with different viewpoints, check out
Dharmaoverground reviews. These are fairly general, but all of them positive
a excellent and complementary alternate review . The author is a sceptical scientist, and his notes are very useful in their completeness and brevity. That review is structured linearly, day by day, with a lot of teaching detail, while mine is structured by topic and focused on the method. It is also less enthusiastic than mine, so don´t take my word alone for it. My and his review are complementary.
An emotional impact centered description of the retreat by the author if the About Meditation podcast, M. Dix
On Dr Daniel P Brown
This is a very short overview. You can read more about him in my post describing how he made enemies of the Catholic Church, the CIA, the IRA and the Kennedy family.
Dr Brown (deceased in April 2022) was an extremely impressive personality and teacher with over 40 years experience and involvement. in the Tibetan culture. Apart from that he taught at Harvard, acted high performance coach, as therapist, researcher, and legal expert for abuse cases.
As expert in Buddhism he gained the trust of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders, one of which tasked him to preserve the Tibetan culture through translations and other documentation of dying culture.
Unlike many other spiritual teachers of his generation such as Jack Kornfield who by now is a kind of media celebrity, he has not been highly visible in this function. That is not astonishing. He had spread his energy over many types of welfare activities, often with a a ruthless energy.
He worked for Tibetan children, for abuse victims of the Catholic Church, for the Bobby Kennedy assassin, and of course for the many retreat participants.
On a surprising hypnotic roller-coaster HIT meditation experience
My interest in meditation had been created through a particular wondrous and mentally revolutionising psychedelic experience with the entheogen Ayahuasca.
Since 2019, I have been trying to follow up the significance of this so-called mystical or non-dual experience for my mental models and my personality. At the time, I did not even know that it was a mystical experience, since I had never had any major contact with the broad field of spirituality.
I therefore had never heard of Mahamudra or Dzogchen before I made acquaintance, again by chance, with a Facebook acquaintance who had been in Tibet as monk. Through him (thank you Tom!), I found the Pointing Out the Great Way retreat.
My familiarity with meditation at that time was limited to Culadasa´s book on concentration meditation, "The Mind Illuminated". I had come across this book praised as "meditation for geeks" (which I was at the time) through the ravishing review by Peter Attia, the US health guru. This book was my first attempt to understand the Ayahuasca experience.
So I attended the Mahamudra retreat more or less with a beginner´s mind. All I had was some knowledge, but without context, of concentration meditation (shamata).
The Mahamudra retreat is announced innocently like this:
Level 1 retreats present a full set of instructions for Mahamudra practice in a highly condensed manner, from the beginning up to a taste of awakening.
I was not (and am not) pleased, that this Level 1 course at 1500 USD must be taken "at least" 2-3 times before one is admitted to the next level. Initially this looked like a Scientology ploy to me. After all, I had gained some proficiency in concentration meditation through an investment of 50$ in the various editions of Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated". And, as the alternate reviewer of the retreat concludes:
"If you just want to start a meditation practice, you could do worse than just opening The Mind Illuminated. "
But this precondition also intrigued me. What could make meditation training so difficult, that the student has to repeatedly do the same thing again at such high cost?
I have a better understanding now, even if I am still somewhat sceptical of the validity of the intentin "to preserve the precious tradition" - by making it inaccessible? In pre-Covid times it would have had to include travel and accomodation, and made it unavailable for many (in particular when repeated).
So, why the characteristics hypnotic roller-coaster HIT meditation?
My naivete may have helped me to "survive" the sharp reversals of direction along the stages of Mahamudra meditation, and take them in as very surprising sudden insights. For example, one spends most of the time in the retreat learning meditation technique and strategies, and at the end one learns that they are no longer needed, and all meditation effort is to be dropped.
High Intensity Training (HIT)
I experienced the retreat like fitness sessions for the mind. It included repetitions, an increasing load, highly detailed instructions to do this and not that, and the possibility to have meditation errors corrected through feedback. This retreat was not a meandering narrative flow or explanation, but a sharply focused beam of mental precision coaching.
As I have a certificate in hypnosis, I recognised immediately, that the language of some teaching instructions included standard hypnotic techniques to deepen receptivity, and to circumvent the rational mind.
Each single element of the 6-day retreat is grounded in contemporary science. Some of it goes back to Dr Brown's dissertation from 1981, which linked Mahamudra meditation to cognitive psychology. In addition, elements from attachment and trauma therapy, neuroscience, Freudian and Jungian science are included.
I found the retreat extraordinary, and now am utterly grateful to have had the opportunity. Dr Brown recently died (2022), and as of 4/2023 the tradition of the Pointing Out the Great Way organisation and teaching is unknown. No more courses are announced for 2022 or 2023. All that is left is a description of the retreat levels. In case the website is taken off-line, here a copy.
In the first neurologival study of the "awakened" state with Judson Brewer (1999), Dan Brown described the aim of his method as such:
Experientially, the ultimate “aim” of the essence of mind technique is to experience a brilliantly awake, limitless, non-localized uniﬁed (non-dualistic) state of awakened awareness and compassion.
This is the end-point: the meditator has had a taste of a field of "awareness-love", as he calls it later, replacing "compassion" with "love".
Overview: Elements of effective meditation teaching in the retreat
So, what makes the Pointing Out the Great Way retreats so effective? It is the combination of content elements, delivery, and setting.