top of page

Dr Daniel P Brown´s Level 1 Mahamudra Retreat

These are notes of what I consider the best introduction to Buddhism and meditation I could have got, 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.


I attended one 6 day online retreat with him in February 2021, and 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.


Daniel P Brown
Daniel P Brown, deceased 2022

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 also a 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 more 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.


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" 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 sceptical of the purely altruistic motivation "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?


Roller Coaster

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!


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.


Hypnotic

As I have a certificate in hypnosis, I recognised immediately, that some teaching techniques included standard hypnotic techniques to deepen receptivity, and to circumvent the rational mind.


Scientific

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, and the tradition of Pointing Out the Great Way will or may be continued by Dustin DiPerna - who is a teacher of impressive precision. That said, Dr Brown simply cannot be replicated.


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.


Content

  • Dr Brown's analytical foundation:

  • Trust as precondition for learning

  • Compression of content

  • Adapting old techniques to modern environments

  • The unified phase model of stages of meditation

  • A logical progression of meditation skills

  • Use of neuroscience and cognitive science

  • Use of therapeutic concepts (attachment theory, traume, the unconscious)


Delivery

  • Pointing out style of teaching

  • High precision language

  • Use of hypnotic techniques

  • Use of metaphors

  • Use of sound/music


Setting

  • Aligned teaching team

  • Sangha

  • Online


Dr Brown's analytical foundation

If one encounters Dr Brown for the first time through his Level 1 retreat, one has no idea of the width and breadth of theory on which those 6 days rest.


Only when one dives deeply into his few but essential writings it becomes clear that, for example, already in 1981 he foresaw what in 2021, 40 years later, is accepted knowledge: many aspects of Buddhist teachings are analogous to contemporary Western theories in cognitive science and neuroscience.


There are essentially two lines of his investigation into Tibetan Buddhism:

  • The 3 works on meditation stages in Tibetan Mahamudra Buddhism

  • The forewords to the 7 books in the Bön tradition that he co-translated

The 3 works on meditation stages:

  • 1981: Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Doctoral Dissertation)

  • 1986 ( With Ken Wilber): Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives On Development (New Science Library).

  • 2006: Pointing out the Great Way. Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition.


Trust-building

The term "trust element" is widely used in web design for commercial sites. When there is no trust there is no sale. Thus, websites include references, customer stories, certifications etc.


This is similar to the broad approach of meditation teaching in Tibetan Buddhism. As Daniel P Brown has described in his books on Mahamudra, it is important to create trust in the student the elusive goal of "awakening" is actually achievable. There is no guarantee. And it is impossible to experience what the curriculum pre-announces before being there. Dan Brown uses two approaches: modernised guru-yoga imagery, and science.


Modernised guru-yoga

In classical Mahamudra Buddhism, it was the lama/guru student relationship that carried much of this trust-building effort. Trust could be built through the meeting with what today might be called mentor; through mandala gift ceremonies; through the "gift waves of influence" (an imaginary skills transfer); through guru-yoga etc. In any case, it often equated an imaginary and instantaneous skill transfer from guru to student, or even from the entire lineage of gurus.


In the retreat, some of these old ceremonial visualisation techniques "in which the disciple visualises his root lama in front of him, surrounded by the many lamas of the lineage...all of whom stand to witness the formal acknowledgement of refuge" (MMS, p. 160) were used.


An example is a visualisation where the guru dissolves into light and this light is absorbed into the body of the student.


Some of these traditional visualisation methods were nearly identical to techniques I once learned in a management seminar for stage performance: eg stepping into the imagined body of an admired person; or working with an imagined protective and powerful light dome.


In the retreat, the specific wordings of guru yoga were kept as closely as possible to the original texts, while carefully aligning vocabulary and terminology with contemporary terms and concepts.


Science

A second trust-building element is the extensive reference to Western science. Of course, we moderns believe and trust in science. Thus, science can substitute the personal trust in the wisdom of the lama.


Referring to science is the more believable, as Dr Brown himself has been involved as researcher in contemplative science studies with Judd Brewer. See my blogpost on the ocean and wave metaphor.


Compression of content

In the early sixties I learned to program in the computer language Assembler. The teacher, after some very basic instructions, started to explain how Assembler worked by letting us build, under his supervision, a program that listed the results of a football game from some input.


You may think that this was easy, but for programming novices it was a giant challenge. But we all made it. At the end, he explained that he trusted in overwhelm and in the natural capability of the brain to ingest information at a high speed when the teaching is good. Using this approach, he said, he could compress even Assembler teaching into a very short time.


Daniel Brown´s approach uses the same compression technique for content. He is very confident about the possibility to learn very fast: he often quotes a One-day session with his most impressive teacher to who he was personally introduced by the Dalai Lama.


CANI - Constant and never ending improvement

He began the development of his teaching material in the 1970s. The body of knowledge and techniques has since been continually streamlined, tested, and improved in many retreats. In particular the constant improvement of specific standardised phrases, words, intonations etc has resulted in a high-efficiency teaching approach.


Adapting old techniques to modern contexts

Here I want to give just one example. It describes how Dr Brown instructs to counter drowsiness and excitation during meditation through light / darkness visualisations.

  • Drowsiness: combat with the mental representation of, or direct experience of light (e.g. meditating outside, or imagining a light-flooded environment)

  • Excitation: combat with the mental representation or direct experience of darkness (e.g. meditating in the cave, imagining a black environment)

These instructions go back a long time. Originally, they are given in the context of "seed meditation" which is not taught during the Level 1 retreat, and involve intricate visualisations of emanation of dark and light structures from and back into a "seed".


Here is an original instruction:

With regard to drowsiness and stupor, you should have Reflected, in Clarity, on all the outer and inner [aspects] of your own body with the light of the Seed. When Excited, direct the mind to a black seed emitting light, and it will be removed (quoted in MMS, p. 277)

Brown continues:

... drowsiness and excitement will face quickly, when setting up the right light and color

In the retreat, the instructions on the use of light and darkness are provided as a general means to deal with under- and overstimulation of the nervous system during meditation, caused by "too little" or "too much" mental movement.


The instructions, though, are highly simplified basic representations of dark or light space.


In this way, Dr Brown retains the original technique of that has been tested with thousands of students over hundreds of years, reformulates it in modern ways and adapts them to the context in which they are given.


Unified model of meditation stages that build on each other

TBD: this needs to be improved.


The content of the retreat is built around the simplified modelof meditation stages that Daniel P Brown has distilled from the Buddhist traditions, up to the point of "a taste of awakening".


The sequence illustrated below represents a generalised model of levels of awareness, that Daniel P Brown has distilled from all the Buddhist traditions.


When appearing publicly, Daniel P Brown liked to explain the entire path to awakening by quoting the Heart Sutra's concluding concluding mantra. I have written a blog post on the Heart Sutra as being a source of Dr Brown´s stage model.


Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

Gone, Gone, Gone Way Beyond, Gone Way Way Beyond: Uh what a Realisation
  1. Gone: I get caught up in thought - I go beyond thought through learning how to use awareness

  2. Gone: I get caught up in Self - I go beyond Self through realising the emptiness of Self [added: and of objects]

  3. Gone way beyond: I get caught up in space and time - I go beyond space and time through realising space and time as fabrications

  4. Gone way way beyond: I get caught up in localisation and consciousness, I go beyond that. And now I am operating out of this limitless huge boundless bright awareness love. That's my true nature. That's my way home. [Added: here the student goes beyond all concepts and all activities of the mind, including meditation itself].

  5. Ah, what a realisation!


Basically, it is a sequence of viewpoints building on each other in a fixed sequence. Even shorter:


  1. Go from thought to awareness

  2. Drop the self

  3. Drop space and time

  4. Drop localised consciousness


A logical progression of basic skills

It seems to me that the retreat teachings aim at building up meditation micro-skills in a fixed sequence that takes account of dependencies between skills. The following are some examples:

  • Being able to focus , keep, intensify and relax attention

  • Being able to differentiate attention from awareness

  • Being able to shift quickly out of thinking mode into awareness mode

  • Being able to quickly shift from event perspective into mind perspective

  • Being able to do emptiness meditation on the self

  • Being able to do emptiness meditation on time and space

  • Being able to operate as ocean and wave

  • etc


Above all is the skill of

  • Meta cognitive awareness (called "full awareness", or "intelligence" in Pointing Out..)


Neuroscience, contemplative neuroscience, cognitive science as integrated elements

Neuroscience is used in two ways.

  • The teaching parts of the meditation retreat often includes explicit references to the cognitive sciences. An example is his own collaboration with Judson Brewer at.al, investigation the correlations between specific deep meditative states and brain states. The explanations accompanying meditation instructions thus broaden the student's basis of comprehension. They also act as a "trust element".

  • Cognitive science informs much of the teaching content. As a key concept, Daniel P Brown sharply distinguishes between the mental faculties of (focused) attention and of awareness. This is in line, although not exactly identical, with a similar neuroscience based approach by Culadasa (in "The Mind Illuminated"). And it is in contrast to many meditation teachers who use these terms and others as synonyms or homonyms: Attention, awareness, consciousness, cognition,meta-cognition, meta-cognitive awareness, mind are often used interchangeably, letting the student wonder what the teacher is talking about. For example, awareness is used interchangeably with meta-cognition. Or, an expression like "sharpen your awareness" is used, which gives awareness the character of focused directedness. Or, the student is asked to simultaneously hold 80% of attention on foreground objects and 20% on background objects in an impossible split attention approach.

Thus, Daniel P Brown belongs to the class of teachers of who Scott Alexander makes a bit fun of in the now defunct "Slate Star Codes" blog on Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated":

"At this point I would be more impressed to meet a Buddhist meditation teacher who wasn’t a neuroscience PhD. If I ever teach Buddhist meditation, this is going to be my hook. “Come learn advanced meditation techniques with Scott Alexander, whose lack of a neuroscience PhD gives him a unique perspective that combines ancient wisdom with a lack of modern brain science.” I think the world is ready for someone to step into this role. But Culadasa is not that person"

Neither is Dr Brown.


Neuroscience: rom tachistoscopes to pointing out instructions

As I have described in my post on my psychedelic/mystic experiences under Ayahuasca, one phenomenon was the perception of mental events in the visual field as a rapidly flickering series of luminous very short events.


In Brown's dissertation he gives considerable space to discussing this meditative phenomenology, providing an analogy in experiments with high-speed perception using tachistoscopes.


The discussion in Brown's chapters on tachistocopic research and yogic training is also the basis for some of his particular modernized pointing-out-instructions. These incorporate knowledge and derived presuppositions about the retreat participants' capacity to perform high-speed search operations.


A particularly good example is the Emptiness of Self meditation. Here is an original version from "The Flight of the Garuda".

Answer the question : where is the mind now? Is it in the upper or lower part of your body, in your sense organs, in your lungs, or your hear? If it lodges in your heart, in what part of the heart? What is its color and shape? Thoroughly investigate the present location of the mind and its characteristics until you are certain that they are not to be found