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Daniel P Brown - Meditation as controlled energy management. Theory and metaphors.

This post is not about channels, chakras, or kundalini. Instead, it is about energy management as a neuroscience and physical aspect of effective meditation as taught by Daniel P Brown.


Picture of Daniel Brown and core skills of meditation

The post also mentions the physical aspects of energy management through a controlled posture.  And lastly, it is also about typical teaching metaphors to illustrate the concept, including traditional metaphors and Dan Brown´s own.


Note on the use of the AI notebookLM


I prepared this post with the help of the ingenious free notebookLM. I "trained" notebookLM by uploading all the written or transcribed material I have on Dan Brown. Of particular importance in notebookLM's responses was Dan Brown's 1981 dissertation "The Stages of Mahamudra Meditation". From there, it pulled up all traditional teaching metaphors.


In this text, I have not replaced the translations of "holding-fast" and "letting go" that Dan Brown used in his dissertation to denote increasing and decreasing meditation energy.


Daniel P Brown and Culadasa (The Mind Illluminated) on energy management as a core skill in meditation


I was surprised when in the Level 1 retreat, Daniel Brown explained that a key skill of meditation involves the differentiated "energy management) in different stages of meditation.


Coming from Culadasa's "The Mind Illuminated", which focuses exclusively on concentration meditation, the relaxation aspect was new to me. What I later realized is that Culadasa's concept of "peripheral awareness" points in the same direction: an optimal balance of focus (intensify) and awareness (relax) is at the core of Culadasa's definition of mindfulness.


This aspect was illustrated by Dan Brown with the car metaphor: for this core skill, the driver must carefully and situationally step on or off the accelerator (attentional capacity). In the diagram below, it's the skill of "intensifying.


A depiction of the core skills of meditation
Source: Blaschke 2017

Note: the diagram also includes the core skills of directing (placing attention on an object, and re-directing when needed, meta-cognitive awareness (here called vigilance), and pliancy (the skill of (a) following pointing out instructions without interference of the thinking mind and (b) shifting through "levels" of awarenes fluently)


Energie management by mediation stage


Thus, in the earlier stages of concentration meditation, effective meditation requires an intensification of attentional energy on a meditation object in order to reduce mind wandering.


In the later stages, the "rules of the game" change: the meditator, in order to achieve a state of "concentrated equilibrium," must relax attention in favor of a more open receptive mode.


This is a prerequisite for eventually reaching the stage of "meditation of non-meditation.


Managing Energy Through Tension and Relaxation


Dan Brown emphasizes the importance of balancing tension and relaxation to achieve a state of balanced energy, or "concentrated evenness" in meditation. This as well physical as mental.


Physical control of energy


This involves assuming specific postures, such as the seven-point posture, and maintaining them with a balance of firmness and relaxation. The sources explain that holding these postures correctly:


  • Ensures an optimal level of alertness, counteracting drowsiness.


  • Promotes a more even distribution of muscular activity, reducing random muscle noise.


  • Facilitates the flow of subtle energy, although this concept is complex and not fully explained.


Mental control of energy


This primarily revolves around managing attention and mental activity:

  • "Holding-fast" refers to directing and intensifying attention on the chosen object of meditation, such as the breath. This helps develop concentration and counteracts mental dullness.


  • Balancing the Two: The sources stress the importance of finding a balance between holding-fast and letting-go, as overemphasizing one can lead to the other.

  • Excessive holding-fast can lead to mental agitation and tension.


  • Excessive letting-go can result in mental dullness and drowsiness.


Wangchuk Dorje on tightening and relaxing


Here one of the traditional texts by Wangchuk Dorje, one of Dan Brown´s sources.


"It is important to continuously keep doing short sessions and to alternate between tightening and relaxing.


  • Tightening means to completely concentrate the mind on any suitable object without getting absent-minded even for an instant. The mouth, the eyes and the ears become alert and the muscles in the body become tense. This meditation with a proper tension is compared to the concentrated attention you need to identify a thief in the middle of a crowded marketplace or when counting horses and cows at a distance or when walking on a one trunk bridge or when moving a trowel that is filled to the brim with molten butter.


  • Relaxing means to act as if you are completely abandoning any endeavour to meditate without really abandoning it. Let go continuously into an unfabricated selflessness and just be undistracted and mindful from moment to moment. Prolong your sessions slightly and relax body and mind. This relaxation feels like the ease after a finished work, like the release after having recovered from illness, like a bundle of straw whose rope has been cut, like a baby with a full belly, like the sun and the moon without clouds, like a flame unmoved by wind. "




The Neuroscience of "Holding-Fast" and "Letting-Go"


Dan Brown's ideas as described here, relate to neuroscience / cognitive science as of the 1970s. This post may be updated with newer research (as of June 2024).


  • Holding-Fast: This concept, also referred to as "sgrims" in Tibetan, is described as the act of directing and intensifying attention on a chosen object of meditation. Dan Brown relates this to the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the brain region associated with concentration. This connection aligns with modern neuroscientific understanding of the ACC's role in attentional control, conflict monitoring, and focus.


  • Letting-Go: This technique, known as "glod" in Tibetan, involves relaxing mental effort and holding indifference towards arising thoughts and sensations. While not directly linked to specific brain regions, the sources suggest that letting-go relates to deactivating the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The PCC is understood to be involved in judging experiences, and its deactivation, as seen in mindfulness practices and with the use of psychedelics like psilocybin, is associated with a state of non-judgmental, present-moment awareness.


Both "holding-fast" and "letting-go" aim to regulate the flow and clarity of subtle cognitive processes, described as constantly changing mental events.


Dan Brown proposes that this regulation might be linked to temporal information processing models, but he acknowledges that this is a complex area with limited neuroscientific exploration.


He draws parallels to concepts like the "psychological moment," iconic memory, and temporal discrimination processes, but these connections remain largely speculative within the provided context.


Metaphors for Holding-Fast, Letting-Go, and Mental States


In his dissertation, Dan Brown mentions a variety of metaphors to illustrate the concepts of "holding-fast," "letting-go," and the associated mental states of tension and relaxation. The provide an imaginative and "sensory" approach to bridge the gap between intellectual understanding and direct meditative experience. His own metaphor was the "sailing a boat before the wind" metaphor.


Holding-Fast and Tension


  • Damming Up a Pond: This metaphor illustrates the concentrated effort involved in "holding-fast." Just as a dam restrains the natural flow of water, "holding-fast" involves intentionally directing and constricting attention on the object of meditation. This process can be associated with a sense of mental exertion or tension.


  • Walking Across a Single-Poled Bridge: This metaphor vividly portrays the precarious balance required in "holding-fast." The image of carefully traversing a narrow, unsteady bridge reflects the mental discipline needed to maintain focus and avoid slipping into distraction.


  • Tightening a Thread:  This metaphor, used in the context of the "Brahman's Thread," illustrates the potential pitfall of excessive "holding-fast." Just as a thread becomes taut and prone to snapping when pulled too tight, overexertion in meditation can lead to mental strain and instability.


Letting-Go and Relaxation


  • Unstringing a Bow: This metaphor captures the essence of "letting-go" as a deliberate act of releasing mental tension. Just as loosening a bowstring allows it to return to its natural state, "letting-go" involves relaxing mental effort and allowing thoughts and sensations to arise without resistance.


  • The Little Dutch Boy Letting Go of the Dike:  This metaphor emphasizes the attitude of acceptance and non-interference created through in "letting-go." Like the boy relinquishing his struggle to control the leaking dike, the meditator allows mental events to unfold naturally, without grasping or manipulation.


  • A River Flowing According to its Channels:  This metaphor illustrates the state of mental calmness and order that can result from skillful "letting-go." Just as a river follows its established course, the mind, when not constricted by grasping or aversion, settles into a natural flow of awareness.


  • Releasing a Straw Rope: This metaphor highlights the liberating effect of "letting-go" on mental constructs and discriminations. Cutting a straw rope separates it into distinct parts. Similarly, releasing attachment to mental events allows for a clearer perception of their impermanent and insubstantial nature.


  • A Child Viewing a Temple: This metaphor, often used to describe the concept of "simultaneous mind," underscores the open, receptive attention fostered in "letting-go." Just as a child observes a temple with fresh, unbiased eyes, the meditator approaches mental phenomena with curiosity and without preconceived judgments.


The Interplay of Holding-Fast and Letting-Go:


  • Spinning the Brahman's Thread: This artisan metaphor emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between "holding-fast" and "letting-go." An experienced weaver maintains an even tension on the thread, neither pulling it too tight nor letting it become slack. Similarly, skillful meditation involves finding the optimal balance between effort and relaxation to cultivate a stable and clear mind. This metaphor in particular approaches Culadasa´s definition of mindfulness.


  • Sailing a boat before the wind: The previous metaphors were all traditional metaphors. Dan Brown used the metaphor of "sailing a boat before the wind" to illustrate the balance needed between relaxation and effort in meditation. Easing up and tightening are analogous to adjusting the sails in response to the wind, finding the sweet spot between rigidity and laxity in practice.


The user of metaphors serves a specific teaching purpose. They offer accessible entry points for understanding and applying the subtle techniques of "holding-fast" and "letting-go." They helpt to bridge the gap between intellectual understanding and direct meditative experience.


Resources


Blaschke, B. A. (2017). Consciousness of god as god is: Phenomenology of Christian Centering Prayer [PDF]. https://openaccess.wgtn.ac.nz/articles/thesis/Consciousness_of_God_as_God_is_The_phenomenology_of_Christian_centering_prayer/17062040/ (I like his pre-AI hand-drawn illustration!)


Brown, D. P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation). https://tinyurl.com/3hm5wh8c

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.As compensation, Daniel P Brown gives some insight into the experiments with trichoscopy. to which he still referred in his retreats in 2021.The University of Chicago library entry:

Original URL of PDF:


Culadasa (John Yates). (n.d.). „The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness“, in englischer Sprache: 9781501156984: Yates, John, Immergut, Matthew, Graves, Jeremy: Bücher. https://www.amazon.com/-/de/dp/1501156985/ref=sr_1_1/

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