Why is mental pliancy an essential skill for advanced meditation?
Ok, it´s obvious that the body needs to be pliant (bend, move, stretch) for us to be healthy. But what is mental pliancy in Buddhist meditation?
Pliancy - definitions by Daniel P Brown and Culadasa
As so often, different authors have very different definitions of their subject topics. For example these authors, both of which are deceased:
Daniel P Brown explained mental pliancy as a core skill to shift intentionally between "levels of awareness"
Culadasa defined pliancy as "effortlessly sustained exclusive attention together with powerful mindfulness".
Daniel P Brown: mental pliancy as a tool to shift levels of awareness
For Dan Brown, ental pliancy is one of the four basic skills for meditation. Brown used the analogy of driving a car. A driver must be able to:
stay aware of how well they perform each of those tasks.
Meditation requires a similar set of skills:
Steering is to direct focused attention to a meditation object (such as the breath), and if necessary, to redirect it after a distraction.
Intensifying and easing up: this is to increase or decrease the mental energy brought to attention. This is required in order not to exhaust mental resources, and to avoid dullness and flightyness (under- and over-excitation).
Pliancy: this skill is required to work intentionally and fluidly with different perspectives / views. In order to understand the following, check the post about mind view and event view. Pliancy has two aspects. Blaschke interprets the Co-existence of these as "funneling attention through different levels of awareness"
The first aspect of pliancy: it reflects the ability to hold onto a specific awareness perspective (view) at the "mind view" despite marked changes in content at the "event view" .
The second aspects of pliancy: practitioners learn to hold attention on a specific object in the event-view while at the same time shifting their mind view to a different level of awareness.
Meta-cognitive awareness (vigilance, intelligence). This higher-level skill allows the practitioner to monitor in real-time, and if necessary to adjust, the quality of the meditation. An example is the ability to detect having been "lost in thought", or to detect when one slumps physically from the ideal meditation posture.
This metaphor is partially used by Dustin DiPerna in a public meditation. (starting min 14)
Mental pliancy as tool to shift between levels of awareness
Mental pliancy is the ability to "gear-shift" the perspective (also called "base of operation) between different levels of awareness.
Dan Brown usually described the levels of awareness by example of the Heart Sutra. The following sequence is his distillation across several meditation traditions, and it describes the sequence of practices in his retreats. In each step, one "cloud" is removed from the always present underlying field of awareness, until "awareness shows itself by itself to itself" as a glimpse of awakening :
Remove the cloud of thought from awareness
Remove the cloud illusion of an independent Self as doer from awareness
Remove the cloud of a sense of time, change and spatial boundaries from awareness
Remove the cloud of a sense of being localised within the timeless, boundaryless, changeless field of awareness-love: BE this field. Be the ocean watching its own waves.
According to Brown, this skill (pliancy) is critical for advancing on the contemplative path: "I began to appreciate that the depth of realisation possible during ordinary concentration and special insight meditation was enhanced remarkably by shifting to the very subtle or extraordinary level of mind [awareness]. In other words, the issue became less about concentration on the intended meditation object and much more about the level of mind [awareness] brought to the concentration, and that, from the mind-perspective [subject-side], shifting… the vantage point during meditation quickly brought the meditation practice within the range wherein awakening the mind was a definite possibility.
Practitioners must progressively shift their witnessing-perspective through “higher” or “deeper” levels of awareness – and then stabilise this seat of identity (basis of operation) at the “highest” or “deepest” possible level (Blaschke 2017)
Dan Brown sais here that the student should be able to perform these gear shifts between views / vantage points "quickly", as part of pliancy.
In an earlier speech, Brown (2016) had defined "pliancy" in a somewhat simpler form: namely, as the ability to fluidly follow pointing out instructions "without thinking" , ie at le level of intention rather than attention. Thinking only slows down the process.
This way, Brown said, the student could be led "right through to awakening" through the proven, thousands of years old pointing out instructions. He claimed that on average 30% of student got "a taste of awakening, however instable".
The practice of gear shifting in POGW meditation
In the meditation practice of the POGW method, the student would be led through those view shifts within a standardised 20-30 minute meditation.
In the meditation, each of the levels of awareness (see above) would sequentially be visited, starting with basic concentration training and culminating in One Taste, and non-meditation.
In my experience, this rapid shifting from simple concentration to a non-localised non-dual view was remarkably effective, facilitated through the utterly precisely languaged pointing out instructions. These instructions orchestrated a fixed sequence of phenomenological mentalisations through targeted metaphors and hypnotic language elements.
For more detail on the retreats, see here.
Mental pliancy in Culadasa's model
Culadasa, on contrast, defines pliancy much simpler:
For Culadasa, mental pliancy is a marker for the third of his "milestones": effortless stability of attention.
Thus, it has a somewhat simpler meaning, and is mainly a characteristic of stable attention, his theory of the "unification of mind", and mental ca. In this theory, meditations trains the minds "subminds" (the six consciousnesses visual, auditory etc) to work together for a common goal.
The third Milestone is marked by effortlessly sustained exclusive attention together with powerful mindfulness. This state is called mental pliancy, and occurs because of the complete pacification of the discriminating mind, meaning mental chatter and discursive analysis have stopped. Different parts of the mind are no longer so resistant or preoccupied with other things, and diverse mental processes begin to coalesce around a single purpose. This unification of mind means that, rather than struggling against itself, the mind functions more as a coherent, harmonious whole. You have completed the transition from being a skilled meditator to an adept meditator.
Bliss of mental pliancy.6 This is a feeling of happiness. Meditative joy as a mental state is quite different from the bliss of mental pliancy, which is the pleasurable mental feeling that accompanies it (see Stage Eight). The state of meditative joy and the bliss of mental pliancy can be so intense and exciting that they become enormously distracting—so much that a practitioner may stop meditating to go talk to someone about them. Meditative joy is consistently achieved in Stage Eight, and sustained meditative joy along with the blisses of mental and physical pliancy is the defining characteristic of Stage Nine. As you become more familiar with the state of meditative joy during the course of Stage Nine, there is a . . . Subsiding of intensity of the blisses of physical and mental pliancy. Meditative joy continues, but as the intensity and excitement fade . . .
From the glossary:
Mental pliancy: Effortlessly sustained stable attention and powerful mindfulness. This is achieved with the complete pacification of the discriminating mind at the end of Stage Seven.
Blaschke, B. A. (2017). Consciousness of god as god is: Phenomenology of Christian Centering Prayer. XXX. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.google.de/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10063/6608/thesis_access.pdf%3Fsequence%3D1&ved=2ahUKEwjX6-OVu4T-AhWWT6QEHTWdCwEQFnoECAgQAQ&usg=AOvVaw1XSS6sXYbd31t0uAaIbHUL
Brown, D. P. (2016). Three Paths (Audio Recording) . Pointing out the Great Way.
No longer publicly available.
Brown, D. P. (2019). Sacred Sundays with Daniel P Brown. Sacred Sundays. https://youtu.be/0swudgvmBbk
A very wide and deep overview of the tradition and background of Daniel P Brown´s teachings
Consciousness Hacking. (2016a, June 7). Neuroscience of Meditation | Dustin DiPerna & Sean Dae Houlihan | @ Consciousness Hacking SF [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvicAUNDRMc
Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.
Gebel, T. (2021f, May 24). Dr Daniel P Brown´s Level 1 Mahamudra Retreat. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/daniel-p-brown-level-1-mahamudra-dzogchen-retreat
An attempt to reconstruct why the retreat was so effective
Gebel, T. (2020d, July 16). The Heart Sutra as a complete spiritual development project. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/heart-sutra-as-spiritual-development-project