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Pointing out instructions in Mahamudra meditation

This post is about pointing out instructions as teaching device in Mahamudra and Dzogchen - but also other types.

My first utterly efficient non-Buddhist "pointing out instructions" were given to me by the psychedelic/entheogen Ayahuasca. From one moment to the next my view of the world, my perspective, my "base of operation", and my sense of Self had changed.

Years later I read the Buddhist author Keith Dowman's list of such mind-changing devices:

The pointing out may be the vocal expression of someone who knows; it may be a poetic or literary formulation; or it may be derived from a Samaya substance that opens the doors of perception (Dowman, 2020)

The "Doors of Perception are, of course, a reference to Aldous Huxley´s book "The Doors of Perception": Huxley´s report of his first contact with a psychedelic.

A short overview of pointing out instructions and their purpose

Pointing out instructions are a specific type of verbal meditation instruction in the Buddhist Mahamudra/Dzogchen tradition. Traditionally, they are applied in an interactive teacher-student relationship, be it 1:1 or in a group.

These instructions aim to re-set the student´s mind so that the student can perceive previously hidden evidence about the mind´s objects of awareness and its functioning.

For example, the student may suddenly notice that it is impossible to find or locate what they have always felt to be: a Self.

Pointing Out instructions do not show us "the true nature of mind"

Wikipedia calls this key insight into the unfindability of the Self, achieved through pointing out instructions, "recognition of the nature of mind". Pointing Out instructions, so the implications, help see the true nature.

I hesitate to use any terms like "the true nature of...", or "the real..." because I am not sure that "the nature" of the mind is knowable. I stick to the idea that we cannot know the nature of anything. even the seemingly most obvious meditative experiential insight will give us only a model or representation of something that we will never know directly. Such a model or representation cannot be proven to be "the nature of the mind". Even cognitive science and physics do not say that they know what the "mind" (or consciousness) is. It is all still a big riddle are the core of everything.

As Rob Burbea (2015) says, all ideas of the nature of the mind, the ground, and the one are all "fabrications".

Pointing Out instructions intend to move the student toward "awakening"

Through pointing out instructions, a meditation teacher intends to move the meditator closer to what Buddhism understands as "awakening". Awakening is, in short, "consciousness being conscious of consciousness", or awareness being aware of awareness. It is the mind becoming fully aware of itself.

In principle, the mind-expanding effect of language-based pointing out instructions can also be achieved through other means. Examples are particular psychedelic experiences, poetry, technical means such as ultrasound, or even spontaneous out-of-the-blue experiences.

I am motivated to write about pointing out instructions because I have experienced their power

I have experienced the mind-shifting power of highly constructed and thoroughly tested pointing out instructions. I experienced these in a 6-days Mahamudra / Dzogchen meditation retreat. This retreat is run regularly by the "Pointing Out the Great Way" organization.

It was the very first meditation retreat I ever attended. It was a highly structured 6-day "gym for the mind", a real high-intensity training. The content and outcome were a complete surprise to me. And, in the end, I experienced something like a psychedelic state, induced solely by pointing out instructions.

The limits of pointing out instructions

Kenchen Thrangu, however, takes not of the limits of pointing out instructions. His argument is, that pointing out instructions by a teacher provide a one-shot injection of insight or experience. Also, they create dependency. The insight provided through pointing out instructions may not be lasting. For this reason,

It is of far greater importance than the experience of dramatic instantaneous pointing out that people be taught mahamudra as a full system of instruction that they can implement on their own gradually (Thrangu, 2011)

He suggests, in principle, a home study approach based on key works of Mahamudra such as "The Ocean of Definitive Meaning" (Wangchug Dorje 2017), or "Moonshine of Mahamudra" Namgyal, T. D. (2019)

Note: there us currently an initiative to create such a work, analogous to the earlier work by Peter Barth, 2017. However, this new version shall include current topics such as psychedelics (private communication).

The movie "Inception", and a sudden shift of mind

What can such a reset of the mind´s fundamental perception of reality look like? The movie "Inception" provides a good example. The movie is full of references to Buddhist concepts.

Its major action revolves around a team of people who master technology to create a world of dreams and dreams within dreams, at multiple nested levels. The challenge for the protagonists is to know at any point in time at which dream level they are, and to behave accordingly.

To illustrate the mentioned mind reset, in one scene, a new team member is taught a very direct lesson about reality and the mind.

The scene shows two people sitting peacefully in a Paris-style street cafe. Suddenly everything erupts around them. Walls, shops, fruit stalls - the air is filled with flying objects and explosive sounds shatter the silence. However, the two people continue to sit quietly in this uproar, one of them with total equanimity. He knows that the experience is just something that is happening in the constructed dream in which both are.

This experience, created by mind technology and an induced dream state, gives the new team member an immediate insight that her seemingly solid reality is not what it seems to be.

A Buddhist would not be too astonished: for them, any event is nothing else but an arising and passing away of mental apparitions, a construct, a fata morgana, "mind only", or, in one of the oldest Buddhist metaphors, a dream.

An example: search instructions

Search instructions are one of the traditional types of pointing out instructions. Search instructions are generally used to directly demonstrate, that the mind in its normal state takes things as "self-existing", while they are in fact not existing independently of the mind, or are illusions, fabrications, etc.

Search instructions achieve this surprising effect by letting the student run something akin to a Google search in their own mind. However, this search will not bring up any results.

The lack of a search result for something that one has taken for granted creates a surprising insight when one recognises it for the first time. On subsequent searches there is no surprise, but the effect of non-finding deepens.

As Sam Harris sais: "The non-finding is the finding".

For example, the most frequently used unfindable search-object in this type of fruitless search instruction is the Self. The Self is what we usually take for granted as the constant "I, me, mine" that we are since we are conscious of ourselves. We are not always aware of this background sense of being someone.

As a short scientific excursion:  our sense of Self is mediated / constructed to a large degree through a brain network called "Default Mode Network".  Two main nodes of this DMN are the Median Prefrontal Cortex (MPC) and the Posterior Cingular Cortex (PCC).  The MPC is responsible for our somatically felt sense of Self - that is often the contraction we feel when ruminating about the past or future. The PCC is responsible for our conceptual sense of Self  - who and what we think we are. (Taft & Brewer, 2020) 

A search instruction for the Self sounds typically like this (close to the "Pointing Out the Great Way" formulations).

First, evoke your sense of Self, eg your Till-Ness. ["Till" is my first name. We closely associate our name with our Self] Now, search for the Self throughout your entire body. Do you find it in the lower body? In the feet, in the legs? Do you find it in the belly? In the head? Do you find the Self anywhere as its own identity? Now, search for the Self throughout your emotions. Your feelings your sensations. Do you find the Self anywhere as its own identity? You will see that the more you search for the Self, the more insubstantial it becomes, the more it recedes.

The concept of "emptiness"

In a general sense, such search operations are used in the context of teaching emptiness phenomena.

Mahamudra defines as "empty" the absence of an independent self-existence. For example, the Self is "empty" because it cannot be found to have an independent existence. It does NOT mean "nothing exists" in this tradition.

Two types of fundamental goals for meditation

There isn´t one way to meditate, and one goal of meditation. Pointing out instructions are not used for every type of meditation. They are specific for some traditions and ways to teach.

There are two types of fundamental meditation goals. Daniel P Brown has talked about them here.

There is meditation for self-improvement and health. And there is meditation having the goal of "awakening". These two goals impact the way of the teaching.

Meditation for self-improvement and health

The "self-improvement" type of meditation goal supports relaxation, mental health, neural growth, better attention span, stress-free life etc. It fits well into our Western self-improvement and healing culture. We improve concentration, reduce our load of negative stress, etc.

The classical Buddhist attention/concentration training belongs in this group. According to Dustin diPerna (2022), this training is a prerequisite for the pointing out instructions.

Attention training " puts the student in a range of practice, wherein pointing out the real nature of the awakened mind is possible."(DiPerna, 2022)

Meditation for awakening

The "awakening" goal leads to a fundamental shift of the perspective through which one experiences the mind, the world, other people etc. Please check my lengthy personal definition of awakening here.

This is the genuine realm for pointing out instructions.

Two types of meditation training: skills training, and mental re-organization

Skills training and training for mental reorganisation give the meditation teacher different challenges.

Meditation teaching as ordinary skills coaching

The teaching of meditation as attention skill is relatively easy. It includes the straightforward teaching of physical and mental skills how to sit, how to breathe, how to follow one´s thoughts etc. In Tibetan texts the result is sometimes called called "ordinary mindfulness".

Meditation teaching for awakening

The teaching for awakening aims at a fundamental reorganization and re-evaluation of the inner experience. The challenge is to get the student to a place that is obvious - but only once you are there. This place is one where the experience of Self has fundamentally changed: one is no longer a separate self, watching independent objects out there. Instead, one experiences a unity of Self and Non-Self, of inner and outer (or however one may describe "non-duality".-

That is why in the Tibetan monasterial education of meditators, it often took years of "preliminaries" to build up a teacher/student relationship, to build trust and confidence that a far away elusive goal can eventually be reached.

Today, we don´t have this time. We need more effective means than those available to Tibetan teachers. The Pointing Out the Great Way organisation (which may longer be functional) provided such an approach. The approach builds on specific, highly effective linguistic structures, tested and refined for 40 years. Some of these incorporate hypnotic language elements of Ericksonian hypnosis.

These linguistic elements are supported by a range of teaching content including neuroscience, adult attachment theory, trauma theory, Freudian/Jungian psychology. Since recently, some meditation sessions are supported by music, analogous to psychedelic assisted therapy. An example, as "reconstruction" of a live online retreat, is here.

I will try to explain the challenge through a before/after comparison.

Two types of experience: the experience of "Self" before and after awakening

The felt sense of the Self is a key to trigger a mental reset. If it can become "proven" that the Self is not what it seemed to be, deep insights can arise in many areas.

Current state: Experience of Self Before Awakening

In normal everyday life, we experience ourselves as an isolated autonomous Self surrounded by an ocean of objects and outer and inner events. Everything is ordinary. Things happen. The Self is experienced as real, solid, permanent.

Target state: Experience of Self After Awakening

There are different ways in which this state can be experienced. Below you see a particular variant. It encompasses unity, mind-moments, sacredness and compassion. It corresponds to the teaching content of the Mahamudra / Dzogchen branch of Buddhism.

One no longer has the experience to be an isolated Self operating from free will. One experiences all mental events (including the Self!) as arising withing a vast space of consciousness, where consciousness is a mirror of what arises. There is only experience ("non-dual"), no subject and object of experience. Further, the apparent solidity of objects has dissolved into a stream of mind-moments that arise and dissolve. Reality has the character of being suffused with extraordinary sacredness and a feeling of being at home. And , through this experience, non-judgemental compassion with Self and all others had become a dominant feature of one´s emotional life and actions.

In the Mahamudra / Dzog Chen tradition, the Self is not "denied" or made to appear. Instead, it is seen like an ongoing construction in consciousness like everything else.

This reset is not necessarily or immediately a permanent trait. For many people, this moment is only a peak-state, a glimpse, a taste. Culadasa described this as an experience of "the new normal of an awakened person". After this moment, one returns to one´s life. But the memory is usually always in the background of the mind. It one gives it attention and time, it will slowly unfold as one integrates the extraordinary moment.

The problem is: how can one "transfer" such a fundamentally different perspective on the world and the Self from teacher to student, in a way that is not only mental and intellectual, but embodied and a visceral experience? How can one "boot-strap" this re-organisation process at a deep level?

Some teaching challenges: mind as space , non-duality, mirror mind , here and now

In order to "grok" the Mahamudra experience, the teacher has to overcome a few challenges.

In the following text, I will give an extended description for the way to overcome the limits of the mind to experience an inner space. The other examples are shorter further examples.

The difficulty of perceiving the mind as space or "ground"

The first difficulty consists in recognising the "space" or condition (Sam Harris) in which all experience, including that of the Self, arises. This requires from the student to imagine a vast inner space that is changeless, boundless and timeless.

This changeless, boundless and timeless "space" must not only be conceptually understood. It must be experienced as alive reality, it must be grokked. This requires a kind of foreground / background swap: whereas normally, everyday objects and events are in the foreground, taking all mental attention and awareness, now they have to go into the background, while the "space" is a new object of attention/awareness.

Traditionally, this background/foreground switch has been facilitated by the "space" metaphor that I used above.