When the news came out that Culadasa, my meditation teacher, was being removed from his teaching position due to misconduct, I felt distressed and disheartened. Yet in an odd way, I think these unfortunate circumstances will turn out to have a positive impact on my practice, and perhaps on the community at large.
The Culadasa situation is forcing me to deeply reflect about my own goals and expectations regarding meditation practice. I hope that sharing my reflections will be helpful to you too.
Teachers and Pedestals
The fact that I was disappointed with the misconduct of John Yates (Culadasa) reveals that I had projected my own ideals and aspirations unto him. But John never asked to be taken for a saint, or to even serve as a exemplar of moral virtue. During meetings, he even repeatedly warned us against the “guru model”, which he firmly rejected. He believed that holding humans to godly standards was not only unrealistic, but dangerous.
While it’s concerning that John has taken and broken Upasaka vows, I believe that fundamentally, what disturbs us is that his behavior shatters our ideals about meditation practice. We might hope that meditation will magically untangle the psychological mess we call “ourselves”, or that it will heal our troubled and unhealthy relationships. But it turns out that meditation will not straighten up our lives for us.
The mind’s tendency is to view books, teachers and techniques through dogmatic lenses. Instead of tediously separating the wheat from the chaff, we either reject teachings completely, or accept them blindly out of faith. In hindsight, I see that since I began training as a teacher, I took the easy and mindless route and suspended critical and nuanced thought. I have put Culadasa and his teachings on a pedestal that rose above any criticism.
By doing that, I did myself an immense disservice. Not only did I transform the teachings into something narrow and absolute, but I also stopped taking responsibility for my own path and practice. I have given more importance to a framework than to my own experience, the very opposite of what these practices teach.
In the past, I had always included techniques from different traditions in my practice. When I needed a break from daily worries and wanted to relax the mind, I would practice Pa-Auk Ānāpānasati. When the body was in pain or discomfort, perhaps due to illness or my own reckless actions, I would scan body sensations and notice their quality of Anicca – impermanence – as taught by S.N. Goenka on 10-day Vipassana retreats. In times where formal meditation instructions lost their aliveness and the meaningfulness of meditation slipped through my fingers, I listened to a Mooji Satsang and practiced Advaita Vedanta self-inquiry. And when things got too intense, which they often did, I would revert back to Mahasi noting. By noting, I could reliably navigate through the unpredictable and overwhelming experiences that accompanied the progress of Insight.
The yardstick with which I measured a technique’s effectiveness was its ability to lead me towards meaningful and beneficial states, experiences and Insights. Yet as a teacher-in-training, I shied away from including other techniques in my teachings and daily practice. I found comfort in the idea that I had discovered the framework that “had it all”. No need to seek anymore; I simply had to practice.
The Benefits of Dogmatic Practice
Limiting my practice to a single framework did provide significant advantages. It largely eliminated hesitation and doubt from my meditation sessions. No longer did I debate what technique to practice. This simplicity was freeing.
Yet that advantage had a shadow. By narrowing my practice to The Mind Illuminated, I slowly stopped investigating the perceptions that made up my real-time experience. Instead, I concentrated my efforts on stabilizing attention and cultivating mindfulness. I temporarily left aside insight practices.
This marked an important shift in my meditation practice. Up until that point, the motivation that fueled my sessions was a burning desire to understand the depths of the mind, and to eliminate the subtle but alienating sense of duality, of subject/object, of me/other, that I could feel within myself, but couldn’t break free from.
By taking a pause from investigative – Vipassana – meditation to focus on concentration skills, meditation became less of a quest, and more of a mundane habit. I nurtured this habit daily with an hourly sit, and, don’t get me wrong, it did yield immense benefits. Practicing the meditation techniques taught by Culadasa in The Mind Illuminated for the past two years has transformed the way I approach meditation, and has led me to significant behavioral and cognitive changes.
Eventually though, this way of practicing drowned out the deeper quest for truth and repressed the existential turmoil that led me to meditation as a teen. Somehow, insight practice became a side-concern, something that I would pick back up once I has mastered The Mind Illuminated and reached Stage 10.
Rekindling the Inner Fire
Now that my teacher, Culadasa, has fallen off the pedestal I had put him on, I notice that my meditation practice had become tern and trite. I have stopped investigating phenomena with the intensity, playfulness and aliveness of my youth, and I’m still too young to write such a thing. I must reclaim the sense of meaningfulness and vitality that once animated my meditation practice.
I have therefore taken a resolve to open my practice up and make space for new discoveries and opportunities. No longer will I be exclusively practicing and teaching the techniques from The Mind Illuminated.
However, only a fool would discard the immense value contained in Culadasa’s teachings and in his masterpiece, The Mind Illuminated. The 10-stage progress outlined in this book is the most pragmatic, reproducible and unambiguous I have ever worked with, both as a practitioner and a teacher. The distinction between attention and awareness, and their respective training as concentration and mindfulness, have clarified my practice and opened the door to states I thought were beyond my reach. And let’s not leave aside the detailed, specific and straightforward troubleshooting instructions for dealing with distractions, dullness or agitation. I will definitely continue to teach these concepts and include them in my practice. In fact, they should be part of any serious meditator’s toolbox. But in my case, it’s time to seek and play with a few other tools too.
Whatever unwholesome behavior he is guilty of, Culadasa’s teachings should not be fully rejected. In my case, this situation serves as a warning. In meditation and life, I should never elevate a teacher’s or framework’s authority above my own, nor should I attempt to tailor my experience to fit a particular model. Experience itself should lead the path. Meditation is a tool for experiential discovery, not another conceptual layer to encumber our moment-to-moment perceptions with.
Tips for Practice
I’m leaving you with a few of my “notes to self” on how to practice, in no particular order. May these help fuel a clear, deep and rewarding meditation practice for all of us.
Experiment! Fully experience whatever arises and passes away in consciousness. Hold nothing back. Go ahead and play with your meditation practice! Explore and adjust, see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t worry about not doing it right, but when you inevitably do, notice that thought and label it “doubt”. Meditating will not kill you, and if it feels otherwise, then face it. Let mindfulness burn the parts of you that are unnecessary and weak. Pursue – but don’t chase – what rings true and meaningful inside of you. Emphasize and cultivate – but don’t grasp – the aspects of your experience that promote joy and mental clarity. Don’t believe everything you think about your practice, yet don’t believe that too strongly either, for it’s also a thought.
Trust and observe your unaltered, animal-like and raw experience of this very moment, and this path will yield fruits that will quench a thirst you never knew you had.
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Thanks for sharing. Recognizing unskillful views and entrenched beliefs, letting them go and letting them be, and clearly knowing the way “for yourself” … this is one’s path to awakening. The teachings and teachers are trail markers and guides … awakening – as is a life – is a process not an event.
i discovered Culadasa’ book recently and was very impressed by the clarity of the book, i believe it is a masterpiece and it did help me to clarify many things even though i have done many retreat in Goenka centers and meditate 3/5hrs /days , then i heard about those allegations … Well i really don’t care, he could be a murderer, the book would still remain a masterpiece that is probably what is the more difficult thing to deal with i guess, one should never confuse the author and his work, that is really two different things even though we talk about a meditation master, it doesn’t make him the perfect guy, perfect sila and on and on, we certainly shouldn’t put anyone on a pedestal, there is only humans around here, to believe that becoming an arahant ( whether he is or not ) would let you escape the earthly attraction is probably a big mistake, not to mention that “local news” from Gautama could have been far from godly standards 😉
I’ve considered Culadasa to be my teacher for about 3 years and I’ve been on one of his retreats. His situation pretty much confirmed my suspicion that the claim that sila is required for success in meditation is based on religious belief – not experience. I wish there were more serious meditation teachers who are as agnostic as I am.