“The Mind Illuminated” as a Complete Meditation Guide

Without a doubt, John Yates’s book, “The Mind Illuminated“, is an essential modern road map and guide for meditation. The book integrates meditation traditions, wisdom, and brain science creating a comprehensive but user-friendly companion.

Know thyself.

To live life consciously and creatively as a work of art, we need to understand the raw material we have to work with. This is nothing other than the continuously unfolding stream of conscious experience that is our life. Whether we’re awake or dreaming, this stream consists of sensations, thoughts, emotions, and the choices we make in response to them.

The stream of sensations, thoughts, emotions, and choices/habits is our personal reality.

In other words, writes Yates, for your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind. Yet, the kind of understanding required isn’t just intellectual, which is ineffective by itself.

Like a naturalist studying an organism in its habitat, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our mind. This only comes from direct observation and experience.

For life to become a consciously created work of art and beauty, we must first realize our innate capacity to become a more fully conscious being. Then, through appropriately directed conscious activity, we can develop an intuitive understanding of the true nature of reality.

The Mind Illuminated: a conscious path of equanimity and wisdom

All this is possible because true happiness comes from within, which means we can always find joy, in both good times and bad. A fully awake, fully conscious human being has the love, compassion, and energy to make change for the better. This is the equanimity to accept what can’t be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Pain and pleasure are inevitable. Suffering and happiness are optional.

The Mind Illuminated as a sequence of developmental steps

The Buddha presented meditation training as a sequence of developmental stages in a series of verses known as the Ānāpānasati Sutta. Each verse describes one step in a progressive method for training the mind.

To support us in our understandings and training, In “The Mind Illuminated”, Yates brings us a clear interpretation to the traditional texts in a fusion of teachings from different Buddhist traditions. Additionally, he brings together the Indo-Tibetan Mayayana and traditional Theravada meditation teachings.

Further, we read how each tradition fills the gaps of the other. The techniques presented in the book apply to every kind of meditative practice.

Putting practice into context

A book like this inevitably requires its own technical vocabulary. Some of these terms are influenced by Western psychology and cognitive sciences. Additionally, a few come from the ancient languages of India: Pali and Sanskrit. Taking a little extra time to learn the meaning of these terms is immensely helpful. It gives a precise language to describe the practice and understand subtle experiences and states of mind.

The Mind Illuminated key terms

Yates describes these key terms as simply and clearly as possible. Further, he lists them in the glossary at the back of the book as a great reference for putting the practice into the context of your life.

meditative absorption: intense concentration otherwise described as stable, focused attention; some use elaborate visualizations (Tibetan) or insight meditations or “Just sit” (Zen) all with same goal of “Awakening”

awakening: the shift from our habitual ways of perceiving things; this requires a profound shift in our intuitive understanding of the nature of reality; a cognitive event

vipassanā: insight

samādhi: stable attention or concentration; with sati, leads to both śamatha and vipassanā


sati: mindfulness

śamatha: tranquility or calm abiding; of 5 characteristics: stable attention, mindfulness, joy, tranquility, and equanimity

5 most important insights of The Mind Illuminated

  1. impermanence
  2. emptiness
  3. the nature of suffering,
  4. the causal interdependence of all phenomena
  5. the illusion of the separate self (i.e. “no-Self”): the culminating insight that actually produces Awakening; only by overcoming our false, self-centered worldview can we realize our true nature

Essentially, these crucial insights require that the mind also be in a state of śamatha, filled with deep tranquility and equanimity.

The untrained mind as a leaky bucket

Image courtesy of The Mind Illuminated

If the skills and insights you learn on the cushion don’t infuse your daily life, progress will be quite slo. Yates describes this visually as filling a leaky bucket.

Progression through the stages is not linear. Therefore, we expect to b moving between stages over several sits or even during a single sit. It is possible to mast the ten stages with a few months or years. What is needed thought is a regular daily sitting practice–diligent daily meditation.

Types of Meditators and the Ten Stages of the Mind Illuminated Path

The Novice Meditator

One: Establishing a Practice
Two: Interrupted Attention and Overcoming Mind-Wandering
Three: Extended Attention and Overcoming Forgetting

The Skiller Meditator

Four: Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distractions and Strong Dullness
Five: Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness
Six: Subduing Subtle Distraction

The Transition

Seven: Exclusive Attention and Unifying the Mind

The Adept Meditator

Eight: Mental Pliancy and Pacifying the Sense
Nine: Mental and Physical Pliancy and Calming of the Intensity of Meditative Joy
Ten: Tranquility and Equanimity

The Mind Illuminated: the elephant, the monkey and the rabbit in the room

  • The Monk is the meditator. The rope he holds represents vigilant, alert mindfulness. The goal in his other hand represents strong intentions and firm resolve.
  • The elephant represent the mind. The black colour of the elephant represents the Five Hindrances and the Seven Problems they give rise to.
  • The monkey represents scattering of attention, and the black colour represents subtle and gross distraction, forgetting, and mind-wandering.
  • The rabbit represents subtle dullness.
  • The flames represent vigilance and effort, and when effort is no longer required the flames disappear.
The mind mapped as a path of switchbacks, hurdles, and growth

The length of the road between successive Stages indicates the relative time required to progress from one Stage to the next. The Stages come closer together until Stage 7, then they begin to stretch out again. Because the road folds back, it is possible to jump up to higher stages or fall back to lower ones.

The Mind Illuminated is a complete meditation guide which I highly recommend.

With warmth, wisdom and clarity, Culadasa (John Yakes) brings to us, a synthesis of cognitive, psychology, and neural system theory. In doing so, his book is a complete manual for meditative training. Deep psychological healing is possible with focused attention, self-insight development, trained in the ‘road map’ provided in The Mind Illuminated.

Connect with me and let me know what you think about this book and others in the Book List, Book Talks, and Author/Creatives Profiles!

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