The illuminated mind
We practice meditation first of all to bring more attention to our thought process and to our feelings. In particular to help us to clarify how we really feel about things. In the longer term through the practise of meditation we can come to see the mind in a different way. Our inner light goes on and we can see objects within our mind in the same way as we see them in the real world. We see our imagination projected onto the world of the senses. When we are withdrawn from the senses our imagination is clear and bright. In this way we are then completely clear.
St. John of the Cross, if I understand correctly, described the spiritual life as one of this kind of illumination being followed by 'purgation'. First of all we see our minds and heart very clearly, then we go through the process of purifying the mind. This way of operating is very much applicable to the tendency of the western spiritual quest to be, on balance, thought out rather than purely devotional in character. Rather than, in Asia, having faith in a path of virtue to purify the mind the westerner needs to be able to see moral cause and effect operating to really get the sense of knowing what they are doing and why (I am reminded of a discussion I had with the great Luang Por Pannavado who said to me that before he could really concentrate on his practice he had to understand what he was doing and why). The advantage is that this then gives the practitioner the ability to work with the mind as well as actions of body and speech in the process of purification. This, it seems, makes the process for the Westerner slower but more thorough. The process of purgation also, as the word suggests, is one of an amount of inner turmoil. We can be battling with our minds early on in the path. It can be more practical to get a hold of outward moral action to begin with. Yet there is a noble quality to this battle and it pays off in the longer term.
If I understand “The dark night of the soul” by St. John of the Cross then the only pitfall we have to try to avoid is becoming attached to the process of understanding, to the intellect, as an end in and of itself. Often this is a matter of clearly delineating the intellectual domain with regard to subjective and objective sources of information and with regard to conventional and ultimate truth. This is clarified by addressing the mind and body together, the mind-body problem.
The mind-body problem
As spiritual practitioners I do not think that we need to argue with the view that the mind is dependent on the brain. We just need to see that the information or truth contained there still has, to a large degree at least, a life of its own. The 'extended mind' theories perhaps show us how this life extends into the world, is not separate from the world - so our mind in informational terms is not just in our head, a perception that it is useful to dispel.
But actually, objectively speaking, it is still very difficult to solve the mind-body problem. Subjectively it can be solved, the mind-body problem does not have to be a problem. It is not so difficult to enter into a subjective experience that is not too heavily influenced by an objective view. Meditation can help us here. Taking the mind beyond thought takes us beyond many of our objective views toward the raw subjective experience.
Yet to survive we will always need to deduce an amount of objective information in our experience. This is a confusing situation for us as human beings. It is hard to perceive life clearly the way it really is objectively and to avoid this getting mixed up with the subjective aspect. There are bound to be blind spots and biases. Accepting this fact is the only solution we need to this problem. If we can realise that the conventional truths of our life in the world are merely an attempt to sort out the information that is coming to us from different sources we can settle with a functional understanding on the conventional level. We can help each other as human beings to come to a common agreement but we need to recognise this agreement for what it is, just an agreement. It is only if we take conventional judgements as in some way ultimately true that we then blind ourselves to ultimate truth or fix ourselves in a particular conventional view.
In terms of what we really know we need to keep this to simple universal truths to be able to be confident and to really see in the way we think. The Buddha gives us such truths that furthermore, very significantly, cut through our very desire to analyse the world. Less desire also means less bias in the discrimination that remains necessary.
The principle truth the Buddha points out is that of impermanence. Very significantly the truth of impermanence covers the phenomenon of the mind as well as the body. So there is no need to discriminate in our experience what is real or not real, objective or subjective, in order to be able to see the truth of impermanence.
Pointing out the impermanent nature of conditions and our inability as human beings to find any real security or control furthermore takes our intention elsewhere. In the search for enlightenment we do not need to analyse the world beyond the basic, functional understanding we need to survive. We are looking instead for a more stable basis for the world of truth.
The truth of impermanence may be simple but to perceive the world in this way is still not easy, its scary. We need to find some kind of faith, courage or sense of a refuge to get past this fear and be able to calmly observe. It is in fact this calm and peace that is our first refuge. It is this calm that we then develop further, through the wisdom that sees impermanence, to become our ultimate refuge.