stages of the gatekeeper 1 thru 4, and samādhi

POSTCARD#441: Bangkok: Continuing with the text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. A Meditator’s Handbook

The Gatekeeper at Stage One

In the first of these meditation stages, present-moment awareness, the guest list—who’s allowed in—is anything happening now. It can be the sound of a bird. It can be the sound of a truck in the distance. It can be the wind. It can be someone coughing or banging the door. It doesn’t matter. If it is something happening now, then it is a guest of present moment awareness. It can be the breath. It can be a nimitta. It can be a jhāna. That’s all part of the present moment. So be very clear on who is allowed in, and welcome your guests.

You should also be very clear on what’s not allowed in. Who are the gatecrashers to present-moment awareness? Those enemies are any thoughts, any perceptions, any view of the past or the future. That is, any looking back or any looking forward. It’s important to know those gatecrashers and to articulate them clearly when you instruct your gatekeeper. Say to yourself three times at the start of your meditation, “I’ll be aware of the present moment, and I’ll not go off into the past or the future.” Instructing the gatekeeper about the dangers as well as the goals, helps mindfulness do its task. When a gatecrasher appears, mindfulness knows, “This is not what I’m supposed to be doing.” Mindfulness then discards that thought or perception of the past or the future.

The Gatekeeper at Stage Two

In the second stage of silent present-moment awareness, the goal is silence, and the gatecrasher is inner speech. So you tell the mind very clearly at the beginning of that stage: “I’ll be silently aware in the present moment and will discard all inner speech.” Repeat this two more times. That way you establish mindfulness. You give your meditation the possibility of success because you’ve instructed your gatekeeper clearly.

The Gatekeeper at Stage Three

In the third stage, silent present-moment awareness of the breath, the only invited guest is the breath in the present moment. Who are the gatecrashers? They are everything other than the breath, which includes sounds outside,

feelings in the body, or thoughts about lunch or dinner or whatever. Everything other than the breath is a gatecrasher. So you should tell yourself three times: “I will be aware of the breath in the present moment and discard all other perceptions and thoughts.” Once again, having told the mind very clearly both what it is supposed to do and what it’s not do, you can let the mind get on with its work. You just look on. When a thought other than the breath comes up, such as hearing the sound of a lawnmower outside, the mind knows immediately that it’s not supposed to be doing this and it turns away automatically. This is training the mind in mindfulness. It’s fascinating to watch the mind when it is well trained. When it has been given clear instructions, it remembers what to do, it knows what it’s doing, and the meditation becomes smooth and appears effortless. The meditation, however, is not completely effortless. You’re putting in some effort but at the right time, when it’s going to be effective. It’s like growing a tree. There are times when you put effort in and times when you let things be. You plant the seed, you water it, and you fertilize it. But most of the time, when you’re growing a tree, your job is just to guard it, to make sure that nothing interferes with the process. The seed has its instructions; it just needs the chance. In the same way, don’t keep interfering with the mind. Don’t keep prodding it and pushing it and telling it to do things, because otherwise after a while it will just rebel. “Leave me alone. Look, I’m trying to do my job. Get out of the way,” says the mind. And if you don’t leave the mind alone quickly, your meditation is shot!

The Gatekeeper at Stage Four

In the fourth stage of the meditation—full sustained attention on the breath—the gatekeeper is told to be aware of the whole breath in every moment and not allow other things to intrude on this smooth, continuous awareness: “I shall be aware of the whole breath continually, and disregard anything other than the breath.” By instructing the gatekeeper very carefully and clearly, you give mindfulness a chance to succeed. You only have to tell yourself the message three times at the beginning of the stage and just see what happens.

If you give yourself these instructions and after one or two minutes you find you’re drifting off focus, there are two possible reasons. Either you didn’t instruct yourself carefully enough or you have very weak mindfulness. If you have weak mindfulness, then every three or four minutes you should repeat the instructions. There’s no need to repeat the instructions every ten or fifteen seconds. Repeating the instructions too often causes a disturbance in meditation, which never gives meditation a chance to succeed and instead gives rise to restlessness and despair.

If you give yourself the instructions very carefully, you’ll remember them. Stage by stage, your mindfulness will deepen. You will notice that mindfulness begins with a large territory in which to roam—the present moment. Then the range allowed to mindfulness is gradually reduced. Mindfulness focuses on what is silent in the present moment, discarding all that belongs to inner speech. Then instead of just silence in the present moment, everything is discarded other than the silent awareness of the breath in the present moment. Then everything is discarded other than the full awareness of the breath, from the very beginning of the in-breath to the end of the in-breath, from the very beginning of the out-breath to the end of the outbreath. In each successive stage mindfulness reduces its spread to gain more power.

Samādhi—Attentive Stillness

In stage three, awareness of the breath, you just have to notice part of each in-breath and part of each out-breath. Once you’ve noticed part of the in-breath, then the mind can go wandering off somewhere else, but it has to be “home” again in time to catch the next out-breath. Once it’s seen the breath going out, then it can go off and observe other things, until it has to come home again to catch the breath going in. Mindfulness still has other places where it can go. It is tied to the breath, but on a long leash. But in stage four, full awareness of the breath, you need to completely lock the awareness into the breathing and go nowhere else. This fourth stage is so important in meditation because here you fully grab hold of your meditation object for the first time. Mindfulness is confined to one small area of existence—your momentary breath. You are focusing your awareness instead of allowing it to go all over the place. When mindfulness is focused it becomes strong. It’s like using a magnifying glass to start a fire—you’re concentrating all the energy on one thing. This attentive stillness that is able to sustain awareness on one thing is called samādhi. No need to call it “concentration,” because concentration misses so much of what is really important in the meaning of samādhi.

Samādhi is the attentive stillness that is able to sustain attention on one thing, and it is not uncommon. Take, for example, a surgeon performing an operation. Surgeons tell me that sometimes they spend many hours on one operation. They’re on their feet throughout, but they never feel tired because they have to sustain their attention on the end of the scalpel. Just one little mistake, one lapse of attentive stillness, and their patient can die. Surgeons performing operations develop a type of samādhi. They don’t feel any pain in their legs, because all their attention is on the end of the knife. Surgeons attain this level of samādhi because they have to. There’s only one thing in the world that they’re concerned with—just this part of the operation that is happening now. This example tells us an important message about samādhi: if it’s really important, you can do it.

This is continued next week Friday 22nd October 2021

The Quality of Mindfulness

POSTCARD#440: Bangkok: [Editor’s note: In this section of the book Ajahn Brahm reminds us mindfulness is remembering, sati. We acquire that quality of mindfulness that can teach a part of the mind to remember basic instructions to be mindful of who is to be included and who is not included in your list of house guests. It means the observer doesn’t need to be the one who is mindful of everything. These parts of the mind, given the task of being mindful of a particular thing at a given time, can remember these, in the long term with, for example: “Now is the time to watch the present moment. Be in the present moment. Be in the present moment.”]

MINDFULNESS is one of the spiritual faculties (indriya) that create success in meditation. If it’s not fully understood and fully practiced, you can waste a lot of time in your meditation.

Setting Up the Gatekeeper

Mindfulness is not just being aware, being awake, or being fully conscious of what’s occurring around you. Mindfulness also guides the awareness to specific areas, remembers the instructions, and initiates a response. In a simile the Buddha used, mindfulness is like a person who guards a door or gate (AN VII,63).

Imagine that you are a wealthy person with a gatekeeper guarding your mansion. One evening, before going to the temple to practice meditation, you tell the gatekeeper to be mindful of burglars. When you return home, your loving-kindness suddenly vanishes when you find your house has been burgled. “Didn’t I tell you to be mindful!” you scream at the gatekeeper. “But I was mindful,” pleads the gatekeeper. “I gave attention to the burglars as they broke in, and I was clearly attentive as they walked out with your plasma-screen TV and state-of-the-art sound system. I mindfully watched them go in several times, and my mind did not wander as I observed them take all your antique furniture and priceless jewelry.”

Would you be happy with such an explanation of mindfulness? A wise gatekeeper knows that mindfulness is more than bare attention. A wise gatekeeper has to remember the instructions and perform them with diligence. If he sees a thief trying to break in, then he must stop the burglar or else call in the police.

In the same way, a wise meditator must do more than just give bare attention to whatever comes into and goes out of the mind. The wise meditator must remember the instructions and act on them with diligence. For instance, the Buddha gave an instruction about “right effort,” the sixth factor of the noble eightfold path. When wise meditators practicing mindfulness observe an unwholesome state trying to break in, they try to stop the defilement. And if the unwholesome state does slip in, they try to evict it. Unwholesome states such as sexual desire or anger are like burglars or sweet-talking con artists, who will rob you of your peace, wisdom, and happiness. There are, then, these two aspects of mindfulness: awareness and remembering the instructions.

In the Buddhist suttas, the same Pāli word sati is used for both awareness and memory. A person who has good mindfulness is also a person who has a good memory. If we pay full attention to what we are doing, this awareness creates an imprint in our mind. It becomes easy to remember. For example, suppose you come very close to having a serious car accident. Because of the danger, your mindfulness suddenly becomes extremely sharp. And because of the intensity of that mindfulness, you remember the event very clearly. When you go to sleep that night you might not be able to forget it. This shows the connection between awareness and memory. The more you are paying attention to what you’re doing, the better you remember it. Again, these two things go together, awareness and memory.

If we have gatekeepers who have developed awareness, they will pay attention to the instructions that they are given. If they give full attention to the instructions, they will be able to remember them and act on them diligently. So we should give ourselves clear instructions paying full attention; then we will remember what we are supposed to be doing. The teacher’s job is also to give clear instructions to help us in guiding the mind. When the training in meditation is methodical and each stage is well defined, then our gatekeepers have the clarity they need.

Instructing the Gatekeeper

At the beginning of the meditation, please remember that there’s a gatekeeper inside—something that can be aware of what’s happening and remember instructions. Tell that gatekeeper something like “Now is the time to be aware of the present moment.” Tell the gatekeeper this three times. If

you repeat something, you’re more likely to remember it. Maybe when you were at school and couldn’t spell a word, you had to write it out a hundred times. You never forget it after that, because when you repeat something it takes more effort, and mindfulness becomes stronger. What’s easy to do doesn’t require much mindfulness. So make it difficult for yourself by repeating instructions: “I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment.”

With the gatekeeper, like any other servant or worker, you don’t have to keep giving the same instruction every second or two. Just give that instruction to the gatekeeper three times at the beginning, then let the gatekeeper get on with the task. Trust the gatekeeper to know its job.

Instruct your gatekeeper as you would instruct a taxi driver. You just say clearly where you want to go, then you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. You trust that the driver knows how to get there. But imagine what would happen if you kept telling the driver every few seconds, “Go slower…go faster…turn left here…now go into third gear… look in your mirror…keep to the right.” After driving a few hundred yards the taxi driver would throw you out. No wonder then, when meditators keep giving instructions to their gatekeeper every few seconds, their minds rebel and refuse to cooperate.

Let the mind get on with the job of being in the present moment. Don’t keep interfering with it. Give the mind clear instructions and then let go and watch. If you establish mindfulness in this way, you will find that your mind will do what it’s told. It will still make mistakes now and again, but the instructions that you’ve given will ensure that as soon as it starts to wander off into the past or the future, mindfulness will remember to return to the present moment. For you, the onlooker, it’s something that happens automatically. You just watch the gatekeeper do the work without giving any more instructions. This is knowing the mind and working with its nature.

I encourage you to play games with the mind to learn its capabilities. I was told on my first meditation retreat that there is no need to set the alarm for getting up in the morning. The teacher told us instead to say to ourselves

before going to bed, “I’m going to get up at five minutes to five.” It worked every morning. I didn’t need to keep looking at my clock to check if it was five to five yet, and when I woke up and looked at my clock it was five minutes to five, give or take a minute or two. It’s amazing how the mind works. I don’t know how it remembered, but it did. So try programming your mind: “Now is the time to watch the present moment. Be in the present moment. Be in the present moment.” That’s all you need to do. Then you can

let the mind do the work. It’s also important to clearly instruct the gatekeeper who is allowed in and who is not. It’s not enough just to have the guest list. If the gatekeeper hasn’t got a list of who’s forbidden, it could easily make mistakes.

This is continued next week, Saturday October 16th 2021

the workshop of the hindrances

POSTCARD#439: Bangkok: Meditators fail to overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. It is crucial to success in meditation to understand that the hindrances are to be seen at work in the space between the knower and the known. The hindrances’ source is the doer, their result is lack of progress, but their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object. Essentially, the five hindrances are a relationship problem.

Skillful meditators observing their breath also pay attention to how they watch their breath. If you see expectation between you and your breath, then you are watching the breath with desire, part of the first hindrance. If you notice aggression in the space in between, then you are watching the breath with the second hindrance, ill will. Or if you recognize fear in that space, maybe anxiety about losing awareness of the breath, then you are meditating with a combination of hindrances. For a time you may appear to be successful, able to keep the breath in mind for several minutes, but you will find that you are blocked from going deeper. You have been watching the wrong thing. Your main task in meditation is to notice these hindrances and knock them out. Thereby you earn each successive stage in meditation,  rather than trying to steal the prize of each stage by an act of will.

In every stage of this meditation you cannot go wrong when you put peace or kindness in the space between you and whatever you are aware of. When a sexual fantasy is occurring, put peace in the space and the daydream will soon run out of fuel. Make peace not war with the dullness. Place kindness between the observer and your aching body. And agree to a ceasefire in the battle between you and your wandering mind. Stop controlling and start to let go.

Just as a house is built of thousands of bricks laid one by one, so the house of peace (i.e., jhāna) is built of thousands of moments of peace made one by one. When moment after moment you place peace or gentleness or kindness in the space between, then the sexual fantasies are no longer needed, pain fades away, dullness turns to brightness, restlessness runs out of gas, and jhāna simply happens. In summary, notice that the five hindrances occur in the space between the observer and the observed. So place peace and loving-kindness in that space. Don’t just be mindful, but develop what I call unconditional mindfulness, the awareness that never controls or even interferes with whatever it knows. Then all the hindrances will be undermined and soon fade.

The Simile of the Snake

Many meditators complain of a pet hindrance, a problem in meditation that blocks them again and again. Recurring hindrances can be overcome using a method derived from the following simile of the snake.

In my early years as a forest monk in Thailand, I would often return to my hut late at night barefoot because there weren’t any sandals, and I would use the light of the stars to guide me because there were no batteries for my flashlight. Though the jungle paths were shared with many snakes, I never got bitten. I knew they were there in great numbers and that they were very dangerous, so I walked very carefully on the lookout for them. If I saw a suspicious dark band on the path, though it could have been a stick, I would leap over it or else go by another route. Thus I successfully avoided the danger. In the same way, on the path of meditation there are many dangerous hindrances waiting to grab you and disable your progress. If you would only remember that they are prowling and that they are dangerous, then you would be on the lookout for them and never get caught.

The Nālāgiri Strategy

Some meditators claim to experience all the five hindrances at once and in great force! At the time they think they might go crazy. To help such meditators with their acute and intense attack of all hindrances, I teach the Nālāgiri Strategy based on a well-known episode from the life of the Buddha. Enemies tried to kill the Buddha by releasing an intoxicated bull elephant named Nālāgiri in the narrow street where the Buddha was walking for alms. Those who saw the mad elephant charging shouted warnings to the Buddha and his following of monks to quickly get out of the way. All the monks fled except for the Buddha and his faithful attendant Ven. Ananda. Ven. Ananda bravely moved in front of his master, ready to protect his beloved teacher by sacrificing his own life. Gently the Buddha pushed Ven. Ananda to the side and faced the immensely powerful charging elephant alone. The Buddha certainly possessed psychic powers, and I believe he could have grabbed the great elephant by the trunk, twirled him three times in the air above his head, and thrown him over the river Ganges hundreds of miles away! But that is not the way of a buddha. Instead he used loving-kindness/letting go. Perhaps the Buddha thought something like “Dear Nālāgiri, the door of my heart is open to you no matter what you do to me. You may swat me with your trunk or crush me under your feet, but I will give you no ill will. I will love you unconditionally.” The Buddha gently placed peace in the space between him and the dangerous elephant. Such is the irresistible power of authentic loving-kindness/letting go that in a few seconds the elephant’s rage had subsided, and Nālāgiri was meekly bowing before the Compassionate One, having his trunk gently stroked “There Nālāgiri, there…”

There are times in some meditators’ practice when their mind is as crazy as an intoxicated bull elephant charging around smashing everything. In such situations please remember the Nālāgiri Strategy. Don’t use force to subdue your raging bull elephant of a mind. Instead use loving kindness/ letting go: “Dear crazy mind of mine, the door of my heart is fully open to you no matter what you do to me. You may destroy or crush me, but I will give you no ill will. I love you, my mind, no matter what you do.” Make peace with your crazy mind instead of fighting it. Such is the power of authentic loving-kindness/letting go that in a surprisingly short time, the mind will be released from its rage and stand meekly before you as your soft mindfulness gently strokes it “There mind, there…”

When the Hindrances Are Knocked Out

The question often arises as to how long the hindrances remain knocked out. When they are overcome, does that mean forever or just during your meditation? At first, you overcome them temporarily. When you emerge from a deep meditation, you’ll notice that those hindrances have been gone for a long time. The mind is very sharp, very still. You can keep your attention on one thing for a long time, and you have no ill will at all. You can’t get angry with someone even if they hit you over the head. You aren’t interested in  sensory pleasures like sex. This is the result of good meditation. But after a while, depending on the depth and the length of that meditation, the hindrances come back again. It’s like they’re in the boxing ring and they’ve just been knocked out. They are “unconscious” for a while. Eventually they come round again and start playing their tricks. But at least you know what it is like to have overcome those hindrances. The more you return to those deep stages—the more often the hindrances get knocked out—the more sickly and weak they become. Then it’s the job of the enlightenment insights to overcome those weakened hindrances once and for all. This is the age-old path of Buddhism. You knock out the five hindrances through meditation practice in order to provide an opportunity for wisdom. Wisdom will then see through these weakened hindrances and destroy them. When the hindrances have been completely abandoned, you’re enlightened. And if you are enlightened, there is no difficulty in getting into jhānas because the obstacles are gone. What was between you and jhānas has been completely eradicated.

the fifth hindrance – doubt

POSTCARD#438: Bangkok: Doubt can be toward the teaching, about the teacher, or toward yourself. Regarding doubt toward the teaching, you should have enough confidence by now to know that some beautiful results come from practicing meditation. You may have experienced many of them already. Allow those positive experiences to strengthen your confidence that meditation is worthwhile. Sitting in meditation, developing the mind in stillness, and especially developing the mind in jhānas are all tremendously worthwhile and will give you clarity, happiness, and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

With regard to teachers, they are often like coaches of sports teams. Their job is to teach from their own experience and, more important, to inspire students with words and deeds. But before you put your confidence in a teacher, check them out. Observe their behavior and see for yourself if they are practicing what they preach. If they really know what they are talking about, then they will be ethical, restrained, and inspiring. Only if teachers lead by example—a good example, that is—should you place your confidence in them.

Self-doubt—which thinks, “I’m hopeless, I can’t do this, I’m useless, I’m sure everyone else who practices meditation, except me, has got jhānas and is already enlightened”—is often overcome with the help of a teacher who inspires and encourages you. It’s the teacher’s job to say, “Yes, you can achieve all of these things. Many other people have achieved them, so why not you?” Give yourself encouragement. Have confidence that you can achieve whatever you want. In fact, if you have sufficient determination and confidence, then it’s only a matter of time before you succeed. The only people who fail are those who give up.

Doubt can also be directed toward what you are experiencing now: “What is this? Is this jhāna? Is this present-moment awareness?” Such doubts are hindrances. They are inappropriate during meditation. Just make the mind as peaceful as you can. Let go and enjoy the peace and happiness. Afterward, you can review the meditation and ask, “What was that? That was really interesting. What was happening there?” That’s when you’ll find out whether or not it was a jhāna. If while meditating the thought “Is this jhāna?” arises, then it cannot be jhāna! Thoughts like that can’t come up within these deep states of stillness. Only afterward, when you review those states, can you look back and say, “Ah, that was a jhāna.”

If you get into any difficulty in your meditation, stop and ask yourself, “Which of the hindrances is this?” Find out what the cause is. Once you know the cause, then you can remember the solution and apply it. If it’s sensory desire, just take the attention away from the five senses little by little and apply it to the breath or the mind. If it’s ill will, do some loving-kindness. For sloth and torpor, remember “give value to awareness.” If it’s restlessness and remorse, remember “contentment, contentment, contentment” or practice forgiveness. And if it’s doubt, be confident and be inspired by the teachings. Whenever you meditate, apply the solutions methodically. That way, the obstacles you experience won’t create long-term barriers. They’re things that you can recognize, overcome, and move beyond.

Preview of next week’s text:

“All the Hindrances emanate from a single source. They are generated by the control freak inside of you that refuses to let things go. Meditators fail to overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. It is crucial to success in meditation to understand that the hindrances are to be seen at work in the space between the knower and the known. The hindrances’ source is the doer, their result is lack of progress, but their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object. Essentially, the five hindrances are a relationship problem.”

More next week Saturday 02 October 2021

the fourth Hindrance, restlessness and remorse

POSTCARD#437: Bangkok: The fourth hindrance is among the most subtle of hindrances. The main  component of this hindrance is restlessness of mind. But first let me briefly address the matter of remorse. Editor’s note: Here, Ajahn Brahm tells us the story of Angulimāla. I have moved it the end of this Chapter where you can read it there, for a wider picture of remorse.

Remorse

Remorse is the result of hurtful things that you may have done or said. In other words, it is a result of bad conduct. If any remorse comes up in meditation, instead of dwelling on it, you should forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The wise are not people who never make mistakes, but those who forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes. Some people have so much remorse that they think they can never become enlightened. Forgiveness, letting go of the past, is what overcomes remorse.

Restlessness

Restlessness arises because we do not appreciate the beauty of contentment. We do not acknowledge the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. We have a fault-finding mind rather than a mind that appreciates what’s already there. Restlessness in meditation is always a sign of not finding joy in what’s here. Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception. It’s within our power to change the way we look at things. We can look at a glass of water and perceive it as very beautiful, or we can think of it as ordinary. In meditation, we can see the breath as dull and routine, or we can see it as very beautiful and unique. If we look upon the breath as something of great value, then we won’t get restless. We won’t go around looking for something else. That’s what restlessness is, going around looking for something else to do, something else to think about, somewhere else to go—anywhere but here and now. Restlessness is one of the major hindrances, along with sensory desire. Restlessness makes it so hard to sit still for very long.

I begin meditation with present-moment awareness, just to overcome the coarse restlessness that says, “I want to be somewhere other than right here, right now.” No matter what this place is, no matter how comfortable you make it, restlessness will always say it’s not good enough. It looks at your meditation cushion and says it’s too big or too small, too hard or too wide. It looks upon a meditation retreat center and says, “It’s not good enough. We should have three meals a day. We should have room service.”

Beware of finding fault in your meditation. Sometimes you may think, “I’m not going deep enough. I’ve been watching the present moment for so long, and I’m not getting anywhere.” That thought is the very cause of restlessness. It doesn’t matter how the meditation is going in your opinion. Remember that contentment is the opposite of a faultfinding mind. You should develop the perception of contentment with whatever you have, wherever you are, as much as you can. Be absolutely content with your meditation and it will go deeper. If you’re dissatisfied with your progress, then you’re only making it worse. So learn to be content with the present moment. Forget about jhānas, just be content to be here and now, in this moment. As that contentment deepens, it will actually give rise to jhānas.

Watch the silence and be content to be silent. If you’re truly content, you don’t need to say anything. Don’t most inner conversations take the form of complaining, attempting to change things, or wanting to do something else? Or escaping into the world of thoughts and ideas? Thinking indicates a lack of contentment. If you’re truly contented, then you’re still and quiet. See if you can deepen your contentment, because it is the antidote for restlessness.

Even if you have an ache in the body and don’t feel well, you can change your perception and regard that as something quite fascinating, even beautiful. See if you can be content with the ache or pain. See if you can allow it to be. A few times during my life as a monk I have been in quite severe pain. Instead of trying to escape, which is restlessness, I turned my mind around to completely accept

the pain and be content with it. I have found that it is possible to be content with even severe pain. If you can do that, the worst part of the pain disappears along with the restlessness. There’s no wanting to get rid of it. You’re completely still with the feeling. The restlessness that accompanies pain is probably the worst part. Get rid of restlessness through contentment, and you can even have fun with pain.

Develop contentment with whatever you have—the present moment, the silence, the breath. Wherever you are, develop that contentment, and from that contentment—out of the very center of that contentment—you’ll find your meditation will deepen. So if you ever see restlessness in your mind, remember the word contentment. Contentment looks for what is right, and it can keep you still. But restlessness will always make you a slave. The tyrant is the faultfinding mind. Subdue this tyrant through contentment.

After you’ve overcome the more general forms of restlessness, a very refined form often occurs at the deeper stages of meditation. I am referring to the time when you first see a nimitta. Because of restlessness, you just can’t leave it alone. You mess around with it. You aren’t content with the nimitta as it appears right now. You want something more. You get excited. Restlessness is one of the hindrances that can easily destroy the nimitta. You’ve arrived already. You don’t have to do any more. Just leave it alone. Be content with it and it will develop by itself. That’s what contentment is—complete non-doing, just sitting there watching a nimitta blossom into a jhāna. If it takes an hour, if it takes five minutes, if it never even happens, you’re content. That’s the way to get into jhānas. If the nimitta comes and goes, that’s a sign of restlessness in the mind. If you can sustain attention effortlessly, restlessness has been overcome. 

The story of Angulimāla (MN 86)

Angulimāla was a serial killer. He killed 999 people. He cut off a finger from each of his victims and put them in a garland he hung around his neck. The one-thousandth victim was to be the Buddha but, of course, you can’t kill a buddha. Instead the Buddha “killed him,” killed his bad ways, killed his defilements. Angulimāla became a Buddhist monk. Even a serial killer like Angulimāla could achieve the jhānas and become fully enlightened. So have you ever killed anybody? Are you a serial killer? You probably haven’t done anything like that. If such people can become enlightened, surely you can. No matter what bad things you’ve done in your past or what you feel remorseful about, always remember Angulimāla. Then you won’t feel so bad about yourself.

Continued next week, September 24th 2021, with the Fifth Hindrance, Doubt (Vicikicchā).

the third Hindrance—sloth and torpor

POSTCARD#436: Bangkok: I don’t need to describe sloth and torpor in detail, because I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what we are watching, whether it’s the present moment, silence, the breath, or whatever. This is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.

Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor

The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor. My meditation was like a pendulum swinging between extremes and never finding the middle. It took many years to understand what was going on.

The Buddha advocated investigation, not fighting. So I examined where my sloth and torpor came from. I had been meditating at 3:15 in the morning, having slept very little, I was malnourished, an English monk in a hot tropical jungle – what would you expect! The dullness was the effect of natural causes. I let go and made peace with my sleepiness. I stopped fighting and let my head droop. Who knows, I might even have snored. When I stopped fighting sloth and torpor it did not last all that long. Moreover, when it passed I was left with peace and not with restlessness. I had found the middle of my pendulum swing and I could observe my breath easily from then on.

Dullness in meditation is the result of a tired mind, usually one that has been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. Resting allows the energy to return to the mind. To understand this process, I will now introduce the two halves of the mind: the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.

At a retreat I led in Sydney a few years ago, a retreatant arrived late from her high-stress job as an executive in the city. In her first sitting that evening her mind was almost as dead as a corpse. So I gave her my special teaching on how to overcome her sloth and torpor: I told her to rest. For the next three days she slept in until dawn, went back to bed again after breakfast, and had a long nap after lunch. What a brilliant meditator! After three days of no fighting, giving hardly any mental energy to the doer but letting it flow to the knower, her mind brightened up. In another three days she had caught up with the rest of the group in her progress through the stages. By the end of the retreat she was way ahead and one of the star meditators of that retreat.

The most profound and effective way to overcome sloth and torpor is to stop fighting your mind. Stop trying to change things and instead let things be. Make peace not war with sloth and torpor. Then your mental energy will be freed to flow into the knower, and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.

Giving Value to Awareness

Another method for overcoming sloth and torpor is to give more value to awareness. All Buddhist traditions say that human life is valuable and precious, especially a life like this one where you have encountered the Buddha’s teachings. Now you have the opportunity to practice. You may not realize how many lifetimes it has taken and how much merit you’ve had to accumulate just to get where you are now. You’ve invested lifetimes of good karma to get this close to the Dhamma. Reflecting like this means you will incline less to sloth and torpor and more to bright awareness.

The path of meditation sometimes comes to a fork in the road. The left path leads to sloth and torpor while the right path leads to bright awareness. With experience you will recognize this fork. This is the point in meditation where you can choose between the alley to sloth and torpor or the highway to mindful stillness. Taking the left path you give up both the doer and the knower. Taking the right path you let go of the doer but keep the knower. When you value awareness you will automatically choose the right path of bright awareness.

Sloth and Torpor and Ill Will

Sometimes sloth and torpor is the result of ill will, the second hindrance. When I used to visit Australian prisons to teach meditation, I would often hear the following prison proverb: “an extra hour of sleep is an hour off your sentence.” People who don’t like where they are will try to escape into dullness. In the same way, meditators who easily get negative will tend to drift into sloth and torpor. Ill will is the problem.

 In our monastery in Thailand we would meditate all night once a week. During those all-night sittings, sloth and torpor would regularly conquer me an hour or two after midnight. Since it was my first year as a monk, I reflected that less than twelve months previously I would spend all night at parties, rock concerts, and clubs. I recalled that I never experienced sloth and torpor when listening to the music of the Doors at 2 A.M. Why? It became clear that when you are enjoying what you are doing then you don’t tend to get sloth and torpor, but when you don’t like what you are doing then sloth and torpor comes in. I did not like those all-night sits. I thought they were a stupid idea. I did them because I had to. I had ill will, and that was the cause of my sloth and torpor. When I changed my attitude and put joy into the all-night sittings, making them fun, then sloth and torpor rarely came. So you should investigate whether your sloth and torpor is the result of an attitude problem—the attitude of ill will.

Using Fear

When I was a lay Buddhist I attended a Zen retreat in the north of England. It was very early in the morning, and the meditation hall was freezing cold. People had their blankets around them. When you meditate with a blanket anywhere close to you, you tend to get sleepy. The teacher was walking up and down with a big stick, and the fellow next to me who had started nodding got hit. Everyone’s sloth and torpor suddenly disappeared right then. We only needed one person to get hit and that was enough. The  problem was that the fear that woke me up remained with me, preventing further progress. Experience teaches that you can’t generate wholesome states like peace and freedom by using unwholesome methods like fear or violence.

In the old forest tradition of northeast Thailand, monks would meditate in dangerous places such as platforms high in the trees, on the edge of cliffs, or in jungles full of tigers. The ones who survived said they got good meditation, but you never heard from the monks that didn’t survive!

Continued next week 17 September 2021, with the remaining two hindrances: restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā)

These are Excerpts from Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm

the second hindrance – ill will

POSTCARD#435: Bangkok: [Editors note: Last week we learned something about how the hindrances stop you from entering into the jhānas. This week we understand the extent to which Ill Will (vyāpāda) obstructs or weakens wisdom and strengthens delusion.] Text begins here: The second hindrance, ill will or vyāpāda, is a major obstacle to deep meditation, especially for Western meditators. The usual understanding of this second hindrance is anger toward another person. But that is not the full extent of ill will, because it is more likely to be toward yourself or even toward the meditation object.

Ill Will toward Yourself

Ill will toward yourself can manifest as not allowing yourself to bliss out, become peaceful, or become successful in meditation. There are many people who have very deep guilt complexes. This is mostly a Western trait because of the way that many of us have been brought up. Ill will toward yourself is something that you should watch out for in meditation. It may be that is the main hindrance that’s stopping you from getting deep into meditation.

We feel we don’t deserve so much bliss. You do deserve so much bliss! Why should you not? There’s nothing against it. There are some kinds of bliss in this world that are illegal. There are others that break the Buddhist precepts, cause disease, or have terrible side effects. But jhānas have no bad side effects, they’re not illegal, and the Buddha specifically encouraged them. If you look very carefully at the way you meditate, you may find that you encounter the hindrance of ill will, but not at that last step before jhānas. You encounter it at some earlier stage of meditation. An aversion to inner happiness is a sure sign of guilt. When someone is found guilty, punishment usually follows – guilt and punishment are inseparable in our culture and in our minds. If we feel guilty about something, the next thing we think of is punishing ourselves—denying ourselves some type of pleasure, happiness, or freedom.

Goodwill toward Yourself

To overcome that hindrance of Ill-Will, do some loving-kindness meditation. Give yourself a break. Say to yourself, “The door to my heart is open to all of me. I allow myself happiness. I allow myself peace. I have goodwill toward myself, enough goodwill to let myself become peaceful and to bliss out on this meditation.” If you find it hard to extend loving-kindness toward yourself, ask why. There may be a deep-seated guilt complex inside, and you still expect punishment. You haven’t given yourself unconditional forgiveness.

A beautiful ethic of Buddhism is that it does not matter what anyone else does to you or how long they have done it to you; it doesn’t matter how unfair, cruel, or undeserving their treatment has been—you may still forgive them absolutely. I hear people saying that sometimes there are things you cannot forgive. That’s not Buddhism! There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t forgive in Buddhism. Some years ago, a demented man went to a primary school in Scotland and killed many small children. At the religious service after the massacre, a prominent cleric asked God not to forgive this man, arguing that some things you cannot forgive! My heart sank when I heard that a religious leader would not offer forgiveness and show the way to heal people’s pain in the aftermath of tragedy.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, you can forgive everything. Your forgiveness is healing. Your forgiveness solves old problems and never creates new ones. But because of ingrained attitudes you may have toward yourself, you think you cannot forgive yourself. Sometimes the problem is buried deep inside – it could be you’ve forgotten how things ended up like this, you just know there is something inside of you that you feel guilty about, that you can’t forgive. You have some reason for denying yourself freedom, jhāna, and enlightenment. That ill will toward yourself may be the main reason why your meditation is not successful. Check that one out.

Ill Will toward the Meditation Object

Ill will toward the meditation object is a common problem for people who have been meditating on the breath without much success yet. I say “yet” because it’s only a matter of time to me . Everyone will have success if they follow the instructions. But if you haven’t succeeded yet, you may have some ill will toward meditation or the meditation object. You may sit down and think, “Oh, here we go again,” “This is going to be difficult,” “I don’t really want to do this,” “I have to do this because it’s what meditators do,” or “I’ve got to be a good Buddhist, and this is what Buddhists are supposed to do.” If you start the meditation with ill will toward meditation, doing it but not liking it, then it’s not going to work. You are putting a hindrance in front of yourself straight-away.

I love meditation. I enjoy it so much. Once when I led a meditation retreat I said to my fellow monks upon arriving, “Great, a meditation retreat!” I got up early every morning really looking forward to it. “Wow, I’m on meditation retreat. I don’t have to do all the other stuff that I do in the monastery.” I love meditation so much, and I’ve got so much goodwill toward it that there isn’t the slightest bit of aversion. Basically I’m a “meditation junkie,” and if you’ve got that sort of attitude, then you find that the mind, as the Buddha said, “leaps toward meditation” (AN IX, 41). As for the meditation object, the breath, we’ve had such good times together, my breath and I. We’re the best of friends. If you regard the breath with that sort of goodwill, you can see why it’s so easy to watch the breath in your meditation.

The opposite, of course, is when you know you have to be with the breath and you don’t like it. You’ve had so much difficulty with the breath, you just want to escape. Unfortunately people do develop such ill will toward the breath. If it’s not pointed out to them, they will regard meditation as a chore. There’s no happiness in it. It becomes something like weight-lifting: “No pain, no gain.” You lift weights until it really hurts – if that’s the way you enter meditation, then you’ve got no hope.

So cultivate goodwill toward the meditation object. Program yourself to delight in this meditation. Think, “Wow! Beautiful! All I’ve got to do is just sit and do nothing else—nothing to build, no letters to write, no phone calls to make. I just need to sit here and be with my good old friend, my breath.” If you can do that, you’ve abandoned the hindrance of ill will, and you’ve developed the opposite—loving-kindness toward your breath.

To sum up, ill will is a hindrance, and you overcome that hindrance by compassion to all others, forgiveness toward yourself, loving-kindness toward the meditation object, goodwill toward the meditation, and friendship toward the breath. You can have loving-kindness toward silence and the present moment too. When you care for these friends who reside in the mind, you overcome any aversion toward them as meditation objects. When you have loving-kindness toward the meditation object, you do not need much effort to hold it. You just love it so much that it becomes effortless to be with.

Image note: Buddha-Maitreya will be the fifth and future Buddha of the bhadrakalpa, and his arrival will occur after the teachings of Gautama Buddha are no longer practiced

Text continued next week: 10 September 2021

the five hindrances (1)

POSTCARD#434: Bangkok: In this chapter and the next I will explain in detail the five hindrances, obstacles that you will meet in your meditation and that you should learn to overcome. These obstacles to deep meditation are called in the Pāli language nīvarana. Literally that means “closing a door” or “obstructing entering into something,” and this is exactly what the hindrances do. They stop you from entering into the deep absorption states, or jhānas. They also obstruct or weaken wisdom and strengthen delusion. So if one is going to say anything in Buddhism about the enemies to meditation, one can say that the five hindrances are Public Enemy Number One. They stop people from becoming enlightened, and it’s precisely for this reason that understanding these five hindrances and overcoming them is crucial. When you don’t fully understand them, you cannot overcome them. Some teachers fail to explain the hindrances clearly enough, especially the hindrances that are very subtle. These refined hindrances prevent you from getting into deep meditation. If you do not even try to identify them and surpass them, then they will hold sway over your mind. You will be obstructed from enjoying the bliss of the mind and from developing the great insights of enlightenment. Basically, these five hindrances stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not achieved the jhānas yet, it means you have not fully understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome the hindrances. It’s as simple as that.

The Buddha named the five hindrances as follows: sensory desire (kāma-cchanda), ill will (vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā). This is the usual order in which the Buddha lists them, and this is the order in which they will be presented here, too.

The First Hindrance—Sensory Desire, Kāma-cchanda, is first on the list of hindrances because of its importance. It is the major obstacle preventing one from entering deep meditation. Few meditators fully understand its scope. It is not just sensory desire as that term is commonly understood. First of all, the Pāli word kāma means anything pertaining to the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Chanda means to delight in or agree with. Together the compound kāma-cchanda means “delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses.” For example, when we are meditating and hear a sound, why can’t we simply ignore it? Why does it disturb us so? Many years ago in Thailand the local villages surrounding our monastery held a party. The noise from the loudspeakers was so loud that it seemed to destroy the peace in our monastery. So we complained to our teacher, Ajahn Chah, that the noise was disturbing our meditation. The great master replied, “It is not the noise that disturbs you, it is you who disturb the noise!” In the above example kāma-cchanda was the mind getting involved with the sound. Similarly, when your meditation is interrupted by a pain in your legs, say, then it is not the pain that disturbs you but it is you who disturb the pain. If you had been mindful, you would have seen your awareness go out to your body, becoming interested in sensations again. That was kāma-cchanda at work. It is difficult to overcome kāma-cchanda because we are so attached to our five senses and their affairs. Whatever we are attached to we find impossible to release. To understand this attachment it is useful to examine the connection between our five senses and our body. It is commonly claimed that the five senses are there to protect our body, but insight will tell you the opposite: that the body is there to provide a vehicle for your five senses to play in the world. You will also notice that when the five senses disappear so does your body. Letting go of one means letting go of the other.

Abandoning Kāma-cchanda Little by Little

You can’t simply decide to let go of the five senses and the body through a single effort of will. The abandoning of kāma-cchanda in meditation is achieved little by little. You start by choosing a comfortable, quiet place in which to meditate. You may sit on a chair if it is more comfortable for you, remembering that even the Buddha sat on a chair sometimes. When you first close your eyes you will be unable to feel much of the body. In the same way that it takes a few minutes to see when you go out from a well-lit room into the dark, so it takes a few minutes to become sensitive to your bodily feelings. Thus the final adjustments to our body posture are made a few minutes after closing our eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. You begin with present-moment awareness. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied by the affairs of our five senses. Our memories are of physical sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, or sights. Our plans are likewise filled with five-sense business. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of kāma-cchanda.

The next stage of meditation is silent present-moment awareness. In this you abandon all thought. The Buddha identified an aspect of kāmacchanda that is called kāmavitakka, meaning thinking about the five-sense world. For the new meditator, the most obvious form of kāma- vitakka is sexual fantasy. One can use up many hours, especially on a long retreat, with this type of kāma-vitakka. This obstacle to progress in meditation is transcended by realizing, through insight or faith, that total freedom from the five senses (i.e., jhāna) is more ecstatic and profound than the very best of sexual experiences. A monk or nun gives up their sexuality not out of fear or repression, but out of recognition of something superior. Even thoughts about lunch belong to kāma-vitakka. They disturb the silence. And few meditators realize that noting bodily sensations, for example thinking to oneself “breath going in” or “hearing a sound” or “feeling a stabbing pain,” is also part of kāmavitakka and a hindrance to progress.

Lao Tzu, the great Taoist sage, would allow one student to accompany him on his evening walk, as long as the student maintained silence. One evening, as they reached a mountain ridge, the student remarked, “What a beautiful sunset.” Lao Tzu never let that student accompany him again. When others asked why, the master explained, “When that student said, ‘What a beautiful sunset,’ he was no longer watching the sunset, he was only watching the words.” That is why you have to abandon noting, for watching the words is not being mindful of the thing it tries in vain to describe. In silent present-moment awareness it is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief…

Editor’s note, the five senses confined in a cage; this is the end result, so how did we get there? I found it easier to reorder the sequence of events in this part of Ajahn’s teaching on the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little. I broke it down to the simple directives, getting rid of unnecessary words. The following is what I comprehend the teaching is today at the time of writing. Please refer back to the original for anything I might have missed, page 32 – 33 print copy.

First, settle into meditation posture, some adjustments are made a few minutes after closing the eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. Begin with present-moment awareness. Our past and future are occupied by the affairs of our five senses, memories physical sensations,. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of the kāma-cchanda multi-purpose affairs.

The next stage is where we abandon all thinking about the five-sense world. Using present moment awareness we can choose to focus our mindfulness on a small part of the five-sense world to the exclusion of the rest. You focus your mindfulness on the physical sensation of the breath, paying no attention to other sensations in your body, nor to sounds and so on. The breath becomes the stepping stone from the world of the five senses over to the realm of the mind. It is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief.

When you succeed in full sustained attention on the breath you will notice the absence of any sound. For a period your mind was impervious to any sound. You also notice that your body had disappeared, that you could not feel your hands, nor did you receive any messages from your legs. All that you knew was the feeling of the breath. Some meditators become alarmed when parts of their body seem to vanish. This shows their strong attachment to their body. This is kāmacchanda at work, hindering progress in their meditation. Usually you soon become familiar with the fading away of bodily sensations and start to delight in the wonderful tranquility beyond their reach. It is the freedom and joy born of letting go that repeatedly encourages you to abandon your attachments.

Soon the breath disappears and the awesome nimitta fills your mind. It is only at this stage that you have fully abandoned kāma-cchanda, your involvement in the world of the five senses. For when the nimitta is established, all five senses are extinguished, and your body is out of range. The first and major hindrance has now been overcome and it is blissful. You are at the door of the jhānas. This is the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little.

Continued next week: 03 September 2021

Giving up the sense of Self

Stage Seven: Jhāna

There are two common obstacles at the door into jhāna: exhilaration and fear. In exhilaration, the mind becomes excited: “Wow, this is it!” If the mind thinks like this, then the jhāna is unlikely to happen. This “wow!” response needs to be subdued in favor of absolute passivity. You can leave all the wows until after emerging from the jhāna, where they properly belong.

The more likely obstacle, though, is fear. Fear arises from the recognition of the sheer power and bliss of the jhāna, or else at the recognition that to go fully inside the jhāna something must be left behind—you! The doer is silent before entering the jhāna, but it is still there. Inside the jhāna, however, the do-er is completely gone. Only the knower is still functioning. One is fully aware, but all the controls are now beyond reach. One cannot even form asingle thought, let alone make a decision. The will is frozen, and this can be scary for beginners, who have never had the experience of being so stripped of control and yet so fully awake. The fear is of surrendering an essential part of one’s identity. This fear can be overcome through confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, and through recognizing and being drawn to the enticing bliss just ahead. The Buddha often said that this bliss of jhāna should not be feared but should be followed, developed, and practiced often (e.g.,Latụkikopama Sutta, MN 66,21). So before fear arises, offer your full confidence to that bliss, and maintain faith in the Buddha’s teachings and the example of the noble disciples. Trust the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings, and let the jhāna warmly embrace you in an effortless, bodiless, ego-less, and blissful experience that will be the most profound of your life. Have the courage to fully relinquish control for a while and experience all this for yourself.

Please note: It is understood that a meditation space is available for those  meditators who enter the jhāna state because they may stay in the meditation for a number of hours. Ajahn Brahm would have rooms and spaces in the building. For those of us using less space we have to improvise and have friends taking care of the silent unmoving meditators.

The Qualities of Jhānas

A jhāna will last a long time. It does not deserve to be called jhāna if it lasts only a few minutes. The higher jhānas usually persist for many hours. Once inside, there is no choice. One will emerge from the jhāna only when the mind is ready to come out, when the accumulated “fuel” of relinquishment

is all used up. Each jhāna is such a still and satisfying state of consciousness that its very nature is to persist for a very long time. Another feature of jhāna is that it occurs only after the nimitta is discerned, as described above. Furthermore, one should know that during any jhāna it is impossible to experience the body (e.g., physical pain), hear a sound from outside, or produce any thought—not even a “good” thought. There is just a clear singleness of perception, an experience of non-dual bliss that continues unchanging for a very long time. This is not a trance but a state of heightened awareness. I say this so that you may know for yourself whether what you take to be a jhāna is real or imaginary. I will give particular attention to the jhāna in chapters 9 through 11. At this point in the text Ajahn moves the focus to the vipassana/samatha discussion and covers some valuable insight into mind states of various meditation:

The Great Vipassanā versus Samatha Debate

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassanā) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation.  Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm. For those who are misled to conceive of all the instructions offered here as “just samatha practice” (calming) without regard to vipassanā (insight), please know that this is neither vipassanā nor samatha. It is called bhāvanā (mental development). This method was taught bythe Buddha (AN IV,125-27; MN 151,13-19) and repeated in the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand, with which my teacher, Ven. Ajahn Chah, was associated. Ajahn Chah often said that samatha and vipassanā cannot be separated, nor can the pair be developed apart from right view, right thought, right moral conduct, and so forth. Samatha and vipassanā, Ajahn Chah said, are like two sides of one hand. In the original Buddhist tradition they are inseparable. Indeed, to make progress in the seven stages of meditation I have described, the meditator needs an understanding and acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings, and one’s virtue must be pure. Insight meditation is an inherent part of the method of meditation described so far. In particular, this meditation can produce insight or understanding in three important areas: insight into problems affecting daily happiness, insight into the way of meditation, and insight into the nature of “you.”

Insight into Problems Affecting Daily Happiness

When a problem arises – a death, a sickness, some other type of loss, or even a hurtful argument—it is not only painful but confusing. It is like being lost in dense and dangerous jungle. When one is lost in the forest, one should climb to the top of a tall tree or tower and look for a distant landmark, such as a river or road that leads to safety.

Having gained perspective and an overview of the situation, confusion vanishes. In this simile, the jungle stands for the tangled problems of daily life. Climbing to the top of a tower or tree refers to the practice of meditation, which leads to the calm, cool air where insight or perspective is gained. Thus if you have a heavy problem, do not think about it endlessly. Then you are merely wandering around lost in your jungle. Instead, carefully follow the instructions for the method of meditation described in this chapter and the previous one, and you will leave your problem behind. You will rise above your jungle, and from that vantage point you will gain insight into what is to be done. The answer will appear out of the calm.

Insight into the Way of Meditation

At the end of each meditation session, spend two or three minutes reviewing all that has happened during that session. There is no need to “take notes” (that is, remind oneself to remember) during the meditation, because you will find it easy to remember the important features at the end. Was it peaceful or frustrating? Now ask yourself why.

What did you do to experience peace, or what caused the feeling of frustration? If your mind wandered off into fantasyland, was that peaceful and useful? Such reviewing and inquiry only at the end of the session generates insight into how to meditate and what meditation is. No one starts out as a perfect meditator. The insights gained by reviewing your meditation at the end of each session will deepen your experience of meditation and overcome hindrances. Developing this type of insight into your meditation is important, and I will come back to it in part 2.

Suffice it to say at this point that you need insight to achieve each of the stages I have described. To be able to let go of your thoughts, for example, you need some insight into what “letting go” is. The further you develop these stages, the more profound your insight will be. And if you reach as far as jhāna, then it will change your whole understanding. By the way, these insights into the way of meditation also work for problems in daily life. This is because the tendencies that create obstacles in meditation are the same clumsy attitudes that cause difficulties in life. Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight, which you then use both in further meditation and in daily life to bring happiness and success.

Insight into the Nature of “You”

The deepest and most elusive insight is into who you really are. This insight is gained not through belief or thinking but only by meditation, by becoming absolutely still, releasing the mind, and then knowing the mind. The Buddha compared the mind to the full moon at night hidden behind clouds. The clouds stand for the activity of the five senses and thought. In deep meditation, the five senses recede to reveal the pure and radiant mind. In jhāna, you can actually observe the pure mind. In order to know the inner secrets of the mind, one must continue to observe it in the stillness of jhāna, with no thought at all, for a very long time. One simile tells of a thousand-petaled lotus that closes its petals at night and opens them at dawn. When the first rays of the morning sun warm the outermost row of petals, they begin to open, which allows the sun to warm the next row of petals. Soon those petals open too, and the sun’s warmth falls on the next row, and so on. But if a cloud appears and obscures the sun, then the lotus closes its petals. It takes a long period of unbroken sunshine to warm the lotus enough to in this simile stands for the mind; the sun’s warmth stands for still attention; and the cloud stands for a thought or mental agitation that destroys the stillness. I shall develop this simile later. For now, let me say that these inner secrets are beyond your imagining. Some meditators stop at an inner row of petals and mistakenly think, “This is it.” Then the stillness breaks and the lotus closes in a twinkling. This is false enlightenment. When your meditation is so profound that you can remain in stillness for several hours, observing the mind freed from the hindrances, and watching the innermost row of petals open fully to reveal the jewel in the heart of the lotus, then you will realize the ultimate insight, the truth of who you are. Find out for yourself! In the previous chapter, I counseled that patience is the fastest way to proceed. This also holds true for the three stages of meditation discussed in this chapter. These are all stages of letting go, each dependent upon the ones preceding. In the end, to enter into jhāna one has to really let go. This is a profound letting go made possible by careful and diligent practice.

There is much more to meditation than I have covered so far. In these two chapters only the basic method has been described: seven stages that culminate in the first jhāna. Much more needs to be said about the hindrances, qualities of mindfulness, other meditation objects, and

more. Continued next 27 August 2021

experiencing the beautiful nimitta

POSTCARD#432: Bangkok: Welcome again to our analysis of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. We rejoin the text on page 20 ( print book layout ) and Ajahn is saying: “We are passively observing the beautiful breath in the moment, and the perception of “in” (breath) or “out” (breath), or the beginning, middle, or end of a breath, disappears. All that remains is the experience of the beautiful breath happening now. The mind is simplifying the object of meditation and the breath is experienced in the moment, moving beyond the duality of “in” and “out” whilst the beautiful breath appears smooth and continuous, hardly changing at all… see how smooth, beautiful, and timeless the breath can be! See how calm you can allow it to be – take time to savor the sweetness of the beautiful breath – ever calmer, ever sweeter.”

Only “the Beautiful” Is Left

“Soon the breath will disappear, not when you want it to but when there is enough calm, leaving only the sign of “the beautiful. The story of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an eerily accurate analogy for the meditation experience. Alice is startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a nearby tree and grinning from ear to ear. Like all the strange creatures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat has the eloquence of a politician. Not only does the cat get the better of Alice in the ensuing conversation, but it also suddenly disappears and then, without warning, just as suddenly reappears.”

Alice said,“… I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

Just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared and left only its grin, so the meditator’s body and breath disappear, leaving only the beautiful. For Alice, it was the most curious thing she ever saw in all her life. For the meditator it is also strange, to clearly experience a free-floating beauty with nothing to embody it, not even a breath. The beautiful, or more precisely the sign of the beautiful, is the next stage on this meditation path. The Pāli word for “sign” is nimitta. So this next stage is called “experiencing the beautiful nimitta.”

Experiencing the Beautiful Nimitta

“This sixth stage is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and the five senses (including the awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign, a nimitta, remains. This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind (citta), and when it appears for the first time, it is extremely strange. One simply has not experienced anything like it before. Nevertheless, the mental activity we call perception searches through its memory bank of life experiences for something even a little bit similar. For most meditators, this disembodied beauty, this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful light. Some see a white light, some a golden star, some a blue pearl, and so on. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed, and the sight consciousness has long been turned off. It is the mind consciousness freed for the first time from the world of the five senses. It is like the full moon—here standing for the radiant mind, coming out from behind the clouds—here standing for the world of the five senses. It is the mind manifesting —it is not a light, but for most it appears as a light. It is perceived as a light because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.”

For other meditators, perception chooses to describe this first appearance of mind in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquility or ecstasy. Again, the body consciousness (that which experiences pleasure and pain, heat and cold, and so on) has long since closed down, so this is not a physical feeling. It is just perceived as being similar to pleasure. Although some meditators experience sensations while others see light, the important fact is that they are all describing the same phenomenon. They all experience the same pure mental object, and these different details are added by their different perceptions.”

The Qualities of a Nimitta

“One can recognize a nimitta by the following six features: (1) it appears only after the fifth stage of the meditation, after the meditator has been with the beautiful breath for a long time; (2) it appears when the breath disappears; (3) it comes only when the external five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are completely absent; (4) it manifests only in the silent mind, when descriptive thought (inner speech) is totally absent; (5) it is strange but powerfully attractive; and (6) it is a beautifully simple object. I mention these features so that you may distinguish real nimittas from imaginary ones.”

“Sometimes when the nimitta first arises it may appear dull. In this case, one should immediately go back to the previous stage of the meditation, full sustained attention on the beautiful breath. One has moved to the nimitta too soon. Sometimes the nimitta is bright but unstable, flashing on and off like a lighthouse beacon and then disappearing. This too shows that the meditator has left the beautiful breath too early. One must be able to sustain one’s attention on the beautiful breath with ease for a long, long time before the mind is capable of maintaining clear attention on the far more subtle nimitta. So you should train the mind on the beautiful breath. Train it patiently and diligently. Then when it is time to go on to the nimitta, it will be bright, stable, and easy to sustain.”

Letting Go

“The main reason why the nimitta can appear dull is that the depth of contentment is too shallow. You are still wanting something. Usually you want the bright nimitta or you want jhāna. Remember—and this is important—jhānas are states of letting go, incredibly deep states of contentment. So give away the hungry mind. Develop contentment on the beautiful breath, and nimittas and jhānas will happen by themselves. Put another way, the nimitta is unstable because you, the doer, just will not stop interfering. The doer is the controller, the backseat driver, always getting involved where it does not belong and messing everything up. Meditation is a natural process of coming to rest, and it requires you to get out of the way completely. Deep meditation only occurs when you really let go. This means really letting go—to the point that the process becomes inaccessible to the doer.”

“A skillful means to achieve such profound letting go is to deliberately offer a gift of confidence to the nimitta. Very gently interrupt the silence for a moment and whisper, inside your mind, that you are giving complete trust to the nimitta, so that the doer can relinquish all control and just disappear. The mind, represented here by the nimitta before you, will then take over the process as you watch. You do not need to do anything here, because the intense beauty of the nimitta is more than capable of holding your attention without your assistance.”

“Be careful here not to start asking questions like “What is this?” “Is this jhāna?” “What should I do next?” which all come from the doer trying to get involved again. Questioning disturbs the process. You may assess everything once the journey is over. A good scientist only assesses the experiment at the end, when all the data are in. There is no need to pay attention to the shape or edges of the nimitta: “Is it round or oval?” “Is the edge clear or fuzzy?” These are all unnecessary queries, which just lead to more diversity, more duality of inside and outside, and more disturbance. Let the mind incline where it wants, which is usually to the center of the nimitta. The center is where the most beautiful part lies, where the light is most brilliant and pure. Let go and just enjoy the ride as the attention gets drawn right into the center, or as the light expands and envelops you totally. Let the mind merge into the bliss. Then let the seventh stage of this path of meditation, the jhāna, occur.”

Continued next week: 20 August 2021