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.
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