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

2 thoughts on “experiencing the beautiful nimitta

    • The word ‘beautiful’ is being stretched and examined here in ways we might not have thought possible. It could be the intense beauty that is experienced is the result of Self letting go of the connection it normally has with the object of contemplation. Ajahn insists the Self has no part to play… we are “passively observing” (only) the beautiful breath in the moment. “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.”

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