The Different Levels of Mindfulness Revisited


One of the marvelous things about meditation is that as you develop your mindfulness, you discover it has different levels. You realize that your normal mindfulness is too dull and useless for wisdom; it has very little sharpness or power at all. When you make progress in meditation, your mindfulness gets sharper and more powerful. By this I mean that you can sustain attention on very fine areas, and the mindfulness is very bright. And as you deepen the meditation, mindfulness becomes ever more powerful, agile, and sharp.

Sometimes it happens that meditators lose the object of awareness. If the breath is your object, you lose the breath. What has happened is that the breath has become fine and subtle, but the mindfulness is still too coarse. It hasn’t been able to keep up with the development of the breath. When that happens, you should go back to the previous stage. This can occur at any time, but especially within full sustained attention on the breath at stage four [This edition “full sustained attention on the breath” Ed].

Sometimes the breath disappears and a nimitta can come up, but you can’t sustain that nimitta. This is because the quality of mindfulness necessary to sustain a nimitta must be very refined, and you haven’t yet built up that level of power. So you must return to the stage before the nimitta comes up. Go back to full awareness of the beautiful breath, which is a coarser object than the nimitta, and let mindfulness develop its strength on that. When your mindfulness is fully developed at the fifth stage, it has the power to handle the more refined nimitta. You will find as mindfulness becomes sharper and more powerful, it can sustain attention even on the most subtle of objects. But first you have to learn how to sustain attention on the coarser meditation objects. At each of these successive stages the mindfulness has a higher quality to it, far more agile and sharp than at the previous stage. The mindfulness required to hold a nimitta is like the skill required of a surgeon operating on the brain, while the mindfulness required to hold the breath at stage three is like the skill required for peeling potatoes. You need quite a different refinement at the subtle level. If you move straight from peeling potatoes into being a brain surgeon, you’re going to make a mess. The same applies if you move too quickly from the breath to the nimitta. You’re going to lose it.

With development, you can experience immovable mindfulness, the mindfulness that is on one thing entirely— very clear, very sharp. The Buddha said this reaches its peak in the fourth jhāna. That’s the pinnacle of mindfulness, where you experience complete equanimity. You’re just fully aware and unmoving. That’s as powerful as mindfulness can get. Once you have experienced that level of mindfulness, then you will know for yourself how ridiculous it is to think you can become enlightened without jhāna. Without such powerful mindfulness, you will be unable to achieve powerful insights. So you begin to realize from your own experience what mindfulness can be and the level of mindfulness you need to become enlightened.

As you see, mindfulness in daily life is one thing and mindfulness in deep meditation something else. Mindfulness has different degrees of power, subtlety, and penetration. Just as there are many types of knives—blunt ones and sharp ones, potato peelers and scalpels—so it is with mindfulness.

So develop a sharp and powerful mindfulness that you can use to dig deeply into the nature of your mind and uncover the beautiful treasures of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and no-self (anattā). When I say that these are beautiful treasures, some people object: How can suffering be a treasure? How can impermanence and no-self be treasures? Such people want something seemingly marvelous and uplifting like beauty, transcendence, cosmic consciousness, or the essence of all being. But that’s why they can’t find the real treasures. They don’t know what they’re looking for.

Continued next week, Friday 5 November 2021

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