POSTCARD#451: Bangkok: Continuing with our text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm. We would just like to say in passing, Happy Christmas to all our readers and Best Wishes for the New Year.
The Eighth Step: Calming the Mental Experience
It can often happen, at this and subsequent stages of the meditation process, that the joy and happiness can become too exciting and therefore disturb the tranquillity. Because of this, the Buddha taught the eighth step of ānāpānasati as calming the mental experience of the breath. When new meditators, and old ones too sometimes, start to experience some bliss, they carelessly generate the “wow!” response: Wow! At last! Amazing!—and immediately their bliss walks right out of the door. They were too excited.
Alternatively, fear can arise alongside the bliss: This is too much for me! This is scary, I don’t deserve this – and again the bliss departs. The fear destroyed the tranquility.
So beware of these two enemies, fear and excitement, which can appear at this stage. Remember to keep calming the mental experience of the breath. The bliss is the happiness and joy born of peace, born of silence. Maintain the causes of that bliss. Remain in the stillness, otherwise the bliss will go away.
Ajahn Chah’s famous simile of the “still forest pool” helps us understand what’s happening here. Others have written about this image, but not in full. This is the way I remember Ajahn Chah explaining it. When he was wandering in the jungles and forests on what we call tudong in Thailand, he’d always try and find a stretch of water when late afternoon came. He needed water to bathe. After walking though the jungle, sweating from the heat and the exertion, if you don’t bathe in the evening you feel uncomfortably dirty and sticky all night. He also needed water to drink. For these reasons Ajahn Chah searched for a pool, a stream, or a spring somewhere in the forest. When he found one, he’d camp nearby overnight.
Sometimes after drinking and bathing and settling in, Ajahn Chah would sit in meditation a few yards away from the pool. He said that sometimes he used to sit so still with his eyes open that he would see many animals coming out of the jungle. They wanted to bathe and drink as well. He said they would only come out if he sat very, very still, because jungle creatures are timid and far more afraid of human beings than we are of them. When they emerged from the bushes they would look around and sniff to see if it was safe. If they detected him, they would just go away. But if he sat absolutely still, the animals wouldn’t be able to hear him. They wouldn’t even be able to smell him. Then they would come out and drink. Some would drink and play in the water as if he weren’t there, as if he were invisible. He said that sometimes he was so still that, after the ordinary animals came out, some very strange animals emerged, beings whose names he didn’t know. He’d never seen such extraordinary creatures before. His parents had never told him about them. These wonderful creatures came out to drink, but only if he was absolutely still.
This is a well-drawn simile of what happens in deep meditation. The pool or the lake is a symbol for the mind. At this eighth step of ānāpānasati you are just sitting before it and watching. If you give any orders you’re not being still. Beautiful creatures – nimittas and jhānas – will approach only if you’re absolutely still. If they come out to “sniff around’ and you say “wow!” they hurtle back into the forest and don’t come back again. If they come out and you look at them, even out of the corners of your eyes, they’ll know it and go away. You can’t move if you want these beings to come out and play. But if you’re absolutely still – no controlling, no doing, no saying, no moving, or anything else – nimittas come out. They look around and sniff the air. If they think no one is there, they come and play right in front of you. But if you move even an eyelid, they go away again. Only if you’re absolutely still do they remain. The ordinary ones come out first, then the very beautiful ones, and lastly the very strange and wonderful ones. These last are the amazing experiences that you have no names for, the ones you never imagined could exist because they’re so strange, so blissful, so pure. These are the jhānas.
This wonderful simile of Ajahn Chah’s is a measure of his wisdom, of his profound understanding of the mind. This indeed is how the mind works, and having that wisdom is a tremendous power. The extraordinary jhānas can happen when you arouse joy and happiness in the mind, when you understand that this joy and happiness is not other than the mind experiencing the breath, and when you calm down the whole process of observing.
The Ninth Step: Experiencing the Mind
The ninth step of the Ānāpānasati Sutta describes a very important creature that comes to visit the still, silent mind—a nimitta. The step is called citta- paṭisaṁvedī, “experiencing the mind.” It’s only at this stage that you can truly say that you can know the mind. Some people have theories and ideas of what the mind is, and they try to test them out with scientific equipment. They even write entire books about the mind. But this is the only place where you can actually experience the mind.
The way you experience the mind is by a nimitta, which is a reflection of the mind. Remember the mind is that which knows. But is it possible for the knower to know itself? The eye is that which sees, but it can see itself when it looks into a mirror: it sees its reflection. The reflection you see in this stage of meditation, the nimitta, is a true reflection of the mind. You look into a mirror that has been cleaned of all the dust and grime on its surface, and now at last you can see yourself. You can only experience the mind directly through a nimitta or jhāna.
When a nimitta arises it’s so very strange that it’s next to impossible to describe. Language is built on similes. We describe something as hard like a brick, or soft like the grass. We always use similes from the world of the five senses. But the world of the mind is so different that language fails us. After your first experience of a nimitta you think, “What on earth was that?” You know it’s a real experience, but you struggle to find language to describe it. You have to use imperfect similes: it’s like a light, like a blissful feeling, sort of like this, sort of like that. You know it’s so completely different from any previous experience, but you have to somehow describe it to yourself. That’s why I keep on saying that you experience the nimitta sometimes as a light, sometimes as a feeling, sometimes as…a blob of Jell-O, or whatever. They are all exactly the same experience, but we give it different words. For many meditators, however, the mind flashes up very quickly and then disappears again. It’s like the animal coming out of the forest. It senses someone becoming excited and flees.
Some meditators have difficulty in seeing nimittas. They reach the stage of calming the beautiful breath and nothing happens. No light appears. They wonder what they are doing wrong. The following analogy may help.
Late one night, I stepped outside from my brightly lit kuti (monk’s hut) into the dense darkness of the forest. I had no flashlight. It was so black that I could not see anything. I remained still, patient. Slowly, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness. Soon I could make out the shapes of the tree trunks, and then I could look up and see the beautiful stars, the whole Milky Way even, glittering brilliantly in the night sky.
Experiencing nimittas can be like this. In the formless stillness when the breath seems to disappear, at first one can see nothing. Be patient. Do nothing but wait. Soon mindfulness will become accustomed to this “darkness” beyond its usual habitat (the room of the brightly lit five senses) and it begins to see shapes, dimly at first. After a while, the beautiful star-like nimittas may appear and, if one is still long enough, the best nimittas of all appear, like the brilliant disc of the full moon at night, released from the clouds.
Continued next week: 31 December 2021