The Nimitta: The Home Stretch into Jhāna
When the breath disappears and delight fills the mind, the nimitta usually appears. I briefly discussed nimittas and their characteristics in chapter 2; here I discuss them in greater depth. Nimitta, in this context, refers to beautiful “lights” that appear in the mind. I would point out, though, that the nimittas are not visual objects, in that they are not seen through the sense of sight. At this stage of the meditation, the sense of sight is not operating. The nimittas are pure mental objects, known by the mind sense. However, they are commonly perceived as lights.
What is happening here is that perception struggles to interpret such a pure mental phenomenon. Perception is that function of mind that interprets experience in terms we can understand. Perception relies crucially on comparison, interpreting new experience as similar to previous experience. However, pure mental phenomena are so rarely visited that perception has great difficulty finding anything at all comparable to these new experiences. This is why nimittas appear strange, like nothing one has ever experienced before. But the phenomena in the catalogue of one’s past experiences that come closest to these nimittas are simple visual lights, such as a car headlight, a flashlight in the dark, or a full moon in the night sky. Perception adopts this close but imperfect comparison and interprets the nimittas as lights.
It was for me a fascinating discovery to realize that everyone who experiences these nimittas experiences exactly the same thing! It is only that meditators interpret the experience in many different ways. Some see the nimitta as a pure white light, others see it as golden, some as deep blue. Some see it as a circle others as an oblong, some see it as sharp edged, others as fuzzy edged. There is indeed no end to the features of nimittas that meditators describe. The important thing to know is that colour, shape, and so on are irrelevant. Perception colours the nimitta and gives it shape just so one can make sense of it.
When the Nimitta Comes Too Early
Sometimes a “light” can appear in the mind at a very early stage of the meditation. For all except accomplished meditators, however, such intruders are highly unstable. If one focuses one’s attention on them, one will not get anywhere. It is not the right time for nimitta. It is best to regard them as distractions and go back to the main task of the early stage out of which they came.
There is more uncertainty what to do when a nimitta appears at the stage of the beautiful breath when the breath has yet to be calmed close to disappearance. Again, the nimitta appears intrusive. It interferes with the main task of sustaining one’s awareness on the beautiful breath. If one deliberately turns from the breath to the nimitta, it usually doesn’t remain long. The mind is not sufficiently refined to hold a subtle nimitta. One needs additional practice on the breath. So the best thing to do is to ignore the nimitta and train all one’s attention on the beautiful breath. Often, after one has followed this advice, the nimitta comes back, stronger and brighter. Ignore it again. When it returns a third time, even more powerful and radiant, go back to the breath. Practicing this way, eventually a very powerful and brilliant nimitta will break into your awareness. You can go with that one. Actually, it is almost impossible to ignore. That one usually takes you into jhāna.
The above can be compared to a visitor knocking on your door. It could be just a salesman so you ignore his knocking and go on with your own business. Often that is the end of the matter. Sometimes, though, the visitor knocks again, louder and longer. You ignore him a second time. Then, after a few moments’ silence, he bangs even louder and more vigorously. This persistence suggests that the visitor must be a good friend of yours, so you open the door, let him in, and have a great time together.
Another method of dealing with an early nimitta that arises at the stage of the beautiful breath is to incorporate the nimitta into the middle of the breath. One trains to visualize the situation as similar to a jewel being held in the centre of lotus petals. The shimmering jewel is the nimitta, the lotus petals represent the beautiful breath. If the mind isn’t quite ready to stay with the nimitta, it still has the breath to anchor it. Sometimes the mind is so unprepared that the breath appears to close in on the nimitta, and as a result the nimitta disappears leaving only the beautiful breath. This step backwards does not disturb the meditation. At other times, the mind is well prepared for the nimitta and the nimitta is strengthened and expands, pushing out the breath, which disappears beyond the edges of one’s awareness, leaving only the nimitta. This method is skillful because it doesn’t involve moving the mind from one thing to another – a coarse movement that disturbs the meditation significantly. Instead, one just passively observes the transition from the beautiful breath to the nimitta, and maybe back again, allowing the process to develop or recede according to nature, not according to one’s desire.
Although the following advice is for accomplished meditators only, by which I mean those with plentiful experience of jhāna, it is included here for the sake of completeness. When one is skilful in entering into jhāna and one has experienced a jhāna recently, the mind is so still and powerful, even before one begins to meditate, that one may skip many stages. So much so that one may arouse the nimitta almost immediately after starting. The mind being so used to nimittas and so favorably disposed towards them, literally leaps onto the nimitta and the nimitta stays. Soon jhāna is reached. For such accomplished meditators, the earlier the nimitta arises, the better.
Continued next week 18th March 2022