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

a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide

POSTCARD#431: Bangkok: Hello and welcome again to our study group of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. This time it begins with request for help with a perceptual difficulty I found in the last two paragraphs of last week’s study on the breath. The two paragraphs are presented under the sub-heading as follows:

Stage Four: Full Sustained Attention on the Breath (page 16 print copy)

“The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath….”

The text goes on with a wonderfully detailed analysis of the breath as it’s going through a complete cycle. Maybe it’s my 24/7 headache that’s pushing me to take short cuts all the time, but I think that what Ajahn is saying here is these are the collected moments of the breath in all their stages and describing a number of breaths, not just one. The presentation is as if it were being shown in slow-motion. If the camera was shooting in ‘real time’, I would have to control my breath for as long as it takes to read the text describing the stages of the breath in its whole cycle, for say, 30 – 45 seconds. Then, without a break, to move on to the next breath cycle for the same duration. Is it possible? Is this how it seems to you? If someone could help me with this I’d be very grateful.

Now returning to our summary and analysis of the text. This where the meditator is asked to notice the following:

“Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear. One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.”

The Beginning of the Beautiful Breath

“The fourth stage is what I call the “springboard” of meditation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.”

“Now as I will explain further in the next chapter, when the breath disappears, all that is left is “the beautiful.” Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of chatter, let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhānas.”

“I have described the first four stages of meditation. Each stage must be well developed before going on to the next. Please take a lot of time with these four initial stages, making them all firm and stable before proceeding. You should be able to maintain with ease the fourth stage, full sustained attention on the breath, during every moment of the breath without a single break for two or three hundred breaths in succession. I am not saying you should count the breaths during this stage; I am just giving an indication of the approximate span of time that one should be able to stay in stage four before proceeding further. In meditation, as I indicated earlier, careful patience is the fastest way!”

The fifth stage is called Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath.

“When one’s full attention rests easily and continuously on the experience of breathing with nothing interrupting the even flow of awareness, the breath

calms down. It changes from a coarse, ordinary breath to a very smooth and peaceful “beautiful breath.” The mind recognizes this beautiful breath and delights in it. It experiences a deepening of contentment. It is happy just to be watching this beautiful breath, and it does not need to be forced.”

Do Nothing

‘“You”’ do not do anything. If you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process. The beauty will be lost. It’s like landing on a snake’s head in the game of snakes and ladders—you must go back many squares. From this stage of meditation on, the doer has to disappear. You are just a knower, passively observing. A helpful trick at this stage is to break the inner silence for a moment and gently say to yourself: “calm.” That’s all. At this stage of the meditation, the mind is usually so sensitive that just a little nudge causes it to follow the instruction obediently. The breath calms down and the beautiful breath emerges.”

Continued next week August 13 2021

full sustained attention on the breath

POSTCARD#430: Bangkok: Here we are again in our study group of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. Something I notice about this book, the ‘bliss, and beyond’ aspect is presented up-front and in the centre of our vision from the very beginning. I suspect some readers might not seem to be able to keep the ‘bliss and beyond’ going, uppermost in the mind. Maybe it was a lack of belief in the fact that I could get there too, but not having spent enough time on the first stages… so I went back to reading the book

“It often happens that meditators start breath meditation when their minds are still jumping around between past and future, and when awareness is being drowned out by inner commentary.”

“When you know the breath is going in or going out for about one hundred breaths in a row, not missing one, then you have achieved what I call the third stage of this meditation, which involves sustained attention on the breath. This again is more peaceful and joyful than the previous stage. To go deeper, you aim next for full sustained attention on the breath.”

So I meditated on and off all day on Wednesday, not sure if I was doing it correctly. Then again all day Thursday more meditation and I started to notice it was easier and I was sure I was doing everything correctly because I could just fall into the ideal sitting posture. There a strange dream-like quality about it all… a sense that nothing is solid, everything has the characteristic of fluidity, a smoothness. The ‘world’ was the colour of maple syrup or crème caramel, resonating like a deep long note played on a cello. Shiny, smooth walls with no texture lack friction like resin on highly polished hardwood floors.

But I was unable to stay there, suddenly the mind jumped in and identified it as the comfort state created by the meds I take, and that’s a whole nother thing. For those of you who don’t know, I suffer from a permanent headache. I’ve had it for six years now – mostly it is kept in background by the meds I take. So there is an opportunity to win back the ground I used to have in meditation and that’s all well and good but then the headache breaks through and that is devastating. This is when I find the comfort state created by the meds… It lifts me out of the worst of it and I’m back in the cycle of it again. So the familiar meds state took over and I missed the ‘bliss and beyond.’

More meditation, listening to Ajahn Sumedho on Friday, and in the afternoon things started to have that familiar clear deep quality again. Rather than have the mind intervene and say what it is, I went back to the book.

Full Sustained Attention on the Breath

“The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath. You know the inbreath at the very first moment, when the first sensation of inbreathing arises. Then you observe as those sensations develop gradually through the whole course of one inbreath, not missing even a moment of the in-breath. When that in-breath finishes, you know that moment. You see in your mind that last movement of the in-breath. You then see the next moment as a pause between breaths, and then many more moments of pause until the out-breath begins. You see the first moment of out-breathing and each subsequent sensation as the out-breath evolves, until the out-breath disappears when its function is complete. All this is done in silence and in the present moment.”

Getting out of the way

“You experience every part of each in-breath and out-breath continuously for many hundred breaths in a row. That is why this stage is called full sustained attention on the breath. You cannot reach this stage through force, through holding or gripping. You can attain this degree of stillness only by letting go of everything in the entire universe except for this momentary experience of the breath happening silently. Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear. One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.”

Continued next week 06 August 2021

silent present-moment awareness of the breath

POSTCARD#429: Bangkok: Hello and welcome back to our analysis of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond – A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. For me it’s a review of how I managed to find my way into meditation more than twenty years ago; remembering what I learned and looking at what I missed in the weekend teachings of the Dhammapala monks in their small monastery near Kandersteg in the Swiss mountains. Reading Ajahn Brahm’s teaching helps to fill in the small gaps in my understanding at the time, also to learn from quite a different point of view. For example, Ajahn spends some time in examining silence, the end of inner chatter, before going on to meditation on the breath.

“It would be marvellous for each one of us if we could abandon all inner speech and abide in silent awareness of the present moment long enough to realize how delightful it is. Silence is so much more productive of wisdom and clarity than thinking. When one realizes that, silence becomes more attractive and important. The mind inclines toward it, seeks it out constantly, to the point where it engages in the thinking process only if it is really necessary, only if there is some point to it. Once we have realized that most of our thinking gets us nowhere, we gladly and easily spend much time in inner quiet.”

For me, discovering Ajahn Brahm’s silence is like finding the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle:

“If you have developed silent awareness of the present moment carefully for long periods of time, then you will find it quite easy to turn that awareness onto the breath and follow that breath from moment to moment without interruption. This is because the two major obstacles to breath meditation have already been overcome. The first of these two obstacles is the mind’s tendency to go off into the past or future, and the second obstacle is inner speech. This is why I teach the two preliminary stages of present-moment awareness and silent present-moment awareness as a solid preparation for deeper meditation on the breath.”

Let me interrupt here to tell you of my own experience. Lying on your back is best. Arrange your body symmetrically, and tell your feet and legs to ‘go to sleep’. Then tell your back and shoulders to go to sleep – neck and face muscles go to sleep and arms and hands, wrists and fingers to go to sleep. So now what is left? The heaving abdomen doesn’t go to sleep; the diaphragm, lungs and somewhere in there, the beating heart. This is the whole experience of breathing. It never stops, it’s always there.

“When you focus on the breath, you focus on the experience of the breath happening now. You experience what the breath is doing, whether it is going in, going out, or is in between. Some teachers say to watch the breath at the tip of the nose. I have found through experience that it does not matter where you watch the breath. In fact it is best not to locate the breath anywhere. If you locate the breath at the tip of your nose then it becomes “nose awareness,” not breath awareness. Just ask yourself right now: “Am I breathing in or breathing out? How do I know?” There! The experience that tells you what the breath is doing, that is what you focus on. Let go of the concern about where this experience is located. Just focus on the experience itself.”

“When you know the breath is going in or going out for about one hundred breaths in a row, not missing one, then you have achieved what I call the third stage of this meditation, which involves sustained attention on the breath. This again is more peaceful and joyful than the previous stage. To go deeper, you aim next for full sustained attention on the breath.”

About the image above; Amida, lord of the Western Paradise, is seated in deep concentration with half-closed eyes and hands held in the gesture of meditation. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, images of Amida were created in large numbers as a direct result of the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. The above statue is dated circa 1863 –1866. This Pure Land teaching celebrated the glories of the Western Paradise, which can be attained through meditation and recitation of Amida’s name.

Ajahn Brahm’s teaching continued next week 30 July 2012

mindfulness, bliss, and beyond

POSTCARD#428: Bangkok: Note: Last week’s post was a re-blog of one written in Switzerland in 2012. This allowed me some time to get over a bad reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine and there’s much to be said about that experience. As I was coming out of the sickness I got interested in a book by Ajahn Brahm, “Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, A Meditator’s Handbook”, and the plan is to research and share this with you. The book is available free online as a pdf file which can be downloaded.

I started to read the book about 10 years ago but never finished it. My intention now is to use the book to try to find a way back into meditation after contracting a neurological condition in 2015 which results in headaches – or you could say the ‘Headache’, as one continuous form, sometimes shadowy and indistinct, other times upfront and centre-staged. A monstrous headache with me at the mercy of its monstrous thinking… daydreaming in dark wakefulness and contemplating the various forms of Self suffering in discomfort. Is it possible to find mindfulness, bliss and beyond in these circumstances? This is the question, how can it be done?

The answer is letting go. From the beginning, Ajahn Brahm insists meditation is relinquishment. “You let go of the complex world outside in order to reach a powerful peace within; beautiful silence, stillness, and clarity of mind. The effort is directed to developing a mind that inclines to abandoning.” I can jump ahead by a few chapters and consider letting go of Self – there is no Self to whom this headache is happening, a headache without a self.

But returning to that time, the beginning when it was all a new experience  and now I’m referring to a much earlier time, the end of the nineties, start of the new millennium – way back then, my wife Jiab, who is Thai, and I were living in Switzerland attending weekend retreats at Dhammapala Monastery in the mountains.

The most noticeable characteristic of these early times was the pain of sitting with folded legs for 45 minutes… then the small bell rings “ting!” Relief! and we can change to walking meditation. There’s just no way around the feeling of leg pain, and I don’t remember how it developed from there for me … just that one day it wasn’t a problem any more. I still have some difficulty with sitting compared with Jiab who just gets on with it – all Thais and most Asians have more flexible leg muscles 

We had early morning sessions in the darkness lit with candles. Then another two or three sessions before the meal break and the afternoon sessions and an evening session before bedtime. All of it done in silence – Ajahn insists, “Silence Means No Commentary”, no inner speech. “It is helpful to clarify the difference between experiencing the silent awareness of the present moment and thinking about it…. “An effective way to overcome the inner commentary is to develop a refined present-moment awareness. You watch every moment so closely that you simply don’t have the time to comment about what has just happened.”

“Another useful technique for developing inner silence is recognizing the space between thoughts, or between periods of inner chatter. Attend closely with sharp mindfulness when one thought ends and before another thought begins—there! That is silent awareness! It may be only momentary at first, but as you recognize that fleeting silence you become accustomed to it. And as you become accustomed to it, the silence lasts longer. You begin toenjoy the silence, once you have found it at last, and that is why it grows.

One of the many simple but profound statements of the Buddha is that “a meditator who makes letting go the main object easily achieves samādhi,” that is, attentive stillness, the goal of meditation (SN 48,9).1 “Such a meditator gains these states of inner bliss almost automatically.”

Continued next week 23 July 2012

snatch, fly, eat

sparrowPOSTCARD #184: Geneva, Switzerland, August 28, 2012: The number 9 bus drops me near a shopping mall coffee shop. Order something and open my book: ‘Satisfaction is a moment of relief from the pressure of wanting.’  That instant relief from the pressure of wanting comes with a thirst for more.

Just then, a little bird appears at the table; hops over, quite close to me, where there are crumbs scattered, looks at me with a flick of the head, picks up a crumb and flies away, whrrrt. Mall sparrows are incredible; evolved as these urban forms in an artificial environment that doesn’t really look like what it’s trying to be; high ceilings, glass roof, obviously ‘real’ foliage descending from stylized pillars made from polystyrene, surfaced with a resin that makes it look like marble – a hybrid reality form, an act, stage-set for a performance.

I go on reading and the bird comes back, picks up another big crumb and flies off, whrrrt. I can see it going up to the top of a pillar and now perched on the plastic leaves, then disappears in the foliage. Hmmm… a nest constructed from woven drinking straws, paper serviettes, fragments of cash till receipts, hidden in the simulated foliage up there? Generations of sparrows and other creatures have lived inside these places for years, long since lost the inclination to find the way out. The birds wouldn’t survive out there, they’ve adapted to conditions in here; proximity to table crumbs…

The small sparrow comes back to my table, takes another crumb, flies off again, whrrrt. The speed of the action… snatch, fly, eat. Feed the offspring and that’s how it evolved here. The dukkha of endless searching is not an issue for this bold little bird. It has everything it needs. I wait to see if it comes again, there are still crumbs, more than enough. But I don’t see it again, time for me to go. Across the road and the tram I need is arriving at the stop, traffic lights change just at the right time, I cross over and jump on. Light and easy, moving from one thing to the next. Not driven by wanting things to be how I’d like them to be and never quite getting enough. It’s got to do with the way you see it; the tram speeds up and glides along on smooth rails.

‘When desire does not shape the mind and limit it to thought, consciousness becomes translucent. Entering into the spaciousness of the original mind, we become the vastness itself. Inseparable from all else, at one with all that is.’ [Stephen and Ondrea Levine, ‘Who Dies’, chapter 4: ‘The Thirsty Mind’]
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Reblogged, edited post, original title ‘bird in the mall’

inclusion


Image: seated Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Buddha), 12th-13th century, wood with gold leaf and inlaid crystal eyes – Tokyo National Museum

POSTCARD#427: Bangkok: The series on “Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” and the discussion about equanimity has come to an end. Instead of Ajahn Sucitto’s “voice” to guide everyone, you have mine. I have selected some short pieces from the text and pulled them into a different context in order to examine Upekkhā [equanimity] more closely. I am an observer, I do short periods of meditation at a time, or not at all, due to the headache, now in its 6th year. This has been documented over and over and it’s enough to say here that I simply live with it.

There was a time before the headache’s arrival when I was able to sit for 45 minutes at a time but I don’t remember much about that and how the mind was able to enter these states surrounding Equanimity. So I must have understood the teaching on equanimity but that’s all gone now, except that it can be awakened depending on the circumstances – for example I receive some encouragement from Ajahn’s words in the following: “(there is a way) to develop equanimity, through the intelligent and insightful capacity of the mind. This is an aspect of wisdom (pannā) called nāna: a penetrative knowing. Such discernment can be trained to be equanimous and unbiased; whilst being touched by thoughts, sensations and mind states.

We understand that with Upekkhā [equanimity], the mind is able to operate outside of the continual enactments and parades of self-view. Most commonly a situation of conflict in the mind, resolved by inclusion rather than trying to analyse further or bringing it to an end by some other means. In this way, “we can emerge from the negative overwhelm of self-view and experience this sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts”.

When painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. There are three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next.

“The Buddha’s middle way takes in the knowledge of cause and effect while making intention, rather than self, the owner of action.” There’s a kind of glorious transparency about it all. The process is just a process – things are done but there is no do-er. One event is naturally linked to the one it’s most likely to link with, and that linked to the next and on it goes, round and round as in the Buddhist Chakra wheel turning.

02 July 2021

developing upekkhā in meditation

Image: Standing Nyorai Buddha (Tathāgata), Wood, H 166.7, Heian period 9th century Japan

POSTCARD#426: Bangkok: For those of you who’ve been following Ajahn Sucitto’s text, “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods”, I had intended to finish with a conclusion here but I discovered still a few more treasures that had to be included.

All the pāramī acquire their full power only when they are grounded in the intimate attention of meditation. Simply speaking, meditation practice develops equanimity in two ways. The first is by steadying the energy of mind. This comes around through calm, mental unification whereby the process of focusing the mind on one theme unifies, smoothes and strengthens its energy. When the mind puts aside external sense contact, and the agitation and fascination that accompany it, the mind’s energy settles and unifies with the energy of the body. Such a mind can then enjoy its own vitality and extend its awareness more widely without losing centre. This is samādhi; and as it deepens, the mind’s composure and ease refines and steadies, leaving clarity and equanimity. This is called developing ‘mind’ – referring to the energy that trembles or tightens, rises up or radiates, dependent on perceptions and feelings.

So in meditation we get to know the energetic aspect of mind, and through developing and purifying it we can rest in that element rather than in all the comings and goings. Then one’s mind remains equanimous: it isn’t pulled out, pushed in or shaken about by events. And accordingly, the mind settles on this elemental ground; in the midst of the world, it still feels whole, healthy and well.

The second way in which meditation practice develops equanimity is through the intelligent and insightful capacity of the mind. This is an aspect of wisdom (pannā) called nāna: a penetrative knowing that knows, ‘This is a thought, this is a feeling, this is a mood. This is liking, this is disliking. This is remembering, this is losing it.’ Such discernment can be trained to be equanimous and unbiased; whilst being touched by thoughts, sensations and mind states, it can be trained not to flinch, fudge, congratulate or blame.

The more we have the capacity to receive and reflect on experience, the more we see it as caused (and therefore subject to dissolution), changeable, and not belonging to anyone. This insightful focus (vipassanā) sees experience in terms of the three gates to the Deathless: desirelessness, signlessness and selflessness. In a way, they all come down to the same thing, a corrected view of how we normally mark or perceive things. Without this corrected view, we unconsciously label things in terms of their desirability, that is their agreeable or disagreeable character. And so we try to get the agreeable and get away from the disagreeable. But in meditation you discover that you can’t get or get away from what arises. The more you want to have peace and stillness, the more agitated and uptight you get. The more you try to get rid of the stupid and ugly mind-moments, the more persistently they assail you. After a while you discover that the only real option is to pay close attention and adopt on-looking equanimity. Then the hot stuff starts to boil off, and as the peaceful intention of equanimity spreads over the mind, a natural inner stillness can be realized.

Deepening into the Signless Mind

Insight furthers this development by penetrating the perceptual process that labels or ‘signs’ everything. Perception is the activity of recognizing an object as something that is known. It is the manager of the tiny mental memos that label things: ‘This is dreadful, this is humorous, this is a threat, this is fantastic,’ and so on. But when we recognize that what we experience is impermanent and changing, then we see that all memory labels are not true in a final and lasting way. In other words, the signing of things as being always this way or that way changes with our moods, our perspectives and the context in which we experience them. So things are desirable dependent on our desire, not innately in themselves. For example, lively music is great when you’re dancing, but terrible when you’re trying to get to sleep. To focus on the impermanent, moment-at-a-time nature of the experience may not get you to sleep straight away, but its equanimity will quell the restlessness and irritation. Insight shifts the signs – to the realization of signlessness.

Sometimes perception, the sign-maker, gets quite frantic: say, in a situation where there’s conflict and the sign-maker wants to designate right and wrong. Then the need to be something gives rise to a need to take a stand and hold a position. This in turn causes us to form strong views; we favour and condemn people as good guys or bad guys. (And of course, we also do this to ourselves). In terms of events in the world, there is always somebody you can lampoon or vilify: the tyrant of the moment or the corrupt minister of the year. And then there are the ones you can cheer, the white knights. Then the next year, it turns around, and the white knights have been found to be flawed by self-interest so they become the villains.

This is the story of politics isn’t it? How the Western powers can seem to be liberating other countries from their tyrannical regimes — and are then revealed as being motivated by economic self-interest. And, how our allies are discovered as indulging in the same kind of corruption as our enemies. We focus on the sign of the good and ignore the other signs, or we do the same with the sign of the bad. But when discernment is equanimous we recognize that perception is affected by self-interest: ‘My people, my religion as against those others.’ Insight reveals the bias of self.

I was given a lesson in signlessness and selflessness whilst attending a sky burial in Tibet. In a sky burial, a corpse is laid out on the ground and slashed open to attract the vultures — who then descend in a flock to devour the flesh. The bones are then smashed to powder and scattered. It’s grim enough when described in words … but in real life, when one sees two or three freshly dead bodies tossed off a cart, there’s a perceptual shock — because the mind ‘signs’ the bodies as ‘people asleep.’ Then when the butchers start slashing them as if they were cutting up a side of beef … and when within a few minutes a flock of eager birds completely covers the bodies in a heaving mass … and then within a few minutes they are gone leaving only a scattered heap of bones … the signs of ‘person,’ (someone’s father or mother), ‘human body,’ ‘meat’ and ‘bones’ flash through the mind with emotional intensity and disappear. All that’s left is a sober and empty clarity.

Then you look at your own body and those of people around you: old, young, male, female, fat, thin. And you say, ‘Who is this?’ In itself a body is neither something nor nothing. But it certainly isn’t ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ And when we recognize that an object is not what we label it as, the labelling stops; there is signlessness and non-identification with that object. This also has a profound effect on the mental agent of making signs, that scurrying inner secretary who’s always handing us the name, the opinion — the sign. Busy isn’t it? But when all signs are seen as relative, and when compulsive self-interest is laid aside, then the secretary can take a break. With the sign-maker on holiday, we can get a taste of deep peace. This is called ‘not-making-it-that’ (atammayatā), the realization of the source of the mind. There is no identification, even with the knowing which is the last hideout of self-view. There is no inner need to know and describe anything — and yet there is clear awareness. This is the ceasing of ‘name’ that is synonymous with full Awakening. Equanimity, framed by other perfections and applied to the mind’s reflexes in meditation, keeps releasing the preferences that form our world. When the mind completely lets go, this is atammayatā – the deepest layer of awareness where there is no labelling and no intention. The mind’s energy is untroubled, and its discernment is clear but not making any signs. Deliverance of mind (ceto-vimutti) and deliverance of wisdom (pannā-vimutti) have combined. There’s no trembling to respond to or ward off, and there are no ideas to hold on to. A more fundamental property, the ‘Nibbāna-element,’ is realized.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī 2

There was the story of the Buddha-to-be sitting under the Bodhi tree and meeting, then repelling, the demons of Mara through calling the Earth to witness the vast store of perfections he had accumulated over past lives. Another description illustrates the part equanimity played in that. In this account (M. 36), the Buddha describes having three successive realizations:

1. His previous lives;

2. The nature of good, evil, and their consequences;

3. The ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering.

1. So first of all, with his mind ‘concentrated and attained to imperturbability,’ his focus widened to include a panorama of his many lives. How can we understand this? Imagine the one life that you can remember and contemplate the twists and turns of its drama: now exciting, now struggling, now a waste of time, now persevering, making  choices, feeling bad with a stroke of misfortune, and then feeling good with a lucky break … and so on. Can you do that without reacting, flinching or getting nostalgic? Can you stop the analyses and pondering, and get past being the victim or the star of the show? If you can keep going and witness all of it with equanimity, can you say this life is good or bad? Or isn’t it just what it is – and isn’t it a learning experience? That’s the first stage of wise equanimity. With that absence of final judgment the mind remains open, and the learning deepens.

2. The second realization of the Buddha-to-be was through the contemplation of all beings going through the ups and downs of their lives as he had done, and reaping the results of their actions. This was the realization of kamma – that any action, even mental, has consequences. This is the law of cause and effect. It is impersonal, and doesn’t apportion blame. The law of kamma says that acts, thoughts and speech lift you up to a bright state or drag you down to a dark state dependent on the ethical quality of the intention that initiates them. Intention chooses heaven, hell or somewhere in between – one moment at a time. And if you get past the reactions and the explanations, you get in touch with the mind’s intention. Then you can investigate and set the right course.

So the intention of equanimity creates an unbiased strength which gives you the chance to see more clearly. And to offer this strength to yourself or others is a precious gift. One time a friend of mine was cheating on his medical prescription and acquiring addictive drugs under false pretences. His wife knew of this and naturally was deeply concerned. But instead of criticising him, she just bided her time, and at the right moment coolly and caringly pointed out to him that what he was doing was going to bring him into deep trouble, in terms of a loss of self-respect, psychological wellbeing, and in terms of the law. But she made clear that the choice of action was up to him. Her unhurried tone and absence of drama and blame penetrated deeply, so with this encouragement to carefully consider cause and effect, he promptly changed his ways.

Equanimity then isn’t about being passive and not assessing actions. Instead, applied equanimity makes us feel less guilty, defensive and reactive. A natural sense of conscience can arise to guide us to what, in our heart of hearts, we know is right and makes sense. A heavy-handed approach merely closes the mind in defence, or sets off a counter reaction. On the other hand a passive approach, in which everything is okay and we suppress wise counsel and feedback, leaves us prey to our impulses and blind habits. The Buddha’s middle way takes in the knowledge of cause and effect while making intention, rather than self, the owner of action. So the Buddha’s teaching offers us calm and clear guidelines that respect our innate moral sense, rather than righteous rants that render us as infants with irredeemable corruptions.

3. However, it takes an unflinching and steady attention of ongoing equanimity to bear witness to all of our actions. So it’s a matter of unconditional self-acceptance: this is what you’ve been, and what you’ve done for good or for bad. No censoring, no justifications – just stay tuned in. Then the mind can operate outside of the continual enactments and parades of self-view. It deepens to see that what each of us experiences as ‘myself’ is actually the current of cause and effect, for good or bad. It is kamma, not blind destiny or a flawed self, that carries the mind along and creates a ‘personal’ history. The Buddha-to-be didn’t rest with that realization, but penetrated deeper. Giving up sorrow or elation about what he had now understood, his mind deepened to review the assumptions that support kamma: the seeking for happiness through gaining and getting rid of; the questing for security through acquiring a philosophical or religious view; the grip that holds the mind as an unchanging self; and the denial of not owning up to the day after day unsatisfactoriness of doing all this. As we have seen, these are the floods of sensuality, views, becoming and ignorance. As he penetrated past these biases, through seeing them for what they are, his mind released from all suffering and stress. This was the third realization.

Calling a fully-released person anything is a potentially confusing business, so he referred to himself as ‘Tathāgata’ (Gone Thus), although we generally use the easier word ‘Buddha’ (Awake; Fully-Knowing) as a designation. Not that he personally needed a title to take a stand on. He was pretty cool about  all that. For example, in the Brahmajāla Sutta (D.1) he advised the monks on how to respond when they hear others either disparaging the Buddha, or praising him. His comment was that whether the monks felt angry and displeased in the case of disparagement, or elated in the case of praise – ‘That would only be a hindrance for you.’ The correct response was simply to refer to the disparagement or the praise as either incorrect or well-grounded. There’s no need to defend or affirm a person; such an effort encourages views, identification and conflict. But it’s not as if there’s no assessment, and that it’s all the same; there definitely is assessment and a response. But the response comes from a mind that is equanimous around identity and allows discernment to speak clearly of actions and behaviour, not personality. Things are seen as ‘thus,’ ‘just so’; the ‘Gone Thus’ sees even truth as ‘thus’ without attachment. So equanimity is a deep humility that allows the mind to step out of adopting any identity, any view, any judgment. With evenness of mind the intentions of wisdom and relinquishment make the choice to abandon the cause of suffering, and kindness and compassion encourage others to do the same.

Evenness of Mind: Upekkhā Pāramī

Photo: Locana Buddha, Tang Dynasty, 7th Century, China

Ajahn Sucitto’s presentation of the Ten Perfections [Pāramī] is coming to the end. Next week we will conclude with the Buddha’s three successive realizations: his previous lives; the nature of good, evil, and their consequences; and the ending of the biases and floods that cause suffering. In this chapter we look at the structure and nature of Upekkhā [equanimity]; a situation of suffering, conflict in the mind, resolved by inclusion rather than trying to analyse further or bring it to an end by some other means.

It could seem like a disappointment to find that the last of the pāramī, the highest, the best as far as perfections go, is equanimity, evenness of mind – where the mind refrains from delight and sorrow, ups and downs. This may not sound all transcending, but as a practice it’s deep, attentive and full. And if you consider it in the light of what the mind normally does, and how it’s motivated to get to the pleasant and the exciting, and to get away from pain, blame and loss – then you’ll probably acknowledge that to establish equanimity takes some doing.

The mind receives input in terms of perceptions and feelings that register experience as pleasant or unpleasant — which is natural enough. But then an undeveloped mind adds mental activities and programs of craving, aversion and self-interest on top of that. These are the latent proliferating tendencies (anusaya) that are embedded in the mind’s awareness and that take form as the mind rises into its activities. With these, our heart-capacity and vision shrink. We lose touch with the good fortune we have and of how much worse it could be; we forget and lose empathy for the misfortune of others; and we edit out all the ugly, smelly, rough and tedious aspects of our lives.

So our comfort zone is only a percentage of what is actually going on. The other stuff is on the other side of the border where, as soon as we touch into it, there’s a twitchy reflex, because the mind just can’t be with that fear, pain or inadequacy. And this weakness gets ignored. Instead we tend towards a mind-set that imagines the best, wants the best, and wants to be a winner. That’s the message of the society. And anything that can’t fit those criteria is second-rate, and to be excluded. Society in general tends to exclude the poor, the illiterate and the incapable. So we reject them; then we fear them; so we reject them some more. And that same kind of exclusive mind-set also turns on ourselves. No one is ever good enough, and no one can be good enough when regarded from the perspective of that critical mind-set.

If the mind gets anxious or stressed to the point where we can’t sleep, then crazy moods or suicidal instincts start coming up. And when you think of people who are dying, losing control of their bodies or becoming senile (which is likely to happen to many of us), it’s a disturbing prospect. When loved ones are losing what we know of their minds, losing the ability to form sentences or getting panicky and angry, when you witness human beings falling apart — it isn’t so easy to be philosophical about it all. But it’s through these and like contexts, through feeling the feelings and letting them move through you, that you get a chance to develop and know the value of equanimity.

Even-Minded Empathy

Cultivating equanimity as self-acceptance is one of the ongoing themes of Dhamma practice. For example in meditation: when painful memories or ugly mind states come up, we pause, set aside how things should be, and let go of trying to analyse or fix the mind. In checking those reactions (without judging them) an even-minded empathy spreads over the mind. No need to struggle: ‘I can be with this.’

I like to define this process as having three stages: pay attention; meet what arises; and include it all. That is, feel the thoughts, feelings and emotions as they are; widen the focus to feel how they’re affecting the body; and let empathic attention rest over the whole of it. Don’t get busy, and don’t just wait for things to end – that isn’t a full inclusion. Instead, soften those attitudes and include it all. And let that process continue for whatever arises next. There will be a release – which might not be what you were expecting. However, through following that process, you begin to trust the effect of equanimous awareness. And that’s the real turning point. Because when you have the tools, you get eager to include your whole life as Dhamma practice. You want to see where you get itchy and defensive, and you’re on the look out for the tell-tale signs of fluster and contraction – because if you pay attention, widen, soften and include it all, the movement to Awakening continues.

As a perfection then, equanimity is an intention or ‘mental muscle’ rather than a feeling. It’s the big heart that can steadily hold feelings and perceptions in full awareness without getting rocked by them. And it strengthens into a mind state when it is supported by other pāramī. Equanimity allows a feeling to enter, be fully felt and pass. This is what makes it supremely useful: we don’t dismiss the world, but get a heart that’s big enough to embrace it. And with that there also comes the realization that the world — forms, feelings, perceptions, mental activities and even consciousness — is a passing thing that doesn’t own us. So there’s no need to run, and nothing to shut off. Equanimity then is the crucial firebreak that accompanies all the pāramī at that stage when resistance wells up. You know: the mind gets itchy about being patient, or mutters, ‘Why should I?’ about being generous, or whispers, ‘They don’t deserve it’ when cultivating mettā. With equanimity towards those floods, you don’t get caught and swept away by them. Instead this pāramī becomes your ground.

(Continued next week, 18 June 2021)