On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

June 18, 2016

On Meditation – Part 1

Ajahn Chah (1919-1992)

Ajahn Chah (1919-1992)

To calm the mind means to find the right balance. If you try to force your mind too much, it goes too far; if you don’t try enough, it doesn’t get there and misses the point of balance.

Normally the mind isn’t still, it’s moving all the time. We must strengthen the mind. Making the mind strong and making the body strong are not the same. To make the body strong we have to exercise it, to push it, in order to make it strong, but to make the mind strong means to make it peaceful, not to go thinking of this and that.

For most of us the mind has never been peaceful, it has never had the energy of samādhi, so we must establish it within a boundary. We sit in meditation, staying with the ‘one who knows.’

If we force our breath to be too long or too short, we’re not balanced, and the mind won’t become peaceful. It’s like when we first start to use a pedal sewing machine. At first we just practice pedaling the machine to get our coordination right, before we actually sew anything.

Following the breath is similar. We don’t get concerned over how long or short, weak or strong it is, we just note it. We simply let it be, following the natural breathing.

When it’s balanced, we take the breathing as our meditation object. When we breathe in, the beginning of the breath is at the nose-tip, the middle of the breath at the chest and the end of the breath at the abdomen. This is the path of the breath.

When we breathe out, the beginning of the breath is at the abdomen, the middle at the chest and the end at the nose-tip. Simply take note of this path of the breath at the nosetip, the chest and the abdomen, then at the abdomen, the chest and the tip of the nose. We take note of these three points in order to make the mind firm, to limit mental activity so that mindfulness and self-awareness can easily arise.

When our attention settles on these three points, we can let them go and note the in and out breathing, concentrating solely at the nose-tip or the upper lip, where the air passes on its in and out passage. We don’t have to follow the breath, just to establish mindfulness in front of us at the nose-tip, and note the breath at this one point – entering, leaving, entering, leaving.

There’s no need to think of anything special, just concentrate on this simple task for now, having continuous presence of mind. There’s nothing more to do, just breathing in and out.

Soon the mind becomes peaceful, the breath refined. The mind and body become light. This is the right state for the work of meditation.

When sitting in meditation the mind becomes refined, but whatever state it’s in we should try to be aware of it, to know it. Mental activity is there together with tranquillity. There is vitakka. Vitakka is the action of bringing the mind to the theme of contemplation. If there is not much mindfulness, there will be not much vitakka.

Then vicāra, the contemplation around that theme, follows. Various weak mental impressions may arise from time to time, but our self-awareness is the important thing; whatever may be happening we know it continuously. As we go deeper we are constantly aware of the state of our meditation, knowing whether or not the mind is firmly established. Thus, both concentration and awareness are present.

To have a peaceful mind does not mean that there’s nothing happening; mental impressions do arise. For instance, when we talk about the first level of absorption, we say it has five factors. Along with vitakka and vicāra, pīti (rapture) arises with the theme of contemplation and then sukha (happiness). These four things all lie together in the mind established in tranquillity. They are as one state.

The fifth factor is ekaggatā or one-pointedness. You may wonder how there can be one-pointedness when there are all these other factors as well. This is because they all become unified on that foundation of tranquility. Together they are called a state of samādhi. They are not everyday states of mind, they are factors of absorption.

There are these five characteristics, but they do not disturb the basic tranquility. There is vitakka, but it does not disturb the mind; vicāra, rapture and happiness arise but do not disturb the mind. The mind is therefore as one with these factors. The first level of absorption is like this.

We don’t have to call it first jhāna, second jhāna, third jhāna and so on, let’s just call it ‘a peaceful mind.’ As the mind becomes progressively calmer it will dispense with vitakka and vicāra, leaving only rapture and happiness.

Why does the mind discard vitakka and vicāra? This is because, as the mind becomes more refined, the activities of vitakka and vicāra are too coarse to remain. At this stage, as the mind leaves off vitakka and vicāra, feelings of great rapture can arise, tears may gush out.

But as the samādhi deepens rapture, too, is discarded, leaving only happiness and one-pointedness, until finally even happiness goes and the mind reaches its greatest refinement. There are only equanimity and one-pointedness, all else has been left behind. The mind stands unmoving.

Once the mind is peaceful this can happen. You don’t have to think a lot about it, it just happens by itself when the causal factors are ripe. This is called the energy of a peaceful mind. In this state the mind is not drowsy; the five hindrances, sense desire, aversion, restlessness, dullness and doubt, have all fled.

The mind tends to play tricks within these levels of tranquility. ‘Imagery’ will sometimes arise when the mind is in this state, through any of the senses, and the meditator may not be able to tell exactly what is happening. ”Am I sleeping? No. Is it a dream? No, it’s not a dream…” These impressions arise from a middling sort of tranquillity; but if the mind is truly calm and clear, we don’t doubt the various mental impressions or imagery which arise.

Questions like, ”Did I drift off then? Was I sleeping? Did I get lost?…” don’t arise, for they are characteristics of a mind which is still doubting. ”Am I asleep or awake?”… Here, the mind is fuzzy. This is the mind getting lost in its moods.

It’s like the moon going behind a cloud. You can still see the moon but the clouds covering it render it hazy. It’s not like the moon which has emerged from behind the clouds clear, sharp and bright.

When the mind is peaceful and established firmly in mindfulness and self-awareness, there will be no doubt concerning the various phenomena which we encounter. The mind will truly be beyond the hindrances.

We will clearly know everything which arises in the mind as it is. We do not doubt, because the mind is clear and bright. The mind which reaches samādhi is like this.

Ajahn Chah (1919-1992)

Source A Taste of Freedom from A Collection of Dhammatalks by Ajahn Chah available online

Simplicity and great depth resound in this piece. What does it take to develop a mind firmly established in the Way? The foundation of any practice involves some type of meditation, whether it’s “just sitting” or koan practice, the entry point is the same. The above guidelines serve the beginner and more experienced practitioner quite well.

Practice is an interesting word as we seem to associate it with meditation or movement involving awareness. When there is a set time or group to practice with, there is a kind of ease in knowing it will be taken care of. We are somehow doing our part to train, and it will all become clear, “farther along, we’ll know all about it.” The other side of that is the time when we’re not in that organized setting. What happens to practice then?

Awareness of breath and posture are with us from minute to minute. It doesn’t require a setting or teacher to remind one of breathing and position. Bringing the attention back to the breath is something we can do anywhere and anytime….anytime we’re distracted, challenged, reactive, lost in emotions.

This is a result of the strength of mind developed in practice and seems to come as a gift at first. We realize our attention is on our breath and take note. That attention affects our interaction with the world, and for that time, we are not as caught up.

Posture reflects state of mind also. When we’re sitting upright and not leaning on anything, as in meditation, it effects our state of being. When we are leaning back into the chair, we are aware we are leaning and perhaps physically relaxed, but not mentally as alert. When we walk as if being pulled upright from the crown of our heads, we feel the poise and equanimity and strength of that posture which is always ours to assume.

These are skills we have at our fingertips to utilize in transforming our practice into reality moment by moment.

On the Way, together,


Recent Journals

Journal Archives