The Visuddhimagga: A Map for Inner Space
1. Preparation for Meditation
Because a controlled mind is the goal of purity, restraint of the senses is part of purification. The means for this is sati(mindfulness). In mindfulness, control of the senses comes through cultivating the habit of simply noticing sensory perceptions, not allowing them to stimulate the mind into thought chains of reaction. Mindfulness is the attitude of paying sensory stimuli only the barest attention. When systematically developed into the practice of vipassana (seeing things as they are), mindfulness becomes the avenue to the nirvanic state. In daily practice, mindfulness leads to detachment toward the meditator’s own perceptions and thoughts. He becomes an onlooker to his stream of consciousness, weakening the pull to normal mental activity and so preparing the way to altered states.
In the initial stages, before firm grounding in mindfulness, the meditator is distracted by his surroundings. The Visuddhimagga accordingly gives instructions to the would-be meditator for the optimum life-style and setting. He must engage in “right livelihood” so that the source of his financial support will not be cause for misgivings; in the case of monks, professions such as astrology, palm reading, and dream interpretation are expressly forbidden, while the life of a mendicant is recommended. Possessions should be kept to a minimum; a monk is to possess only eight articles: three robes, a belt, a begging bowl, a razor, a sewing needle, and sandals. He should take food in moderation, enough to ensure physical health but less than would make for drowsiness. His dwelling should be aloof from the world, a place of solitude; for householders who cannot live in isolation, a room should be set aside for meditation. Undue concern for the body should be avoided, but in case of sickness, the meditator should obtain appropriate medicine. In acquiring the four requisites of possessions, food, dwelling, and medicine, the meditator should get only what is necessary to his well-being. In getting these requisites, he should act without greed, so that even his material necessities will be untainted by impurity.
Since one’s own state of mind is affected by the state of mind of one’s associates, the serious meditator should surround himself with like-minded people. This is one advantage of sanghas, narrowly defined as those who have attained the nirvanic state and, in its widest sense, the community of people on the path. Meditation is helped by the company of mindful or concentrated persons and is harmed by those who are agitated, distracted, and immersed in worldly concerns. Agitated, worldly people are likely to talk in a way that does not lead to detachment, dispassion, or tranquility, qualities the meditator seeks to cultivate. The sort of topics typical of worldly, unprofitable talk are enumerated by the Buddha as (Nyanaponika Thera, 1962: p. 172)
about kings, thieves, ministers, armies, famine, and war; about eating, drinking, clothing and lodging; about garlands, perfumes, relatives, vehicles, cities and countries; about women and wine, the gossip of the street and well; about ancestors and various trifles; tales about the origin of the world, talk about things being so or otherwise, and similar matters.
At later stages, the meditator may find to be obstacles what once were aids. The Visuddhimagga lists ten categories of potential attachments, all hindrances to progress in meditation: (1) any fixed dwelling place if its upkeep is the cause of worry, (2) family, if their welfare causes concern, (3) accruing gifts or reputation that involves spending time with admirers, (4) a following of students or being busy with teaching, (5) projects, having “something to do,” (6) traveling about, (7) people dear to one whose needs demand attention, (8) illness necessitating undergoing treatment, (9) theoretical studies unaccompanied by practice, and (10)supernormal psychic powers, the practice of which becomes more interesting than meditation. Release from these obligations frees the meditator for single-minded pursuit of meditation: This is “purification” in the sense of freeing the mind from worrisome matters. The life of the monk is designed for this kind of freedom; for the layman, short retreats allow a temporary reprieve.
These ascetic practices are optional in the “middle way” of the Buddha. The serious monk can practice them, should he find any of them helpful. But he must be discreet in their observance, doing them so that they will not attract undue attention. These practices include wearing only robes made of rags; eating only one bowl of food, and just once a day; living in the forest under a tree; dwelling in a cemetery or in the open; sitting up throughout the night. Though optional, the Buddha praises those who follow these modes of living “for the sake of frugality, contentedness, austerity, detachment,” while criticizing those who pride themselves on practicing austerities and look down on others who do not. In all facets of training, spiritual pride mars purity. Any gains from asceticism are lost in pride. The goal of purification is simply a mind unconcerned with externals, calm and ripe for meditation.
2. The Path of Concentration
In describing the path of concentration, the Visuddhimagga map suffers from a serious oversight: It begins with the description of an advanced altered state, one that many or most meditators may never once experience. It skips the ordinary-and much more common-preliminary stages. This gap can be filled from other Buddhist sources, which start with the meditator’s normal state of mind rather than with the rarefied states the Visuddhimagga elaborates in detail.
At the outset, the meditator’s focus wanders from the object of meditation. As he notices he has wandered, he returns his awareness to the proper focus. His one-pointedness is occasional, coming in fits and starts. His mind oscillates between the object of meditation and distracting thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The first landmark in concentration comes when the meditator’s mind is unaffected both by outer distractions, such as nearby sounds, and by the turbulence of his own assorted thoughts and feelings. Although sounds are heard, and his thoughts and feelings are noticed, they do not disturb the meditator.
In the next stage, his mind focuses on the object for prolonged periods. The meditator gets better at repeatedly returning his wandering mind to the object. His ability to return his attention gradually increases as the meditator sees the ill results of distractions (e.g., agitation) and feels the advantages of a calm one-pointedness. As this happens, the meditator is able to overcome mental habits antagonistic to calm collectedness, such as boredom due to hunger for novelty. By now, the meditator’s mind can remain undistracted for long periods.
On the Verge of Absorption
In the early stages of meditation, there is a tension between concentration on the object of meditation and distracting thoughts. The main distractions are sensual desires; ill will, despair, and anger; laziness and torpor; agitation and worry; and doubt and skepticism. With much practice, a moment comes when these hindrances are wholly subdued. There is then a noticeable quickening of concentration. At this moment, the mental attributes, such as one-pointedness and bliss, that will mature into full absorption simultaneously come into dominance. Each has been present previously to different degrees, but when they come, all at once they have special power. This is the first noteworthy attainment in concentrative meditation; because it is the state verging on full absorption, it is called “access” concentration.
This state of concentration is like a child not yet able to stand steady but always trying to do so. The mental factors of full absorption are not strong at the access level; their emergence is precarious, and the mind fluctuates between them and its inner speech, the usual ruminations and wandering thoughts. The meditator is still open to his senses and remains aware of surrounding noises and his body’s feelings. The meditation subject is a dominant thought but does not yet fully occupy the mind. At this access level, strong feelings of zest or rapture emerge, along with happiness, pleasure, and equanimity. There is also fleeting attention to the meditation subject as though striking at it, or more sustained focus on it, repeatedly noting it. Sometimes there are luminous shapes or flashes of bright light, especially if the meditation subject is a kasina or respiration. There may also be a sensation of lightness, as though the body were floating in the air. Access concentration is a precarious attainment. If not solidified into fuller absorption at the same sitting, it must be protected between sessions by avoiding distracting actions or encounters.
3. The Path of Insight
The Visuddhimagga sees mastery of the jhanas and tasting their sublime bliss as of secondary importance to punna, discriminating wisdom. Jhana mastery is part of a fully rounded training, but its advantages for the meditator are in making his mind wieldy and pliable, so speeding his training in punna. Indeed, the deeper jhanas are sometimes referred to in Pali, the language of the Visuddhimagga, as “concentration games,” the play of well-advanced meditators. But the crux of his training is a path that need not include the jhanas. This path begins with mindfulness (satipatthana), proceeds through insight (vipassana), and ends in nirvana.
The first phase, mindfulness, entails breaking through stereotyped perception. Our natural tendency is to become habituated to the world around us, no longer to notice the familiar. We also substitute abstract names or preconceptions for the raw evidence of our senses. In mindfulness, the meditator methodically faces the bare facts of his experience, seeing each event as though occurring for the first time. He does this by continuous attention to the first phase of perception, when his mind is receptive rather than reactive. He restricts his attention to the bare notice of his senses and thoughts. He attends to these as they arise in any of the five senses or in his mind, which, in the Visuddhimagga, constitutes a sixth sense. While attending to his sense impressions, the meditator keeps reaction simply to registering whatever he observes. If any further comment, judgment, or reflection arises in the meditator’s mind, these are themselves made the focus of bare attention. They are neither repudiated nor pursued but simply dismissed after being noted. The essence of mindfulness is, in the words of Nyanaponika Thera, a modem Buddhist monk, “the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception.”
Whatever power of concentration the meditator has developed previously helps him in the thorough pursuit of mindfulness. One-pointedness is essential in adopting this new habit of bare perception. The best level of jhana for practicing mindfulness is the lowest, that of access. This is because mindfulness is applied to normal consciousness, and from the first jhana on, these normal processes cease. A level of concentration less than that of access, on the other hand, can be easily overshadowed by wandering thoughts and lapses in mindfulness. At the access level, there is a desirable balance: Perception and thought retain their usual patterns, but concentration is powerful enough to keep the meditator’s awareness being diverted from steadily noting these patterns. The moments of entry to or exit from jhana are especially ripe for practicing insight. The mind’s workings are transparent in these moments, making them more vulnerable to the dear gaze of the mindful meditator.
The preferred method for cultivating mindfulness is to precede it with training in the jhanas. There is, however, a method called “bare insight” in which the meditator begins mindfulness without any previous success in concentration. In bare insight, concentration strengthens through the practice of mindfulness itself. During the first stages of bare insight, the meditator’s mind is intermittently interrupted by wandering thoughts between moments of mindful noticing. Sometimes the meditator notices the wandering, sometimes not. But momentary concentration gradually strengthens as more stray thoughts are noted. Wandering thoughts subside as soon as noticed, and the meditator resumes mindfulness immediately afterward. Finally, the meditator reaches the point at which his mind is unhindered by straying. When he notices every movement of the mind without break, this is the same as access concentration.
Kinds of Mindfulness
There are four kinds of mindfulness, identical in function but different in focus. Mindfulness can focus on the body, on feelings, on the mind, or on mind objects. Anyone of these serves as a fixed point for bare attention to the stream of consciousness. In mindfulness of the body, the meditator attends to each moment of his bodily activity, such as his posture and the movements of his limbs. The meditator notes his body’s motion and position regardless of what he does. The aims of his act are disregarded; the focus is on the bodily act itself. In mindfulness of feeling, the meditator focuses on his internal sensations, disregarding whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. He simply notes all his internal feelings as they come to his attention. Some feelings are the first reaction to messages from the senses, some are physical feelings accompanying psychological states, some are byproducts of biological processes. Whatever the source, the feeling itself is registered.
In mindfulness of mental states, the meditator focuses on each state as it comes to awareness. Whatever mood, mode of thought, or psychological state presents itself, he simply registers it as such. If, for instance, there is anger at a disturbing noise, at that moment he simply notes “anger.” The fourth technique, mindfulness of mind objects, is virtually the same as the one just described save for the level at which the mind’s workings are observed. Rather than noting the quality of mental states as they arise, the meditator notes the attentional objects that occupy those states, for example, “disturbing noise.” As each thought arises, the meditator notes it in terms of a detailed schema for classifying mental content. The broadest category on this list labels all thoughts as either hindrances to or helps toward enlightenment.
Any of these techniques of mindfulness will break through the illusions of continuity and reasonableness that sustain our mental life. In mindfulness, the meditator begins to witness the random units of mind stuff from which his reality is built. From these observations emerge a series of realizations about the nature of the mind. With these realizations, mindfulness matures into insight.
Beginning of Insight
The practice of insight begins at the point when mindfulness continues without lag. In insight meditation, awareness fixes on its object so that the contemplating mind and its object arise together in unbroken succession. This point marks the beginning of a chain of insights–mind knowing itself ending in the nirvanic state.
The first realization in insight is that the phenomena contemplated are distinct from mind contemplating them: Within the mind, the faculty whereby mind witnesses its own workings is different from the workings it witnesses. The meditator knows awareness is distinct from the objects it takes, but this knowledge is not at the verbal level as it is expressed here. Rather, the meditator knows this and each ensuing realization in his direct experience. He may have no words for his realizations; he understands but cannot necessarily state that understanding.
Continuing his practice of insight, after the meditator has realized the separate nature of awareness and its objects, he can, with further insight, gain a clear understanding that these dual processes are devoid of self. He sees that they arise as effects of their respective causes, not as the result of direction by any individual agent. Each moment of awareness goes according to its own nature, regardless of “one’s will.” It becomes certain to the meditator that nowhere in the mind can any abiding entity be detected. This is direct experience of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, literally “not self,” that all phenomena have no indwelling personality. This includes even “one’s self.” The meditator sees his past and future life as merely a conditioned cause-effect process. He no longer doubts whether the “I” really exists; he knows “I am” to be a misconception. He realizes the truth of the words of the Buddha in the Pali Canon:
Just as when the parts are set together There arises the word “chariot,”
So does the notion of a being When the aggregates are present.
Continuing to practice insight, the meditator finds that his witnessing mind and its objects come and go at a frequency beyond his ken. He sees his whole field of awareness in continual flux. The meditator realizes that his world of reality is renewed every mind moment in an endless chain. With this realization, he knows the truth of impermanence (Pali: anicca) in the depths of his being.
Finding that these phenomena arise and pass away at every moment, the meditator comes to see them as neither pleasant nor reliable. Disenchantment sets in: What is constantly changing cannot be the basis for any lasting satisfaction. As the meditator realizes his private reality to be devoid of self and ever changing, he is led to a state of detachment from his world of experience. From this detached perspective, the impermanent and impersonal qualities of his mind lead him to see it as a source of suffering (Pali: dukkha).
Pseudonirvana: The “Ten Corruptions”
The meditator then continues without any further reflections. After these realizations, the meditator begins to see clearly the beginning and end of each successive moment of awareness. With this clarity of perception, there may occur:
• the vision of a brilliant light or luminous form
• rapturous feelings that cause goose flesh, tremor in the limbs, the sensation of levitation, and the other attributes of rapture
• tranquility in mind and body, making them light, plastic, and wieldy
• devotional feelings toward and faith in the meditation teacher, the Buddha, his teachings-including the method of insight itself-and the sangha, accompanied by joyous confidence in the virtues of meditation and the desire to advise friends and relatives to practice it
• vigor in meditating, with a steady energy neither too lax nor too tense
• sublime happiness suffusing the meditator’s body, an unprecedented bliss that seems never-ending and motivates him to tell others of this extraordinary experience
• quick and clear perception of each moment of awareness: Noticing is keen, strong, and lucid, and the characteristics of impermanence, nonself, and unsatisfactoriness are clearly understood at once.
• strong mindfulness so the meditator effortlessly notices every successive moment of awareness; mindfulness gains a momentum of its own
• equanimity toward whatever comes into awareness: No matter what comes into his mind, the meditator maintains a detached neutrality.
• a subtle attachment to the lights and other factors listed here and pleasure in their contemplation
The meditator is often elated at the emergence of these ten signs and may speak of them thinking he has attained enlightenment and finished the task of meditation. Even if he does not think they mark his liberation, he may pause to bask in their enjoyment. For this reason, this stage, called “Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away,” is subtitled in the Visuddhimagga “The Ten Corruptions of Insight.” It is a pseudonirvana. The great danger for the meditator is in “mistaking what is not the Path for the Path” or, in lieu of that, faltering in the further pursuit of insight because of his attachment to these phenomena. Finally, the meditator, either on his own or through advice from his teacher, realizes these experiences to be a landmark along the way rather than his final destination. At this point, he turns the focus of insight on them and on his own attachment to them.
As this pseudonirvana gradually diminishes, the meditator’s perception of each moment of awareness becomes clearer. He can make increasingly fine discrimination of successive moments until his perception is flawless. As his perception quickens, the ending of each moment of awareness is more clearly perceived than its arising. Finally, the meditator perceives each moment only as it vanishes. He experiences contemplating mind and its object as vanishing in pairs at every moment. The meditator’s world of reality is in a constant state of dissolution. A dreadful realization flows from this; the mind becomes gripped with fear. All his thoughts seem fearsome. He sees becoming, that is, thoughts coming into being, as a source of terror. To the meditator everything that enters his awareness–even what might once have been very pleasant-now seems oppressive. He is helpless to avoid this oppression; it is part of every moment.
At this point, the meditator realizes the unsatisfactory quality of all phenomena. The slightest awareness he sees as utterly destitute of any possible satisfaction. In them is nothing but danger. The meditator comes to feel that in all the kinds of becoming there is not a single thing that he can place his hopes in or hold onto. All of his awareness, every thought, every feeling, appears insipid. This includes any state of mind the meditator can conceive. In all the meditator perceives, he sees only suffering and misery.
Feeling this misery in all phenomena, the meditator becomes entirely disgusted with them. Though he continues with the practice of insight, his mind is dominated by feelings of discontent and listlessness toward all its own contents. Even the thought of the happiest sort of life or the most desirable objects seem unattractive and boring. He becomes absolutely dispassionate and adverse toward the multitude of mental stuff-to any kind of becoming, destiny, or state of consciousness.
Meditation Paths: A Survey
14. Krishnamurti’s Choiceless Awareness
J. Krishnamurti, born in South India in the 18905, was educated in England under the guidance of theosophist Annie Besant. Krishnamurti’ s view of the human predicament is close to that of Buddhism. The mind and the world, says Krishnamurti, are in everlasting flux: “There is only one fact, impermanence.” The human mind clings to a “me” in the face of the insecurity of this flux. But the “me” exists only through identification with what it imagines it has been and wants to be. The “me” is “a mass of contradictions, desires, pursuits, fulfillments and frustrations, with sorrow outweighing joy.” One source of sorrow is the constant mental conflict between “what is” and “what should be.” The conditioned mind, in Krishnamurti’s analysis, flees from the facts of its impermanence, its emptiness, and its sorrow. It builds walls of habit and repetition, and pursues its dreams of the future or clings to that which has been. These defenses paralyze us. They keep us from living in the present moment.
Krishnamurti objects to methods of meditation, the solution so many others advocate. While the mind may try to escape from conditioning through meditation, Krishnamurti says, it simply creates in the very attempt another prison of methods to follow and goals to achieve. He opposes techniques of every kind and urges the putting aside of all authority and tradition: From them, one can only collect more knowledge, while understanding is needed instead. According to Krishnamurti, no technique can free the mind, for any effort by the mind only weaves another net. He, for example, emphatically opposes concentration methods (quoted in Coleman, 1971: p. 114):
By repeating Amen or Om or Coca-Cola indefinitely you obviously have a certain experience because by repetition the mind becomes quiet . . . It is one of the favorite gambits of some teachers of meditation to insist on their pupils learning concentration, that is, fixing the mind on one thought and driving out all other thoughts. This is a most stupid, ugly thing, which any schoolboy can do because he is forced to.
The “meditation” Krishnamurti advocates has no system, least of all “repetition and imitation.” He proposes as both means and end a “choiceless awareness,” the “experiencing of what is without naming.” This state is beyond thought; all thought, he says, belongs to the past, and meditation is always in the present. To be in the present, the mind must relinquish the habits acquired out of the urge to be secure; “its gods and virtues must be given back to the society which bred them.” One must let go all thought and all imagining. Advises Krishnamurti (1962: pp. 8-10):
Let the mind be empty, and not filled with the things of the mind. Then there is only meditation, and not a meditator who is meditating . . . the mind caught in imagination can only breed delusions. The mind must be clear, without movement, and in the light of that clarity the timeless is revealed.
Krishnamurti seems to advocate an end state only, a methodless method. But on closer scrutiny, he directly tells all who might hear the “how,” while at the same time he insists that “there is no how; no method.” He instructs us ‘Just to be aware of all this . . . of your own habits, responses.” His means is constantly watching one’s own awareness. Krishnamurti’s “nontechnique” is more clear from his instructions to a group of young Indian schoolchildren. He first told them to sit still with eyes closed and then to watch the progression of their thoughts. He urged them to continue this exercise at other times, including when walking or in bed at night:
You have to watch, as you watch a lizard going by, walking across the wall, seeing all its four feet, how it sticks to the wall, you have to watch it, and as you watch, you see all the movements, the delicacy of its movements. So in the same way, watch your thinking, do not correct it, do not suppress it-do not say it is too hard-just watch it, now, this morning.
He calls this careful attention “self-knowledge.” Its essence is “to perceive the ways of your own mind” so that the mind is “free to be still.” When the mind is still, one understands. The key to understanding is “attention without the word, the name.” He instructs, “Look and be simple”: Where there is attention without reactive thought, reality IS.
The process Krishnamurti proposes for self-knowledge duplicates mindfulness training. But Krishnamurti himself would most likely not condone this comparison because of the danger he sees inherent in seeking any goal through a technique. The process he suggests for stilling the mind springs spontaneously from the realization of one’s predicament, for to know “that you have been asleep is already an awakened state.” This truth, he insists, acts on the mind, setting it free. Krishnamurti (1962: p. 60) assures us:
When the mind realizes the totality of its own conditioning . . . then all its movements come to an end: It is completely still, without any desire, without any compulsion, without any motive.
This awakening is for Krishnamurti an automatic process. The mind discovers, rather, is caught up in, the solution “through the very intensity of the question itself.” This realization cannot be sought: “It comes uninvited.” Should one somehow experience the realization of which Krishnamurti speaks, he assures us that a new state would emerge. In this state, one is freed from conditioned habits of perception and cognition, devoid of self. To be in this state, says Krishnamurti, is to love: “Where the self is, love is not.” This state brings an “aloneness beyond loneliness” in which there is no movement within the mind, rather a pure experiencing, “attention without motive.” One is free from envy, ambition, and the desire for power, and loves with compassion. Here feeling is knowing, in a state of total attention with no watcher. Living in the eternal present, one ceases collecting impressions or experiences; the past dies for one at each moment. With this choiceless awareness, one is free to be simple; as Krishnamurti (Coleman, 1971: p. 95) puts it:
Be far away, far away from the world of chaos and misery, live in it, untouched . . . The meditative mind is unrelated to the past and to the future and yet is sanely capable of living with clarity and reason.
Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity
15. Preparation for Meditation
There is the least common ground among meditation systems on the preparatory groundwork the meditator requires. The systems surveyed here represent the full spectrum of attitudes toward the meditator’s need to prepare himself through some kind of purification. They range from the emphatic insistence on purification as a prelude to meditation voiced in the Bhakti, Kabbalist, Christian, and Sufi traditions to the views of Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti that such efforts are pointless if they entail avoiding normal life situations. Finally, there is the notion among, for example, TM and Zen schools that genuine purity arises spontaneously as a by-product of meditation itself. Tantrics of the Bon Margmark an extreme attitude toward purity in advocating the violation of sexual and other proprieties as part of spiritual practice.
Ideas about the best setting for meditation likewise cover a full spectrum. The Desert Fathers withdrew into the Egyptian wilderness to avoid the marketplace and worldly company; hermetic solitude was essential to their program of severe self-discipline. Modern Indian yogis seek out isolated mountains and jungle retreats for the same reasons. Westernized versions of Indian yoga such as TM, however, oppose any forced change in the meditator’s living habits; instead, meditation is simply inserted into an otherwise normal daily agenda. Intensive Zen practice is done ideally in a monastic setting, but, like TM, it can be part of a meditator’s normal daily round. Both Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti are emphatic that the settings of family, work, and the marketplace are the best context for inner discipline, providing the raw material for meditation.
In most classical meditation systems, however, a monastery or ashram is the optimal environment for meditation, monks or yogis the ideal companions, the role of the renunciate the highest calling, and scriptures the best reading. Modem systems such as TM direct the student to organizational ties and activities while he lives his ordinary life-style without imposing any major change. Krishnamurti stands alone among spiritual spokesmen in not advocating that the aspirant seek out the company of others on the same path, just as he objects to the aspirant’s looking for guidance from a teacher or master-essential elements in every other system.
In propagating no explicit doctrine, Krishnamurti is again unique. Though other schools such as Zen de-emphasize intellectual study, they all have both formal and informal teachings that students assimilate. In some traditions, formal study is a major emphasis: The Benedictine monk, for example, is to spend one-third of his day in study, the other two-thirds in prayer (or meditation) and manual labor.
The strongest agreement among meditation schools is on the importance of retraining attention. All these systems can be broadly categorized in terms of the major strategies for retraining attention described in the Visuddhimagga: concentration or mindfulness. By using the Visuddhimagga map as an example, we can see similarities of technique obscured by the overlay of jargon and ideology.
The differing names used among meditation systems to describe one and the same way and destination are legion. Sometimes the same term is used in special but very different technical senses by various schools. What translates into the English word “void,” for example, is used by Indian yogis to refer to jhana states and by Mahayana Buddhists to signify the realization of the essential emptiness of all phenomenon. The former usage denotes a mental state devoid of contents (e.g., the formless jhanas); the latter refers to the voidness of phenomenon. Another example: Phillip Kapleau (1967) distinguishes between zazen and meditation, saying that the two “are not to be confused”; Krishnamurti (1962) says only “choiceless awareness” is really meditation. The recognition that both zazen and choiceless awareness are insight techniques allows one to see that these seemingly unrelated remarks are actually emphasizing the same distinction: that between concentration and insight. By “meditation,” Kapleau means concentration, while Krishnamurti denies that concentration practices are within the province of meditation at all.
The criterion for classification is the mechanics of technique: (a) concentration,in which mind focuses on a fixed mental object; (b) mindfulness, in which mind observes itself; or (c) both operations present in integrated combination.
A second prerequisite for classification is internal consistency in descriptions. If it is a concentration technique, other characteristics of the jhana path are mentioned-for example, increasingly subtle bliss accompanying deepened concentration or loss of sense-consciousness. If it is an insight technique, other characteristics of insight practices, such as the realization of the impersonality of mental processes, must be present. If a combined technique, both concentration techniques as well as insight must be mixed and integrated, as in Theravadan vipassana.
In concentration, the meditator’s attentional strategy is to fix his focus on a single percept, constantly bringing back his wandering mind to this object. Some instructions for doing so emphasize an active assertion of the meditator’s will to stick with the target percept and resist any wandering. Others suggest a passive mode of simply regenerating the target percept when it is lost in the flow of awareness. Thus, an ancient Theravadan text exhorts the meditator to grit his teeth, clench his fists, and work up a sweat, struggling to keep his mind fixed on the movements of his respiration; a TM meditator, on the other hand, is told “easily start the mantra” each time he notices his mind has wandered. Though these approaches are opposite on a continuum of activity-passivity, they are equivalent means to constantly reorient to a single object of concentration and so develop one-pointedness. With mindfulness techniques whether Gurdjieff’s “self-remembering,” Krishnamurti’ s “self-knowledge,” or zazen’s “shikan-taza” – the attentional fundamentals are identical. They all entail continuous, full watchfulness of each successive moment, a global vigilance to the meditator’s chain of awareness.
The Psychology of Meditation
Body and mind are seen as interconnected in Abhidhamma. While every factor affects both body and mind, the final set of healthy factors are the only ones explicitly described as having both physical and psychological effects. These are buoyancy (ahuta), pliancy (muduta), adaptability (kammannata), and proficiency (pagunnata). When these factors arise a person thinks and acts with a natural looseness and ease, performing at the peak of his or her skills. They suppress the unhealthy factors of contraction and torpor, which dominate the mind in such states as depression. These healthy factors make one able to adapt physically and mentally to changing conditions, meeting whatever challenges may arise.
In the Abhidhamma psychodynamic, healthy and unhealthy mental factors are mutually inhibiting; the presence of one suppresses its opposite. But there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between a pair of healthy and unhealthy factors; in some cases a single healthy factor will inhibit a set of unhealthy factors-nonattachment alone, for example, inhibits greed, avarice, envy, and aversion. Certain key factors will inhibit the entire opposite set; for example, when delusion is present, not a single positive factor can arise along with it.
It is a person’s kamma that determines whether he or she will experience predominantly healthy or unhealthy states. The particular combination of factors are the outcome of biological and situational influences as well as the carryover from one’s previous states of mind. The factors usually arise as a group, either positive or negative. In any given mental state the factors composing it arise in differing strengths; whichever factor is the strongest determines how a person experiences and acts at any given moment.
Although all the negative factors may be present, the state experienced will be quite different depending on whether, for example, it is greed or torpor that dominates the mind. The hierarchy of strength of the factors, then, determines whether a specific state will be negative or positive. When a particular factor or set of factors occurs frequently in a person’s mental states, then it becomes a personality trait. The sum total of a person’s habitual mental factors determines their personality type.
The Abhidhamma model for personality types follows directly from the principle that mental factors arise in differing strengths. If a person’s mind is habitually dominated by a particular factor or set of factors, these will determine personality, motives, and behavior. The uniqueness of each person’s pattern of mental factors gives rise to individual differences in personality over and above the broad categories of the main types. The person in whom delusion predominates is one of the common types, as are the hateful person, in whom aversion predominates, and the lustful person, in whom greed is strong. A more positive type is the intelligent person, in whom mindfulness and insight are strong.
The Abhidhamma view of human motivation stems from its analysis of mental factors and their influence on behavior. It is a person’s mental states that move the person to seek one thing and avoid another. His or her mental states guide every act. If the mind is dominated by greed, then this will become the predominant motive, and one will behave accordingly, seeking to gain the object of one’s greed. If egoism is a powerful factor, then the person will act in a self-aggrandizing manner. Each personality type is, in this sense, a motivational type also.
The Visuddhimagga devotes a section to recognizing the main personality types, since each kind of person must be treated in a way that suits his or her disposition. One method it recommends for evaluating personality type is careful observation of how a person stands and moves. The lustful or sensual person, for example, is said to be graceful in gait; the hateful person drags the feet as he or she walks; the deluded person paces quickly. A typical rule of thumb for this analysis goes (Vajiranana, 1962, p. 99):
Of the lustful the footprint is divided in the middle,
Of unfriendly man it leaves a trail behind.
The print of the deluded one is an impression quickly made . . .
It goes on to note that a Buddha leaves a perfectly even footprint, since his mind is calm and his body poised.
The author of the Visuddhimagga recognized that every detail of life is a clue to character; this fifth-century manual gives a remarkably complete behavioral profile for each personality type. The sensual person, it tells us, is charming, polite, and replies courteously when addressed. When such persons sleep, they make their beds carefully, lie down gently, and move little while asleep. They perform their duties artistically; sweep with smooth and even strokes, and do a thorough job. In general they are skillful, polished, tidy, and circumspect workers. They dress neatly and tastefully. When they eat they prefer soft, sweet food that is well cooked and served in sumptuous fashion; they eat slowly, take small bites, and relish the taste. On seeing any pleasing object they stop to admire it, and are attracted by its merits, but do not notice its faults. They leave such an object with regret. But on the negative side they are often pretentious, deceitful, vain, covetous, dissatisfied, lascivious, and frivolous.
The hateful person, by contrast, stands stiffly. These persons make their bed carelessly and in haste, sleep with their bodies tense, and reply in anger when awakened. When they work they are rough and careless; when they sweep the broom makes a harsh, scraping noise. Their clothes are likely to be too tight and unfinished. When they eat their preference is for pungent food that tastes sharp and sour; they eat hurriedly without noticing the taste, though they dislike food with a mild taste. They are uninterested in objects of beauty, and notice even the slightest fault while overlooking merits. They are often angry, full of malice, ungrateful, envious, and mean.
The third type is distinct from these two. The deluded person stands in a slovenly manner. Their beds are untidy, they sleep in a sprawl, and arise sluggishly, grunting with complaints. As workers they are unskillful and messy; they sweep awkwardly and at random, leaving bits of rubbish behind. Their clothes are loose and untidy. They do not care what they eat, and will eat whatever comes their way; they are sloppy eaters, putting large lumps of food in the mouth and smearing the face with food. They have no idea whether an object is beautiful or not, but believe whatever others tell them, and so praise or disapprove accordingly. They often show sloth and torpor, are easily distracted, are given to remorse and perplexity, but can also be obstinant and tenacious.
The Visuddhimagga goes on to specify the optimal conditions that should be arranged for persons of each type when they begin to meditate. The first goal in their training is to counteract their dominant psychological tendencies, and so bring their mind into balance. For this reason the conditions prescribed for each type are not those they would naturally choose. The cottage given to the sensual person, for example, is an unwashed grass hut that ought to be “spattered with din, full of bats, dilapidated, too high or too low, in bleak surroundings, threatened by lions and tigers, with a muddy, uneven path, where even the bed and chair are full of bugs. And it should be ugly and unsightly, exciting loathing as soon as looked at” (p. 109). The Visuddhimagga details the other conditions that suit the sensual person (Buddhaghosa, 1976, pp. 109-110):
Suitable garments have torn-off edges with threads hanging down, harsh to the touch like hemp, soiled, heavy and hard to wear. And the right kind of bowl for him is an ugly clay bowl or a heavy and misshappen iron bowl as unappetising as a skull. The right kind of road for him on which to wander for alms is disagreeable, with no village near, and uneven. The right kind of village for him is where people wander about as if oblivious of him. Suitable people to serve him are unsightly, ill-favoured, with dirty clothes, ill-smelling and disgusting, who serve him his gruel and rice as if they were throwing it rudely at him. The right kind of food is made of broken rice, stale buttermilk, sour gruel, curry of old vegetables, or anything at all that is merely for filling the stomach.
The suitable conditions for the hateful person, on the other hand, are as pleasant, comfortable, and easy as can be arranged. For the deluded person, things are to be made simple and clear, and quite as pleasant and comfortable as for the hateful person. In each case the environment is tailored to inhibit the kind of mental factor that usually dominates each personality type: the lustful person finds little to be greedy about, the hateful person little to despise, and for the deluded person things are clear. This program of environments designed to promote mental health is an ancient predecessor to what modem advocates of similar plans call “milieu therapy.” The Buddha also saw that different types of people would take more readily to different kinds of meditation, and so he devised a wide variety of meditation methods tailored to fit different personality types.
Meditation and Flow: Living in the Tao
The arahat, it is said, at all times and in every circumstance experiences an internal state of calm delight, is keenly attentive to all important aspects of the situation, and exhibits “skillful means” in response to the requirements of the moment. A similar state has been described in contemporary psychology by Csikzentmihalyi (1978), who has studied a broad range of intrinsically rewarding activities, all of which are marked by a similar experience, which he calls “flow.”
The key elements of flow are: (a) the merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand, (b) the focusing of attention in a pure involvement without concern for outcome, (c) self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity, (d) skills adequate to meet the environmental demand, and (e) clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response. Flow arises when there is an optimal fit between one’s capability and the demands of the moment. The flow range is bordered on the one hand by anxiety-inducing situations where demand exceeds capability, and on the other hand by boredom where capability far exceeds demand.
In a related work Hartmann (1973) proposes a pattern of “inhibitory sharpening” in cortical arousal patterning, which represents optimal specificity of brain response to environmental demand. Focused attention entails clearly demarcated small areas of cortical excitation surrounded by areas of inhibition.
When blurring occurs in the brain’s demarcation of excitation and inhibition, there is a “spillover” of arousal to brain areas irrelevant to the task at hand. This, proposes Hartmann, characterizes a less balanced, less delicately adjusted cortical functioning, as is found during tiredness. Such an excitation “spillover” may also occur in acute anxiety, and may account for the lessened ability to perceive and respond in anxiety states. Finely tuned cortical specificity, on the other hand, characterizes well-rested waking functioning, allowing flexibility in meeting environmental demands with skilled response. This should be one aspect of the neurophysiologic substrate of flow.
As I interpret the flow model in terms of neurophysiology, Hartmann’s formulation points up a significant characteristic of flow: It requires both precision and fluidity in neurologic patterning, so that activation can change tailored to fluctuating situational requirements. The flow state is not a given pattern of ongoing arousal; it demands state-flexibility. The person who is chronically anxious, or habitually locked into any given configuration of arousal, is likely to confront more situations where his internal state is inappropriate for optimal fit with environmental demands-that is, non-flow. Changing circumstances require changing internal states.
There are two ways of increasing the likelihood of a flow experience: regulating environmental challenge to fit one’s skills, as in games, or self-regulation of internal capacities to meet a greater variation in external demands. I propose that meditation may be a functional equivalent of the latter strategy, producing a change in internal state which could maximize possibilities for flow.
“Some people,” notes Csikzentmihalyi, “enter flow simply by directing their awareness so as to limit the stimulus field in a way that allows the merging of action and awareness” -namely, attentional focus with the exclusion of distracting stimuli. This is identical to the basic skill practiced in meditation: it is the essential core of every meditative discipline (though techniques may vary according to the degree of attentional effort expended).
A constellation of findings on the enduring effects of meditation suggests a spectrum of changes, which include perceptual sharpening and increased ability to attend to a target stimulus while ignoring irrelevant stimuli; increased cortical specificity-that is, arousal of the cortical area appropriate to a given task with relative inhibition of irrelevant cortical zones, a pattern underlying skilled response; increased situation-specific cortical arousability with limbic inhibition; autonomic stability and lowering of anxiety level; and equanimity and evenness in responding to emotionally loaded and threatening stimuli.
To the extent that these diverse findings are true for any individual meditator, these traits should operate so as to lower the threshold for entering flow by bringing into its domain those instances where flow would otherwise have been excluded by misperception, distractability, arousal states unsuited to specific requirements, or functioning impaired by anxiety. As the range of flow and its sense of the intrinsic rewards of activity expands, there would be a concomitant shrinkage in the domains both of anxiety-inducing and boring situations in daily life. Indeed the fitting of one’s internal state to the demands of specific action, as in flow, has been an ideal of many Asian systems for self-development. In the words of the Zen master Unmon: “If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do, don’t wobble.”
The phenomenology of flow shares many attributes of the meditation adept’s mental state as described in Abhidhamma: clarity of perception, alertness, equanimity; and pliancy, efficiency, and skill in action. To the degree that the lasting effects of meditation approach this ideal, the flow state can be seen as one benefit of meditation.
In this sense the goal of meditation training coincides in part with the qualities of skilled behavior and, more generally, with flow: action unimpeded by anxiety, clarity of perception, and accuracy of response, pleasure in action for its own sake. The nature of this experience is aptly capsulized in Merton’s translation of a poem by the Taoist master Chuang Tzu:
Ch’ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.
His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern.
No drives, no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions: Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.
How to Meditate
For the reader who would like to try meditating, here are some simple practices. You can try them all, but if you are going to continue to meditate, it is best to stick with the one you find most to your liking.
Find a comfortable, straight-back chair in a quiet room where you will not be disturbed. Sit up straight but relaxed. Keep your head, neck, and spine aligned, as though a large helium balloon was lifting your head up. Keeping your head upright will help your mind stay more alert-and alertness is essential in meditation.
Close your eyes and keep them closed until the session has ended. It’s best to sit for at least 15 minutes at a time, preferably longer-20 or 30 minutes or even an hour if possible. You should decide how long you plan to sit before you begin. That way you won’t yield so easily to the temptation to get up and do something “urgent” or “more useful.” Urges to stop meditating will come and go, and you should resist them. Set a timer or peek at your watch from time to time to see if the session is over.
Meditation on the Breath. One of the simplest practices is meditation on the breath. This practice cultivates both concentration and mindfulness. Although it was the method that reportedly brought the Buddha to enlightenment, it also has found a more mundane use in psychotherapy and behavioral medicines as a technique for becoming deeply relaxed. To begin, bring your awareness to your breath, noticing each inhalation and exhalation. You can watch the breath either by feeling the sensations at the nostrils or by noting the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
Try to be aware of each breath for its full duration: the entire in-breath, the entire out-breath. Do not try to control your breath-just watch it. If your breathing gets more shallow, let it be shallow. If it gets faster or slower, let it. The breath regulates itself.
While you meditate, your job is simply to be aware of it.
Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, gently bring it back to your breath. During meditation, your contract with yourself is that everything other than your breath-thoughts, plans, memories, sounds, sensations-are distractions. Let go of your other thoughts. Whatever comes into your mind besides your breath is, for now, a distraction.
If you have trouble keeping your mind on your breath, you can help maintain your focus by repeating a word with each inhalation and exhalation. If you are watching your breath at the nostril, think “in” with each inhalation, “out” with each exhalation. If you are watching the rise and fall of your belly, think “rising” with each inhalation, “falling” with each exhalation. Be sure to stay in touch with the actual experience of breathing, not merely the repetition of the words.
Mantra. Some of the most widely used concentrative meditations employ mantras as the objects of focus. These techniques, as we have seen, are found in virtually every major spiritual tradition, from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to Buddhism and Hinduism. In modern times, the technique has been adapted as the “relaxation response” to help people enter a relaxed state.
Pick a simple word or sound that has a positive meaning to you. Many people select a phrase that has spiritual symbolism for them, such as “adonai”, “kyrie eleison”, or “one.” In Hinduism, names of God such as “Ram” are common; in Tibetan Buddhism, the mantra “am Mane Padme Hum” is often used.
Once you decide what mantra you will use, the directions are similar to those for the breath meditation. Sit quietly and repeat your mantra mentally to yourself without making any actual sound. Whenever your mind wanders, bring it back to the mantra. Let go of all other thoughts, letting the mantra fill your consciousness.
Mindful Breathing. To cultivate mindfulness, start with the simple meditation on the breath described above. Once you have gained a fairly firm hold on meditating on the breath, you can expand the practice into a more general mindfulness-a meditation on the mind itself. In mindfulness meditation, everything that goes on in your mind becomes the object of meditation.
Again, use the breath as your basic object of meditation. But now, whenever your mind wanders, be aware of the nature of its wandering. In other words, use your distractions as objects of meditation.
For example, if your mind wanders to a sound you hear, label that distraction “hearing.” If your mind wanders to a thought, call it “thinking”; if to a memory, label it “remembering”; if to a sensation in your body, call it “feeling.” Each time you have labeled the distraction, bring your mind back to the breath once again.
Mindful Eating. With mindfulness, any activity can be meditative if you pay full and careful attention to what you are doing. Take, for instance, eating. The method in mindful eating is to pay careful and full attention to every aspect of the experience.
Begin by sitting still and bringing your attention to your breath, watching the in- and out-breath. When you feel collected and still, begin to eat.
It helps to eat very slowly, breaking down each movement so that you can attend to each nuance of sensation, sound, taste, and movement. For example, as you reach for a bite of food, do it at a speed in which you can note the stretch and tension of the muscles in your arm and hand and the feel of the food or fork against your skin. A void the tendency to go on “automatic,” to reach for the next bite before you finish with the current one.
Let’s say you’re going to eat almonds. Pick up one and hold it between your fingers. Feel the texture of its skin against your fingertips and the shape and pressure while holding it. Look at it: Notice its color and outline and the grooves along its sides. Slowly raise the almond to your mouth. Notice the moment you can first smell it. If you’re attentive, you may notice you’ve started salivating before the almond reaches your mouth. Be aware of the first brush of the almond on your lips.
Next, put it in your mouth and start chewing slowly and deliberately. Notice the feel of your teeth biting through the almond and the work of your tongue as it moves the chunks of almond inside your mouth. Note the nut’s taste. Listen to the sounds of chewing. Tune in to the sensations created by every bite.
Notice how the chewed almond bits mix with saliva as you swallow. Be sure to chew all the bits completely and to swallow them before you take another almond. Continue eating each remaining almond with the same careful deliberateness. Stay calm and focused throughout.
Mindful Walking. Take your shoes off. Stand in one place and feel the sensations in your feet as they touch the ground. Stay with whatever you feel at each moment. As you are about to take a step forward, notice your mental intention to step forward. Slowly lift your foot, feeling every sensation-lightness, suspension, tension, motion whatever feelings are present.
It’s best to start at a slow pace so you can pay attention to the sensations. Eventually, you’ll be able to go faster and yet maintain awareness. Move your foot forward, place it on the ground again, and shift your weight onto it. All the time, be aware of the sensations in this movement. When thoughts arise, don’t be concerned with their content. Bring your mind back to your foot feelings and stay with this simple experience of walking. Continue to do this as long as you like-five minutes to half an hour or longer.
At first, to keep your mind focused, it helps to label the action. For example, you can say silently, “Up-forward-down,” noticing the feeling of weight as it shifts from one foot to the other. Later you can simplify the process by eliminating the words. Just concentrate on the sensation.
To observe the process of mind in greater detail, note the intention that precedes each motion, as well as the sensations themselves. Thus: intending to lift, lifting; intending to move forward, moving forward; intending to place, placing; intending to shift, shifting.
Finally, you can develop a direct perception of the entire routine-intent, movement, sensations-without labeling any of it.