Methods for Attaining Tranquility

Use the body as a theme for attaining tranquility as follows: Focus on the properties of earth, water, fire, and wind that appear in the body. Don’t let your thoughts wander outside. Focus exclusively on your own body and mind, fixing your attention first on five examples of the earth property: kesā—hair of the head; lomā—hair of the body; nakhā—nails; dantā—teeth; taco—skin, which wraps up the body and bones. Scrutinize these five parts until you see that they are unattractive, filthy, and repulsive, either with regard to where they come from, where they are, their color, their shape, or their smell.

If, after focusing your thoughts in this way, your mind doesn’t become still, go on to scrutinize five examples of the water property: pittaṁ—gall, bitter and green; semhaṁ—phlegm, which prevents the smell of digesting food from rising to the mouth; pubbo—pus, decayed and decomposing, which comes from wounds; lohitaṁ—blood and lymph, which permeate throughout the body; sedo—sweat, which is exuded whenever the body is heated. Scrutinize these things until you see that—with regard to origin, location, color, smell and the above-mentioned aspects—they are repulsive enough to make your skin crawl. Focus on them until you’re convinced that that’s how they really are, and the mind should settle down and be still.

If it doesn’t, go on to examine four aspects of the fire property: the heat that keeps the body warm; the heat that inflames the body, making it feverish and restless; the heat that digests food, distilling the nutritive essence so as to send it throughout the body (of the food we eat, one part is burned away by the fires of digestion, one part becomes refuse, one part feeds our parasites, and the remaining part nourishes the body); the heat that ages the body and wastes it away. Consider these four aspects of the fire property until you see them in terms of three characteristics, i.e., that they are inconstant (aniccaṁ), stressful (dukkhaṁ), and not-self (anattā).

If the mind doesn’t settle down, go on to consider the six aspects of the wind property: the up-going breath sensations, the down-going breath sensations, the breath sensations in the stomach, the breath sensations in the intestines, the breath sensations flowing throughout the entire body, and the in-and-out breath. Examine the wind property from the viewpoint of any one of the three characteristics, as inconstant, stressful, or not-self. If the mind doesn’t develop a sense of dismay and detachment, gather all four properties together—earth, water, fire and wind—into a single point and make that the object of your mental exercise.

All of the physical phenomena mentioned here should be examined in a way that makes the heart dismayed and detached. In other words, make yourself see these phenomena as disgusting and repulsive, or as inconstant, stressful, and not-self, not “me” or “them.” When you see things in this way to the point where the mind settles down and becomes firmly concentrated, this is called the development of tranquility (samatha bhāvanā).

All of the techniques mentioned here are for making the mind firm and still, and for strengthening your mindfulness. When you examine the aspects of the body in this way, you should refrain from repeating your meditation word. Only when the mind becomes malleable and calm should you focus on the most important aspect of the body—the in-and-out breath—together with the word buddho, so as to make the mind concentrated in a single place. Or, if you are more skilled at another meditation theme, focus on whatever is most convenient for you—but don’t focus on any object outside the body, and keep watch over the mind so that it doesn’t drag any outside matters in. Even if thoughts do arise, don’t go latching on to their contents. If they’re thoughts that won’t aid in calming the mind, suppress them—and even once they’re suppressed, you have to keep up your guard.

As for the four physical properties, when you’ve perceived any one of them clearly, you’ve perceived them all, because they all share the same characteristics.

Once you see that the mind has firmly settled down, you can stop your mental repetition and then fix your attention on the real culprit: The mind itself. When you fix your attention on the mind, keep everything focused down on your present awareness. Consider it in terms of the three characteristics—inconstancy, stress, and “not-selfness”—until the mind becomes dismayed and detached and reverts to its conditioning factor (bhavaṅga), i.e., its underlying state of becoming, which in this case is either the level of sensuality or the level of form. (See ‘On the Mind’s Levels of Becoming,’ below.)

This is experienced in a variety of ways, either suddenly or gradually. The mind may enter this state for only a moment and then retreat, or else may stay there for a while. It may or may not be aware of what’s happening. If your mindfulness is weak, your mind will lose its bearings. If a vision arises, you may latch on to it. You may lose all sense of where you are and what you’re meditating on. If this happens, your concentration becomes moha samādhi, micchā samādhi, or micchā vimutti—i.e., deluded concentration, wrong concentration, or wrong release. So when the mind reaches this level of tranquility, you should be especially careful to keep your alertness always strong. Don’t lose track of your body and mind.

By and large, when the mind reaches this level, it’s apt to lose its bearings and perceive visions. Perhaps we may decide beforehand that we want to see a vision, and so when the desired vision arises we feel pleased, latch on to it, and drift along after it. If this happens, we miss out on the level of concentration that’s truly resolute, strong, and discerning—simply because a vision got in the way, preventing insight from arising. So for this reason, you should let go of your visions and make the mind firmly set, not letting it be swayed by anything at all.