Mental Phenomena as a Theme of Meditation

Anything not visible to the eye but experienced as a sensation of the mind is termed non-physical (arūpa). To use these sensations as a basis for tranquility meditation, we must first divide them into types, i.e., vedanā—the experiencing of feelings or moods, likes and dislikes; saññā—labels, names, mental allusions; saṅkhāra—mental fabrications; and viññāṇa—consciousness.

Once you understand what these terms refer to, scrutinize the feelings that appear in your own body and mind. In other words, observe the mental states that experience moods and feelings, to see at which moments there are feelings of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. Be aware that, “Right now I’m experiencing pleasure,” “Right now I’m experiencing pain,” “Right now I’m experiencing a feeling that’s neither pleasure nor pain.” Be constantly aware of these three alternatives (the feeling that’s neither pleasure nor pain doesn’t last for very long). If you’re really mindful and observant, you’ll come to see that all three of these feelings are, without exception, inconstant, stressful, and not-self; neither long nor lasting, always shifting and changing out of necessity: sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain, sometimes neutral, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, never satisfying your wants or desires. Once you see this, let go of them. Don’t fasten on to them. Fix your mind on a single preoccupation.

If your mind still isn’t firm, though, scrutinize mental labels next. What, at the moment, are your thoughts alluding to: things past, present, or future? Good or bad? Keep your awareness right with the body and mind. If you happen to be labeling or alluding to a feeling of pleasure, be aware of the pleasure. If pain, be aware of the pain. Focus on whatever you’re labeling in the present, to see which will disappear first: your awareness or the act of labeling. Before long, you’ll see that the act of labeling is inconstant, stressful, and not-self. When you see this, let go of labels and allusions. Don’t fasten on to them. Fix your mind on a single preoccupation.

If your mind still isn’t firm, go on to scrutinize mental fabrications: What issues are your thoughts fabricating at the moment: past or future? Are your thoughts running in a good direction or bad? About issues outside the body and mind, or inside? Leading to peace of mind or to restlessness? Make yourself constantly alert, and once you’re aware of the act of mental fabrication, you’ll see that all thinking is inconstant, stressful, and not-self. Focus your thoughts down on the body and mind, and then let go of all aspects of thinking, fixing your attention on a single preoccupation.

If the mind still doesn’t settle down, though, scrutinize consciousness next: What, at the moment, are you cognizant of—things within or without? Past, present, or future? Good or bad? Worthwhile or worthless? Make yourself constantly self-aware. Once your mindfulness and alertness are constant, you’ll see immediately that all acts of consciousness are fleeting, stressful, and not-self. Then focus on the absolute present, being aware of the body and mind. Whatever appears in the body, focus on it. Whatever appears in the mind, focus on just what appears. Keep your attention fixed until the mind becomes firm, steady, and still in a single preoccupation—either as momentary concentration, threshold concentration, or fixed penetration.

These three levels of concentration are the results of the exercises you have done. Sometimes concentration arises from considering the body, sometimes from considering feelings, mental labels, mental fabrications, or consciousness. It all depends on which theme causes you to develop a sense of dismay and detachment.

All the techniques listed here are simply for you to choose from. Whichever method seems most suited to you is the one you should take. There’s no need to practice them all.

The two basic themes for tranquility meditation mentioned above—physical phenomena and mental phenomena—are also called the five aggregates (khandha). Even though the five aggregates cover a wide variety of phenomena, they all come down to the body and mind. You have to keep your attention firmly established on the body so as to know its nature, and firmly established at the mind until you know your own mind thoroughly. If you don’t bring things together in this way, you won’t know the taste of concentration and discernment. Just like food: If you don’t bring it together to your mouth and stomach, you won’t know its taste or gain any nourishment from it at all.

Once you’ve gained concentration—no matter what the level—the important point is to be continually observant of your own mind. Be constantly mindful and continually alert. When you can maintain alertness on the level of momentary or threshold concentration and can keep track of these two levels so as to keep them going, they will gain strength and turn into fixed penetration, the level of concentration that’s resolute, strong, and endowed with clear discernment.

When intuitive discernment arises, you will see how this one mind can take on birth in various levels of becoming, knowing that, ‘Now the mind is on the sensual level—now on the level of form—now on the formless level.’