Vocabulary & Maps
This morning we’ll have two short talks. You can meditate while I talk.
The first talk is actually a response to a question that was written yesterday. The question required a lot of thought, so I’m going to give the answer now. The question was, “How many kinds of awareness (conscience) are there?”
What we need here is a vocabulary lesson.
You start out with your basic awareness, the simple act of receiving sensory impressions. That’s called viññāṇa, and in English we translate it as “consciousness.”
Then there are perceptions, the labels by which you recognize things. In Pāli, that’s saññā.
Then there’s the act of attention, which in Pāli is manasikāra, and that’s basically a matter of noticing what issues to look for and how to ask useful questions around them. The Buddha never talks about bare attention, but he does talk about the importance of appropriate attention: attention that actually asks the right questions.
Then there’s equanimity, or upekkhā, which means being non-reactive. In other words, you’re not going to let your emotions take over. This is based on the intention to remain non-reactive, to simply look on while something is happening.
Mindfulness, sati, is the act of remembering, of calling something to mind.
Then there’s alertness, sampajañña in Pāli, and that has to do with being alert to what you’re doing and the results you’re getting right now.
I’ll give you an example to explain these terms.
You’re going to make a ratatouille.
First, just looking at the ingredients, simply the fact that you know they’re there, would be viññāṇa.
Then you recognize the ingredients: You’ve got the tomatoes, the zucchini, the eggplants, and the garlic. You know what’s what: That’s saññā, or perception. The perception is the mental note that identifies them.
Mindfulness is what remembers how to make the ratatouille. It remembers not only the recipes you may have read, but also your past experiences of making ratatouille.
Now, while you’re making the ratatouille, you have to make sure that you don’t get emotionally upset when something goes wrong: That’s upekkhā. You maintain your cool so that you can correct for any mistakes in time.
Alertness, or sampajañña, is the act of watching yourself as you’re cooking the ratatouille and looking at the results you’re getting.
Attention—appropriate attention—is a matter of knowing that certain problems may come up—for example, there’s the danger of overcooking or undercooking some of the vegetables—so you pay particular attention to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Then, finally, discernment is when you figure out, if something is going wrong, what can you do to correct it. For example, you may notice that the ingredients you have are not precisely the same as the ingredients you had before. Say, the tomatoes are not precisely the same kind of tomatoes—maybe they’re of a lower quality—and so the question is: What do you do to make adjustments? What do you do to compensate? And then, as you’re putting the ratatouille together, you may remember that some people put olives in their ratatouille, and so you can ask yourself: Would olives be good today or not? As you exercise your judgment in a case like that, that’s discernment.
Then you get to eat the ratatouille. First, there would be the consciousness of the taste. Perception would be able to identify the taste of the different ingredients, and finally discernment judges whether you did this well or not. Whatever lessons you learned from this ratatouille, you can then apply that to your next ratatouille: That’s mindfulness.
That’s the first talk.
The second talk has to do with the map of concentration I gave you last night. The question is: How do you use a map like that? You have to remember that, as with any map, you don’t keep your nose stuck in the map all the time. You keep the map by your side and consult it only when really necessary. So when you’re sitting here doing concentration, you’re not focusing on the map. You’re not even focusing on the idea of jhāna. You’re focusing on the breath. The map is there for when you have problems settling down, to help you gain an idea of what you might be doing wrong—or forgetting to do. Or if something new comes up in the course of the meditation, then when you come out of meditation, you can consult the map for help in figuring out what it was.
When I was Ajaan Fuang’s attendant when he was teaching in Bangkok, just watching him teach taught me a lot of lessons. When people would come to study with him, he would hand them a copy of Ajaan Lee’s Keeping the Breath in Mind, Method 2, and say, “Read the first seven steps, and then we’ll meditate.”
Now, in that book, there’s also an explanation of jhāna, but Ajaan Fuang very rarely mentioned the word. He would talk to people about their breath. He’d get them to describe how the breath felt to them, and then he’d use their vocabulary to give further instructions.
And he had a special talent. People would be sitting and meditating with him, and he could sense when something interesting or special or dangerous was happening in someone’s meditation. He would ask them, “What are you doing right now?” Not only that, sometimes he would say, “Isn’t this happening to you right now?” And they would say, “Yes,” and then he would say, “Okay, now you do this.”
Now, of course, everyone else in the room could hear and so we were learning lessons from one another’s meditation in that way. On the one hand, the drawback of this was that it made people competitive. Don’t think that only Westerners are competitive when they meditate. But on the other hand, it was encouraging to hear other people make progress. One thing that was interesting to notice was that his instructions would often be very different for different people until they finally all got to the point where the breath stopped. From that point on, the instructions were the same for everyone.
One of the lessons that I learned from that experience is that as we’re trying to get the mind to settle down in the body, we each have very different problems as we relate to the energies in the body. This may have to do with our emotional history or just simply our sense of how we relate to our body to begin with. So in the very beginning, it’s important not to try to make things fit too closely to the map. As with any map, such as a map of roads, there will be large white spaces between the roads. But if you actually took an aerial photo of the same area, you wouldn’t see any white spaces at all. So be prepared for the possibility that things may come up in your meditation that are not on the map. They’re in the white spaces between the roads.
It’s also the case that different people will go through different stages as they settle down. Even in the Pāli Canon, some descriptions of concentration talk about four jhānas and some talk about five: In the five-jhāna descriptions, there’s an intermediate level between the first and second jhāna that has a modicum of evaluation, but no directed thought. So it’s good to have a rule of thumb: Whatever state you find yourself in, don’t be too quick to label it. Your first question should be, “Can you stay there? Does it feel comfortable?” If it doesn’t feel comfortable to stay there for long periods of time, drop it. If it is comfortable, try to stay there as long as you can. Don’t be too quick to move on.
Then, once you’re well-established there and you’ve gotten some nourishment from it, the next question is, “Is there still some stress in here?” Try to notice when the stress goes up, when the stress goes down. When it goes up, what did you do?—and “doing” here basically means, “What kind of perception did you have at that time?” Can you let go of that activity and still be quiet? If you can, the mind will go to a deeper level of concentration. But if you find that you’re losing your focus, go back to where you were before.
For example, when we do the survey of the body and I tell you to find one spot to settle down and then to be aware of the whole body: If you find that you lose your focus, that’s a sign that you’re not ready to settle down and you should go back to your survey. In this way, you begin to find out how quickly you should try to progress and you learn from your own discernment. It’s in making yourself more sensitive like this: That’s what real discernment comes from.
Now, there are a couple of types of wrong concentration you have to watch out for. The first one is when you’re settling down with the breath, things get very comfortable, so comfortable that you drop the breath and just go for the comfort. You stay there—it can seem like you’re floating in mid-air—and you begin to lose sense of where you are. All you know is that it’s still and comfortable. When you come out, you sometimes ask yourself, “Was I asleep or was I awake?” You’re not sure. This is called delusion concentration. If you find yourself in this state, one of the outside signs may be that the body is swaying back and forth, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you do sit very still. Now, if you find yourself having a tendency to get into this state, then as soon as the breath is comfortable, try to spread your awareness so that it fills the whole body and put special effort into trying to maintain that full-body awareness. The other way to avoid this is to keep moving your point of focus—three breaths in one spot, three breaths in another, and so on. In other words, give the mind some work to do.
That’s the first kind of wrong concentration you want to avoid.
The second one is when you put yourself into a trance. You’re so focused that the mind begins to feel like it’s frozen in place. What’s happening is that you’re putting too much control on things. If you find this happening, you have to back up and just let the breath flow naturally, and that will allow things to go back more to normal. That’s the second type of wrong concentration.
The third kind is called the state of non-perception. This comes when your concentration is getting stronger and you get to the point where any thought or perception that comes up in mind, you just toss it out, toss it out, toss it out. You basically forbid the mind to think or label anything at all, and it goes into a state where you lose all sense of your body and of the world around you. There’s just a little bit of awareness left, enough so that you know you’re not asleep, but there are no thoughts or perceptions at all in there. One of the strange features of this kind of concentration is that if you make up your mind that you want to leave at a particular time, the mind will leave precisely at that time. You can sit for many hours and it feels like just a minute or two.
Now this is wrong concentration because you can’t use it as a basis for discernment. It does have its uses, though. For example, when I first found myself falling into this—and I can talk about it because it’s wrong concentration—I waited until I’d fallen into it twice before telling Ajaan Fuang. He had a rule of thumb: If something had happened in your meditation, he didn’t want to hear about it until it had happened at least twice. So after the second time, I told him about it, and he asked, “Do you like it?” I said, “Part of me liked it, but I felt kind of dizzy when I came out.” And he said, “It’s good that you don’t like it because some people think that it’s nibbāna. But,” he added, “it does have its uses.” One time he had to go in for an operation. They were going to remove a kidney, and he didn’t trust the anesthesiologist, so he put himself into this state. He had asked the doctors, “How soon do you expect the operation to be over?” And so he willed himself to come out after that point. When he was coming out, he found that he was being wheeled back into the operating room. They explained that they had sewn him up wrong, so they were going to have to do it again. So he put himself back in.
And even though I told him I liked it a little bit, I actually found that I liked it a lot, especially as I was meditating at Wat Asokaram. They have a rotating roster there for the monks who give Dhamma talks in the evening or, occasionally, in the afternoon, and they would go through the roster once every two weeks. There were about 16 monks on the roster, and only two or three of them could give good Dhamma talks. The others gave very poor, boring ones. And so going into this state had its use: I didn’t have to hear boring Dhamma talks.
The problem was that I got so that I couldn’t listen to any Dhamma talks at all. In fact, one time someone came to Wat Dhammasathit and brought along a tape of Luang Paw Phut, who was just becoming famous at that time. He was very articulate, gave very good Dhamma talks, and so the person said that I had to listen to this Dhamma talk. I sat down and the next thing I knew was the sound of the tape recorder turning off. The person exclaimed, “Wasn’t that a great Dhamma talk?” and I said, “I don’t know, I didn’t hear it.”
The way I got unstuck from this was one time I was back at Wat Asokaram, and a visiting ajaan gave the talk one evening. At the very beginning of the talk, just as I was getting ready to get into concentration, the first thing he said was, “People who are stuck on the state of non-perception…” I was all ears. He said, “It’s very pleasant to be there, but there’s no discernment, and if you die in that state, you become a brahmā of non-perception, but then when you’re reborn from that state, you’re going to be bum bum, burr burr,” which means totally bonkers. Crazy. So from that point on, I couldn’t get back into that state anymore.
So those are three kinds of wrong concentration you have to watch out for.
One point that I forgot to mention just now is that when you’re trying to settle down and get the breath energies right, you may find that some parts of the body won’t cooperate. They will just stay tight. In fact, the more you try to loosen them up, the more they’ll tighten up. Now, don’t think that you can’t settle down while they’re there. You just settle down someplace else in the body. Remember Ajaan Lee’s image, which is that you’re going into a house where some of the floorboards are rotten. You don’t lie down on the rotten spots. You stay on the spots that are still good. In the meantime, you treat the rotten spots—the tight bundles of tension—with a lot of gentleness. It’s almost like dealing with a wild animal. If you stare right at the animal, the animal will feel threatened, and if it doesn’t run away, it will attack you. But if you pretend that you don’t notice the animal and just look other places, the animal will feel more secure.
It’s as if this part of this body doesn’t trust you because you’ve probably pushed a lot of tension into that spot, and it doesn’t feel confident that you’ll treat it with enough gentleness. But if you show that you treat the rest of the body with gentleness, gradually it will open up. When it opens up, it’s as if something frozen inside of you suddenly melts. Sometimes a memory of a very strong emotional event will occur at the same time. You realize you’ve been carrying that issue around, but now you can let it go. In that way, you can inhabit the body more fully.
The important part of all of this is that you’re going to try to develop your own sensitivity. The map is there to give you some pointers. But as for when to stay in a particular state and when to move on, you have to learn by trial and error. And it’s through learning from trial and error that your sensitivity develops. And through the sensitivity, your discernment becomes stronger. It’s in this way that concentration practice leads to more discernment.