The Thread of Mindfulness
The Buddha speaks of concentration as a perception-attainment through all the levels from the first jhana up through the dimension of nothingness. In each case, the perception you hold in mind keeps you in concentration, which means that as we’re concentrating, we’re fighting against the passage we chanted just now about perceptions being inconstant. Concentration itself, of course, is inconstant, but that doesn’t mean you just give it up and throw it away. It’s a fabrication, but it’s a path-fabrication, just like all the other factors of the path. It’s something you’ve got to foster, something you’ve got to develop. You’re mindful to give rise to it and you’re mindful to keep it going.
When the Buddha talks about mindfulness as a governing principle in the practice, that’s what he’s referring to. You remember to keep good things going. You don’t just watch things coming and going and leave them at that. You realize that there are some things you want to give rise to, other things you want to keep going, and others you want to prevent.
So in this case, as we’re settling down, you want to keep the perception of the breath going. You can test different perceptions of the breath to see which ones are most conducive to settling down right now: the breath as flowing through the whole body; the breath as little lines going through the body, coming in and out of the pores—whatever perception allows you to settle in with the breath with a sense of ease. And you notice that the perception you apply to the body will have an impact on how you experience the body. It’s not just a matter of trying to get the most accurate picture in your mind of what the breath is already really doing. You want to keep a picture in mind that’s going to be helpful in getting the mind to settle down and then learn to stick with it.
As you go through the various levels of concentration, the object gets a lot more refined. Sometimes you want to rush to the more refined levels when you’re not quite ready. Say you’re working with the really obvious breath sensations in the body. They support your perception. The perception may come in little blips and then you have to remember to extend it a little bit more and then extend it a little bit more. And in those gaps between the perceptions, the fact that you’ve got an obvious breath sensation right here helps with the continuity. In other words, the perception keeps you with the breath and the breath keeps you with the perception. And in your attempt to keep the perception going, if your mindfulness isn’t strong enough, then as soon as the breath begins to disappear, that little mutual help society begins to break down. The sensation of the breath is not there to remind you to keep the perception going, and you can drop it very easily.
So if you find yourself moving into an area where the breath is that refined and you can’t follow it, step back and allow the breath to be a little more blatant, a little more obvious, and work on this skill of just keeping the perception going, stitching one perception to another to another to another until that thread—stitching things together—gets a lot stronger. Then you’ll be able to stay with more refined objects all the way to the point where the breath stops. The in-and-out breath stops, and what you’ve got left is a very still field of breath energy throughout the body. If your mindfulness is strong enough, you’ll be able to stay right there, very still.
As it gets even stronger, you begin to notice that the perception of the body’s having a shape begins to come and go. And you can let that perception go. What you’ve got left is a cloud of little sensation-droplets, and you begin to perceive space between all these droplets. If you can’t stay with that perception, you go back to the sensation of having a body. But if you find that you don’t need a very strong physical sensation to keep you with that perception of space, you’ll be able to stay there.
This is why you have to build up to these things by strengthening your mindfulness, your ability to remember to stay right here, because the perception is what keeps you going, and the mindfulness is what keeps the perception going as the sensations that help to support that perception get less and less obvious. The same applies to the perception of infinite consciousness and the perception of nothingness. Then, when all you have keeping you going is the perception of nothingness, the mind can reach an equilibrium where it doesn’t need a perception in order to stay concentrated. You get to the state called neither perception nor non-perception, where you recognize where you are, but you don’t have a name for it. That requires a lot of equilibrium.
So try to take stock of where you are on this ladder of concentration. If you find yourself reaching up to a higher level and grasping at air, and there doesn’t seem to be anything there, go back to where you are. Or if you can hold onto the next rung a little bit but then find that it’s getting a little slippery, go back to where you feel more solid.
The burden of the concentration lies right in this act of being mindful. That’s why it’s so important to realize that when the Buddha was teaching mindfulness and concentration, they were meant to go together. Sometimes you hear that mindfulness is a broad, open, easeful acceptance of whatever comes up, whereas concentration is narrower, more focused, effortful—in other words, two things you can’t do at the same time. I was even reading a book on mindfulness saying that basically there are two paths: the path of mindfulness on the one hand and the path of effort and concentration on the other, and they don’t mix. But that’s based on a misunderstanding of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to keep something in mind. And you need it for concentration because that’s what stitches the various perceptions together that hold your mind right here so that you don’t go wandering off.
In the beginning, it’s like having a lot of frayed threads or dangling ends. The thread may be there, but it’s not stitched to anything, or you may have little perception moments, but there’s nothing’s stitching them together. But if you can be clear about the perception and clear about the sensations that support the perception, then even if there are a few lapses in the thread of mindfulness, the sensations support you and you’re right here, right here, right here.
So try to be very meticulous in threading things together because that’s what takes these little perceptions that are inconstant and turns them into something more constant. You’re pushing against that characteristic of inconstancy, just like you’re pushing against the characteristic of stress: Try to make things pleasant here. You’re also pushing against the characteristic of not-self: You try to get some control over your ability to stitch these things together into a genuine path, something that can take you someplace. But it’s not going to take you out of the body. It’s all going to go deeper and deeper in here, deeper into the mind. And as your mindfulness gets stronger, then you can stay with more and more subtle things and not get distracted along the way.
I knew a monk once in Thailand who was reputed to have psychic powers, very strange psychic powers. He told Ajaan Fuang one time of a trip he had taken into a cave together with another monk. There was a treasure in the cave that they wanted, they’d asked permission of the devas guarding the cave, and the devas had given their permission. But as they were going through the cave, they found the skeletons of other people who had been in the cave and had tried to take things that hadn’t been allowed. Sounds like an Indiana Jones kind of movie. So they got what they wanted and left.
In the same way, as you’re meditating here, remember that there are other things that will tempt you away. If you’re not careful, you might start stitching other things aside from the breath into your mind-state. But right now, that’s not what you want. There may be temptations on either side, as in the cave, but you try to be straight-arrow and hold to your word, in the sense that you stick with these perceptions: just the breath, just the breath, just the breath. And that way you get through okay.