Chapter Two

Meditation in Theory

Although the Buddha’s recommendations for how not to suffer from aging, illness, and death involve much more than meditation, still the practice of meditation is the centerpiece of his approach. Meditation develops the powers of the mind, such as conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. These powers then provide insights into the mind. Combined, the powers and the insights underlie every other skill the Buddha taught.

Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about what Buddhist meditation is and what it’s supposed to do.

As we noted in the preceding chapter, we suffer because we’re ignorant of what the mind is doing to cause suffering, and we’ll be able to end suffering only when we bring knowledge to what we’re doing. “What we’re doing” is detailed in the factors listed in dependent co-arising, so it only stands to reason that meditation will have to bring knowledge to those factors.

That means that the processes of meditation itself will have to be explained in line with those factors, too. The mind, when it’s doing meditation, follows the same causal principles as it does when it’s creating suffering. In other words, it follows the pattern of this/that conditionality. It uses the same sorts of mental events—such as intentions, acts of attention, and perceptions—even though it’s using them more skillfully.

Yet many of the most common ways in which meditation is explained are based on a different understanding of the mind that has nothing to do with dependent co-arising. As you meditate, you’re told that you’re doing something that’s different from what you’re supposed to be watching. This means that, in explanations of that sort, many of the factors of dependent co-arising are kept in the dark. This would get in the way of following meditation all the way to the goal.

As we noted in Chapter One, the final stages of meditation involve not only developing dispassion for the fabrications leading to suffering and bringing about their cessation. They also involve relinquishing the fabrications that have gone into developing the factors of the path, including concentration and discernment. If you don’t learn to see these factors as types of fabrication—and as entailing stress—you won’t be prepared to relinquish them. That will stand in the way of total release that can come only with total, all-around knowledge leading to totally letting go.

So before discussing how to practice meditation, we’ll first have to shed some light on the Buddha’s explanations of meditation, to show what meditation is and is not, and how it does, in fact, fall in line with his explanation of the factors of dependent co-arising. Only when you understand what you’re doing in line with those factors will you be able to gain genuine all-around insight into them.

We’ll center our discussion of the Buddha’s own statements about meditation on three topics:

(1) the problem that meditation is supposed to solve,

(2) its general approach for solving it, and

(3) what the solution looks like when it’s attained.

To cover these points, this chapter will focus on the theory behind meditation; the next chapter will discuss specific steps in how to practice it.

Many of the misunderstandings around meditation have arisen from the cult of the here and now. Admittedly, it’s true that the present moment is the primary focus of meditation. When the Buddha taught his followers to stay mindful of death, he praised those who understood this to mean that they should pay attention to the present moment to see what they could do there to prepare for death. The misunderstandings come, though, when teachers go into detail on what you should expect to find when you look into the present moment and what you should try to do about it. These misunderstandings are directly related to the kind of attention you’re expected to pay.

One common approach advocates what it calls “bare attention.” The theory behind bare attention is based on these premises:

1. The problem: When you look into the present moment, you’ll see that it arises fully formed from past causes and conditions over which you have no present-moment control. The problem is that you add your own opinions on top of what is already fully formed. As you approach the present in line with narratives dealing with what you’ve experienced in the past and what you want out of the future, you find it unsatisfactory. Through the craving and clinging with which you obscure the present, you want it to be other than what it is. This is why you suffer.

This view of the present moment depicts it as similar to a TV showing a single channel: You have no control over what the channel is going to broadcast. If you’re dissatisfied with the programs, you can yell at the TV, but that won’t change the show. You’ll succeed only in getting yourself upset to no purpose.

2. The solution is to approach the present moment with bare attention. This is a level of attention free of judgments, free of references to past and future, free from preferences and reactivity. It simply accepts the constant flow of change in the present, in line with the true nature of reality, defined in terms of what the commentaries to the Pali Canon call the three “characteristics” of inconstancy, stress, and not-self. In other words, you accept that the TV is limited in what it can show you, so you learn to watch it without passing judgment on the shows, finding a modicum of peace in simply watching the play of colors and shapes on the screen. Sometimes this practice of bare attention is called mindfulness practice, sometimes it’s called insight practice.

3. The goal is a state of mind where acceptance becomes established as an all-pervading state of equanimity that affirms the truth of the three characteristics as an accurate description of reality. As a result, the mind abandons all resistance to change. It’s content simply to watch the passing show of the six senses without pinning hopes on any particular outcome.

Most bare-attention schools don’t encourage calling this state of acceptance into question, or reflecting on the choices that the mind is making to be choiceless in this way.

The premises of the bare-attention approach can be critiqued from many angles, but here it’s enough to point out that the Buddha never taught bare attention. If you reflect back on the factors of dependent co-arising discussed in the preceding chapter, you can understand why. In that analysis, attention occurs as one of the sub-factors of name-and-form. It, in turn, is conditioned by other factors coming under “name”—such as perception and intention—all of which are also conditioned by the three types of fabrication. An act of attention conditioned by so many factors can’t help but be colored by them, and so can’t legitimately be called “bare.” And any method that discourages looking into the conditions underlying a seemingly bare act of attention is closing the door to any real understanding of what the mind is doing in the present moment.

For the Buddha, the main question surrounding acts of attention is whether they and their conditioning factors are informed by knowledge of the four noble truths or are based on ignorance about those truths. This yields the two types of attention that he emphasizes as important: appropriate and inappropriate. Appropriate attention looks at experience in terms of the four noble truths with the purpose of carrying out their corresponding duties for the sake of putting an end to suffering. Inappropriate attention looks at experience in other terms, asking other questions, and serving other aims. Basically, inappropriate attention is the same thing as the ignorance that underlies the factors of dependent co-arising that lead to suffering. Appropriate attention is the approach that counteracts that ignorance.

To see what this means in practice, we can look at the problem of the present moment—along with its solution and the goal of the solution—from the premises of the four noble truths, to see how those premises contrast with the premises of bare attention.

1. The problem: When you look at the present moment, you see that it’s inextricably connected with the past and future. You perceive that the present moment is made up of three things: the results of past actions, present intentions, and the results of present intentions. Present intentions fall into the three types of fabrication—bodily, verbal, and mental—all of which are put together “for the sake of” something. In other words, they take the raw material coming from past actions for the sake of shaping it into the experience of the present and also for the sake of future experiences.

These fabrications operate on two levels of scale. In the immediate present, they’re the three activities we noted in the preceding chapter: Bodily fabrication is the in-and-out breath; verbal fabrication is directed thought and evaluation; mental fabrication is perceptions and feelings.

These present-moment fabrications, though, don’t simply arise and pass away in the present moment without leaving a ripple. They send influences into the future. When the Buddha describes how fabrications lead to states of becoming after death, he defines the three types of fabrication in a different way: Bodily fabrication is any intentional bodily act; verbal fabrication is any intentional verbal act; mental fabrication is any intentional mental act.

This gives two different ways of explaining the three types of fabrication, but the two explanations are closely connected: Without the breath you couldn’t move the body; without directed thought and evaluation you couldn’t speak; and without perceptions and feelings you couldn’t think. So when you look at fabrication in the present moment—as when you meditate on the breath—you see not only how you’re shaping the present moment, but also how you’re sending causal forces into the future that will provide the raw material for future experiences.

Now, without the activity of fabrication in the present moment, there would be no present-moment experience of the senses. At all. This means that the present moment is not a given that you can passively watch. It’s a continual construction site, and you’re implicated in the construction work. To the extent to which you don’t realize this, you’re operating in ignorance, which is why there’s suffering. When you do realize this, you’re beginning to operate from knowledge in a way that leads to suffering’s end.

Unlike the model of bare attention, where it’s as if you’re simply watching a TV with no real control over what you’re seeing, the model of appropriate attention portrays the present moment as similar to an interactive game, where your skill in playing the game will make all the difference in how the game progresses, and whether you will get joy or frustration out of it.

But even if you play the game well—in other words, you fabricate with knowledge—the fabrications are still inconstant, stressful, and not-self. For this reason, the present moment cannot be the goal. The solution to the problem, to be really successful in going beyond suffering, will be to find something unfabricated, which will have to lie outside of past, present, and future entirely.

2. The solution requires knowing which kinds of fabrications, when you develop them, will help you see fabrications clearly in a way that will ultimately give rise to dispassion for all fabrications. With dispassion, you outgrow the game and arrive at something much better.

The fabrications that lead to the solution are those of the noble eightfold path. And the factors of the path most relevant to meditation are five: right view, right resolve, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

• With right view, you look at experience in terms of the four noble truths.

• With right resolve, you determine to act in ways that will avoid causing suffering and stress. You resolve that you won’t indulge in sensuality, in ill will, or in harmfulness.

• With right effort, you motivate yourself to actively abandon unskillful mental qualities—which lead to suffering now and into the future—and to develop skillful ones in their place.

• With right mindfulness, you remember lessons from the past as to how best to engage in right effort to get your attention focused on a single theme in a way that leads to right concentration.

Right mindfulness is a complex topic. The Buddha himself said that he could answer questions on the topic for 100 years and not come to the end of it. And because it’s a topic so widely misunderstood, we have to look at it in some detail. We won’t come to the end of it, but at least we can get started in the right direction.

To begin with, we have to note that, for the Buddha, mindfulness is not a form of bare attention. Instead, it’s a faculty of the active memory, applied to activities in the present moment. In other words, you remember lessons from the past that give guidance to what you’re doing right now. With right mindfulness, this guidance includes recognizing skillful and unskillful mental qualities for what they are as soon as they arise, and remembering what approaches you’ve learned from others or from your own experience that have worked well in dealing with those sorts of qualities in the past. This enables you to deal skillfully with those qualities right now.

Right mindfulness involves developing three mental qualities to assist in getting the mind to settle down:

Mindfulness itself—the ability to keep lessons from the past in mind.

Alertness—awareness of what you’re doing as you’re doing it and, over time, of the results you get from what you’re doing.

Ardency—the heartfelt desire to do this skillfully.

Of these three qualities, ardency is the one that makes the other two skillful. Mindfulness on its own is neutral, as is alertness. You could be mindful of unskillful lessons learned from the past—such as how to get away with a lie—and alert while doing unskillful things in the present—such as robbing a charity—and you would still count as having mindfulness and alertness. Ardency, however, is by definition skillful. It strives to find the answer to the question that the Buddha said lies at the beginning of all discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness? (MN 135)” Of the three qualities, it’s the one that makes right mindfulness right.

The fact that these three qualities have to work together shows how the practice of right mindfulness, although focused on the present moment, doesn’t exclude references to the past and future. Mindfulness itself has to remember useful lessons from the past, which is why meditation instructions can play a role in helping you know what to do in the present moment. If mindfulness required that you not think about the past, you wouldn’t be able to remember those instructions when you needed them. Ardency keeps the goal of long-term happiness, now and into the future, always in sight. If you couldn’t think of the future consequences of your actions, ardency would have no basis for deciding what was skillful and what was not.

In addition to these three qualities, mindfulness needs a point of focus to make it right: It has to stay established in the right frame of reference. The Canon describes three stages in establishing the right frame of reference, with the stages growing more and more refined as mindfulness, concentration, and discernment develop.

In the first stage, the establishing of right mindfulness is described by this formula:

“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings… mind… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.” — SN 47:40

The phrase, “in and of themselves,” in this formula is important. It means that you focus on body, feelings, etc., on their own terms, without reference to how they function in the world. For instance, when you stay focused on the body in and of itself, you view it simply as an experience of the body, without reference to how it looks to the people of the world or whether it can accomplish any work you would like to do in the world. Similarly, when you stay focused on feelings in and of themselves, you pay direct attention to feeling tones as they are present or absent, without reference to whatever events in the world may have sparked them.

As you’ll notice, by adopting these frames of reference, you’re beginning to pry the mind away from one of the coordinates of becoming: the outside world. However, when the discourses describe this stage of the practice in detail, they still make use of the terms “I” and “me”: “I am breathing in long.” “There is sensual desire present within me.” At the same time, the descriptions of this stage of mindfulness practice are essentially descriptions of how to get the mind into concentration. In fact, one discourse, MN 125, actually equates the establishing of mindfulness in this first stage with the first level of right concentration. And because states of concentration count as states of becoming on the levels of form and formlessness, this means that terms of becoming—such as “I” and “me”—have not yet been totally dropped at this stage of the meditation.

• When right mindfulness is firmly established in any of the four right frames of reference on the first stage, it turns into right concentration. Right concentration has four levels, called the four jhānas, which are states of intense full-body absorption.

In the first jhāna, you think about and evaluate the theme of your concentration—say, the breath—to give rise to feelings of pleasure and rapture. You then spread these feelings through the body. The Buddha’s image is of a bathman making a “bathing-dough” out of bath powder, kneading water into the powder so that the entire dough is moistened.

In the second jhāna, once the mind is snugly with the breath, you can abandon the activity of directed thought and evaluation, and focus on the breath with a full sense of being unified with it. This more intense concentration gives rise to even stronger feelings of pleasure and rapture, which you allow to spread throughout the body. On this level, though, the act of spreading is more effortless than in the first jhāna. The image here is of a lake continuously fed by the waters of a cool spring.

In the third jhāna, the mind lets go of the feelings of rapture as being too much of a disturbance. The mind becomes equanimous, but there is still a sense of physical pleasure, which permeates the entire body. Here the image is of lotuses immersed in the waters of a cool, still lake, saturated with cool water from their roots to their tips.

In the fourth jhāna, the in-and-out breath becomes so refined that it appears to grow still. Even the refined pleasure in the body turns to equanimity, and a pure, bright awareness fills the body. In this case, the image is of a man sitting with a white cloth enwrapping his entire body.

The practice of the four jhānas develops two qualities of mind: samatha (tranquility) and vipassanā (insight). In modern circles, samatha and vipassanā are often taught as two separate meditation techniques, but the Buddha never taught them in that way. Instead, he taught them as mental qualities that would develop out of the process of mastering jhāna, with tranquility or insight being emphasized at any particular moment depending upon which questions you focus on as you try to understand the mind so as to get it to enter jhāna and remain there.

The questions that help develop tranquility are: “How should the mind be established? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?”

The questions that help develop insight are: “How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?” (AN 4:94)

Both sets of questions are relevant to the practice of jhāna. On the one hand, you have to settle the mind and concentrate it on a single theme so as to get into jhāna in the first place. On the other hand, you have to understand the processes of fabrication in order to fabricate jhāna as a state within the mind.

For instance, if you’re focused on the breath as your object, bodily fabrication is your theme. The directed thought and evaluation of the first jhāna—as you comment on the breath and adjust it to give rise to feelings of pleasure and rapture—count as verbal fabrication. As for mental fabrication, the different levels of jhāna are defined by their feeling tone, and all of them, the Buddha said, are based on perceptions: in this case, how you visualize the body and breath to yourself. This means that as you get the mind into jhāna, you’re getting hands-on experience in shaping all three types of fabrication in a skillful way.

But the qualities of tranquility and insight also go beyond jhāna: When tranquility is fully developed, it overcomes passion; when insight is fully developed, it overcomes ignorance.

We’ll go into some of the steps for developing tranquility in the next chapter. Here I’d like to focus on the steps for developing insight, to show that insight practice is much more than fostering bare attention.

In response to the first question for fostering insight—how fabrications should be regarded—the Buddha advises analyzing fabrications into different sorts, such as the three types of fabrication, bodily, verbal, and mental, that we’ve mentioned several times so far.

As for the second question—how fabrications should be investigated—the Buddha recommends developing mindfulness and concentration in such a way that you’re conscious of the fabrications you’re using to create states of concentration, as we’ve noted above. In this way, you come to know fabrications not simply by watching them, but also by using them: learning about their cause-and-effect relationships through actively trying to shape them in a skillful direction.

As for the third question—how fabrications are to be seen with insight—the Buddha recommends a five-step program for overcoming ignorance about fabrications and developing dispassion for them.

The first step is to see their origination. This doesn’t mean just watching them arise. Instead, the word “origination” refers to how they are caused, and in particular, how they’re caused by events in the body and mind.

The second step is to see how they pass away when those internal causes pass away.

The third step is to see their allure: Why is it that the mind fastens on certain fabrications even when they’re unskillful? For instance, what does the mind find appealing about anger or lust that makes it dig up and revive these emotions even as they keep passing away? Part of the mind may not like these emotions, but there must be a part that does. Otherwise, you wouldn’t keep digging them up again.

Here it’s useful to see the mind as a committee, composed of many members with different ideas of how to find happiness. To find the allure, you have to learn to identify not only which member of the committee is urging you to go for the emotion, but also how and why.

This step in the process requires a great deal of mental stillness, for five reasons.

a) Stillness of mind allows you to detect the subtle movements of the mind that you wouldn’t see otherwise.

b) That stillness provides a sense of well-being, so that you’re not so hungry for pleasure that you’ll jump at any chance to get a quick fix.

c) The sense of security coming from that stillness allows you to admit the presence of undesirable mental habits without feeling threatened by them.

d) This sense of security also allows you to let go of habits that have long been parts of your identity, without feeling disoriented or left adrift.

e) The fact that your state of stillness has been developed, in part at least, through insight into fabrication, allows you to see that the allure, too, is composed of any of the three types of fabrication, or any combination of them, with perception often playing a leading role. A lot of the allure of lust or anger, for instance, lies in the self-image that goes along with those emotions. For example, you might perceive yourself as attractive when you feel lust, or as powerful when you feel anger.

The fourth step in investigating fabrications is to see the drawbacks of the unskillful emotion: If you fall for the allure, what are the long-term negative consequences? It’s in this step that the Buddha has you reflect on the inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness of all fabrications. In other words, because they’re dependent on changeable causes from within the mind, they’re unreliable. Because they’re unreliable, they’re stressful. And because they’re unreliable and stressful, they don’t deserve to be held to as you or yours. There has to be a better way to find happiness.

We’ve noted that these themes are commonly called the three characteristics, but the Buddha himself, instead of calling them “characteristics,” called them “perceptions.” In other words, they’re labels that you actively apply to these fabrications, and they’re perceptions with a purpose and an inherent value judgment. Their purpose is to help counteract the unskillful perceptions that see the allure as believable. The value judgment they foster is that fabrications—especially unskillful ones—are really not worth the effort they require after all. This judgment relies on the promise of the third noble truth: that with dispassion for fabrications, there will come the total end of suffering and there will be an experience of the deathless.

The fifth step grows out of reflecting on the previous four. When you see clearly that these fabrications require that you keep manufacturing them, even as their drawbacks far outweigh their allure—and remembering that there is the promise of happiness when you abandon fabrications—you develop dispassion toward any idea of getting involved with them. That dispassion allows you to see them as something separate (SN 35:80), and so to escape from them.

The Buddha has you apply this five-step program first to unskillful fabrications. Then, when those fabrications have been taken care of, he has you apply it to the path itself. This allows you to develop dispassion for all fabrications. When there is no passion for continuing to produce fabrications, they cease. And as you may remember from Chapter One, when fabrications cease, all the factors leading to the suffering of aging, illness, and death will cease as well. With their cessation, the mind is freed to gain its first glimpse of the goal, called the arising of the Dhamma eye.

To facilitate this five-step program for gaining insight, the Buddha recommends two more advanced stages of mindfulness practice beyond the first stage of establishing mindfulness that got the mind into right concentration.

These stages consist of adopting more refined frames of reference that drop, even more radically than the first stage, the basic terms that constitute becoming: a sense of self-identity in a world. For this reason, their perspective is a good one to master in meditation so that you’ll be able to maintain it at the moment of death, in hopes of releasing the mind from all becoming and rebirth.

In the second stage, the formula for the frame of reference is expressed as follows, taking the body as an example:

“He [the monk] remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the bodyardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.” — SN 47:40

At this stage, the events experienced in the practice of jhāna—the various factors that go into each jhāna as well as the factors that would disturb any of those levels—are viewed simply as phenomena arising through causal relationships. You get a sense of which phenomena are related to one another by consciously doing something with them: mastering the levels of jhāna as best you can as you work with the breath, your thoughts about the breath, and perceptions and feelings around the breath. This is like learning about eggs, not by simply watching them roll around on the table, but by making them into the best possible omelets and soufflés.

This way of looking at experience in terms of cause and effect may sound abstract, but in practice it’s not. You come to see that the experience of these events on their own terms is actually more direct than the sense of a self you’ve been fabricating around them. Even though your sense of self may seem to be your most intimate and grounding experience, you now begin to see that this direct experience of these events interacting simply as events is more immediate, intimate, and grounding than that. It’s happening right at your awareness, without your having to assume anything lying behind what you can directly observe.

This exploration of cause and effect helps you to see clearly the first two steps of the Buddha’s five-step program for developing insight: origination and passing away. At the same time, it allows you to further weaken any reference to the terms of becoming.

Remember that in the first stage of mindfulness practice, you dropped the outside world from your frame of reference. In this second stage, you also drop any explicit reference to the “I” or “me” doing the practice. This allows you to witness mental and physical events in the terms of dependent co-arising. But there still remains the world of the jhānas themselves. And if you’re observant, you’ll also see that there’s still an implicit sense of “I” hovering around those jhānas.

In the third stage of mindfulness practice, though, the frame of reference is phrased in such a way that all references to the terms of becoming are dropped. The formula here, again taking the body as an example, is this:

“Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” — MN 10

Here the focus of the meditation makes no reference to the world, not even the world of the jhāna, and not even an implicit reference to “I” or “me.” This frame of reference allows the sense of dispassion, the fifth step in the five-step program, to apply all around: on the one side, to anything that would get in the way of the path, and on the other, to the path itself (SN 48:3). This all-around dispassion is what opens the way for the first glimpse of the goal.

3. The goal is the experience of the deathless. This is a type of consciousness called consciousness without surface because it doesn’t “land” or “get established” on anything (MN 49; SN 12:64). It lies entirely outside of space and time, even outside of the continually-fabricated present moment. Because it’s not contained in the dimensions of space and time, it has no location. Because it’s devoid of aggregates and attachments, the person who has fully awakened to it can’t be defined as a being, and so can’t be properly described as existing, not existing, both, or neither (SN 22:86). For these two reasons, the deathless lacks the necessary elements of becoming—an identity in a world of experience—and so is free of all suffering. The undefinability of the fully awakened person is compared metaphorically to the immeasurability of the ocean (MN 72; SN 44:1), but even that is an inadequate comparison. Oceans are subject to space and time; the awakened person isn’t.

There’s a common misunderstanding that on gaining awakening, a person leaves one place—saṁsāra—and goes to another place, nibbāna. But actually, neither is a place. Saṁsāra, the wandering-on, is a process by which craving creates locations around which states of becoming—people in places—coalesce. Nibbāna, unbinding, is totally free of craving, so it’s the end of that process. As a result, it has no location at all. This is why, when fully awakened people die, their destination can’t be found and they’re said to be “everywhere released” (Dhp 348) or “everywhere independent” (Sn 4:6).

The Buddha notes that, properly speaking, the deathless can’t be described. But he does speak of it metaphorically to indicate that it’s eminently worth striving for: a dimension of pure bliss, total freedom, unchanging truth, and excellence (SN 43).

When he calls it nibbāna, unbinding, he’s pointing metaphorically to the freedom of this experience, but he’s also telling you how to get there. According to the physics of his time, fire was said to be “unbound” when it went out. This was because fire, as it was burning, was believed to cling to its fuel. As long as it clung, it was trapped in the fuel. When it let go of its clinging, it went out and was freed. In the same way, the mind is trapped, not by fabrications, but by the act of clinging to fabrications. To be freed, it has only to let them go.

The fact that the goal is the deathless, rather than a simple acceptance of the three characteristics, is illustrated by a simile the Buddha uses to describe the work of tranquility and insight. He portrays them as two swift messengers who enter a fortress and deliver an accurate message to the commander of the fortress. Then they leave (SN 35:204). The fortress stands for the body; the commander for consciousness. The accurate message is not the three characteristics. It’s unbinding. And although the messengers may leave the fortress, the message stays.

This is a general map of how and why meditation works, what it’s supposed to do, and where it’s supposed to lead. As with any map, when you’re using it to guide your journey, you don’t keep your nose in the map all the time. You consult it only when necessary. And don’t let the descriptions of the more advanced stages discourage you. Focus on the parts of the map that are relevant to what you’re doing right now. For instance, when you’re focused on developing tranquility, it’s enough to know that there will come a time where you have to use that tranquility to foster insight. Meanwhile, you focus on the one theme of your concentration. If you find it easy for the mind to settle down and get unified, you don’t have to worry about the three fabrications or the five steps in investigating fabrications. You don’t even have to think about any of the jhānas. Instead, you focus all of your attention on your chosen theme, such as the breath.

But when you’re having trouble settling down, it’s good to have some knowledge of the Buddha’s vocabulary for describing the workings of the mind. This will sensitize you to physical and mental processes you might not have noticed without that vocabulary. That way, you can benefit from his insights to analyze where your body or mind may be resistant to stillness, and what can be adjusted to overcome that resistance and get things to settle down until your focus is established.

At a later point, when you’re beginning to wonder what to do with your mental stillness once it’s firm, you can consult the map to get a sense of the choices available to you.

So keep the map at hand, but remember that the actual journey lies in developing the potentials already present in your own body and mind.