Breath meditation is an ideal practice for giving rise to strong states of concentration, called jhana. Jhana then provides an ideal basis for fostering the insights that can free the mind from its habitual ways of causing itself suffering and stress. Those insights can ultimately lead to an experience of release into the unconditioned dimension—called the deathless—where suffering and stress all end. So there are three aspects to advanced practice: jhana, insight, and release.
The Pali Canon describes four levels of jhana, and five formless attainments—states of concentration in which there is no experience of the form of the body—that take the fourth jhana as their point of departure. Texts drawing on the Pali Canon have mapped out these descriptions, listing the factors that go into each jhana or formless attainment.
It’s important when reading these lists to realize that they’re not recipes. For instance, you can’t simply take the five factors of the first jhana, combine them, and then expect to get the first jhana. That would be like hearing that the tropical fruit durian smells like custard combined with garlic, and that it contains a little cyanide, some vitamin E, and a large dose of potassium. If you simply combined these ingredients in hopes of getting durian, you’d actually get a poisonous mess.
The lists of jhana factors are more like restaurant reviews. They tell you what a successful version of a particular dish should or shouldn’t taste like, but they don’t give many clues on how to make that dish yourself.
So to get the most out of the restaurant reviews, you can combine them with a recipe to give you a fuller idea of how the recipe should work. That’s what’s offered here. The basic recipe for jhana is given in Parts One and Two of this book. When you focus on the breath following the recipe, and things begin to go well, these are some of the experiences you can expect.
The first jhana. Traditionally, the first jhana has five factors: directed thought, evaluation, singleness of preoccupation (the theme you’re focused on), rapture, and pleasure. The first three factors are the causes; the last two, the results. In other words, you don’t do rapture and pleasure. They come about when you do the first three factors well.
In this case, directed thought means that you keep directing your thoughts to the breath. You don’t direct them anywhere else. This is the factor that helps you stay concentrated on one thing.
Evaluation is the discernment factor, and it covers several activities. You evaluate how comfortable the breath is, and how well you’re staying with the breath. You think up ways of improving either your breath or the way you’re focused on the breath; then you try them out, evaluating the results of your experiments. If they don’t turn out well, you try to think up new approaches. If they do turn out well, you try to figure out how to get the most out of them. This last aspect of evaluation includes the act of spreading good breath energy into different parts of the body, spreading your awareness to fill the body as well, and then maintaining that sense of full-body breath and full-body awareness.
Evaluation also plays a role in fighting off any wandering thoughts that might arise: It quickly assesses the damage that would come to your concentration if you followed such thoughts, and reminds you of why you want to come back on topic. When the meditation is going well, evaluation has less work to do in this area and can focus more directly on the breath and the quality of your focus on the breath.
In short, evaluation plays both a passive and an active role in your relation to the breath. Its passive role is simply stepping back to watch how things are going. In this role, it develops both your alertness and your inner observer, which I discussed in Part One. The active role of evaluation is to pass judgment on what you’ve observed and to figure out what to do with it. If you judge that the results of your mental actions aren’t satisfactory, you try to find ways to change what you’re doing, and then put your ideas to the test. If the results are satisfactory, you figure out ways to maintain them and put them to good use. This develops your inner doer so that it can be more skillful in shaping the state of your mind.
Singleness of preoccupation means two things: First, it refers to the fact that your directed thought and evaluation both stay with nothing but the breath. In other words, your preoccupation is single in the sense that it’s the one thing you’re focused on. Second, your preoccupation is single in the sense that one thing—the breath—fills your awareness. You may be able to hear sounds outside the body, but your attention doesn’t run to them. They’re totally in the background. (This point applies to all the jhanas, and can even apply to the formless attainments, although some people, on reaching the formless attainments, find that they don’t hear sounds.)
When these three factors are solid and skillful, rapture and pleasure arise. The word “rapture” here is a translation of a Pali word—piti—that can also mean refreshment. It’s basically a form of energy and can be experienced in many ways: either as a quiet, still fullness in body and mind; or else as a moving energy, such as a thrill running through the body or waves washing over you. Sometimes it will cause the body to move. With some people, the experience is intense; for others, it’s gentler. This can, in part, be determined by how much your body is hungering for the energy. If it’s really hungry, the experience will be intense. If not, the experience may hardly be noticeable.
As I noted in Part Two, most people find the rapture pleasant, but some find it unpleasant. In either case, the important point is not to focus on it, but to stay focused on the breath. Let the rapture move any way it likes. You don’t have to try to control it. Otherwise, you drop the causal factors—directed thought, evaluation, and singleness of preoccupation—and your concentration unravels.
Pleasure is the sense of ease and well-being that come when the body feels soothed by the breath, and the mind is pleasurably interested in the work of the meditation. Here again it’s important to stay focused on the breath and not to focus on the pleasure, for that would lose touch with the causes of the concentration.
Instead, use your awareness of the breath and your powers of evaluation to allow—that’s the operative word: allow—the feelings of rapture and pleasure to fill the body. When rapture and pleasure totally interpenetrate the body, they strengthen the singleness of your preoccupation with the whole-body breath.
In this way, the activity of evaluation, instead of being an unfortunate unsteadiness in your concentration, actually strengthens it, so that the mind is ready to settle down more securely.
As you work with the breath in this way, you’ll notice that your awareness of the body has two aspects: focused awareness and the background awareness already in your body. The background awareness is simply your receptivity to the full range of sensory input coming in from all the parts of the body. The focused awareness is located at the spot where you’re paying special attention to that input and developing it further. One of the jobs of your evaluation is to get these two aspects of awareness in touch with each other. The background awareness is already there, just like the background breath energy in the body. The question—both with the background awareness and with the background energy—is: Is it full? Remember that, when dealing with the breath, you’re not trying forcefully to pump breath into areas where it’s never been before. You’re simply allowing all the aspects of breath energy to connect. The connectedness is what allows them all to become full. The same principle applies to your awareness: You’re not trying to create new awareness. You want your focused awareness simply to connect with your background awareness so that they form a solid, fully alert whole.
As both the breath and the awareness come together in this way, you enter the second jhana.
The second jhana has three factors: singleness of preoccupation, rapture, and pleasure. As the breath and awareness become one, they begin to feel saturated. No matter how much you try to make them feel even more full, they can’t fill any further. At this point, directed thought and evaluation have no further work to do. You can let them go. This allows the mind to enter an even stronger sense of oneness. Your focused awareness and your background awareness become firmly one, and they in turn become one with the breath.
It’s as if, in the first jhana, you were identifying with one part of your breath and one part of your awareness as you worked another part of the breath through another part of your awareness. Now those dividing lines are erased. Awareness becomes one, the breath becomes one, and both become one with each other. Another analogy is to think of the mind as the lens of a camera. In first jhana, the focal point is located in front of the lens. In the second, it moves into the lens itself. This sense of oneness is maintained through all the remaining jhanas and formless states up through the level known as the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness (see below).
Here in the second jhana, both the pleasure and the rapture become more prominent, but there’s no need to consciously spread them through the body. They spread on their own. The rapture, though, is a moving energy. Although it may feel extremely refreshing to begin with, it can ultimately become tiresome. When that happens, try to refine the focus of your attention to a level of breath energy that’s not affected by the movements of rapture. You might think of it as tuning your radio from one station playing loud music to another playing softer music. Even though the radio waves of both stations can exist in the same place, the act of tuning-in to one enables you to tune-out the other.
When you can stay with that more refined level of energy, you enter the third jhana.
The third jhana has two factors: singleness of preoccupation and pleasure. The sense of pleasure here feels very still in the body. As it fills the body, there’s no sense that you’re filling the body with moving breath energy. Instead, you’re allowing the body to be filled with a solid, still energy. People have also described this breath as “resilient” or “steely.” There is still a subtle sense of the flow of the breath around the edges of the body, but it feels like the movement of water vapor around an ice cube, surrounding the ice but not causing it to expand or contract. Because the mind doesn’t have to deal with the movement of the breath energy, it can grow more settled and still. It too becomes more solid and equanimous in the presence of the bodily pleasure.
As the mind gets even more centered and still in this way, it enters the fourth jhana.
The fourth jhana has two factors: singleness of preoccupation and equanimity. At this point, even the subtle movement of the in-and-out breath falls still. There are no waves or gaps in the breath energy. Because the mind is so still, the brain is converting less oxygen into carbon dioxide, so the chemical sensors in the brain feel no need to tell the body to breathe. The oxygen that the body absorbs passively is enough to provide for its needs. Awareness fills the body, breath fills the body, breath fills awareness: This is singleness of preoccupation in full. It’s also the point in concentration practice where mindfulness becomes pure: There are no lapses in your ability to remember to stay with the breath. Because both the mind and the breath are still, equanimity becomes pure as well. The mind is at total equilibrium.
When you’ve learned to maintain this sense of balanced stillness in the breath, you can focus on balancing the other properties of the body as well. First balance the heat and the cold. If the body feels too warm, notice where the coolest spot in the body is. Focus on the coolness there, and then allow it to spread, just as you’d spread the still breath. Similarly, if you feel too cold, find the warmest spot in the body. After you can maintain your focus on the warmth there, allow it to spread. See if you can then bring the coolness and warmth into balance, so that the body feels just right.
Similarly with the solidity of the body: Focus on the sensations that seem heaviest or most solid in the body. Then allow that solidity to spread through the body. If the body feels too heavy, then think of the still breath making it lighter. Try to find a balance so that you feel neither too heavy nor too light.
This exercise not only makes the body more comfortable as a basis for firmer concentration, but also acquaints you with the properties that make up your inner sense of the body. As we noted in Part Two, being acquainted with these properties provides you with a useful set of tools for dealing with pain and out-of-body experiences. This exercise also gives you practice in seeing the power of your perceptions: Simply noticing and labeling a particular sensation can make it stronger.
The four jhanas focus on the same topic—the breath—but the way they relate to the breath grows progressively more refined. Once the mind reaches the fourth jhana, this can form the basis for the formless attainments. Here the relationship among the stages is reversed: All the formless attainments relate to their themes in the same way—with the equanimity and singleness of the fourth jhana—but they focus on different themes. Here we will discuss just the first four of the formless attainments, as the fifth formless attainment—the cessation of perception and feeling—lies beyond the scope of this book.
The formless attainments. As the mind in the fourth jhana stays with the stillness of the breath filling the body, it begins to sense that the only reason it feels a boundary or form to the body is because of the perception or mental image of the body’s form that it’s been holding to. There is no movement of the breath to confirm that perception. Instead, the body feels like a cloud of mist droplets, each droplet a sensation, but with no clear boundary to the cloud.
To reach the first formless attainment, allow the perception of the form of the body to drop away. Then focus, not on the droplets of sensation, but on the space in-between them. This space then goes out beyond the body without limit and can penetrate everything else. However, you don’t try to trace it out to its limit. You simply hold in mind the perception of “infinite space” or “unlimited space.” If you can stay there solidly, you reach the first formless attainment, the dimension of the infinitude of space. See how long you can stay with that perception.
To become adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, you can try holding to it even when you’ve left formal meditation. As you go through the day, replace your inner focus on the breath at a spot in the body with a focus on the perception of “space” permeating everything: your body, the space around the body, other people, the physical objects around you. Hold that perception of space in the back of your mind. Whatever’s happening inside or outside your body, it’s all happening in the context of that perception of space. This creates a great feeling of lightness as you go through the day. If you can maintain this perception in the midst of your daily activities, you’ll have an easier time accessing it and staying steadily focused on it each time you sit down for formal meditation.
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, you can pose the question, “What knows infinite space?” Your attention shifts to the awareness of the space, and you realize that the awareness, like the space, has no limits, although again you don’t try to trace it out to its limits. You just stay centered where you are. (If you try asking this question before you’re adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, the mind will just revert to a lower level of concentration, or may leave concentration entirely. So go back to the perception of space.) If you can stay with that perception of infinite or unlimited awareness—or simply, “knowing, knowing, knowing”—you enter the second formless attainment, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.
As with the perception of space, you can train yourself to become adept at the perception of infinite consciousness by holding to it even when you’ve left formal meditation. Keep in mind the perception that, whatever is happening inside you or outside you, it’s all happening within the context of an all-around awareness. This, too, creates a great feeling of lightness as you go through the day, and makes it easier to settle back in with the perception of infinite awareness when you turn the mind to the practice of full concentration.
It’s at this stage that your inner observer gets thrown into sharp relief. When you dropped the breath for the perception of “space,” you gained a clear sense that your breath and your awareness of the breath were two separate things, and you could see precisely where and how they were separate. When you dropped the perception of “space,” you could see that the awareness was separate even from space. As you carry your perception of “aware” into daily life, you can apply the same principle to everything that comes your way: Objects and events are one thing; the knowing awareness is something else.
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of infinite awareness or infinite knowing, then while you’re in formal meditation you can start to take this sense of the “knower” or “observer” apart. To do this, there are two questions you can ask yourself. Either, “What is still a disturbance in this knowing?” or “What’s maintaining the sense of oneness in this knowing?” You see that the answer in both cases is the perception of “knowing, knowing, knowing,” or “aware, aware, aware.” You drop that perception, and in so doing you drop the sense of oneness. What’s left is a sense of nothingness. There’s still awareness, but you’re not labeling it as awareness. You’re just with the sense of lightness that comes from replacing the label of “knowing” with something that feels less burdensome. The label of “knowing” requires that you make an effort to keep knowing. But the label of “nothing” allows you to put that burden down. If you can stay with that perception of, “There’s nothing” or “Nothing’s happening,” you enter the third formless attainment, the dimension of nothingness.
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of “There’s nothing” or “Nothing’s happening,” you can ask yourself if there’s still any disturbance in that sense of nothingness. When you see that the disturbance is caused by the perception itself, you drop the perception. If you do this when your focus is not subtle enough, you’ll revert to a lower stage of concentration. But if you can stay in the mental space left empty by the perception when it falls away, that’s what you do. You can’t say that there’s another perception there, but because you have a non-verbal sense that you know where you are, you can’t say that there’s no perception, either. If you can continue staying there, you enter the fourth formless attainment, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.
Wrong concentration. There are several states of concentration that mimic these levels of concentration in some respects, but they are wrong concentration. This is because—unlike the levels of right concentration—their range of awareness is so narrow that it doesn’t provide a basis for the arising of insight.
Two of the most common states of wrong concentration are delusion concentration and the state of non-perception. People who are adept at denial or dissociation can be prone to these states. I have also known people who mistake them for release, which is a very dangerous mistake because it blocks all further progress on the path. So it’s important to recognize these states for what they are.
Delusion concentration we have already discussed in Part Two. It comes about when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly you were focused.
The state of non-perception comes about from making your focus extremely one-pointed and so refined that it refuses to settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. You drop into a state in which you lose all sense of the body, of any internal or external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all. There’s just enough tiny awareness to let you know, when you emerge, that you haven’t been asleep. You can stay there for many hours, and yet time passes very quickly. Two hours can seem like two minutes. You can also program yourself to come out at a particular time.
This state does have its uses—as when you’re in severe pain and want some respite from it. As long as you recognize that it’s not right concentration or release, the only danger is that you may decide that you like hiding out there so much that you don’t want to do the work needed to go further in the practice.
How to use the map of the jhanas. Just as discernment requires concentration to grow, concentration requires discernment. The two qualities help each other along. So now that you have a map to the stages of concentration, you need to exercise some discernment in using it properly so that it doesn’t become an obstacle to the practice. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
This map presents possibilities.
The way your concentration develops may fall clearly in line with the map, or it may not. Some people find that their concentration goes naturally from one stage to the next with no planning on their part; others find that they have to make a conscious decision to move from one stage to the next. Also, you may find that the stages of your practice may not line up precisely with those on the map. Some people, for instance, experience an extra stage between the first and the second jhana, in which directed thought falls away but there’s still a modicum of evaluation. Others don’t see clear steps in their progress. The mind settles down so quickly to one particular stage that they’re not consciously aware of having gone through the preceding steps. It’s like falling suddenly to the bottom of a well: You don’t notice how many layers of brick line the side of the well. You just know that you’ve hit bottom.
Some of these variations are perfectly fine. However, if you find that your mind goes straight to the formless steps without first passing through the jhanas in which you have a clear sense of the whole body, back up and make an extra effort to stay with the breath and fully inhabit the body. Work particularly hard at the steps associated with the first jhana: making yourself aware of the whole body breathing, and spreading breath energy to areas where it doesn’t seem to flow. This may seem less restful and quiet than the formless states, but it’s necessary both for your concentration to be well grounded and for insight to arise. If the mind skips over the steps related to the body, it’s simply blocking out the body and turns into concentration based on denial. Denial may shut out distractions, but it isn’t conducive to clear, all-around discernment.
Keep the map in the background of your awareness as you meditate, not in the foreground.
Remember, the theme of your meditation is the breath, not the factors of jhana. The map can be kept in the back of your mind to be pulled out when you’re faced with three kinds of choices: what to do when you can’t get into a state of stillness, what to do when you’re in a state of stillness but have trouble maintaining it, and what to do when you’ve gotten stuck in a state of stillness and don’t know where to go next.
Otherwise, don’t even think about the factors of jhana. Pay primary attention to the breath and allow your concentration to develop naturally from your evaluation of the breath. Try not to be like the person with a tree bearing unripe mangoes who—told that ripe mangoes aren’t green and hard, they’re yellow and soft—tries to ripen his mangoes by painting them yellow and squeezing them until they’re soft. The result, of course, is that his mangoes never get a chance to ripen. What he should do is tend to the tree—water it, fertilize it, protect it from bugs—and the mangoes will grow yellow and soft on their own. Watching and evaluating the breath is the way you tend to the tree of your concentration.
Don’t be too quick to label a state of concentration.
If you attain a level of concentration that seems promising, don’t label it right then and there. Simply try to maintain it. Then see if you can reproduce it during your next session of meditation. If you can’t, don’t pay it any further attention. If you can, then label it with a mental post-it note, reminding yourself of how it feels, and what level it might correspond to on the map. Don’t engrave your label in stone. As you get more familiar with the territory of your mind, you may find that you have to pull off the post-it notes and rearrange them, but that’s perfectly fine.
Reread the section in Part Two on Judging Your Progress.
Don’t be too quick to push from one stage of concentration to the next.
All too often, as soon as you attain a level of concentration, the mind asks a question of hunger: “What’s next?” The best answer is, “This is what’s next.” Learn how to master what you’ve got. Meditation is not an exercise in jumping through jhana hoops. If you push impatiently from one level of concentration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new state of concentration too quickly after you’ve attained it, you never give it the chance to show its full potential. And you don’t give yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with it. To get the most out of it, you need to keep working at it as a skill. Try to reach it quickly each time you start meditating. Try tapping into it in all situations. This enables you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it over time—to see if it really is as totally blissful, empty, and relaxed as it may have seemed at first sight.
If moving to a new level of concentration makes you feel unsteady, return to the level you just left and try to make it more firm before trying the new level again at a later time.
If you’re not sure about what to do at any stage in the concentration, simply stay with your sense of the “observer.”
Don’t be too quick to jump to any conclusions about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, or whether what you’re experiencing is true or false. Just watch, watch, watch. At the very least, you won’t be taken in by false assumptions. And you may gain some important insights into how the mind can fool itself through its desire to label and interpret things.
More important than labeling your concentration is learning what to do with it.
Whether your concentration falls into the stages on the map or has a few different stages of its own, the proper way to treat any stage of concentration is the same in all cases. First, learn to maintain it as long as you can, in as many postures and activities as you can. Try to re-enter it as quickly as you can. This allows you to familiarize yourself with it. When you’re really familiar with it, pull out of it slightly so that you can observe how the mind is relating to its object—but not so far out that you fully leave that stage of concentration. Some people experience this as “lifting” the mind slightly above its object. For others it feels like having your hand snugly in a glove and then pulling it out slightly so that it’s not fully snug but still remains in the glove.
Either way, you’re now in a position to observe the movements of the mind around the object of its concentration. Ask yourself a question of discernment: “Is there still any sense of disturbance or stress in the concentration itself?” The stress might be related to the fact that the mind is still evaluating its object when it no longer needs to, that it’s holding onto rapture when the rapture is no longer calming, or that it’s focused on a perception that’s not as restful as it could be. If you can’t immediately see any stress, try to notice any variations in the level of stress or disturbance you feel. This may take a while, but when you see a variation in the level of stress, try to see what activity of the mind accompanies the rises and falls of the stress. Once you identify the activity that accompanies the rises, drop it.
If you can’t yet see any variation in the stress, or if your analysis starts getting blurry, it’s a sign that your concentration isn’t yet strong enough to engage in this kind of analysis. Drop the analysis and plant yourself firmly back in the object of your concentration. Don’t be impatient. Stay with the object until you feel refreshed and solid enough to try the analysis again.
If, however, the analysis is getting clear results, keep it up. This will strengthen your concentration at the same time as it strengthens your discernment. You’re learning how to evaluate your state of mind for yourself, while you’re engaged in it, without having to consult any outside authority. You’re gaining practice in observing how the mind creates unnecessary stress for itself, and in training it not to continue creating that stress. That’s what the meditation is all about.
At the same time, you’re mastering a line of questioning that—as your concentration and discernment grow deeper and subtler—gives rise to the insight leading to release.
As I noted in the Introduction, the basic strategy of the practice is to observe your actions—along with their motivations and results—and then to question them: Do they lead to suffering? If so, are they necessary? If not, how can you act in other ways that don’t lead to suffering? If they don’t lead to suffering, how can you master them as skills? This strategy applies not only to your words and deeds, but also to the acts of the mind: its thoughts and emotions.
And as I noted in the last section, when you develop jhana, you use this strategy of observing and questioning to abandon any distracting thoughts and to develop the factors of jhana in their place. It’s through this process that the practice of jhana develops your discernment and insight. When your jhana becomes more stable, you can develop that insight further by looking for a course of action that causes even less stress than jhana. Here again, the important point is to view the factors of jhana as activities and to ask the right questions about them.
Fabrication. The activities here are the three types of fabrications by which the mind shapes experience: bodily, verbal, and mental. If you compare the descriptions of jhana and breath meditation with the descriptions of fabrication in the Introduction, you’ll notice that jhana makes use of all three. The breath is bodily fabrication; the directed thought and evaluation of the first jhana are verbal fabrications; the perceptions that keep the mind in the various jhanas and formless attainments are mental fabrications, as are the feelings of pleasure and equanimity that come from staying in those states of concentration.
This is why jhana is so useful in giving rise to the insight that totally ends the unnecessary stress that the mind creates through its own fabrications. Jhana gives you a still vantage point for watching those fabrications in action.
You can do this in any of three ways:
• while you’re in a particular stage of jhana;
• when you move from one stage to another; or
• when you come out of concentration and observe what fabrications the mind takes up as it engages with the world outside.
In any of these situations, you can observe that (1) fabrications are actually actions, arising and passing away; (2) they’re creating stress; (3) what they’re doing is unnecessary; and (4) the pleasure they give isn’t worth the stress they entail. Only when you see all four of these aspects can insight lead to release from unnecessary suffering and stress. And that’s when you see that the only stress weighing down the mind was the unnecessary sort. Once that stress is gone, nothing at all can weigh the mind down. It’s free.
To watch any of the jhanas as forms of mental action requires not seeing them as metaphysical principles—say, as a Ground of Being, a True Self, Cosmic Oneness, Primordial Emptiness, Encounter with God, or any other grand-sounding abstraction. The metaphysical trap is an easy one to fall into, especially if you’ve primed yourself to think in those terms. If, for instance, you’ve been thinking in metaphysical terms and then attain the oneness of the second jhana, it’s easy to assume that you’ve touched Cosmic Oneness or Interconnection. If you attain the sense of infinite knowing of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, it’s easy to assume that you’ve gained access to a level of awareness underlying all reality. You might interpret these experiences as contact with some sort of ground from which all things come and to which they all return. Or you might decide that the strengthened sense of “observer” in that state of mind is your True Self. If you fall for any of these interpretations, though, you lose sight of the way in which your actions fashioned the experience to begin with. That way you miss the subtle levels of stress still present in those experiences. The exalted interpretations you assign to them blind you to the fabrications they still contain.
To get around this pitfall, you simply stick with the line of questioning introduced at the end of the last section: Look for any rise or fall in the level of stress within that experience. Then look for the activity of the mind that accompanies that rise and fall. When you see the activity in action, drop it.
This is called contemplating inconstancy and the stress in inconstancy. When you see the stress, ask yourself if anything inconstant and stressful is worth claiming as you or yours. When you realize that the answer is No, this is called contemplating not-self. You’re not taking a stance on whether or not there is a self. You’re simply asking whether you want to identify with the parts of the committee creating the stress.
Developing disenchantment. The purpose of these contemplations is to induce a sense of disenchantment and dispassion for the actions of fabrication. Because passion is what drives all three kinds of fabrication, dispassion ends any desire to keep engaging in them. When you don’t engage in them, they stop. The result is a total letting go.
The sense of disenchantment—which in most cases reaches maturity only after you’ve approached these contemplations from many angles—is the crucial turning point in this process. The Pali term for disenchantment, nibbida, corresponds to the feeling you have when you’ve eaten enough of a particular food and don’t want any more of it. This is not aversion. It’s simply a sense that what you used to enjoy eating no longer holds any interest for you. You’ve had enough.
You need to develop this sense of disenchantment toward the mind’s fabrications because they all follow the same pattern we’ve mentioned many times: They’re a form of eating. The food here may be either physical or mental, but the dynamic of feeding in every case is the same. You’re trying to fill a lack, to allay a hunger. Only when you can counteract the hunger with a sense of enough can you reach disenchantment. Only with disenchantment can you stop feeding and find the dimension where there’s no need to feed.
Insight into becoming. Think back on the image of the mind’s committee. Each committee member corresponds to a different desire, a different sense of who you are based around that desire, and a different sense of the world in which you can search for what will fulfill that desire. Your sense of who you are here is composed of two things: the self that will experience the happiness of fulfilling that desire, and the self that has the powers to bring that desire to fulfillment. The first self is the self as consumer; the second, the self as producer. The self as consumer is what needs to be fed; the self as producer is what finds and fixes the food; and the world of experience connected to the desire is the area of experience where you look for food.
As I noted in the Introduction, each individual sense of self in a particular world of experience is described by the term becoming. Becoming is a type of being—the sense of what you are and what exists around you—based on doing. It’s not static being. It’s being in action. And as you’ve been meditating, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how the primary action underlying this being is a kind of feeding. Each sense of who you are has to be nourished, to take something from the world, in order to survive.
You notice this first with the distracting thoughts that get in the way of your concentration: The mind goes out to nibble on thoughts of lust, to gobble down thoughts of anger, to sip pleasant memories from the past, to chew on past regrets, or to wolf down worries about the future.
The basic strategy of concentration is first to see that you don’t have to identify with these different senses of who you are. That’s why we use the image of the committee: to help you realize that you won’t be starved of pleasure if you drop a few of these becomings. You’ve got better ones with which to feed. But then to keep yourself from sneaking out to chew on your old junk food, you have to nourish the more skillful members of the committee, the ones who are learning to work together to develop and maintain your concentration. This is one of the roles of the rapture, pleasure, and refined equanimity in concentration: to nourish the skillful members of your committee. When you practice concentration, you’re feeding them good, nourishing food.
As you get less and less inclined to feed in your old ways—as your taste in inner food grows more refined—you gradually come to a point where you can see that even the concentration is a kind of becoming. In other words, in jhana you identify with the skillful members of the committee who can provide the food of concentration (the self as producer), as well as with the meditator feeding off the pleasure and rapture provided by the meditation (the self as consumer). The object of meditation—either the form of the body or the dimensions of formlessness—is the world from which you feed.
As long as you hold to these identities and these worlds as having solid unity, it’s hard to go beyond them. It’s hard to let go of them. This is why the Buddha’s strategy is to sidestep this sense of solid unity by regarding the building blocks of identity as actions, for actions are easier to let go of than a solid sense of who you are.
The five aggregates. Because these actions are primarily related to feeding, the Buddha’s approach in developing insight is to take the types of fabrication involved in creating every becoming and gather them under a list of five activities that are basic to feeding on every level.
These activities are called khandhas. This is a Pali word that means “heap” or “mass.” The standard English translation, though, is “aggregate.” This translation apparently comes from a distinction popular in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, between conglomerates of things that work together in an organic unity—called “systems”—and conglomerates that are just random collections of things, called “aggregates.” The purpose of translating khandha as “aggregate” was to convey the useful point that even though we tend to regard our sense of identity as having organic unity, it’s actually just a random collection of activities.
The five activities that surround eating on the most basic level are these:
• A sense of form: both the form of the body that needs to be nourished (and that will be used to look for food), as well as the physical objects that will be used as food. When feeding takes place in the imagination, “form” applies to whatever form you assume for yourself in the imagination, and to whatever imaginary forms you take pleasure from.
• Feeling: the painful feeling of hunger or lack that drives you to look for food; the pleasant feeling of satisfaction that comes when you’ve found something to eat; and the added pleasure when you actually eat it.
• Perception: the ability to identify the type of hunger you feel, and to identify which of the things in your world of experience will satisfy that hunger. Perception also plays a central role in identifying what is and isn’t food. This is the way we first learn to exercise our perceptions as children. Our first reaction on encountering something is to put it into our mouth to see if it’s edible. If it is, we label it with the perception of “food.” If it’s not, we label it as “not food.”
• Fabrication in this context refers primarily to verbal fabrications. These relate to feeding in the way we have to think about and evaluate strategies for finding food, for taking possession of it when we find it, and for fixing it if it’s not edible in its raw state. For example, if you want to enjoy a banana, you have to figure out how to remove the peel. If your first attempt doesn’t work, you have to evaluate why it didn’t and to figure out new strategies until you find one that works.
• Consciousness: the act of being aware of all these activities.
These five activities are so basic to the way we engage with the world in order to feed that they form the raw material from which we create our various senses of self.
Now, in the practice of developing jhana based on the breath, they’re also the raw material from which we’ve learned to create states of concentration. “Form” corresponds to the breath. “Feeling” corresponds to the feelings of pleasure and equanimity derived from focusing on the breath. “Perception” corresponds to the ways we label the breath, the formless dimensions, and the pleasures we derive from staying focused on these themes. “Fabrication” corresponds to the thoughts and evaluations that compose the first jhana, and also the thoughts and evaluations by which we ask questions about all the various stages in our concentration. “Consciousness” is the act of being aware of all these activities.
This is why concentration is such a good laboratory for examining the mind’s habits for creating suffering. It contains all the elements that go into the identities we build around the act of feeding. And it contains them in a controlled context—a clear and stable state of becoming—where you can watch those elements in action and see them clearly for what they are.
When the mind is in a solid enough position to look at even the refined pleasures of concentration in terms of these activities, there’s no need to focus on all five of them. Simply focus on any one that seems easiest for you to observe in action. If you’re not sure of where to start, try starting with perception, because perception is most central to your ability to stay focused in concentration, and it’s the aggregate you’re going to need to work hardest to change. As long as the perception, “worth the effort,” stays fixed on the act of feeding on jhana, disenchantment will not be total. Only when the perception, “not worth the effort,” gets your full approval will disenchantment have a chance.
Still, this is a matter of personal temperament. If another aggregate seems easier to focus on, by all means start there, for once the perception of “not worth the effort” gets firmly established with regard to that aggregate, it will spread to encompass all the other aggregates because all five of them are so intimately connected.
When examining the activities that create states of concentration, you have to remember to ask the right questions about them. If you approach the concentration in hopes that it will answer such questions as “Who am I?” or “What is the underlying reality of the world?”, you simply continue the processes of becoming. If you come across an especially impressive state of stillness or peace, your committee members who want to feed on metaphysical absolutes will take that as their food—and will be mighty proud of it. This blinds you to the fact that they’re still just feeding, and that your questions are simply refined versions of the questions of hunger.
However, if you remember to see the stillness and peace of concentration as coming from the activities of the aggregates, you’ll realize that no matter how well you feed on them, you’ll never be free of reoccurring hunger. You’ll never be free of having to keep working for your food. After all, these activities are not constant. When they fall away, they produce a split second of concern: “What’s next?” And in that split second, your committee members are desperate, for the question is a question of hunger. They want an answer right now. So these activities can never provide a stable, reliable, or lasting food. Even when they fabricate a peace that feels cosmic, they still involve stress.
When you pursue these contemplations until they reach a point of disenchantment, the mind inclines toward something outside of space and time, something that wouldn’t be subject to the drawbacks of these activities. At this point, it wants nothing to do with any of the committee members of the mind, even the ones observing and directing its concentration, or the underlying ones that keep asking and demanding an answer to the questions of hunger: “What’s next? Where next? What to do next?” The mind sees that even the choice of staying in place or moving forward to another state of concentration—even though it’s a choice between two relatively skillful alternatives—is a choice between nothing but two stressful alternatives, for both are fabrications. At this point it’s poised for something that doesn’t involve either alternative, something that involves no fabrication. When it sees the opening in that poise, it lets go and experiences the deathless. That’s the first stage in experiencing release.
In this way, the mind dis-identifies with all becomings without even thinking about “self” or “worlds.” It looks simply at actions as actions. It sees them as stressful, unnecessary, and not worth the effort. That’s what enables it to let go.
There are many dangers in trying to describe release, for people can then easily try to clone the description without actually going through the steps leading to genuine release—another case of squeezing and painting the mango to make it ripe.
However, it is useful to describe some of the lessons learned from the first taste of release.
One is that the Buddha was right: There really is a deathless dimension, outside of space and time. And it really is free of suffering and stress.
On returning from that dimension into the dimensions of space and time, you realize that your experience of space and time didn’t begin just with this birth. It’s been going on much longer. You may not be able to remember the particulars of previous lifetimes, but you do know that they’ve been happening for a long, long time.
Because you reached that dimension by abandoning the activities of fabrication, you know that it was through the activities of fabrication that you have been engaged in space and time all along. In other words, you’re not just a passive observer of space and time. Your actions play a crucial role in shaping your experience of space and time. Your actions are thus of foremost importance. Because you see that unskillful actions simply make it more difficult to access the deathless, you never want to break the five precepts ever again.
Because none of the aggregates were involved in the experience of the deathless, and yet there was still an awareness of that dimension, you see that the act of identifying with the aggregates is a choice that places limitations on you. You’ll never again agree with the view that they constitute what you are.
Because you realize that the deathless dimension was always available, but that you missed it because of your own stupidity, the first taste of release is humbling. It’s not a source of pride.
But above all, you realize that the activities of engaging in space and time are inherently stressful. The only true happiness lies in gaining total release. There is no activity more worthwhile than that.
It’s important not to mistake a mundane breakthrough for genuine release, for that can make you heedless and complacent in your practice. One of the touchstones for testing the truth of your release is whether it feels grounding or disorienting. If it’s disorienting, it’s not the real thing, for the deathless is the safest, most secure dimension there is.
Another touchstone for testing the truth of your release is whether you understood what you did to get there, for that’s what provides insight into the role of fabrication and mental action in shaping all experience. If your mind senses a great unburdening but without understanding how it happened, it’s not release. It’s just a mundane breakthrough. So don’t be heedless.
However, even people who have attained their first taste of genuine release can grow heedless, as the safety of their attainment can lower their sense of urgency in the practice. They can start getting complacent. So whether your sense that you’ve tasted release is genuine or not, the advice is always the same: Don’t be heedless. There’s more work to do.
On jhana: See the section, “Jhana,” in Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, Keeping the Breath in Mind, and “Method 2.” There are also excellent discussions of jhana in Ajaan Lee’s book, The Path to Peace & Freedom for the Mind, under the heading, “Right Concentration” and under the headings of “Virtue,” “Concentration,” and “Discernment” at the end of the book.
For a thorough discussion of the Buddha’s sixteen-step instructions for using the breath as a focal point for developing tranquility and insight, see Right Mindfulness.
For a more advanced discussion of the role of becoming, both in the practice of jhana and in the development of insight, see The Paradox of Becoming.
For further discussions on how to ask the questions of discernment: Somewhat more technical than “Questions of Skill” in The Karma of Questions, mentioned at the end of the Introduction, is “The Arrows of Thinking” in Beyond All Directions. Skill in Questions offers a full treatment of this topic, with many examples from the Pali Canon. If the size of the book puts you off, you can read just the discussions in each chapter and leave the readings for another time.
For an anthology of passages from the Pali Canon covering the basic qualities that the Buddha said were most important for the practice, see The Wings to Awakening. Some people find the Introduction to this book a little steep, but you can start with Part Three, which is less intimidating, and then return to the earlier parts of the book when you want a more extensive overview.
Into the Stream contains passages from the Pali Canon on the first stage of awakening.
On the meaning of the word nirvana: “The Image of Nirvana” in Noble Strategy; “A Verb for Nirvana” in Purity of Heart. The Mind like Fire Unbound offers a full treatment of this topic, along with a discussion of the topic of clinging.
For some inspiring accounts of higher stages of the practice, see Ajaan MahaBoowa Ñanasampanno – Straight from the Heart, in particular the talks, “At the End of One’s Rope,” “The Radiant Mind is Unawareness,” and “An Heir to the Dhamma.” Also inspiring: “From Ignorance to Emptiness” and “To Be an Inner Millionaire,” both in another book of Ajaan MahaBoowa’s talks, Things as They Are.
Relevant talks (mp3 audio):
Talks on the Buddha’s sixteen-step instructions in breath meditation: