We have already discussed the elementary stages in concentration – how to project the picture of an object in the mind and how to concentrate on that picture with the totality of the mind. We shall continue with the same subject, touching especially on the following points:-
- the obstacles the beginner encounters when he starts to concentrate,
- how these obstacles present themselves,
- how to proceed further in the direction of the goal which is the achievement of shamatha.
We mentioned that concentration should be practised with a totally one-pointed mind; in other words, with great clarity and the full force of the mind. 'Clarity' does not refer to the clearness of the picture which the beginner must project in his mind. At first, the picture may be vague or unstable and the meditator should not spend too. much time in making it clear as this is not required at this stage. But, still, he must use it as a point to concentrate on. However, the mind itself must be absolutely clear, without any haziness or clouding, for it only in such clarity of mind that the object can be reflected. If this state of clarity is combined with the full force of a one-pointed mind directed towards one obejct only, there will be the energy to hold that object. Even one second of laziness or wavering in this process means loss of energy. The real problem, however, is that as soon as the beginner is able to concentrate on an object with the necessary quality of mind, he finds it impossible to meditate, and it is precisely at this stage that he may be disappointed and give up, believing that it is impossible for him to meditate. But in fact, it is not impossible and the serious meditator should persevere.
There are two types of impediment which present themselves. The first is distraction of the mind. The mind revolts because it does not want to be disciplined and concentrated on one object. Besides, it is obstructed by many thoughts, for it is in its nature to be so distracted. In the beginning this scattering of the mind is the main problem. Later on another impediment appears: the mind loses its clarity and energy. This is because it sinks into the object of concentration. The technical Sanskrit expression for this condition is nimagnata, which means 'going down'. This is a rather dangerous condition because many beginners mistakenly feel that the mind is now becoming steady and so they go on with this harmful practice.
Distraction of the mind is easily recognized, but it is difficult to recognize the sinking of the mind because the difference between this condition and real meditation is a subtle one. So here the meditator must be vigilant. Precautionary measures must be taken right at the beginning, and this is where the will-power must be used – the will-power to keep alert and to watch carefully the concentration of the mind. It is actually not so much watching the trend of concentration (because that can easily become another distraction for the mind); it is more a standing by and keeping ready to observe the emergence of disturbances.
It is advisable to take the two following preventive measures. The first one is recollection (smriti) and the other is recognition (samprajnata). Samprajnata implies knowing or recognizing the disturbance. This is how it works. First, before going into concentration, draw on your power of recollectedness so that it will be ready to alert you as soon as thought enters the mind. This is very important, because if one is concentrating, and the mind is one-pointedly directed towards either the object or the picture of that object in one's mind, and if, at that moment, thought enters the mind, it is extremely difficult to get hold of. Usually, the meditator becomes aware of thoughts in his mind long after they have entered. This means some weakness in the power of recollection, which should work the instant thought penetrates the mind. In the beginning, a thought entering the mind is easily recognized because one notices that the mental picture of the object has disappeared; concentration, then, is finished and one must start again. At a later stage, after the aspirant has been practising steadily, the problem becomes rather more difficult because thought will then creep in cunningly like a thief and, without disturbing the picture in the meditator's mind, will go to work on many things. In the meantime, the meditator is still 'concentrating' and holding the picture with the major part of his mind. The problem now is clearly far more difficult to recognize or prevent for the recollection is still not sufficiently strong to warn the meditator. Therefore, at this second stage, when the meditator is a little more advanced, the task of revitalizing the recollective faculty becomes very important.
It is interesting to note that in the very beginning it is not too difficult to concentrate; and much later also, when shamatha has been achieved, all problems automatically come to an end. The difficulties appear only when the meditator is partly advanced and so it is during the middle stages particularly that necessary care and precautions should be taken.
A number of months will pass before the beginner has learned sufficiently from his teacher or from books to begin the necessary preparations. And, again, time will pass before he has finished his preparations and decided on the object of concentration. Then, when he starts to concentrate, he will find that he does not get anywhere at all for about two weeks. Perhaps he will achieve some sort of concentration for a few seconds only. Again, when he goes on, he will feel that during his attempts to concentrate the number of thoughts flitting through his mind has increased greatly. Indeed, they seem to increase ever far beyond the number which existed in his mind before he started to concentrate. 'What is wrong with me?' he may ask. 'I had a calm mind before I started my concentration, but now it is turbulent with thoughts.' But in reality this is not so. The fact is that a person who does not meditate never realizes how many thoughts arise in his mind. As soon as he starts to concentrate, every thought is recognised, being highlighted.
Through concentration, then, the aspirant becomes aware of the great number of thoughts that pass in and out of his mind and this is where the real struggle starts. As soon as he has made a picture in his mind of his chosen object, thought will come in and scatter it; then he will set the picture up again only to lose it almost immediately as soon as another thought arises; so it goes on. It is at this stage that an instructor is needed to guide the meditator. It may also happen that the beginner becomes over-zealous in trying to keep his powers of recollection and recognition alert, or he may become too intent on his concentration. If this happens he will also lose the faculties of recollection and recognition. Therefore a well-balanced application of all these faculties – concentration, recollection and recognition – is absolutely necessary.
One might compare this problem of adjustment to walking a tightrope. Only a well trained person can walk the rope and he does .so with an umbrella in one hand in order to keep his balance. Similarly, the beginner in meditation should concentrate his attention on the picture in his mind (the rope) while he balances himself with the umbrella of recollection and recognition, so that as soon as a thought enters his mind, he will know it, immediately recollect himself and, without even changing his posture or attention, will discard it and continue his concentration with one-pointedness of mind. Here the meditator can use his will-power by forcefully rejecting stray thoughts entering his mind and directing all his mental energy towards the picture of the object. But, at the same time, he will have to watch carefully whether he has regained the same clear and forceful concentration he had before the thought entered his mind. It could even be that he has improved the picture and that is good, but the main thing to watch for is that the quality of clarity and forcefulness of concentration have not decreased. This 'watching' should not be done during the process of concentration, but just before or after it
After the meditator has pushed away stray thoughts and recovered his concentration a number of times, he will need a break of about five to ten minutes. He should have a cup of tea, or wash his face, or go out for a short while, after which he can return to his exercise. If he does not feel too well after the break, he should not continue the exercise until he is quite fit again. After a while, when his concentration begins to be steady, the time could be gradually increased so that good progress can be maintained.
As he continues his practice of concentration, the meditator will pass through two distinct phases. One phase, as we have seen, will give him the feeling of an enormous increase of thought; during the second he experiences a break in the continuity of thought for shorter or longer periods. He will, therefore, at times feel that he has to cope with many thoughts, while the next moment there are no thoughts at all for a half hour or so. Then, after this silent period, thought activity comes back again with full force. This means that the aspirant has entered the second stage on the road to meditation, and it is because of this fluctuation in the number of thoughts that he will sometimes have a good period of concentration and at other times, when thoughts are numerous again, a bad one. It is now that he should increase his efforts. In order to stabilize the fluctuation of thought he should increase the time of his concentration. If, for instance, he had been meditating four times a day, he could now prolong the periods and increase the number of times he sits for concentration. When he has done this for a while, he will notice that when thoughts come during his concentration they will disappear again without much effort on his part. At the same time he will also feel that he has developed some steadiness in holding the picture of the object in his mind. It is precisely at this point that the 'sinking' of the mind can start.
The 'sinking' of the mind is a rather dangerous state because, first, it is very difficult for the meditator, who has the full force of his mind turned on his concentration, to detect it, and secondly, recognition of this state comes only by experience, as it cannot be expressed in words or demonstrated. Only an experienced meditator knows when it happens, because he knows the difference between it and full concentration. The aspirant should revitalize his powers of recollection and recognition and carefully watch the trend of his concentration. He can, of course, smoothly continue his concentration exercises but that may run him into trouble. It is much better at this point if he breaks his concentration deliberately and examines whether his mind is still active and alert or whether it has started to sink slowly into the object. The 'sinking' of the mind gives a very pleasurable feeling, and many meditators do not want to disturb this feeling of bliss and calmness. Besides this, the mind, although still concentrating on the picture, has yet imperceptibly lost its energy and clarity and has become dull like stagnant water with scum on it. If the meditator continues with his exercise during this particular condition of mind he will find that, after his concentration is finished, his body also carries this sinking feeling and then he just wants to sit idle and relaxed.
Many people like this sort of feeling, but it is not the real samadhi, nor will it ever lead to that state. Therefore, however blissful and pleasant the experience may be the meditator must struggle out of it and get on with real meditation. The difference between real meditation and the state of the sinking mind may perhaps be explained as follows. Say that the object of concentration is like a cup and the mind a hand. The hand can hold the cup either very loosely, or firmly with the full support of the fingers. In the Sutras we find the analogy of a man walking along a rough road, holding a cup full of water in his hand. He does not want to spill any of the water and so he must watch the road as well as the cup. in the same way, the aspirant has to watch his mind to see that it does not scatter while he concentrates. He also has to watch the picture of the object in his mind. Now the difference between the condition of a sunken mind and meditation lies in the strength with which the mind holds the picture of the object. When the mind is clear and holds the picture with its full force, that is all right. But if it becomes a little slack it may lead the meditator to nimagnata, the 'sinking' condition.
Distraction of mind is much easier to watch for and get rid of because when thought comes in and concentration is scattered, the powers of recollection and recognition go automatically to work. But in the sinking mind it is far more difficult because the mind has not lost the picture, therefore the power of recollection does not come into action so the meditator goes deeper, and deeper into this mentally sunken state, and the longer it continues the more difficult it will be to come out of it. But once the aspirant has experienced the difference between the sinking of the mind and meditation, he should vitalize the powers of recollection and recognition with a greater vigilance than ever before. Then, as soon as the downward trend and the dullness of the mind start, the power of recollection will give the alarm and the power of recognition will break the concentration. The meditator then realizes that, as he is still holding the picture in his mind, his concentration must have been broken by his powers of recollection and recognition and that therefore he must have slipped into the wrong sort of meditation. So he will start again by vitalizing his powers of recollection and recognition, recollect his mind and start his concentration again, if possible. But if he has any difficulty in restarting, he should take a short break, go out for a little while, after which he can come back to restart his concentration.
After the meditator has been exercising his power of concentration for a while and the condition of distraction and the sinking problem of the mind have lessened, his period of proper concentration will increase, sometimes even up to ten or fifteen minutes. The meditator will not feel so tired and he will be able slowly to improve his meditation and make progress to a certain stage without the constant help of a teacher or friend. But if after a few months he is still troubled by distraction and 'sinking', there are certain techniques which he should adopt. These techniques should not be used at the beginning but after the meditator has passed at least the first three stages of progressive concentration, namely:
- the stage where thoughts seem to increase tremendously;
- the stage where he experiences a break in the continuity of thought; that is to say, he sometimes has to cope with many thoughts and sometimes there are no thoughts at all;
- the stage at which the rate of disturbance has come down to a lower level and the time of real concentration has increased.
Now at this point the more obvious stages of distraction and sinking of the mind may be replaced by more subtle versions of these two conditions and the meditator's efforts may be hampered by them. He may counteract them in the following manner. If, for instance, the disturbance is a subtle version of distraction, the meditator should darken the room. He should then lower the height of the object he is concentrating on. Similarly, if the aspirant is disturbed by a subtle version of the sinking mind, he should not only increase the light as much as possible but he should also raise the object to a higher level. Another helpful practice for the meditator who is troubled by this sinking condition of the mind is, whenever he goes out, to direct his eyes towards a distant place or point.
If the meditator has progressed to the fourth and fifth stage, all disturbances will have decreased and he will be able to concentrate on an object for about twenty minutes at a stretch without experiencing the slightest disturbance. This is the beginning of the achievement of steadiness of mind. At this point, the vitalizing of the powers of recollection and recognition, as well as the condition of alertness of the mind, should be decreased, because at this advanced stage those qualities will not be helpful in prolonging the period of concentration. As the effects of outer disturbances on progressively better concentration decrease, the recollection, recognition and alertness of mind can become disturbing factors. These precautionary measures are necessary and helpful at the beginning of concentration when one has not only specially to vitalize the powers of recollection and recognition but also keep the mind alert to combat distraction and thought processes. So while it is not good to be casual in the early stages, alertness is not good at the more advanced stages. Therefore, from the fourth or fifth stage onwards, the meditator should ease off, little by little, the vigorous vigilance and alertness of recollection, recognition and mind. As soon as these faculties of alertness are decreased, the power of undisturbed concentration will automatically increase.
A periodical examination of concentration should always be carried out. This means that, occasionally, after a long period of concentration, the meditator should break the concentration and reflect on its clarity, strength, whether there was any disturbance, and so on. If he finds that all was well, then he can go on with it. If, however, he finds that something was not quite in order he should start again and try to rectify whatever was wrong. Patience, determination to continue and prolong the practice, and being in no hurry to obtain results, are the essential requirements for progress in meditation. The tendency at this stage is for the meditator to become somewhat over-confident. He thinks that since he can now concentrate for half an hour without any disturbance he will go on to meditate for a full hour. This sort of thinking creates another kind of disturbance. The meditator should be content to progress slowly. His time of concentration should be increased only by one or two minutes a week and any sense of hurry or impatience must be put aside.
As time passes, the meditator may find that he is able to maintain sustained concentration for a whole week or so. Then it may suddenly happen that for another week his concentration becomes very disturbed. When this happens, he should look into the condition of his health, or his diet, or his environment. If he has advanced this far in concentration, all these factors are relevant. Eating too much, or sleeping too much, or having too much light in his room may cause the meditator to lose whatever progress he has made and his long-sustained efforts will be nullified. It is therefore absolutely necessary, from this stage of his progress onwards, that he should keep steadily to a strict routine, eat moderately, and keep himself in good health until he has achieved greater control over his concentration and meditation. Once he has achieved this – that is to say that without failure he can concentrate for a half-hour or so at a time – the meditator can prolong his practice to a much longer period. If that goes well for some time, he is ready for the next step.
The next step to be taken by the meditator is to break the routine. This means, for example, that when he is able to concentrate in the morning for a considerable time and then again in the afternoon, and both periods of concentration are going really well, he gives up meditating the next morning or afternoon as the case may be, and either goes out to do some ordinary work or allows himself to be caught up in some other distracting influence. This, of course, is all by way of a test to find out how it affects him. Therefore the next day, when he starts his concentration again, he must watch carefully whether his peace of mind and control over his power of concentration is as steady and clear as it was before he exposed himself to these outside influences. Again, after he has been practising these variations in routine for some time, he can increase their duration for up to two or three days. These exercises are necessary because the meditator has been living up to this stage in almost complete isolation. He was sealed off from ordinary life, with all its influences, in order to achieve proper concentration and meditation. But now that he has to some degree achieved this target he should slowly ease back again into normal life.
Even a person living in a lonely corner may be engaged in various pursuits but the purpose of meditation is to prepare a person by self-purification to live in the midst of the bustle of the world without being influenced or tainted by it. Exposure to the outer world, then, should be gradual so that the meditator can check carefully whether he is capable of maintaining his grip on concentration. If he finds that, at a certain stage, he is affected by the world he must go back again for a while to the routine of daily meditation. This routine should be exposed more and more to disturbances, including diet and environment. Finally, the meditator must learn to Intermingle his concentration with the daily activities of his ordinary life. This means that he must practise concentration while moving around or walking in the street where he has to be careful of the traffic. He must practise concentration while cooking, eating, sleeping, working and so on. In all these practices he must keep a clear picture in his mind of the object he habitually uses for his concentration.
It is recommended that, after one has been mediating for a long period on a certain object and has achieved considerable powers of attention and concentration, one changes the object completely. For instance, if one has been concentrating on a symbol it would be good to change over to sound, or movement, or the body. It is not necessary to concentrate on the new object for long periods of time; one just needs to have a change for a little while. Then one should go back to the original object of one's choice and concentrate on that again for a few days, watching carefully whether this creates any disturbance. If all is well, one should again change to another object.
One should now gradually increase the period of one's 'sitting for concentration'. For example, if one has been sitting for half an hour one should increase it to thirty-five minutes and then, after a week, to forty minutes and so on. In this way the period of concentration should be gradually increased. The shastras (scriptures) do not speak about hours; they mention 'a quarter of a day' as the time limit for intensive concentration. We may take this to mean three hours. Indeed, according to the scriptures, this is the maximum period allowed for a meditator who has not yet achieved shamatha. When that happens there will be no limit to the period of concentration and meditation because then meditation has become a part of life like working, eating, sleeping, and it no longer requires a special effort.
Sitting for concentration for three hours at a stretch demands a great deal of effort in the beginning. The meditator must firmly imprint on his mind:-
- I am going to meditate on this particular object and my faculties of recollection and recognition will be standing by ready to intervene as soon as any disturbance comes into my mind, so that I will recognize and remedy that condition immediately;
- I shall go on meditating for three hours without a break or if disturbance does not present itself.
These two disciplines (which the meditator can repeat as often as necessary) call for a great deal of effort at the beginning. If, however, there are no disturbances and everything proceeds smoothly, then, after three hours the concentration will Involuntarily break and the meditator will know that he is at the end of the time which he mentally set for himself at the beginning. Now he must review his whole effort over these three hours and see whether everything went all right, or whether perhaps something could be improved. Even if the three hours of concentration is perfect, the meditator cannot assure himself that he will achieve shamatha soon within a certain time. The achievement of shamatha depends on many things, such as the meditator's temperament, etc. It does not matter whether some periods of meditation are short and others long; what is important is that one's daily meditation should be maintained at all costs. (Naturally, if one has the time, daily meditation for three hours is recommended.) One must try to avoid too many gaps between the sessions. If one has to go without meditation on one day, it will be necessary to pick it up again the next day. One must just continue with this practice and wait patiently until shamatha comes.
A meditator who has advanced to this stage has already developed considerable control over his thoughts and powers of discrimination. He entertains whatever thought he wishes, and puts aside all else. This in itself is very useful for a person even though he has not yet achieved shamatha. From this time onwards, the meditator must put forth his efforts towards making his mental picture of the object as clear as possible. As I said before, it is not necessary for the would-be meditator to achieve a clear picture at the beginning; it does not really matter whether his picture is hazy or unsteady. But now that he has advanced to the stage where he can meditate for three hours at a time he must try to make his mental picture as clear as possible. With full control over thought and with discrimination he should from now on try to improve it until every detail of the picture is as clearly outlined as the original object. This exercise is of great importance for a later stage when the meditator has achieved Samatha and is ready to go into higher meditation.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. How often should one meditate and at what times?
A. If you take your meditation seriously it is recommended that you practise four times a day, namely, early in the morning before sunrise, later in the morning before noon, in the afternoon before sunset, and at night before midnight. For casual meditators, to meditate once a day, preferably early in the morning before sunrise, is sufficient. Unlike other systems, Buddhists do not recommend meditation at the times of sunrise, midday or noon, sunset and midnight.
Q. You mentioned that the powers of recollection and recognition have to be kept on the alert, so that as soon as a thought enters the mind during concentration they warn the meditator and get rid of the thought. Would these two powers which are constantly kept on the alert not create a disturbing tension in the mind?
A. I said that at the beginning, before concentration begins, the powers of recollection and recognition should be vitalized so that if any stray thought enters during the process of concentration, recollection will sound the alarm and recognition will get rid of the thought. But one cannot keep the powers of recollection and recognition active during the process of concentration because this would also be a process of thought. These powers are vitalized at the beginning and stand on the alert ready to function whenever necessary; that is to say, as soon as any disturbance enters the mind during the process of concentration. Then, and then only, will these faculties involuntarily enter and warn the meditator against the intruder.
Q. Will those people who have achieved the power to concentrate for hours at a time attain the powers known as the siddhis?
A. A person who has advanced so far as to meditate for three hours at a time is certainly no longer an 'ordinary' person. But the siddhis will only come after shamatha has been achieved and the mind is absolutely quiet.
Q. Could you please tell me what shamatha actually is?
A. Shamatha is the name for a state of mind which is achieved after learning to concentrate for a long period, up to three hours. This practice of intense concentration develops some sort of energy in the body which then becomes very light and easy to handle. Later, this same energy goes also to the mind giving it a very happy feeling. This feeling is not a sign that one has reached Samadhi or Nirvana – it is just a happy feeling. This psycho-physical feeling remains for a while but as one goes on with the practice of concentration it will lessen and one will then get the power to concentrate for as long as one wishes, whether it be seven days, ten days or a month, without any disturbance. At the same time one will achieve the combined equanimity of body and mind. So after having done all these practices and after having obtained stability of body and mind, one will finally reach Samatha and then one can meditate for years and years because the mind will then strictly obey the meditator's wishes. That state, that stability of mind, is shamatha.
Q. How can a man born blind concentrate on an object?
A. A blind man can concentrate on sound or shape, But, of course, handicapped people will have to put more effort into their meditation because their handicap will also be an impediment in this particular field.
Q. Would it not be easier for a blind man to concentrate because he is not distracted by sight?
A. I do not know, but I do not think so. A person who is born blind may be disturbed in a much more concentrated way by his remaining four senses. He must experiment and find out what is the best way for him.