The Mind Illuminated, stage 5: p. 171
These are reflective notes on my experience of practicing Culadasa’s 10 stage meditation system. The notes in this post are from my ninth day of practice in the system. For an introduction to this project, see this page. Occasionally I will post-edit the journal. Any post-editing is [in square brackets like this].
Notes from the chapter on stage 5:
Focus on finding and noticing subtle dullness. It’s pleasurable and comfortable, but in this state of mind you can be startled, or make an automatic movement without prior intention.
Intentional clear, continuous perception is the antidote, plus vigilance.
It’s useful to read the stage 5 section today because I think it answers the question about whether or not the deeper, pleasurable and strongly absorbed state I was working yesterday is a stage of this path. (No, it’s considered an obstacle.)
Stage 5 introduces a body scanning technique, close examination of sensation in a series of body parts, noticing in particular sensation related to the breath in those physical body-part locations.
I have almost no experience with body scanning. I attended one ten-day S.N. Goenka retreat some years ago and practiced body scanning during that retreat.
Use ‘careful scrutiny’ (p. 177) and notice connections to the breath. But this is described as no longer analytical investigation, it is experiential – the re-directing of attention. Once perception is more sensitive, shift back to the nose. When heightened perception of sensitivity declines, go back to the body scanning (p. 175).
“Use the body scanning technique when you are already in a clear, focused state of mind” (p. 177).
Stage 5 mastery: ability to “consistently sustain a high level of intense and clear perception…during most of your session…the ability to consistently sustain and increase your overall mindfulness in each meditation session.”
1 hr sit:
- Settled into consistent attention to the breath, sat in pleasant, quiet, light concentration for a while.
- Tried the body scanning, first taking attention to my crown, noticing the sensations change with the breath as I increased concentration there. All very ‘light’ tingly, mild fizzy sensations.
- Returned attention to the breath. Entered into an effortless state for most of the practice. I want to say ‘light absorption’, centered around the breath at the nose. My breathing slowed right down. It was pleasant, clear. No thoughts. Sounds from outside the house were clear, ‘bright’, transparent, seemed somewhat distant.
- Intentionally tried the body scanning again, turning my attention to both hands simultaneously. Had a different experience. They became intensely heavy, like lead, fairly quickly. I noticed how easy it seemed to maintain concentration with the focus in a physical, body location.
- Using specified focus as a support is not part of the training I’ve done before and it has quite a distinct effect. With this body-focus technique, there’s so much to do actively with the mind, that losing presence is rendered difficult.
- Eventually my hands disappeared, other than the thumb and first finger. Became aware of those as symmetrical, unclosed rings. Returned to the breath. Sat in a quiet, clear state for a while, no mental activity, aware of sounds from outside the house, keeping the focus on the breath.
- Some time near the end of the sit I realized there was a dog barking. I had a weird experience. This is the first time I think I fully understood what it means to experience ‘distraction’ in meditation. Also, it’s funny because one of the examples of distraction in the book (the idea of a sub-mind with its own agency, vying for attention) is a dog barking! So I’d been hearing this sound just there for a while and was sitting quietly with the sensations of the breath, then I noticed ‘oh, that’s a dog’ and it was like my attention moved away from the breath momentarily to the barking and back. Then I noticed a kind of subtle irritation starting to happen, whereby the barking, which was sporadic and irregular, began to ‘interfere’ with my desire to maintain the exclusive focus of awareness. Wow. That was so weird.
This is a fundamental difference between Sutric and non-Sutric approaches to meditation. Experientially in Vajrayana, you train presence of awareness with whatever arises…so there can be no distraction – it’s not a concept in the referential framework of either the path or the result. There is only more or less clarity; the training is to remain uninvolved (that is, in shi-ne meditation). If a sound, mental or external, ‘sucks you in’ so that your field of awareness collapses into it, you train to expand awareness in all directions out from the sound, in other words, ‘remain uninvolved’ in the sound, maintaining presence of awareness. The movement of awareness is from mental/emotional/psychological involvement, outwards in all directions towards uninvolvement. Whatever arising is whatever it is. It doesn’t have a role to play, or any agency of its own. It cannot distract, because there is nothing to distract from. Understanding this experience of ‘distraction’ in meditation is really important for me. I see it as an experience created by the method (an aspect of the path in the TMI system) which can then be treated as an obstacle and worked with, to stabilize concentrative stability.
Second sit, 40 mins:
- There were many loud, external house related noises when I started to sit. To begin with, some effort was needed to allow them to occur while I focused exclusively on the breath. Then after a few minutes, it became easy. The noise was there, very clear, but attention focused strongly on the breath & sensations around the nose.
- Moved from focus on the breath to parts of the body once or twice. Spent some time paying attention to the sensation in the whole of my head. But there was a sense in which stillness was all that was needed.
- The house noise subsided. Entered into a very peaceful, effortless state, I’d describe it as defined by ‘utter stillness’. I was aware of my body but there was no sense in which any intentional movement was required or wanted. It was perfect stillness. It wasn’t particularly pleasant or not: no waves of light physical sensation. Easy to maintain. Almost entirely thought free, but I noticed a thought twice toward the end of this sit, as though very dim like it was under water, miles away.
This wasn’t the same state of mind, qualitatively, as né-pa.* Less expansive, more ‘absorbed,’ quieter. The words ‘stillness without emptiness’ come to mind to describe it. There was a sense in which, if I’d been forced to move my limbs, or head, or open my eyes, the state would be ‘broken’. This does not describe né-pa.
*Né-pa is the fruit of shi-ne meditation. Ngak’chang Rinpoche describes it as ‘presence of awareness with absence of that which arises’. It is an experience of vastness: clear, bright, expansive, thought-free, conscious awareness, in which sensory experience is heightened without mental involvement. It is “sheer, brilliant emptiness”. (Shock Amazement, p. 39)