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Nine stages of sustained attention

The text turns to training the mind on the stages of the path of advanced level practitioners. Part of a series of teachings on the Gomchen Lamrim by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa. Visit Gomchen Lamrim Study Guide for a full list of contemplation points for the series.

  • Realizing that samsara is unpredictable by nature
  • The six powers and four types of attention
  • The characteristics of each of the nine stages
  • Mental and physical pliancy and the bliss of mental/physical pliancy
  • The attributes of serenity or access concentration

Gomchen Lamrim 121: Nine Stages of Sustained Attention (download)

Contemplation points

  1. Venerable Chodron began the class with explaining what “training” means in Buddhist practice. More than just reading a book and passing a test, training is character building. It is transforming our own mind. It is changing how we respond under stress so that we are flexible and can respond to situations in a way that benefits self and others. With this understanding of training, she offered many tools with which to examine our own experience. Take some time to investigate them:
    • What is the nature of samsara? Where in samsara do we have predictability and stability?
    • If there is no creator and no inherently existent self, just beings who are under the influence of afflictions and karma, who is responsible for making things stable?
    • When you consider all the causes and conditions that must come together for situations to arise, is it reasonable to think that you or anyone else should be able to control them?
    • Remember that the only predictably to be had in samsara is that things are changing in each moment, that we can’t find any lasting happiness in samsara, and that there is no inherently existent self.
    • Consider that if you are rigid and inflexible, it is not because of your environment and the people it in, but because of your own afflictions and false expectations.
    • When you’re uncomfortable with how things change on a dime, watch your clinging to permanence and stability. Instead of letting your mind go to “Why are things like this? They shouldn’t be like this,” go inside… “What do wrong beliefs in permanence and stability make me do? How do they make me think? Is the problem that things change or that I had the expectation that things would go according to my plan? What is really causing my discomfort?”
    • Investigate how fear-based samsara is, how despite the insecurity of samsara, you are trying to make everything secure.
    • When you’re uncomfortable with certain people, instead of listing their bad qualities, check up to see if your own opinion factory is working overtime.
    • When you can’t stand others’ suggestions, ideas, and ways of doing things, look at what you are grasping at – permanence? True existence? Look at your own arrogance. Is your way the only way to do things?
  2. Consider the six powers: hearing, reflection, mindfulness, introspective awareness, effort, and complete familiarity. How do each of these support the development of concentration?
  3. Consider the four types of attention: tight focus, interrupted focus, uninterrupted focus, and spontaneous focus. In your own mind, walk through how one leads to the next as a meditator cultivates meditative stability.
  4. Consider the nine stages of sustained attention: placing the mind, continual placement, repeated placement, close placement, taming, pacifying, thoroughly pacifying, making single-pointed, and placement in equipoise.  In your own mind, walk through how one leads to the next as a meditator cultivates meditative stability.
  5. Regarding the first of the nine stages (placing the mind), Venerable Chodron said that in this stage the appearance of the object isn’t very clear and the mind is plagued with discursive thoughts. To get the mind to stay, we have to learn to withdraw the mind from external objects and generate mindfulness on it. We can start this process now, in the break times (when we’re not on the cushion):
    • Consider: if you are compelled to look every time someone moves in a room or makes noise, how is that going to affect your meditation session? What can you do to start to work on your mindfulness off the cushion so that it benefits your meditation sessions? Be specific?
    • Consider: if you suffer from worry and anxiety, how is that going to affect your meditation session? Are there particularly anxieties that come up repeatedly? What are they? When you’re not in meditation, begin to practice identifying these thoughts simply as “anxious thoughts” instead of feeding them.
  6. After the nine stages, we cultivate mental and physical pliancy, followed by the bliss of mental and physical pliancy. Consider what this kind of serviceability of the body and mind might be like. How might it make a difference in your practice on and off the cushion?
  7. Finally, as meditative stability continues to increase, the meditator attains serenity. Consider some of the benefits of serenity:
    • The body and mind are flexible and serviceable
    • The mind is very spacious
    • The mind can abide firmly on the meditation object
    • There is sense of great clarity
    • In post meditation time, afflictions don’t arise as strongly or as frequently, and craving for sense pleasure decreases significantly
    • Sleep can be transformed into meditation
  8. Better understanding the process of cultivating meditative stability and the many benefits of doing so, resolve to begin cultivating this perfection in your meditation sessions.

We want more predictability

We’re in the middle of the Gomchen Lamrim, particularly in the middle of the section on cultivating serenity. I know a week or two ago, when I was sick, there was a community meeting, and I wasn’t there, but I read the notes from it, and a few points came up that I would like to address. Since we have the “Living Vinaya” course coming up next week, there’s no other time to address it, so I thought to talk a little bit now and then go into the Gomchen Lamrim teaching.

One of the things that I heard came up again and again in the notes from the community meeting was that people were wondering what is the training? And they were saying we would like more predictability, and we would like more clarity here at the Abbey in our community life and in our training. Predictability and clarity, those words came out again and again in the notes. Maybe you can’t remember the meeting, or you can’t remember what you thought back then, because it’s all changed since then. Those were some of the points that came out in the go around. 

It made me think, “Predictability?” When in samsara do we have predictability? Life in samsara is under the influence of ignorance, craving, attachment, and hostility. Those are not particularly wonderful things. And, when we study samsara, it is of the nature that it changes, and every split second never remains the same from one moment to the next. Things in samsara—created under the power of ignorance—are unsatisfactory by nature. In this whole process there is no supervisory self. There’s no self that’s in charge, whether it is a creator god or manager of the universe that is in charge, or a self that belongs to us personally that should be able to control things. 

Given that this is what samsara is—which is what we’re trying to understand through our lamrim  meditations, when we’re meditating on the nature of samsara—where in samsara is there predictability? The only predictability that we can really see is that things are changing in every split-second, and we’re not going to find any ultimate, lasting happiness in samsara, and that there is no self in the whole process. Aside from that, is there any predictability in our day-to-day life? 

We think there should be predictability. Don’t we? We think there should be, but sometimes what we think doesn’t matter, because reality is what it is, no matter what we think it is. We may think there should be predictability, and that the world would really run much better if people were consistent, if they were predictable, if they acted the same way all the time, if they thought the same way all the time, if they did what they said they were going to do. If circumstances never changed quickly, the world wouldn’t really function much better. We can vote that that should be the case. Given that what samsara is and that our wish of what samara should be are totally contradictory, then who are we going to complain to that they should change what samsara is to make it what we want it to be? We want predictability, clarity, consistency. Who are we going to complain to? 

We complain to other sentient beings, but they’re changing moment-by-moment in the nature of duhkha, and also have no self, so what are we complaining to, and what’s the source of the mess that we’re in that has no predictability? The source is our own ignorance. If we want to do something about the lack of predictability, clarity, and consistency in our lives, the real solution is to transform our mind. It’s not to tell the world how it should be, because everybody’s been saying we should have more predictability and consistency and clarity for eons. 

It’s interesting to think, “Here is this thing that I think is so important.” And people go to managerial courses and study how to run organizations so that there is more predictability. In any organization is there 100 percent predictability? These courses are good. They’re nice and they teach you things. They help, but can they bring 100 percent predictability? Can they tell you when people are going to get sick? Can they tell you when people are going to change their mind? Can they tell you when the electricity is going to go out? Can they tell you when you’re going to have a heavy snowfall, and you’re going to have to spend most of the day plowing? 

We may want predictability, but let’s get real. That’s one thing to think about. What are we doing here at the Abbey when things are so unpredictable? I have a plan for the day, and then it changes. There’s a plan for training such-and-such, and then it gets changed. We make a booklet for the training, and then the booklet gets changed. We have a rota, and then the people, they have something else they have to do. It gets changed and everything’s so unpredictable in this place. It’s driving me crazy. Then, what are you going to do about it?

Causes and conditions make life unpredictable

If we’re in samsara, that’s our responsibility. We might begin by asking if we’re predictable. We want everybody in our environment to be predictable. Are we predictable? Is there anybody here who is predictable? It’s something really to think about that things happen due to multiple causes and conditions, not just one cause and condition, but many, many, many causes and conditions. It’s really mind-blowing when you sit down. If we were to sit down and think about all the causes and conditions that brought us all together to sit in this room, then we would have to go back, each of us, through all of our past lives. 

We would have to think about everybody who was involved in building this building, and all of their lives. We would have to think of all the materials that are involved in our being together and where did they come from? We could never really finish thinking about all the causes and conditions that led to that moment. It’s really impossible for our brain to encompass that. Many of these causes and conditions came from previous lives. We aren’t even aware of what they are consciously. Seeing that there are so many causes and conditions, is it realistic to think that we should be able to control all of them? Is it realistic to think that somebody else in our environment who is in charge should be able to control all the things? Do you think that there’s one person in charge of this monastery? Do you think that everything depends on one person? No, that can’t be. We’re all playing a role. 

We can’t even control our own minds, let alone each other’s minds. Where is this idea of, “I want predictability, and control, and clarity, and consistency so that everything falls in line perfectly?” It’s just like the lesson plan that I was taught to do at university where you have your whole schema. Whether you’re an engineer, or a teacher, or an accountant or whatever, everybody has a schema. This is how you have to do it. You have to fill-in all these things. We have all of that filled in. Does that make it certain that that’s what reality is? 

We’re just talking about conventional reality, that things are going to happen according to the form we filled-out and the plan we developed. This is one big thing I’ve learned from being the disciple of one of my teachers: as soon as you have a plan, you know what is not going to happen. You don’t know what is going to happen, but you know for sure that what was planned won’t happen. But you’re not sure about which part of the plan won’t happen. You’ve got to be there close by because some part of the plan could happen when it’s planned, but most of it won’t happen when it’s planned. But you don’t know when it will happen. And I’m just talking about when the the time that the teaching starts. 

Training is character building

That’s simple, isn’t it? You make a time. Everybody shows up and it starts. Not with my teacher. There’s a plan. You know what time it’s supposed to start but don’t count on it starting then. You don’t know when it will start. This is training. We think training is that nice little plan, the outline in the Anagarika booklet or in the Bikshuni booklet, the one with all the numbers. We think training is when you study these things here. You take a test on those things, and if you pass the test you’ve been trained.

That’s not what I call training. Anybody can read a book and pass a test, except for the kitties. Reading a book and passing a test does not mean you’re trained. Training is character building. Training is what goes on inside here. And they have all sorts of psychological devices to observe people and check their consistent patterns to see if they’re acting in a certain way. This is how I got through college. I worked on psychology research projects. How much does that have to do with what is actually someone’s character? How much does that have to do with what’s really going on in their mind, and how they’re going to act in stressful situations, and how they’re going to act when their ego’s challenged? You read a book and pass the test. So what?

What was the name of the monk who was in prison for 30 years who came to DFF? Palden Gyatso. In his book, I remember him talking about one Geshe. Somebody with a PhD in Buddhist studies, who, when arrested by the Chinese Communists and being interrogated by them, completely dissolved into tears and pleaded for his life, and was hysterical. And Palden Gyatso observed that, and it really impacted him. “Wow, this person’s had all that training, and  when push comes to shove, what happens?” His training is out the window because the training wasn’t integrated into the person’s being. 

If you feel very uncomfortable because we don’t have a 108 step lesson plan that is going to be done in four months with so many sessions each week, which are exactly 53 minutes and 22 seconds long, and you will have the test, and so-and-so—if the lack of all of that disturbs you, that is your training. That is your practice, because what we’re trying to create here is not people who can memorize a book and spit it back out at you. We’re trying to create people who are flexible, who are compassionate, who can respond to whatever is in front of their face in a positive way that benefits themselves and others. That’s what we’re trying to do here; these are the kind of people we’re trying to create. 

For that reason, things cannot be—and should not be—100 percent predictable. Nobody here is trying to make things unpredictable. We’re all trying to make things predictable, which just shows what a fallacy predictability is. The training is to learn to adjust to the situation. It’s learning not to be so rigid that we say, “This is too unpredictable, this is totally inconsistent, this is not clear. It’s got to get clear. Where’s our box? I’ve got to put everything in a box.” That’s quite sad. Who wants to be here and be like that? If you’re like that it’s not because of the stink bugs. It’s not because of the turkeys. And it’s not because of our friends who give us food. It’s not because of each other. If we’re like that, it’s because of our own afflictions, our own false expectations. Coming up against these afflictions and false expectations—that is training. That’s what’s going to make you change.

I just said nobody plans it. We don’t have to. Samsara, by its own nature, makes everything change. Since I came back from Asia, I’ve been planning every day to work on this manuscript. I’ve been back how many weeks, and I’ve done 12 pages. You people are so unpredictable every day. I have a plan and then you come to me with this, that, and the other thing. [laughter]

Think about multiple causes and conditions, and how nobody is in control. Then also think about the fact that veiled truths, conventional truths, everyday objects, when we’re working in the sphere of relativity—I’m not talking about Einstein, but just relative existence, conventional existence—is messy because everything we’re dealing with exists by only being designated by determined concept, and nothing has its own essence. Even when we use language to communicate, we’re only approximating things. When you really think about it, it’s kind of amazing that we sentient beings ever managed to communicate at all because what we mean by different words is so different. I mean, just last night, reading the debate book and how that’s written, you could write it in a totally different way. So with veiled truths things are messy. There’s no clear distinction between this and that. 

The distinctions we make are arbitrary in many ways, and it’s not helpful if we grab on to those distinctions as inherently existent, because we want more clarity. “Is this person this, are they that, or are they another thing? Should they be able to read this book, or that book, or the other book? Should they sit here, or should they sit there?” It all depends on who you talk to, doesn’t it? 

Even when we say we’re going to sit by ordination order. Ordination order means a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people. What about some of the people who can’t sit in ordination order and they need special circumstances to be in the room? Are you going to make them sit in ordination order just because you think that’s the way it should be? So, there are many people on the floor, and even though somebody can’t sit on the floor, they’d better sit in ordination order. And they’re a tall person, so they’re sitting right in the middle of the front row. Everybody sitting around them is on the floor. We’re sitting in ordination order, but nobody can see. And that poor person feels very self-conscious. Then everybody complains, “I can’t see. I can’t see.” Then the person sits on the ground, but then everything about them hurts, so they’re moving all the time. And they feel embarrassed because they’re having to move. 

Are you getting what I’m saying? We want predictability, but what exactly is that? And what are we giving up by trying to fit everything into some rigid kind of structure? When you’re uncomfortable with how things change on a dime, watch your clinging to permanence and stability. And this happens not only here, but for everybody who’s listening from afar, it’s the same thing in their lives. This is not unique here. So, instead of letting your mind go to, “Why are things like that? They shouldn’t be like this.” Turn it inward and ask, “Okay, what am I holding on to: my concept of impermanence, my concept of stability? How are those functioning in my life? What do they make me think? What do they make me do?”

The nature of samsara

What really is the problem? Is it that things change suddenly, or that we had the expectation that things would go according to the plan? What exactly is the problem? It’s good to ask ourselves this. What really is causing my discomfort? And when you really go deep, you see just how deep our clinging is, how fear-based samsara is, and how we’re trying to make everything so it’s secure in an environment that is basically insecure. We’re all aiming for security, but who around us is secure? What around us is secure? It’s very good to think about that and try to let your mind chill out a little bit. 

Then, when you’re uncomfortable with certain people, instead of listing all their bad qualities, check-up on your own opinion factory. “Is my opinion factory working overtime here? I have this, that, and the other opinion about somebody else, so even when they walk into the room, they’re walking wrong. They’re not doing it right. They’re interrupting my peace.”

Check-up on the opinion factory and how it works. Do this when you can’t stand others’ suggestions, their ideas, their ways of doing things: they put the cups upside down when you want them right side up; they start things five minutes early when you come five minutes late; you think something should be painted this color, and they paint it the other color; or you want something made like this, and they make it like that. 

You expect the internet to work. You expect the person who comes out to install the internet to make it better, and not to make it worse. You expect that it should work perfectly the first day after the person came out, but it worked worse the first day. It worked worse the second day, and it was only on the third day that things got better. And then on the fourth day the electricity went out and the internet went out again. If this kind of thing is agitating us and driving us crazy, it’s interesting to look and see, “I’m grasping at permanence. I’m grasping at true existence.” Somebody suggests another way to do something and we think, “I don’t like that way. My way of doing it is good.” That’s why, sometimes, you’ll see me give an instruction, and the response I get is that. And then I say, “Okay, we’ll do it your way, and then you’ll learn from your own experience.” 

Then you think, “Oh, she’s such a pushover, except when she’s not. She shouldn’t be such a pushover. She should be more clear and consistent. But when she’s clear and consistent, I wish she were a pushover.” Also, when you don’t like the way things are done, check-up on your arrogance. “I have the one right way to do things. I don’t like the way you’re doing things. It’s wrong. Just do things this way to be predictable, consistent, clear.”

That’s only this part of what I have written out, but I think that’s enough for today. Maybe too much for today? With the Vinaya training course coming up, I thought it was important to say these things. Every time I tell Venerable Wuyin about things happening here, she just laughs. She says that happens everywhere. But I don’t think we want to show off our faults. [laughter] 

Audience: She’ll see them.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Exactly.

Audience: My brother and sister can see them.

VTC: Do you mean they criticized us? Your brother and sister criticized us? They noticed? What faults do we have? Oh no! My reputation—our reputation! Quick, write them a letter and say they misunderstood. 

Recap of previous teaching

Last time we talked about the Five Faults—which are different from the Five Hindrances—and the Eight Antidotes. What’s the first fault? 

Audience: Laziness.

VTC: Laziness. What are the antidotes, in order? First is faith, or confidence; the second one is aspiration; third is effort; Fourth is pliancy. What’s the second fault? It’s forgetting the instruction, which means forgetting the object. What’s the antidote: mindfulness. What’s the third fault? It’s agitation and laxity, and the antidote is introspective awareness. The fourth fault is not applying the antidote. And what is it’s remedy? It’s applying the antidote, duh. And the fifth one is over-applying the antidote. And it’s remedy is equanimity, to chill out.

Then Maitreya takes us through the Nine Stages of Sustained Attention. There are various ways of translating it. This is Alan’s translation: Sustained Attention. I forget the other translations. Do you remember what they are? The nine stages together, the nine stages of something. But we’re saying sustained attention. These are nine stages that lead up to just before you generate serenity. The ninth stage is not serenity. You still have to do some things after the ninth stage. 

Six powers 

Together with these nine stages, there are six powers and four types of attention that help to overcome different problems, different faults, and help to stabilize the mind and make the mind and the object clear. The first power is hearing, which means learning. We learn the teachings on how to cultivate serenity, and how to place our mind on the object of meditation, as instructed by our teacher. That’s the first power, and through it we accomplish the first stage of sustained attention. We’ll go through all nine stages in a minute, but here I’m just doing the Six Powers.

The second power is reflection. By repeated reflection on the meditation object, then we become able to stabilize our mind for a short while on it. That is what accomplishes the second stage of sustained attention.

The third power is mindfulness. There’s our friend mindfulness again. This is what brings the mind back to the object again and again. And through it we accomplish the third stage. Then we continue to generate mindfulness of the object at the beginning of the session, and in that way we strengthen and develop some stability on the object and prevent distraction. Mindfulness also helps us accomplish the fourth stage of sustained attention. 

The fourth power is introspective awareness. It sees the faults of discursive thoughts and the auxiliary afflictions and distraction to sense objects, and doesn’t allow the mind to go in those directions. It tames and calms the mind, and becomes prominent during the fifth and sixth stages because the introspective awareness is on the lookout for discursive thoughts, afflictions, distraction to sense objects, and in particular—in stages five and six—restlessness and laxity. 

By the way, I’m just going to pause here for a minute. The term that sometimes is translated excitement and sometimes agitation, Bhikkhu Bodhi translates as restlessness. I like that term better because with excitement we think is something good. You’re excited about something. You’re looking forward to it, but here in cultivating serenity, no, excitement’s not good. I don’t think that’s a good translation.

Then agitation is you’re agitated, and to me there’s a real negative connotation about agitation. And I feel that makes it too negative, too gross. Whereas with restlessness, yes, we are restless. We can’t sit still. We can’t keep our mind on something. The mind is especially looking for objects of attachment to daydream about. We can’t keep the body and mind still. That’s why, after much reflection, I decided to use restlessness as that translation.

The fifth power is, again, effort. We see a lot of these same things come again and again. In the Antidotes to the Five Faults, here in the Six Powers, and when we go through the 37 Harmonies with Awakening, these mental factors come up there. It’s quite interesting, and it really emphasizes to us that they are important. 

Effort exerts energy to eliminate even subtle discursive thoughts, subtle auxiliary afflictions, and it also not only eliminates them, but it prevents the mind from getting involved with them. It calms the mind. Effort directly doesn’t calm the mind, but what it does is prevent restlessness, laxity, and so forth that are interfering with the stream of concentration. In that way, they enable the meditator to focus the mind on the object and keep it there. Effort is prominent on the seventh and eighth stages.

The sixth power is complete familiarity, and this is complete familiarity with the above powers. When you have that complete familiarity, then the mind spontaneously remains in samadhi. This is the power that’s active on the ninth stage. Those are the Six Powers.

Four types of attention

The first is tight focus. There are four types of attention. This is how the mind engages with the object, how the mind relates to the object. The first one is tight focus. On the first and second stages, when you’re just trying to get your mind to be on the object, you have to focus firmly, tightly, on the object. It’s the first kind of focus. 

The second one is called interrupted focus because now there’s more stability, because of the tight focus on stages one and two. Now our focus on our meditation object in stages three, four, five, six, and seven is interrupted. We’re on the object and then distraction comes. Or we’re on the object and lethargy comes. We’re on the object and coarse restlessness comes, or subtle restlessness, or coarse laxity, or subtle laxity, so our stability is interrupted. The second type of attention covers five stages.

The third type of attention is uninterrupted focus. That’s present with the eighth stage of sustained attention because now we can focus on the object in an uninterrupted way.

The fourth type of attention is spontaneous, and that’s with the ninth stage because the mind just spontaneously goes with the object, and spontaneously goes into concentration.

Maitreya talked about these Nine Stages of Sustained Attention in the Ornament of MahayanaSutras, or Mahayanasutralamkara. It was very interesting. I have a friend who is a Chan monk who teaches in San Jose at a Chan center there. We had great debates all about Nagarjuna. One time I was going there to visit him, and he was in the middle of giving a teaching, so I sat outside and waited. I was listening to the teaching and what was he teaching, this Chan monk, was “The Nine Stages of Sustained Attention” from Maitreya’s text. He was teaching the same thing we study in our tradition.

The nine stages

Let’s look at the Nine Stages, and again there are many different ways of translating these nine. I picked one. The first one is called placing the mind. On this first stage we have to identify the observed object of our meditation and place the mind on it, even though our mind may not stay on it for very long, as we all know. To get the mind to stay on the object, we have to learn to withdraw the mind from external objects and generate mindfulness on it. 

Earlier today people were distracted with somebody passing a piece of paper with a bug on it across the room to keep it from being squashed. If such a thing like that distracts us in the middle of teaching, then what’s going to happen when we sit down to meditate? If every time we’re eating our meal and we hear a sound we have to turn and look at who’s doing what, how’s that going to affect our concentration when we meditate? There are some things just to train ourselves to note, but we don’t have to look at it. We don’t have to focus on it. We don’t have to understand what it is. Because when we’re trying to develop serenity, we need to just keep the mind on the one object, and not have it go everywhere. We have to train the mind not to follow distracting thoughts and sounds. Every time you have an itch you’ve got to scratch it, and every time your knee hurts you have to move your leg, and every time your cushion isn’t right you have to adjust it.  

If we’re so sensitive to everything in the environment it is going to be very difficult to develop any kind of concentration in our meditation. Similarly, if we’re a person who worries a lot, or who is anxious a lot, then it’s hard to keep the mind on something. The mindfulness is all over the place. The introspective awareness is not functioning because when we’re anxious, when we’re worried, we go from one object to the next like this, don’t we? What happens? “Maybe this is good, maybe that’s going to happen, this is good, what if this happens? Maybe I should do this. Maybe I don’t use that, how about this? How about that?” 

Your concentration in one way is an antidote to anxiety and worry, but in another way we have to calm our anxiety and our worry if we’re going to be able to develop concentration. It’s interesting. Watch the thoughts. Watch the anxious thoughts and just identify, “That’s an anxious thought.” Put it in your anxious thought box. You like having boxes? Put it in your anxious thought box: “That’s an anxious thought.” Don’t sit there and think about that anxious thought. Don’t feed it. Don’t think, “Oh, I never really thought about that before. I should because this may happen, and if that happens this may happen. The other thing may happen, then the other. And then this, and then that. And then the other thing”—and we’re off. 

Just identify an anxious thought, and come back to your object. If you can train your mind even in your daily life to identify your anxious thoughts and not follow them, your life is going to be so much more peaceful. Just identifying the thought can help so much—and not believing it. If we say, “Anxious thought, and I’d better pay attention because that might really happen,” it’s an anxious thought. Put it down. 

So, first stage, the appearance of the object isn’t clear. The mind is filled with discursive thoughts that are like Niagara Falls. You can’t even tell any space between them. And at that point, we often think, “Gee, my mind is so busy. It’s never been this busy before.” But it has; it’s always been that busy. We’ve just never noticed it. 

It’s like how if you live near the the local freeway, you don’t notice the noise after a while. But when you come up here and you’re not hearing the noise that you hear at home, then you think, “Oh, wow! Where I live is really noisy. It’s right by the highway.” But when you’re there you don’t hear it. It’s the same kind of thing. You start to meditate and it feels like, “This mind is crazy. It’s worse than it was before.” No, it’s not worse. It’s just you’re noticing what’s going on.  

The second stage is called continual placement. Our first objective as we’re going through these nine stages is to learn how to keep our attention on the object, and not let it stray away. In other words, we’re trying to gain some kind of stability. Through practice, through empowering, through employing the power of reflection, by repeatedly reflecting on the object, then the mind becomes able to stay on the object for a short time. It doesn’t say how long a short time is but, whatever it is—I don’t know if it means 20 seconds or what—that’s the second stage of sustained attention. 

We still have tight focus on that stage to keep the mind on the meditation object, even though the mind can stay on it a little bit longer than it was before, but, still, the time off the object is greater than the mind on the object with stage two. On the other hand, we’re beginning to calm the mind a little bit.

The third stage is called repeated placement. Here our aim is to recognize when we’ve lost the object due to distraction and to put the mind back on the object more quickly. Here distractions are fewer. When they do arise, we can recognize them more easily and bring the mind back.

On the previous stages below stage three, we couldn’t immediately regain our concentration on the object once our mind flew off, but now it’s becoming easier to bring the mind back and easier to keep it there. But our focus is still interrupted because our concentration is not continuous, and scattering to other thoughts and other objects still occurs, although we’re able to recognize it more quickly. 

The fourth stage is called closed placement. You see we went from placing the mind, to continual placement, to repeated placement, now we’re on close placement. As we develop more and more familiarity with the object—let’s say the visualized image of the Buddha, or whatever it is—then our forgetting the object decreases. Mindfulness is generated at the beginning of a session, and our attention remains on the object pretty consistently without getting so distracted. 

The mind is more easily drawn inwards away from the fantasyland of all these sense objects that are so attractive and sparkly. It’s much easier to draw the mind in. With technology, and people seeing things so quickly, one right after the other, and being in shopping malls and even traveling and seeing so many objects at once, then the mind gets used to it. It’s being constantly stimulated by something new and constantly drawn outwards, so it’s harder to bring the mind inside and keep it firm because all these external objects are just so tantalizing. This is especially true when you take drugs; they’re even more tantalizing. “Look at that flower. Wow, that color yellow is amazing!” Do you remember that? Coarse restlessness and coarse laxity are present, so our focus on the object is still interrupted, but nevertheless, the power of mindfulness has increased in strength. That’s when the fourth stage arises. 

The fifth stage is called taming. Here the mind is disciplined and it’s tamed, so it can stay on the object almost continuously. The power of introspective awareness stops the mind from wandering to different emotions and thoughts and sense objects. Coarse laxity and coarse restlessness are no longer problems, but they may arise from time-to-time. Previous to the fifth stage, subtle laxity wasn’t a problem because single pointedness was difficult to attain. 

We didn’t have a problem with subtle laxity because we weren’t at the level where subtle laxity would even adversely affect our meditation. But now, the mind may sometimes get too absorbed in the object so that subtle laxity arises. Subtle laxity and subtle restlessness may interrupt our focus, but it’s much easier to restore our focus through the power of introspective awareness. On the fifth stage, you really are becoming aware of the benefits of concentration, and you really begin to enjoy it.  

The sixth stage is called pacifying. Here again, it’s with the power of introspective awareness. Through that, our conviction that it’s important to abandon distraction becomes very firm, and all  resistance and dislike for concentration practice is gone. Earlier, we weren’t really so sure that distraction should be eliminated because some of our distractions were pretty interesting. Like all these new psychological approaches to look at our childhood with, and new psychological things to analyze this and that—these are coming up and they’re kind of interesting, and we should focus on them. Maybe we need to, but just be aware that is going to create an obstacle if we’re developing concentration. Those kinds of things you’re going to need to look at, but not during your concentration sessions. You don’t want to repress them and say they don’t exist. That’s not healthy. You need to work them out, but you need to not be so enchanted by them. Sometimes our psychological things are quite enchanting, aren’t they? 

During the previous stage, on five, concentration was tightened in order to eliminate laxity. On six, it might be too tight. When the concentration is too tight then we become restless. When it’s too loose, we have laxity or going into lethargy. Subtle laxity may still arise occasionally. It and subtle restlessness can still interrupt the focus on the object, but we’ve matured through practice. The power of introspective awareness can sometimes identify restlessness and laxity before they arise and it can deal with them. They say that about subtle restlessness; you’re not totally off the object, but the mind is beginning to shake a little bit. We’re able to identify that and do something about it before the mind goes off. That accomplishes or leads us to the sixth stage called pacifying.

The seventh stage is thoroughly pacifying. So now, even if subtle thoughts or subtle emotions, or destructive emotions, come into the mind, they’re easily pacified. So, subtle laxity and subtle restlessness arise from time-to-time, so our focus is still interrupted, but on the seventh stage—by the power of effort—we’re easily and quickly able to stop the subtle laxity and subtle restlessness. So here, mindfulness, introspective awareness and effort are well developed, but non-application of the antidotes may still occur. You have the introspective alertness that notices that there’s some problem with your concentration, but you don’t always apply the antidotes. That happens before, but it’s especially strong here on the seventh.

The eighth stage is called being single-pointed. Here it is a result of mindfulness and effort; laxity and restlessness are not able to interrupt the concentration. Our concentration is  uninterrupted. When we sit down to meditate, we can immediately bring to mind the object of meditation, and our concentration remains on it continuously. Only a little bit of effort at the beginning of the session is necessary to discern the details of the object and place the mind on the object. After that, the mind can stay on the object just through the power of effort. That’s when the eighth stage arises. So, our concentration has been getting much longer here.

The ninth stage is called placement in equipoise. As we’ve been progressing, the power of complete familiarity becomes stronger, and effort to maintain mindfulness and introspective awareness is no longer required. You don’t even need that little bit of effort at the beginning of the session like you needed on the eighth stage. Now, just the wish to meditate is sufficient. You sit down and mindfulness on the object arises, and the mind enters into meditative equipoise, where the mind effortlessly and naturally remains in single pointed concentration without having to deliberately evoke mindfulness. 

That’s how familiar your mind is with the object, and how strong the mindfulness is. You don’t need to even evoke it. The focus on the object here is spontaneous. It’s not even uninterrupted on the ninth stage, and single-pointedness continues for a long time. The sense consciousnesses here are totally absorbed and no longer respond to external stimuli during meditation. This ninth stage is the highest concentration attainment within the desire realm. This person, while they’re in meditation, they still have a desire realm mind, but it’s quite strong concentration. It’s a similitude of serenity, but it’s not fully qualified serenity yet. 

Summary of the nine stages

The first three of the nine stages help the mind, which is generally fluctuating and moving to abide on the meditation objects. The second three stages are the means to stabilize the mind that’s already abiding on the object—although the third, the stability, can still be disturbed by coarse restlessness and laxity. These second three stages really help to stabilize the mind. Then the last three stages are the means to gain full control of the mind that has achieved stability. 

As we progress through these nine stages, the strength of our mind and the power of meditation increase, clarity and stability correspondingly increase, and this results in mental and physical peace and happiness. And they say your complexion becomes youthful and radiant, you feel

light and vigorous, and your dependence on coarse food decreases. You still haven’t attained full serenity yet.

Mental and physical pliancy

The next thing to cultivate and then attain is mental pliancy and physical pliancy, and then the bliss of physical pliancy and the bliss of mental pliancy. Remember, pliancy is the complete antidote to laziness. Pliancy is sometimes translated as flexibility, but what it means is that the mind is very serviceable. The mind doesn’t put up a fight. It isn’t full of resistance. It isn’t complaining all the time. Your mind becomes very cooperative. That would be nice, wouldn’t it, to have a cooperative mind? 

We still have physical dysfunctions, which are factors that relate to the winds, or the prana, inside the body. This dysfunction of the wind makes the body heavy and uncomfortable when we try to engage in virtue. This is the one when the alarm rings in the morning and your mind goes, “Ugh,” and your body says, “I need more sleep.” Through increased familiarity with concentration, physical dysfunctions are overcome. At this time, they say the brain feels heavy, though not in an uncomfortable way, and there’s a very pleasant tingling sensation at the top of your head as if a warm hand were placed on your crown after you’ve shaved your head. 

That sensation occurs as the dysfunctional winds leave from the crown. Immediately after they leave, the dysfunctional mental states are overcome, and mental pliancy is attained. Mental pliancy, in general, is a mental factor that accompanies all virtuous minds and enables it to be directed towards a virtuous object and to stay there. However, here we’re not just talking about any old mental pliancy, but a special mental pliancy that is the serviceability of mind. Because if we were just talking about any old mental pliancy, it’s there with every virtuous state of mind, so we should have already had it a long time ago. But, no, this is a special mental pliancy that is a serviceability of mind:

A lightness and clarity of mind coupled with an ability to put the mind on whatever virtuous object we wish it to be on. 

The mind no longer resists being directed towards virtue, or it’s very happy to meditate and enjoys it. It isn’t thinking,“When is this session going to be over?” This special mental pliancy, in turn, induces serviceability of the winds that are flowing through the body because by the mental pliancy then the winds that power the afflictions subside. And a wind of physical pliancy pervades the body, and the body’s lack of serviceability for meditation is overcome.

This is physical pliancy, which is a lightness, a buoyancy, a serviceability of the body so that the body can be used for whatever virtuous activity we want without pain, hardship, or fatigue. Our  body is not a nuisance; it feels very light. And they say almost like you could ride on your own shoulders. I don’t know what that feels like, but when you can feel like that, then you know you’ve got this. 

That’s physical pliancy, and that physical pliancy immediately leads to the bliss of physical pliancy, which is a very blissful, tactile sensation. The body feels so comfortable, really fresh and very cooperative, very pliant. Then, as our concentration continues, there’s a sense that the body melts into the meditation object. You could become so familiar, so close, with your meditation object that they say it’s almost as if the mind melts into it. And so, at that point, the bliss of mental pliancy is experienced, and the mind becomes very happy, very buoyant—almost too much so. 

They say here that you feel like you could focus on each atom of a wall. Then after that, there’s a sensation on the top of our head. This time like a cool hand being placed on our freshly shaven head. The mental bliss just decreases a little bit, and when that mental bliss becomes stable, then you have the unfluctuating bliss of concentration, and unfluctuating mental pliancy arises. And at that point you’ve attained serenity.

Attributes of serenity

Serenity is also known as access concentration which, in our system, going from access concentration to the first Dhyana you go through Seven Preparatory Stages, and so this is the first one in that. When you’ve attained serenity, there are many kinds of signs. The body and mind are flexible and serviceable; physical and mental pliancy arise quickly when we sit down to meditate. The mind is very spacious, and it could abide firmly on the meditation object so that even a loud sound won’t interfere with concentration. There is a sense of great clarity. In post meditation time, although your mind is no longer in access, due to the influence of having been in that concentration, afflictions don’t arise as strongly or as frequently, and craving for sense pleasure decreases considerably.

The body feels light and at ease. The five hindrances don’t bother us anymore. We can transform sleep into meditation, and it’s very good. I met this woman who wrote the books—two of them that I know of—about the Thai Forest Monks, and this was in the early 20th century. This was before the Thai’s chopped down so much and destroyed their forest, and these monks were still meditating there. Sometimes they would encounter a tiger, or a snake, or some kind of threatening being, and their solution to that was to immediately enter into concentration, immediately go into samadhi. Their senses are not functioning. They’re not paying attention to any of this. They would remain in samadhi for a while, and when they came out, their body was okay, they were not harmed by the snake, or the tiger, or whatever it was because it seemed like these animals could sense that there was some special quality about people having this kind of concentration. It’s pretty amazing.

Questions & Answers

Audience: When we were reviewing last week’s notes, and we looked at laziness and again on one of the antidotes being pliancy, we thought, that’s a result. How can that be an antidote early on when you can barely sit down? How can that be an antidote to laziness? 

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It isn’t at those early stages, because it only becomes an antidote much further along. That’s why you go through the first three first.

Audience: Two questions from online. The first is from someone in Singapore who wants to understand the difference between mindfulness and introspective awareness. She goes on to give an example of what she thinks it could mean: mindfulness means making offerings to the three jewels every day as this is the daily activity that we promised to do, while introspective awareness means that we do not break our promise and continuously engage in the activity.

VTC: Mindfulness has different meanings in different situations. If you’ve made a promise to make offerings every day, and you invoke mindfulness to remember your commitment to do that, then that’s mindfulness of your commitment. But mindfulness is not the mind that makes the offering. That’s a mind that is called non-attachment, or generosity, or something like that. Introspective awareness would be the mind that checks, “Oh, I have this commitment to make an offering. Have I done it today, and have I thought about it well and made the offering well?”  That’s how introspective awareness would be used in the situation of making an offering, but introspective awareness is not making the offering. It’s just another mental factor that helps you in that particular situation.

Audience: Someone else says Maitreya is said to be the next Buddha, so where do these writings that are referenced come from? When did he write them?

VTC: There are different stories in the Chinese tradition, and also academic scholarship. They usually consider Maitreya to be a person who is different from the Maitreya who’s going to be the next Buddha. It’s like you have many people called John. You can have many Maitreyas. Don’t get them confused. Other people say that Maitreya is abiding in the Tushita Pure Land, and that Asanga went there to study with Maitreya and then brought these teachings back to earth. So, there are two different views on it.

Audience: You said that when you can get too absorbed in the object then subtle laxity arises. When I think about getting really absorbed in an object, I don’t think of holding the object loosely. How does that work? 

VTC: First of all, it’s something at a much more advanced stage of developing concentration. The focus on the object is a little bit too loose, so the mind gets lax; the intensity of the clarity decreases because the mind’s a bit too relaxed. Then you tighten it. Then you make it too tight, so then restlessness comes. That’s why they say how loose or tight is like tuning a violin string. 

Audience: The first time I read about the nine stages, I remember I got very excited because it was a schema, a rubric, a structure. Enough of this wooley instruction, right? Finally, here’s a step-by-step. Then after the first retreat, I got so discouraged because I realized, “Oh, I’m at stage one, and I’m really not progressing!” Maybe you could talk about healthy ways to relate to schematics like this? [laughter]

VTC: It’s helpful to realize that when the Buddha teaches, he has to set things down from the beginning all the way through to the end. He’s definitely going to give us the highest, most complete result. Because if he doesn’t explain that then we’re going to have no idea of where we’re going, and people who are at that level won’t know what to do. The problem is that our mind thinks, “Oh, here’s a schema. I should try and get to the end of it as soon as possible so that I can say I’ve done that, check it off my list, be there before anybody else, and then present myself as an achiever of this thing.”

It’s our same old way of relating to everything, for some people who have that kind of habitual way of looking at anything. “Oh, there’s nine stages. I should be at the tenth stage by next week at least.” What stage are you on? Oh no, maybe I’m going to be behind them. Oh, this can be terrible if they get to those stages before I get to those stages, then my self-respect is shot, my reputation is shot.” What kind of grade am I going to get?” We have a lot of old patterns we have to release. Everybody has different old patterns. We don’t all have the same ones.

Audience:  I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the fact that just not turning and looking at everything that’s happening around you is a wonderful first stage to cultivating this quality—whether it be sounds, visuals, voices, just always wanting to know what’s going on. It’s right there. Right at the very beginning of daily life we can start fostering that ability to just keep the mind right here.

VTC: And to keep the mind on what our business is and not let it go to other people’s business.  [laughter] I think there’s a lot of meaning in our precept of only looking at what’s in your own alms bowl and not looking at what’s in other peoples’ alms bowl. I think there’s actually a very profound meaning in that.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.