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04 December 2018

The Four Phases of Meditation (Advanced)

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Meditation is such a vast field and when we start out we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.  If we look at the many apps on meditation that we can now access through the internet we might be inclined to think meditation is an exercise either calming down the mind (serenity) or learning to pay more attention to our present moment (mindfulness)

Over the first few years that my students come on retreat, I introduce them to various threads of the practice to help them to develop a more holistic understanding of this vast field of exploration that meditation is. In essence, it equates to the discipline of cultivation of our consciousness; consciousness being the vehicle through which we experience our lives. So really we should look at meditation in terms of the cultivation of our capacity to experience our lives. Now what a profound and wonderful thing that is. Hopefully we are all capable of recognising what a valuable thing to invest some time in meditation actually is.

Basically, we could split the practice of meditation into four phases, four rounds, four fields. And the one way to explain it is in terms of the subject and object, you being the ‘subject’, and what you are paying attention to in your meditation being the ‘object’.

So we look at it in terms of the relationship between you the meditator and what you’re meditating on. So in the first phase, which we call Samatha (or the cultivation of serenity and concentration), we look to develop the state of consciousness where the subjective sense of us, the meditator, is gone from our experience, whilst the experience of our object of meditation remains. This gives a momentary release and freedom from the affliction of the self and the egoic mind it expresses. This state is what we call absorption or sometimes we also call it Samadhi.

Let me explain it to you: when we become deeply concentrated our sense of ourself as the meditator comes momentarily to cessation and is gone. At that point the only thing in our experience is the object that we are experiencing. That’s the first phase of meditation as the Buddha describes it, and it equates to the branch of his Noble Eightfold Path he calls “right concentration.” And why does he call it right concentration? Because it is through such a state of concentration that the yogi or meditator fist comes to an experience that is free from self (no self/or anatta in Pali). And why exactly does this state bring the experience of ‘No Self?’ Because as the mind enters into this state of total concentration or absorption with its object, our bhavanga consciousness (which is the aspect of our unconscious mind that creates the illusionary sense of self within our experience of a moment of ordinary consciousness) is momentarily cut off and stops arising. This first experience of ‘no self” comes about through the cultivation of concentration meditation, that leads to the experience of the unification of the ‘knower’ the ‘knowing’ and the ‘known.’ This is Samadhi which is the fruition of the first branch of meditation we call Samatha.

Once we have had our first experience of no-self there begins to arise in us the knowledge that most our suffering is caused by the imposing of our sense and ideas of self upon the experience that we are having. The Buddha’s teaching that self is the cause of suffering is nothing but a lofty idea to us until the day that we have the experience whereby ‘self’ is absent from our experience and the experience that remains feels complete, totally satisfying and far from suffering. This gives us the motivation to go beyond the momentary cessation of suffering that we can experience in states of Samadhi in search of what the Buddha called the causal cessation of suffering.

So in the practice of concentration, the sense of self, becomes gradually removed from the experience as we come closer to a total state of absorption in which all traces of it have faded. Subject is gone; but the object remains.

Then we begin the second phase of our practice in which the subject remains but the object is gone.

We start with the investigation of our material experience and the meditation on the four elements. Through the sharpening of our focused concentration and discernment we break down the compactness of our experience. We stop seeing it in terms of the ideas that we are usually bound up by. For example, we start meditation on the body parts, and initially, we are meditating on the hand, the heart the lungs, feet etc. At this point we still very much identify with the object as me, my body my heart etc… the sense of me it’s very much tied up in the perception of our object because it has been out habit to view our body in this way… “My body…” 

But through our practice we gradually break down the compactness of our experience through wise attention to see what it’s made up of. Eventually, we get to the point where we have broken down the compactness of our experience, where the perception of the object itself is gone. We are left with the experience of the momentary arising and passing of conditioned states of materiality, and all perception of the original object as ‘me’, ‘my body’, ‘my heart’, etc. has gone.

And that practice of breaking down the compactness of our experience is the preparatory work for the practice of Vipassana.  Once we have broken down the compactness of our material experience, we break down the compactness of our mental experience in a similar way, to dismantle the idea of “ this mind is me,” or “this is my mind.” in this way we practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to remove all unwise attention from our perception. This is the branch of the Noble Eightfold Path that the Buddha calls, “Right Mindfulness” or Yoniso manasikara (wise attention). Remember it is ignorance that is at the beginning of the chain of dependent origination and hence the primal cause of our suffering. Through diligent investigation of the experience we are actually having we gradually break down the wrong views and unwise attention (ignorance) that binds us to our conditioning habit patterns of suffering.

So we do that with the body, we do that with the mind; this fixed thing that I might identify with as my body, this fixed thing that I might identify with as my mind. These fixed things that create my idea of myself, we get to the point of seeing that my mind is nothing more than my idea of myself, we start to see what that’s made up of. We break the compactness of it down and in that way, we stop identifying with it in stages. So now, the sense of ourselves is gone, by taking what it is that creates our sense of self as the object of our meditation, ie we take the body as the object of meditation, we take the mind as the object of meditation, we break the perception of compactness down, and slowly the sense of the object as a bundle fades away.

This is the point at which we start actually practising Vipassana. Everything we have done before that point is preparatory work so that we can be sure we are not meditating on mere concepts.

So you spend a certain amount of time doing stage one, the subject is gone, the object remains, and then you spend a certain amount of time practising stage two, subject remains, object is gone. The third phase of meditation is where the subject’s gone, and the object is gone. And we experience that in two ways; in the first we experience it through watching the arising and passing of what appeared to be the object, what you break apart to the point of where both mental and material states (including the conditioned mind as the witness) come to cessation, this is the point of what we call cessation, or the seeing of Nibbana. At this point something extraordinary has happened. Both mind and matter have come to cessation and we know it. To explain this phenomenon further will need a more detailed analysis of what is actually happening and we will do that later. The second condition for the experience of neither object not subject remaining is when we enter into a state of pure non-discriminating awareness or non-duality. This is a state of total equanimity, but not a state of total concentration. But in this state there is absolutely no reaching out with the conditioned mind to grasp any specific object of attention. The discriminating mind comes momentarily to cessation and only pure awareness remains.  We call this the state of pure abiding or Dzogchen. Here also both subject and object are gone, and only awareness remains.

From then on there is a very delicate ground, between the third and the fourth phase. In the fourth phase both the object and subject remain (as they did in our ordinary consciousness long before we ever started to meditate), but now it is a very different experience of it than the one we had at the start.

Remember what we started out with before we meditated was our starting point. The subject was one thing, the object is the other. And that’s the normal ordinary state of consciousness that we are entangled in. The final stage of awakening is, the subject and object remain but there is no sense of separation, they are one thing. We are not watching the cessation of conditioned states as we do in the practice of Vipassana, we are simply at rest in a state of pure abiding, leaving everything utterly alone. We are neither disturbed by the experience nor are we disturbing the experience with our mind. You are just utterly immersed in the suchness of it.

So the third phase is to bring the things that are clung to, to cessation and to watch them come to cessation, and to relinquish our attachment to them. Then the fourth phase is things are un-clung to, we are able to leave everything utterly as it is so we can just immerse and dance in the suchness of things. So this is to leave everything alone. That’s the pinnacle, where there is no separation and this is what we would call a completely awake state; Awake and open to everything “As it is”. There is no separation between subject and object. At various stages, you have been on retreat with me when we have tackled various aspects of these three four phases of meditation practice. Now what I would like you to start to do is to start to see them as discreet and learn to recognise when you are meditating, what you are doing, and watch the relationship between one and the other and how they support each other.     

Quite early on in your meditation, I gave the introduction to the Dzogchen approach of leaving everything alone, whether you had the sense of no separation between subject and object or not, it introduced you to that experience of pure non-discriminating awareness that is a basic ground of your being. But, even though you had a taste of your own already awakened true nature, it didn’t free you from the entanglement of your sense of yourself. That is something that is done gradually, in stages, this becomes an inspiration, a motivation, as it creates a prompt in us as we realise, gosh, there is a deeper aspect to this existence than the one I have become accustomed to in which the  sense of me is always in the centre of it. And these experiences of ‘no self,’ and the momentary cessation of suffering they bring create a willingness to work more rigorously to land upon the cool shore that is the causal cessation of suffering that the Buddha is pointing us towards.

So there will be times when you practice your concentration for the purpose of supporting your investigation. There will be times when your investigation goes only so far, and beyond that, you cannot go because you’re not concentrated enough, and so you will have come back to do more concentration. There are times when we practice Vipassana through the watching of the arising and passing. We’ve reflected upon the impermanence of things and that’s helped to dismantle the clinging to things as they appear to be. It helps us get to the point of allowing them to just be what they are. There are times where we try to sit and leave everything alone to the point where we’re allowing it to come to cessation. Hopefully maybe one day we can watch it all come to cessation and we realise that when it passes away, it passes away without remainder, everything passes away without remainder all the time, every moment and nothing reappears ever. Each moment everything it totally new. However much it might have been conditioned by past events, present phenomena arise only in the moment and pass away in that moment without remainder, never to arise again. This is the experience of impermanence we need to work towards. The absolute certainty that there is nothing that can actually be clung to.

Now we might not have got to that point yet, but gradually in stages the compactness of our experience is being dismantled if we are meditating skilfully, systematically and with the correct guidance. And hopefully a more fluid immersed state of being is starting to emerge within us. Now it’s all the result of the maturing of the way in which we engage within our experience. That’s all that meditation is. It’s the gradual and systematic maturing and refining of the way in which you meet your experience. So that hopefully one day you end up getting back on your ox and riding back into town because there isn’t anything left out there that could be the source of affliction to you. Then you can just put yourself in the middle of whatever is going on and be utterly at peace with it, which is actually our goal isn’t it? To be at peace.

So it’s a tremendous journey and we are all at different stages. If you have reached this point of Vipassana practice with me, then you have all investigated these four stages to a greater or lesser degree. I think there comes a point where you have to perhaps start to work intelligently for yourselves, seeing it as a long game and understanding that it’s not something that just happens. It’s not merely a case of you come on retreat and you get it, and eventually it comes to completion. “Right. Now I’ve got meditation and I will go home and practice it.” No… It’s an evolving process of profound depth and once we understand the terrain we are working in sufficiently, we can start to inform ourselves more intelligently on a personal level about where we ought to be working, rather than necessarily having to work as a group, and it won’t be the same for everybody at the same time. So once you’ve got a stable practice to this part of your life, which hopefully many students are now starting to develop. So then there will be periods when it will be a year or six months of developing your concentration maybe. Or then maybe six months of practice of trying to break down the sense of the compactness of the object so that it doesn’t stick to you so much.  Or you may spend more and more time watching things come to cessation totally surrendering into emptiness, where you are clinging to nothing. Or you may spend a period of time developing this attitude of just resting within yourself and leaving everything as it is, watching that sense of separation disappear.

So we need to understand that that sense of separation disappears as we gradually let go our attachment to what? Well! Everyone thinks of it as my attachment to my car, or my husband, wife, kids. It’s not, you’ve got to let go of your attachment to yourself. You can be utterly with your kids, car, boyfriend, husband, troubles at work and there is no disturbance, but because you are so attached to yourself, the other things in your life become a burden. They are not a burden, you’re the burden to yourself. It’s when we realise that, life stops being a burden, we stop worrying about where do I have to go, what have I got to be, what have I got to do? It doesn’t matter a jot. You do anything. You are not fixated upon yourself any more. So we need to understand what the Dhamma points at. And hopefully, you all realise now, it points at that experience that is beyond ‘me’, that point of awakening, where the sense of myself and what I’m doing has gone, and then it’s just the experience itself as it is with nothing added, the total immersion in it. Now that is real Samadhi. It all becomes a seem-less process, and that’s the point at which we are free.

Alright, this is something that takes quite a bit of time. You can do it in a brief way or you can do it in a very detailed way. This is something that takes maybe a lifetime. You could do it to a point or you could do it to THE point. It doesn’t matter. Doing any one of these three practices will always enrich your capacity to engage in the final practice which is the simple act of being an unconditioned being. That experience will continue to deepen long after your final awakening. In fact we might even go as far as to say that this is the point at which the journey you really came here for finally begins. Far from being the end… it is just the beginning. How wonderful

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