This image, a traditional teaching tool from Tibetan Buddhism, depicts a person beginning the path to meditation who starts at the bottom as a total beginner, and scientifically, logically, practically, step by step, moves through a progression of stages in order to reach the state of meditation. We are going to explain those stages so that all of us understand where we are in our meditation practice and what is needed to advance further.
As we explained in this course, meditation is not an idea or a theory; it is not a belief. Neither is it a practice or a behavior to imitate. Meditation, properly defined, is a state of consciousness. Meditation is something any living thing can experience, because the state of meditation is the natural, unconditioned state of the consciousness itself. When the consciousness is able to perceive and understand without the influence of any trauma, desire, fear, anger, pride, lust, greed, gluttony, avarice — all of those limited, conditioning factors: aggregates, samskaras, kleshas, egos, defects, sins, or whatever you want to call them. When those veils are taken off of the consciousness, it is able to perceive reality and understand. This is a natural capacity of every living thing in its own level, because consciousness has many levels.
That is what is depicted in this other image, called the Tree of Life.
Every living thing has consciousness at its level, from the simplest organisms to the most sophisticated and most beautiful. From the tiniest atoms and molecules and particles — even including light itself at its most basic level — has consciousness in its level. The whole Tree of Life represents levels of consciousness, from the tiniest and simplest all the way up to the levels of angels, buddhas, gods, and those beings that we from our perspective admire because of their perfection. Of course, we want to be like that, perfect, beautiful, serene, happy, powerful, and wise. The capacity for us to become like that is the consciousness itself.
If we remove the filters that condition the consciousness and cause us to suffer, and likewise expand and grow the consciousness, we raise our level of being. That is what meditation is for.
The state of meditation is essential for any person, who is interested in developing themselves as a human being. In the state of meditation you experience what it is to actually be human. Since most of us lack that experience, we are left knowing only the conditioning factors that cause us to suffer: desire, lust, anger, pride, greed, jealousy, fear. Therefore, we mistakenly believe that these conditions are normal. These conditioned qualities that we know as life are not normal, nor are they real “living.” Instead they are states of conditioned experience, limited experience, which we can call “suffering.”
We can remove those veils through the process of meditation, the science of meditation, and thereby experience what it means to be a real human being, and then from there grow and expand to become something more than human, something truly incredible. That process of change is scientific. It is not about beliefs; it is not about accepting or rejecting, disbelieving, believing. It has nothing to do with our concepts or beliefs. This is a scientific and experiential process that anyone can utilize and understand through their own experience, if they work with the facts.
The process is outlined simply by the Three Trainings:
Naturally, we all want to understand our suffering, understand the purpose of our life, understand why things are the way they are. To have that understanding reflects a type of wisdom that our intellect is not capable of. In Sanskrit, that wisdom is called Prajna, while in Greek it is called Sophia, and in Hebrew it is Chokmah (wisdom) and Binah (understanding). The consciousness cannot access that knowledge while its perception is filtered by pride, anger, lust, and all the other qualities that afflict us. So to reach that profound wisdom, we need to liberate the consciousness from its conditioned state. When the consciousness is liberated from those conditions, that state is called in Sanskrit Samadhi, which is translated here as ecstasy, because it literally means the ecstasy of the consciousness when it is not conditioned by discontentment, anxiety, fear, and the other qualities that make us suffer.
That state of ecstasy or liberation can be attained in a temporary sense at any time if we know the causes that produce that liberated state. Samadhi can also be made permanent, so that that state of liberation becomes our normal way of being. To reach that level is a huge work that some call “self-realization” or “liberation.” That is what the spiritual path is all about. It is about liberating ourselves from the conditioning factors within us.
The path to reach that liberated state, that ecstasy of the soul, is through ethics (Sila). That is why every scripture in the world emphasizes ethics: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not commit sexual misconduct, do not ingest intoxicants, do not do this, do not do that. At the same time, they say we should adopt positive behaviors: sacrifice for others, become humble, become pure, become like those beings you want to be. In short, purify yourself of all your animal behaviors, your animal desires, and become something better, something human.
Simple cause and effect produces the liberated state of ecstasy. When all of our harmful actions have been abandoned and we adopt beneficial actions, beneficial behaviors, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally, then by simple cause and effect we become happier; we are producing happiness around us in our family, in our friends, in our communities. By simple cause and effect our consciousness is no longer afflicted by the results of our previous bad behaviors. So we start to experience that ecstasy, little by little, as happiness, contentment, joy, diligence, the ability, the energy to work hard, especially on behalf of others. That in itself starts to develop the wisdom, Prajna, understanding, not only about ourselves and our own condition, but about the state of the world.
So you see, to reach wisdom, there is no belief needed. This is very practical.
Meditation is a state of consciousness. Experiencing the state of meditation becomes a possibility when we remove the conditions that prevent it. This is our focus in this tradition. We are not focused on chasing a state of ecstasy; we are not focused on trying by some method, by some trick or another, by some technology or some particular practice to provoke a state of ecstasy or some kind of pleasant sensation. That is a fool's pursuit, like chasing a rainbow; rainbows happen naturally when the conditions are exact. Similarly, samadhi happens when the conditions are right. That is why we do not chase samadhi: instead we are focus on removing the obstacles that prevent samadhi from happening on its own.
What prevents samadhi are our behaviors, emotions, tendencies, psychologically. So by placing attention on working on those conditions, changing our behaviors, changing our psychology, changing our way of being, the samadhi will emerge spontaneously by simple cause and effect. And from samadhi comes wisdom.
The first step of the three trainings — ethics — is explained in every tradition: the Ten Commandments, the Paramitas, the Vinaya, the vows and observances of each tradition.
The results you achieve in meditation are directly proportional to how serious you practice ethics. If you only consider ethics as something optional or something occasional, then your meditation practice will precede in exactly the same lukewarm way. It either will not develop at all or only intermittent and shallow.
If you take your ethics very seriously and focus yourself very intently on uncovering the secret causes of your behaviors, the secret motivations that lurk in the depth of your psychology, and you work very seriously every day to change, your meditation practice will develop correspondingly rapid, very fast. Ethics and meditation are totally dependent on each other. They are absolutely interdependent. You cannot separate ethics from meditation.
The reason meditation does not happen for most students is because their ethics are poor. If your ethics are very strong, meditation is easy, spontaneous. Truthfully, meditation does not take effort. The reason people struggle is because their ethics are poor, which causes the mind to be disturbed.
In the traditional lineages that study meditation, the beginners are always isolated from the world. They are taken from their families, villages, towns, cities. They live in an isolated place, like a monastery or a temple, and they adhere to a strict set of rules about their behavior. They do not associate with people who are drinking, smoking, or sleeping around; they do not pursue money, fame, comfort. They live day in and day out doing prayers, mantras, all types of observances to focus 100% of their energy on developing themselves. In other words, they isolate themselves from all temptation, with the result that their ethics are firm: they do nothing harmful to themselves or others. In that environment, someone who focuses seriously and works hard can access the state of meditation in a reasonable amount of time, because they focus intently on renouncing all the harmful influences that prevent it.
Let us compare that with our lifestyle now, and the way we live in society today. If you observe the influences that we have around us, the types of behaviors that are encouraged by our family, friends, communities, television, actors, actresses, and pop stars — none of that has anything at all to do with improving our ethics or learning how to enter the state of meditation. In society, everything is focused on getting money, getting famous, getting materialistic things, being focused entirely on our external appearance and having absolutely no concern at all for our quality of mind or heart.
Observed in this simple way, you can see why the vast majority of people who want to learn how to meditate fail.
Therefore, if you want to learn to access meditation, start with ethics.
We have to train the consciousness. Right now it is at the level of a baby or a child. It is very weak, unskilled, untaught. First we teach it how to pay attention from moment to moment all the time. We call this process “self-observation."
Consciousness is that which pays attention, which perceives, which can observe and receive information from what it perceives. Consciousness can understand what it perceives.
The perception of the consciousness is not limited to the five physical senses. It begins there for us, because we are here in physical bodies and the physical bodies that we have depend on these five physical senses in order for us to survive. But we have more senses. How do you perceive your thoughts? How do you perceive your emotions? You are able to perceive them, but not with taste, touch, hearing, sight. You sense thought and emotion with the consciousness. That is a type of perception.
You can perceive thoughts and emotions flowing through you, and you perceive those in the same way that you perceive images and your memory. So if you remember where you were two or three hours ago, you perceive images and sounds, but not with the external senses. That is not physical. Those images are being projected, but not physically. No one else can see them. They do not exist physically, but they do exist. You perceive them with your imagination.
We are discussing two capacities of consciousness:
Most people who study meditation only learn preliminary concentration practices, such as observing the breath, repeating a mantra, observing an image and concentrating on that image, repeating a secret name. These types of practices are fundamental. They are important, but they are only preliminary exercises. They are not meditation itself. They are training practices.
In some schools, like Tantric Buddhist schools, you also find techniques to work with imagination, where the student is taught very sophisticated visualization exercises. They have to study very deeply in advance a whole sequence of stages of imagination. They are developing concentration and imagination at the same time. This is the approach that we teach here.
We teach a variety of preliminary concentration practices, such as how to observe the breath, how to observe the mantra, how to focus on any particular thing. It does not even matter what it is. You can concentrate on anything. If you want to concentrate on a rock or a flower, it is perfectly valid, because it is a preliminary technique for you to train your concentration.
We also teach preliminary imagination exercises, such as to visualizing what you have read, to use imagination to visualize what you are studying. So for example, during lectures like this, some students will visualize everything that is being discussed, because that power of visualization is the power of the consciousness and by studying that way they learn much deeper, because they are utilizing the full capacity of the consciousness to study.
Ultimately it is necessary to learn to combine concentration and imagination. When you learn to use them together you can access the state of meditation very easily.
In different traditions the beginners are taught about this in different ways. Unfortunately, some schools discard imagination completely. They are able to develop very strong concentration abilities, but they are not developing the full capacity of the consciousness, because its ability is to perceive. Without developing visualization, imagination, they are discarding half of their abilities. We do not teach that way here; we teach how to use the full power of the imagination and the concentration in harmony with each other.
This process of the monk ascending this winding path is illustrated as nine fundamental stages of concentration. That does not mean there are only nine states of concentration. There are many more. These are the nine fundamental ones that lead to the beginning level of concentration. These stages are not dogmatic, theoretical, or a matter of belief. They are states of concentration that all of us can experience.
This image was created and given to us as a way to help people like us develop our concentration without having to guess or proceed blindly. With this teaching we have a map that guides us in the process of developing very robust concentration.
For this teaching to work for us, we need to be practicing concentration daily.
The development of concentration has two essential aspects.
First, we must be actively using our consciousness all day long to be present, here and now, all the time by making the effort to be present. We must be in conscious observation at all times, in all of our actions. In that way we are choosing to place our attention.
Whenever we are engaged in any type of work, any type of activity, or a conversation or driving our car, we must doing with full awareness of what we are doing, paying full attention to what we are doing. That is active concentration. That is active, directed attention. We pay attention and concentrate already, but we do not do it with awareness, and we also do not sustain it for long. When we sit to watch TV, we are paying attention to the story or the entertainment, we have our attention on the story, but we forget ourselves; we become so absorbed in what we watch that we forget our body, we forget where we are sitting, we forget who we are, and we become identified with the story. We feel the emotions of the story, we feel afraid or we cry or we laugh, because we are so identified, hypnotized by what we are watching. In other words, we forget ourselves. We lose awareness of ourselves.
The same is true in any other area of life. While we are driving our car, we are playing the radio, we are talking on the phone, and we are thinking of something else. So we are doing many things all at once, but not really aware of any of them. This occurs because from moment to moment we cannot control our attention. Our attention is constantly being pulled from one thing to another thing without conscious will. How many times have you been distracted away from what you are reading, so that your eyes are still moving but your mind is thinking of something else? That demonstrates what we are discussing: a lack of awareness.
So while we are driving the car, we are on the phone having a conversation, and we get distracted by what we are thinking about, so we are no longer hearing the conversation that we are having with the person, even though we might still be talking! We lose the flow of the conversation. That makes us very ineffective. It means we do not hear what we are talking about with others. We are not aware of what we are doing most of the time.
In meditation practice the first stage is to change that and develop the ability to focus attention on one thing and sustain it with awareness of what one is doing. This is preliminary concentration. So the first aspect of developing concentration is to be bringing ourself into the present moment and becoming fully aware of what we are doing all day long.
In traditional spiritual life, like as a monk or a nun, they live at the church, temple, or the monastery and all they do is their chores and studies, while all the time focusing attention on being present. They should be training themselves constantly to be in the moment, aware of what they are doing. In addition, for some period of time (depending on what their lineage is), they also sit still, close all the physical senses, and place their concentration on a single thing and sustain it on that thing for the duration of that sitting. This is not only to makes it more penetrating, but makes it constant, sustained.
So, to develop concentration, we do the same: every day, set aside some time to focus on one thing.
This image represents how you progress step by step developing concentration. It explains how one goes from a completely wild mind, attention that cannot remain focused, to one that remains perfectly focused and unwavering and that cannot be distracted. The path is made by little steps along the way to developing absolutely perfect concentration.
Concentration is not a spiritual power. It is not a siddhi; it is not a boon from the gods. No one can bestow concentration on you. You make concentration through training. It is the only way to acquire concentration: through training. It is a psychological training. Only you can train your consciousness to have concentration.
The first stage on this painting represents a monk who is entering the path, and ahead of him are an elephant and a monkey. They are symbolic, and represent qualities of mind.
The monk represents the quality of renunciation we need to in order to learn concentration.
The monkey represents how our animalistic mind is flighty, unpredictable, out of control and jumps from interest to interest like a monkey. If you observe how your mind behaves, it is always chasing desires, and seems to be completely wild, out of control. As much as you do to try to restrain it, it seems impossible to control.
Many people who want to meditate give up as soon as they see how wild their mind is. They become overwhelmed, discouraged. They lack the willpower and the knowledge to overcome it. We are giving you the knowledge of how to do it. Once you have the knowledge of how to do it, then it is just a matter of your willpower to do it. That is all that stops you. If you have sufficient will, you can change this. Many already have, and you can do it, too.
The monkey is that flighty, unreliable part of our psyche that is always chasing its desires. It is very quick, and very clever, yet it is also just instinctual, animalistic. It jumps from desire to desire, all the time.
In our initial observation of ourselves, this is the first thing that we need to start to change: to learn to pay attention and be present in the moment, and not be so flighty, so unreliable, to not be jumping from thing to thing all the time. We must train ourselves to not be doing five or six or seven things at once, but to do one thing at the time, do it with full attention, and do not stop till you are done. This is a way of training concentration.
That is why those who take spirituality seriously drive their car without the radio or phone, and are silent. They walk silently. They eat silently. They pay attention to what they are doing. This is a way to train that jumping monkey of a mind.
Behind the monkey is a an elephant. The elephant in Asian symbolism represents a very powerful helper, a very powerful creature who could be of great service to us, but if not tamed, is very dangerous. The elephant represents the dullness or heaviness of mind that dumbly follows the monkey around.
Stage one of this painting represents the psychological situation of the untrained consciousness. When students want to learn meditation and they see the reality of their mind — how wild it is, and powerful — they feel despair and hopeless, and many give up. Yet, the state of the mind can be changed. The way to change is in the hands of the monk.
The tools that the monk are a hook and a rope:
Vigilance is to be always watching, to have that hook ready to grab the mind, to control it. Every time it gets way from you, you hook it again and you control it.
Mindfulness is constant awareness, continuity of awareness, being present, paying attention in every thing that we do. Using every action as practice for our meditation: when we drive, when we walk, when we eat, when we sleep. We always bring ourselves to the present moment.
For these tools to work effectively, it is necessary to be relaxed. Physical tension, emotional tension, and mental tension are obstacles. Part of learning to meditate is learning to relax, all the time. Be present, pay attention, and relax.
On the left there is a raging fire, which represents how much effort this first stage requires. It requires a lot of effort, and it can feel exhausting. That is why we also recommend using practices to fuel the consciousness, such as pranayama, rites, runes, mantras, etc.
As mentioned already, to develop concentration requires two aspects actively utilized every day:
The first part is constant observation of oneself, being present, mindful. This is where you use concentration throughout all of your activities.
The second part is sitting to develop your concentration practice exclusively for whatever time you can devote to it — 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, whatever the time is that you have to develop it. In this aspect, you are not doing anything, being perfect still and motionless, without thought or fantasy, while directing attention onto one thing, and taking it away from everything else.
These two aspects are completely interdependent. If you are only sitting to practice concentration for a few minutes a day, but the rest of the day you are not paying attention to what you are doing, you will be very slow in developing concentration, and you will never learn to meditate.
If you are only trying to develop self-observation but not sitting still every day to develop concentration, you will be very slow in developing concentration, and you will never learn to meditate fully. You may develop some concentration just from mindfulness, but you will not develop sufficient concentration to enter the actual state of meditation.
There are many schools and teachers who recommend mindfulness and who teach people to be present and aware, but they do not teach them how to meditate. Their students may develop some serenity, but it is superficial. It is good to learn mindfulness, but it is not enough. Mindfulness is the kindergarten of meditation. Mindfulness alone cannot penetrate the depths of the mind and access real meditation.
To reach the state of meditation, one needs perfect concentration, and to develop perfect concentration, we need both aspects to develop: the daily effort to be present and be mindful in our activities, and the daily effort to stop our activities and sit still to develop concentration.
As we develop that twofold process, little by little we reach the second stage. Here we see that the elephant and the monkey both have little bit of white on them. The white indicates some calm, stability. This indicates that the mind is starting to settle. The grip of thoughts, feelings and tension in the body is starting to release. Little by little the mind begins to settle and become calm on occasion.
At the third stage the white on the elephant and the monkey is even more noticeable.
At the third and the fourth stages the monk has the rope on the elephant; that shows that we are starting to become aware of the mind more consistently. We are starting to have some consciousness of our psychological state throughout the day, not only during our times of meditation, but also throughout the day. We are starting to gain control. The mind is still wild; it is still ahead of the monk on the path, but we are staring to gain a little control.
The obstacle that emerges here is that because some moments of serenity begin to occur, we start to think: "Now I'm doing it. I'm succeeding!" That is represented by the little rabbit sitting on the top of the elephant; that rabbit represents laziness of attention. As soon as we think we are succeeding, we stop making so much effort. We become a bit lazy. At this point we need to expand our awareness of our psyche during the day and during the times that we are practicing concentration, particularly to be aware of more subtle qualities like laziness of attention.
You also notice here that the monkey is no longer controlling the elephant. This means that at this point we've started to have the ability to not let that monkey mind be jumping from thing to thing. Our mindfulness during the day and vigilance during concentration practice has started to change how easily we are distracted.
These gradual changes continue into the fifth and sixth phases, but what happens here is that the monk now leads the way. The consciousness is strengthened and present more often.
When we first begin concentration practice, the duration of time that we are aware of what we are doing is shorter than the time that we are distracted. In the beginning, we are generally distracted most of the time, and are present and aware only for a small portion of our practice. Before you realize it the practice time is over, and you realize you were completely distracted most of the time.
When you are getting into the fourth, fifth and sixth phases, gradually this changes. Your time of being aware starts to get longer, and the times of being distracted get shorter.
So you see, this is not complicated. You can measure your meditation practice every day simply by looking at this teaching.
The more intently we develop concentration every day and relax deeper and deeper, the further we go along on this path. Eventually that flighty monkey disappears and the elephant naturally follows the monk, spontaneously, because the mind has become tamed. When the concentration is trained, the mind also becomes calm, because it is no longer subjected to the chaos that we were putting it through before. We are no longer letting the attention jump from thing to thing all the time. We are no longer letting the animal mind be in charge of our experience. Instead we are focused, we are present, we are relaxed, serene.
When concentration is developed, we are able to consciously observe all the impressions that come in through the senses, and remain relax, serene, even when what we see would previously have caused us to react mechanically. Even when things are difficult, but we know how to relax and to respond appropriately. The elephant is white here, meaning the mind is calm: thoughts, emotions, and the body are serene. Attention, concentration, is sharp, present and cannot be distracted, because it is completely controlled by consciousness.
In the ninth stage, concentration is 100% focused, sharp, unwavering. That is what's traditionally called “one-pointed mind.” That is Dharana, concentration.
From this stage there is much more, which is represented in a poetic way by the three monks at the top. They represent additional concentration phases that you can develop (absorptions, jhanas, etc). They are useful, they have a place, they will inevitably be experienced by any serious practitioner, but they are not the goal. Our goal is not to be entranced by subtle states of concentration. Our goal is to liberate the mind from afflictions.
To liberate the consciousness from suffering, we only need sufficient concentration to not forget what we are doing in meditation, especially when facing difficult or painful impressions.
We need to transform radically, effectively, deeply. For that, we need concentration developed at least to the point where we can sit to meditate for whatever period of time we need to meditate and not forget that we are meditating. That amount of concentration is sufficient to do some good work on yourself. When you sit meditate, you might notice thoughts, emotions, sensations; yu might have some difficulty, but you never forget what you are doing; you do not become distracted. At that point, you can shift gears and develop your imagination.
When you develop concentration and imagination together, your practice will develop very rapidly. If you remain just focused on developing concentration, that is fine, but your practice will lack depth, and acquiring understanding will be difficult, intermittent, unreliable.
The purpose of meditation is to acquire understanding, and for that you need imagination: the ability to see internally.
This whole outline of developing concentration is based on cause and effect. To develop concentration and subsequently enter real meditation has nothing to do with beliefs, theories, or dogmas. It is produced by cause and effect. If you really want learn to meditate, study your concentration abilities: how consistently can you concentrate? Can you pay attention? For what length of time? What is the difference between the amount of time that you can pay attention without being distracted to the amount of time that you are distracted? That comparison will immediately show you where in these nine stages you are currently working.
In a previous lecture we studied cause and effect. If we are making some effort in our practice, but we are not making the progress that we want, we need to study our behavior. If our current experience of meditation is not satisfactory, we need to study its causes. And also, what causes can produce the effects that we want? If we want to enter meditation, we need to produce the causes that create those effects. So this is a matter of looking at the proportions of our behaviors in our lives.
One of the principles of cause and effect says that “you cannot receive the consequence without committing its corresponding action.” This applies to our meditation practice. You cannot enter the state of meditation if your mind is conditioned by anger, pride, lust, greed, gluttony, etc. If you are identified with a desire, that means you are engaged in it, trapped in it, limited by it.
Sometimes people say, "I am meditating every day, but I am so frustrated.” They do not realize that frustration is the obstacle. It is precisely why they cannot meditate. Frustration is anger. Frustration occurs because a desire is not being fulfilled. That desire is turning into anger, frustration. By recognizing that quality, one can change it.
We will never experience meditation if we do not produce the actions that lead to it.
Once an action is performed, the consequence cannot be erased. This is very powerful aspect of cause and effect. If you practice meditation diligently, seriously, those actions change you; they affect you. They change your mind stream; they change the course of your life.
You may not notice the changes at first. As a seed grows the earth, it takes a while for the spout to emerge, and more time before the plant grows and produces its bounty. Meditation practice is similar: it is a process that requires patience.
Develop your self-observation every day.
Develop meditative concentration every day.
For the meditative concentration portion, you can adopt any number of objects of concentration. You can observe the breath as it naturally occurs in your nostrils. For this:
When you practice, it is good to have a peaceful environment, but it is also necessary to learn how to be serene in spite of less than ideal conditions. So, if somebody is talking next door, accept it; do not let it distract you. You hear dog barking, so what? You hear some other noise or you feel some pain in your body, do not react. Do not respond to anything. Just observe.
Just observe the natural process of the sensations of the breath in your nostrils, and withdraw your attention from everything else. Your wild mind will want you to scratch itches and adjust your posture and complain it is too cold or hot. You’ll be crying to yourself about many things. That is the animal mind. If you want to train it, you have to fix attention on one thing and leave it there until the session is done.
If you are complete beginner, do this for ten minutes and then take a break. Do not watch the clock. Set a timer. That way you will not be distracted by what time it is or how long you are there.
Every time you get distracted, return again to observing the sensation of the breath as it is, without modifying it.
See how long you can observe without being distracted. Can you sit for 10 minutes without being distracted by anything and keeping continual observation of those sensations? If you can do 10 minutes then go to 20, then go to 30, then go to 40, then go to 50, then go to an hour. That is all there is to it.
Thirdly, continue with the spiritual diary.