Imagine you walk into a small empty room that is totally dark and are asked to locate its center point. How might you proceed? Unable to use the sense of sight, you might begin by going around the room with one hand on the wall, exploring the perimeter. Once you’ve turned the corner four times, you can be fairly sure you are more or less back where you started.
Next, you might push off boldly from one wall and traverse the whole room until you crash into the opposite wall. Bouncing back and forth between these two walls, you would eventually get a sense of the midpoint between them. Thus oriented, you might then shuffle between the other two walls along this centerline until you find what appears to be half the distance between them.
By now you have a pretty good sense of where you are and can locate the center of the room with some confidence. Reaching up, your hand encounters a string dangling from the ceiling; when you pull it, the light comes on and the darkness is dispelled.
I find this a useful metaphor for samatha (calming) meditation practice. In particular, it describes the process of retreating from the Five Hindrances to find the still, peaceful center point of the mind. Every student of meditation knows these five hindrances (nivaranas) well. The word derives from a root that literally means “to cover over, obstruct, or hide,” and in this application consciousness is being obstructed by sense desire, aversion, restlessness, and sluggishness (the four walls of our room), while being obscured by the darkness of doubt.
The first thing most people notice when they sit down to meditate is that the mind is restless. We are used to processing so much information that the mind has developed the habit of working quickly and is always hungry for more input. The antidote to this natural tendency is to slow down and relax both body and mind, which of course is easier said than done. The instructions found in the Establishment of Mindfulness Discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 10) start with being aware of the breath; then you move immediately into training yourself to tranquilize the activity of breathing.
Whether it takes a few minutes, a few days, or a few years, eventually one can learn the skill of deep relaxation. Peacefulness is a living experience that can be cultivated by holding still, letting go, and allowing oneself to settle down into the quiet depths of the mind, again and again, one moment after another. The cumulative effect of this patient perseverance is a growing sense of ease, of comfort, of gentle well-being, until… bonk! you hit the other wall of mental sloth and torpor.
At some point, all this tranquillity devolves into sleepiness, laziness, or a sluggishness of mind that make it a struggle just to remain conscious. This too is natural and does not mean you are doing anything wrong. Having established these two end points on a continuum, practice involves moving back and forth between them until one finds the point of equilibrium. You can get a sense when the mind is too active, at which point you let go of your attachment to the stimulant du jour and allow the mind to rest. And when you feel it getting drowsy, it is time to sit up straighter, take a deeper breath, and give yourself a little mental kick into wakefulness. Eventually, becoming familiar with both ends of the spectrum, you will find the midpoint where the mind is simultaneously tranquil and alert.
Moving perpendicularly, we then notice that the mind is drawn habitually toward those objects of experience it finds gratifying. This need not be full-on lust or the irresistible drive of addiction; more often it is a gentle inclination toward what we like. The senses revel in sensation, the mind delights in gratification, we are always “leaning in” to the next moment and faintly grasping after the next experience. Notice this, and softly back away from it.
In the other direction, we can also observe the tendency to pull back from the things we don’t like or don’t want. Much of what we encounter can be experienced with a subtle sense of annoyance or dissatisfaction. Yes, I’m noticing the breath all right, but I don’t like that pain in the back and wish it would just go away. Can we also bounce between these two walls, between the impulse to like and not like what is happening? The experience of pleasure and pain is inevitable, part of the hardwiring of the body and mind. But the wanting and not wanting that arises with these feeling tones are optional emotional responses that can be modified by intention.
The midpoint between sense desire and aversion is equanimity, a state of mind that is evenly balanced. It is fully engaged with experience, but neither favors nor opposes what is happening. We are aware of what is arising and passing away without any inclination to change it into something else. When this equanimity is coupled with a mind that is both tranquil and alert, we have found the still center of the mind. You may well have to bump into all four walls over and over in your search, but you will surely know when you find this “sweet spot”—because it feels wonderful.
The doubts that obscure ordinary mind states and keep us from this center point—doubts about whether we have the right teacher, about whether we are doing the practice correctly, and many others—are dispelled (for the moment), and all is illuminated with trust and confidence. The body feels entirely comfortable, even if gravely afflicted. The mind feels clear and powerful, even if it is normally battered by anxiety or fear. The still center of the mind is a place of universal refuge that can be accessed again and again once one learns the way there. And even if the experience vanishes as soon as it occurs, which it is very likely to do, you can retrace your steps to find it again. You may even learn how to hover there indefinitely.
This is not nirvana. But it is a stable, tranquil base from which one can explore the inner landscape of experience and see things more clearly as they actually are.
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