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.
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