What is Samādhi? – Three Kinds of Mindfulness

Revised May 16, 2019; February 13, 2021; January 30, 2023

What Is Samādhi?

1. Samādhi (“sama”+”adhi” where “sama” means “same” and “adhi” means “dominance”) means the object becomes the priority. Then the mind becomes focused on it. As we discussed in many posts, when the mind becomes focused on one object (ārammana), the ekaggata cetasika takes over and makes the mind latch “onto it.”

  • That is how one gets to both samādhi and anāriya jhāna using breath meditation, just by focusing the mind on the breath. The goal here is to calm the mind by keeping it away from greedy and angry thoughts. As long as one keeps the mind focused on the breath, it cannot “run around and latch on to greedy/angry thoughts.”
  • But that does not help eliminate the “deeply-ingrained defilements” or anusaya. That is why the “peace of mind” attained in a breath-meditation retreat goes away a few days after returning to regular activities.
  • One gets to samādhi on whatever activity one gets absorbed in. Someone absorbed in an exciting book is in a samādhi too. 
Many Kinds of Samādhi

2. Being mindful also depends on the situation. The mindfulness needed while driving a car differs from the mindfulness required to design something (or read a book). And the mindfulness required to attain a jhāna is different from those two.

  • There can be numerous kinds of samādhi. There can be micchā samādhi too. For example, when setting up a bomb, one focuses on that and gets into a micchā samādhi (otherwise, the bomb may blow up).

Here we distinguish three types of samādhi or mindfulness:

  • Momentary mindfulness (khanika samādhi)
  • Access mindfulness (upacāra, pronounced “upachāra,” samādhi) where one stays longer in that state.
  • Absorption mindfulness (appanā samādhi)

Let us discuss each type separately.

Momentary Mindfulness or Khanika Samādhi

3. We should always have momentary mindfulness or khanika Samādhi. Here we frequently change the focus from one object to another based on the need.

  • We can use momentary mindfulness during the day when we are active. When we talk to someone, we should be mindful of what we say. The more one practices, the more one can control one’s speech by being mindful. It is the same with any physical activity too. When we are about to cross the street, we should be aware of the traffic, etc.
  • Many people take this the wrong way and use it as formal meditation. It is kind of silly to do the wrong “walking meditation” by saying “lifting the foot,” “putting it down,” etc., like a robot. That is what happens when Buddha’s teachings get distorted.
  • For example, when driving, we need to pay attention to the road and apply brakes if the car in front gets too close. We must keep an eye on the traffic and be prepared to take quick action. Focusing the mind on the job at hand here translates to shifting the focus to different tasks optimally to drive the car safely.
Access Concentration or Upacāra Samādhi

4. Maintaining concentration (upacāra samādhi) is more focused. While reading an exciting book, one gets absorbed in it. One cannot be thinking about other things while reading.

  • On the supermundane (lokottara) side, when listening to a Dhamma discourse or reading about a Dhamma concept, one can get into access concentration or upacāra samādhi. Reading a web post on a Dhamma concept can calm one down if done at a quiet time. Reading with understanding and a focused mind makes it possible to get into a somewhat deeper samādhi.
  • All following activities involve access concentration. A programmer writing computer code or a surgeon doing surgery, an architect designing a building, a scientist thinking about a new theory, etc. These are all mundane Samādhi. But one can still feel being in a trance if one gets absorbed in any task.
Appanā Samādhi or Absorption in Concentration

5. Appanā Samādhi or absorption in concentrations can lead to a jhānic state with practice. Here one needs to find a quiet place, close one’s eyes, and concentrate on just one neutral object.

  • In Ariya meditations, the focus is something related to Nibbāna. It could be a Dhamma concept or Nibbāna itself.  But one must have attained a magga phala to get into such a samādhi. 
  • Ariya Metta Bhavana is another.
  • Both help a mind to “comprehend Dhamma” and cleanse it.
  • In anāriya meditations, this object is usually either a kasina object, the breath, or the stomach’s falling/rising. That only prevents a mind from accumulating more “gunk/defilements” but does not help cleanse existing gunk!
Some Examples

6. Now, let us look at some general features of the three types.

  • For someone with practice, it is possible to get into appanā samādhi (jhāna) very quickly. Thus the difference between the three types of samādhi is not in the time scale. Instead, it is on the goal or the situation at hand.
  • Workplace or home accidents happen when one loses momentary mindfulness. If one loses attention/focus, one can pull the wrong switch, cut oneself while chopping vegetables, or even trip while walking.
  • One can read something for hours and not get anything in if the mind wanders off. One can meditate for hours and not get into samādhi if the mind wanders off.
Sammā Samādhi and Five Hindrances

7. In all these three types, achieving mindfulness comes naturally if the five hindrances do not cover the mind; seeKey to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances.”

  • It is challenging to calm the mind if one has greedy or angry/hateful thoughts (kāmacchanda and vyāpada).
  • Even a simple task can become aggravating and frustrating under the following conditions. One’s mind is lethargic (thina middha), one is agitated by being high-minded or low-minded (uddacca kukkucca), or one does not have a clear idea of the task (vicikicca).

8. Thus, it helps to live a moral life, i.e., avoid the ten immoral actions as much as possible. See “Dhamma Concepts.”

  • If one is planning a “formal meditation session,” it pays off to make preparations ahead of time to set up a conducive mindset.
  • Especially for the upacāra and appanā samādhi, one could get other tasks out of the way beforehand. Then meditation does not have to be interrupted in the middle. Simple things like going to the bathroom and ensuring one does not have a full stomach before sitting down to meditate can make a difference.
  • Preliminary procedures, such as reciting precepts or offering flowers or incense to the Buddha before a formal meditation session, are also a part of “getting the mind ready.” That helps to attain “citta pasāda” or a “joyful mind.” 
Sammā Samādhi and Sammā Sati

9. Samādhi is the endpoint of being mindful (sati).

  • Samādhi is a synonym for the cetasika (mental factor) of ekaggata, i.e., having a focus. One can cultivate it by being mindful the correct way, i.e., via mundane sammā sati.
  • Lokottara sammā sati requires comprehension of the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. See “Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā to Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi.”
Different Types of Samādhi

10. It is also possible to get into micchā samādhi, the opposite of sammā samādhi. A master thief plotting a grand robbery can get focused and be absorbed in that immoral activity. The same is true for a serial killer planning a killing,

  • Thus, there are three kinds of samādhi when categorized according to morality. One is micchā samādhi. The other two are sammā samādhi: one mundane (for living a better life) and one supermundane (focusing on Nibbāna).

11. One could get into upacāra samādhi by reading this post and paying attention to the material. One may need to read related posts or other articles to absorb the key concepts. When the minds get “absorbed in the issue,” it is in a state of samādhi. Of course, that is possible only if the material is interesting to oneself.

  • If correctly done, one will have a lower heartbeat and a calmer and more peaceful mind at the end of the reading session. People have attained even magga phala by attentively listening to Dhamma discourses.
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