What is Samadhi? – Three Kinds of Mindfulness

Revised May 16, 2019

1. Samādhi (“sama”+”adhi” where “sama” means “same” and “adhi” means “dominance”) means the object becomes the priority and the mind gets focused on it; as we discussed in many posts, when the mind becomes focused on one object (ārammana), no matter what the object is, the ekaggata cetasika takes over and make the mind latched “on to it”.

  • This is how one gets to not only samādhi but also anāriya jhāna using breath meditation, just by focusing the mind on the breath.
  • One gets to samādhi on whatever the one gets absorbed, focused, or mindful in.
  • Being mindful depends on the situation. The kind of mindfulness one has when driving a car needs to be different from the mindfulness needed to design something (or read a book), and the mindfulness needed to attain a jhāna needs to be totally different from those two.

2. There can be numerous kinds of samādhi. Here we distinguish three types of samādhi or mindfulness:

  • Momentary mindfulness (khanika samādhi)
  • Access mindfulness (upacāra, pronounced “upachāra“, samādhi)
  • Absorption mindfulness (appanā samādhi)

Let us discuss each type separately.

3. We should always have the 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 about what we say. The more one practices, one will be able to control one’s speech by being mindful. It is the same with any bodily act too. When we are about to cross the street, we should be mindful of the traffic, etc.
  • Many people take this the wrong way, and use it as a 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. This is what happens when Buddha’s true teachings get lost due to external influences.
  • For example, when driving, we need to pay attention to the road and then to apply brakes if the car in front gets too close; we need to keep an eye on the traffic in general to be prepared to take action. Thus it is important to keep extraneous thoughts from the mind (such as an argument with a co-worker or the tasty food at the party yesterday). Thus focusing the mind on the job at hand here translates to shifting the focus to different tasks in an optimum way to get the job done.

4. Access concentration (upacāra samādhi) is more focused. When we are reading a book we get absorbed in it (if we really need to, or like to, comprehend the material); we cannot be thinking about other things while we read. But we may have to flip the page, or look up a reference while we read.

  • 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, if done at a quiet time, can calm one down; if read with understanding and focused mind, it is possible to get into a somewhat deeper samādhi.
  • Someone writing a computer code, a surgeon doing a surgery, an architect designing a building, a scientist thinking about a new theory, a businessman thinking about a new business plan, all these involve access concentration (mindfulness). These are all mundane Samādhi. But one can still feel a kind of in a trance if one really gets absorbed in any task.

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

  • In Ariya meditations, the focus is something related to Nibbāna; could be a Dhamma concept or Nibbāna itself (focusing on the peacefulness of discarding sense pleasures; this can be done only when one comprehends anicca, dukkha, anatta); Ariya metta bhavana is another.
  • In anāriya meditations, this object is normally either a kasina object or the breath or the falling/rising of the stomach.

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

  • It must be noted that for someone with practice, it is possible to get into appanā samādhi (jhāna) very quickly. Thus the difference among the three is not in the time scale, but rather on the goal or the situation at hand.
  • Workplace or home accidents happen when one loses momentary mindfulness: one can pull the wrong switch or cut oneself while cutting vegetables, or even tripping while walking, when attention is not paid on the task at hand.
  • One can be reading something for hours and not get anything in, if the mind wanders off. One can be sitting in meditation for hours and not get into samādhi if the mind wanders off.

7. In all these three types, achieving mindfulness is easier if the five hindrances are not covering the mind; see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.

  • If one has greedy or hateful thoughts (kamaccanda and vyāpada), it is very difficult to do any of the three.
  • If one’s mind is lethargic (thina middha), or feeling agitated by being high-minded or low-minded (uddacca kukkucca), or does not have a clear idea of the task (vicikicca), again even a simple task can become aggravating and frustrating.

8. Thus it helps to live a moral life, i.e., avoid the ten immoral acts as much as possible. And it pays off to make preparations ahead of the time.

  • Especially for the upacāra and appanā samādhi, one could make sure to get other tasks out of the way beforehand, so that meditation does not have to be interrupted in the middle. Simple things like going to the bathroom and making sure one does not have full stomach before sitting down to meditate, can make a difference.
  • Preliminary procedures such a reciting precepts or offering flowers or incense to the Buddha before a formal meditation session is also a part of “getting the mind ready”. As we will discuss later, attaining “citta pasāda” or a “joyful mind” has a valid reason behind it.

9. Samādhi is actually the end point 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 sammā sati.

10. Finally, it is also possible to get into miccā samādhi, the opposite of sammā samādhi. A master thief plotting a grand robbery, or a serial killer planning a killing, can get focused and be absorbed in that immoral plan too.

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

11. If this post is read by paying attention to the material, not just scanning through it, one could get into upacāra samādhi; one may need to read related posts or other material and/or stop reading and contemplating on a given point, etc. to absorb the material. When the minds gets “absorbed in the issue”, it is in a state of samādhi. Of course, that is possible only if the material is interesting for oneself.

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