Getting to Samādhi via Formal Mediation Sessions

March 25, 2016; revised December 1, 2017

1. It does make sense to do formal meditation even at the very beginning when one decides to follow the Path of the Buddha, but AFTER one has at least read about the correct interpretation of “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“. In the following I will discuss the importance of a daily (or few days a week) formal meditation session.

  • When one starts seeing the dangers of staying “in this world” (anicca nature), one needs to reassure the mind that there is an alternative, i.e., Nibbāna or Niveema. Thus, simultaneously with contemplating anicca nature, one needs to encourage the mind to taste the nirāmisa sukha that results from it by cultivating samādhi.  A formal meditation session provides that.
  • The Buddha gave a simile to explain this effect. In the old days, when people took to the oceans to look for new lands, they took caged birds with them. When they were lost and wanted to find whether they were close to land, they released a bird and shooed it away frightening it. The bird would fly around looking for safety (i.e., land) but will be forced to come back to the ship if no land is found; but if it can see land, it will not come back to the ship. When the mind starts seeing the dangers of āmisa sukha or “worldly pleasures”, we need to encourage it to enjoy the nirāmisa sukha, i.e., that there is a better alternative.

2. Even before one gets to jhānas, one can experience “cooling down” when one engages in regular formal meditation. Looking back to my early days, I remember getting to some sort of samādhi while sitting at the desk and contemplating on a Dhamma concept. The body became light and breathing became slow due to the calmness of the mind.

  • It is hard to feel “samatha” or “samādhi” if one is not sitting down or lying down.
  • Furthermore, it gives one confidence that one is making progress if one can see the “improvement” in being able to stay in “samādhi” for longer times with practice. To emphasize, this samādhi does not need be a jhāna. It is just being able to stay in one place with a focused mind and with palpable lightness in the body and the mind.

3. Many people who do breath meditation say that it is a samatha bhavana to calm the mind BEFORE doing vidassanā (insight) meditation. But that is a waste of time. One can get to samatha by doing vidassanā (vipassana)  or insight meditation.

  • As I have discussed in other posts, one should find a quiet place and sit comfortably. One could start the session with Tiratana vandanā to calm the mind; see, “Buddhist Chanting“. One could make the room dark and light a candle and/or incense to  “set the background”. Those activities help some people to get into the proper mindset.
  • Then one could just start contemplating on a Dhamma concept. One could either listen to part of a dēsanā or read part of an essay and then start contemplating on that. This is insight meditation.
  • Some people who do breath meditation have difficulty in maintaining their focus on the breath; other random thoughts start creeping in. However, if one starts seeing the value of Dhamma and becomes truly interested in learning Dhamma, it will become easier to concentrate on a Dhamma concept. Thus one initially should pick a topic of interest to oneself.

4. With time, it becomes easier to get to samādhi by gradually purifying the mind. But it is important to figure out which areas to focus on in order to gain maximum benefits.

  • First, it is important to realize that there are two main categories of “bad deeds” that can have negative consequences; see, “Lobha, Dosa, Moha versus Rāga, Patigha, Avijja” for details.
  • Those done with lōbha (excess greed), dōsa (hate), and mōha (covered mind) can lead to birth in the apāyas (four lowest realms). Permanent reduction of lōbha, dōsa, mōha to rāga, patigha, avijjā happens when one attains the Sōtapanna stage.
  • Those done with rāga (craving for sense pleasures), patigha (friction), and avijjā (ignorance) can only lead to rebirth in the higher realms in the kāma lōka (human and dēva realms), and in rūpi and arūpi brahma lōka. Thus one can concentrate on those after getting to the Sōtapanna stage, but one can start thinking about them too in order to help comprehend the anicca nature as discussed further below.

5. Therefore, our main goal should be to avoid those actions that can lead to rebirth in the apāyas, i.e., avoid those actions done with lōbha, dōsa, mōha.

  • In simplest terms, this means getting rid of miccā ditthi and comprehending anicca nature. One of the strongest kind of miccā ditthi prevalent today is materialism: One believes that at death one ceases to exist, i.e., one believes that the mind is a byproduct of the body (brain), and thus when the body dies, that is the end of story. This is also called vibhava tanhā.
  • It is a good idea to review the relevant posts on miccā ditthi to make sure one understands them. The ten types of miccā ditthi are discussed in “Three Kinds of Ditthi, Eightfold Paths, and Samadhi“. There are also many posts on “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.
  • Starting on the Eightfold Path for a Sōtapanna Anugāmi begins with getting rid of miccā ditthi, comprehending anicca, and thereby comprehending first stage of sammā ditthi; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and the post in there.

6. By sorting out priorities (the order of things to be done), we can save a lot of time in getting to the Sōtapanna stage.

  • One has the potential to be born in the apāyas if one has remnants of gathi suitable for those four realms; there are many posts on gathi, bhava, and jāti at the site to read and contemplate on.
  • It is imperative to be mindful and avoid actions compatible with “apāya gathi“. In the meditation sessions, one could think back to the previous few days and see whether there were any such instances and make a determination to not to repeat such acts. Once it becomes a habit, one can even catch oneself doing it and stop right then.
  • For example, if someone does something bad to you, and if you start thinking about “how to get back” in retaliation, that is done with hate and need to be stopped. However, it is OK if one “gets mad” momentarily at such an unprovoked, harsh act by someone. It is only at the Anāgāmi stage that one will automatically stop “getting mad”. Even then there may be some annoyance at that person. Only an Arahant has perfect upekkha and will not be bothered to the slightest by ANY provocation.
  • Another example is extreme greed (lōbha) where one tends to do “whatever it takes” to get what one wants, and also wishing that others should not get those things. Enjoying sense pleasures (kāma rāga) that are acquired through legitimate means is not a hindrance to attain the Sōtapanna stage. Thus engaging in sex with a spouse is done with kāma rāga, but that with another’s spouse or a child, for example, is done with lōbha.
  • A successful meditation program goes hand in hand with a moral lifestyle. They feed on each other.

7. It is also very important to be aware of the dasa kusala, dasa akusala, and also punna kriyā; see, “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma“, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)” and “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā“.

  • Punna kriyā help one attain the right mindset for meditation. Also, punna kriyā increasingly become stronger  kusala kriyā as one’s understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta grows.
  • A Sōtapanna has COMPLETELY removed only miccā ditthi from the dasa akusala. Only an Arahant is completely free from dasa akusala; see, “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sōtapanna?“.
  • Of course, the tendency to do dasa akusala start decreasing from the time one starts on the mundane eightfold path, even before the Noble Eightfold Path; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart“.
  • In terms of Abhidhamma, the apāyagami strength of all dasa akusala will be removed at the Sōtapanna stage due to the removal of the 4 ditthi sampayutta lōbha citta and the vicikiccā sampyutta mōha citta; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sōtapanna Avoids apāyagami Citta“. Thus if a Sōtapanna commits any of the remaining 9 akusala kamma their strength would be much reduced, because one has removed gathi suitable to be born in the apāyas, mainly by getting rid of miccā ditthi.

8. Many people worry about sense pleasures way too early.  It is not necessary to forcefully suppress normal sense desires before the  Sōtapanna stage, even though it may happen to some extent automatically. kāma rāga (and patigha) are removed via the Sakadagami and Anāgāmi stages.

  • If a vessel is leaking due to multiple holes, one needs to fix the bigger holes first. Trying to plug small holes which are leaking slowly, while water is draining rapidly through gaping big holes, is a waste of time.

9. On the other hand, contemplating on the bad consequences of sense pleasures can lead to a better understanding of anicca (unfruitfulness of worldy things) and the First Noble Truth. In addition to the suffering due to obvious causes such as an ailment or a headache, we are not even aware of most of the suffering that we endure.

  • In fact, in a twisted way, we perceive most of our sufferings as enjoyments. It is a “made-up” enjoyment and is called “assāda(āsvāda in Sinhala).
  • This is also a good “meditation topic”, and could help one to get to samādhi. However, this should be done when one can come to a stage where one starts to comprehend such concepts. Each person is different, so one should keep trying different options.

10. For example, we enjoy eating, especially if the food is tasty. But why do we have to eat? This seems like a foolish question, but there are beings (brahmas) who do not need to eat anything. They are sustained by their kammic power (previous good kamma). Devas have to consume amurtha to sustain themselves, but that is a very fine food and there is no residue (i.e., they do not defecate or even sweat).

  • On the other hand, we have to work hard to make money to buy food, spend time and energy to cook, and then “enjoy a meal” that lasts may be half an hour.
  • But all that suffering (working to make money, going to grocery store, cooking, etc) is masked by “made-up mind pleasures” or assāda: We look forward to that meal and forget about all that suffering!
  • On the way back from work we may start getting hungry, but that will be masked because we will be thinking only about the meal that is waiting for us.
  • Is this any different from a cow who pulls a heavy cart, but forgets about all that suffering because it is focusing on a bundle of hay dangling in front of it?

11. Let us consider another type of hidden suffering that is associated with cleaning ourselves. In the morning, we brush our teeth, take a shower, shave, apply all kinds of fragrances and go to work very happily. We don’t even notice the hidden suffering associated with all that work!

  • One could experience another facet of that suffering if one can skip a day or two of doing those things. It will be very uncomfortable even for ourselves let alone for the others.

12. In fact, most of the things that we do in a given day are done to just maintain our bodies, our houses, our environment in a presentable condition. Yet, we do not see the suffering associated with all those activities. That is another way to comprehend anicca nature.

  • One may think that thinking about such things could make one depressed. That is certainly possible if one did not know about the anicca nature, and also that by following the 37 Factors of Enlightenment one can be released from that suffering. 
  • The comprehension of the true (anicca) nature of this world, and the hidden sufferings associated with it gives one “anulōma shānti“. This is the joy that comes from grasping the true nature of this world.
  • Then by realizing that there is a way to REMOVE future suffering (by following the 37 Factors of Enlightenment ), provides one with “sammatta niyāma“.
  • Thus as one makes progress, it is a good idea to think about specific cases where one has gained a “peace of mind”. That itself can lead to samādhi. One needs to realize BOTH the dangers of the rebirths process (anicca nature) AND the benefits of following the Path (Niveema or cooling down).
  • When one starts experiencing BOTH anuloma shānti and sammātta niyama, one becomes a Sōtapanna Anugāmi, which inevitably leads to the Sōtapanna stage; see, “Sōtapanna Anugāmi and a Sōtapanna“.

13. Finally, I want to emphasize the importance of trying to extend the duration of the formal meditation session gradually.

  • At some point one will start feeling body sensations. And then the mind will “switch over” to a different state. When that first happened to me a few years ago, I was startled. At that point one could let the mind “take over”, i.e., stop contemplating and let the samādhi “grow” and possibly lead to jhānas (it is easier for those who have the samsāric habit; but jhānas are not necessary for magga phala). Now one has attained a higher level of samādhi. One could of course continue with insight mediation.
  • This is when one starts feeling enhanced nirāmisa sukha. It is not really a “pleasurable feeling” in the sense of what you experience in eating a nice meal, listening to a favorite song, etc. It is rather a calmness of an unburdened mind. Until one experiences it, one is not aware of the real stress that our minds are normally under. One comes out of the meditation session refreshed and alert.
  • I would say it is possible that one could start experiencing some kind of benefit when the session is naturally lengthened to  half an hour or may be an hour. I am just basing this on my own experience. If people are willing to share their experiences, I can update this post in the future (or even present someone’s experience in a separate post). That could help motivate others.
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