2021-03-17 Mindfulness of Breathing (56) Signposts for Samādhi
2:59PM Mar 17, 2021
Some people are fond of reading books about Buddhism. If they want to learn about meditation, they might go find a book. Or maybe nowadays some people go find an audio recording. For the book people, the book we're trying to read is found within ourselves. We're learning to read ourselves, read the signposts, the symptoms, the movements, the process of meditation that unfolds within us – that's the book to read. Or that's the audio recording, to listen to – really listen deeply to what's happening here.
Sooner or later, all that we are to discover in Buddhism is meant to be discovered here in our own body, in our own experience. So to learn to read the signposts – to read what's happening is part of the skill. For samādhi, for developing concentration – the stability, composure, unification of mind – there are signposts.
The Pali word for signposts, usually translated into English as 'signs' is 'nimitta.' It's used in a very different ways down through the history of Buddhism, and has different meanings. Sometimes it's reduced in meaning to being a visual image, which some people will see when their concentration gets strong. Maybe they see light – maybe white light, or yellow light, which lights up as they get concentrated. The image is called the 'nimitta.'
In the early Buddhist tradition, a 'nimitta' is any type of sign or indicator of the presence of something or that something is about to happen. The Buddha said that the nourishment for samādhi, what feeds and supports samādhi is two of these 'nimitta's, two of these signposts that we can find, read, or recognize in ourselves. One of them is samatha, which means tranquility, calm, or quietude.
The other signpost is a word that means something like 'non-dispersal,' 'non-fragmentation,' or 'non-agitation' of our thinking mind – part of this unification process, gathering together, being centered here. We're not being decentered by spinning out. I think the Pali word that's translated as non-dispersal could maybe be read as non-decentered. So these are 'nimitta.'
As we start getting concentrated, settled, with steadiness of mind – then, to recognize these signposts. To recognize that there is quietude, tranquility, or serenity – however we want to translate this word 'samatha.' And recognize that we're starting to be non-decentered – to be not scattered or dispersed in our minds. The mind is not jumping around, chasing every thought that comes along, wandering off for minutes at a time in fantasies or thoughts.
But there's a real feeling now of being gathered in, being non-dispersed, being here. Neither one of these signs have to be very strong at first. We're learning to recognize that these are signposts – they're pointing the way.
There might be a lot of agitation or dispersal of the mind. But if we keep focusing on those, it's too easy to reinforce them. The nourishment for samādhi is to take in, to allow us to experience or to be supported by tranquility and non-dispersal of the mind. This centeredness of the mind.
Even if there's a lot of agitation to recognize, maybe in the cracks of it, behind it, in the back room of it, in the attic and the basement. Somewhere inside, to recognize, "Oh, there's a little bit there. Yes, I'm agitated in fact. But, in my sternum, there's a little feeling of tranquility there. A little bit in my hands. My hands feel steady, confident and a little bit calm, tranquil."
To find where it might be. Don't manufacture it. And don't worry too much, if you can't find it. What we're talking about now, as meditation deepens and deepens, is not just sitting down and. "Boom! You have to be able to do this."
But as you begin feeling yourself settling and getting more and more here and calmer than you were before, that's when you start feeling: that's where to appreciate, to affirm, to validate these signs, these signposts: "This is good. This is the path forward, the direction to go. Now I've picked up the book at the chapter where I left it. This is where now I'm picking up again, the place where my practice is really deepening."
So to recognize these signposts. For the other nimita, that there's two nimitas in Pali, the Pali word is samatha. And the other one is 'avyagga.' 'Agga' could mean 'center.' And in 'vy' is 'divided' or 'separated'. And 'a' means 'not,' not separated from the center.
So this idea of being centered. There are other signposts for samādhi, a lot of them. So over time, you might learn these different ones, that can support us: "Oh, this is good. Now that we're in the territory, this is the direction forward."
Just to recognize it. Not at all to be attached to it. Or try to engineer and work too hard to get concentrated. But simply for the mind to begin recognizing: "This is the way forward. This is the path in the forest." As opposed to being distracted by every little troll, bird, insect, and butterfly – and we go chasing after them and we lose the trail. So to gather ourselves together, and start feeling and recognizing these signposts.
Some of the other signs are feeling physical sensations, which shift and change, and show we're getting concentrated. There can be tingling, a feeling of lightness, warmth, a glow. For some people there's a strong feeling of physical pleasure. Sometimes a little bit of pressure, vibration that begins happening someplace. Sometimes people feel it in the forehead, sometimes in the chest or the belly. Sometimes parts of our body, like the arms, start feeling so light, and may even seem to disappear, because things are so tranquil, so peaceful there. Or other parts of the body.
There might be visual signposts. There might be a field of vision that starts to get completely white, or some other color. Some people, when they get concentrated, will see little shapes in their field of vision, sometimes geometrical shapes. It's important not to get distracted by these visual images, especially if there's like geometrical signs or shapes. But they are supportive. So take them in, in the background of your experience: "Oh, I'm on track. I'm getting this as a signpost that I'm getting concentrated, that I'm deepening here."
Then there are what could be considered – maybe – more mental or emotional signposts. A common one is feeling joy welling up, delight, pleasure. Sometimes it's even a sense of rapture when samādhi gets strong. There's a feeling of delight, gladness, or relief that might be there.
Sometimes it's a deep sense of happiness – more sublime, more settled. A sense of deep contentment in the quietude here. And sometimes a sign of getting concentrated is that the mindfulness / awareness gets more and more clear. There becomes more equanimity in that clear awareness, which is a equanimous. We're less likely to be reactive to things, and feeling that equanimity feels so good.
Don't expect all these things to happen at once. Don't even try to memorize or look for all the things I've talked about. The two things that the Buddha emphasized as nimittas was tranquility, calm, or quietude: 'samatha' – or this non-decenteredness, the non-dispersive, non-scatteredness of the mind – the mind being composed.
Both of those are supported by the two actions, verbs that Buddha used when he instructed us – as we might say in English: "Become concentrated." He didn't use the English word concentrated because he didn't speak English. He used two words, one was the word to 'settle' and the other was to 'steady' – to settle on something and to steady oneself on something.
So, those four can be your signposts: settling on the breathing or in your experience; steadiness with your breathing; delightful warm, content, quietude, tranquility; and non-decenteredness. A feeling, "Ah, this is good to really be here, not scattered anymore."
Perhaps you can read the inner book. Read yourself – and see if you can find what supports, guides and gives you something to have a good sense of the term "hold onto" as you're developing concentration. Or be a cheerleader with support from the side: "Just stay there, be there. This is good. Keep opening to this; keep opening to this."
If you're not ready for that, or if it doesn't work because you're trying too hard or it's too much work, just put it aside. But sooner or later, hopefully you begin recognizing your signposts for what it means when the goodness of samādhi, the goodness of being settled and unified, begins to come into play.
And then to appreciate that. To validate and affirm that – so that the mind knows this is what's important. This is what's valuable.
Thinking about trolls, butterflies and all the other things are useful sometimes – but not for the purpose of meditation.
So thank you all very much and and we'll continue tomorrow.