Notes on Talk Six
2015 Dhamma Talk Series

Dharana: Baby, Baby Fish

No one asked me about the title for this talk. But it should become clear.

Over the last month I have come to really love the Yoga Sutras. Sometimes I find myself talking to someone on dhamma, and when I search for a phrase or a quote, I find one from YS.

But without doubt the text is a little jumbled. Scholars think this is because it was put together from other teachings over many years, or even centuries. To me, it seems more like class notes. Like someone got this great teacher to give a talk, and jotted down each idea as it was delivered.

Thus when we come to the last three parts of the 8 part path, we find there are two themes, that are not well distinguished.

First, for the actual statement of part 6, we have:

[6.1] Concentration locks consciousness on a single area.

This is a directive to practice concentration meditation.

You might know that in Buddhism there are two main streams of meditation –

a) concentration of the mind on a particular theme, called an ‘object’ – called Samadhi or Samatha (exact difference between these terms is disputed)

b) vipassana – or ‘insight’ meditation which focusses on the nature of things (such as impermanence, or non-self), rather than trying to concentrate on a single point.

There is something of a debate in Buddhist schools on the difference between these two styles, and which of them is vital and which disposable. It’s probably a bit like debating whether diet or exercise is important for health.

In actual fact, looking in the Buddhist sutras, just like the Yoga Sutras, we find both concentration and insight practises. Concentration can purify the mind, but only temporarily by shutting things out. It is also lacking in fluidity, since the mind is fixed on one spot. Insight on the other hand, seems to be a more lasting and fluid method of stilling the mind.

But note, both in Buddhism, and in the Yoga Sutras, the stilling of the mind is vital, even if the method to do so varies.

Not seeing things [avicca] as they are is the field where the other causes of suffering germinate, whether dormant, activated, intercepted, or weakened

Lacking this wisdom, one mistakes that which is impermanent, impure, distressing [asukha], or empty of self [anatamasu] for permanence, purity, happiness, and self.

The sense of ‘I’ ascribes selfhood to pure awareness by identifying it with the senses.

  • Attachment is a residue of pleasant experience
  • Aversion is a residue of suffering

(therefore) Clinging to life is instinctive and self-perpetuating, even for the wise.

In their subtle form, these causes of suffering are subdued by seeing where they come from. [insight/vipassana]

In their gross form, as patterns of consciousness, they are subdued through meditative absorption. [concentration/samadhi]

So the concentration method that is step 6, counts as meditative absorption, and considered a more gross form of stilling the mind. The phrase I keep coming back to in YS is

Both practice (abhyaasa) and non-reaction (dispassion/virakha) are required to still the patterning of consciousness.

Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness.

And this practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time.

As for dispassion, one can recognize that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.

So either way you cut it, there is a necessity to still the mind. For a regular person this is going outside of the comfort zone. If you are on facebook, you will likely have seen the following, all too true, image:


So after setting all the foundation practises in place, one has to learn to really meditate. And that means sitting on a cushion and dedicating time. Often we talk about ‘cushion hours’ much like a music band or theatre group might talk about rehearsal hours.

When you sit, and bring your attention home, the habit of the mind is to immediately reach for some kind of pass time. You do not like to be aware of yourself. It is definitely easier to turn on the TV, go for a nap, find a friend to talk to … But, here’s the question – are you curious? Saints and sages have told us that the magic happens when we turn the attention inwards. It is not easy at first, but you should find that, even just doing 20 minutes a day, you start to appreciate it – even appreciate the terrible sittings when your mind is a mess.

Sometimes meditation teachers (especially monastics) think that such teachings are too advanced for lay people. So they talk about heaven and hell, and being a good person. But in my experience, it does not matter so much if you are a monastic, or a layman. It seems to matter little if you are young or old. Perhaps you need a special kind of karma. Or perhaps it has more than a little to do with luck?

I remember when I ordained there was a young lad living close to the temple. Our temple was new actually, and so had not built much of a rapport with the locals. We were visited and funded by people from Bangkok, where my teacher had been teaching meditation for many years as a layman.

The lad would come and hang out. He was a quiet, thin guy, always happy, and of few words. He was also a yoga practitioner (yoga as in Hatha yoga positions). I believe he taught the 70 year old abbot to do yoga too. In 1996 was unusual in upcountry Thailand to find anyone who did yoga.

When he hit 20 years old he came and ordained as a monk. Within days of ordination he had made some huge attainments in meditation, even to the point of various special powers (both Buddhism and the YS list many of the special abilities that can be gained from deep meditation). He was taken aside and given special guidance, which is necessary in such circumstances. After a year or so, he disrobed and became a landscape gardener – another unusual profession in upcountry Thailand (Rajaburi province).

I have seen many others come, who frankly, I would not have deemed to have much chance of making it as a meditator, make rapid attainments. Now I have learned not to judge.

So, while we look at steps 6,7 and 8 of YS, it might seem somewhat esoteric, but don’t count yourself out. No one is saying you have to be a meditation yogi, but if it interests you, then sooner or later, you have to take that giant step outside of yourself.

There are four paths in Buddhism:

  • The slow and difficult
  • The slow and easy
  • The fast and difficult
  • The fast and easy

Personally, I am on the slow and easy path. Anyway, the more
you take your time, the more use you will be to others.

For a fast and difficult path, try this very interesting 50 page read
by a well known lay teacher in Thailand

Now, those of you who know me, know how I love story. Not any old story, but the mechanism of story in outlining certain concepts. Here I want to remind you of Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m not going to analyse the whole story, as I did that last year. But just help you recollect two certain images.

Remember when Jack takes his family cow to the market to sell? It was old, and no longer producing enough milk. The cow represents the ‘World’. When the world is not enough, and you have grown a little tired of it, you have to trade it for something new. We talked about this in previous weeks of this series.

Well, Jack meets a stranger, who offers him five beans for the cow. Jack accepts, and any child hearing the story would instantly know, that these beans hold the key to the story.

Jacks mum however, does not know, and she clouts him across the ear and sends him to bed with no supper. As for the beans, she throws them out of the window.

Going to bed without supper – this is a vital stage in the Hero’s Journey. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and got tempted by the devil. Buddha tormented himself with harsh ascetic practises for 6 years. Snow White had to hide in the scary forest. Going outside of your comfort zone is essential. If, that is, you wish to follow the yogis, saints and sages of the past and present.

In Jack’s story, it is even more specific. Throwing the beans out of the house, means giving up on the pleasures of the five senses, and withdrawing the attention inwards. We discussed this last week in the Dark Side of the Mirror (again non one asked about the title, so I did not explain it).

The Yoga Sutras mention 4 kinds of concentration; and these are relevant to all three of the last 8 steps of Yoga.

  1. attainment with thought (vitakka=directed effort)
  2. attainment without thought
  3. attainment with reflection
  4. attainment without reflection

Again – these are not well explained by YS. So they are open to interpretation. I would offer that 1 and 3 are object focussed, while 2 and 4 are without object.

What do I mean by that? Well, as we saw earlier, when you concentrate the mind by means of concentration, you need an object of focus for meditative absorption. This can be introduced by thinking – such mediation as reciting a mantra, or a visualisation. As the mind becomes concentrated, according to Buddhism, a ‘counter-part sign’ (nimitta) arises. This nimitta is more stable and one moves from the gross form of directing the mind via thought, and on to the more subtle sign that arises.

For instance, if one is meditating on the ‘fire element’, one observes a candle flame and repeats ‘fire, fire’ (vitakka) until the mind becomes absorbed. At that point there is a stable perception in the mind. Then you drop the repeated word, and focus on the stable image (nimitta).

Interestingly, the term vitakka is used both in YS and Buddhism. In the latter it is compared to a bee that spots a flower, and guides itself in that direction. Vitakka, thinking, has the function of ‘throwing’ attention back on to an object. Think about it – if someone insults you, and you feel bad, the feeling will quickly dissipate unless you keep ‘throwing’ yourself back on the topic by repeating the incident in your mind.

So 1) and 3) are meditation with an object.

2) and 4) are meditation without object. That is, the more subtle meditation where the mind stops still simply because insight is giving it nowhere to run.  The causes of suffering are put away by seeing their source, as mentioned earlier:

In their subtle form, these causes of suffering are subdued by seeing where they come from.

So in summary, to step outside your comfort zone is to turn the attention inwards. The mind will have to stop, and in the gross form of practise this means fixing the mind on an object of meditation. In the more subtle form of meditation, this means the mind stops because it has insight into its own nature. It is stopping still, in a purely subjective focus.

Well, we’re getting into some of the real mystic states – the kinds of experience that serious yogis have when they get into the actual practise. You find similar themes and teachings in mystic teachings of all traditions. One I have mentioned a few time is Satin Teresa d’Avila. I have read many of her books. They are pretty dense, and very religious, but if you have an interest, her auto-biography is available as a PDF here.

As mentioned, these 4 kinds of meditation relate to steps 6,7 and 8. But we can briefly mention the effect of the fourth and most subtle form of the meditation.

In 4 the lucidity of coalesced [literally nirvicara purity = thoughtless], reflection-free contemplation, the nature of the self becomes clear.

The wisdom that arises in that lucidity is unerring.

The ‘self’ in this case refers to pure awareness, or the Unconditioned. It does not refer to the ego, the personality, the body, age, gender, hopes dreams and aspirations. All those are temporary things that come and go in experience. Ishvara, or pure awareness, YS states many times, is none of that.

Unlike insights acquired through inference or teachings, this wisdom has as its object the actual distinction between pure awareness and consciousness.

Thus the goal of these meditations is to see this pure awareness by stilling everything else. After it is truly seen, the texts tell us, even when the world arises again, it is not going to delude any more.

Yeah! getting very esoteric now! Personally, this stuff is what I am interested in. I care little for rites and rituals, theories and philosophies. Even though those things are important.

YS says the sense of “I” attaches to the objects of sense. When the sensed object has arisen it is ‘consciousness’ [of something]. To separate awareness from consciousness is the goal of the practise. To do that we practise ‘resting in stillness’, steadily observing sensations while holding the mind still. Then awareness is uncoupled from objects. The patterning [process] of the mind subsides. The nature of the self becomes clear when the distinction between awareness and consciousness is clear.

All of these statements appear scattered throughout the Yoga Sutras. If you wish to apply yourself to the original text you might like to use my own version, which colour codes items and sorts them into sections. It is far from polished, but you are welcome to it if you wish – right click here and ‘save as’.

To finish off this week, we should take a look at how you concentrate. Traditionally, we concentrate by overcoming hindrances. In YS these are:

  • sickness
  • apathy
  • doubt
  • carelessness
  • hedonism
  • delusion
  • laziness
  • lack of progress
  • inconstancy

As usual, YS does not give us much information on what to do about all these.

In Buddhism, the list of hindrances is much more concise:

  • sense desire – which clouds the mind like turmeric or dye in a bowl of water
  • Ill will – which is like a bowl of water boiling
  • restlessness – which is like wind and waves disturbing the water
  • sloth and torpor – which is like weeds choking  the water
  • doubt – which is like mud being stirred up.

If none of these are present the mind is like a bowl of water still, clear and purified. And then, it is taught, one can ‘see one’s own face‘. The first glimpses of that baby, baby fish. 🙂