May 17, 2022

Samādhi: The Mind’s Blank Canvas

This is an edited version of a dharma talk given by IMS teacher Jill Shepherd during a recent retreat at the Forest Refuge.

The Seven Factors of Awakening are highly skillful mental qualities that support our meditation practice to deepen and provide the kind of transformative insights that offer true freedom of heart and mind. Learning how to recognize, cultivate, and strengthen the awakening factors is a key skill in Vipassanā practice.

The first of the Seven Factors of Awakening is mindfulness. Mindfulness is crucial, because if we’re not aware of what’s happening in our minds, we won’t be able to recognize any of the other awakening factors. So, mindfulness comes first. Then we have three factors that tend to brighten our mental energy: investigation, effort or energy, and joy. These are followed by the three last factors which tend to quieten our mental energy: tranquility, samādhi or absorption, and equanimity.

These are the Seven Factors of Awakening, and they have a reciprocal relationship with the Five Hindrances, those unskillful mental states that get in the way of clear seeing, of insight: namely, sensual desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt. The awakening factors can’t arise when the hindrances are present, and the hindrances can’t arise when the awakening factors are present.

As our dharma practice develops, we see how the afflictive states of the Five Hindrances are gradually weakened, and in their place, the beneficial states of the Seven Factors of Awakening, are gradually strengthened. There are always fluctuations in this process, but overall, as the awakening factors grow, we experience increasing ease and peace.

Focusing now on the awakening factors of tranquility and samādhi, we discover that, as with all the awakening factors, the preceding one naturally supports the next one to emerge, and the first step in the process is learning to recognize how each of these awakening factors show up for us.

Taking the example of tranquility to begin with, we can investigate: how does tranquility feel in the body, heart, and mind? Even reading these words now, you might take a moment to pause and tune in, to sense if there is any degree of tranquility present in yourself in this moment. It might be quite faint but learning to recognize even the slightest trace of any of the awakening factors is a useful skill to develop.

Importantly, this recognition should be done without self-judgment because any kind of aversion will interfere with the development of these factors. Instead, try to bring an attitude of kind curiosity, openness, and interest to what’s happening in the mind, so as not to disturb the subtle quiet of tranquility.

As we become more familiar with tranquility, we start to appreciate its role in refreshing the mind and supporting the next awakening factor of samādhi, or absorption, to arise. This is because when the mind is tranquil, it’s much easier to recognize the presence of the Five Hindrances that interfere with the mind’s capacity to become undistracted and unified.

In the context of everyday life though, when we are more stimulated and agitated, it often feels as if the mind is a swirling kaleidoscope of sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, doubt—and plenty of other afflictive states, too! But as we learn to stop turning the kaleidoscope and the mind becomes more still, tranquility reveals what’s going on more clearly. Then, the suffering of the hindrances becomes more obvious, and we naturally want to let them go in favor of experiencing more tranquility, stillness, and peace.

To get a sense of that process, I’d like to bring in a visual metaphor, using a painting by the American expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock (from 1948). The painting is officially called “Silver Over Black, White, Yellow, and Red,” but I think of it as “Portrait of a Mind Experiencing a Multiple-Hindrance Attack!”

At first glance, the painting might look like a chaotic mess. But what if we were to deconstruct this painting in the reverse order that the artist made it? Metaphorically, this is like the process we go through of calming the mind and clearing it of hindrances. So, if we take out some of these touches of yellow, silver, and red—some of that surface level agitation—we can see the black curves and the thin gray and white lines underneath more clearly. Then, because the mind is quieter and more still, the impact of those black, gray, and white marks is obvious, in a way that wasn’t as clear when there was so much else going on.

As we experience less agitation, we naturally want the mind to become more still. With practice, all the visual noise of the splatters, splashes, arcs, and blobs fade away into stillness and silence, and the mind becomes steady, gathered, and unified into samādhi. In this visual metaphor, samādhi represents the blank canvas that’s underneath all that paint.

The experience of samādhi, absorption, unification of mind, the state of unwavering and effortless awareness, is usually experienced as pleasant, and what a relief that is. In daily life, we are constantly bombarded by sense contacts, stimulated by touch, sight, sound, taste, smell, and thought. All these sense contacts are impinging on our consciousness thousands of times a second. We don’t even recognize the impact of all that, until we have an experience of its absence, when the mind becomes settled, absorbed, and unified into just one experience. So samādhi gives our whole nervous system a profound rest. It’s satisfying, nourishing, and, at times, blissful.

This bliss is one of the potential challenges of samādhi, too. Because it can be so pleasant, it’s easy to get attached to it. However, if we start chasing after it, that very wanting or greed in the mind, interferes with its development. So, we need to keep in mind that like everything else, samādhi arises due to conditions. Samādhi emerges naturally from the ease and calm of tranquility, not from forceful effort. When we let go of pushing and allow the Dharma to do its work, the momentum of practice is no longer self-referencing, and it can feel completely effortless and quietly joyful.

So, tranquility has a precursor, and that precursor is the experience of joy, contentment, and satisfaction. We can’t force this kind of ease to arise, but what we can do is set up supportive conditions that make it more likely to happen.

Coming back to Jackson Pollock’s painting, one of the first things we need to do to find more calm is to clear out the hindrance of restlessness—”worry and flurry” as it’s sometimes known, because restlessness and worry are the direct opposite of tranquility.

This is easier said than done, because restlessness and worry are the most dominant characteristic of many people’s lives today. Thanks to technology, the increasingly fast pace of life, and the influence of capitalism, we often feel pressured into intense busyness and consequent feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, isolation, and so on.

To support more tranquility in our formal meditation practice, we need to be working against that mainstream conditioning in our everyday lives, by slowing down and simplifying our lives as much as we can. Even if it’s just for a few moments at a time, it can help to simply, physically slow down. For example, when walking somewhere, try softening any tendency to rush, and move just a little more slowly than normal. When you arrive, take a moment to pause and acknowledge that you’ve arrived, before immediately moving to the next activity.

Another support for tranquility is traditionally known as “guarding the sense doors.” This is an aspect of renunciation, and it involves making a conscious choice to avoid unnecessary stimulation. We can experiment with letting go of some of our habitual ways of seeking distraction, in the service of deepening and maintaining calm. For example, I try at least once a month to have a day of being totally technology free. Every time I do it, by the end of the day, I’m amazed by how that background buzz in my mind—that I hadn’t even realized was there—is gone.

Then coming back to our formal meditation practice, we can keep orienting the heart and mind in the direction of tranquility, without attachment to results. The Buddha is reported to have said, “Frequently giving attention to calm, is the nutriment for the arising and fulfillment of this factor of awakening.”

Many people though, especially in the beginning, are not used to deep calm. As the hindrances gradually weaken, at times, they disappear altogether, and this can be disconcerting, because we’re almost addicted to thinking. We’ve got so used to wrestling with sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, doubt, and all the other afflictive states that can assail us. Yes, they’re unpleasant, but at least they’re familiar, and they give us something to do! So, when the hindrances start to be less predominant, it can feel like there’s nothing happening, or even that we’ve lost our mindfulness altogether.

There can be a gap then, between the refinement of our mindfulness, and the refinement of the mind states. As the mind states become more refined, the mindfulness needs to become equally refined, to be able to recognize what’s going on. We need to train ourselves to recognize how it feels to have a mind without any of the hindrances. Although that phase might not last very long, every moment where the mind is free of the hindrances is helping to loosen some of our so-called “karmic knots”—those deeply conditioned patterns or structures in the psyche that we spend so much time and energy wrestling with.

Because we are so used to being bound by these karmic knots, as they start to loosen, it can feel like an unraveling or even falling apart. When our usual defense mechanisms, personality habits, and self-protection strategies are starting to dissolve, we might find ourselves on shaky ground. This phase of the practice can be uncomfortable at times, and we need to bring in immense patience, kindness, and self-compassion to trust that everything we’re experiencing is a part of a natural unfolding.

I heard that in the Tibetan tradition, the words used to refer to meditation literally mean “getting used to it.” This idea can be interpreted in different ways, but I find it helpful in relation to those phases of the practice where there is a sense of being in new territory, to remember that meditation is about “getting used to it”—whatever it may be. We can kindly and patiently acclimate ourselves to this new and unfamiliar territory, so that eventually we’re able to stay in the terrain of all seven awakening factors for longer and longer, then profoundly transformative insights can arise of their own accord.

These insights then inform how we live the rest of our lives, outside of formal meditation and retreat. In this way, the two wings to awakening—wisdom and compassion—come together, helping us to live in alignment with our aspiration to be of benefit to ourselves and all living beings.