Half Moon Day: The Five Indriya, Part 2.

May 12, 2008

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The Five Spiritual Faculties, Part 2

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Let’s get back to the Five Spiritual Faculties! A few weeks ago we looked at the need to balance the first pair of faculties: confidence and wisdom. This time we’ll look at the importance of balancing energy or exertion with samadhi. Samadhi here describes the element of calm in meditation. Here we are essentially focusing on the need to exert the correct amount of energy in our meditation. Once again King Mindfulness watches over these two subjects and tries to ensure that they complement each other, without one becoming dominant.

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Sona and the Lute

There’s a story in the scriptures that concerns a young monk named Venerable Sona. He was staying in the Cool Wood near Rajagaya. One evening he was meditating in seclusion after having done walking meditation until the soles of his feet were cracked and bleeding.

While seated he thought to himself: “Of all the Blessed One’s disciples, I am one of those who tries the hardest, and yet my mind is still not free from the defilements. Suppose I return to the lay-life, enjoy wealth and make merit.”

Now the Buddha, who was staying close by on the Vulture Peak Rock, became aware of the Venerable Sona’s thoughts and soon after appeared before him.

“Sona, just now while you were meditating, did not the following thought appear in your mind: ‘Of all the Blessed One’s disciples, I am one of those who tries the hardest, and yet my mind is still not free from the defilements. Suppose I return to the lay-life, enjoy wealth and make merit’?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Now what do you think, Sona, when you were a lay-man, were you skilled at playing the lute?”

“I was, Lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings on your lute were too loose, was your instrument well tuned and was the music beautiful?”

“No, Lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings on your lute were too taut, was your instrument well tuned and was the music beautiful?”

“No, Lord.”

“But Sona, what about when the strings on your lute were neither too loose, nor too taut, but perfectly tuned, was your instrument well tuned and was the music beautiful then?”

“Lord, when the strings were neither too loose, nor too taut, but just right, my lute was well tuned and the music was indeed beautiful.”

“So it is with your meditation, Sona. Over-exertion leads to restlessness, and under-exertion leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, balance the five faculties, and there pick up your theme.”

Sona applied this advice from the Buddha and in no long time he became an enlightened one.

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Trouble on the Toilet

The correct application of energy is one of the areas of our meditation practice that needs the constant attention of King Mindfulness. Sometimes when I’m leading a meditation group I look around the room and examine people’s faces. You can often get a good idea of whether they’re trying too hard or too little. Some people sit with this immense frown on their face. They look like someone who’s having a bit of trouble on the toilet! Other people sort of lean back a bit, jaw dropped, maybe trying to still their mind a bit but they really should be exerting themselves more as their minds are more than likely running around willy-nilly. We can easily swing in either of these directions, but the way to attain results in our meditation is to find that fine line that goes straight down the middle.

Meditation is a real art, especially in terms of how much effort to apply. When you look at an advanced meditator they look as though they are making no effort at all. Indeed, concentration should be effortless.

But to get to this stage of effortlessness, when mindfulness flows with its object all by itself, we need to apply effort. Ajahn Chah said that it’s like training yourself to use a treadle sewing machine. At first your foot movements are quite jerky, but gradually you develop the correct technique and after a time the action becomes almost effortless; you just apply a little pressure here and there to keep the treadle tipping backwards and forwards.

So with this action of the treadle, we start off by applying effort, and our actions may at times be stiff and clumsy, but as we refine that effort and get a feel for the machine, the treadle builds up its own momentum and we consequently reduce our effort. It then reaches a stage where we seem to be applying hardly any any effort at all: the treadle moves largely under its own momentum. If, however, we stop moving our feet completely, and get out of rhythm with the treadle, then it will gradually lose its momentum and come to a stop.

So when we first sit down to meditate we may need to make quite an effort to focus our minds. We need to be resolute and disciplined, keeping a close eye on the mind and bringing it back frequently. Like the untrained dog of my last post, the mind keeps wandering off. But we keep on applying the effort by bringing it back. This ‘bringing back’ the mind then gradually becomes a habit of the mind. When it becomes a habit it begins to be more inclined to come back. After a time it wanders very little.

Now as we go through this process of bringing the mind back, of perpetually gathering its energies, we will need to adjust our effort accordingly. It’s like when you’re training that naughty dog. He bounds off into the distance after that sheep. “GET HERE YOU!!!” You shout. You really have to make an effort! You might even need to leg it after him and possibly even make a spectacular dive to stop him from getting the poor sheep. But as you progress in your training of him, the effort you need to apply to train him becomes less and less. After progressing, a gentle “heel” is all that is needed to ensure he stays by your side. When the dog is truly well trained then you do not have to say anything to him. You walk at your leisure and he stays faithfully with you.

Our training in meditation is exactly the same. After training the mind well, a simple ‘heel’ is all that is needed, whereas at the beginning we’d be chasing it all over the place.

Now we can look at this progression in two ways. Firstly, in the context of a single sitting; and secondly, in the context of our entire practice.

In the case of a single sitting we need to know that at the beginning of our sitting we may need to apply more effort, but then as we move through that period it may be appropriate for us to ‘take our foot off the accelerator’ and reduce the effort. Though having reduced the effort we may veer towards dullness and so we must again increase our energy, and so on.

During the course of our entire practice we should find that meditation becomes less difficult, and as a result our application of effort goes to a different and more refined level. Of course these minds are very inconsistent. During one sitting we may close our eyes and the mind ‘leaps’ towards stillness and the energies of the mind come together nicely and we don’t seem to need to do much. If this happens then we need to be gentle with the mind. Too much effort to concentrate will spoil the meditation.

At other times we close our eyes and our mind is, well, you know how it is. It certainly ain’t in the present moment!

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Tuning In

We can also understand this principle of applying the correct amount of effort by bringing to mind the action of tuning into a radio station.

Let’s say we’re trying to tune into Classic fm (certainly not Radio One, and definitely not the channel with the Archers!). We know there is some sweet music to be listened to, we just need to find the correct frequency. We put our fingers on the knob and we gradually turn it to try and find the desired channel. At first there’s a lot of crackling – ‘kurrrsschhh kurrrsschhh….’ That’s not what we want. So we gradually turn the knob. As we get closer to Classic fm the crackling and the raw sounds soften. At this point we know we are nearer to the sweet music and so we turn the knob more slowly. We are becoming sensitive to the amount of effort needed to find our desired radio station. Then after a little while the occasional sound of a violin or a piano momentarily appears and then disappears. We’re close, so we reduce the effort. We are now very careful when turning the knob, as we know that turning it too much will mean we’ll go too far. Then, after a time, we find that glorious music and we sit back and enjoy it.

Meditation is the same. Mindfulness is the hand that turns the knob; the ‘kurrrsschhh’ on one side of the music is over-exertion; the ‘kurrrsschhh’ on the other side is under-exertion; the glorious music is a concentrated mind.

Sometimes when we are trying to find that radio station, though, we may hit the right frequency for a moment, but the momentum that carried us into that frequency was too strong, and so we go too far the other way and we’re then back into ‘kurrrsschhh kurrrsschhh….’ So it is with our meditation: we may hit that ‘frequency’ we’re after – the refined state of meditation, but our effort was not refined enough and so we go past it and become dull.

You could also think of it like when you are driving along in the car looking for a turning. If you’re going too fast you’ll miss it. Oops. So you slow down and go back.

Once when I was taking one of my daily walks I paid a visit to the river. I had been paying a lot of attention to this principle of balancing effort during my meditation. During the walk I stopped in the middle of a field in order to practise mindfulness of breathing. I remember standing there for quite some time, trying to focus on my breath but feeling I wasn’t getting anywhere. My concentration certainly wasn’t refined to begin with. But I kept this teaching of the need to balance energy with calm at the forefront of my mind. I used my mindfulness to alter the amount of effort that was needed. My mind moved from one side of the ‘music’ to the other, without ‘hearing’ it, so I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere. But then, all of a sudden, I found a good meditation frequency and my mind temporarily went into a quite concentrated state. But owing to my inexperience my deluded mind rushed to the scene of the good meditation and said “Woah! What happened there?!” And I lost the frequency. Damn!

So, balance your effort. And know that the correct frequency may not be far away! Keep trying. It’s a fine line between the ‘kurrrsschhh kurrrsschhh….’ on either side of the effortless, peaceful, bright and wisdom-inducing state of concentration.


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The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, being Visakha Puja – the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing, Monday, 19th May.

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