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Nine Stages of Training the Mind
By Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche presents a map of the meditative process. From a wild and busy mind to the perfection of equanimity, he lays out the nine stages of training the mind.
As the lineage of meditators sat on their cushions and worked with their
minds, they saw the same unfolding process: nine ways that the mind can be
true to its inherent stability, clarity and strength. In their descriptions
of nine stages of training the mind through the practice of shamatha
meditation, or “peaceful abiding,” they left us signposts of that process.
These guidelines are helpful because the mind is so vast that if we’re left
to our own devices, we’ll usually just wander in thought. These nine stages
are a map of the meditative process.
The first four stages—placement, continual placement, repeated placement
and close placement—have to do with developing stability. Stages five and
six—taming and pacifying—have to do with developing clarity. And the last
three stages—thoroughly pacifying, one-pointed and equanimity—have to do
with building strength.
Placing our mind on the breath is the first thing we do in meditation. In
the moment of placing our mind, it’s like we’re mounting a horse: we put our
foot in the stirrup and pull ourselves up to the saddle. It’s a matter of
taking our seat properly.This moment of placement starts when we extract our mind from its
engagement with events, problems, thoughts and emotions. We take that wild
and busy mind and place it on the breath. Even though we’re placing our
consciousness, which isn’t physical, placement feels very physical. It’s as
deliberate as placing a rock on top of a leaf.
In order for placement to be successful, we have to formally acknowledge
that we’re letting go of concepts, thoughts and emotions: “Now I’m placing
my mind upon the breath.” What happens in that moment? Our attachments are
uprooted. If we can even attempt such a thing, our discursiveness is greatly
reduced. At the same time, by placing it on the breath, we’re gathering the
mind that’s spread thin all over.
For beginning meditators the first stage is where we learn how to balance
the focus on breathing, recognition of thoughts and holding the posture.
It’s a grace period during which we develop good meditation habits. As we
continue in our practice, placement is always the first step. It’s that
moment at the beginning of each session when we recognize and acknowledge
that we’ve begun meditating. Because it establishes our attitude toward the
rest of the session, it’s the most important stage. The moment of placement
gives our meditation a crisp, clean start. If we begin in a vague or
ambiguous way, then our meditation will only continue to be vague and
ambiguous. Like placing a domino, how carefully we place our mind in the
first stage will directly affect the development of the next.After that first moment, each time you choose to recognize and
acknowledge a thought and return your consciousness to the breath, you’re
learning placement. It’s such a small act, so innocuous, but it’s one of the
most courageous things you can do. When you recognize and release that
thought, you can take pride in yourself. You’ve overcome laziness. You’ve
remembered the instructions. You can feel happy coming back to the breath.
Don’t worry that you’re going to have to do it again—you’re going to do it
thousands of times. That’s why this is called practice.
Each time you remember to place your mind on the breath, you’re moving
forward. Just by letting a thought go, you’re extracting yourself from
concepts, negative emotions and bewilderment. You’re letting go of the need
to be endlessly entertained and consumed. You have to do it again and again
and again. Change happens one breath at a time, one thought at a time. Each
time you return to the breath, you’re taking one step away from addiction to
discursiveness and fear and one step forward on the path of enlightenment,
beginning with developing compassion for yourself.
I love golf. I play it whenever I can. No matter what kind of game I’m
having, I can hit only one ball at a time. Each ball is the only ball; my
mind has to be fresh every time. If I think of the balls I’ve hit or the
balls I will hit, I’m not really hitting this ball. I’m only
ingraining bad habits. It’s the same with placement. If you’re not crisp and
fresh in recognizing and releasing thoughts, you’re not really meditating;
you’re ingraining sloppiness. Those thoughts will gain power, and eventually
you won’t be meditating at all. You’ll just be thinking.
Recognizing, acknowledging and releasing a thought is like reaching the
top of a mountain. It’s worthy of the warrior’s cry, “Ki ki so so!”
What we celebrate is leaving behind the self-indulgent fantasies that will
rob us of our life unless we work with them properly. Inspiration, view,
effort, trust, mindfulness and awareness support us in this.
The more we’re able to gather our attention and focus, the stronger our
mind becomes, the stronger the experience becomes and the stronger the
result becomes. We know we’re able to place our minds properly when we can
hold our focus on the breathing for roughly twenty-one cycles without our
mind becoming enormously distracted.
Placing our mind on the breath is now fairly easy. We’ve learned to mount
the horse, and now we feel comfortable being in the saddle. The horse is
walking along the trail. We’re experiencing how it feels to be on the
breath, to be continually in placement. When discursiveness and distraction
take us off the trail, by and large we’re able to implement placement and
get back on. What allows us to do this—continual placement—is further
development of mindfulness and awareness, lack of laziness and remembering
Another reason we’re able to successfully place our mind on the breath is
that we have confidence in the reasons why we’re meditating. We do it with
enthusiasm because we know it will bring us peace. We see the futility of
outside concerns, fantasies, thoughts and emotions. We’re willing to give
them up at least for the period of our meditation because we see the
benefits of doing so. Placement has become a reasonable thing to do.
When resting our mind on the breathing and relating to our thoughts with
ease becomes the norm, we’re coming to the end of this stage. A benchmark is
that we’re about to rest our minds for roughly 108 cycles of the breath
without being caught in distraction. Through 108 breaths, in and out, we can
be mindful of the breathing. Although we may experience some discursiveness,
the thoughts aren’t bothersome or large enough that we lose mindfulness and
forget the breathing altogether.
At this stage our mindfulness and stability last only so long; then our
mind drifts off. But when the mainstay of our practice is that we can stay
on the breathing for 108 breaths, giving ourselves a little wiggle room in
that we will be neither completely still nor completely distracted. Then
we’ve graduated from the second to the third stage, which is known as