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We might feel like we have been doing repeated placement since the
beginning. But the landscape of meditation is vast, and the stages
progressively subtle, because they describe our experience, which becomes
more and more refined. The Tibetan word for this stage is len, which
means to retrieve, to gather, to bring back. We’ve learned how to place our
mind and how to continue to place our mind, but occasionally a thought still
breaks out like a wild horse galloping across the plains. In the first two
stages this happened incessantly. By the third stage it happens only
occasionally.During the second stage, we learned to enjoy the ride. We’re delighted
that we can stay in the saddle and enjoy the scenery. In the third stage we
become more confident. But the horse will have spontaneous moments of
excitement and wildness. Now and then it rears or bucks or leaves the trail.
We have to bring it back. We practice occasionally retrieving it throughout
the third stage, and by the end we do it less and less. Our mindfulness is
maturing into stability.
Now we’re able to focus on our breathing, on being present. When the mind
departs, it’s usually to chase fantasies of little pleasures, from food to
better weather to romantic adventures. This is elation: we’re holding our
mind too tightly. We’re focused on the breath so hard that the mind suddenly
departs. As this stage progresses, the speed and efficiency with which we
retrieve our mind increases. By comparison, the way we extracted ourselves
from thoughts in earlier stages looks messy. Sometimes it was like
quicksand—the harder we tried to get out, the more we were embroiled. But
now, because mindfulness is so strong, we’re able to remove ourselves with
precision. By the end of this stage we’ve achieved one of the milestones of
shamatha: stability. Mindfulness is so potent that we’re able to
remain on the breath without ever being fully distracted. Awareness is also
becoming more astute. We’re beginning to catch thoughts before they occur.Our meditation isn’t as clear and vibrant as it could be, but it feels
good and peaceful because we’ve stabilized our minds. Throughout the course
of a session, our mind always remains in the theater of meditation. This is
an admirable accomplishment. In Tibet it is likened to a vulture soaring
high in the sky over a dead animal. This bird now always keeps its eye on
the food. It may drift a little to the left or right, but it never loses
sight of the food. Similarly our minds may drift here and there, but never
away from the breath.
Before the end of the third stage, sometimes we were present for our
practice and sometimes we weren’t. Now we’re there for all of it. This is
stability. It didn’t happen because we hit ourselves over the head with an
overly simplified meditation technique. We achieved it gently and precisely
through repetition, consistency, view, attitude, intention, proper posture
and good surroundings.
The entry to the fourth stage, which is known as close placement,
is marked by nondistraction. We always remain close to the breath. That’s
when we know we’ve crossed the border. This is stability. We know that even
though the horse will wander here and there, it won’t be leaving the trail.Our meditation now takes on a different twist. Previously our main
concern was not to be distracted from the breath. We were worried that our
mind was going to be sucked back into everyday problems. We were always
wondering if we’d be strong enough to return to the breath. Now we’re more
relaxed. We’re no longer wondering if we can stay on the breath because we
know we can. We’re no longer concerned about outside influences pulling us
away from meditation because we know they won’t. Our confidence is
heightened. Now we’re concerned about the quality of our meditation—the
texture, the experience. Before we were worried that we couldn’t get a cup
of coffee; now we want a mocha cappuccino. How can we make our minds
stronger, more vibrant? This is our new priority.
By and large, we’ve overcome the obstacles of laziness and forgetting the
instructions. These obstacles were bad because they kept us from meditating.
By the end of the third stage and into the fourth stage we’re dealing with
the obstacles of elation and laxity. Either extreme has distracting results.
However, since by now we’re always remaining at the scene of our practice,
these are considered good problems to have.In Tibet we’re warned that at the fourth stage we might be fool enough to
think we’ve achieved enlightenment or high realization—the mind feels so
strong and stable and good. Because the struggle with our mind has been
reduced greatly, there’s a quality of joy and ease. But if we enjoy the
stability of the mind too much, it will become too relaxed. We might not
reach the other stages. Hence the obstacle of laxity. Our mind is stable but
not clear. The bird can’t land on the meat; it can only fly around it. We
need awareness to hone in, sharpen sensibility, pull our mind in tighter.
Even though the accomplishments at the third and fourth stages are
heroic, there’s further to go. In the fifth stage we’re able to tighten up
our meditation by bringing in more clarity. This stage is known as taming
because we begin to experience the true fruits of a tamed mind, something
that we began to cultivate long ago in the first stage. Taming here is the
experience of lesu rungwa, being able to make our mind workable. In
the fourth stage, we might still feel awed by the fact that we’ve tamed the
horse. But now a strong, stable and clear mind feels natural. Our mind is
not perfectly still. We still have discursive thoughts. But we’re feeling
true synergy with the horse. We’re feeling harmony. We’re no longer
The harmony and synergy create joy. A traditional metaphor for what we
experience at this stage is the delight of a bee drawing nectar from a
flower. Meditation tastes good, joyous. If you’ve ever had a hard time and
then suddenly felt the pressure lift, you might have briefly known such
bliss and liberation.
The sixth stage is known as pacifying. A great battle has taken
place and there is victory. We’re seated on the horse surveying the field.
We know we’ve won. We feel tranquil and vibrant like mountain greenery after
a thunderstorm. Everything has been watered and energized. There is
tremendous clarity.We’re still working with a mind that is sometimes tight and sometimes
loose. In our practice we still have to make many little adjustments. But in
making these adjustments we’re no longer frantic, as we might have been in
the first few stages. Then it was questionable that we would ever make our
mind an ally, and now the peace we feel tells us that we have. Our
meditation is joyous and clear. We begin to experience not only mind’s
natural harmony, but also its inherent strength.
At this stage we also feel excitement. We begin to see the possibilities
of what we can accomplish with our tamed mind. Before, this relationship was
a burden, but now it’s full of possibilities. The wild horse has been tamed.