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Sanctuary—the context for a regular meditation practice, including place, time, and rhythm—provides the outer container in which we craft an inner sanctum for meditation.

Buddhist meditation is more exploratory than you might think. Indeed, even from the first steps of cultivating tranquility (Sanskrit: shamatha, Tibetan phonetic: shinay), investigative properties of mind lead the way. By the same token, the inquiry involved is less coarse and conceptual than it is subtle and experiential.

Wondering what role conceptual activity plays in quiescence? Read on...

Base Camp

Seated in your outer sanctuary, first we set up base camp, the headquarters of our meditation operations.

Specifically, we intentionally embody a position of open alertness. We all have experience with the way the physical can influence the psyche and vice versa. In meditation practice, we enlist this active interplay between body and mind to provide mind with an alluring energetic posture to inhabit during practice.

Literally, we take our seat (Skr. asana, Tib. den) by aligning the body around the axis inscribed by these seven points, traditionally called the posture of Vairocana:

  1. Legs crossed in a stabilizing posture: vajra (or full lotus); half-lotus; bodhisattva posture; simple cross-legged; or, if seated in a chair, straight forward with feet planted on the floor and knees perpendicular to ankles

  2. Spine erect and energized upward, like an arrow

  3. Hands in the mudra of equanimity (right fingers on top of left, palms face up in the lap with tips of thumbs touching each other gently), or hands face down on knees with a slight bend in the elbows

  4. Chest brave and open with the shoulder blades tucked slightly back

  5. Chin ever so slightly hooked downward, so that the back of the neck lengthens

  6. Lips gently touching or slightly parted, with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of our palette

  7. Eyes partly open, with a gentle gaze directed downward slightly, resting softly on the space about eight finger-widths or so in front of the nose

This physical stance provides a vital support of grounding, uplift, and energy. Simply put, we embrace this embodiment to entice the mind into resonance with the qualities we are expressing physically, coaxing mind's innate stillness, lucidity, and ease into the open.

The inward meditative space is characterized more by finesse than force. Encouraging conditions harmonious to ease (Skr. sukha, Tib. dewa) [1] consolidates mind within an inner sanctum. Here, mind itself partakes of its inherent gracefulness, poised dynamically between quiet and alert.

Embodiment and Resonance

What are we actually doing when we practice in this outer sanctuary and inner sanctum?

Before getting into the details, it is helpful to distinguish “consciousness” from “awareness.” They may sound synonymous in everyday parlance, but the distinction makes all the difference in Buddhist contemplative praxis. In most basic terms, “awareness” is the mind’s pervasive knowing quality, boundless and ever-present.

“Consciousness” in this context refers to six operations of mind which engage experience by means of sensory objects. Thus, we speak of six sense consciousnesses—one for each of the physical senses plus mental, or cognitive consciousness—or of consciousness as including all six. [2] A simple way to think of consciousness in this context is "sensory mind."

Of these, it is mental consciousness that is the primary actor in meditation. [3] Whether we are using a tangible object, visible image, sound, the breath, thoughts, emotions, or awareness as the focus of meditation, it is the mental consciousness that is meditating, familiarizing itself with balanced attentiveness and awareness. Awareness itself is always active, in and out of contemplative practice.

As beginners, it is helpful to use our very embodiment as our meditation focus. Fill the shape you make on your seat with dignity. Sense the flux of sounds, smells, tastes, textures gently. Note shifts in light or shadow. Seize onto none of it. This grounds consciousness in the soil, the very earth and foundation of our meditation practice.

Using our individual embodiment as the initial meditation focus helps to stabilize the sensory mind as we transition from everyday activity to meditation. This grounds the mind in the concrete present, luring it away from wandering among abstractions.

From this base, we cultivate three seminal features of mental consciousness, encouraging us to lean into each moment as fully as possible. At Prajna Fire, we translate these three features as recollection (Skr. smrti, Tib. drenpa ), vigilance (Skr. samprajanya, Tib. sheshin), and heedfulness (Skr. apramada, Tib. bagyo). These are among many metacognitive elements of mental consciousness operative in introspection generally, and meditation in particular.

With our body as the meditation focus, recollection tethers mind to the physicality of the moment. Vigilance monitors experience and detects distraction, as well as tightness or slumping in the body, precursors of agitation and dullness, respectively. Heedfulness calls mind to center, consolidating it around our posture whenever vigilance spots it lurching into wandering or slinking into stupor. These three features reference mind's stance, inclination, and movement subtly, holding experience in awareness moment by moment, slowly converging on the sweet spot where the mind remains alert and quiet with ease.

After a time, we gently shift our focus to a “meditation object,” which may be a visible form, such as a candle flame, or the breath, sound, or even thought or the sky-like expanse of awareness itself. [4] Again recollection, vigilance, and heedfulness operate to place, observe, and coalesce mind around our meditation focus, even as our body posture continues to invite the mind to mirror the presence in its open and alert placement.

Over and above, within and without, awareness remains vibrant, poised, lucid. When wandering occurs, awareness knows. Awareness knows, too, the fine movements of vigilance in identifying distraction, and of heedfulness in realigning mind to recollection. Sleepiness? Again, awareness knows it, and knows as well the vigilance, heedfulness, and recollection that steer the mind to resonate with our embodied, alert, and open stance.

Quite the difference from a series of distractions and harsh returns. Awareness wielded in this way enfolds even distraction and sleepiness into the flow of meditation—vividly. Eventually, with time and practice, the mind inclines to rest right amidst expansive awareness itself, without a focus, yet containing all that could serve as a focus. Looking at the Tibetan term usually translated meditation (gom), which literally means to familiarize oneself with, or cultivate a habit, clarifies this process.

Creatures of Habit

Just as in everyday life, whenever we sit in meditation, we engage habitual tendencies. Perhaps we are calling up established habits of overthinking, for example, letting go of the resulting conceptual proliferation, and replacing the inclination to seize on thoughts as real with a fresh habit of awareness that knows the thinking as thinking, and chooses gentle release. The same applies to sensory stimulation or sluggishness.

At first, meditation is very much this dance of distraction and awareness in alternation. Given time, awareness holds sway. No need to suppress wandering or chastise laxity with harshness. Awareness clarifies naturally, dispelling imbalance by simply appearing on the scene. Knowing we are wandering is itself awareness, as is recognizing we are being lulled into stupor. This is distraction serving as the condition for awareness.

The beauty of meditation is precisely this: meeting our mind’s habits as they are, greeting them with the benevolence that wishes for mind’s ease and the caring that wishes that mind not experience discomfort. Awareness that holds this process of distraction and return heals and transforms our habits in time, replacing painful tendencies with awareness, gentle and precise, directing the volition to more harmonious alternatives.

When meditation becomes awareness-forward, distraction (whether inward or outward) becomes increasingly subtle—periodic undercurrents amidst a panoramic field of awareness. In time, this too, subsides, and the effortless, easeful balance of stillness and lucidity that is tranquility (Skr. shamatha, Tib. shinay) prevails.

Mapping Boundaries

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? How do we get there?

When commencing contemplative practice, whether of tranquility or insight, embracing a wholesome inner framework for our inner experience is most helpful. This is not because we want to contain awareness (which is not even possible). Allowing sensory mind freedom within a defined inner arena has a mellowing effect, with the resulting softness bringing more flexibility to our meditative movements. Healthy mental boundaries also make recognition of habitual distraction more accessible.

One could describe distraction as enmeshment with experience beyond the bounds of an intentional contemplative framework. When the sensory mind pushes outward from contemplative boundaries, it wanders, enmeshed in the physical or cognitive senses. Typically we experience this as agitation, wandering, excitement, proliferation of thoughts, and the like. There is a quality of attachment, or aversion, or both present. The body can feel jangly, enervated, fidgety—whatever your felt sense of over-excitement may be.

Collapse of contemplative boundaries inward corresponds to the sensory mind becoming enmeshed in avoidance. This is often experienced as dullness, stupor, sleepiness, numbing out, and so on. The quality is one of apathy, or delusion. The body can feel heavy, shapeless, droopy, unstructured—again, the particular quality is our individual felt sense of torpor.

Meditation practice that comprises solely a vacillation amidst or between inner and outer distraction—dullness and agitation—is, sadly, not much different than the samsaric condition for which the Buddha prescribes meditation in the first place: involuntary, serial propulsions this way and that by attachment, aversion, and apathy.

Reinforcing this habit in meditation yields little integration of the replenishing quality of meditation into daily life. Meditation becomes stagnant, despite much time spent “on the cushion.” We can keep at it this way, for years, and simply reinforce the very habits that we want to overcome through spiritual practice.

Some signs of this are: consistently being lost in reverie, anticipation, zoning out, or sleep immediately upon sitting to meditate, becoming aware only at the end of the session. The key here is the "lost" quality, which indicates an absence of awareness. Not just once in a while, when we are tired or busy, but habitually, irrespective of the conditions of daily life. If that is the case, we are literally familiarizing ourselves with distraction rather than awareness, fortifying habits of attachment, aversion, and apathy, on and off the cushion. Especially when cultivated over a period of years, this can be a sticky thicket.

What to do?

Staking a Claim

Whether we are meditation beginners or old hands at meditating on distraction, the process for resetting our inner compass is much the same. It begins by staking a claim, marking out boundaries for a wholesome inner contemplative framework.

Indeed, that sense of bounded sacred space is present right within the term “contemplate,” our preferred translation of the Tibetan sam, alternatively rendered as reflecting, thinking, or analyzing. This rich English word traces its etymology to ancient customs whereby augurs, or seers, set off an area dedicated to sacred practices from secular spaces.

In this sense, to contemplate is to be “with” (con-) the “consecrated space,” (-templum) that is to say, to be aligned with an arena made sacred by the active intent to dedicate it to engaging in spiritual observation. In experiential terms, we set bounds for sensory mind and recognize awareness filling that space as a tool for developing familiarity with and refining mind qualities that a given meditation practice highlights.

For example, in shamatha, our boundary is the meditation focus, which we use to foster stillness and lucidity, experiencing the ease that is the natural outcome of attaining tranquility. In Mahamudra practice, mind is the arena in which we develop tranquility, insight, and the unity of the two. Cultivating the four boundless qualities within our heart space, we advance experiences first of tenderness, then equanimity, benevolence, caring, and delight.

Hitting Our Stride

This process is much like the procedure for creating sanctuary externally. When we take our seat within that outer sanctuary, again we set an aspiration—a reasonable one—for the scope of our session of formal practice.

Yet, to force ourselves to fill that time with unbroken concentration, at first, works a subtle violence to the untrained mind. Rather than easing into the meditation, the mind resists, either bucking or deflating, more interested in sensory fulfillment or tuning out than engaging our meditation focus, not to mention awareness without any focus at all.

Rather than force ourselves to meet an arbitrary session length, one skillful method is to carve out “microsessions,” defined as the period of time we can sustain recollection on our chosen meditation focus without distraction, whether outward or inward. This may be a few seconds, or up to a minute, or a bit more, at first. Whatever the quantity, qualitatively it is just right by definition—a time span set by our own experience.

What do we do with these microsessions? Let’s say our meditation period is 15 minutes. We can sustain attention onyour meditation focus comfortably for 30 seconds without excitation or laxity. Our microsession is thus 30 seconds. When ready to begin, we collect the mind and settle it on the meditation focus held by recollection, vigilance, and heedfulness. For 30 seconds. Then we pause and allow the mind to rest.

The body does not change posture. It remains fortified, supportive, uplifted. An observer in the room would not know anything has changed. But we release any tightness to mind, shore up any looseness as we rest, not focusing on anything, simply aware that we are resting. The rest can be up to as long as the focus time at first, but usually 50% or less time works well. Let’s use 15 seconds for this example. Then we return to another 30 seconds of focus, continuing these cycles of 30 seconds of focus and 15 seconds of rest one after another until the 15-minute meditation period ends.

In time, the microsessions grow longer as we become accustomed to sustaining unbroken recollection for 30 seconds, then 40, then 60, and so forth. Once the focus period lengthens, the rest period can shift to up to half the focus time, then a quarter, and so on. In time, the microsession spans the entire meditation period. We can now extend the meditation time with care, using the new microsession length as a basis.

How do you know how much to adjust focus or rest, and when? Through your lived experience during and between the microsessions. Your body is a wonderful gauge of what is happening to your mind. Check in on it during rest. Remain receptive to its signals as you focus. Sense the quality of your mind’s energy as you focus. This measures the stamina of your recollection, which is your microsession length.


In this process, two decidedly cognitive factors come into play: examination and investigation (Skr. vitakka and vicara; Tib. tokpa and chopa). Each is a mighty tool in our contemplative arsenal, permitting the delicate inner exploration that buffs the mind into resonance with both our alert embodiment and our practice instructions.

Of these two, examination has the coarser energy. In the context of meditation, examination identifies the focus broadly, whether it is the body as a whole, or specific parts, or other meditation focus. Its function is to pinpoint, spotting the focus as distinct from other sense contacts, and to initiate mental engagement with it.

Investigation's more subtle energetic then takes over, tethering consciousness to the meditation focus actively. Its function is to sustain the engagement of consciousness with the meditation focus initiated by examination over a series of instants. This yields an interchange between consciousness and the meditation focus as its object. Consciousness gradually becomes conversant in investigation’s subtle, sustained attentiveness.

Normally, we do not tease out the process of perception to so fine a degree—we may go so far as to consider that sensory mind is perceiving an object. The value of this more nuanced understanding of perception is that it refines our experiential antennae, tuning us into the interplay between consciousness and the meditation focus.

This understanding is key to adjusting attentiveness this way and that, relaxing attention when wandering waxes, tightening it when laxity looms. These meditative movements, too, have an accompanying, subtle felt sense in the body—which is ours to discover. Maintaining awareness over the entire field of experience progressively refreshes and rebalances the sensory mind through the developmental stages of shamatha (tranquility meditation), the necessary foundation for meditative inquiry and insight.

Stay tuned for our next installment in this series to read about how we quicken and nourish prajna, precise knowledge (Tib. sherab), through meditative inquiry.



[1] This subject of conditions supportive an inner meditative environment is broad enough to merit an entire article. Such conditions are numerous, and often tailored to the yogin’s physical, emotional, and mental disposition in individual consultation with one's teacher. [Return to text]

[2] Some Buddhist schools refine the formulation of six consciousnesses further still, but we will focus on the commonality relevant to the six sensory consciousnesses here. [Return to text]

[3] Western physical and even social sciences place little emphasis on training the mental consciousness, despite the richness of our individual experiences of mental perception of thoughts, emotions, dreams, and so on, readily accessed through introspection. [Return to text]

[4] This, too, is an extensive topic, worth individual consultation with one's teacher. [Return to text]


Sacred Creativity:

The Art of Spiritual Continuity

Six week series using guided meditation and experiential inquiry, as well as dynamic activities such as readings, contemplative arts, journaling, and dialogue in small and large groups to foster an inner environment of discovery that fuels spiritual practice naturally.

Fridays, May 7 to June 11, 2021

12:00 - 1:15 PM USA MDT

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