Take up a comfortable sitting position, keeping the back upright.
We begin by bringing attention to the body sitting, sensing into the body, becoming aware of the sensation of body as it sits. If there are any places of discomfort or dis-ease, we relax or relieve them as much as possible.
Next we bring attention to the sensation of natural breathing, wherever it is most obvious. How do we connect with that breathing process? Is it clear and obvious, or perhaps faint and distant? When we notice our attention wandering, we gently and patiently turn the attention back to the sensation of breathing once again.
Now for a moment return attention to the bodily sensations. Is the body relaxed and easeful? Is it tense or restless? Is there some way to make it more relaxed, calm or tranquil? Then go back to focusing attention on breathing once again.
For a moment bring attention to the state of the mind right now. Is it active or tranquil? If the mind is active, be with the awareness of that activity. Is the awareness active or tranquil? If the mind
seems to be tranquil, what kind is it? Is it clear? Is it dull or cloudy? Check this tranquillity in relation to the body. Is there some place in particular where tranquillity is centered?
Our subject here is the quality of tranquillity. The first Factors of Awakening are more active qualities, but with this one they start to become more passive. The last three are more calming factors.
The usual experience for most people is to come across the Buddha’s teachings, or teachings about meditation in general, and begin practising. With some careful guidance and perseverance they may achieve some results, such as understanding, energy and perhaps joy. Joy may seem a good enough result – at least on the emotional level, it’s a reward. But this isn’t the end of it. It may occur to people who have experienced some degree of energy and joy that these qualities are a bit on the coarse side. They can incline towards restlessness and even agitation – being agitated by joy may not be so bad, but it’s still a kind of agitation. Some people just want to ‘bliss-out’ when they meditate, but in the Buddhist scheme of things this isn’t the end of the meditation process. The Buddha did recognize the value of positive qualities such as joy, but when we realize they are coarse we may incline towards developing tranquillity, a sense of containment and balance to add to the more exciting and energetic qualities. In the Eightfold Path the factors are explained as ‘right’ – we have to find the right measure.
There are many kinds of tranquillity. If we observe the conditions of body and mind in terms of tranquillity, at the end of a meditation for example, we may notice how the body has changed in the course of sitting. And we can recognize different degrees of tranquillity. Some of them are perhaps not particularly helpful or supportive of meditation practice. Sometimes tranquillity can be very heavy, close to sleepiness or dullness. Tranquillity is present, but not many of the other Factors are – not much energy, not much awareness. So it is important to develop each Factor in the context of all the others. They have to be based upon a good foundation of mindfulness, so that we can know them in the widest sense. The Buddha emphasized the need to recognize when the Factors arise, when they aren’t there, what supports their arising and how they can be further developed.1
It is significant that the factor of tranquillity comes after the development of energy, most particularly when we have become aware of our natural energy rather than just the energy of willpower. By then giving attention to tranquillity, we may note that despite a certain degree of tranquillity of body and mind, there is perhaps still some internal tension. This is often a habitual form of wilfulness; there is still a sort of striving, a drive, an urge, so that it isn’t easy for the body or the mind to be really, deeply tranquil. Thus it can be useful to see tranquillity in terms of an easeful, exhilarating relaxation which is still buoyed by a balanced and persevering energy.
It seems that many people come to meditation because they are seeking some sort of tranquillity as an aim or a goal. But this aim can easily be misdirected and end as a kind of suppression. We may try to achieve calmness by suppressing the natural tendencies of the body and the conditions of the mind. If we are disturbed by particular conditions of mind, can we be receptive to them, more aware of them, or do we usually react by turning away from them, pushing away, resisting? For example, if there is a lot of noise in the room, do we have to get away from it, or can we just shift our awareness? If we can turn our attention inward, the noise may still be there but we don’t need to be disturbed by it. We can realize an inner tranquillity rather than looking for it on the external level. This usually takes some practice. Developed tranquillity is not just the tranquillity of no disturbance. It’s a fuller kind of tranquillity, a tranquillity within disturbance. Some people only recognize tranquillity in terms of the absence of disturbances, but this is a minor kind of tranquillity. Real tranquillity comes in the midst of disturbance, in the midst of stress. If we can maintain tranquillity then, that’s real tranquillity. It’s tranquillity in the proactive sense, as a Factor of Awakening.
There are many supportive conditions for the development of tranquillity. A wholesome lifestyle through practising skilful conduct in body, speech and mind is a very important foundation. Otherwise one may feed disturbing influences into the body and mind, and they will inevitably have disturbing effects. So if we find that it is hard for us to establish a level of tranquillity or calm, we may have to look at our way of living and consider whether some changes may be beneficial. We may only realize this when we try to develop a deeper experience of tranquillity.
Another factor that is supportive for the development of tranquillity is what is called, ‘restraint of the senses’. In Buddhism this includes the mind, as one aspect of mind is its function as a sense organ. ‘Restraining the senses’ means that we place awareness at the doors of the six senses, so that we can understand what effect sense impressions have on us. We can see how we are stimulated by certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and thoughts, which sense impressions support tranquillity and which stimulate disturbance. The Buddha recognized the tranquil aspects of living in the forest, for example. And that was the forest in India, which probably wasn’t very tranquil, with wild tigers and whizzing mosquitoes! But in general living in a forest is inherently calming. The green of vegetation and the blue of the sky are very soothing colours, whereas if you go into the city you’ll notice that there are not so many green-coloured signs – signs are usually red and yellow, jumping out at you. Thus they stir up the senses, which is what they are supposed to do to attract your attention. Sometimes I find even walking around city streets very exhausting. All the sensory input can be quite overwhelming. One can definitely notice the difference when in the forest. So if we’re aware of the effects that various sense impressions have upon us, we can choose soothing sights, soothing sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and maybe even soothing thoughts. Some people might even use a certain thought like ‘peace’ in meditation. If many disturbing thoughts arise in practice, breathing may not be very helpful, but perhaps the skilful use of a word can help to calm the mind and create an initially peaceful mental atmosphere.
There are also meditations on colours, which can affect people differently. A Cambodian monk who was an expert on these colour meditations came to visit Chithurst monastery many years ago. A couple of monks were having problems with sleepiness and he recommended that they focus on the colour yellow, so they went into a room with yellow lights. After about ten minutes one of the monks came out and said, ‘I can’t stand it any more! It’s too much already – I’m buzzing!’ And that was after just ten minutes. For the development of tranquillity, blue or green are recommended. So we may sometimes need to emphasize the supportive conditions for tranquillity in our practice, rather than just waiting for it to happen to us, for our busy mind to stop busying.
Sometimes it may help to give some attention to the bodily conditions so as to realize a deeper level of tranquillity. When I was in England many years ago, we had a two-month retreat in the winter. On these retreats we did a lot of sitting and walking. My own personal situation is that my mind likes to sit, but my body doesn’t – it starts to tense up, it needs to move. One of the monks had learned some Tai Chi exercises when he was a layman, and offered to give us some lessons after tea, before the evening sitting. Normally this was the time when I would have a rest, but it was the only time he could do it, and as it turned out these sessions were even more relaxing than resting. By focusing attention and relaxing into these particular bodily movements, the mind was able to relax too. So there was a direct relationship between the tension in the body and the lack of calm and relaxation in the mind. Thus giving some attention to these exercises can be a good support for both the body and the mind.
On retreats I have met people who talk about having difficulty sitting, and usually I recommend that they do some kind of body-work – any kind of physical exercise, actually. I met one person whose job was to write books for a chemical company in Basel. He sat at a desk preparing these journals all day long. When he went home to do sitting meditation his body was jumping around all over the place. He was in his head throughout the day, and when he came to sit, his body was displacing his mental tensions.
So bodily and mental tranquillity are inter-related. Sometimes it’s not even very helpful to distinguish between the two. For example, when one is able to focus more attention on calming the breathing, this can feed back into the body, which becomes more tranquil as the mind becomes more tranquil. One of the exercises in the mindfulness of breathing practice is to ‘tranquillize the breath body’. So we can take this as a theme and observe. We can ask what is supporting this tranquillity; this serenity or stillness. And perhaps on a retreat we may have a deeper experience of tranquillity or serenity, something which we would not normally experience in our ordinary life. Then confidence that we can cultivate and develop it arises. In a way, being able to experience a deeper level of tranquillity enables a breaking up of some of our habitual tensions, holding patterns and resistance, to allow for a new way of being.
Of course, if we over-emphasize tranquillity it can lead to lethargy and dullness. So it is helpful to have energy first, as laid out in the sequence of the Factors of Awakening. It seems that many people in the West want to go to tranquillity first, before energy. If our life is very stressful and busy we can think, ‘Oh, I need more tranquillity.’ And at that particular time in our lives it may be a helpful contrast.
If we’re always multi-tasking in our daily lives, some tranquillity is useful – but that’s not the end of it. It is important to be aware when our practice is inclining towards lethargy and dullness.
In the monastery in Thailand the weather was often tranquillizing enough – to become tranquil you only had to wait for the hot season. So there was more emphasis on developing energy, particularly when we were required to follow the discipline of the daily routine. However, when we are practising on our own it is useful to be more vigilant about how the meditation exercises are affecting our energy levels. For many working people it may be more helpful to do walking meditation rather than just sitting, especially since so many jobs these days are sedentary already. Developing walking meditation helps to put us in touch with the body, with sensations and physical energy. On one level it’s somewhat coarse, but it can also help to arouse more natural embodied energy, and the concentration developed can lead to increased calmness of mind and body. Then we may realize more balance in our practice, rather than following our ideas about what we think tranquillity is or should be.
Interestingly, many of the Forest meditation masters in Thailand practised much walking meditation. A student of one of Ajahn Chah’s disciples opened a new monastery in North Thailand. His teacher visited the monastery and commented that the monks up there were all very lazy – there were no walking meditation paths at the monastery! When I was in North Thailand I stayed in a monastery where there was a very long walking path. I used to enjoy doing a lot of walking. It was in a very remote area – there was no electricity, not even flashlights. One night I leaned out of the door of my raised hut and spotted a snake just beginning to climb up the pillar of the hut. The local wisdom is that if the snake does not flee, then you should flee. It was obviously a poisonous one, so it was a lot safer to sit in my hut at night. I did lots of walking meditation during the daytime, but at night I’d sit. I found that if I didn’t do so much walking meditation during the day, I couldn’t sit peacefully for so long at night.
Tranquillity is not developed just through passivity, some kind of ‘not doing’, but as something proactive. It means being tranquil with energy. Can you imagine tranquillized energy? Or energized tranquillity? Tranquillity as a Factor of Awakening is actually a very positive quality, it’s not just a by-product of sitting still. Sometimes people want to imitate it; they want to be really calm or ‘cool’, but more often they’re just forcing tranquillity through suppression. Tranquillity which is rigid or lethargic is not tranquillity as a Factor of Awakening; more likely it is a supporting factor of wilful selfhood. As an Awakening Factor tranquillity is developed in the context of mindfulness, energy and joy, so that it does not become an end in itself.
Some people may wonder, why go any further if you’ve got clarity and joy? But is this really complete? If one doesn’t grasp at any condition or thirst after it, but can be tranquil with it, the experience is much more supportive of awakening. If it is just a temporarily-induced, superficial mood, one becomes excited and wants more of it. This only leads to agitation and restlessness. A truly deep and authentic experience of clear, energized, joyful tranquillity is recognized as a breakthrough, to a new way of seeing the condition of the developed mind which is capable of realizing awakening.
We could even say that serene, easeful tranquillity is our natural state. If we can disengage from agitation of body and churning thoughts in the mind, what is left? Behind them are a natural tranquillity and stillness. In the scriptures, all the thoughts that come into the mind are called visitors; they just come and then go. They aren’t the host, they aren’t the natural state. They aren’t the person who owns the home, but rather the visitors who come into it. But how many of us are able to allow our visitors to go? You may think, ‘What will I be without my thoughts? I’ll be lonely, I’ll be …’ But you’ll be tranquil too! Actually, we wouldn’t be lonely – we would have a natural joy, and a natural tranquillity as well. It would be like returning to our home, a place of safety and security which we could enjoy. Otherwise we just identify with our thoughts and think they’re some kind of ultimate reality which we have to clear away to achieve tranquillity. But tranquillity is the natural state. When we recognize that thoughts are just visitors that arise in the mind and then pass away, we can let them go and tranquillity is there.
There are three other qualities which are very supportive of developing tranquillity and provide the right environment for the Factors of Awakening to develop to their fulfilment. They are seclusion, dispassion and cessation. People might think that seclusion means going far away from everything, but there are different kinds of seclusion. Seclusion from our busy mind is a more important kind of seclusion. To experience tranquillity, we turn away from the busy mind through the development of concentration; we step away from it and find a peaceful refuge from it.
Dispassion is the second quality. Most kinds of joy are associated with passion, with pleasure and liking. But if we develop the quality of dispassion, we can experience the peace beyond the passions, an unruffled calm with senses awake but unexcited. If we are struggling against the passions, we are still far from calm. Dispassion outgrows the passions through seeing their disturbing effects. Peace takes priority over passion through the deepening insight into unsatisfactoriness.
These qualities lead towards the third one, cessation. The development of mindfulness increasingly exposes the truth of impermanence, in particular by revealing more clearly the cessation of conditions. When we see that cessation is fundamental to life, we can open more to its influence. Thus the obstructions to tranquillity can be let go, released at ever-deepening levels, and the more we experience mindful, energized tranquillity, the more we become aware of subtler degrees of cessation.
So as our mind calms down, we become aware of different, more subtle states of mind, and this provides an extra support for awareness and investigation of dhamma. As the body and mind become calmer we begin to see them more sharply and truthfully. But if our tranquillity is more like suppression or switching off, it will not lead to increased awareness or seeing the way things are.
With practice we can become more aware of the various levels and kinds of tranquillity. In the early stages of practice we may find tranquillity rather elusive. We may think it’s just a matter of being able to sit on the cushion for longer. However, by investigating it and what obstructs it, we can explore deeper levels of tranquillity and see how they influence our meditation practice. When we are able to experience a certain level of clear, energized tranquillity, we realize that although there are thoughts in the mind, they do not affect us because we are now tranquil inside as well. There’s a deeper level of tranquillity which those thoughts don’t disturb. They’re just on the surface because our level of knowing is deeper, based upon clearer insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality. Things which used to disturb us are not an issue now because we have a different experience of calm, as the calm amid disturbances. Sometimes, even though our mind can be raging away, at the same time we feel a sense of dispassion. We can just be calm. With this deeper level of calm, we are no longer dragged so often into reacting to disturbances.
Each of us may be disturbed by a particular thing. We may be reasonably calm when the next-door neighbour plays his drums, but if somebody starts to chainsaw, we’re off! I must admit I have my limitations. In my early years in Thailand I didn’t find the loud Thai music played at the village fairs intrusive, because I couldn’t understand it anyway, but when they started playing old 60’s pop songs my mind would react. We each have our own limitations, but we can all keep developing tranquillity to ever-deeper levels. Keep noticing how you habitually react to disturbance. Do you try to suppress it, distract yourself, or resist it? Instead, try to be more aware of that reactive process itself, investigate it and see if you can find a mode of being that is more tranquil with disturbance, rather than against it. Awareness of what disturbs tranquillity is the key to the development of tranquillity as a Factor of Awakening. With deepening insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality, we can release our holding of or resistance to these disturbances and experience greater tranquillity. And this development supports the increasing development of the other Factors – more calm leads to more awareness, to more balanced energy, to deeper levels of concentration and deeper levels of investigation. Thus the Factors of Awakening begin to gain momentum in our spiritual practice, and the possibility of awakening increases.