Walking the Elephant Path to tranquillity
A key meditative skill is samadhi - the practice of focusing the mind on an object, calming the usual mind-wandering process and bringing greater clarity to one's experience. Different traditions have come up with different approaches to achieve the same end; the early Buddhist tradition used jhana practice as its primary vehicle (the Pali canon defines 'right samadhi' as practising the jhanas), but later traditions evolved other approaches that were less reliant on altered states of consciousness, placing greater emphasis simply on working with the raw material of attention itself.
In this article we'll look at what's sometimes called the 'Elephant Path', a description of the stages of cultivation of samadhi commonly found these days in Tibetan Buddhism, but also sometimes used in other systems - notably in The Mind Illuminated by the late John Yates, a manual of samadhi practice which is largely framed in Theravada terms despite its use of a Mahayana/Vajrayana map.
Long-time readers of these articles may notice some similarities to the stages of samadhi described by Chan master Sheng-Yen which I've previously written about. This is no accident - while the specific language and techniques vary from tradition to tradition, the actual process of stabilising the mind is universal, and travels through very similar territory from person to person. The only difference between these maps is the specific landmarks along the way that each map has chosen to highlight.
Basics of samadhi, and the cast of characters
In a sense, samadhi practice is very simple. Place your attention on an object of focus - anything will do:
Then, whenever you notice that your mind has wandered away from your object, simply let go of the distraction, take a moment to relax, and then return to the object. That's it!
Sounds simple, right? But give it a try, and you'll find that the actual experience is not so straightforward.
In the picture, the mind is represented by an elephant. It's huge and powerful, and can be a valuable ally when it cooperates, or alternatively it can rampage around causing destruction. And so the purpose of samadhi training is to teach the mind to cooperate with us through the use of focused attention, represented in the picture by the monk.
The first obstacle to samadhi that we encounter in practice is distraction, represented in the picture by a monkey. The mind loves to wander! Some days it can seem that no sooner have you placed your attention on the object than it's already wandered away. Just as a monkey moves through the trees by grabbing first one branch and then another, the mind loves to grab on to whatever comes its way.
The second obstacle that we run into is dullness, represented in the picture by a rabbit (perhaps because they sleep a lot during the day?). Dullness is when the mind begins to switch off, either subtly or dramatically. Although the rabbit doesn't show up until the third stage of the picture, many beginning meditators find dullness can creep in almost immediately, their eyelids becoming heavy within moments of starting the practice. I suspect this is at least partly due to the busyness of modern life - our bodies are trained to understand that the only time we stop moving and close our eyes, it's time to sleep, and we're so chronically sleep-deprived that any excuse will do.
There are other obstacles that can come up (e.g. the Five Hindrances), but basically we can categorise all of them as leading to distraction or dullness, for the sake of convenience. So the process of cultivating samadhi relies on finding our way between the twin pitfalls of distraction and dullness, gradually training our minds to focus more and more consistently on our object.
Two basic strategies can help us to navigate the winding path between distraction and dullness, which we might call 'intensifying' and 'easing up'. Intensifying here means strengthening your intention to focus on the object; easing up means relaxing. Intensifying can be a helpful strategy for dealing with dullness - literally waking yourself up by bringing a little more energy into your practice - while easing up can be a helpful antidote to distraction.
The latter point is especially important, because often our instinctive reaction to mind-wandering is to knuckle down and 'try harder'. Unfortunately, though, this is often counterproductive, resulting in a mind which is increasingly tense and ***constricted. The knack is to maintain a sense of relaxation without dropping the intention to focus entirely.
Generally speaking, the sweet spot in samadhi practice is just enough intensity of focus to stay with the object, without slipping down into dullness and without becoming tense. The only problems are that it takes quite a while to develop enough sensitivity to your own mind state to get a feel for whether you're too tight or too loose, and that the sweet spot moves around as we progress along the path toward greater focus. So we're aiming for a moving target in the dark - no wonder it's not as easy as it sounds! Nonetheless, the skill does come with time - it's just a matter of practice.
Having now set the stage, let's take a look at the Elephant Path in detail. (The names I'm giving to each stage come from the Dalai Lama's book How To See Yourself As You Really Are, which I highly recommend.)
Stage 1: Putting the mind on the object
We start at the bottom of the path, leaving home and attempting to climb the winding path to enlightenment. But it quickly becomes clear that the elephant has no interest in listening to our suggestions - it runs off ahead, following the monkey, going this way and that, as we chase along helplessly behind it.
This stage represents a very common experience which beginning meditators unfortunately tend to interpret as proof that they 'can't meditate'. The mind resists any attempt to impose order or focus; all the practitioner sees, in their brief moments of lucidity, is a fast-flowing river of thoughts and emotions which is too powerful to resist. How can this possibly be brought under control?
Actually, as unpleasant as this experience can be, it's the first sign of progress. Many people have no idea how chaotic their minds are, whereas at least the beginning meditator has taken a close enough look to see the current state of affairs. That very perception of the torrential flow of thoughts and feelings is the first insight of the practice.
Stage 2: Periodic placement
If we keep practising, we begin to make some headway. The mind is still largely out of control, but we have moments where we can stay with a few breaths in a row, or a few repetitions of our mantra. In the picture, the elephant and the monkey are still way out in front, but they've slowed to a walking pace, and the tops of their heads have changed colour, to symbolise the gradual purification of the mind through practice.
At this point we're still mostly distracted rather than focused, but those brief moments of stability offer us an important glimpse that the practice is starting to bear fruit. It's helpful if we can notice and celebrate those moments as a positive sign of progress, as opposed to using them as an opportunity to beat ourselves up for being 'bad meditators' - which, unfortunately, is a common reaction, even among experienced meditators. But if we slap ourselves on the wrist every time we have a moment of focus, we're actually subtly discouraging ourselves from learning to concentrate - because who wants to get slapped on the wrist? If, instead, we make those moments a positive and rewarding experience, we're more likely to gravitate there in the future.
Stage 3: Withdrawal and resetting
As time goes on, we become more sensitive to the process of getting distracted, and we notice sooner when the mind has wandered. We start to experience more continuity with the object, and we don't wander quite as far away when we do lose it, although we may still lose it quite frequently. In the picture, we've finally got the elephant's attention - previously, the elephant was being led around by the monkey, but now the monk has taken hold of the rope.
However, notice that the rabbit has now made an appearance. As the mind settles and becomes more stable, we become more prone to sinking into dullness. The mind isn't wandering so much, and so there's less excitation in the system generally. If we don't balance that with a certain degree of energy from our own side, we tend to sink toward mental blankness, a kind of 'zoning out' that can feel vaguely pleasant but which is actually drawing us away from the cultivation of samadhi. The Buddha described a concentrated mind as 'clear, sharp and bright' - the opposite of dullness. So watch out for that sneaky rabbit!
Stage 4: Staying close
As we progress beyond stage 3, and the major distractions and dullness of the earlier stages are gradually more under control, we can start to feel like we've cracked it. But now is the time to 'stay close' - to keep a closer and closer eye on the wavering of our attention, represented in the picture as the monk closing in on the elephant, monkey and rabbit, to see them more clearly.
At this point, we might no longer find ourselves waking up from a ten-minute mental digression, but we might notice that we're quite capable of continuing to focus on the breath whilst holding a conversation with ourselves at the same time. This is a subtler kind of distraction - we don't fully lose the object, but we aren't fully focused on it either. So the focus at this stage is staying closer and closer to our object, without drifting into subtle distraction.
Stage 5: Disciplining the mind
As we get to grips with subtle distraction, its counterpart, subtle dullness, comes to the fore. (Notice that in this picture the monkey isn't even shown - it's all about the rabbit here.) In the same way that in the previous stage we felt we've conquered distractions, only to notice a subtler form coming to light, we may feel that we're no longer flat-out falling asleep in practice, but even so a subtle dullness can still creep in. If you notice sudden noises triggering a much greater-than-usual startle response, that's a good indication of subtle dullness. Again, intensifying is the antidote, but because the dullness is subtler, the intensifying will have to be subtler too. Our practice is becoming much more refined at this point - by comparison, our previous techniques start to look a bit ham-fisted, even though they were exactly the right thing to be doing at the time.
In the picture, this stage is represented by the monk touching the elephant's head with his staff, as a symbol of the subtle but continuous holding of intention required to overcome subtle dullness at this point. Note, too, that the monk is now out in front of the elephant, rather than trailing behind as in the previous stages.
Stage 6: Pacifying the mind
In the picture, the monk is now out in front, looking ahead and enjoying the scenery rather than focusing on the elephant, who is now sufficiently on-side to follow the monk obediently. But the monkey isn't quite done yet - he's still there, quietly tugging on the elephant's tail, hoping to persuade his old friend to come for another adventure.
We're now at a delicate point in the practice. The mind has become stable, and we've overcome subtle laxity - but the balance between intensifying and loosening up is becoming increasingly delicate, and we can easily put too much energy into the system and wobble off into subtle distraction again. The key now is to take the foot off the pedal and relax, allowing the system to find its equilibrium.
Stage 7: Thoroughly pacifying the mind
At this stage, the mind is almost - but not quite! - fully pacified, represented in the picture by the elephant having almost entirely changed colour, apart from part of one leg. Also, the monk is standing between the monkey and the elephant, preventing the monkey from distracting the elephant's progress.
We're nearing the end of the road now. Our skills of introspection, gently intensifying to counteract the very beginnings of dullness and gently loosening up to counteract the very beginnings of over-excitation are now fully developed, and almost nothing has to be done to keep the mind focused on its object. Soon we won't need even this much deliberate focus - but if we try to jump too soon to completely effortless practice, we might find that we fall back a stage or two, so this is a tricky point in the process.
Stage 8: Making the mind one-pointed
The monkey is gone, the elephant fully purified. It's enough for the monk to indicate the way; the elephant will obediently follow the path without further instruction.
In the same way, at this stage we simply set the intention to focus on our object at the beginning of practice, and the rest of the practice unfolds effortlessly.
Stage 9: The mind placed in equipoise
The culmination of the path of stabilising the mind, now the monk is shown in a state of calm abiding, the elephant curled up at his side.
At this point, the state of effortless focus establishes itself at the slightest intention, and remains in place without any need for interference. The mind is simply at rest.
The path beyond, and the insights that await
The picture then shows two more stages along a rainbow road. These symbolise the path to enlightenment through insight. Samadhi and insight practices have always appeared together in Buddhism, and for good reason - while insight is certainly possible without a deep samadhi practice, it tends to come more easily and touch us more deeply when the mind is focused.
So why not give it a try? If you have a samadhi practice already, does this map resonate with you? If so, perhaps the suggested points of practice along the way will help you to take it a little further. And if you've never tried this type of practice before, you can set off on your journey secure in the knowledge that you have a roadmap, and that the inevitable obstacles you'll encounter at the start of the journey are categorically not a sign that you're 'failing' or 'a bad meditator', but simply part of the path that we all go through.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!