The Importance of the Knowledge of Mind and Body

This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the meditative journey.

The earliest and most important meditation attainment a beginner can reach is known as the Knowledge of Mind and Body. This is a stage you may enter during meditation wherein your thoughts suddenly lose their urgency and can be observed with some equanimity. The stage can be quite impressive the first time you experience it, especially if your mind is usually crowded with strong negative thoughts. For a beginner, this stage typically occurs 20 minutes into the meditation and usually correlates with a feeling of the body settling down and relaxing somewhat. It is usually a pleasant stage, largely in contrast to how noisy and disorganized the mind was immediately prior to it. The stage feels quite spacious and quiet compared to before.

This is such a landmark stage that I can sort all meditation questions I receive into two easy piles: “pre–Mind and Body and “post–Mind and Body” (I have referred to these categories of meditator as “pre-mindfulness” and “post-mindfulness” respectively in previous writings). My answer to their question will be totally different depending on which pile they end up in. If they are pre-MaB, my advice will centre around trying to get them to the Knowledge of Mind and Body as soon as possible, and to begin experiencing that every day before moving on to other things. If they are post-MaB, we can talk about cultivating some of the more advanced states and stages such as jhana, metta, insight, kasina, and even magick. (If the meditator is pre-MaB, those things are basically out of the question.)

The main indicator that a meditator is “pre–Mind and Body” is that they are extremely concerned with the content of their thoughts. This occurs for two reasons:

  1. It is the default setting for humans. It is normal that people are identified with their thoughts and internal stories, and they believe they are those thoughts. (You are not your thoughts; you are the clear space of awareness into which thoughts arise and pass.)
  2. The meditator has not yet had their mind and body settle down enough during meditation that their identity can “unstick” from their thoughts. Their thoughts are therefore very hot and sticky, with lots of ego and identity wrapped up in them, and cause a lot of suffering, prior to this stage.

During the Mind and Body stage of meditation, thoughts become less sticky and can start to flow more freely within awareness. They can be seen as just another mental object, and then be allowed to come and go as they please without being so compulsive and distracting. Entering this stage allows your identity to become unglued from thoughts and stories, and to instead become established as the “Witness” (as mentioned in Arpan’s recent guest post, Internal Posture – Poise of Consciousness).

The Mind and Body stage is usually quite temporary when first cultivated. It lasts the rest of the meditation (unless more advanced stages are entered into) and then persists for some time afterwards, allowing a pleasant space to remain around thoughts and sensory events in daily life. By cultivating this stage regularly, it can begin to appear more quickly, and last longer off the cushion.

Once a meditator has experienced the Mind and Body stage a few times, they come to recognize that the content of their thoughts is nowhere near as important as being able to take a step back from those thoughts. It is this realization of the relative non-utility of thoughts that allows one to strive beyond thoughts – even in the face of disturbing ones – and attain more profound states of mind and stages of insight. This is how it comes to pass that an experienced meditator can greet the chaos of their mind with a smile and know that something better is on the way.

Descriptions

In MCTB 2.0, Daniel Ingram has written an excellent description of the Knowledge of Mind and Body, which is worth a read.

I also wrote a little about this stage in my post Shikantaza – Just Sitting – The Ultimate Nondirective Meditation:

Around 20 minutes into the meditation, there is a noticeable physiological and mental shift wherein the body settles, mood shifts to something more equanimous and open, and thoughts become easier to handle. There is a lifting of the sense that meditation is a chore, and things suddenly become a lot easier. This stage is called Knowledge of Mind and Body in Theravada. Virtually all meditations involving sitting still will cause this shift around the 20 minute mark, which is why it is important to practise for at least 30 minutes per session, even as a beginner. This stage is pleasant, peaceful and relieving, and is the main reason for the early gains many meditators experience in their practice. In fact, many lay meditators across the world simply sit each morning until this stage is reached, then get up and go about their day, enjoying the benefits of the state without intending to go any further with their practice. (This is probably the extent of the “mindfulness” movement currently going on in the West.)

How to Get There

Some meditators will naturally fall into the Mind and Body stage simply by sitting still for 20 minutes or so, regardless of which meditation type they are using. (This accounts for most of the benefits experienced by lay meditators, in my opinion.) If that describes you, then read no further! You can look into going further with your meditation, or stay where you are at.

Others however will struggle to reach the Knowledge of Mind and Body despite putting in considerable time on the cushion. The following advice is designed to help you get some control over your unruly mind in order that you can enter this stage. Before reading on, however, ensure that the first thing you do is to extend your meditation time to at least 30 minutes per session. Since Mind and Body tends to occur around 20 minutes into the session for a beginner, shorter meditations have little chance of getting there.

Directive Meditation

Directive meditation is one that uses an object of meditation such as a mantra or the breath. To achieve Mind and Body, you must simply bring your attention back to your object more strongly and consistently each time an intrusive thought appears. The idea is to make the awareness of the object so strong that it crowds out other thoughts, leaving only the object. One way to do this is to make your mantra louder in your mind when a distracting thought appears – turn up the volume on the mantra, so you can’t hear the distracting thought any more. If you are using the breath as your object, take a slightly deeper breath when a distracting thought appears in order to counteract it.

Finally, challenge yourself to see how quickly you can return awareness to the object each time a distracting thought arises. With practice, you can do this several times a second. The purpose of this is to build some mental discipline and to impose a little order on a chaotic mind. It is from this order that the Knowledge of Mind and Body emerges. Please note that it is neither the speed nor the intensity of returning to the object that really matters, but rather the consistency – the repeatability of doing so, again and again. You are saying to your mind, “Not THIS… but THAT”. Increasing speed and intensity are just two beginner’s tools that can be used to develop the consistency of returning to the object. It is the consistent returning to the object over time (e.g. 20 minutes or so) that causes the order from which Knowledge of Mind and Body can emerge.

Nondirective Meditation

If you have been sitting for 30 minutes, an hour, or longer, practising a nondirective meditation such as shikantaza or “Do Nothing”, and have not yet experienced a stage of relative calm resembling the descriptions of Mind and Body in this article, the trick here is to make the meditation a little bit more directive. Invite your mind to discover that it can let go of thoughts. When a thought appears, gently say in your mind, “Let it go” – then wait. It may not disappear immediately, but eventually it will. Repeat on the next thought, and the next.

Two other powerful methods, which are related to letting thoughts go, can be found in my article Meditation Pro-Tips Vol. 1. These are the first and second methods, “Letting Go of Control” and “Stopping Effort by Noticing Effort”.


As always, I look forward to your feedback – and feel free to begin a meditation log on the forum tracking your progress with these methods. 🙂

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14 Responses

  1. andrew says:

    Great post – keep it simple.

  2. Pell says:

    Thank you for writing. How does one move through the stages after having Mind/Body? After practicing first jhana well, what do you recommend?

    • Illuminatus says:

      Hi Pell,

      Unfortunately my experience of vipassana is entirely tied up in Daniel Ingram’s method (from the first version of MCTB) which gave me very painful experiences so I would not be well placed to advise you on stages after Mind and Body. I have switched to nondirective meditation which is gentler in my experience and does not produce such overt states or stages (it is more “organic”). Just my two cents.

      I have heard good things about the book The Mind Illuminated for samatha-vipassana, but I haven’t read it myself.

  3. Arpan says:

    “If you have been sitting for 30 minutes, an hour, or longer, practising a nondirective meditation such as shikantaza or ‘Do Nothing’, and have not yet experienced a stage of relative calm resembling the descriptions of Mind and Body in this article, the trick here is to make the meditation a little bit more directive.”

    Would you suggest the above only in case of a chaotic mind or also in dullness, where you usually suggest the below:
    https://www.personalpowermeditation.com/forum2/nondirective-meditation-self-inquiry/tmi-subtle-dullness-in-shikantazado-nothing/msg2855/#msg2855

    “Shikantaza does not care about dullness. If there is dullness, it’s what is needed at the time. The meditation you needed is the meditation you got. The clue is in the name: “Do Nothing”. If there is dullness, do nothing!! It is not something to be fixed.

    TMI worries about dullness because it is a Theravadin samatha-vipassana system, which concerns itself with cultivating dazzling states of consciousness. It is strongly incompatible with shikantaza/ Do Nothing — like oil and water, really — so the teachings should not be mixed or even compared.”

    • Illuminatus says:

      I consider them two different beasts.

      Chaotic mind = high energy, disorganized
      Dullness = low energy (can be organized or disorganized)

      There is something to be said for using exercise to help bring order to a chaotic mind (the sedative effect of natural endorphins, plus the “grooming the mind with directed action”, seem to be the organizing factors).

      I don’t have much to say about dullness; I think it’s a natural mental state remedied by rest. I stand by what I said in that post.
      Constant dullness (presenting over several days) could be a sign of stress-fatigue. The individual cause of that would need to be looked at (no “one size fits all” answer).

      • James says:

        synchorninisxsts

        So, the other day I was feeling super antsy, just controllable energy, I sat and did breath medidation (focusing on the breath) for about 5 min and I was perfectly calm after that.

        I also have found dullness is best dealt with by do-nothing.

        • Arpan says:

          True.
          Though I have an observation that seems to indicate either that reverse approach is viable in certain cases OR that there are particular temperament-types that are more suited to one kinda meditation more than the other.
          Eg. I have always seen headstrong energetic individuals better at concentrative meditation than Do Nothing. They are often quick-tempered, impulsive and emotional. Concentrative meditation can allow a lot of progress with that sort of mindset before it needs to be dropped. You will see these individuals succeeding at concentration even if they do not know the subtleties of Shamatha, before they realise they need to change something to go further or to attain something stabler. Why a lot of people fail at concentrative meditation is because they try to follow the footsteps of these individuals without having the same temperamental energy driving them. So, focus on breath would become long hours of sedate watching the breath. That is why there are instruction, eg. in Tibetan Buddhism to meditate on light and “make the light brighter” if you feel dull, and “duller, if you feel agitated”. It is positively difficult for one to conjure up a bright light in the mind for an extended period of time if one is feeling dull, so the advice does have merit. It’s to teach these individuals that long-winded guides on concentration come into being.

          On the other hand, I see the natural-DM individuals I mentioned above, struggling to understand NDM. NDM is more natural to the passive sorta people, who already had a more introspective bent of mind regarding life in general. They more often than not step-back, do a cost-benefit-analysis before throwing themselves into a particular activity/decision.

          So, it might be better sometimes for someone with a chaotic mind to try Do Nothing for longer periods in a more fanatic fashion and for someone with a dull mind to try concentrative meditation for longer periods in a more fanatic fashion, because NDM can hide, or atleast take long to reveal your dullness to you and same holds true for DM with respect to a chaotic mind. Eg. you may be focussed on the object but with a frenzied energy.

          I agree with Shinzen Young that meditators of each camp should occassionaly try the meditation of the other. One is not a yogi if he cannot concentrate. Period. Even Raman Maharshi, kinda archetypical NDM yogi said: Concentration should be as natural as breath.

  4. Psy Seducer says:

    Hey Sir, I’m ok with your judgement thou not with your call. Could you please just block me from posting and let me read the forum, maybe exchanging pm’s? You went kinda no deal hard brexit on me.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I have modified the ban so you can read posts. You cannot post or send PMs.

      Your posts are geared to be highly confrontational. Starting a post with “Sorry guys, but [bile]” is effectively the same as saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and you’re all idiots.” I will not be burdened with putting out your flame wars (again) or you harassing other members.

  5. dianaatpeace says:

    ….And yet – I received a PM from PsySeducer saying that I was “sick” and that he could help I just need to share my whatsapp, which was lovely.

    • Illuminatus says:

      @dianaatpeace: I am sorry about that. The forum software should not have allowed him to do that. Can you please send the date and time of his PM to me? I have reinstated his full ban while I investigate.

  6. Dianaatpeace says:

    I delete it – I was pretty upset but it was sent on Wednesday this week.

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