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:
- 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.)
- 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.
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 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.
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. 🙂