The Vipassana Retreat

8. Keeping the Practice in Balance

It is not just some technique or the meditation practice by itself that we are following, but the Buddha’s Eight-Fold Practice Path, also known as the three-fold training, consisting of: an ethical base of skilful speech, actions and occupation; which leads to moral well-being that acts as the underpinning for the meditation skills of effort, mindfulness and concentration; which is then directed to right aspiration, which leads to right understanding, with the outcome of liberation.

This teaching was the method taught by the Buddha to realise the Dharma or Universal Truth, which he explained on many occasions during his forty-five year teaching career. Even as he lay dying, when the ascetic Subhadra asked the Buddha whether other contemporary teachers were enlightened, partially enlightened or not at all, the Buddha responded that unless they follow the principles of the Eight-Fold Path then it was not possible for any of these teachers to be enlightened partially or otherwise.

So you can appreciate that the complete system of practice of the Eight-Fold Path needs to be implemented to obtain the desired effect. However, more often than not you find that meditators, who although well motivated, are not practicing correctly in that they are overreaching in their effort to extract something from the practice, that they have a gaining attitude: that they are inclined to confine the practice to a static sitting practice and/or they are disinclined to or are unaware of the necessity of developing the dynamic practice of ongoing mindfulness during daily activities. Also, many do not understanding the effects of fixed concentration which, when not handled correctly, will bring their efforts to a dead end.

Generally, when difficulties are encountered in the meditation practice they often are caused by an imbalance in the meditation skills. Maintaining your balance in meditation is a matter of harmonising the three meditation skills of effort or application, attentiveness or mindfulness, and intensifying the attentiveness or concentration.

Too much effort makes the mind restless, while too much fixed concentration restricts the attention to a single point thereby losing moment-to-moment awareness. Effort and concentration are active factors, while mindfulness is non-reactive awareness from a state of receptivity. As you practise, keep in mind the characteristics of these three factors, for applying them appropriately will allow you to adjust, harmonise and keep your meditation in balance.

With mindfulness (sama sati) it is not necessary to induce concentration as such, because sufficient concentration will naturally arise by being continuous with presence of mind coupled with clear knowing (sati-sampajanna). There is no problem of having too much awareness, as there is in effort and concentration. It is not something that you can over do, rather it is more likely that there is not enough mindfulness to help balance the factors of effort and concentration. So it is worthwhile to put in more effort to maintain continuity of attention, as this contributes to settling and stabilising the mind.

For concentration to be right, (samma samadhi) the type has to be appropriate to the mode of meditation. In concentration meditation (samatha) the meditator fixes on a single object, ignoring secondary objects to become absorbed in one object only. While the type of concentration in Vipassana meditation is the moment-to-moment knowing of many and various objects as they arise without fixing on particular objects. Actually, in Vipassana meditation it is really a matter of intensifying the awareness that makes for concentration. If you wish to change the meditation mode, from concentration to a more receptive awareness practice, fixing on a single object has to be dropped to allow for a flowing moment-to-moment awareness (khanika samadhi) of whatever is predominant in your experience.

For the Vipassana meditator the following are ways of relating to the meditation experience to maintain the balance:

  • Witnessing your experience: an attitude of neutrality, which is restricted to the bare registering of physical and mental events without posturing or positioning oneself – ‘just witnessing’.
  • Non-clinging: rather than seeking gratification of wishes, impulses, desires, there has to be at least some degree of non-clinging to create the space to see and ‘let go’.
  • Removal of the Censor: an attitude of acceptance of all thoughts, emotions, feelings and sensations coming into awareness, with impartiality, without censorship.
  • Cultivating Receptivity: Vipassana meditation is tuning in and being sensitive to, and intimate with, what is observed, from a place of spaciousness – ‘receptivity’.

An image often used to describe the practice of awareness is that of walking a tightrope. In order to do so, you must necessarily pay attention to the balance. In meditation practice, this applies to how you are relating to your experience. Reaching out to grasp the object (attaching) or pushing it away (rejecting) are both reactions that are unbalancing. Keeping your balance is developing a mind that does not cling or reject, like or dislike, and is without attachment or condemnation. Balance and equanimity in the face of life’s inevitable stress and conflict is to practise the Buddha’s Middle Way.

For a meditator, developing the ability to adjust and manage one’s own effort in practice is essential. A certain effort is involved in developing ‘moment-to-moment awareness’, but it is not the effort to attain anything in the future. The effort is to stay in the present, just paying attention with equanimity to what is happening in the moment.

The Buddha gave an example of just how attentive we should be. He told of a person who was ordered to walk through a crowd with a jug of oil, full to the brim, balanced on his head. Behind him walked a soldier with a sword. If a single drop were spilled the soldier would cut off his head! That is the quality of attention needed. So you can be sure that the person with the jug walked very attentively.

Yet, it has to be a relaxed awareness. If there is too much force or strain the least jostling will cause the oil to spill. The person with the jug has to be loose and rhythmic, flowing with the changing scene, yet staying attentive in each moment. This is the kind of care we should take in practicing mindfulness, being relaxed yet alert. In this way, the training helps to maintain your balance and the ability to live in harmony with others.