Chapter Four: Fundamentals

In this chapter, I will explain four fundamental principles that are essential to the meditation practice. [1] The practice of meditation is more than just walking back and forth and sitting still. The benefit one gains from meditation practice depends on the quality of one’s mind at each moment, not the quantity of practice one undertakes.

The first important principle is that meditation must be practiced in the present moment. During meditation, one’s mind should be focused on the experience occurring at each moment, never dwelling in the past or skipping ahead to the future. One should avoid thoughts about how much time one has been sitting or how much time is left. One’s mind should always be noting the objects as they arise in the present moment, not straying even one moment into the past or future.

When one is out of touch with the present moment, one is out of touch with reality. Each experience only lasts a single moment, so it is important to note experiences at the moment they occur, recognizing their arising, persisting, and ceasing, using the mantra to create a clear awareness of their essential nature. Only in this way can we come to understand the true nature of reality.

The second important principle is that meditation must be performed continuously. Meditation practice, like any training, must become habitual if it is to help one overcome bad habits of clinging and partiality. If one practices meditation intermittently and is unmindful between sessions, any clarity of mind gained from the practice will be weakened by subsequent distracted mind states, making the meditation practice seem useless. This is often a cause for frustration and disillusionment in new meditators until they learn to be mindful throughout their daily activities and continuously from one meditation technique to the next. Once they are able to be mindful continuously, their concentration will improve and they will realize the true benefit of the practice.

One must try to practice continuously from one moment to the next. During formal meditation, one should keep one’s mind in the present moment through the whole of the practice as best one can, using the mantra to create a clear thought from one moment to the next. When walking, one must be careful to transfer one’s attention from one foot to the next without break. When sitting, one must pay careful attention to the rising and the falling, noting each movement, one after the other, without break.

Moreover, after practicing walking meditation, one should maintain awareness and acknowledgement of the present moment until one is settled in sitting position, noting “bending”, “touching”, “sitting”, etc., according to the movements required to change position. Once sitting down, one should begin immediately contemplation of the rising and the falling of the stomach for the duration of the sitting meditation. At the end of the sitting meditation, one should try to continue meditating on the present moment in daily life, carrying on noting to the best of one’s ability until the next meditation session.

Meditation practice is like falling rain. Every moment one is clearly aware of reality is like a single rain drop. Though it may seem insignificant, if one is mindful continuously from one moment to the next, clearly aware of each moment one at a time, these moments of concentrated awareness will accumulate and give rise to strong concentration and clear insight into reality, just as minuscule drops of falling rain accumulate to fill a lake or flood an entire village.

The third important principle of practice is in regards to technique of creating clear awareness. Ordinary awareness of experience is inadequate, as it is present in non-meditators and even animals, and does not produce insight into the nature of reality to the extent necessary to overcome bad habits and tendencies. To create the sort of clear awareness of ultimate reality that will facilitate such a state, three qualities of mind must be present, as follows: [2]

1. Effort – in order to make a proper acknowledgement of an experience as it occurs, one cannot merely say words like “rising”, “falling” and expect to gain any understanding about reality. One must actively send the mind to the object and keep the mind with the object as it arises, while it persists, and until it ceases, whatever object it may be. In the case of the rising and falling of the abdomen, for example, one must observe the abdomen itself, sending the mind out to each moment of rising or falling. Rather than repeating the mantra in the head or at the mouth, one must send the mind to the object and make the note at the location of the experience.

2. Knowledge – once one has sent the mind out to the object, one must direct the mind to becoming aware of the object. Rather than simply saying “rising” and “falling”, while forcing the mind to focus blindly on the object, one must observe the motion as it occurs, from beginning to end. If the object is pain, one must strive to observe the pain unflinchingly; if it is a thought, one must observe the thought itself, rather than getting lost in the content, and so on.

3. Acknowledgement – once one is aware of the object, one must make an objective note of the experience, establishing clear and accurate understanding of the object as it is, avoiding partiality and delusion. The acknowledgement is a replacement for the distracted thoughts that lead one to extrapolate upon the object, seeing it as “good”, “bad, “me”, “mine”, and so on. Rather than allowing the mind to give rise to projection or judgement of the object, one simply reminds oneself of the true nature of the object as it is, as explained in the first chapter.

The fourth important fundamental quality of practice is the balancing of ones mental faculties. The mind is traditionally understood to have five important faculties beneficial for spiritual development. These are:

1. Confidence

2. Effort

3. Mindfulness

4. Concentration

5. Wisdom

These five faculties are of general benefit to the mind, but if they are not properly balanced, they may actually lead to one’s detriment. For example, a person might have strong confidence but little wisdom, which can lead one to cultivate blind faith, believing things simply out of self-confidence and not because of any empirical realization of the truth. As a result, one will not bother to examine the true nature of reality, living instead according to faith in beliefs that may or may not be true.

Such people must examine their beliefs carefully in contrast with reality, in order to adjust their faith according to the wisdom that they gain from meditation, rather than prejudging reality according to their beliefs. Even should one’s belief be in line with reality, it will still be weak and unsteady if not supported by true realization of the truth for oneself.

On the other hand, one might have strong wisdom but little faith, and so doubt one’s path without giving it an honest trial. Such a person may refuse to suspend their disbelief long enough to make adequate enquiry, even when a theory is explained by a respected authority, choosing to doubt and argue rather than investigating for oneself.

This sort of attitude will make progress in the meditation practice difficult, due to the meditator’s lack of conviction, rendering one unable to focus the mind properly. Such a person must make effort to see their doubt as a hindrance to honest investigation and try their best to give the meditation a fair chance before passing judgement.

Likewise, one might have strong effort but weak concentration, leading one’s mind to become distracted often and rendering one unable to focus on anything for any length of time. Some people truly enjoy thinking or philosophizing about their lives and their problems, not realizing the stress and distraction that come from such activity. Such people are unable to sit still in meditation for any length of time because their minds are too chaotic, caught up in their own mental fomentation; if they are honest with themselves, they should recognize this unpleasant state as resulting from habitual mental distraction, not from the meditation itself, and patiently train themselves out of this habit in favour of simply seeing reality as it is. Though some mental activity is unavoidable in our daily lives, we should be selective of what thoughts we give importance to, rather than turning every thought that arises into a cause for distraction.

Finally, one may have strong concentration but weak effort, which will make one lazy or drowsy during meditation. This will keep a meditator from effecting clear observation of reality, as the mind will incline towards drifting and nodding off to sleep. People who find themselves drifting off in meditation should practice standing or walking meditation when they are tired so as to stimulate their body and mind into a more alert state.

The fifth faculty, mindfulness, is another word for the acknowledgement or clear awareness of experience for what it is. It is the manifestation of a balanced mind, and so it is both the means of balancing the other faculties and the outcome of balancing them as well. The more mindfulness one has, the better one’s practice will become, so one must strive both to balance the other four faculties and recognize reality for what it is at all times.

Mindfulness is, in fact, the best means of balancing the other faculties; when one has desire or aversion based on over-confidence, on should acknowledge, “wanting, wanting” or “disliking, disliking” and one will be able to see through one’s attachment to partiality. When one has doubt, one should note “doubting, doubting”; when distracted, “distracted, distracted”; when drowsy, “drowsy, drowsy”, and the condition will correct itself naturally without special effort, due to the intrinsic nature of mindfulness as balancing the mind.

Once one has balanced the faculties, the mind will be able to see every phenomenon as simply arising and ceasing, without passing any judgement on any object of awareness. As a result, the mind will let go of all attachment and overcome all suffering without difficulty. Just as a strong man would easily be able to bend an iron bar, when one’s minds is strong, one will be able to bend and mould and ultimately straighten the mind, freeing it from all crooked, unwholesome states. As a result of a balanced mind, one will realize for oneself a natural state of peace and happiness, overcoming all kinds of stress and suffering.

So, this is a basic explanation of the important fundamental qualities of meditation practice. To summarize:

1) One must practice in the present moment.

2) One must practice continuously.

3) One must create a clear thought, using effort, knowledge, and acknowledgement.

4) One must balance the mental faculties.

This lesson is an important addition to the actual technique of meditation, as the benefits of meditation come from quality, not quantity. I sincerely hope that you are able to put these teachings to use in your own practice, and that you are able to find greater peace, happiness and freedom from suffering thereby. Thank you again for your interest in learning how to meditate.


[1] These four important qualities of meditation were passed on by my teacher, Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo.

[2] These three qualities are taken from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (MN 10)

Chapter Five