Working on ourselves in terms of safe direction or bodhichitta entails listening to, pondering, and meditating on the teachings. Focusing on the breath to quiet down (which some people believe is the full extent of shamatha) is just a preliminary to all three. Just calming down does not eliminate the causes of our problems, although it may make us more clear-minded to deal with them.
From listening (thos), we gain the discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna, wisdom) that arises from hearing, which is to discriminate the words. We distinguish ('du -shes, recognize) the Buddhist statement from other statements and are decisive about that. We get an idea of the words of the Dharma, such as "I have a precious human life," but do not have any idea of what they mean. We may presume (yid-dpyod) it is true, because of respect for the Buddhas, but we do not understand it.
We then ponder (bsam) the meaning, which means thinking about the definition of a precious human life as well as the line of reasoning of why it is precious. Thus, we need to understand the eighteen features that make it precious – for example, freedom from being animals. We need to understand the line of reasoning and be convinced that it proves the thesis: being born as a human, not as an animal, is precious for practicing and realizing the Dharma.
The line of reasoning is that as an animal, for instance a tomcat, I would be under the strong, overwhelming influence of animal instincts such as the instinct to hunt, to protect my territory, to have sex with any female cat in heat at any time that I feel like, and so on. I would have very weak powers to discriminate between what is helpful and what is harmful in the long run. If I were like this, I would not be able to practice Dharma.
We could even imagine what it would be like as an animal, to convince ourselves of the disadvantages. Then, we think: "Since I am not like this, I have the opportunity to practice. Therefore, I have a precious human life." Then, by relying on the characteristic marks or defining features of a precious human life and of one's own situation, and by relying on this line of reasoning, we reach an inferential understanding with discriminating awareness that arises from thinking. It focuses on an idea that has a meaning with it such as "I have a precious human life, because I am free of being an animal" – and is decisive about that.
Here, debate is a helpful way to gain firm conviction, so that we will have no indecisive wavering or merely an imprecise idea of the meaning. Others will find more loopholes in our thinking than we could by ourselves, and they will persevere at it longer than we would by ourselves.
Then we meditate (sgom) on our understanding. First, we do analytical or discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom) and then stabilizing or fixating meditation ('jog-sgom). This is for integrating and digesting the teaching.
For discerning meditation, we use the mental factors of gross detection (rtog) and subtle discernment (dpyod), which in some contexts means investigating and scrutinizing. For example, first we investigate roughly and detect mistakes on a printed page; then we scrutinize finely and discern the specific details. Thus, for analytical or discerning meditation on our having a precious human life, we focus on ourselves and investigate and scrutinize whether we have the defining characteristics of not being an animal. We investigate roughly and detect our freedom from being like that – we can learn, communicate, and act on a much more sophisticated level than an animal. We scrutinize carefully and discern that although we may act like an animal sometimes – for instance in our sexual behavior of going to discos, "sniffing the rear ends" of potential partners, and having one-night affairs – we are not compelled to be like that. We can discriminate and change our behavior. We concentrate on that discernment of ourselves as not being an animal.
Then, we go through the line of reasoning, that if we were animals, we could not practice Dharma fully. We have the freedom of not being animals; therefore we have precious human lives to practice the Dharma. Then, we focus on that inferential understanding and concentrate on discerning ourselves as having a precious human life. This is the discriminating awareness that arises from meditating.
With stabilizing meditation, we just focus on having a precious human life, without actively discerning it in its details – without discerning that it is because we are not an animal, and if we were an animal, we could not meditate, and so on. Thus, we focus on feeling that we have a precious human life – with our focus accompanied by the mental factor of firm conviction. We truly believe it.
It is with this type of meditation that we rid ourselves of our shortcomings and problems – such as wasting our time – and we develop our good qualities, by realizing our precious human life and therefore using it constructively for Dharma.
Just focusing on the breath, with no understanding accompanying it – such as the understanding of impermanence, momentary changes, no solid "me" as the controller or observer, and so on – may calm us down, but so will sleep or a tranquilizer. It does not bring about a cessation of the causes of our problems.
Intellectual, Intuitive, Visceral, and Emotionally-Felt Understandings
Note that both discerning and stabilizing meditation here are still conceptual cognitions. They are through the medium of an idea of what a precious human life means. The idea is a representation of a precious human life – either representing it with words, an image, or a feeling, but with a meaning associated with the representation.
From a Western point of view, representing something with words and focusing on them is an "intellectual" process, while representing something through a feeling or image and focusing on it is an "intuitive" process. Please note that either can be accurate or inaccurate. Both, however, are conceptual and both need to be accompanied with correct understanding of what the words mean or what the feeling or image means.
Moreover, to be able to digest the understanding, we need to believe it and focus on it with firm conviction. In Western terms, this is a visceral understanding.
When that visceral understanding is accompanied by constructive emotions such as appreciation, then in the West we would say that we are emotionally moved by our understanding. This can then really bring about transformation.
The transformation occurs nonlinearly, however, not in a linear fashion of getting better each day. Until we achieve a true stopping of a disturbing emotion or attitude, we will continue to experience ups and downs.
Focus on something, such as having a precious human life, with a conceptual understanding of it is always through the medium of an idea of what such a life means. Because it is through the medium of an idea, neither the focus nor the object is completely vivid. This is the case whether the understanding is intellectual, intuitive, visceral, or emotionally felt.
Only when cognition is free of any intervening idea is it completely vivid. Such cognition is non-conceptual and, of course, is still accompanied by understanding.