Mental Factors Needed in Meditation

Discerning Meditation

In general, meditation has two stages: discerning meditation and stabilizing meditation. In discerning meditation, we work through either progressive steps or a line of reasoning, as we did in the thinking process, to build up to a state of mind that we’re trying to familiarize ourselves with. In the case of compassion, we start by thinking of our own sufferings and generate the determination to be free of them. Then, with this as a basis, we imagine an enormous crowd of beings around us and first open our minds and hearts out to everyone, free from attachment, repulsion and indifference. Then, still focusing on all these beings, we work through the sequence starting with remembering our interconnection and interdependence on them all.

Then, while still focusing on these beings, we recall all the sufferings they experience. So often they’re unhappy and frustrated, and any happiness they have never lasts and never satisfies. They try to be happy, but whatever they do to try to make themselves happy, like obsessing about their looks or accumulating more stuff, never works; they only bring them more problems. We also remind ourselves that all of us are together in the same situation and we need each other’s help, because if everyone is selfish, we all will suffer.

In this way, we build ourselves up to feeling compassion, with which we focus on this huge mass of beings with the wish for all of them, equally, to be free of all their sufferings and, in addition, with the intention that we personally are going to do something to help alleviate their problems.

With discerning meditation, we then continue to focus with compassion on this mass of beings, but at the same time, we discern, in the sense that we perceive and recognize, all the details and points we went through in order to build up to our feeling of compassion. For this, our compassionate state of mind contains the factors of gross detection and subtle discernment. With the former, we detect, in the sense of just notice, the most general point about our object of focus, in this case the fact that they are suffering. With the latter, we discriminate all the details of the different types of suffering they experience. With the combination of the two, we perceive and recognize all these points about the object, synthesized together into one state of mind, somewhat like a detailed, in-depth understanding, but without going over each point one by one or verbalizing them in our minds. If our detection and discernment of these details become weak, we go through all the points again, one by one, and then generate compassion once more, replete with gross detection and subtle discernment and concentration.

Stabilizing Meditation

We follow discerning meditation with stabilizing meditation. Now we continue to focus on this mass of beings with the same compassion, but this time without gross detection or subtle discernment of their sufferings, but still with the understanding and mindfulness that they suffer.

That’s the process of meditation; how you integrate something, habituate yourself to it. And whether we’re talking about a type of meditation in which you focus on an object, or a type of meditation in which you just remain in a state of mind, or one that combines both, it’s exactly the same in terms of all these procedures and all these details.

Distinguishing Discerning and Stabilizing Meditations from Each Other

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains the difference between discerning meditation and stabilizing meditation in terms of the energy of your mental activity. This is a very delicate, very refined way of distinguishing the two. With discerning meditation, the energy of your focus is going outwards, in the sense that it’s discerning something in all its detail. With stabilizing meditation, the energy of your focus is going inwards, in the sense that the focus is on letting the emotion or understanding sink in, based on mindfulness of the main points that the discerning meditation has led up to. The energy is not spread out with details as in discerning meditation, but is narrower, honing in on the main point.

It is very sophisticated to be able to distinguish the difference between discerning someone with compassion – the energy, in a sense, going out in all its detail – and stabilizing that compassion, where the energy is more concentrated. This is one of the benefits that come from quieting the mind. If you’re successful, at least to some degree, in quieting all the noise that is going on in your head (the constant talking, the constant commenting, the constant music playing on your iPod), then you can start to be sensitive to your energy, and you can tell what state your mental energy is in.

The best way to start to become sensitive to your energy is to focus on whether your energy is chaotic or calm. For example, the way to detect whether or not you’re under the influence of a disturbing emotion such as anger, fear, anxiety, greed, or arrogance, is that your energy isn’t peaceful. When you’re talking to someone, if you can sense tightness in your stomach, indicating that your energy is a little bit upset, that’s a very good clue that some sort of disturbing emotion is involved. You might be trying to impress the person, or trying to convince them of something, or there’s some aggression – any of those may indicate that there is something disturbing going on in your mind. Once you’re able to recognize that something is wrong, you then have the opportunity to restart your thought process – to reboot your mind, in a sense, and change the emotion that’s behind your interaction and substitute more wholesome ones. Especially in an interchange with someone, that’s where you really need to be able to detect disturbing emotions.

Over time, and with practice, you eventually become sensitive enough to be able to distinguish the outward widespread energy of discerning meditation and the inward, narrower energy of stabilizing meditation.

Factors Needed for Gaining Concentration

The factors needed for gaining concentration are common to both discerning and stabilizing meditations. Shantideva in his text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, discusses them in the context of developing ethical discipline. So first we need to develop these methods in our gross behavior of how we act and speak, and then apply them to our minds.

The main mental factor we need and use in both cases is mindfulness, which is like the mental glue that holds on to a state of mind or way of behaving. It’s the same word as “to remember,” but we’re not talking about remembering in the sense of taking something out of our memory file and recalling it. It’s not that. It’s holding on to something; remembering. We need to have mental glue for the object we’re focused on and the way in which the mind is relating to it.

While meditating with mindfulness, we keep a watch on our mental hold. Tsongkhapa explains that here we employ the mental factor of gross detection to see whether, in a general sense, our state of mind is coming under the influence of disturbing emotions, mental wandering or dullness. It’s significant that he specifies gross detection, rather than subtle discernment. Subtle discernment would be too involved with checking in fine detail, so that our attention would not be primarily on your object of focus. There’s a big danger in meditation that we can get too paranoid that we’re going to lose the object and that we’re going to start to wander, so we become stiff and uptight. This makes a big problem. On the other hand, you don’t want to be too relaxed and sloppy; that doesn’t help at all.

Then we need alertness, which is like an alarm system. When we detect that we’re losing the object of meditation, alertness sets off the alarm – something needs to be corrected. Then we bring the focus back, with attention.

The Faults That Need to Be Corrected

The faults that we’re trying to get rid of fall under two main categories: “flightiness of mind” and “mental dullness.” Flightiness of mind is where we have mental wandering because of attachment or desire. It may take the form of verbal thinking or mental movies. Most traditional texts discuss this flightiness in terms of sexual attachment, perhaps because the main audience at the time was celibate monks and nuns, for whom the issue of overcoming sexual attachment is central. But it could be attachment to food or music or whatever. Mental wandering, in contrast, can be caused by any disturbing emotion, thought, or even by noise or some other sensory intrusion. As a more general term, mental wandering can also be called “distraction.”

There are several degrees of flightiness of mind, dealing with the placement of our attention on the object or feeling.

  • Gross flightiness – you lose the hold completely on the object and start to think about all sorts of things. Mindfulness, the mental glue, is so weak that you totally forget the object.
  • Subtle flightiness – you don’t let go of the object completely but, at the same time as holding the object, you have an undercurrent of thinking about something else.
  • Subtlest flightiness – you don’t have even this undercurrent, but there’s a sort of itchiness to leave the object and think of something else. This can actually happen when the mental hold is squeezing too tightly.

Mental dullness deals with the clarity of the object, which could be the appearance if it’s a visualization, or the feeling if it’s a state of mind like compassion.

  • Gross dullness – the “appearance-making” function of your mind is so weak that it can’t give rise to any visualization or feeling at all. This can be accompanied by two other factors, known as “foggy-mindedness,” which is a heavy feeling in the body and mind, or sleepiness, and even sleep.
  • Subtle dullness – there is an appearance, but the hold on it is not tight enough and so it lacks sharpness. We’re not talking here just about sharp focus on the details of a visualization, but an emotion could also be out of focus, like compassion. It could be just a very vague feeling, “Love, peace, I love everybody” – you’re generating a feeling, but it lacks the specific focus that is the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. We have to remember that every detail, every aspect of the state of mind we want to generate is very specific – it should not be vague.
  • Subtlest dullness – you have sharp focus when your mind gives rise to the object, but the maintenance is not very tight and so it’s not fresh, vivid or alive. It has to be fresh in each moment, not like stale bread that’s gotten very old and hard and isn’t very nice.

When we talk about being “spaced out,” it could refer to any of the above faults, so we need to be able to detect when any of these arise. First, you set your mental hold on the object or state of mind. Then with mindfulness, the mental glue, don’t let go.

This is the most important factor for successful meditation. Hold on, but not too tightly and not too loosely. For example, when you’re on a diet and walk past the bakery and there are all these beautiful cakes in the window, you have to hold onto your diet, hold on and not let go, so you don’t go into the store and buy a piece of chocolate cake. Or, they’re serving ice cream to everybody at the table and you hold on and don’t let go of your diet, “No thank you, I’m on a diet.”

So we need detection, to see if we’re going astray. “Is there a fault in my mental placement and hold on the object? Is there something wrong with my mind giving rise to the object or feeling?” If we detect some fault, alertness sounds the internal alarm and attention brings our focus back. At the same time, we mustn’t be a paranoid policeman about it, where there’s this dualism between the “me” that’s the policeman and the “me” that’s meditating. To avoid such dualistic meditation, we need to have some understanding of the voidness (emptiness) of the self – we are totally devoid of existing in this impossible dualistic way.

Practical Application of Skills Trained in Meditation

The ability to stay focused on an object with mindfulness and concentration is something we need in daily life. That’s why we practice meditation: to be able to apply in our lives the beneficial habits we develop. For instance, when we’re speaking with someone or listening to them, we need to pay attention. We need to stay focused, and not think about lunch or mentally verbalize, “Shut up already and go away.” So personal interactions, our work, our study and so on are perfect areas for practicing concentration.

The Four Supports

Two things that we need when working to gain concentration in our meditation are vigor (often called “perseverance”) and patience. Vigor is strong, almost heroic courage and effort to accomplish something positive; while patience is the ability to endure all hardships and difficulties without getting discouraged or angry. Shantideva, in his text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, explains six factors that can help us to develop vigor. They are known as the four supports and two forces, and are useful to know and work with.

The first is called firm conviction or firm aspiration. “Aspiration” is a strong word for a wish and is defined as being firmly convinced of the benefits of achieving a goal and the drawbacks of not achieving it, so the aspiration to attain it cannot be swayed or turned back. When we read about the various states of mind we want to achieve with our Buddhist practice, the presentation will nearly always first give the benefits of achieving it and the drawbacks of not. These are important to study. Shantideva follows this format in his text, the first chapter of which is on bodhichitta. We become convinced of the benefits of having this state of mind, and this gives us strength and makes us happy to work for it. Whenever we get discouraged, it’s good to remind ourselves of the benefits of what we’re aiming to achieve.

Next is steadfastness or self-confidence. “Steadfastness” means to be steady and persevere in the practice, which comes from examining if we’re able to achieve the goal we want, and becoming convinced that we are. With self-confidence, then, we apply ourselves steadily, even if progress goes up or down, which is the reality of what happens. Some days will go great, and others will be awful. Some days we’ll be raring to go, and others we won’t want to practice at all. But if we become convinced of the benefits, if we have perseverance, which is described as being like a suit of armor, then we’ll think, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if it goes up or down, I’m just going to continue every day steadily. I know that eventually, it is possible to achieve my goal.”

As we progress over a longer period of time we’ll see a gradual tendency to be more concentrated, and we develop the next support, which is joy. We’re not satisfied with just a little progress, so we take great pleasure in advancing further and further, with a sense of self-satisfaction. The result is that obviously we’ll be happier, because the whole point is to eliminate suffering. As our minds become less distracted, less upset and less disturbed, of course, we’ll be happier. Seeing this, we get really excited about going further and making more progress.

The fourth support is rest, which means taking a break when we’re tired. This isn’t out of laziness, but is to refresh ourselves. Nothing destroys our efforts worse than pushing too hard, causing us to burn out. Pushing too hard really upsets the energies in the body – like squeezing a balloon to the point of bursting. We need to be able to judge ourselves and determine when we need a rest – and not feel guilty about it! It’s good to choose something that will help us to relax but not increase our disturbing emotions. Obviously this will be different for each person. These are the four supports of vigor.

The Two Forces

Now come the two forces. The first is naturally accepting, which means to naturally accept what we need to practice and what we need to rid ourselves of, in order to reach our goals. We see the reality of our situation and naturally accept the hardships that are involved in ridding ourselves of, for instance, disturbing emotions. We need to be realistic in the beginning so as not to be surprised later, at how hard it might be!

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says, “Any Buddhist teacher or person who claims that Buddhism is easy and quick – be very suspicious of that person and their motivation, because it is not at all easy or quick. We are so used to disturbing emotions, that there is no easy way of getting rid of them just like taking a pill.” Another one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to say, “Anyone who is attracted to easy and speedy paths in Buddhism, that’s basically due to laziness. They don’t want to have to put in the hard work that is actually necessary.”

The second force is taking control, which means to take control of and apply ourselves to what we wish to achieve. Rather than let our laziness or any other disturbing emotion take control, our aspiration to achieve a goal is what takes control. We say to ourselves, “Stop acting like a baby. Get it together and just do it!”

Tired or Lazy?

One might wonder how we can distinguish between tiredness and laziness. Firstly, there are different types of laziness, like when we get distracted by trivial things. We’re too lazy to do our meditation or studies or whatever, and instead get distracted by a television program or surfing the Internet. Then there’s the laziness of putting things off until later, where you’re always thinking you can postpone things. Then there’s also a type of laziness where you make excuses, like “I simply can’t do it.”

When we’re tired, we still have the wish to be able to do it: “I really want to do it, but I’m very sleepy now, so I’ll take a short rest and then I fully intend to go back to it.” This isn’t making excuses or not caring. Laziness doesn’t have this wish to really want to continue.


Meditation is not easy, and we need to be careful of anyone claiming that there are quick ways to achieving incredible realizations because, generally speaking, this never happens.

Our meditation needs to be an active process, not something dull or boring, where we come to deeply understand the teaching we’ve listened to and thought about. If we can do this, day by day, year by year, there’s no doubt that the teachings will become ingrained and when problems or negative emotions arise, as they will, we’ll eventually be able to deal with them effortlessly.