Training the Mind through Meditation

An excerpt from Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind

John Dunne

John Dunne holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his PhD in Sanskrit and Tibetan studies from Harvard University.

The following is his introductory essay to Training the Mind through Meditation, Part 6 of Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 2: The Mind.


The Purpose of Analysis

Throughout this volume, a consistent but often subtle theme is the underlying purpose for all these rigorous and detailed analyses of the mind, cognition, concept formation, and reasoning. In this final part, that purpose comes to the fore: namely, that all that has been presented thus far is concerned with transforming the mind and with the changes in behavior that induces. A key element in that process of transformation is meditation, and in keeping with our authors’ attention to that issue, much of my introduction will present some key aspects of meditation. To begin, however, I will follow our authors in surveying the Buddhist theories of psychological and behavioral change, since the Buddhist understanding of that process is precisely what helps us to appreciate the transformative role played by meditative practices on the Buddhist path.


Counteracting Kleśas

By now, the term kleśa is likely familiar: it refers to the mental afflictions that cause suffering. The Buddhist approach to eliminating suffering thus focuses on how we work with our mental afflictions such as ignorance, craving, and aversion so as to reduce and eventually eliminate them. Through their analysis of that process, Buddhist theorists have arrived at an intriguing insight: it is possible to counteract mental afflictions in ways that temporarily prevent their occurrence, but to uproot them completely, one must address the underlying cognitive mechanism that makes the afflictions possible. We can characterize these two approaches by introducing two terms implied by our authors’ analysis, namely suppressing and undermining. These two approaches rest on two different ways that a mental state can be incompatible with another. When one mental state (such as aversion) is suppressing another (such as craving), this is due to the incompatibility of these two states. Aversion, for example, is focused on an object that is construed in some fashion as negative or unattractive, while craving is focused on an object that is construed as positive or attractive. These two afflictions cannot exist simultaneously in a mental state focused on a single object because they require incompatible construals of that object as either attractive or unattractive. In contrast, when a mental state such as wisdom undermines an affliction such as craving, it has eliminated the cognitive mechanisms that are required for craving to arise. Thus, when an affliction is suppressed, it is prevented from arising temporarily because another, incompatible mental state is present. But when a mental state is undermined, the very conditions for its occurrence have been eliminated, and if that undermining is completely effective in a lasting way, then any mental affliction that depends on those mechanisms can never occur again.

Buddhist contemplative practice tends to be eminently practical, and since the process of completely uprooting the mechanisms that underlie the mental afflictions is a long-term and arduous task, it is tremendously useful to have some techniques to suppress particular mental afflictions, even if the techniques are essentially a “band-aid” that cannot undermine the problem altogether. In this regard, one set of well-known practices focuses on compassion (Skt., karuṇā) and loving kindness (maitrī; Pali, mettā). While one is in a mental state with compassion or loving kindness, it is not possible for any of the afflictions connected to aversion—such as anger, hatred, and resentment—to arise. Thus, for practitioners who have mindfully observed a predominance of aversive afflictions in their mental life, meditations that cultivate loving kindness and compassion can be an effective—if temporary—balm that reduces their aversion.

Techniques to suppress negative mental states are noteworthy, and if cultivated effectively, Buddhist traditions acknowledge that they can help one to manage one’s afflictions. However, the task of completely undermining mental afflictions such as aversion, such that they simply cannot ever arise again, requires a different approach. To understand what is involved, it is helpful to examine the role that a distorted form of attention, as a product of ignorance, plays in engendering mental afflictions.


Ignorance and Inappropriate Attention

One of the most important insights offered by our authors’ account of mental and behavioral transformation is the notion that afflictions cognitively distort their objects. The technical term for this type of distortion is inappropriate attention (Skt., ayoniśomanasikāra), which occurs within the overall context of our conditioned experiences. As mentioned previously, each moment of experience is conditioned by the preceding moment (and that preceding moment, too, is likewise conditioned), and the various appetites, expectations, and fears that condition an experience are relevant to the way that we attend to the particular object presented to us in that moment. This inheritance of conditioning falls under the general rubric of karma, and it is in itself reinforced by the behaviors—and afflictive mental states—that follow from that highly conditioned experience. Thus, if I have somehow acquired the conditioning to be especially fond of strawberries, when I encounter a bowl of strawberries, my highly conditioned cognitive system immediately imposes a series of largely unconscious expectations and worries, or “hopes and fears” (Tib., re dogs), about the strawberries themselves. My past conditioning prompts me to draw on a fundamental tendency to exaggerate and essentialize my past experiences, which in this case manifests as the latent attitude that “all strawberries are delicious.” Combined with an overall yearning to interpret any experience in relation to an unchanging, absolute “me” that craves pleasure and fears pain, I exaggerate and yearn for the scrumptious qualities of the strawberries as somehow truly satisfying all my needs, or perhaps I fear the loss of my precious strawberries, which clearly deserve considerable protection, even if it requires an aggressive confrontation with someone who has eaten too many of them.

Perhaps it is already obvious that the basic mechanism of inappropriate attention is a compulsion to attribute qualities, entirely good or entirely bad, to the current object of one’s concern. In this way, both craving and aversion—and all the many mental afflictions, such as hatred and addiction, that follow from them—are rooted in a fundamentally distorted experience that involves exaggerating the qualities that make us attracted or averse. In actuality, a strawberry could never satisfy my deepest needs, even though my craving may seem to present it that way in experience. Likewise, some focus of aversion—such as an unpleasant coworker—may seem to be completely devoid of any redeeming qualities, but that too is not the case. This very tendency to distort reality—the tendency to filter all experiences through the exaggerations of craving and aversion—is precisely what Buddhists mean by the inappropriate attention that arises from ignorance.

Fortunately, as we learned in part 1, the mental afflictions, including ignorance, are not essential qualities of the mind, and as a result, ignorance (along with the inappropriate attention that it causes) can be completely eliminated. Moreover, since the cognitive distortions of ignorance lie at the root of all the other mental afflictions, one can eradicate all of the mental afflictions by eliminating ignorance. And how does one do so? Through contemplative practices, including meditation, that cultivate wisdom.

"The Buddhist approach to eliminating suffering thus focuses on how we work with our mental afflictions such as ignorance, craving, and aversion so as to reduce and eventually eliminate them."

The Practice of Wisdom

As noted in the essay introducing part 1, wisdom eradicates ignorance by “seeing the way things truly are”; in other words, it undermines the cognitive distortions that constitute ignorance. This immediately raises two issues: first, what exactly is the way things truly are? And second, what kind of “seeing” (Skt., darśana) is involved here? The first question is highly complex, and an adequate answer would require a lengthy account of the various Buddhist philosophical positions concerning the nature of reality and the way reality is actively misperceived due to ignorance. Fortunately, subsequent volumes in this series will offer detailed accounts of the relevant Buddhist philosophies, and to understand the contemplative process of cultivating wisdom, we do not need to get into those details. Instead, it is the second question about the notion of “seeing” that is most relevant here. In short, the metaphor of “seeing” points to a crucial aspect of wisdom’s transformative power. For it to be effective, wisdom cannot be simply a matter of intellectual understanding. It must instead become experiential.

The distinction between a mere intellectual understanding and an experiential one largely comes down to the difference between conceptual and perceptual cognition. Our authors have already discussed this difference in detail, and without reiterating their analysis, we can simply note that perceptual experience has a clarity or phenomenal intensity that involves a visceral level of response, such that thinking of eating an apple and actually doing so are manifestly distinct. We have also learned that conceptual cognitions always involve some degree of distortion (for example, the thought of an “apple” imputes a false sameness to all apples), whereas perception is free of those distortions. Thus, from an epistemological perspective, wisdom must become perceptual, if it is to be a truly undistorted encounter with reality. This epistemological issue is important, but in the context of understanding the contemplative process of cultivating wisdom, a perhaps more crucial issue is the role that perceptual experience plays in psychological and behavioral change. In short, Buddhist theorists maintain that, without the visceral impact of an actual experience, merely thinking about some transformative content will be much less effective in creating those changes.

Our authors discuss the process of cultivating wisdom through two interrelated schemas: the “three stages of wisdom” and the notion of “view, meditation, and conduct.” The three stages of wisdom outline a contemplative process that begins with learning some conceptual content, for example, the Buddhist analysis of personal identity. This act of learning is literally called “listening” (Skt., śruti), since traditionally, even written texts (including philosophical ones) are transmitted through oral discourse and commentary. This also points to the contemplative aspects of this process, inasmuch as the guidance for proper listening includes instructions about motivation, attention, affective orientation, and so on. Once one has a clear understanding of the material learned from the text and teacher, the “wisdom arisen from learning” is in place. One then applies rational analysis to that material, primarily employing the type of inferential ­reasoning discussed in part 5. At this stage, one is critically reflecting on the meaning of the material that one has learned, and once one reaches a point of clarity and certainty about that meaning, one has achieved the “wisdom arisen from critical reflection.” Finally, in order to bring one’s critical understanding to the point of a visceral, nonconceptual experience, one engages in meditative practices that eventually end in such an experience, which is itself the “wisdom arisen from meditation.”

The contemplative process outlined by the three stages of wisdom fits into a larger context of contemplative practice, and the notion of “view, meditation, and conduct” points to some key features of that larger context. The view (Skt., dṛṣṭi) concerns especially the intellectual understanding and experiential knowledge that constitutes the wisdom that uproots ignorance, but the view can also be understood to include other theoretical and experiential knowledge concerning other topics, such as compassion, that are crucial to the Buddhist path. The term conduct (samācāra) refers to the contemplative lifestyle required for effective practice, and one of its main features is the importance of ethical behavior. In short, an unethical life is one filled with mental afflictions, and since mental afflictions necessarily cause mental disturbance, they induce chaotic mind-states that are not suitable to contemplative practice. Finally, meditation (bhāvanā) refers not only to practices for cultivating the aforementioned wisdom arisen from meditation but also to the wide variety of meditative practices that Buddhist contemplatives use to advance on their spiritual path. This raises the overall question of what is meant by “meditation,” and our authors address this issue at length. Let us now look at some key aspects of their account.



The main technical term for meditation in Buddhist Sanskrit texts is bhāvanā. This term comes from the verbal root bhū (“to be” or “to become”) in its causal form, and it literally means “causing to become” or “making be.” The Tibetan translation of this term is sgom, and it emphasizes a particular interpretation of bhāvanā where meditation involves a process of familiarization. As a general translation, “cultivation” may best capture the range of meanings suggested by bhāvanā, such that meditation could involve “cultivating” a particular mental state such as compassion or “cultivating” knowledge of or familiarity with a particular object or topic, such as impermanence.

A key rubric, discussed at length by our authors, is the distinction between cultivating calm abiding (śamatha) and cultivating special insight (vipaśyanā). These two are said to lie at the core of all Buddhist meditative practices, in part because the process that culminates in the emergence of meditative wisdom requires the integration of both. Calm abiding most literally refers to a particular achievement, such that one can sustain a completely stable meditative state with a type of mental and physical “fluency” (praśrabdhi) that enables one to effortlessly remain undistracted while sustaining great mental clarity. Special insight refers to a state in which wisdom is fully present, especially the wisdom that uproots ignorance. In usage, both calm abiding and special insight commonly refer to meditative practices that are meant to culminate in these achievements. Thus one can say that one is “practicing calm abiding,” in the sense that one is engaged in a practice that is meant to culminate in actual calm abiding. Many sources maintain that calm abiding is usually cultivated first, with special insight arising later. But in all cases, the two must eventually be combined. As one traditional metaphor puts it, calm abiding is like the shade around an oil lamp that keeps it stable and unperturbed by the winds of distraction, and special insight constitutes the intensity of the flame itself. Without both, one will not be able to see what needs to be seen.

The rubric of calm abiding and special insight relate to another pair of terms: placement meditation and analytical meditation. When engaged in the practice of placement meditation (Tib., ’jog sgom), one is not employing discursive content or analysis. In contrast, when engaged in analytical meditation (’dpyad sgom), discursive content or analysis is an explicit feature of the practice. As our authors note, calm abiding will generally fall under the rubric of placement meditation. Special insight is cultivated through an analytical process, so it will generally be characterized as analytical. However, the integration of calm abiding and special insight is a special case, where the intense focus of the analysis in special insight itself engenders the fluency and undistracted stability of calm abiding. The relationship between calm abiding and special insight points to a more general feature of many other meditative practices, such as the cultivation of compassion. Specifically, an analytical meditation—where, for example, one follows a script of discursive contemplations that are intended to induce compassion—is often followed in the same session by placement meditation, such that one lets go of the discursive content and remains nondiscursively in the state induced by the analytical meditation. And when that state degrades or dissipates, one again returns to the analytical meditation. In this way, a practitioner might alternate between analytical meditation and placement meditation. This approach characterizes much of what is described as meditation in traditional manuals.

"Calm abiding is like the shade around an oil lamp that keeps it stable and unperturbed by the winds of distraction, and special insight constitutes the intensity of the flame itself."

Mindfulness, Meta-awareness, and Regulating Attention

Although we speak of meditation with the single term bhāvanā, the large variety of practices encompassed by that term can differ so significantly that one may wonder whether they share any universal features. In this regard, our authors helpfully turn to the central role played by mindfulness and meta-awareness in any meditative practice, especially as a means to regulate attention. To appreciate their presentation, however, it is important to unpack both of these terms.

These days, the term mindfulness is widespread, and secularized mindfulness programs now show up in numerous contexts, such as schools and workplaces, that are often outside a Buddhist cultural milieu. Both within Buddhism and more broadly in the contemporary world, mindfulness can describe a range of practices that vary considerably in technique and goals. In the more general usage found both in some Buddhist texts and in contemporary contexts, the Sanskrit term smṛti connects to meanings that range from its literal sense of “remembering” to meanings such as “moment-by-moment nonjudgmental awareness.” Our authors, however, are using this term in a much more restricted, technical sense. Drawing on the account of mental factors in part 2, mindfulness here refers specifically to a mental factor that supports stable attention.

More specifically, in this technical context, mindfulness is the mental factor that prevents distraction. In other words, it prevents the mind from losing track of an object or dropping out of a target state. This loss of focus often occurs due to “attentional capture,” where an unintended object or stimulus catches one’s attention, and one involuntarily loses track of one’s intended object. Sometimes, however, one simply loses focus on the object without being drawn to a new object, as when one dozes off in the middle of a meditation session. The role of the mental factor mindfulness is to prevent the loss of one’s meditative focus in any of these ways. In this usage, one can think of the original term smṛti and its Tibetan translation dran pa, which literally mean “memory,” as a kind of metaphor. When one loses track of an object, it is as if one is “forgetting” it. Thus, the mental factor that prevents one from “forgetting” or losing the object can be metaphorically called “remembering.” Unfortunately, the usual English translation of this term as “mindfulness” does not convey this nuance.

The second term cited by our authors is samprajanya in Sanskrit, and we have translated this as “meta-awareness.” Readers familiar with this term in its Pali context (where it is rendered as sampajañña) may be surprised by this translation, since in those contexts it is usually rendered as “clear comprehension,” where one of its main functions is to recognize key features of the meditative object. However, in the Sanskrit sources cited by our authors, and especially as these sources are interpreted in Tibet, samprajanya plays a different role. Specifically, this term refers to the aspect of a meditative awareness that monitors the quality of one’s attention, along with other mental and physical aspects of an ongoing meditative experience. For example, if one were stabilizing one’s attention on the breath, samprajanya is what enables one to notice that one has become distracted, such that instead of attending to the sensations of breathing, one is now thinking about a beach vacation. In other words, samprajanya is what enables one to notice that mindfulness (in the technical sense described above) has been lost. For this reason, samprajanya is clearly a form of what cognitive scientists call meta-awareness.

The technical terms mindfulness and meta-awareness point to a process that is essential to meditation practice: namely, the regulation of attention. Our authors explore this topic in their lengthy account of calm abiding, but the issues raised there apply more broadly to all other practices. In brief, the regulation of attention is conceptualized especially in terms of the two main ways that a meditative state degrades: excitation (Skt., auddhatya) and laxity (laya). These two features stand along a spectrum of what psychological science refers to as “arousal,” such that the strongest form of excitation amounts to a form of high arousal, and the deepest form of laxity is a form of low arousal. High-arousal states of excitation involve mental scattering and instability, whereby the mind is constantly losing track of its focal object or target state and is instead attending to irrelevant objects (sensory stimuli, memories, and so on) that attract the mind. In low-arousal states involving laxity, the mind loses the clarity or intensity required to sustain focus on an object or task, and the meditation degrades as a result.

In this model of attention regulation within meditation, meta-awareness is what detects excitation and laxity, and advanced practitioners can notice their presence before the meditation actually degrades. In other words, as the capacity for meta-awareness improves, practitioners can detect subtle degrees of excitation and laxity, and they can do so even while maintaining their focus on a meditative object. In most contexts, excitation and laxity are closely tied to the clarity and stability of the meditative state, and a general goal of practice is thus to strike the right balance between these two features. Too much clarity or intensity tends to produce excitation and the mental scattering that follows. Too much stability can lead to laxity and an increasingly dull mental state that eventually can even transition into sleep. Especially for beginners, many practices involve learning how to cultivate the kind of meta-awareness that enables them to notice the imbalance of stability and clarity, along with the potential for excitation and laxity, in a way that does not completely interrupt the meditative state.

Some styles of practice even attempt to cultivate a form of meta-­awareness that persists without any explicit focus on any object. In those practices, the goal is to sustain “mindfulness of mere nondistraction” (Tib., ma yengs tsam gyi dran pa), such that one drops focus on any object and, with meta-awareness still present, one remains in a state free of any attentional capture whatsoever. This style of practice, known as objectless calm abiding, is radically different from those that seek to cultivate object-­oriented focus, yet the basic features of mindfulness, meta-awareness, and attentional regulation are in many ways the same.


Examples of Meditative Practices

Our authors conclude this part with a presentation of two different examples of contemplative practices: the applications of mindfulness (Skt., smṛtyupasthāna) and the cultivation of equanimity toward the eight worldly concerns (Tib., ’jig rten chos brgyad). The latter practice is an excellent example in the mind training (Tib., blo sbyong) style that is highly discursive and thus relies primarily on analytical meditation. As with other parts of this volume, here again the work of Śāntideva is especially influential, with its emphasis on pithy arguments and aphorisms that point out the absurdity or pointlessness of our usual attitudes toward mundane issues such as praise and blame, fame and infamy, and so on. In many ways, our authors’ account of this practice actually reproduces the practice itself, and as one reads the text, it may be useful to see how the arguments and aphorisms affect one’s frame of mind.

The key point here is to recognize that the target of such a practice is our ordinary, unreflective way of going through the day under the delusion of attempting to protect or satisfy a sense of self that is, in fact, nonexistent. Likewise, even in such a highly discursive practice that can almost be realized just by reading the text, one may also be able to see how mindfulness and meta-awareness—along with the regulation of attention—must be in place for one to attend to the contemplations with enough focus for them to transform one’s experience. Allowing the contemplation on the eight worldly concerns to have an impact enables one to see how this is a genuine meditative practice, even if it does not conform to the stereotype of meditation as sitting quietly in deep, inward serenity.

The other practice presented by our authors, the applications of mindfulness, is sometimes translated as the “foundations of mindfulness,” which might be a more familiar term to some readers. The practice as described, however, is quite different from contemporary notions of mindfulness, and this points both to the complexity of the term mindfulness and to the general diversity of meditative practices. Our authors describe the applications of mindfulness in terms of eliminating four false conceptions: that the body is pure; that sensations are truly pleasant; that experience is stable; and that there is, in relation to our mind-body components, some form of absolute self. This way of interpreting mindfulness practice draws on classical accounts in the Abhidharma literature. In contrast, many contemporary accounts emphasize the notion of attending purposefully to the present moment without judgment or reactivity. This too is an authentic practice, but in relation to the account presented by our authors, it is much closer to a calm abiding or śamatha practice, especially according to the styles found in the nondual Tibetan traditions such as Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen.

All this is to say that, as this part of the volume amply indicates, when we use terms such as meditation or mindfulness in the singular, we may very easily miss the tremendous diversity that characterizes these Buddhist contemplative practices.

John Dunne

"Too much stability can lead to laxity and an increasingly dull mental state that eventually can even transition into sleep."

This, the second volume in the Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics series, focuses on the science of mind. Readers are first introduced to Buddhist conceptions of mind and consciousness and then led through traditional presentations of mental phenomena to reveal a Buddhist vision of the inner world with fascinating implications for the contemporary disciplines of cognitive science, psychology, emotion research, and philosophy of mind. Major topics include:

– The distinction between sensory and conceptual processes and the pan-Indian notion of mental consciousness

– Mental factors—specific mental states such as attention, mindfulness, and compassion—and how they relate to one another

– The unique tantric theory of subtle levels of consciousness, their connection to the subtle energies, or “winds,” that flow through channels in the human body, and what happens to each when the body and mind dissolve at the time of death

– The seven types of mental states and how they impact the process of perception

– Styles of reasoning, which Buddhists understand as a valid avenue for acquiring sound knowledge

In the final section, the volume offers what might be called Buddhist contemplative science, a presentation of the classical Buddhist understanding of the psychology behind meditation and other forms of mental training.

To present these specific ideas and their rationale, the volume weaves together passages from the works of great Buddhist thinkers like Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, Dignāga, and Dharmakīrti. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s introduction outlines scientific and philosophical thinking in the history of the Buddhist tradition. To provide additional context for Western readers, each of the six major topics is introduced with an essay by John D. Dunne, distinguished professor of Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice at the University of Wisconsin. These essays connect the traditional material to contemporary debates and Western parallels, and provide helpful suggestions for further reading.


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