Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche presents a map of the meditative process. From a wild and busy mind to the perfection of equanimity, he lays out the nine stages of training the mind.
As the lineage of meditators sat on their cushions and worked with their minds, they saw the same unfolding process: nine ways that the mind can be true to its inherent stability, clarity and strength. In their descriptions of nine stages of training the mind through the practice of shamatha meditation, or “peaceful abiding,” they left us signposts of that process. These guidelines are helpful because the mind is so vast that if we’re left to our own devices, we’ll usually just wander in thought. These nine stages are a map of the meditative process.
The first four stages—placement, continual placement, repeated placement and close placement—have to do with developing stability. Stages five and six—taming and pacifying—have to do with developing clarity. And the last three stages—thoroughly pacifying, one-pointed and equanimity—have to do with building strength.
Placing our mind on the breath is the first thing we do in meditation. In the moment of placing our mind, it’s like we’re mounting a horse: we put our foot in the stirrup and pull ourselves up to the saddle. It’s a matter of taking our seat properly.
This moment of placement starts when we extract our mind from its engagement with events, problems, thoughts and emotions. We take that wild and busy mind and place it on the breath. Even though we’re placing our consciousness, which isn’t physical, placement feels very physical. It’s as deliberate as placing a rock on top of a leaf.
In order for placement to be successful, we have to formally acknowledge that we’re letting go of concepts, thoughts and emotions: “Now I’m placing my mind upon the breath.” What happens in that moment? Our attachments are uprooted. If we can even attempt such a thing, our discursiveness is greatly reduced. At the same time, by placing it on the breath, we’re gathering the mind that’s spread thin all over.
For beginning meditators the first stage is where we learn how to balance the focus on breathing, recognition of thoughts and holding the posture. It’s a grace period during which we develop good meditation habits. As we continue in our practice, placement is always the first step. It’s that moment at the beginning of each session when we recognize and acknowledge that we’ve begun meditating. Because it establishes our attitude toward the rest of the session, it’s the most important stage. The moment of placement gives our meditation a crisp, clean start. If we begin in a vague or ambiguous way, then our meditation will only continue to be vague and ambiguous. Like placing a domino, how carefully we place our mind in the first stage will directly affect the development of the next.
After that first moment, each time you choose to recognize and acknowledge a thought and return your consciousness to the breath, you’re learning placement. It’s such a small act, so innocuous, but it’s one of the most courageous things you can do. When you recognize and release that thought, you can take pride in yourself. You’ve overcome laziness. You’ve remembered the instructions. You can feel happy coming back to the breath. Don’t worry that you’re going to have to do it again—you’re going to do it thousands of times. That’s why this is called practice.
Each time you remember to place your mind on the breath, you’re moving forward. Just by letting a thought go, you’re extracting yourself from concepts, negative emotions and bewilderment. You’re letting go of the need to be endlessly entertained and consumed. You have to do it again and again and again. Change happens one breath at a time, one thought at a time. Each time you return to the breath, you’re taking one step away from addiction to discursiveness and fear and one step forward on the path of enlightenment, beginning with developing compassion for yourself.
I love golf. I play it whenever I can. No matter what kind of game I’m having, I can hit only one ball at a time. Each ball is the only ball; my mind has to be fresh every time. If I think of the balls I’ve hit or the balls I will hit, I’m not really hitting this ball. I’m only ingraining bad habits. It’s the same with placement. If you’re not crisp and fresh in recognizing and releasing thoughts, you’re not really meditating; you’re ingraining sloppiness. Those thoughts will gain power, and eventually you won’t be meditating at all. You’ll just be thinking.
Recognizing, acknowledging and releasing a thought is like reaching the top of a mountain. It’s worthy of the warrior’s cry, “Ki ki so so!” What we celebrate is leaving behind the self-indulgent fantasies that will rob us of our life unless we work with them properly. Inspiration, view, effort, trust, mindfulness and awareness support us in this.
The more we’re able to gather our attention and focus, the stronger our mind becomes, the stronger the experience becomes and the stronger the result becomes. We know we’re able to place our minds properly when we can hold our focus on the breathing for roughly twenty-one cycles without our mind becoming enormously distracted.
Placing our mind on the breath is now fairly easy. We’ve learned to mount the horse, and now we feel comfortable being in the saddle. The horse is walking along the trail. We’re experiencing how it feels to be on the breath, to be continually in placement. When discursiveness and distraction take us off the trail, by and large we’re able to implement placement and get back on. What allows us to do this—continual placement—is further development of mindfulness and awareness, lack of laziness and remembering the instructions.
Another reason we’re able to successfully place our mind on the breath is that we have confidence in the reasons why we’re meditating. We do it with enthusiasm because we know it will bring us peace. We see the futility of outside concerns, fantasies, thoughts and emotions. We’re willing to give them up at least for the period of our meditation because we see the benefits of doing so. Placement has become a reasonable thing to do.
When resting our mind on the breathing and relating to our thoughts with ease becomes the norm, we’re coming to the end of this stage. A benchmark is that we’re about to rest our minds for roughly 108 cycles of the breath without being caught in distraction. Through 108 breaths, in and out, we can be mindful of the breathing. Although we may experience some discursiveness, the thoughts aren’t bothersome or large enough that we lose mindfulness and forget the breathing altogether.
At this stage our mindfulness and stability last only so long; then our mind drifts off. But when the mainstay of our practice is that we can stay on the breathing for 108 breaths, giving ourselves a little wiggle room in that we will be neither completely still nor completely distracted. Then we’ve graduated from the second to the third stage, which is known as repeated placement.
We might feel like we have been doing repeated placement since the beginning. But the landscape of meditation is vast, and the stages progressively subtle, because they describe our experience, which becomes more and more refined. The Tibetan word for this stage is len, which means to retrieve, to gather, to bring back. We’ve learned how to place our mind and how to continue to place our mind, but occasionally a thought still breaks out like a wild horse galloping across the plains. In the first two stages this happened incessantly. By the third stage it happens only occasionally.
During the second stage, we learned to enjoy the ride. We’re delighted that we can stay in the saddle and enjoy the scenery. In the third stage we become more confident. But the horse will have spontaneous moments of excitement and wildness. Now and then it rears or bucks or leaves the trail. We have to bring it back. We practice occasionally retrieving it throughout the third stage, and by the end we do it less and less. Our mindfulness is maturing into stability.
Now we’re able to focus on our breathing, on being present. When the mind departs, it’s usually to chase fantasies of little pleasures, from food to better weather to romantic adventures. This is elation: we’re holding our mind too tightly. We’re focused on the breath so hard that the mind suddenly departs. As this stage progresses, the speed and efficiency with which we retrieve our mind increases. By comparison, the way we extracted ourselves from thoughts in earlier stages looks messy. Sometimes it was like quicksand—the harder we tried to get out, the more we were embroiled. But now, because mindfulness is so strong, we’re able to remove ourselves with precision. By the end of this stage we’ve achieved one of the milestones of shamatha: stability. Mindfulness is so potent that we’re able to remain on the breath without ever being fully distracted. Awareness is also becoming more astute. We’re beginning to catch thoughts before they occur.
Our meditation isn’t as clear and vibrant as it could be, but it feels good and peaceful because we’ve stabilized our minds. Throughout the course of a session, our mind always remains in the theater of meditation. This is an admirable accomplishment. In Tibet it is likened to a vulture soaring high in the sky over a dead animal. This bird now always keeps its eye on the food. It may drift a little to the left or right, but it never loses sight of the food. Similarly our minds may drift here and there, but never away from the breath.
Before the end of the third stage, sometimes we were present for our practice and sometimes we weren’t. Now we’re there for all of it. This is stability. It didn’t happen because we hit ourselves over the head with an overly simplified meditation technique. We achieved it gently and precisely through repetition, consistency, view, attitude, intention, proper posture and good surroundings.
The entry to the fourth stage, which is known as close placement, is marked by nondistraction. We always remain close to the breath. That’s when we know we’ve crossed the border. This is stability. We know that even though the horse will wander here and there, it won’t be leaving the trail.
Our meditation now takes on a different twist. Previously our main concern was not to be distracted from the breath. We were worried that our mind was going to be sucked back into everyday problems. We were always wondering if we’d be strong enough to return to the breath. Now we’re more relaxed. We’re no longer wondering if we can stay on the breath because we know we can. We’re no longer concerned about outside