Reflections on developments of Shamatha and distinction between concept and non-conceptual levels of mental experience

During the development of Shamatha, Alan Wallace describes 9 stages of development in which the quality and nature of mental activity changes. We are all familiar with the “monkey mind” and the sleepy mind that plague the meditator on the cushion. The monkey in our mind is a metaphor for what our mind does when we sit with our eyes closed and our mind is flooded with thoughts that continually arise and we follow the thoughts like a monkey jumping from limb to limb, from concept to concept, from retrospective to prospective memory, to ruminative like  behavior. We are also plagued with qualities of laxity when we sit on the cushion, such that we tire easily and fail to see things clearly, or the vastness of reality. The adept will cultivate a decrease in excitation (reduction of the monkey mind) and decrease in laxity as they progress through the stages of shamatha. By the 8th stage of shamatha, mental activity at the conceptual level is decreased significantly and refinement (sharpening) of perception is increased.

For example, when there is an arising of a cognitive event, Buddhist science speaks of 5 mental factors that are present:

1. volition (direction to the object)

2. attention (selction/engagement of the object)

3. Contact (perception and cognition fuse)

4. Discrimination (cognitive event is distinguished from something else)

5. Feeling (sensory experience of pleasure/pain is converted to more abstract feeling)

Alan also spoke of 4 different types of intelligence to deal with these 5 mental factors:

1. vast, 2. clear (vivid), 3. swift, and 4. Penetrating intelligence

The discussion that ensued in response to the 5 mental factors anf 4 types of intelligence appeared to suggest that as the practitioner moves through the stages of shamatha, attention becomes very vast in nature as is described in nirguna awareness or by some as turiya, a restful state of undistracted, nonspecific awareness that has no author. This cultivated state of awareness involves increased levels of clarity and vividness for each concept or arising cognitive event,  a perceptual acuity that is fast to react and is able to be sharp in its integration of all available stimuli and becomes free of mnemonic bias and/or distortion. At the point in which mental activity is developed to a 8th stage of Shamatha, evaluative judgements disapear, there is no grasping of any particular concept, and perception is acute.

Perceptual acuity happens to be something that the Shamatha project (with Cliff Saron) actually measured 5 months post-retreat. Preliminary results suggest that perceptual acuity may improve and be sustained as long as practice persists.

HHDL pointed out that a well-trained mind at this stage may be able to begin to become aware of subtle forms of energy (from vajrayana/tantrayama), channel such energy with intention and create change/movement of such energy at a single point in one’s body. He also said that it may take 4 hrs. of continued single-pointed concentration to reach this point. :)

HHDL also pointed out that even his own practice on Shunyata (emptiness) involves conceptual processing, before the non-conceptual vastness arises. He continued to break down conceptualization of an act into 3 components:

1. an object of the action

2. the act itself

3. the Agent

At a conceptual level, there is a distinction that needs to be made, but over time and in some contexts, all 3 components may be one and the same.