2,500 Year Old Meditation of Limitless Awareness

The following meditation is my interpretation of the Buddha's wonderful teaching known as The "Cula-Suññata" (The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness). It describes how, though a series of patient observations, we can gradually shift our attention from the busy world around us to the formless realms of boundless serenity and emptiness. I find it a profound practice, and have lead many practitioners through it on retreats. To make this powerful meditation available to as many people as possible, I've experimented, over the last few years, to make it as streamlined and concrete as possible (the original teaching is quite abstract and vague.)

If you'd like to practice this meditation, I'd like to suggest:
• set aside at least 40 minutes, preferably an hour.
• note that the meditation requires some use of visual imagination; don't worry about 'getting it right,' just follow the instructions as best you can.
• the meditation is 'subtractive,' in nature, in that it's based on removing from awareness certain objects, and focusing on the objects that remains. So as we move from one stage to the next, pay attention to which perceptions (sounds, perceptions, etc) remain available to the mind, and let go of the perceptions that have been cleared away.

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Let's start with the first stage of awareness, which is based on our surrounding human landscape. For this stage, open your eyes and establish an open, unfocused awareness of the ordinary reality around you: The sights of the room you're sitting in--the walls and furniture, the floor--the sounds and aromas, feelings of contact made while sitting on the chair or cushion, the feeling of the body breathing. You can even extend your awareness beyond what's visible and allow into your awareness any memories you have of what's outside of the building your presently situated. Perhaps other buildings, a city or town...

Now let's venture on to the second stage of the practice: close the eyes, remove from memory the images of the room and buildings around us, and turn our attention to elements of the natural environment. Allow into the mind any images we have of the natural environment around us: land, forests of trees or desert tundras, lakes or oceans, wild animals such as deer or birds, mountains, open sky, whatever naturally arises. Whenever man made objects appear in the mind--such as images of houses, buildings, cars and roads, gently release them. We're sustaining contemplation of the natural world.

Note how this second stage--reflections on nature--may feel more tranquil than the first stage--awareness of the human landscape. It's not as busy and demanding. This will be the process of the meditation: we'll simplify awareness in each ensuing stage, gently changing what's attended to by the mind.

For the third stage remove from your reflections awareness of living things--trees, plants, animals--and focus instead on the contact sensations you're making with the floor or chair beneath you. This is essentially what the buddha referred to as awareness of ground. If you like, bring to mind the soil, ground, earth. This is our foundation, the material physical reality; we can even employ our imagination to be comprehensive, visualizing miles of continent, or even the entire surface of the earth, a planet moving through a vast region of space.

This is where we move onto the fourth stage, what the Buddha called "arupa jhanas" or the formless realms--awareness essentially the elements of our psyche that have no physical bearings. We enter this stage of the practice by removing our reflections of the ground and earth. So we drop the sensations of contact with the found, and allow the visual reflection of the earth, floating in space, to dissolve; leaving only a sense of the vast space that surrounds us.

At this point we want to establish in mind a sense of space without limits or boundaries. In the discourse this meditation is based on, the Buddha explains the practice as follows: "No longer attending to the perception of city, of nature, of the perception of earth, one attends to the undivided dimension of infinite space." In other words, our awareness can create a sense of immeasurable space. We should spend some time in this domain, allowing our imagination to roam about in it, then broaden it to fill the boundless space. This part of the meditation is amongst the most challenging, as we're used to confining our sense of awareness to a limited field behind our eyes; it requires a great deal of practice and willingness to practice expanding our sense of 'where I am' or 'where the center of my consciousness resides.' To feel consciousness as vast can feel a bit disconcerting, so this practice should be done slowly; feeling free to return awareness to the sensations of the floor beneath us should we feel anxious or flustered.

To move on to the fifth stage, we withdraw attention from the sense of space, and turn awareness in on itself, focusing on the nature of consciousness itself. At this stage many practitioners struggle to understand the practice: essentially this stage is achieved by turning attention to what recognizes space: consciousness. Of course, the mind will prefer to cling to what its used to: if not objects, then at least a visual image of black space. Essentially the mind feels most comfortable visualizing something external to itself. Even though space is, of course, nothing, the mind will conceive of this 'nothing' as outside of it, a place to inhabit. At this stage we're trying to let go of a sense of 'place' or location and observe the sense of consciousness itself, filling with energy, dulling out, contained or vast.

The last stages of the meditation require no less courage: we withdraw attention to the nature of consciousness and open to a sense emptiness, a stage of awareness without ebb and flow, where things may happen but the mind pays no heed. In this stage we're nearing to what the Buddha called the ultimate goal of the practice, atammayata: instead of allowing the mind to contract around thoughts or images or fleeting sensations, we keep the mind open and spacious, containing everything but focusing on nothing.

At this point I'll let the Buddha describe what happens next:

"Your mind takes in pleasure and satisfaction, it settles into a themeless state of awareness. Note that anything that would disturb the mind, causing it to contract, is external to this awareness. Here we are in a state of emptiness that is transcendent and unsurpassed; there is nothing beyond this state of mind; and so you should train yourselves to achieve this state of release."

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