Years ago, I worked intimately with a very strict Burmese meditation master, Sayadaw U Pandita. At every interview, Sayadaw would either exhort me to “try harder” or “maintain the effort that I was applying.” For him, enlightenment was the inevitable result of a ‘job’ well done. If you weren’t awake, you simply hadn’t finished the job, yet. (Needless to say, I’m still very much ‘on the job’.)
Aside from U Pandita’s unshakeable conviction in the possibility and accessibility of ultimate freedom, I still appreciate his pragmatic and salt-of-the-earth style of teaching. With ordinary examples, he subtle subtle aspects of consciousness and cognition that otherwise were anything but clear.
At one interview he asked me, “How do you know the flavor of the pineapple that you eat at lunch?” Assuming this was a Zen-like question with a counter-intuitive answer, I paused, hoping that wisdom and insight would come to my aid.
Sensing my hesitation, he didn’t waste another moment waiting for me and launched into a teaching of lucid simplicity:
“First, your fork must be aimed at the pineapple in its bowl. Then the energy of your hand must guide the fork into the chunk of pineapple. Then, the same process repeats of ‘aiming’ the morsel of pineapple at your mouth, and ‘guiding’ the pineapple in. Similarly, you must aim your awareness at the experience of pineapple in your mouth, and awareness must be sustained on the pineapple while chewing in order for the true flavor of ‘pineapple’ to be known.”
U Pandita continued, “Apply these factors of mind to all objects that arise in your meditation. Aim the mind at the object and rub the mind into the object.”
Only after this retreat did I realize that U Pandita was offering me a very clear explanation of two important factors of mind: vitakka and vicara. Vitakka is translated as ‘directed thought’ and refers to the ability of consciousness to take aim at a particular thing. Vicara is translated as ‘evaluative thought’ and refers to the ability of consciousness to sustain a connection with a particular object.
Giving attention to these twin factors can sharpen one’s attention and deepen one’s connection with the ultimate truth or flavor of each and every object.
As a point of practice, you might simply work with the breath. One half-breath at a time, aim the mind at the very beginning of the in-breath or out-breath, and then sustain the attention throughout the life cyle of that particular half breath. When that half-breath is finished, simply begin again, and again, and again. Once you get the feel for it, transpose this orientation of aiming and sustaining to all other objects. This very use of thought in this way will quickly quiet most discursive chatter.
It’s a simple but proven tactic for strengthening one’s samadhi and mindfulness. Have fun working with it this week in your meditation!
Originally published on July 6, 2011