SUITABLE NIMITTA AND USELESS NIMITTA
It is very helpful to cultivate nimitta of the sort perceived as a light. These "light nimittas" are the best vehicle for transporting the meditator into the Jhanas. However, it is just possible, but rarely done, to enter a Jhana by using "feeling nimittas" instead. By this I mean that one sees no lights in the mind, instead one experiences a feeling of bliss in the mind. It is important to note that the sense of touch has been transcended and such a "feeling" of bliss is experienced completely by the mind sense. It is a pure mental object again, but perceived as relating closely to a physical feeling of bliss. This is a bona-fide nimitta. But it is much more difficult to work with such as a nimitta to gain access to Jhana, though it is not impossible. For these reasons, it is recommended to cultivate the light nimitta if one aspires for the Jhana.
There are some visual nimittas that are of no use on the path into Jhana. It is helpful to know these "useless" nimitta so that one will waste no time with them.
Visions. Sometimes whole scenes can appear clearly in the mind. There might be landscapes, buildings and people. They may appear familiar or strange. It might be fascinating to watch such visions, but they are of little use. Moreover, they are meaningless and one should certainly not take them as some revelation of truth! Experience shows that visions arising at this stage are notoriously deceptive and completely untrustworthy. If one likes to waste time, one can linger on them a while. But the recommended thing to do is to remove all interest and go back to the beautiful breath. Such complex nimitta are merely a reflection of an overcomplicated mind. The mind should have been calmed into simplicity much more effectively before letting go of the breath. When one sustains the attention on the beautiful breath, uninterrupted for long periods of time, then one is training in simplicity. Then when the breath disappears, a simple unified nimitta arises, one that is suitable for progress.
The Firework Nimitta. A less elaborate nimitta, which is still overcomplicated, can be called the "firework nimitta." As the name suggests, this consists of many bursts of light coming and going, never lasting long and exhibiting much movement. There may be several bursts of light at the same time, even of different colors. Again, this firework nimitta is a sign that the mind is still too complicated and very unstable. If one wants, one can enjoy the sideshow for a short time, but one should not waste too much time there. One should ignore all the razzele-dazzele of the firework nimitta, return to the breath, and develop more one-pointedness and calm.
The Shy Nimitta. The next type of nimitta can be called the "shy nimitta," a single pure light that flashes up quickly and then disappears. After a few moments, it flashes up again. Each time, it lasts only a second or two. Such a nimitta is much more encouraging. Its simplicity shows that the mind is one-pointed. Its power is a sign that pitisukha is strong. But its inability to remain after breaking through into consciousness shows that the level of calm is not quite enough. In such a situation, one need not return to the beautiful breath yet. Instead, one patiently waits, developing more calm, allowing the mind to become more receptive to the very shy nimitta. As will be explained at greater length later, this nimitta disappears because the mind overreacts to its arrival, usually with excitement or fear. By establishing more solid calm and having the confidence to not react at all, the shy nimitta returns and stays longer each time. Soon, such a nimitta loses its shyness and, feeling accepted within the mind's calmness, remains a long time. One should attempt this approach first; But if the nimitta continues being "shy," with no indication that it is remaining longer, then one should return to the beautiful breath and ignore the shy nimitta. When one has built more tranquility of mind with the beautiful breath, then one can return to the shy nimitta to see if it will establish itself this time.
The Point Nimitta. Another type of nimitta is the "point nimitta," a simple and powerful light, but ever so small, which persists many seconds. This nimitta can be very useful. It shows that one-pointedness is excellent, calm is sufficient, but pitisukha is still a bit lacking. However, all one needs to. do is gently look deeper into the point nimitta, letting mindfulness zero in, then it appears as if one's awareness comes closer to this nimitta and its size starts to increase. As it expands a little, one should keep one's focus on the center, not on the edges, nor beyond the edges. By maintaining the mind's focus sharply on the center of the point nimitta, it increases power, it grows in pitisukha. Soon the nimitta unfolds into the best nimitta of all.
The Best Nimitta. The best nimitta of all, that which is the most suitable for Jhanas, begins as being similar to the full moon at midnight in a sky free of clouds. It rises unhurried when the beautiful breath softly disappears. It takes three or four seconds to establish its presence and settle down, remaining still and very beautiful before the mind's eye. As it remains without effort it grows brighter, more luminous. Soon it appears brighter than the sun at midday, radiating bliss. It becomes, by far, the most beautiful thing one has ever seen. Its beauty and power will often feel more than one can bear. One wonders whether one can take so much bliss of such extreme power. But one can. There's no limit to the bliss one can feel. The nimitta explodes, drowning one in even more bliss, or one dives into the center of the radiating ecstasy. If one remains there, it is Jhana.
SHINING UP THE NIMITTA
It is a far-reaching insight to realize that this nimitta is actually an image of one's mind. Just like one sees an image of one's face when one looks in a mirror, one sees an image of one's mind in the profound stillness of this meditation stage. The nimitta is a reflective image of one's mind.
The Importance of Virtue. So when the nimitta appears dull, or even dirty, it means that one's mind is dull, even dirty! Usually, this is because one has been lacking in virtue recently, possibly angry, or maybe self centered. At this stage of meditation, one is looking directly at one's mind and there is no opportunity for deceit. One always sees the mind as it truly is. So, if one's nimitta appears dull and strained, then one should clean up one's act in daily life. One should undertake moral precepts, speak only kindly, and be selfless in service. This stage of meditation when nimittas appear makes it abundantly clear that virtue is an essential ingredient for success in meditation.
Having taught many meditation retreats over the years, I have noticed that the meditators who have the easiest progress and most sensational results, are those who are joyously generous, whose nature would never allow them to harm another being, who are soft spoken, gentle and very happy. Their beautiful lifestyle gives them a beautiful mind. And their beautiful mind supports their virtuous lifestyle. Then when they reach this stage of the meditation and their mind is revealed in the image of the nimitta, it is so brilliant and pure that it leads them easily to Jhana. It demonstrates that one cannot lead a heedless life and self indulgent lifestyle and have easy success in one's meditation. On the other hand, purifying one's conduct and developing compassion, at the same time prepares the mid for meditation.
The best remedy, then, for shinning up a dull or dirty nimitta, is to purify one's conduct outside the meditation.
Focusing On the Beautiful Center. The above being said, if one's conduct in daily life isn't too outrageous, one can shine up the dirty nimitta in the meditation itself This is achieved by focusing the attention on the center of the nimitta. Most areas of the nimitta may appear dull, but the very center of the nimitta is always the brightest and purest part. It is the soft center of an otherwise stiff and unworkable nimitta. As one focuses on the center, it expands like a balloon to produce a second nimitta, purer and brighter. One looks into the very center of this second nimitta, the spot where it is the brightest of all and that balloons up into a third nimitta even purer, even brighter. Gazing into the center effectively shines up the nimitta. One continues in this way until the nimitta is beautifully brilliant.
When, in life, one has developed a strong faultfinding mind, obsessively picking out what's wrong in this and that, then one will find it almost impossible to pick out the beautiful center of a dull nimitta and focus attention thereon. One has become so conditioned to pick out the blemishes in things that it goes against the grain to ignore all the dull and dirty areas of a nimitta to focus exclusively on the beautiful center. This demonstrates once again how unskillful attitudes in life can stop success in deep meditation. When one develops a more forgiving attitude to life, becoming more embracing of the duality of good and bad-not being a negative obsessive nor a positive excessive but balanced "acceptive" - then not only can one see the beauty in mistakes, but one can also see the beautiful center in a dull and dirty nimitta.
It is essential to have a bright and luminous nimitta to take one through to Jhana. A dull and dirty one is like an old, beat up car that will break down on the journey. The dull nimitta, when not made to shine, usually vanishes after some time. So, if one is unable to shine up the nimitta, then go back to the beautiful breath and build up more energy on that part called the "beautiful!" Generate greater Pitisukha, huge happiness and joy, along with the breath. Then next time the breath disappears and a nimitta arises, it will not be a dull one but something more beautiful and luminous. In effect, one has shined up the nimitta in the stage of the beautiful breath.
STABILIZING THE NIMITTA
When the nimitta is very bright, it is also very beautiful. It usually appears unearthly in the depth of its beauty and more wonderful than anything one has ever experienced before. Whatever the color of the nimitta, that color is a thousand times richer than anything that can be seen with one's eyes. Such awesome beauty will captivate one's attention, making the nimitta remain. The more beautiful the nimitta, the more likely is the nimitta to become stable and not jump about. Thus one of the best methods to stabilize the nimitta, so that it persists a long time, is to shine the nimitta into brilliance, as just explained above.
However, some brilliant nimittas still don't last long. They burst into the mental field of awareness with strong pitisukha, but they persist not much longer than a glorious shooting star in a clear night sky. These nimittas have power but lack sufficient stability.
In order to stabilize such nimitta, it is important to know that the two enemies that disperse the nimitta are fear and excitement.
Fear. Of the two enemies, fear is more common. These nimittas appear so immense in their sheer power and beauty, that one often becomes very afraid. Fear is a natural response to the recognition of something much more powerful than oneself. Moreover, the experience is so unfamiliar that one's personal security looks seriously threatened. It seems as if one might lose all control. And one will-blissfully so-if one would only let go of the "self" and trust in the nimitta! The one would experience desire and control overwhelmed by supramundane bliss, and, in consequence, much of what one took to be one's self would vanish leaving a real sense of freedom. It is the fear of losing part of one's ego that is the root cause of alarm when a powerful nimitta appears.
Those who have understood something of the Buddha's teaching of Anatta, that there is no self, will have an easier time of transcending this fear and accepting the nimitta. They realize that they have nothing to protect and so can let go of control, trust in the emptiness, and selflessly enjoy the beauty and power. Thus the nimitta settles. Even an intellectual understanding that there is no one in here will help overcome the terror of letting go of the innermost controller. However, those who have no appreciation at all of the truth of no self, may overcome this fear by substituting it with the more powerful perception of bliss, as in the simile of the child and the swimming pool.
When a child, who has just learned to feel confident upright on dry land, sees for the first time a swimming pool of water, they are likely to be scared. The unfamiliar environment threatens their security, and they are deeply concerned how their little bodies can manage on such an unsolid material. They are afraid of losing control. So they put one toe into the water and quickly pull it out. That felt all right. So they place three toes into the water, just a little bit longer. That was okay too. Next they dip a whole foot in. Then a whole leg. As the confidence increases and the swimming pool begins to promise much fun, the anticipation of joy becomes stronger than the fear. The child jumps into the water and. immerse itself fully. Then they have such a great time that even their parents can hardly get them to leave!
Similarly, when fear arises with the powerful nimitta, it is all one can do to just stay there. for an instant. This is like the child dipping one toe in the water, and drawing it out in an instant. One then reflects how that felt. To say it felt wonderful is an understatement! So, next time, one is encouraged by they previous experience to stay longer. This is like putting three toes in the water, then a whole foot. Later, one will find oneself staying even longer with the strong nimitta, like putting the whole leg in the water, and it feels even better. By this gradual method, confidence soon becomes strong and the expectation of joy so dominant, that when the awesome nimitta arises one jumps right in and immerses oneself fully. Moreover, one has such a great time that it is only with great difficulty that anyone can make you come out.
Another skillful means for overcoming fear at this stage, especially when fear is not strong, is to perform a little mental ceremony of handing over trust. It is as if one has been the driver of one's meditation up until now, and now is the moment to hand over the control completely to the nimitta. One may imagine handing over a bunch of keys to the powerful nimitta, like getting a trusted friend to take over driving one's car. With the imaginary gesture of passing the keys, one passes over control. One then lets go of all driving and controlling, and puts full trust in the nimitta. Such a transfer of faith from oneself to the nimitta usually leads to stability of the nimitta and its subsequent deepening.
Indeed, one is placing faith in the knowing and taking it away from the doing. This is the theme underlying the whole of the meditation path. One trains from the very beginning in passive awareness, that is, the ability to be clearly aware without interfering at all with the object of awareness. Energy, with faith, goes into the mindfulness and away from activity. When one learns to watch with ease an ordinary object like the breath without meddling; then one's passive awareness will next be challenged with a more seductive object like the beautiful breath. If one passes this test, then the most challenging object of all, the nimitta, will be presented to you as the ultimate test of passive awareness. For if one gets involved with the nimitta with even the slightest of controlling, then one fails the final examination and gets sent back to the beautiful breath for remedial training. The more one meditates, the more one learns to be powerfully mindful while letting go of all doing. When this skill is fully perfected, it is easy to pass the final test and stabilize the nimitta with flawless passive awareness.
The simile of the mirror is applicable here. When one looks in a mirror at the reflection of one's face and the image moves back and forth, then it is futile to try to stabilize the image by holding the mirror still! In fact, if you try this, the reflection moves even more. The image in the mirror is moving because that which is watching is moving. The mirror doesn't move and so does not need to be held still. The fault is with the knower.
The nimitta is in reality a reflection of the mind, an image of that which is knowing. When this reflection, this nimitta, moves back and forth, then it is futile trying to stabilize the nimitta by holding the nimitta still! In fact, if you try this, the nimitta moves even more. The nimitta is moving because that which is watching the nimitta is moving. When this is understood, one gives up on doing any holding and, instead, focuses on that which knows, letting that come to stillness. Because when that which knows doesn't move, then neither does the nimitta. Like the reflection of one's face in the mirror, when the knower is still, then so is its reflection.
Excitement. I mentioned above that the other enemy of the nimitta's stability is excitement or exhilaration, what I sometimes call the "Wow!" response. It is understandable that when there is success in the meditation and amazing thing happen, then the meditator can get very excited. This is especially so when a wonderful nimitta first appears, more radiant than the sun and more beautiful than the most exquisite of flowers! It is common, then, for the mind to say, "Wow!" Unfortunately, immediately after the "Wow" the nimitta disappears and may be reluctant to return for a very long time, even months. In order to avoid such a calamity, one should bear in mind Ajahn Chah's famous simile of the STILL FOREST POND.
In the late afternoon, forest monks, wandering in the jungle for solitude, would seek out a river or pool. They needed the water to drink, bathe, and maybe wash a few robes. After drinking and washing, they would set up their forest monk's umbrella draped with mosquito netting away from the pool to spend the evening in meditation. Ajahn Chah said that some times he would sit in his mosquito net with his eyes open to watch the jungle animals come to the water at twilight, also to drink and bathe. But the animals would only come out to drink when he was very still. If he moved, they would sense his presence, run back into the jungle and not return for many days. Ajahn Chah knew how to sit very still, so that the jungle animals didn't know that he was there. He would enjoy watching them drinking and playing, sometimes squabbling, and he would delight in the antics of these wild children of nature.
On some occasions, Ajahn Chah would sit extremely still. Then, after the usual jungle animals had finished by the lake, some strange and wonderful animals would cautiously emerge from the undergrowth's darkness. These beings, if they were animals at all, were so beautiful and rare that no one had ever told him about their existence. Or if they had, then he hadn't understood. He didn't know their names. As they came out from the jungle, their ears would scan the whole area and their noses would timidly sniff for any danger. If Ajahn Chah stirred, even slightly, or softly said, "Wow," these beings would pick up his presence instantaneously and flee back into the jungle, not reemerging for months. They' were the shyest of all beings who live in the jungle, and also the most rare and wondrously beautiful. They are hard to describe.
In this accurate simile, the forest pool represents the mind, and the forest monk sitting near its edge stand for the mindfulness. When mindfulness is still, the "animals" like the beautiful breath and pitisukha come out from the "jungle" to "play" by the mind's edge. Mindfulness must remain still and not interfere otherwise the beautiful breath and pitisukha will nervously withdraw back into the jungle, not easily coming out again. But if the knower, mindfulness, remains extremely still, after the beautiful breath and pitisukha have finished their business in the mind, then the beautiful, shy nimitta will cautiously emerge to play in the mind. If the nimitta senses that mindfulness isn't so still, if it hears the knower thinking "Wow," then the bashful nimitta will immediately run back into the jungle, and it will not re-emerge for a very long time. Mindfulness blew the opportunity by moving.
So when the powerful and beautiful nimittas appear, one must remember this simile and watch with the stillness of an Ajahn Chah, sitting absolutely motionless by the remote forest lake. One must restrain all excitement. Then one will watch this strange and wonderful nimitta make merry in the mind for a very long time, until it is ready to take one into Jhana.
DISTURBING THE STABLE NIMITTA
When the nimitta is stable and radiant, then one is at the entrance to Jhana. One must train to wait patiently here, maintaining the stillness through the lack of any doing, until the causes or conditions are ready for the transition into Jhana. However, at this stage some meditators make the mistake of disturbing the process by "peeking" at the edge of the nimitta.
Once the nimitta is stable and bright, one might become interested in its shape, or size. Is it circular or oblong? Are the edges precise or ill defined? Is it small or is it big? When one looks at the edge, mindfulness loses its one-pointedness. The edge is the place of duality, of inside and outside. And duality is the opposite of one-pointedness. If one looks at the edge, the nimitta will become unstable, and may even disappear. One should keep mindfulness on the very center of the nimitta, away from the edge, until any perception of edge vanishes into the non, duality of one-pointedness. Similarly, if one attempts to expand or contract the nimitta, then one will also be sacrificing the essential one, pointedness. Expansion and contraction involve the perception of size, and that involves awareness of the edge of the nimitta and the space that lies beyond. Again one is falling back into the trap of duality and losing one-pointedness, through this unprofitable expanding and contracting.
So when the nimitta is stable and bright, just be patient. Don't move. One is building up the Jhana factors of pitisukha and one, pointedness. When they are built to sufficient power, they will unfold into Jhana by themselves.