Illuminating the Ground Meditation

照底心直觀禪 Zhao xindi zhiguan chan. It’s simpler than it sounds.

This is a great exercise for anyone who’s preoccupied with their thoughts and feelings. I’m a huge fan of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment’s scheme, that practice begins with an Awakening. Before then, we’re just kind of putting all the pieces in place that we need along the way.

Illuminating the background mind practice is designed to help us experience insight (Prajna) as quickly as possible, so that we can get started with studying the teachings and formless meditation.

This is a zhiguan (Samatha-Vipassana) method since it involves focusing (Zhi) on a meditative object (From hereon out called the anchor), and observing (Guan) the mind. The aim here is for us to see through the doing or figuring mind (weixin, or suanxin) to the being, or ground mind (xindi).

No, they’re not two minds, it’s just helpful to riff about them that way. The figuring mind isn’t actually the mind at all, it’s a mental process, a function that we usually view and grasp at as an essence of sorts. This causes a lot of suffering, because—since it’s a process rather than a thing—the figuring mind is profoundly unstable.

Rule number one in Buddhism is, “You can’t get something stable from something unstable.” Rule number two is, “You can’t get something independent from something dependent.” Since the figuring mind is impermanent and dependent, whatever happiness or satisfaction we find in it or with it is gonna be impermanent and contingent as well.

In Indian Buddhist psychology, the figuring mind is called mano-vijnana, the sixth consciousness. It’s a mental function whose job is to pluck things from the flow of experience to single out and sort into categories.

In modern psychological terms, we’d call it access consciousness (A-consciousness). Access just means it’s what gives us subjective access to whatever we’re experiencing at any given time. That’s contrasted with phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness) which is kind of like the overall field of experience that’s going on in the background that A-consciousness draws from.

P-consciousness is like water in a stream, and A-consciousness is like a bucket we’re dipping in and filling up.

Let’s say there’s a fan droning in the room you’re in. Once your mind gets habituated to the sound, you kinda tune it out. If you’re really focused on what you’re doing, you might not even notice that it’s still on. Of course you still hear it, you’re just not aware that you’re hearing it. The whirring fan is there in P-consciousness, but not A-consciousness. If something about the sound changes, and that draws your attention to it, then it’d be in A-consciousness.

A-consciousness is situational and unstable, and moved around by our innate biases and preferences. It only ever gives us a small taste of what’s happening at any given moment. So, if we form our views based on A-consciousness, our views are gonna be limiting as well.

If we’re stressed or depressed, we’re basing those views on the phenomena (things) that A-consciousness is drawing from P-consciousness, like specific sensations, feelings, thoughts, and memories. We’re bringing them from the background into the foreground, and then we’re basing our self-concept and worldview on them.

I sometimes call A-consciousness the figuring mind because it 1) figures things out, and 2) snatches figures from the background and makes them the center of attention, just like how these words are figures right now, and the space behind them is the ground. In Gestalt psychology, that’s called the figure-ground relationship.

We’re usually fixated on the figure and oblivious of the ground. That causes suffering because the background is what gives everything context. Suffering is life out of context.

From one point of view, what we’re doing in illuminating the ground meditation, is merging the figuring mind and ground mind together. Or, we’re letting the figuring mind dissolve into the ground mind. Or, haha, we’re turning the figuring mind around so that it’s accessing the background mind rather than the flow of appearances in our experience. Those are all just interpretations, handle with care.

P-consciousness is called phenomenal, but it’s actually empty of all phenomena. It precedes our experience of things. It’s there before we hear a musical note, or smell a rose. It’s like a table or a container, and it’s the same in everyone.

When we identify more with the background mind than the figuring mind, then we suffer less because the background mind is a little more stable and independent than the figuring mind and the things it, well, figures.

The main trait of the background mind is a sense of continuous embodiment or being.

Prerequisite Method

Since this is a zhiguan meditation, it’s helpful to master breath counting first. If you can sit for, say 10 – 15 minutes without losing track, then feel free to try out illuminating the ground practice.

Some teachers recommend counting each inhale and exhale, others just the exhale. Choose whichever one works for you. The stock advice is to count to 10 and then start over at 1. If you lose count, gently bring attention back to the breath and start at 1. Another technique is to count, “One,” with each inhale, and, “Two,” with each exhale.

If the breath doesn’t work well for you, you can also choose another object like a mantra or a visualization and just count to tend while focusing on it. Not everyone digs the breath, and that’s fine. Since if have asthma and chronic sinusitis, I’ve never been a big fan of focusing on the breath.

That said, I like starting each sit (including illuminating the ground) with the Healing Breath: inhale from your abdomen to the count of five, hold it for five, and then exhale for five. I usually do that five times.

Then, to get my intention right, I’ll either take refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) or recite the Bodhisattva Vows to myself. But, even an informal, “I’m meditating for the sake of all beings, so that everyone can Wake Up and be free of suffering,” works. Intention is everything, it reinforces the whole sit.

The Healing Breath is a kind of controlled breathing, but when you go into natural breath counting, it’s good to just breathe, well, naturally. Don’t force deep, slow breaths. That’s a good way to get a head rush or feel panicky. Just breathe and count.

The Method

Once you’ve got counting down, we can move on to illuminating the mind. We start with choosing one thing to latch the figuring mind onto, that’s our anchor. It can be the breath, our posture, a mantra, a candle, a sound, or a visualization of a line, circle, or Buddha. Feel free to tryout different anchors, and then choose the one that seems 1) The easiest to focus on, and 2) The most uplifting or calming.

Once you find your anchor, stick with it, at least for the duration of that sit. I personally recommend the visual of a Buddha meditating, but that’s just me (I don’t recommend focusing on a circle, it agitates my mind for some reason, but it might work for you).

If you choose the breath, you can count your breaths or not, and focus on the abdomen or your nostrils.

Now, just rest with your anchor for a bit, letting everything else drift into the background. When you feel kind of poised, keep your anchor as the figure, but let yourself pay some attention to the background as well. Let all thoughts, feelings, sights, and sounds etc., come and go without judging them as good or bad.

Once we’ve got that going, we can apply mindfulness by asking the question, “What’s different from moment to moment?” With our anchor stable in the foreground, we can use it spot movement, since whatever moves is gonna contrast with it.

Whenever mindfulness starts to slip, just ask yourself again, “What’s different from moment to moment?” and then look for the differences.

You’ll see that everything is different. Sensations, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, desires, even the figuring mind changes from moment to moment. After awhile, it’ll all start to blend together as a kind of undifferentiated flow of experience. Like rippling water gleaming in the sun.

Then, we ask another question. “What’s the same from moment to moment?” What’s unchanging, what remains and precedes each experience? What’s leftover? Just ask the question, and watch.

If you start to intuit something stable and consistent, let go of your anchor and focus on it. If it seems to wiggle away, go back to your anchor and ask again, “What’s the same?”

This is a calming, blissful method overall. There’s no need to push yourself too hard. Let everything happen naturally.

You can practice it off the cushion as well, by being mindful of change and changelessness in day-to-day experiences.

The unchanging part of each moment is the background mind. It’s open, bright, and nothing we experience ever touches it. It’s what sheds light on our experiences. It’s wakefulness.

Insight

If you keep at it, eventually something will happen that turns observing it as a subtle intuition, into a bright flash of insight. It’ll be like your whole world was suddenly flooded with a tranquil, boundless radiance.

In that moment, all your fears, hates, and desires are washed away. It feels like coming home, while simultaneously realizing you’ve been home the whole time, that we’re all home.

This isn’t complete enlightenment—though it might feel that way—because it’s dualistic and essentialist. All we’ve done is see through the grossest layer of our confusion to a more subtle type of confusion. This is just getting your feet wet, so there’s no need to cling to it or crave it (even though you’ll definitely want to do both of those things).

This is when you can start practicing Chan in earnest.

Conclusion

Once we’ve seen through the figuring mind to the bare awareness beneath it, we’ll never forget it, it’s always with us. That’s helpful because then it keeps all of our experiences in context. We’re not just happy or sad, peaceful or angry, we’re also aware. I’m not just John, I’m aware. This gives us a refuge, somewhere to call home in an unstable, unpredictable world.

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