Directed and undirected meditation | Daily News


Directed and undirected meditation

While many contemporary Buddhist teachers work diligently to make meditation instructions accessible to a modern audience, we can sometimes lose sight of the practices’ origins in classical Buddhist texts. One way to reconnect with those roots is by reading the suttas (Sanskrit, sutras), the discourses of the Buddha collected by his disciples in the Pali Canon, which contains some of the earliest-dated Buddhist texts.

Many of the suttas contain practical meditation instruction. The Satipatthana Sutta, for example, covers the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness, and is widely known and taught.

Below, Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki introduces the lesser-known Bhikkhunivasako Sutta (SN 47.10; Thai, Bhikkhunupassaya). As Olendzki points out, this sutta offers instructions for using “directed” and “undirected” meditation practices. In directed meditation, a practitioner focuses on a particular object (recalling an image of the Buddha, for example). In undirected meditation, which is sometimes called “open awareness” meditation, the practitioner focuses their mind on whatever naturally arises in experience, shifting attention from one object to another.

What the Buddha says here about directed and undirected meditation is particularly interesting in light of the modern integration of metta [lovingkindness] practice with vipassana [insight] practice. The Buddha seems to acknowledge that mindful awareness is sometimes difficult to come by, and that there are times when one’s “mind becomes scattered” by the arising of challenging mind states. (Has this ever happened to you?)

His response here is not the warrior’s tone sometimes found in the texts, whereby the practitioner should just overcome the unwholesome thoughts and rouse up sufficient heroic energy to re-establish mindfulness. Nor is it the gentler response we often hear in the dhamma [dharma] hall, to just be aware of what is arising, without judgment of any kind, gently returning our attention to the breath or other primary object of meditation. Rather, the Buddha’s suggestion is a deliberate redirection of our attention to a “satisfactory image.”

The Pali words here are pasadaniya nimitta. A nimitta is an image or manifestation that appears in the mind—something akin to a sign, a vision, or an appearance of an object in the “mind’s eye.” It is the term used in visualization meditations, and even has a slight connotation of “conjuring up” something in the mind.

The adjective pasadaniya is translated by F. L. Woodward in the Pali Text Society edition as “pleasurable,” but this sort of term is too easily misconstrued in Buddhist contexts. I don’t think the Buddha is suggesting here that we seek something pleasant in order to avoid the arising discomfort. Rather he is suggesting a short-term strategy for the practical disarming of the mind’s defense mechanisms.

The 5th-century Indian Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa suggests that the image of the Buddha might be an example of a satisfactory image, but probably anything wholesome and that will not produce a strong craving (of attachment or aversion) will do. The idea is just to redirect the mind to flow around the obstacle that has appeared, but not to use something that will itself become another obstacle.

The practical effect of this redirection of attention is the natural calming of the mind and relaxation of the body. Only from tranquillity can true alertness arise—otherwise the mind’s attentiveness is just busy or restless.

But as the ensuing passage confirms, this excursion into the deliberate cultivation of a specific image can be abandoned as soon as its mission, the restoration of concentration, has been fulfilled. Insight meditation has never been about cultivating blissful states of mind or body for their own sake.

As a skillful means for helping our understanding “become ever greater and more excellent,” it seems to be a useful technique. I think we need to rely upon the guidance of experienced meditation teachers, however, to help us discern when it is appropriate to apply this strategy. The mind is so capricious: it may turn to a more pleasurable object of awareness just to escape the growing pains of evolving insight; or it may mislead itself into thinking it is practicing undirected meditation when it is actually just spacing out.

One important thing to notice about this passage is that the undirected meditation is occurring squarely within the context of the foundations of mindfulness [body, feeling, mind, and mental states]. This is not “object-less awareness” (which is not even possible in the early Buddhist models of mind), or the “awareness of awareness itself” that is mentioned in some traditions.

The meditator understands his awareness to be free and undirected, while contemplating body as body, feeling as feeling, mind as mind, and mental states as mental states. What distinguishes undirected meditation from directed meditation is simply the role of intention in the process.

Another interesting aspect of this sutta is that the framing story shows clearly that women were diligent and successful practitioners of insight meditation in the Buddha’s time, and that they were well-supported in this pursuit. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and lifelong assistant, was a great champion of the nuns’ cause and would often visit communities of nuns to encourage their dhamma practice. The Buddha seems to take the opportunity of Ananda’s report to expound on some of the details of mindfulness technique.


Visit Sri Lanka's Largest online shop. Over 125,000 unique categories such as Fresh Flowers, Cakes, Food, Jewllery, Childrens Toys and other Sri Lankan e-commerce categories. Low delivery cost to most cities here and free delivery in Colombo.

Add new comment