Mindful Awareness vs Dullness
We all know what it is like to be asleep. And most of us have had the experience at one time or another of greatly heightened awareness and alertness, such that time seems to slow down, and there is an extreme vividness and intensity to all of our sensory perceptions. This latter experience may have been accompanied by a sense of being purely a detached observer, just watching one’s own body and mind react and respond to the situation at hand. These two states define and clearly illustrate for us the range of alertness and awareness that we are each inherently capable of. The level of awareness during ordinary waking consciousness lies somewhere near the middle between these two extremes, tending in the direction of one extreme as a result of fatigue or illness or intoxication, and towards the other in times of great excitement or danger.
To use the analogy of the tachometer in a car, the engine speed of the mind is normally in its middle range where the energy is in balance with performance demands made upon it. Vividness, intensity, and clarity of awareness are the manifestation of sati, of full-minded, fully conscious awareness, and the level of sati depends upon the ‘energy level’ of the mind. As the energy level of the mind diminishes, sati decreases and full-minded awareness changes to dullness.
Early on in meditation practice, samatha practice especially but this happens in almost every type of meditation practice, we encounter a decrease in intensity of awareness to a level below that which characterizes the ordinary waking state. Manifesting as sleepiness, grogginess, dreaminess, this is what I call strong dullness to differentiate it from the much milder form of diminished mental energy that I call subtle dullness. I consider it to be very important to distinguish between strong and subtle dullness, because I find that otherwise many meditators will not recognize the presence of subtle dullness.
So how does a meditator evaluate the level of sati that is present? She learns to recognize the different degrees of sati and dullness primarily through noticing when it has changed. When a meditator perceives the sensations of the breath with approximately the same vividness and intensity that normally characterizes tactile sensations in her daily life, she has not yet developed greater sati, but neither has she slipped into dullness. When she experiences an increased acuity of perception, as when she can see the end points of the in- and out-breaths and the pauses between with great clarity, sati has increased. The distorted perception of the sensations of the breath that accompany drowsiness are obvious dullness.
Subtle dullness, though, is more difficult to recognize. A meditator in a stable state of subtle dullness will be enjoying stability of attention and good concentration. They will most likely even experience their perception of the meditation object as very clear, and thus mistake subtle dullness for increased sati. But if there is a sudden sound, as when another meditator coughs or sneezes, or some other such disturbance, two things will happen. They will feel startled and will often jerk upright, and if they are observant, they will also notice that their awareness of the meditation object is immediately sharper and clearer than it was a few moments before. It is important to notice this difference, because by noticing it one learns to distinguish between the pseudo clarity of subtle dullness and true sati. As a meditator increases in sati, it becomes more and more difficult to startle her.
So why does a state of subtle dullness seem so clear, how can it be mistaken for sati? First lets look at the ‘ordinary’ level of awareness. The attention is usually moving rapidly from object to object and we are usually attending to multiple objects at once. When it is off the meditation object for long enough, then we know that the attention has shifted. When it is away more briefly and less frequently, it seems more as though we are just aware of several things at the same time. But these brief wanderings that allow us to be aware of several things at the same time are a scattering of attention that still diminishes the vividness and intensity of the primary object of attention.
Now lets look at subtle dullness. As the energy level of the mind falls, the attention does not move as much, and that, of course, gives us the experience of greater stability of attention to the meditation object. It also gives us a sense of greater clarity due to less scattering of attention. But as the energy level of the mind falls, there are also many more non-perceiving moments of consciousness, more gaps in flow of the stream of consciousness than before. Thus, when the meditator is startled and the energy level of the mind jumps up a notch, there is immediately an increased acuity of awareness! This is the tip-off to the presence of subtle dullness.
The wise meditator can take good advantage of these ‘startling’ disturbances in learning to distinguish sati from subtle dullness. For this reason, I recommend that meditators do not go to great lengths to create an ultra-quiet environment for meditation, do leave the telephone plugged in while you meditate, do meditate in groups that can provide the occasional cough, sneeze or snore.
It can also be very helpful to meditate while going to sleep at night, and to observe the transition from wakeful alertness, through subtle dullness, strong dullness and then sleep, a transition that can occur either quickly or slowly. Learning about mindful awareness vs dullness is only one of many benefits to be derived from meditating while going to sleep (and immediately upon waking, and there are some special features to these two meditations that are a topic for another time). But anyone can benefit from simply observing the mind while observing the breath while going to sleep.
Sati is increased simply by intending to be more acutely aware, and by providing the mind with perceptual challenges that require an increased level of awareness to accomplish. (Noting practice in Vipassanā is an example of just such a challenge, as is following the breath with increasing attention to detail in samatha practice.) But increasing the energy level of the mind also has the effect of increasing the rate of movement of attention from object to object, so in that sense increasing sati will also decrease the stability of attention unless the meditator has achieved a skill level of directed and sustained attention sufficient to remain focused at an increased level of mental energy. For this reason, it is best for a meditator not to worry about subtle dullness at all until they have overcome mind-wandering, gross distraction, and strong dullness. Permitting some subtle dullness is helpful in overcoming mind-wandering and gross distraction in the earlier stages. There is, in fact, a delicate balancing act between increasing sati and increasing attentional stability. They must increase in tandem with each other, otherwise one goes either too far in the direction of either agitation or dullness.
But once the meditator has overcome both mind-wandering and gross distraction, it is of paramount importance that she work to overcome subtle dullness. Subtle dullness will almost certainly be present at this stage because it will have been part of the means by which this stage of attentional stability has been achieved. Dullness is relative, of course, and the meditator has already cultivated some increased sati in previous stages of practice, but what we are concerned with here is any state in which the level of awareness and the energy level of the mind is definitely less than what she is capable of while sustaining this degree of concentration, and most especially we are concerned with any tendency for it to further decrease. She must learn to achieve and then to sustain this degree of attentional stability with no decrease in mindful awareness. Then she must learn to further increase mindful awareness. The latter is actually much easier than the former. Once the mind can stabilize without increasing subtle dullness, sati can be readily increased.
Before I leave this topic I also want to point out that sati ordinarily has two different aspects or ‘faces’, depending upon how it is directed. We have mostly been addressing full-minded awareness as directed towards the meditation object here, but introspective awareness, or sati-sampajañña, is that same full-minded awareness directed at knowing exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it in the present moment. This aspect of sati is only present with higher levels of alertness, and that is why there is the sense of ‘awakening’ in that moment when one realizes that their mind has wandered, and also that feeling of alertness that comes with ‘checking in’ during meditation to see what kinds of distraction or dullness might be present.
At the beginning of this article I called attention to naturally occuring instances of powerful sati, of greatly heightened alertness and awareness that most of us have experienced at one time or another, typically in times of emergency. You might recall my mention of the fact that this is often accompanied by a sense of being purely a detached observer, of watching one’s own body and mind react and respond to the situation as it unfolds. This is very illustrative of sati-sampajañña when the level of mental energy is very high.
In the earliest stages of samatha practice, the awakening to the fact that the mind has wandered is a distinct conscious event from the engaging with the object by the wandering attention. When one knows the mind has wandered, the thought it had wandered to is already gone. Likewise, the moments of ‘checking in’ with introspective awareness in the middle stages of samatha practice are distinct conscious events from the ongoing observation of the meditation object, and as such are actually interruptions of the attention to the meditation object (although if they are brief enough the interruption may not be especially noticieable). On the other hand, with upacāra-samādhi the sati-sampajañña can be simultaneous with the sati directed at the meditation object. How is this possible? In the early stages of practice, the energy level of the mind is not high enough that the mind has enough ‘bandwidth’ to encompass both at once. But in the later stages, as sati becomes more and more highly developed in tandem with attentional stability, conscious awareness can be focused on the mind while the mind attends to the meditation object, not as two separate objects, but as one object (the mind) that includes the other (the sensations of the breath). This is experienced as a change in perspective, as a ‘stepping back’, as an expanded scope of single pointed awareness. It is the opposite of what one does in order to enter jhāna, which is also a change in perspective but is a ‘sinking in’ instead.
At times in the past I have wondered whether deep jhāna could be achieved with dullness, but was never inclined to find out for myself. Jhānic absorption does not require a high level of mental energy and sati, although it is completely compatible with it. I have since heard of several instances that seems to be deep jhānas with dullness.
So without the deliberate cultivation of sati, a samatha practitioner can end up sitting in pleasant states of sustained dullness, or even progress to bliss-filled absorptions. But they will be lacking in one of the essential faculties required for Insight and Enlightenment, they will be lacking an indispensible Factor of Enlightenment – Sati, full-minded, fully conscious awareness.