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Samatha-Vipassana: Tranquillity and Insight, Hand-in-Hand

Skillfulness through the 4 frames of reference, a practice

This is the main practice I plan to do for at least the first month of my upcoming retreat. It is an approach to develop skillful qualities of mind by focusing on the four frames of reference.

Four frames of reference

The four frames of reference tell me what kind of objects I should pay attention to during meditation, and how I should pay attention to them. The four kinds objects that I should attend to are:
  1. Bodily phenomena in and of themselves
  2. Feelings in and of themselves
  3. Mental phenomena in and of themselves
  4. Mental qualities in and of themselves

The in-and-of-themselves part means essentially that I should pay attention to these objects in the phenomenological mode of perception. That means that I should see them in their own terms. For instance, if I focus on the body, I should not be concerned with its relative worth or utility in terms of the values of the world — its beauty, strength, agility, etc; instead, I focus merely on the sensations that are usually associated with the body.

The first three frames of reference stand for phenomena as they are presented to consciousness, whereas the fourth frame of reference stands for those qualities of mind which should be either abandoned or developed throughout the path.[1]
  • Bodily phenomena are things such as breath, blood flow, chi, muscle movement, etc.
  • Feelings are the feeling-evaluations that are either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  • Mental phenomena are things like mental chatter, cognition, intention, etc.
  • Examples of mental qualities are mindfulness, or sensual desire, more generally the five hindrances and the seven factors, etc.

Stages of development

According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the development of a given frame of reference happens in three stages (link).

  1. The first stage consists of focusing on bodily phenomena [feelings, mental phenomena, mental qualities] in and of themselves in the present moment. Here, I remain focused on bodily phenomena [feelings, mental phenomena, mental qualities] in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — while putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.

    This is essentially a concentration practice, developing the skills of mindfulness, alertness and ardency,[2] and should take me all the way to the first jhana. If I am furthermore able to drop all directed thoughts and evaluations, then I should attain the second jhana.
  2. After concentration is strong, I move to the second stage, that consists of understanding the causal relationships between bodily phenomena [feelings, mental phenomena, mental qualities] and other events by learning to manipulate them skillfully. Here the instruction is to remain focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to bodily phenomena [...], on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to bodily phenomena [...], or on the phenomenon of both origination & passing away with regard to bodily phenomena [...].

    'This is essentially a discernment practice. The goal here is to use the power of concentration developed in the first stage to help me in understanding this/that conditionality (what leads to what).

    I might notice origination and passing away with respect to (a) skillful mental qualities, for instance noticing that certain postures are conductive to feeling alert, or that I can become more calm and equanimous by breathing in a certain way. I might also notice origination and passing away of (b) unskillful mental qualities, for instance noticing that I always feel tense in some particular spot when my mind is restless, or that thinking of a certain theme ignites sensual desire. Finally, I might notice origination and passing away of (c) events that are neutral with respect to the development of the path (neither skillful nor unskillful). For instance I might notice that my eyesight is better in the morning, or that my left hand feels colder than my right.

    In the case of (c), it is enough to simply notice these conditions and let them be, but in the case of (a) or (b), it is appropriate at this stage in the practice to remember those conditions leading to skillful and unskillful mental qualities, promote the former and subdue the latter. This is done until the different factors for awakening have been taken to the culmination of their development.

    As this process leads to stronger and more refined states of concentration, it should refine my sensitivity to the fact that the grosser my participation in the process of origination and passing away in the mind, the grosser the level of stress that results. This should lead me to let go of the grosser levels of participation as I am able to detect them. This may lead to even more refined states of concentration, as I abandon the factors that obscure equanimity, or as I focus my equanimity on ever more refined objects.
  3. At this point, as concentration and equanimity are very powerful, and the mind is bright and pliant, it is possible to move into the third stage of the frames-of-reference practice, which consists of arriving at a state of fully developed equipoise, transcending even one's skill, free from any present input into the causal network. To do this, I must realize that even the process of developing equanimity is a fabricated process (fabricated for the sake of non-becoming). This should lead me to develop dispassion even for equanimity itself, and that should take me right into a state of *non-fashioning *where my mindfulness of bodily phenomena is maintained simply to the extent of knowledge and recolection (?), and is completely free from any form of clinging. [3, description of the attainment]

A practice session

  1. Choose a frame of reference to work with for the session.
  2. Remain focused on this frame of reference in & of itself — generating and protecting the qualities of mindfulness, alertness and ardency — while putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.
  3. As concentration becomes strong and self-sustained, pay attention to what leads to what, with special attention to skillful and unskillful mental qualities (such as the seven factors and the five hindrances). I.e., besides noticing what is happening, I notice also how it affects mindfulness, concentration, sloth & torpor, etc.
    • If something leads towards skillful mental qualities, I should promote its occurence by whatever means I have available.
    • If something leads towards unskillful mental qualities, subdue and prevent its occurence by whatever means I have available.
    • (such means include inclining the mind, moving the body, tensing or relaxing somewhere, saying or thinking something, etc, here I am suposed to experiment a lot to figure things out by myself)
  4. Finally, be unwilling to rest content with lesser levels of stillness when higher levels can be attained.[4] This affirmation is a good way to end the practice.


[1] The four objects that act as frames of reference fall into two classes. The first class — the body, feelings, and the mind — act as the "given" objects of meditation practice: what experience presents, on its own, as an object for meditation. The meditator takes any one of these objects as a frame of reference, relating all of experience to his/her chosen frame. For example, although one will experience feelings and mind states in the course of taking the body as a frame of reference, one tries to relate them to the experience of the body as their primary frame. A feeling is viewed as it affects the body, or the body affects it. The same holds for a mind state. (...)

The second class of objects — mental qualities (dhamma) — denotes the qualities of mind that are developed and abandoned as one masters the meditation. The list of "dhammas" given in §30 would seem to belie the translation "mental qualities" here, as they include not only the five hindrances and seven factors for Awakening, which are obviously mental qualities, but also the five aggregates, the six sense media, and the four noble truths, which would seem to fit better with another meaning of the word dhamma, i.e., "phenomena." However, if we look more closely at each of these other classes, we will see that they actually deal with variant forms of abandoning the hindrances and developing the factors for Awakening. The section on the sense media focuses less on the media than on the abandoning of the fetters — passion and delight (SN 41.1; MFU pp. 52-53) — associated with those media. The section on the aggregates describes a state of practice that is elsewhere [§149] identified as a developed form of concentration, in which the aggregates that comprise the state of jhāna form the object of analysis [§173]. The section on the noble truths describes a state of practice that elsewhere [§169] is said to require the sort of mental stability and clarity found only in jhāna. Thus all the approaches to "dhammas in and of themselves" would appear to be variations on the abandoning of the hindrances and the development of the factors for Awakening. Because the stated function of the frames of reference is to bring about the culmination of the factors for Awakening, and through them the development of clear knowing and release [§92], the translation of dhamma as "mental quality" seems an appropriate way to keep that function in mind and to avoid getting lost in the details of its different aspects. — Thanissaro Bhikkhu

[2] Four terms in this passage are key. "Remaining focused" (anupassin) can also be translated as "keeping track." This denotes the element of concentration in the practice, as one tries to stay with one particular theme in the midst of the welter of experience. "Ardent" (atapi) denotes the factor of effort or exertion in the practice; the Commentary equates this with right exertion, which contains an element of discernment in its ability to distinguish skillful from unskillful mental qualities. "Alert" (sampajano) means being clearly aware of what is happening in the present. This, too, relates to discernment. "Mindful" (satima) literally means being able to remember or recollect. Here it means keeping one's task in mind. The task here is a dual one — remaining focused on one's frame of reference, and putting aside the distractions of greed and distress that would come from shifting one's frame of reference back to the world. In other words, one tries to stay with the phenomenology of immediate experience, without slipping back into the narratives and world views that make up one's sense of the world. In essence, this is a concentration practice, with the three qualities of ardency, alertness, and mindfulness devoted to attaining concentration. Mindfulness keeps the theme of the meditation in mind, alertness observes the theme as it is present to awareness, and also is aware of when the mind has slipped from its theme. Mindfulness then remembers where the mind should be focused, and ardency tries to return the mind to its proper theme — and to keep it there — as quickly and skillfully as possible. In this way, these three qualities help to seclude the mind from sensual preoccupations and unskillful mental qualities, thus bringing it to the first jhāna. — Thanissaro Bhikkhu

[On attaining the fourth level of jhāna] there remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable & luminous. Just as if a skilled goldsmith or goldsmith's apprentice were to prepare a furnace, heat up a crucible, and, taking gold with a pair of tongs, place it in the crucible. He would blow on it periodically, sprinkle water on it periodically, examine it periodically, so that the gold would become refined, well-refined, thoroughly refined, flawless, free from dross, pliant, malleable & luminous. Then whatever sort of ornament he had in mind — whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain — it would serve his purpose. In the same way, there remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous. He (the meditator) discerns that 'If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of space, I would develop the mind along those lines, and thus this equanimity of mine — thus supported, thus sustained — would last for a long time. '

[3] He discerns that 'If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of space and to develop the mind along those lines, that would be fabricated. ' He neither fabricates nor wills for the sake of becoming or un-becoming. This being the case, he is not sustained by anything in the world (does not cling to anything in the world). Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.' — MN 140

[4] [If one is unwilling to settle for lesser levels of stillness] in this way, the stages of concentration, instead of becoming obstacles or dangers on the path, serve as stepping-stones to greater sensitivity and, through that sensitivity, to the ultimate peace where all passion, aversion, and delusion grow still. This peace thus grows from the simple choice to keep looking at the mind's fabrications as processes, as actions and results. But to fully achieve this peace, your discernment has to be directed not only at the mind's fabrication of the objects of its awareness, but also at its fabrications about itself and about the path it's creating. Your sense of who you are is a fabrication, regardless of whether you see the mind as separate or interconnected, finite or infinite, good or bad. The path is also a fabrication: very subtle and sometimes seemingly effortless, but fabricated nonetheless. If these layers of inner fabrication aren't seen for what they are — if you regard them as innate or inevitable — they can't be deconstructed, and full Awakening can't occur.' — Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This unwillingness to settle for less than what is possible is part of samvega. See "Affirming the truths of the heart" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

My experience with this kind of practice so far

I have never systematically and continuously did the practice described above. However, parts of my practice resemble this, and when I meditate I naturally tend to do something like paying attention to the body, and then seeing if I can release some tension from it, which is similar to a first-frame-of-reference type of practice, where the skillful quality being cultivated is mental and bodily ease. Some, but not all, of the most dramatic shifts I have experienced came when some part that was seemingly tense was relaxed by paying attention to it and trying to get that to happen.

This practice is more systematic and encompassing:
  • There is an emphasis on having good concentration as a foundation for the practice: with this practice, I plan not to try and figure out what leads to what until I can sustain my concentration well enough (i.e., no dry insight).
  • The focus is not only always on the body, but on the other three frames as well.
  • The skillful qualities being cultivated are not simply "what intuitively feels right", but there is a nice list of them that I can refer to (five hindrances and seven factors), and then evaluate: is this quality present or not? The ability to do such an evaluation is itself one of the factors, called "analysis of qualities".

Also, there is a "map". The practice I used to do (more MCTB-style) also had a map (the "stages of insight"), but after stream-entry or maybe first path I could no longer place myself in it or find it useful in some other way. I could no longer recognize cycles, and though I occasionally have fruitions and they are OK, there is nothing systematic about how they come to be, at least nothing I can tell. Also weird things happen, like for instance having a good idea, or seeing something I wasn't seeing before --- but here I mean in a fully story-mode context, without any particular focus on sensations and vibrations --- and then getting a fruition. I was expecting a rise through 13 well-delimited stages ending in fruition, but what I get is a pretty random jumble of ups and downs, and some fruitions on seemingly unrelated points in time.

Another problem I've had with the MCTB approach: I am no longer certain which sensations are being "interpreted as self" and which are not. Though it used to seem obvious that such sensations were there, now I have the feeling that if such a misclassification ever happens, it happens when I am unaware, or in a way I cant really see. Whenever I put myself to actively look at sensations, I can't really find any that I feel are "forming a sense of separation". Though I definitely feel that something is wrong somewhere, so I'm certainly not done yet, so that's probably still happening. But unfortunately, "sensations implying a sense of separation" seems like a vague pointer to something I am not really sure where to look for, or how to recognize.

On the other hand, practicing concentration seems pretty straightforward to me. I can certainly point out sensations of mental noise and restlessness ("agitation") any time I decide to. So these seem like easier targets. And Thanissaro's approach is more centered on these.

So this seems like a good practice, and it has a map, too, so I'm going to start off my retreat by practicing this.

RE: Skillfulness through the 4 frames of reference, a practice
1/29/14 5:05 PM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Brilliant. Thanks! I had a similar intention, but really needed a better understanding of how to use the four frames of reference in terms of daily practice, and this is it.

RE: Skillfulness through the 4 frames of reference, a practice
2/4/14 10:36 AM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
There's no jhāna
for one with no discernment,
no discernment
for one with no jhāna.
But one with both jhāna
& discernment:
he's on the verge
of Unbinding.
Dhp 372

Knowledge of the ending of the effluents, as it has come to be, occurs to one who is concentrated, I tell you, and not to one who is not concentrated. So concentration is the path, monks. Non-concentration is no path at all.

— AN 6.64