In Buddhist teaching, we often refer to “skilful” consciousness or “skil-ful” dhammas or trying to be more “skilful.” Practising meditation can certainly be likened to practising other skills such as learning to play an instrument, or woodcarving, etc. It seems we have to pass through diff-erent stages, whatever we are learning, and we undoubtedly have to face obstacles and disappointments in order to progress.
But what is it like to have mastery over a particular skill? What is it like to be able to pick up a piece of music and play it beautifully on sight? What is it like to be able to fashion a piece of wood into whatever you want? What would it be like to have mastery over the mind? Can you imagine practising meditation to the point where you have complete mastery over it?
The Buddha taught that one who has mastery over the mind has mastery in five ways. The first of these is mastery in adverting. This means being able to turn the mind to any object. In Samatha practice, this could mean turning the mind to any of the stages without having to calm the mind first; or energize it; or battle with any of the hindrances – just do it! If there was mastery in adverting, then the mind could be turned instantly to any of the jhānas – just like that! Just like reaching out your arm to take whatever you wanted: complete mastery.
The second type of mastery is mastery of attainment. Not only could you turn the mind to whatever state you wanted, you could also enter that state fully; without resistance; without cajoling – immediate full immersion. If you wished to enter the first jhāna, the mind would simply turn to it and enter. If you wished to enter the fourth jhāna, the mind would simply turn to it and enter that state of deep concentration – just like turning towards a pool and jumping straight in: instant immersion. No holding back; no doubts; no clinging to the sides.
The third mastery, having entered, is mastery of resolving. This means resolving to stay in that state for as long as you wish, whether it is 30 seconds, 5 minutes, 1 hour, or whatever. With mastery of resolving, you can remain in that state for as long as you want, whatever the circumstances.
Fourth is mastery in emerging; in other words, the ability to come out instantly and completely. It is like emerging from the pool and being immediately dry – no residue of water clinging to the body.
Fifth, Mastery of recollecting is the ability to recall the state at will. Interestingly, the description of recollecting is very similar to the descr-iption of adverting. It is the ability to turn the mind back to the state it was in and recall it clearly.
These forms of mastery may seem almost unimaginable. Who could have such control over the mind? Yet these are the skills we all practise each day in Samatha meditation. As we change from one stage to the next, we learn to turn the mind towards that stage and enter it without clinging or hesitation. From our first lesson, we learn to resolve to stay in the practice for a given length of time. Sometimes, it can appear surprising how accurate our “internal clock” can be – we open our eyes and exactly 30 minutes has passed. Our mastery of resolving gradually improves. We learn to emerge from each stage and put it down; and then, at the end of the practice, we return to our normal breath. If we try too hard to carry around our peaceful, meditative state, we can sometimes come unstuck. Mastery of emergence is as important as mastery of entering. By recollecting the practice after we finish, we learn the fifth mastery, which makes it easier to turn the mind to practise the next time we sit.