Lecture Thirteen: Development 13.5

13.5 Composure

Among the last three factors of the eightfold path, sati (‘recollection,’ more commonly translated as ‘mindfulness’) and samādhi (‘composure,’ more commonly translated as ‘concentration’) are probably the best known among today’s meditation practitioners, especially in the West, and perhaps they are those which are most commonly associated with how formal meditation practice is imagined. But the last three factors of the eightfold path (including the oft-neglected right effort) work in tandem. Composure indicates both the eighth factor of the path and the broader division that encompasses the last three factors together (including right effort and right recollection). This terminological stretch of the term signals that composure cannot be developed in isolation from recollection and effort, and when the latter two are properly developed they naturally result in composure. The following discussion aims at clarifying how this threefold articulation works in practice.

Right effort is the intentional and deliberate action of discriminating between two different kinds of realities: virtuous and non-virtuous. Here ‘virtuous’ is used as a translation of kusala, which has the double meaning of ‘wholesome’ (morally praiseworthy) and ‘skillful’ (in the sense of having mastery and being capable of performing something). This distinction illustrates how the internalization of moral practice (already established by the factors of right intention, speech, action, and livelihood) is carried within the interpretation of mental life (and this, in turn, gives a deeper meaning to outward moral practice).

The discourses provide different lists for identifying virtuous realities and non-virtuous realities. One of the most common is the distinction (discussed in the previous Lecture) between actions based on desire or greed (lobha), aversion (dosa), and ignorance or confusion (moha), and those rooted in attitudes of non-greed, non-aversion, non-ignorance. In the context of the eightfold path, a more elaborate classification opposes two sets of attitudes: the five hindrances and the seven factors of awakening (e.g. SN 46.2), which are understood as the ‘heap of the unwholesome’ and the ‘heap of the wholesome’ respectively.

The hindrances are five forces that shape and distort intentionality and understanding, by hindering a clear and unbiased vision, but also imposing coactions. They are (i) sensual desire, (ii) ill-will, (iii) sloth and torpor, (iv) restlessness and worry, and (v) doubt. It is not difficult to see how the five hindrances are rooted in one or more of the three bases of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Half of the cultivation of right effort consists in discerning which hindrance is present and trying to abandon it, or (inclusively) discern which hindrances are not present and make an effort to prevent them from arising.

The seven factors of awakening, in their most developed form, are what leads to and then constitute a fully awakened understanding. They are (i) recollection, (ii) investigation of realities, (iii) energy, (iv) enthusiasm, (v) tranquility, (vi) composure, and (vii) equanimity. Notice the overlaps between this list of awakening factors and other aspects mentioned in the eightfold path. Recollection and composure are both awakening factors (i and vi) and path factors (vii and viii). The awakening factor of energy (iii) is a component of path factor of right effort (vi). The awakening factor of investigation of realities (ii) is often spelled out as the ability to discern virtuous from non-virtuous realities, and thus would be part of right effort too, but it would also underpin the part of the path focusing on moral conduct (path factors ii-v). The awakening factor of enthusiasm (iv) appears among the factors of the first two contemplations in which right composure as a path-factor (viii) is spelled out. The awakening factor of equanimity (vii) is a feature of the third and fourth contemplation (path factor of composure, viii). This overlap is not unusual in the discourses and suggests different perspectives for looking at the same phenomena.

The second half of right effort involves the arising of new awakening factors or the strengthening and full development of those that have arisen. In this way, right effort might be summarized as the effort of replacing hindrances with awakening factors. Note again the scheme: (a) initial grasp, (b) development; (c) complete fruition. This pattern is key to the presentation of the four noble truths and recurs, with due mutations, in the presentation of the awakening factors.

How this cultivation of the awakening factors is performed is spelled out by the next two path factors: right recollection and right composure. The primary goal of right recollection is to recognize and remove the hindrances, while supporting the arising and development of the awakening factors. Recollection is often illustrated in the discourses through the metaphor of a gatekeeper (AN 7.67 and 10.95). Imagine a city surrounded by a wall, with only one entrance gate. The gatekeeper surveils the gate, keeps out those who are not welcome (the hindrances), and allows in those who are (the awakening factors). In actual practice, this entails four domains to which one needs to pay attention. The discourses (e.g., SN 45.8 quoted above) present them in the most natural order for practice (body, feeling, understanding, realities), but here it might be helpful to present them in the reverse order, which provides a better perspective from which to see the rationale behind the practice.

First, one has to recollect the kind of realities one is watching for. In the most extensive discourse on recollection practice, the ‘Discourse on the Establishments of Recollection’ (Satipatṭhāna-sutta, MN 10 and slightly longer in DN 22), there are several sets of realities that are mentioned, which include canonical ways of analyzing experience (including the five aggregates, the six sense bases, the four noble truths). However, these are all different ways of tackling the same issue, namely, the presence of non-virtuous realities and how to make them subside, coupled with attention to the seven awakening factors, and how to make them arise.

For this reason, the two most crucial sets are those focused on hindrances and awakening factors. One needs to know what they are, how they arise, what nourishes (or starves) them, and how to act in order to support the awakening factors instead of the hindrances. A common feature of all hindrances is that they manipulate attention in such a way to create a sort of tunnel-vision aimed at engaging with a certain object in a certain way (pursuing it, avoiding it, drifting away, worrying, and so forth). Further, the more this tunnel-vision effect is established, the more the whole experience takes up a very personal flavor. This latter point means that any experience of sensual desire, for instance, is not the experience of an object, impersonal, and neutral phenomenon happening somewhere and simply registered by an impartial observer. Watching hindrances is not like going on a safari in the savanna to watch lions, it is more like being dropped without protection in the lion’s feeding ground. Sensual desire, for instance, is a call for ‘me’ to step into the drama of life, full of concern and struggle for what is lacking and I want. The stronger this identification with the hindrance, the stronger the sense of self as the main character of the unfolding tragedy becomes. But this process of identification is precisely what makes a hindrance a hindrance, since it hinders one’s ability of recognizing the entirely gratuitous way in which this or that content of experience is appropriated and taken as a target for desire, for the sake of ultimately controlling it. Observing hindrances (realities) as just hindrances thus means learning how to step outside of this identification, recognizing its constructed and misleading nature, and seeing through it that what one is trying to attain or manipulate belongs to nobody and is naturally impersonal.

Since hindrances feed on attention (SN 46.2), resisting the hindrances and working to rescue resources they might have taken up means, in practice, regaining control over one’s attention by withdrawing its unfolding from the pressure exercised by the hindrances and redirecting it in wholesome ways. By tackling attention, rather than the hindrances themselves, one can simultaneously de-personalize the hindrances and intervene at their root, without having to assume an overly adversarial attitude towards them. This practice clearly requires a subtle balancing between open observation and skilful intervention, which operates at the metacognitive level of one’s awareness of how one’s own attention works (or could work otherwise).

In turn, this approach reveals that the key for countering the hindrances without fuelling them as a side-effect, consists in recognizing that hindrances thrive primarily in the domain of intentionality (action and intention), rather than in the domain of feelings and perceptions. Hindrances arise with respect to a certain content of experience (which is perceived) as a way of engaging further with that content (and most often they contribute to shape its perception in turn). Countering the hindrances means first discerning the difference between the experience of perceiving, versus the experience of reacting to (or being called into action by) what is perceived. When this discernment is sharp enough, one can thus counter the reflex to react to what is experienced (the hindrances themselves), without having to be bother with the actual content that is experienced (perception).

The crucial focus of right recollection as a path-factor is not the domain of speech and physical actions (covered already by other path factors), but that of thought, or understanding (citta). Hindrances and awakening factors need to be recognized and dealt with for how they manifest at the level of thought, namely, for how they affect, perturb, or improve the quality of one’s understanding. For this reason, the third domain of right recollection is ‘observation of the understanding as just understanding.’ Again, while ordinarily one fully identifies with one’s understanding (especially when this is steered by greed, aversion, and ignorance), right recollection consists in remembering that even in this understanding there is nothing inherently personal. It is just the ability to understand experience. However, one cannot observe one’s own understanding as if it were an object that one could find at display in an objective, external space. The understanding does not stay in front of one’s eyes like an apple on a table. One’s own experience of reality is already a product of one’s understanding, which is thus operating in the background. For this reason, observing one’s own understanding requires a more indirect approach; it requires observing how one’s experience is coloured and shaped by specific attitudes. Among these, the discourses often focus on the presence or absence of greed, aversion, and ignorance, or to the degree of composure that one experiences. These are signs that certain hindrances are present or absent, or that certain awakening factors are absent or present. By recollecting these distinctions and applying them to one’s current experience, one can thus monitor whether, and to what extent, hindrances or awakening factors are present or absent.

In turn, to discern these qualities of one’s understanding, one cannot relate to them only through theory, since one is not dealing with something that is essentially different or separate from one’s own way of looking at experience. The discourses then encourage us to observe how the present experience feels; how it is immediately perceived in terms of three fundamental hedonic tones: feeling pleasantly, feeling unpleasantly, feeling neutral. Hindrances always manifest in connection with some degree of unpleasant feeling (since they share the same mechanism of desire, aversion, and ignorance we discussed in Lecture Twelve), while awakening factors are free from unpleasant feelings (and therefore entail a degree of pleasantness). The feeling tone of one’s experience is thus another immediate object of recollection because feelings provide the best marker to identify what kind of processes are taking place.

Eventually, most feelings, especially when hindrances are concerned, relate to the body in a way or another. Not only they are felt in the body, but they often are associated with how the body is experienced or perceived. Sensual desire is often associated with bodily images or other sensory stimulations. Ill-will often arises in connection with feelings of pain in the body. Sloth-and-torpor is heaviness in the body, while restlessness might manifest as the inability to keep the body at rest. Even doubt can have several bodily correlates, for instance the fact that one is no longer sure how to observe one’s own body, or whether this whole practice makes sense anymore, and these states might manifest as contractions in the body or be felt by it in various other ways. For this reason, the first domain of right recollection is the observation of the body. This is spelled out in different ways, each of which might be more appropriate or helpful in different circumstances, at different times, or for different people. Examples include recollecting the breath, or one’s posture, observing how the body is composed of several parts, or reducing the experience of the body to the four great elements (earth-heaviness, water-density, fire-heat, air-motion). The discourses never take a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to developing understanding. In any of these cases, the body is taken as the broader context within which any other layer of experience unfolds. This context is both the most immediately and easily accessible, and the one in which one can help one to discern the effects of the other layers (feelings, understanding, and realities).

To put together the practice of right recollection, one begins with the body, which works as a bait for the hindrances. If hindrances are going to manifest, their effects will be first reflected in one’s experience of the body. The body is like the bait of a fisherman, sensitive to the way in which the fishes approach. Discerning feelings and the overall condition of the understanding, one can recollect whether what is going on is concerned with hindrances or awakening factors and take action accordingly.

When right recollection is practiced correctly, right composure is its natural result. Right composure is commonly spelled out in the discourses as the cultivation of four contemplations (Pāli jhānā). The first contemplation is established by enjoying and getting absorbed by the condition of the understanding when this is free from the hindrances (non-virtuous states) and aloof from sensuality. There is a sense of enthusiasm for the exquisite well-being that is felt when one experiences this condition. For this reason, accessing and dwelling in the first contemplation is an even more profound, and even life-changing, proof that the initial working hypothesis set out by right view is confirmed. One has moved a long way against the grain of the world, and what one discovers is not grief or depression, but the most wonderful experience one could have ever imagined. Right composure thus illustrates the broader principle that underpins much of what presented in the discourses, namely, the absence of anything unwholesome (e.g., the hindrances) is positively felt as a present sense of freedom, pleasantness, and bliss (the joy of composure, for instance).[1]

Reaching the fourth contemplation involves a transition from a dynamic form of discriminative recollection (born of sati and dhamma vicaya, the first two awakening factors) that is practiced through examination and ascertainment of realities (vitakka and vicara), towards a non-discriminative from, which is the ‘purity of recollection through equanimity (upekkhā-sati-pārisuddhiṁ).’ The latter arises as the result of a verging of the whole of experience towards a feeling tone of neutrality, in which there is no longer any need to chase the pleasant or avoid the unpleasant.[2] This state of non-discrimination is not opposed to the former discriminative attitude, but is its upshot, the signal that discrimination has done the work that needed to be done, and that it can thus be set aside for the time being.

The fourth contemplation is an ideal standpoint from which to observe the nature of the five aggregates: there is consciousness (viññaṇa) of the body (rūpa), which is perceived (sañña) and suffused by attention (saṅkhāra) with a neutral feeling (vedanā). None of these aggregates poses a problem, none of them causes dukkha by itself. There is no problem with the constituent features of the world of experience, problems can only arise from the attitude (appropriation, thirst, craving) towards them. Since the aggregates are unsuitable for being appropriated (due to their structural uncertainty, Lecture Twelve), when one tries to grasp them, suffering and scorn will necessarily follow. But if there is no grasping, there cannot be any suffering.

Realizing that the genuine issue is appropriation (and not what is appropriated) is the central point of the teaching of the four noble truths. It is thus not surprising that in the standard accounts of the gradual training leading to awakening, the full understanding of the four noble truths is achieved from the point of the fourth contemplation (e.g., MN 51).

The condition reached in the fourth contemplation is characterized by a marked equipoise, a state of relative rest, stillness, and equilibrium. In this sense, the fourth contemplation can be interpreted as a crossroads of experience. One the one hand, one can chose to follow the attitude of indulging, grasping, and appropriating the aggregates, but on the other is the alternative of not doing so. Being at this crossroad, one realizes that there is freedom to choose, and responsibility to take for this choice.

Seeking delight and remaining stuck in the attempt at grasping any of the aggregates is not necessary, there is no real duty or obligation to do that. One can decide not to grasp, not to appropriate, not to crave anything. Without delight and appropriation, there is no need to seek any particular form of existence, and hence there is no need to be identified as this or that (no need to be born); without being born, death does not apply. When grasping (delight, thirst, craving appropriation) is relinquished, one no longer ‘stands’ on any of the aggregates. In this sense, one is ‘unestablished’ (anissito) in the whole world, unbound to any part of it, free, as the formula of right recollection also states: one ‘dwells unestablished, not appropriating anything in the world’ (MN 10).

Against all common and worldly expectations, one finds genuine peace and freedom from dissatisfaction by deliberately deciding not to indulge, enjoy, or appropriate experience. The point is not that there will no longer be anything to enjoy. The discourses often stress that reaching the goal of the path is the most enjoyable experience one might ever imagine, albeit in its own way (e.g., AN 9.34 and 9.41). The point is that the intention to enjoy entails a desire to take root, to get established, to appropriate the content that is targeted. This intention overlooks the fact that the ground upon which any experience emerges and unfolds (the five aggregates) are structurally uncertain and thus unsuitable for providing any possibility of full establishment or rooting. Trying to grasp what is inherently uncertain can only leave one with an empty hand. The ordinary attitude is thus that of chasing after the sought joy that keeps escaping, while the advanced practitioner can see that the problem lies in this very hunt for what is essentially unsuitable for appropriation. Dropping the intention of appropriating and being established, the uncertainty of experience is no longer a problem, and being unestablished in any reality becomes an unexpected horizon of profound freedom, beauty, and peace.

The noble eightfold path progresses by creating a virtuous circle, in which an initial understanding of right view leads towards the cultivation of moral conduct and composure, and the cultivation of these factors (and especially of composure) feeds back to right view, by ascertaining, deepening, and broadening one’s understanding of it.

  1. The four contemplations are a manifestation of the seven awakening factors. The first contemplation is mostly based on the most energetic factors (recollection, investigation, energy, joy), while the others shift gradually to the more peaceful ones (tranquillity, composure, equanimity). For a fuller discussion of this point see Karen Arbel, Early Buddhist Meditation. The Four Jhāna as the Actualization of Insight (2017).
  2. MN 19 provides a particularly helpful account of this transition. Here, the Buddha presents his own practice as initially aimed at discriminating between ‘certitudes’ that are worth cultivating, and those worth abandoning. Having achieved that end, he then relinquishes active discrimination and enters the contemplations. The fourth contemplation can thus be compared with the end state mentioned in MN 10: ‘the recollection ‘there is body’ is established in him; only in the measure sufficient for knowledge and recollection, and he dwells unestablished, not appropriating anything in the world.’ One could push this reflection further and understand the progression of the four contemplations from the point of view of this end-state. In this way, the fourth contemplation is actually the goal that the practice of composure aims at realizing (and this goal coincides also with the goal of the factor of recollection), while the other three contemplations are an analytical articulation of intermediary steps needed to get there. The first contemplation is the point where active discriminative recollection allows one to abandon the hindrances and enjoy the pleasure of relief that follows from this condition. This pleasure is the basis for the arising of composure proper in the second contemplation, which can now support itself based on the momentum that has been created, and without any further need of actively applying discrimination. In turn, the happiness of the second contemplation is the basis for the emerging of the third, in which experience verges towards serenity. Drenched with happiness, one can reflect on this condition and simply acknowledge that there is nothing more to do or to desire, there is just peace and contentment for where one is. On the basis of this serenity, one can let go of any residual concern for happiness itself, and rest in the state of perfect equipoise that has been created, being fully satisfied and nourished by stillness (fourth contemplation).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.