As with any contemplative tradition, there is a hidden, but essential, element for progressing along this path: a qualified teacher. Particularly at the higher levels of shamatha practice, these instructions have traditionally required additional direction in the form of pith instructions, the crucial details and correctives always given orally, teacher to student, that bring life to the printed page. For those who want to pursue the path Alan surveys here, such a teacher will be a prerequisite.
Shamatha is a path of attentional development that culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly for hours on end.
Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this "choice" is unconscious, so it's not really a choice at all. The reality that appears to us is not so much what's out there as it is those aspects of the world we have focused on. I suggest that if you were able to focus your attention at will, you could actually choose the universe you appear to inhabit.
TEN STAGES OF ATTENTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
These ten stages are sequential. One progresses through each stage by rooting out progressively more subtle forms of the two obstacles: mental agitation and dullness. The successful accomplishment of each stage is determined by specific criteria and is accompanied by a clear sign.
For achieving the first four stages, I recommend the practice of mindfulness of breathing, variations of which can be found in Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan Buddhism. Beginning with the fifth stage, I recommend a method called settling the mind in its natural state. In this technique, you direct your attention to mental experiences, all the events--thoughts, mental images, and emotions--that arise in the domain of the mind. With the instructions for the eighth attentional stage onward, we move on to the still subtler practice of maintaining awareness of awareness itself. The technique is called shamatha without an object.
STAGE 1: DIRECTED ATTENTION
The sign of having reached this stage is simply being able to place your mind on your chosen object of meditation for even a second or two.
In the context of shamatha, mindfulness refers to attending continuously to a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction.
The cultivation of shamatha involves balancing the mind, and that includes balancing the effort exerted in the practice with relaxation. Before we can develop attentional stability, we first need to learn to relax.
The Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing With Relaxation
Bring your awareness to the tactile sensations throughout your body, from the soles of your feet up to the crown of your head. Note the sensations in your shoulders and neck, and if you detect any tightness there, release it. Likewise, be aware of the muscles of your face--your jaws, temples, and forehead, as well as your eyes--and soften any area that feels constricted. Let your face relax like that of a sleeping baby, and set your entire body at ease.
If you are sitting, assume a "posture of vigilance": Slightly raise your sternum so that when you inhale, you feel the sensations of the respiration naturally go to your belly, which expands during the in-breath and retracts during the out-breath. During meditation sessions, breathe as if you were pouring water into a pot, filling it from the bottom up. When the breath is shallow, only the belly will expand. In the course of a deeper inhalation, first the abdomen, then the diaphragm will then expand, and when you inhale yet more deeply, the chest will finally expand after the belly and diaphragm have done so.
Be at ease. Be still. Be vigilant. These three qualities of the body are to be maintained throughout all meditation sessions. Let the body breathe as if you were fast asleep, but mindfully vigilant.
When you note that you have become distracted, instead of tightening up and forcing your attention back to the breath, simply let go of these thoughts and distractions. Especially with each out-breath, relax your body, release extraneous thoughts, and happily let your attention settle back into the body. When you see that your mind has wandered, don't get upset. Just be happy that you've noticed the distraction, and gently return to the breath.
Again and again, counteract the agitation and turbulence of the mind by relaxing more deeply, not by contracting your body or mind. If any tension builds up in your shoulders, face, or eyes, release it. With each exhalation, release involuntary thoughts as if they were dry leaves blown away by a soft breeze. Relax deeply through the entire course of the exhalation, and continue to relax as the next breath flows in effortlessly like the tide. Breathe so effortlessly that you feel as if your body were being breathed by your environment. Continue practicing for one twenty-four-minute period, then mindfully emerge from meditation and reengage with the world around you.
Reflections on the Practice
This is a "field approach" to training the attention. Instead of pinpointing the attention on a mental image, a prayer, a mantra, or a specific region of the body, open your awareness to the entire field of sensations throughout the body, especially those related to respiration. The emphasis here is on mental and physical relaxation.
Attend to the rhythm of your breath for a few moments, letting it flow unconstrained by restless thoughts and emotions. Settle your awareness in a space of relaxation, stillness, and clarity. Now, from within this serenity, arouse your imagination with three questions. The first one is, What would I love to receive from the world in order to have a happy, meaningful, and fulfilling life? The next question is, What kind of a person do I want to become? What personal qualities do I want to possess? The last question you may ask yourself is, What would I love to offer to the world, to those around me and to the environment at large? What kind of a mark would I love to make on the world?
Expand the field of your loving awareness to embrace each sentient being, human and nonhuman, in your neighborhood, wishing, "May each of you, like myself, find the happiness you seek, and may you cultivate its true causes!" Continue to extend your loving-kindness to everyone around you, gradually expanding your circle until it includes all beings throughout the world, each one seeking happiness just like you.
STAGE 2: CONTINUOUS ATTENTION
When you can occasionally maintain continuity of awareness of bodily sensations for about a minute, you have reached the second stage.
The second stage is achieved by the power of thinking. The challenge in this phase of practice is to sustain interest in the object, and you can do this by thinking about the instructions between sessions. Another way to use the power of thinking to help calm the distracted, wandering mind is to count the breaths. This is like using training wheels when first learning to ride a bicycle.
The Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing With Stability
Instead of being mindful of the various sensations of respiration throughout your whole body, focus your attention just on the sensations of the expansion and contraction of your abdomen with each in- and out-breath. As you did before, note the duration of each inhalation and exhalation, and observe the duration of the pauses between breaths.
Out of sheer habit, unintentional thoughts are bound to cascade through your mind like a waterfall. One way of stemming this relentless stream of ideation is to count the breaths. Try that now, by counting "one" at the beginning of your first inhalation, then attending closely to the sensations of the respiration throughout the rest of the inhalation and the entire exhalation. Count "two" at the beginning of the next breath, and continue in this way for as long as you find it helpful. Let these mental counts be brief, so that your attention to the counting doesn't override your awareness of the breath itself. The objective of counting the breath is to insert brief reminders into the practice--remembering to remember--so that you don't get carried away by distracting thoughts. Attending to these mental markers at regular intervals in the course of the respiration is like taking note of milestones on the side of a country road, letting you know by their presence that you are on the right track, or by their absence that you have wandered off your chosen route.
This phase of the practice is primarily concerned with mindfulness of breathing, not counting. It's easy to maintain just enough continuity of attention to keep track of counting, while between counts, the mind wanders off on its own, like a dog without a leash. Let the counting remind you to keep your attention focused on the tactile sensations of the breath, which change from moment to moment. After counting the breath at the beginning of the inhalation, let your mind be as conceptually silent as possible for the remainder of the in-breath. And during the out-breath, release any involuntary thoughts that have cropped up. As mentioned before, arouse your attention (counteracting laxity) during the in-breath, and relax your attention (counteracting excitation) with each out-breath. But don't relax so much that you become spaced out or dull. In this way, with each complete breath, you remedy the two major defects of attention.
As soon as you see that your mind has wandered, release the effort of clinging to the distracting thought or physical sensation, return to the breath, and relax more deeply. Remember that the main point of such attentional training is not to stop thoughts from arising. Rather, it is first to relax the body and mind, then to cultivate the stability of sustaining attention continuously upon your chosen object.
Reflections on the Practice
The practice of focused attention is essentially "non-multitasking." It's learning how to channel the stream of awareness where we wish, for as long as we wish, without it compulsively becoming fragmented and thrown into disarray. So when you are next confronted with the choice of whether to focus on a single experience at one time, or to divide your attention, consider your priorities. If something's worth doing, it's worth doing well, and if something's not worth doing, it's not worth doing at all.
Begin this session by cultivating compassion for yourself. How long have you struggled to free yourself of anxiety and dissatisfaction? What tendencies of your own mind and behavior have repeatedly gotten in your way? This is not a time for self-judgment, dismay, or apathy. It's a time for reappraisal. How can we free ourselves of the inner causes of suffering, given that we have so little control over outer circumstances? Let the aspiration arise: May I be free of the true causes of worry and sadness. Envision your mind free of pointless cravings, free of hostility, and free of confusion. Imagine the serenity and joy of a balanced mind, closely in tune with reality.
Now direct your attention to a loved one who is suffering from physical or psychological distress. Let this person fill your heart and mind. Attend to this person's experience, and if you know the causes of her grief or pain, be present with those causes. Imagine shifting your attention into her perspective, experiencing her difficulties. Then return to your own perspective and let the yearning arise, "May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering." Imagine this person finding relief and the freedom that she seeks to lead a happy and meaningful life.
Bring to mind another person, one who wishes to be free of suffering but out of delusion causes his own and others' suffering. Again, imagine taking his perspective and experiencing his difficulties. Then, return to your own perspective, and with an understanding of the consequences of this person's behavior, wish that he be free of the mental afflictions at the root of his destructive behavior. Let the heartfelt wish arise, "May you have a clear vision of the path to freedom from suffering," and imagine this person free of the causes of suffering.
Now let the scope of your awareness rove through the world, attending to those who suffer, whether from hunger and thirst, from poverty or the miseries of war, from social injustice or the imbalances and afflictions of their own minds. We are all deserving of compassion, especially when we act out of delusion, harming ourselves and others. Let your heart embrace the world with the aspiration, "May we all be free of suffering and its true causes. May we all help ease each others' pain."
STAGE 3: RESURGENT ATTENTION
The third stage is achieved only when your mind remains focused on the object most of the time in virtually all your sessions.
As your attention gradually stabilizes, you may increase the duration of each session by increments of three minutes. At all times, though, value the quality of your meditation over the quantity of time spent in each session. If you sit for long periods but let your mind rove around unnoticed among distractions or fall into dullness, not only are you wasting your time, but also you are developing bad habits that will only get harder and harder to break.
You need to hone the ability to monitor the quality of your attention. While the main force of your awareness is directed to the meditation object with mindfulness, this needs to be supported with the faculty of introspection, which allows for the quality control of attention, enabling you to swiftly note when the mind has fallen into either excitation or laxity. As soon as you detect either imbalance, take the necessary steps to remedy it. Your first antidote to excitation is to relax more deeply; to counteract laxity, arouse your attention.
The achievement of the stage of resurgent attention requires a greater commitment to practice. This will entail multiple sessions of meditation each day, practiced within a quiet, contemplative way of life that supports the cultivation of inner calm and collectedness. The key to success is to conduct your life between sessions in such a way that you don't lose the ground you have gained.
The Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing With Vividness
Having established a foundation of relaxation and stability, we shift the emphasis to cultivating vividness of attention. It is crucially important that stability is not gained at the expense of relaxation, and that the increase of vividness does not coincide with the decrease of stability. The relationship among these three qualities can be likened to the roots, trunk, and foliage of a tree. As your practice grows, the roots of relaxation go deeper, the trunk of stability gets stronger, and the foliage of vividness reaches higher.
You shift the emphasis to vividness by elevating the focus of attention and directing it to a subtler object. Direct your attention to the tactile sensations of your breath at the apertures of your nostrils or above your upper lip, wherever you feel the in- and out-flow of your breath. Elevating the focus of attention helps to induce vividness, and attending to a subtle object enhances that further. Observe these sensations at the gateway of the respiration, even between breaths. If the breath becomes so subtle that you can't detect the sensations of its flow, quiet your mind and observe more carefully. As you arouse the vividness of attention, eventually the sensations of the breath will become evident again.
Count your breaths if you find this helpful. Arouse your faculty of introspection so that you quickly note whether excitation or laxity has arisen, and take the necessary steps to balance the attention when such problems occur.
Reflections on the Practice
As your mind calms, you may find that your respiration becomes subtler, and this results in fainter sensations of breathing. The further you progress in this practice, the subtler the breath becomes. At times it may become so subtle that you can't detect it at all. This challenges you to enhance the vividness of attention. In other words, you have to pay closer and closer attention to these sensations in order to stay mentally engaged with the breath. There's a kind of biofeedback process at work here. If your mind becomes distracted and you get caught up in involuntary thoughts, your breathing will become coarser, resulting in stronger sensations, which are easier to detect. But as your mind calms down again, the breathing and the sensations that go with it become finer, and this once again challenges you to heighten the degree of vividness. Mindfulness of breathing has this unique "biofeedback" advantage.
Various physical sensations may occur in meditation. Sometimes you may feel that your limbs are extremely heavy or thick. Sometimes your body may feel very large. Or you may feel that you are floating or levitating. Other sensations such as tingling, vibration, or heat are common. You may experience telescopic vision, viewing your body as if from a distance. Don't be worried about them or make a big deal of them; these are natural consequences of the practice.
In the practice of shamatha, we discover how deeply our minds are trapped in the twin ruts of excitation and laxity. In the Buddhist tradition, a mind trapped in these ruts is said to be dysfunctional, and in order to make it serviceable, it is helpful to step out of our normal activities, seek out a spacious sense of solitude, and explore the frontiers of the mind.
INTERLUDE: EMPATHETIC JOY
The cultivation of the empathetic joy involves attending closely to something that is already a reality--the joys, successes, and virtues of yourself and others. Empathy is feeling with others, and in this practice we focus not on their sorrows and difficulties, but on their happiness and triumphs. This practice is a direct antidote to feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that may arise in the course of intensive, sustained meditation, or simply in the course of daily living.
Bring to mind a person you know well who exudes a sense of good cheer and well-being. Think of this person's physical presence, words, and actions. As you attend to this person's joy, open your heart to that joy and take delight in it.
Now, bring to mind another individual. Think of someone for whom something wonderful has happened, recently or in the past. Recall the delight of this person and share in the joy. Now direct your attention to someone who inspires you with his or her virtues, such as generosity, kindness, and wisdom. Rejoice in these virtues for this person's sake, for your own sake, and for all those who are recipients of this virtue.
Now direct awareness to your own life. Attend to periods in your life that have been a source of inspiration to you and perhaps to others as well. Think of occasions when you embodied your own ideals. Attend to and take delight in your own virtues. There doesn't need to be any pompousness here, or any sense of pride or arrogance. As you recall the people and circumstances that enabled you to live well and enjoy the sweet fruits of your efforts, you may simultaneously experience a deep sense of gratitude and joy. This prevents you from slipping into a superficial sense of self-congratulation and superiority.
STAGE 4: CLOSE ATTENTION
Each of your sessions may now last an hour or longer, and throughout this time, your attention cannot be involuntarily drawn entirely away from the object. You are now free of coarse excitation. It's as if the attention has acquired a kind of gravity such that it can't be easily buffeted by gusts of involuntary thoughts and sensory distractions.
The Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing With the Acquired Sign
Habitual mental images, arising involuntarily, will be superimposed on your sense impressions, including tactile sensations. In this practice, you are like a chemist separating out the impurities of superimpositions from the pure strain of the tactile sensations of the breath. As superimpositions are released, the sense of your body having definite physical borders fades and you enter deeper and deeper levels of tranquillity.
To continue all the way along the path of shamatha, eventually you must shift your attention from the tactile sensations of breathing to an "acquired sign" (Pali: uggaha-nimitta), a symbol of the air element that appears before the mind's eye as you progress in shamatha practice. To different people, acquired signs associated with the breath practice may appear like a star, a cluster of gems or pearls, a wreath of flowers, a puff of smoke, a cobweb, a cloud, a lotus flower, a wheel, or the moon or sun. The various appearances of the acquired sign are related to the mental dispositions of individual meditators. If you wish to continue on the path of mindfulness of breathing--which here explicitly turns into "mindfulness with breathing"--as soon as such a sign arises, shift your attention to this sign. This will be your object of attention as you proceed along the rest of the nine stages leading to shamatha.
At first your sign will arise only sporadically, so when it disappears, return to the previous sensations of the breath. But eventually it will appear more regularly and steadily, and from that point onward, focus your attention on this object. As you progress in this practice, increase the duration of your sessions for as long as you are able to maintain a quality of attention relatively free of laxity and excitation.
Reflections on the Practice
While the modern Vipassana tradition emphasizes that in the practice of mindfulness we must accept our faults without making any attempt to change them, this advice is a departure from the Buddha's teachings and the writings of the great masters of the past. If you don't balance your attention when it strays into either laxity or excitation, you will only reinforce these mental imbalances, and the quality of your mindfulness will remain flawed indefinitely.
The cultivation of equanimity serves as an antidote to two of the primary afflictions of the mind: attachment and aversion.
Bring to mind a person you know well, whose background and living circumstances are familiar to you but who is neither a friend nor an enemy. Attend to this person. This person, like yourself, is striving for happiness and freedom from pain, fear, and insecurity. Focus on this person and shift your awareness to view the world from her eyes. From this point of view, look back on yourself. Regardless of the distinct defects or excellent qualities this person might have, her yearning for happiness and wish to be free from pain and grief are identical to your own. Even though she is not close to the center of your personal universe, her well-being is no less significant than that of a dear loved one whom you may regard as crucial to your happiness.
Now bring to mind a person you feel is crucial to your well-being, a person for whom you have both affection and attachment. Attend closely to this loved one, and shift your awareness to the viewpoint of that person so that you perceive him as a human being like yourself, with both defects and excellent qualities. From this viewpoint, realize that although you are loved by some people, a great number of people feel indifferently toward you, and there also may be some people who don't like you. This person for whom you feel affection and attachment feels his own desires, hopes, and fears. Now step back and attend to this person from outside. This person is not a true source of your happiness, security, or joy, which can only arise from your own heart and mind.
Next bring to mind a person who may be intent on bringing you harm or depriving you of happiness, a person with whom you feel conflict. As before, imagine stepping into this person's perspective, being this person from the inside, and experiencing her hopes and fears. Fundamentally, this person, like yourself, wishes to find happiness and freedom from suffering. Now, step back and attend to her from outside with the realization that she is not the source of your distress or anxiety. If you feel uneasy or angry in relationship to this person, the source is in your own heart, not in the other person.
Realize that there is nothing inherent in the stranger, in the loved one, nor in the foe that makes the other person fall into one category or another. Circumstances change, relationships change, and it is the flux of circumstances that gives rise to the thoughts "this is my enemy" or "this is my loved one." Expand the field of awareness to embrace everyone in your immediate environment, their hopes, fears, aspirations, and yearnings. Each person is as important as all others. Shifting circumstances bring us together and also cause us to part. Expand your field of awareness out over the whole community, reaching out in all directions, including everyone. Recognize that each person is fundamentally like yourself, and virtually everyone feels himself to be the center of his world.
Imagine the pure depths of your own awareness, unsullied by the obscurations of self-centered attachment and aversion, as an orb of radiant white light at your heart. With each exhalation, let this light spread out evenly in all directions to all persons with the yearning, "May each one, including myself, find happiness. May everyone, including myself, be free of suffering and the causes of suffering." Imagine a flood of light going out in all directions, soothing those who are distressed and bringing healing, happiness, and a sense of well-being to everyone. With each in-breath, draw in the distress and causes of unhappiness and pain of each sentient being. Imagine this as a dark cloud that dissolves into the light at your heart, and imagine all beings free of suffering and its causes.
STAGE 5: TAMED ATTENTION
The fifth stage is achieved by the power of introspection. The power of introspection is the faculty of monitoring the quality of your attention, and this skill must now be honed so that you can detect more and more subtle degrees of laxity and excitation.
Throughout Buddhist literature, the training in shamatha is often likened to training a wild elephant, and the two primary instruments for this are the tether of mindfulness and the goad of introspection.
It is very easy to grow bored or dissatisfied with your meditative object in this practice and to then fish around for other more interesting, and hopefully more effective, techniques. You may easily be enticed by highly esoteric, secret practices, thinking that they will be more effective than the one you are engaging in now. Such roving from one meditation object and technique to another, always on the prowl for a greater "bang for your buck," can undermine any sustained practice of shamatha. Repeatedly experimenting with different techniques can prevent you from achieving expertise in any of them.
The Practice: Settling the Mind in its Natural State
The object of mindfulness in the practice of settling the mind in its natural state is no longer the subtle sensations of the breath at the nostrils, but the space of the mind and whatever events arise within that space. The object of introspection, as in the earlier practice of mindfulness of breathing, is the quality of the attention with which you are observing the mind.
Be attentive to everything that comes up in the mind, but don't grasp onto anything. In this practice, let your mind be like the sky. Whatever moves through it, the sky never reacts. It doesn't stop anything from moving through it, it doesn't hold onto anything that's present, nor does it control anything. Whatever comes up in the field of awareness, without distraction or grasping, just let it be.
In this practice, it is important that your eyes are open, vacantly resting your gaze in the space in front of you. If you have not meditated with your eyes open, you may find this uncomfortable, but I encourage you to get used to it. Blink as often as you like and don't strain your eyes in any way. Let them be as relaxed as if you were daydreaming with your eyes open. By leaving the eyes open, while focusing your attention on the domain of mental events, the artificial barrier between "inner" and "outer" begins to dissolve.
Reflections on the Practice
This is a delicate practice, like threading a needle, not a Herculean effort like weight lifting. Recognize that in the practice of shamatha, "doing your best" doesn't mean "trying your hardest." If you're trying your hardest, you're trying too hard and you'll burn out if you persist in that way. By cultivating shamatha with intelligence, perceptiveness, patience, and enthusiasm, none of your mental afflictions will be healed irreversibly. They will still arise from time to time, but the more you advance, the more those afflictions will subside and the greater autonomy you will have from them. The result is increasing emotional balance and equanimity. Your psychological immune system is strengthened, so when events occur that were previously upsetting, you can now deal with them with greater composure. Your mind remains calm and it is not dominated by the passions of craving and hostility. This is a clear indication of heightened sanity.
STAGE 6: PACIFIED ATTENTION
The practice of attending to the space of the mind and whatever events arise there is like taking a naturalist's field trip into the wilderness of your mind. When you first embark on this inward journey, you may perceive very little. But as you grow more accustomed to the practice, you will begin to identify an increasing quantity and range of mental phenomena. Some of them are discrete, like thoughts and images, while others are nebulous, like emotions and moods. This practice provides you with experiential access to a domain that cannot be observed with any of the instruments of modern science or technology. The most they can do is detect the neural and behavioral correlates of the phenomena you are observing directly. You have become a naturalist of the mind, and a whole new world is opening up to you that for most people remains largely unconscious.
The deeper you venture into the inner wilderness of the mind, the more you encounter all kinds of unexpected and, at times, deeply troubling memories and impulses that manifest both psychologically and physically. It should come as some solace that none of these unnerving experiences are freshly introduced into your mind by meditative practice. Whatever comes up was already there, previously hidden by the turbulence and dullness of the mind.
INTERLUDE: LUCID DREAMING--DAYTIME PRACTICE
The overall aim of Buddhist insight practice is to "wake up" to all states of consciousness, both during the daytime and nighttime, to become lucid at all times. You may start your practice of daytime lucid dreaming by mindfully attending to the way you actually perceive the physical world of your body and environment. Many of us believe that we directly perceive objective, physical phenomena with our five physical senses, that the mental images we perceive via our senses are accurate representations of the objects we perceive. However, neurologist Antonio Damasio refutes this assumption, which is commonly called naïve realism. While we seem to experience colors and so on as they exist in the objective world, independent of our senses, this is an illusion, very much like a dream. Like a dream, the world of waking experience does not exist independently of our experience of it. The daytime practices in preparation for lucid nighttime dreaming may help begin to wake you up to the nature of your experienced world. The most effective method of learning to achieve lucidity is to develop a "critical-reflective attitude" toward your state of consciousness by asking yourself whether or not you are dreaming while you are awake.
The lucid dreaming daytime practices consist of (1) doing "state checks," (2) checking for dreamsigns, and (3) anticipating dreaming lucidly at night.
A state check enables you to determine whether, right now, you are awake or dreaming. If you at any time experience an exceptionally odd situation, pause and ask yourself, "How odd is it?" While dreaming, we experience many anomalies, such as abrupt transitions of our location and other kinds of discontinuities, such as the words in a book changing, or other weird occurrences and circumstances. But without adopting a "critical-reflective attitude" toward them, we take them in stride, without waking up to the fact that we are dreaming. Adopt such a critical stance at all times, questioning the nature of your present experience; this habit, too, may carry over into the dream state and help you to become lucid.
Dreamsigns are out-of-the-ordinary events that often occur in dreams and that, when you notice them, may indicate to you that you are dreaming. In this practice, you monitor your experience for the appearance of dreamsigns, of which there are three types. Individual dreamsigns consist of activities, situations, people, objects, and mental states that you commonly experience in your dreams. In order to identify and watch for these dreamsigns, you will need to pay close attention to your dreams and keep a dream journal, noting the circumstances that are recurrent. Remember these and whenever you experience them, pause for a moment and conduct a state check to see if you might be dreaming. Strong dreamsigns consist of events that, as far as you know, can happen only in a dream. Weak dreamsigns are events that are highly improbable but not completely impossible as far as you know.
When you experience anything that's a bit out of the ordinary, conduct a state check. If there's something in sight that you can read, conduct the previous state check. If there's nothing of the sort, you can simply take a close look at your surroundings and see whether they are as stable as your normal waking experience. Look out for inexplicable fluctuations that may indicate a dream.
Throughout the course of the day, recall that tonight you will sleep and dream, and repeatedly arouse the strong resolution, "Tonight when I'm dreaming, I will recognize the dream state for what it is." The stability and vividness of attention that you have cultivated in your shamatha practice, together with the exercise of prospective memory, should serve you well now and bring clarity to all your experiences, both waking and dreaming.
INTERLUDE: LUCID DREAMING--NIGHTTIME PRACTICE
In his most recent book on lucid dreaming, Lucid Dreaming: A Concise Guide to Awakening in Your Dreams and in Your Life, LaBerge provides detailed, practical instructions on this practice, which I shall briefly summarize here.
One technique that directly builds on the daytime practices discussed in the previous interlude is called the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD). In this practice, as you go to bed at night, you resolve to wake up and recall your dreams throughout the night. As soon as you awaken from the dream, you try to recall as many details as possible from the dream, and when you are about to fall back asleep, you focus your mind on the resolve, "The next time I dream, I shall recognize it as a dream!" And just before you doze off, imagine that you are back in the dream from which you just awakened.
Dream-Initiated Lucid Dreams (DILD) occur when you somehow realize that you are dreaming while in the midst of an ongoing dream. This recognition may occur because you have identified a strong or weak dreamsign, or it may be catalyzed by a nightmare. This is the most common way to become lucid in a dream.
In Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreams (WILD) you briefly awaken from a dream, then return right back to it without losing consciousness. LaBerge describes this practice as follows: You lie in bed deeply relaxed but vigilant, and perform a repetitive or continuous mental activity upon which you focus your attention. Keeping this task going is what maintains your inner focus of attention and with it your wakeful inner consciousness, while your drowsy external awareness diminishes and finally vanishes altogether as you fall asleep. In essence, the idea is to let your body fall asleep while you keep your mind awake.
A major cause of forgetting dreams is interference from other mental contents competing for your attention, so let the first thought upon awakening be "What was I just dreaming?" Just as movement disrupts attentional stability while meditating, it also undermines the coherence and continuity of dreaming, so do not move when you first wake up. Redirect your attention to the dream from which you just awoke, and see if you can slip right back into it, mindfully aware that it is a dream.
Another very effective way to become proficient in lucid dreaming is to wake up one hour earlier than usual, and stay awake for thirty to sixty minutes before going back to sleep. This can increase the likelihood of having a lucid dream by as much as twenty times.