Adaptive Meditation: Using Your Whole Toolbox

When your mind’s balanced, it feels like you’re sitting poised on a pinhead, or that you’re a post planted in the ground. There’s sometimes a sense of quiet expectancy, or fragile immovability. If that sounds paradoxical, it’s because it is.


By John Lee Pendall

There are two schools of thought when it comes to sitting:

1) Only use one method

2) Adjust accordingly

When we study Buddhist texts, it’s clear that each method was created with a specific use in mind. The only one that works in all situations is open monitoring. But, sometimes open monitoring isn’t enough on its own.

Sitting there, openly aware, letting everything come and go without judgments, can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. A lot of teachers recommend just sticking with it, no matter what. We sit and weather our storms and there’s a lot of to say for that view.

However, that can also cause us unnecessary unpleasantness, and it ultimately delays our Awakening. It’s easy to get sidetracked or discouraged when we just use one method.

The most important part of meditation is cultivating a balanced mood, a steady state of mind. Mood is vitally important in Buddhism. It’s called citta, and enlightenment is sometimes referred to as a liberated, boundless mood.

We might come to that using one method, we might not. I don’t because my mind is like a hurricane. I might experience a dozen different moods during one sit.

Some might say, “That’s a valuable insight into not-self,” but I don’t really care much about insights. I think insights are more about a visceral unbinding than knowledge. Insights into impermanence, dissatisfaction, not-self, and emptiness mean that those topics are no longer hangups for us because the hindrances related to them have disappeared.

It’s not an, “A-ha!” moment, it’s more like successfully passing a kidney stone.

I don’t think there’s ever a good reason to put ourselves through unnecessary pain, worry, and sadness. That’s not what practice is about. Practice is about losing ourselves in our method and experiencing deep equanimity. Equanimity is wisdom.

My “best” sits aren’t usually linear. They resemble a monkey trying to jump from branch to branch, but the second it settles on one, the branch disappears. It can be like a sword fight between a bandit and a monk. The monk isn’t trying to harm the bandit, just blocking and evading each attack until the bandit gets tired. Then they both sit down together.

So, here’s a guide to adaptive meditation based on the Seven Factors for Awakening. 

Step One: Establishing Openness

We’re sitting in this scenario, but the same goes for whatever we happen to be doing. With openness, we’re letting our minds be open and receptive to all experiences. We’re setting judgment, preferences, and mind wandering aside. It’s like we’re a bright clearing, and our thoughts and feelings are things passing through it without leaving traces.

I usually describe it as just openly observing without pushing or pulling, without running or chasing.

Step Two: Establishing Monitoring

Openness is passive and receptive, monitoring is active and perceptive. Mindfulness is what happens when they come together. Without openness, monitoring can become a kind of psychoanalysis or navel-gazing. Without monitoring, openness can turn into a kind of apathetic vegetative state.

What we’re doing is scanning our minds and keeping an eye on our moods. Am I too tight or too loose? Am I worried or depressed? Am I scattered or spacing out? Am I excited or lackluster?

Off the cushion, I like monitoring all the details in each activity and situation. On the cushion, I zero-in on my state of mind.

Step Three: Establishing Helpful Effort

This is where the adaptive part comes in. If I’m too tight, anxious, scattered, or excited (I’ll call this rippling and the opposite stagnancy from now on), then I need to balance that out by using methods that introduce the opposite mood. If my mind’s rippling, then I need to try out some relaxation techniques.

The healing breath is my go-to for this. We breathe in while counting to five, hold it for five, and then breathe out for five. Rinse and repeat until calm. Or you can visualize flowing water, a candle, or use a soothing mantra. I’ve found that just counting to five over and over even works at times.

If my mind’s stagnant—if I’m drowsy, depressed, or vegging out—then I need to revitalize the sit. I find that remembering my intention helps a lot with this. I can think about why I’m doing this, or about all the calm, clarity, and balance that the practice promises. I can think about the Buddha, or maybe chant Namo Amituofo a few times.

I might take refuge:

I take Refuge in the Buddha
I take Refuge in the Dharma
I take Refuge in the Sangha

Or recite the Bodhisattva Vows:

Sentient Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put and end to them.
The teachings are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.

You know what calms you down and pumps you, and if you don’t then you can figure it out. Use whatever method you need to (except meth).

Once our calming or energizing methods have worked and we feel balanced, then we can let them go and just practice open monitoring. If we notice that we’re starting to lean too much in any direction, then we can introduce our balancing methods again.

When your mind’s balanced, it feels like you’re sitting poised on a pinhead, or that you’re a post planted in the ground. There’s sometimes a sense of quiet expectancy, or fragile immovability. If that sounds paradoxical, it’s because it is.

The Other Hindrances

Rippling and stagnant moods are only two of the Five Hindrances. The others are material desire, aversion, and doubt. When you first start practicing adaptive meditation, working with ripples and stagnancy is enough. Once you get the hang of that, you can monitor the other three Hindrances as well.

Material desire is like when our minds wander to someone we’re attracted to, or maybe we think of food, or a promotion we’re about to get at work. If we let this go unchecked, then it can create a rippling mind. The antidote to material desire is remembering impermanence, dissatisfaction, or emptiness.

Aversion is the other extreme. Maybe our minds wander to someone we despise, or we belittle ourselves for being crappy meditators, or we think about how much our job sucks. Aversion also leads to a rippling mind, and its antidote is loving-kindness and compassion. So, if we notice aversion, we can sit for a few minutes wishing all beings—even the ones we dislike—long, healthy, fulfilling lives.

Doubt means doubting the teachings, the methods, and ourselves. This can lead to a stagnant mind. The antidote for doubt is study and meditative joy.

Step Four: The Channas

The channas (jhana/dhyana) are meditative moods that start to rise up once we’ve uncovered a little balance in our sit. The first one is joy. It starts as a little spark in the body-mind, and then gradually grows into an all-pervasive awesomeness. You might have to use some relaxation techniques here to not get blown off center into the rippling mind.

After we move through joy, we experience a sense of well-being. We feel alright, everything feels alright. Just like joy, this starts off small and then fills us up as we sit. This can tip us into stagnancy if we let it, so energizing methods are useful here.

Step Five: Absorption & Equanimity

Joy and well-being make it easier to concentrate on our main method: open monitoring. As they mature, we find ourselves more and more absorbed in the method until we forget ourselves. It’s like if you’re so into something you’re doing that you lose yourself in the activity. 

Joy and well-being give way to a sense of deep equanimity. All views and methods are left behind. Dogen described it as, “Dropping mind and body.” We’ve gone beyond words and can see things as they truly are. 

Together, they’re called mozhao, or silent illumination. Perfectly balanced calm and clarity.


A lot of teachers say that we need something more than this in practice, but there’s no reason to think that Awakening is anything but living these Seven Factors for Awakening: openness, monitoring, diligence, joy, well-being, absorption, and equanimity.

The Seven Factors aren’t just a path to Buddhahood, they’re what Buddhas are made of. Altogether, they are complete enlightenment. As the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment says, Buddhism is something we engage in after we Wake Up. I like to say, “Seven Factors before, Six Perfections after.”

You don’t have to do it this way, of course. But, for me, it streamlines the process. If you don’t believe in rebirth, then time is of the essence. There’s no point in fucking about.


You know what calms you down and pumps you, and if you don't then you can figure it out. Use whatever method you need to (except meth). ~ John Lee Pendall Click To Tweet


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall



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