Once we get past sleepiness and are able to actually hold a meditation object without dreaming or falling over, we encounter coarse mental dullness. Here, we are holding our meditation object, but our mind lacks clarity. This state is like staring at a vase of flowers, but everything’s blurry. Sure, we’re holding the meditation object in our minds, but only vaguely.
Clarity does not refer to the meditation object (the vase in this case), but rather to the quality of mind focusing on that object (blurry, dull). When you lack clarity, it’s as if the mind is being obscured by some sort of covering.
As we progress in our meditation skill and get to a point where we are able to hold our meditation object with clarity—meaning, the vase of flowers is sharp instead of blurry—we’ll likely encounter the problem of subtle dullness.
Subtle dullness is a problem of pretty solid meditators. You’re on an object, with clarity. But even in that clear, focused state, if we lack intensity, we’re in a state of subtle dullness.
Lacking intensity means that your mind is too relaxed. This can feel like you’re in deep, single-pointed concentration, with absolutely no desire to move or stir. Serious practitioners can meditate like this for their entire lives, thinking that they’ve reached a really deep state, which is why scriptures warn about this subtle form of dullness as the most dangerous of them all. The great early 20th century Tibetan master Pabongka Rinpoche wrote in Liberation in Our Hands:
A person who is actually experiencing a state of subtle [dullness] can even suspend his breath and remain in a stable mental state for as long as an entire day. Certain Tibetan practitioners of the past mistook this state of mind for genuine one-pointed concentration and praised it with expressions like, “supreme relaxation is supreme meditation.” In fact, though, these individuals did not understand some of the most crucial points about how to meditate correctly.
If subtle dullness feels so good and is so difficult to detect, how do you know if you have it? You need to check to see if you’re experiencing intensity in your meditation.
Think about someone you love. Now think about a time that you’ve been overcome with love for them. That feeling is comparable to the intensity we want in our meditation.
Meditation at the more advanced stages should not feel like a totally relaxed absorption but rather a really intense, on the edge of your seat experience. Your mind should be totally bright, clear, and alert, with a sense that a breakthrough is about to happen at any moment.
First, you need to catch yourself falling into dullness. Every once in a while during your meditation, you should check on the quality of your meditation. This is called vigilance.
Once you catch yourself falling into dullness, straighten your spine if it’s become hunched, and lift your chin higher than neutral. This physical adjustment should brighten your mind. Then, internally, tighten your grasp on the object a bit.
If this effort doesn’t work, your mind may be too narrowly constricted—almost as if you were in a closed, stuffy closet. In that case, draw the mind out a little bit to let in some fresh air.
If you need to go even further to dispel the dullness, temporarily switch to a bright, uplifting object—something that brightens your mind and makes you feel happy.
If even this doesn’t work, it’s time to break your meditation and do something that refreshes and uplifts you. If you’re in a meditation retreat or have the time, return to meditation after your break.
If you find yourself continually falling into dullness despite applying antidotes, your practice may be stale. You may need to do any of the following: adopt a different meditation object; get more inspired, stimulated, and motivated through study or teachings; open your heart more in day to day interaction with other people; clear out an obstacle.