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The Relationship Of Vitakka And Vicara
In the development of jhanic states, these two factors of vitakka and vicara, accurate aim and impingement, are absolutely important. The two of them have a close relationship which is much discussed in the scriptures. Below are two examples.
Imagine that you have a brass cup that is covered with dirt and stains. You take brass polish and put it on a rag. Holding the cup in one hand, you use the other hand to rub the rag against its surface. Working diligently and carefully, soon you will have a shiny cup.
In the same way, a yogi must hold his or her mind in the particular place where the primary object is occurring, the abdomen. He or she keeps applying mindfulness at that place, rubbing it until the stains and pollution of the kilesas disappear. Then he or she will be able to penetrate into the true nature of what is happening at that spot. He or she will comprehend the process of rising and falling. Of course, if other objects become more prominent than the primary object, a yogi must note them applying vitakka and vicara toward the new phenomena.
Holding the mug with one hand is analogous to vitakka, while the polishing action is analogous to vicara. Imagine what would happen if this yogi only held on to the mug and did not polish it. It would remain as dirty as before.
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I think that if there is ignorance and craving in the mind, then vitakka-vicara will be following the delight & enjoyment in various mental states, as described in this nice verse from Suttanipata:
“By what is the world fettered? By what does it roam about? By completely giving up what, is there that thing called Nibbāna?” 
“The world is fettered by enjoyment, it roams about through reflections (or: it wanders about through thoughts). By completely giving up craving there is that thing called Nibbāna.”
“Without rejoicing over feeling on the inside or outside - for he who lives mindfully in this way, consciousness surely ceases.” 
“Nandisaṁyojano loko, Udayā ti Bhagavā, vitakkassa vicāraṇaṁ. Taṇhāya vippahānena ~ nibbānaṁ iti vuccati.”
“Ajjhattañ-ca bahiddhā ca ~ vedanaṁ nābhinandato evaṁ satassa carato ~ viññāṇaṁ uparujjhatī” ti.
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However, these mental factors can also perform a positive role when guided by appropriate attention (yoniso manasikara) and contemplating phenomena according to the 4 Noble Truths. Reflecting and contemplating, in practice, are not straightforward like running a program on a computer: instead one has to give it some time and let the mind pick up some idea (vitakka) and then wander around it (vicara) considering it from different angles, until one can gain a new deeper perspective on it. In this way, I think, we could understand what the psychologists have researched about daydreaming and letting the mind wander: if there is only strongly focused thinking (vitakka), the mind will become tired and bored with the task, so we also need to give the mind a bit of space and let it explore the idea more broadly for some time.
Ajahn Chah: Are there any doubts about practice you need to resolve now?
Q: When the mind isn’t thinking much, but is in a sort of dark and dull state, is there something we should do to brighten it? Or should we just sit with it?
I do walking meditation a couple of hours a day, and I usually have a lot of thinking when I do it.
AC: I think maybe your postures aren’t balanced. When you walk, you have a lot of thinking. So you should do a lot of discursive contemplation, then the mind can retreat from thinking. It won’t stick there. But never mind. For now, increase the time you spend on walking meditation. Focus on that. Then if the mind is wandering, pull it out and do some contemplation, such as investigation of the body. Have you ever done that continuously, rather than as an occasional reflection?
Then the next stage is to focus awareness only on the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose or the upper lip. At this point we aren’t concerned with whether the breath is long or short, but only focus on the sensation of entering and exiting.
There may be different phenomena contacting the senses, or thoughts arising. This is called initial thought (vitakka). It brings up some idea, be it about the nature of compounded phenomena (sankhara), about the world, or whatever. Once the mind has brought it up, the mind will want to get involved and merge with it. If it’s an object that is wholesome, then let the mind take it up. If it is something unwholesome, stop it immediately. If it is something wholesome, then let the mind contemplate on it, and gladness, satisfaction, and happiness will come about. The mind will be bright and clear as the breath goes in and out, these initial thoughts appear, and the mind takes them up. Then it becomes discursive thought (vicara). The mind develops familiarity with the object, exerting itself and merging with it. At this point, there is no sleepiness.
After an appropriate period of this, take your attention back to the breath. Then as you continue on, there will be the initial thought and discursive thought, initial thought and discursive thought. If you are contemplating skillfully on an object such as the nature of sankhara, then the mind will experience deeper tranquility, and rapture is born. There is the vitakka and vicara, and that leads to happiness of mind. At this time, there won’t be any dullness or drowsiness. The mind won’t be dark, if we practice like this. It will be gladdened and enraptured.
This rapture will start to diminish and disappear after a while, so you can take up the initial thought again. The mind will become firm and certain with it, undistracted. Then you go on to discursive thought again, the mind becoming one with it. When you are practicing a meditation that suits your temperament and doing it well, then whenever you take up the object, rapture will come about, the hairs of the body standing on end, the mind enraptured and satiated.
When it’s like this, there can’t be any dullness or drowsiness. You won’t have any doubts. Back and forth between initial and discursive thought, initial and discursive thought, over and over again, and rapture comes. Then there is bliss (sukha).
This takes place in sitting practice. After sitting for a while, you can get up and do walking meditation. The mind can be the same in the walking. Not sleepy, it has the vitakka and vicara, vitakka and vicara, then rapture. There won’t be any of the hindrances (nivarana: desire, anger, restlessness and agitation, sloth and torpor, doubt), and the mind will be unstained.
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Question: How is this related to yoniso manasikara or "attention going to the source"?
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http://www.bodhimonastery.net/docs/novdec05bb.pdf" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
Quote from the Sabbasava Sutta (MN 2) and B. Bodhi's summaries from the commentaries,
with the emphasis on ayoniso & yoniso manasikara (unwise and wise attention) in this connection:
“Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints (asava) is for one who
knows and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Who knows and
sees what? Wise attention and unwise attention. When one attends
unwisely, unarisen taints arise and arisen taints increase. When one
attends wisely, unarisen taints do not arise and arisen taints are
“Bhikkhus, there are taints (asava) that should be abandoned by seeing.
There are taints that should be abandoned by restraining. There are
taints that should be abandoned by using. There are taints that should
be abandoned by enduring. There are taints that should be abandoned by
avoiding. There are taints that should be abandoned by removing. There
are taints that should be abandoned by developing.
"What are the things unfit for attention that he attends to? They
are things such that when he attends to them, the unarisen taint (asava)
of sensual desire arises in him and the arisen taint of sensual
desire increases, the unarisen taint of being arises in him and
the arisen taint of being increases, the unarisen taint of
ignorance increases in him and the arisen taint of ignorance
increases. These are the things unfit for attention that he
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The commentary (atthakatha) notes:
1. "MA makes the important point that there is no fixed
determination in things themselves as to whether they are fit or
unfit for attention. The distinction consists, rather, in the mode of
attention. That mode of attention that is a causal basis for
unwholesome states of mind should be avoided, while that
mode of attention that is a causal basis for wholesome
states should be developed."
2. "MA illustrates the growth of the taints through unwise
attention as follows: When he attends to gratification in the five
cords of sensual pleasure, the taint of sensual desire arises
and increases; when he attends to gratification in the exalted
states (the jhanas), the taint of being arises and increases; and
when he attends to any mundane things through the four
"perversions" (of permanence, pleasure, self and beautiful etc),
the taint of ignorance arises and increases."
3. "MA says that up to the attainment of the path of stream-entry,
<wise> attention denotes insight (vipassana), but at the
moment of the path it denotes path-knowledge. Insight directly
apprehends the first two truths, since its objective range is the
mental and material phenomena comprised under dukkha and
its origin; it can know the latter two truths only inferentially.
Path-knowledge makes the truth of cessation its object,
apprehending it by penetration as object (arammana)..."