Or: How do i find my way to the first jhana?
Let’s say your meditation topic is Anapanasati (remembering the breath). So you would concentrate on breathing. If that is all you do, very soon, you would find yourself lost in millions of thoughts. Hopelessly washed away.
Now you make the following change to your practice:
With each breathing in you mentally note “in” with each breathing out you note “out”. That literally is vitakka, or “thought“. Simple, as the Buddha mentioned. This thought will therefore help you to remember (lit. for sati, maintaining in your mental presence) the breathing (anapana).
Now, what the heck is “vicara“? It is gliding (literally ‘moving about’)! You don’t just think one thought and watch the breath. No, you have to repeat the thought and try to “glide”, “abide”, “skid”, “slide”, “dwell”, “ride” (all words denote a prolonged abiding, which reflects the literal meaning of vicara) on your meditation object (in this case “breathing”).
Repeatedly you will have to tie your mind to the pole of your meditation object, with the help of vitakka. It is like an eagle who wants to soar in the sky. He is looking for a stream of warm air which will carry and lift him up. The bird will repeatedly flap its wings and glide for a while, repeating the flapping, gliding, flapping, gliding … until the eagle finds the stream of uplifting air and comes to a peaceful riding – abiding – effortless soaring, enjoying the ride.
Yathā pakkhī pubbaṃ āyūhati pacchā nāyūhati yathā āyūhanā evaṃ vitakko, yathā pakkhānaṃ pasāraṇaṃ evaṃ vicāro . Like a bird first has to exert itself and later has not to exert itself. In the same way is the exertion vitakko and the spreading of wings is vicaro (Petakopadesa, Khuddaka Nikaya, PTS p. 142)
Let’s take the simile of the pole: You hammer on the top of the pole (which is your meditation object). The repeated hammering is your repetition of a thought, to help focus the mind. The repetition of this thought is initially necessary as your mind is torn in six directions by six animals…the senses. The movement of the pole into the earth is vicara. Each time the hammer hits the stick/pole, it moves a little deeper…..
Until the pole is so deep, that it can stand alone, upright and unshaken by the sense impressions…voila! The first jhana! Piti & Sukha have come in as a sign that the mind steadied on the meditation subject. Now, meditation became a vihara, a “dwelling” … and is no longer a fight or struggle.
This, sankhittena, is the meaning of vitakka & vicara.
PS: The same applies for any other samatha meditation object, ie. “metta, metta, metta…” or “light, light, light…” just to name a few famous ones…
PPS: See the post on the 4 jhanas below for some further references to the suttas