In my first (and so far only) Mahamudra meditation retreat, one of the instructions for a particular meditation practice was this:
"Now begin sealing with respect to immediacy...Moment by moment by moment, recognizing each event by the head, right when the event begins to occur, not after it is already elaborated, nail the event at the head, quick, quick, quick... .."
Sealing and nailing in Mahamudra meditation
The above quote is a meditation instruction in the style of Mahamudra style "pointing out instructions" on how to "nail", or "seal", ie to become aware of mental events at the moment they arise, and to recognize them as mental constructs and fabrications.
A mental event may be a sensation, an emtion, or a thought. The instruction guides the meditator towards recognizing (becoming aware of) all feelings, thoughts and sensations at the moment of their initial appearance. They should be caught before they unfold as a concept, a thought, a story etc.
At this moment, they are said to be recognized as "empty" (see below), and sealed or nailed.
The following diagram shows how Buddhist thinkers describe the unfolding or spreading of thoughts from the subtle level to the coarse level.
"Sealing" and "nailing" are synonyms. Another term is "hitting" (Guinness 2018). All terms express the activity of conscious processing as "recognising" mental movement the moment it begins.
Metaphorically, sealing in Mahamudra meditation is a kind of labelling or stamping a mental event with the "seal of awareness ". As an event (such as an arising thought) is sealed, its identity as a mental fabrication is recognised and stamped on it forever. This way, it loses its power over the mind, as it dissolves under the light of awareness.
A fundamental work of Mahamudra has therefore the title "The Royal Seal of Mahamudra".
Nailing is related to the English expression "he nailed it", meaning that she understood it precisely. Or, in "she hit the nail on the head". That's why nailing may also be translated as "hitting".
The term "to nail" in Tibetan has a similar meaning to the word to nail as it is used in colloquial English. When a gymnast does a perfect routine, we say that he or she "nailed" the routine. Similarly, when an advanced yogi or yogini penetrates the essential points of a set of pith instructions and comes to the full realization, a Tibetan would say that the yogi or yogini "nailed" the realization (Tapihritsa et al., 2022, p. 3)
Here is even a book on nailing, with 21 nails of wisdom:
Sealing and nailing have two dimensions in which they operate: immediacy and range.
Speed: Immediacy of sealing/nailing
Immediacy is about timing.
The immediacy of sealing or nailing is the speed with which the meditator recognizes any event as soon as it arises from the subtle domain of unelaborated mind moments. The earlier the recognition happens in the chain of Unfolding, the higher the speed.
Daniel P Brown taught "the four levels of nailing" (from notes of Level 1 retreat) . This concept is related to the above mentioned "lifecycle" of events.
Level 1: a mental event (eg a thought) is recognised after the fact. This corresponds, he sais, to the Ocean and Wave practice. A wave is recognised when it has already developed
Level 2: the meditator has trained themselves to intentionally recognise events as soon as they arise
Level 3: the process in (2) is now so well trained, that it is effortless and automatic.
Level 4: this "primordial" recognition happens outside of time, and I must that I cannot explain it in the absence of primary experience
The higher the "immediacy" , the less conceptualized meditation will be. That's because subtle movements of the mind have no opportunity to spread and develop into conceptual constructs.
So, for the meditator who has reached a certain stage, their main task is to speed up recognition:
if everything's non-dual there's nothing else you need to do other than increase the speed of recognition of each and every event. So it's all about the speed or immediacy of recognition. (Diperna 2022.09.14, n.d.)
The immediacy is also expressed in the metaphor of catching the snake (of thought) at its head. See here.
Scope: Range of sealing/nailing
The range of sealing/nailing is about the scope of mental events which are captured.
For example, the meditator may be well aware of any arising emotion, or everyday thought.
However, she may not become aware of a very seductive and hard-to-recognize type of thought: namely, thoughts about meditation activity and meditation strategy.
For example, such thoughts could be "am I doing this right?", "oh, this is it!", "is my view correct?" and others.
It can also be limiting beliefs, fears, striving for outcomes, fears of not making it, being too slow...
Here a few more unsystematised categories of mental events :
And here some mental appearances which easily escape the range
The feeling of paying attention, eg directedness
The feeling "that's it" in meditation
The apparent location where thoughts arise in the awareness space
The feeling that there are some boundaries to awareness space
the impression that mental events arise either as distinct moments or as uninterrupted flow
The feeling that thoughts as they arise have a particular shape, eg as some kind of cloud or bubble
The representation of awareness as physical space
And then, ALL instances of doing or intentional not-doing and all instances of conceptualisation.
The great seal of Mahamudra seals everything
A note on the term "emptiness"
"Emptiness" has a very specific meaning: the term denotes, that the event has no self-existing, independent existence.
The event is seen as a fabrication of the mind itself. The event is a result of the appearance-making function of the mind.
The term is complex and multifaceted and is used in different ways in Buddhist traditions. I find Rob Burbea´s "Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising " very useful to understand the complexity (Burbea, 2015).
What is a trigger in psychology?
A trigger is an event that floods the person with an automatic reaction. This reaction experientially seems to be like a conditioned response.
For example, a particular tone of voice of one's partner may be a trigger to go into a defensive position, or to become aggressive.
In the view of the above meditative approach, a trigger is then a mental event, that has escaped the mind's self-recognizing awareness.
Had the mind recognized the arising trigger early enough (nailed or "sealed" it with the stamp of recognition), something like the following would have happened in the mind "Oh, there is my trigger again! Hello trigger, I see you but I don't need to react to you!".
In a way, sealing and nailing, as forms of mindfulness, are potential ways to stop triggers from running their course.
Awareness and trauma
However, in my own experience, awareness alone may not be sufficient to block the force of a trigger.
Under certain circumstances, I was fully aware of what was happening, but the flooding effect happened regardless. In this case, I usually experienced a freeze reaction. Thus, some sort of therapy may be required in addition to meditative awareness and mindfulness: the old Buddhists did not know development psychology yet. In "Already Free", Bruce Tift gives a good side-by-side view of the Western development view and what he calls the Eastern, meditation and insight-based "fruition" view.
Rob Burbea (Seeing that Frees)
Burbea, R. (2015). Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising (English Edition) [E-book]. Hermes Amāra. https://www.amazon.de/dp/B00SI7PQD8
This book is praised by Michael Taft, one of the best contemporary teachers, in his "Best meditation books of 2020" https://deconstructingyourself.com/best-meditation-books-2020.html
Diperna 2022.09.14, D. (n.d.). Pointing Out the Great Way Living Meditation 2022.09.14 Dusting di Perna.
Till Gebel (Pointing Out)
Gebel, T. (2022d, June 21). Pointing out instructions in Mahamudra meditation. Till Gebel.
Till Gebel (Snake)
Gebel, T. (2022a). Catching the snake at its head. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/thoughts-snakes-catch-them-early
Pointing Out the Great Way Foundation
Pointing Out The Great Way Foundation. (2022). Home | Pointing Out the Great Way. Pointing Out The Great Way Founiondat. Retrieved 17 July 2022, from https://www.pointingoutthegreatway.com/
Tapihritsa (Twentyone Nails)
Tapihritsa, T., Brown, D. P., & Sonam Gurung, G. (2022). The Twenty-One Nails: According to the Zhang Zhung Oral Transmission Lineage of Bon Dzogchen. Mustang Bon Foundation.
Bruce Tift (Already Free)
Tift, B., & T. (2015). Tift, B: Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. Sounds True Inc.