Spiritual gobbledygook? No!
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 emotion, 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. Once this happens, they "arise as empty".
"Seal it with the imprint of true nature" (Daniel P Brown)
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 recognized after the fact. This corresponds, he says, to the Ocean and Wave practice. A wave is recognized 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 my 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, judgements, subtle effort etc.
Here a few more unsystematized categories of mental events :
Emotions / Feelings
Intentions / Goals
Perceptions / Sensations
Joy / Bliss
Sense of Achievement / Attainment
The idea that one meditation system is better than another
And here some more 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, in non-meditation meditation,
all instances of doing or intentional not-doing
all instances of conceptualisation.
This broad scope is also called "universality" by Daniel P Brown, and achieving universality and immediacy is a meditation goal in the Tibetan essence traditions. Only when this universality is achieved, can the "aim" be achieved:
Experientially, the ultimate “aim” of the essence of mind technique is to experience a brilliantly awake, limitless, non-localized uniﬁed (non-dualistic) state of awakened awareness and compassion. (Brown & Brewer (1999)
The significance of sealing in the overall schema
The first six lines of this prayer teach that although there are endless arrays of dualistic distinctions such as good and bad, high and low, hot and cold, all these divisions arise from the same source. But if they proceed from a single nature, then why do all these distinctions arise?
Vast, present awareness is open and unrestricted and can arise in an infinite variety of ways. The inconceivably powerful energy of awareness is always ready to display or reflect as appearance; it cannot be blocked or prevented. This is called the expressive power of the energy of rigpa.
Appearances come from this subtle, utterly pervasive nature of equanimity mind expanding into an infinite variety of arising energies, which in our minds may give rise to dualistic distinctions. There is nothing wrong with arising distinctions. Holding onto these distinctions is the mistake. At the first instant of display, if we immediately recognize its nature, the recognized and the recognizer both dissolve within clear awareness-emptiness, leaving no trace of their movements. This is known as self-liberation upon arising.
This subtle, first instant is without any fraction of time-almost like partless time. Yet if we fail to recognize and liberate the energy into its own natural state right when it arises, grasping extends this instant. This is the cornerstone of duality, which develops into a chain of fabrications and conceptions. *
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).
Non dual perception as condition for sealing
Unfortunately there's a snag: as Dustin DiPerna explained in a retreat, sealing is only possible from a non dual awareness view.
Otherwise, it is still a conceptual activity. If is relies on thought, though, it is too slow.
Under the right conditions, sealing is just increasing speed and range. Conceptual recognition takes too much time.
Only awareness operates at the required speed to seal each event as soon as it arises.
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.
Another classic text
You asked: “Once we have determined that all objects and states of mind are the expression of awareness, if mental afflictions and thoughts do not diminish, can they still bind us?”
To such questions, we can reply that generally clear light has many degrees of strength. Therefore, at the first stage, even if you are not distracted from pure awareness, various virtuous and non-virtuous thoughts will still arise like waves in great number. Even though they arise in this way, you must remain unmoved from the natural resting place of the wisdom of pure awareness. Then, the force of that, will ensure that although conceptualisations suddenly arise in the first instant, they do not continue in the second. Instead, they will dissolve directly within the genuine sphere of clear light, and not bind the mental continuum.
The reason that they do not bind the mind is not simply that thoughts do not continue in the second instant. Rather, it is based on the key point of applying the seal of the realisation of clear light as soon as a thought arises in the first instant.
Brewer, J., & Brown, D. P. (1999). Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awarenes. Scribd. https://de.scribd.com/document/459103680/neuroawakening-pdf
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.
Gebel, T. (2022d, June 21). Pointing out instructions in Mahamudra meditation. Till Gebel.
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. (2022). Home | Pointing Out the Great Way. Pointing Out The Great Way Founiondat. Retrieved 17 July 2022, from https://www.pointingoutthegreatway.com/
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.
Tift, B., & T. (2015). Tift, B: Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. Sounds True Inc.
Sherab, K. P., & Dongyal, K. T. (2010). Discovering infinite freedom: The Prayer of Küntuzangpo. https://www.amazon.com/Discovering-Infinite-Freedom-Prayer-K%C3%BCntuzangpo/dp/0982092229