Right concentration

Right concentration sits in the last position on the Buddha’s 8-fold path and works in partnership with right mindfulness and right effort.

Concentration, as it is meant here, supports our investigation of direct experience. Through some helpful exercises, we can train the mind to be content with quiet moments, to calm its agitation and come fully into the present.

Traditional ways of developing concentration start with calming the body and then letting the mind settle; but rather than going to sleep, the mind remains sensitive and alert. We can train by sitting upright and still, and silently experiencing the breath moving in and out of our bodies. Another common method is to repeat a mantra (word or phrase, such as “budd-ho”), bringing the mind back to the mantra whenever it wanders, for a fixed period of time. A third popular method is to sit upright and still and sweep the awareness slowly through the body.

Ajahn Sumedho offers this description, in a talk called Body Contemplation:

I remember going on some of these retreats where you do the body sweeping, which I found quite useful. You contemplate the sensations, starting with ānāpānasati [in and out breath awareness] at the nostrils and then sweeping from the top of the head, the face, and back of the neck on down to the shoulders, arms, hands, trunk, legs, and feet and then back up again. What you’re doing is really allowing the body to be received in consciousness, which it seems to appreciate.

Then there is the breath, here and now, the inhalation and exhalation. … When the mind wanders away in thought, just gently bring it back to the breath or the body, to that which is here and now, which isn’t a thought or an idea or anything. This is a way of grounding yourself in the present, and being with what is, the body, the posture, sitting like this, with the breath.

Some people think that concentration practice has to do with squeezing our attention into a tiny focal point by force. But this can never work, although sometimes the attention may narrow as a result, not a cause, of practice. The type of effort required is, paradoxically, the intention to relax, to let go of whatever clinging is holding us back from being calmly and receptively aware in the present. It’s as if we stop stirring up a body of water and eventually the surface becomes smooth and still.

Concentration practices can produce blissful states in some people, but the reason it’s included in the Buddha’s 8-fold path is that, even at the early stages of practice, it is an important skill that supports the cultivation of wisdom.

The Buddha’s 8-fold Path

1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)

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Contemplating mindfully

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN10) describes how to develop mindfulness. There are a lot of separate instructions within the sutta; different objects of meditation are offered sequentially. In between each separate instruction is a “refrain” that is repeated; whatever object of meditation we’ve chosen, this refrain is the same. The refrain, as translated below by Analāyo Bhikkhu, must have been important or it wouldn’t have been repeated again and again.

In this way, in regard to the body [feeling, mind, phenomena] he abides contemplating the body internally, or he abides contemplating the body externally, or he abides contemplating the body both internally and externally. He abides contemplating the nature of arising in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away in the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘there is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.

We are advised to contemplate our object (in this first case, the body):

  1. internally, or
  2. externally, or
  3. both internally and externally.

We are then advised to contemplate:

  1. the nature of arising in the object (body), or
  2. the nature of passing away in the object, or
  3. the nature of both arising and passing away in the object.

Importantly, the last two sentences of the refrain tell us that we don’t have to have perfect concentration to do this practice. Sustainability rather than intensity is the goal. If we have at least part of our awareness on the object, we can follow along the rising and passing changes to it. We can bring our attention lightly to our body position, for example, or to pleasant and unpleasant sensations that come and go, or to the “stickiness” of our thoughts, etc.

“Not clinging to anything in the world” I take to mean that we stay in the present; we notice the ordinary, subtle things that we usually overlook, like the sensation of clothing  on skin, breath moving in and out of our bodies, background sounds, temperature.  We don’t spin stories that take us into the past or the future; we don’t ascribe causes and motives to what is happening, we simply notice things as they change, in their mostly undramatic ways.

Teachers I trust say that contemplating internally means “within our own bodies/minds”, and that contemplating externally means noticing or acknowledging that the bodies and minds of others work more or less as our own do. Sensations and thoughts come and go, and we take them more or less to heart; we cling to them to different degrees at different times. Sensory inputs and thoughts flow through us, sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily. The path to less clinging and greater ease begins with noticing and acknowledging how it is, for us and others, in the present.

When a wise monk was asked, “How do I know if I’m meditating correctly?”, he responded, “Is your experience changing?”

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More on mindfulness

Because the Pali word sati cannot be translated directly into English, and yet is an essential part of the Buddha’s instructions presented in the 8-fold path, we have to try to tease out a useful and helpful understanding of the word.

From The Buddhist Path to Awakening by Rupert M. L. Gethin:

“To sum up, it seems to me that there are basically four elements to the notion of sati in the literature: (i) sati remembers or does not lose what is before the mind; (ii) sati is, as it were, a natural ‘presence of mind’; it stands near and hence serves and guards the mind; (iii) sati ‘calls to mind’, that is, it remembers things in relationship to things and thus tends to know their value and widen the view; (iv) sati is thus closely related to wisdom; it naturally tends to seeing things as they truly are.”

It’s worth bringing each of these elements into focus. First, remembering to attend to what is before us and not be distracted by what we might prefer, is an essential ingredient of mindfulness. Often we carry our views and opinions around and measure our experience against them, so we end up critiquing rather than observing impartially.

Mindfulness can act as a servant/guardian to our our wandering thoughts. One often-used analogy is that mindfulness is like the guard at a city’s gate. It recognises citizens in good standing who should be granted free passage. It also notes when unwelcome invaders approach. Similarly, mindfulness can be an unflagging presence, assisting us in identifying which of our thoughts are worth dwelling on and which we should let pass by.

Sati also includes, by implication, some degree of sampajañña, clear comprehension. We remember things in relationship to other things. For example, we could recognize that certain behaviors are characteristic of certain people, and consequently we don’t expect them to behave in accordance with our wishes instead of their own natures.

Lastly, to see things as they truly are, clearly and without our personal views and desires at the center of all things, is a form of wisdom.

This is not a list of definitions that we need to be able to recite. The elements outlined here are offered to use as bases for reflection, to examine the workings of our own minds. The types of remembering encompassed by the Pali word sati, describe how right mindfulness works in practice, but they are only useful if we take them up and try them out.

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Right mindfulness

Each of the factors of the Buddha’s 8-fold path is preceded by the word “right”; right view, right intention, right speech, etc. The English word could be misleading; we might think that right only means not-wrong, but there is more to it. In each case, the word right implies that the actions, words and thoughts involved lead one towards the realization of freedom, in the direction of the end of suffering. So, for example, a swindler might be mindful in choosing targets, but this cannot be right mindfulness.

Mindfulness is right insofar as it leads toward realizing the cessation of suffering.

How does one develop right mindfulness? The primary canonical source is MN10 in the Middle Length Discourses. To deepen our ability to be mindful in all situations, four objects or frameworks for contemplation are outlined: the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas or phenomena. In each case, we are exhorted (Ven. Analayo’s translation):

  1. to be diligent (appamāda),
  2. to clearly know (sampajañña),
  3. to be mindful (sati), and
  4. to be free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.

These four instructions form a sort of preparation for planting our attention firmly on what is occurring right now (and now, and now) in (1) our bodies, (2) our preferences (feelings), (3) our mind states, and (4) five lists of other factors (dhammas).

These preparatory attitudes are often overlooked, but can undermine all our efforts if we don’t address them.

Being diligent in our practice simply means not being careless, not doing things by rote, but fully engaging when we meditate or otherwise focus our (wholesomely-intended) attention. We might remember our purpose at the start of a sitting period to bring this diligence to mind.

Clearly knowing means understanding, to the best of our ability, what we are doing and why. Mindfulness is not a magical activity that will make all our problems disappear, it’s a training that takes patience and can result in greater and greater degrees of freedom from clinging and suffering.

It does seem a bit circular to say that mindfulness needs to be established before developing mindfulness, but let’s think of it here as simple alertness, attentiveness.

The last instruction is the trickiest. If we were entirely free from desires and discontent with regard to the world, we’d be fully awakened beings already! So we can take this to mean “relative to our normal, distracted state”. We (temporarily) turn our attention away from worldly things — our jobs, relationships, hopes and fears, and especially our likes and dislikes; we make a decision to set aside our ordinary mind-chatter. This is not easily done, but it becomes easier if we can be satisfied with a slightly deeper calm than our usual state allows. And, importantly, our ability to intentionally set aside worldly concerns improves with practice.

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Mindfulness

As we continue our exploration of the Buddha’s 8-fold path, we come next to Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration and Right Effort are necessarily considered together, because in practice they can’t be entirely separated from each other.

In truth, it is almost impossible to describe mindfulness. It’s a word that in English has come to mean (almost) all things to all people.

At the most basic level, mindfulness (sati) is remembering the present.

At a more useful level, sati-sampajañña means remembering the present with clear comprehension, that is, with a historical and contextual understanding of what is present.

In practice, this is similar to thinking (but it’s not) and to paying attention (but different), so it can be very hard to say when we’re being mindful in the way that the Buddha meant, and when we’re not.

In an academic journal, Ajahn Amaro gives this clarifying description of three types of mindfulness:

First, sati is the simple act of paying attention to an object or action. If this is taken to be the all and everything of mindfulness, this can lead to falling into a variety of errors. The practitioner can assume that they are following instructions and are using bare or nonjudgmental awareness, or seeing things with the attitude of nonduality, yet can in actuality be drifting into the extremes of either self-indulgence or passivity. The former of these errors can be summarized as the delusion that: “As long as I’m mindful, whatever I do is OK.” … The other extreme, of passivity, is the danger of becoming an abstracted or dissociated “watcher” of experience. … On its own, this rudimentary quality of sati can be called “mechanistic mindfulness.”

Second, sati-sampajañña means mindfulness and clear comprehension. It is also translated as mindfulness and full awareness or intuitive awareness. This term describes the psychological stance wherein the object or action is appreciated within its context of time, place, and situation. The precursors to the current experience and its possible consequences are included. This broadening and deepening of the view intrinsically include an appreciation of the practitioner’s attitudes and the impact that any actions they are involved in will have upon themselves and others. Sati-sampajañña, mindfulness and full awareness, thus naturally incorporates ethical concerns, these being influential according to the degree to which full attunement to the time, place, and situation is established, as well as the degree to which self-interest has been recognized as obstructive. …

Third, sati-paññā means mindfulness conjoined with wisdom and is regarded as the quality that leads to the full blossoming of human well-being. The term describes mindfulness [as] the psychological standpoint wherein all experience, inner or outer, is viewed as patterns of organic change arising and passing within consciousness…

— from A Wholistic Mindfulness by Ajahn Amaro, published online: 4 January 2015 copyright Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Mindfulness, according to the Buddha, is not simply paying attention to what’s happening. It’s attending to the events and feelings around us, AND to the intended or potential consequences of our own actions and the actions of others. Supported by some level of calm, we can see a situation whole, and not just from the perspective of how we ourselves may be affected.

To be clear, mindfulness can be developed while we sit in meditation, and during the whole course of our days. More next time…

 

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Right Effort

Classically speaking, right effort (sammā vāyāma) is defined as the four right strivings. The words of the Buddha, from the Pali canon:

Bhikkhus, there are these four right strivings. What four? 

  1. Here, a bhikkhu generates desire for the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
  2. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen bad unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.
  3. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states; he makes an effort,  arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. 
  4. He generates desire for the persistence of arisen wholesome states, for their non-decline, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort,  arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives.

— from AN 4.13, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

“Bhikkhus”, in this case, refers to any sincere practitioner of the Buddha’s path. The bad, unwholesome states are all forms of greed or hatred, and the wholesome states forms of generosity, kindness, patience, etc.

Striving can be a tricky word, bringing to mind ultra marathons or other superhuman efforts. But what does it mean when applied to observing and influencing our mind states? In what ways can we affect where our mind goes? Not through physical effort, clearly; but how, then?

Recently when I asked a friend how he felt, he said, “A bit anxious”. I asked him if he ever felt at ease, and he said that there were times he was not anxious, and the conversation ended there. I wanted to ask (but didn’t) what conditions were present at the times that he felt at ease — where was he? What was he doing? What had happened immediately beforehand? Had he slept well? Who was he with?

These are questions we can ask ourselves. Do we know what our mind state is right now? Is it identifiably wholesome or unwholesome? Is it painful or pleasurable or foggy? If we can identify a particular state, how did our mind get here? What were/are the influences? This type of self-questioning takes effort, and this is what the Buddha is pointing to.

Ajahn Sumedho, in some of his recorded talks, points out that we not usually gripped by strong emotion. We notice desire and aversion, and deep pleasure and joy, when they are powerful, but most of our days are spent in a moderately stable semi-oblivion (delusion).

We can bring attention to registering what mind state is present throughout the day, in the same way we could check our posture from time to time. We might be surprised by what we discover. It is here that the investigation begins. How did we get here? Are any of the conditions reproducible (if the mind state is wholesome)? Avoidable (if unwholesome)? Or are things just drifting along? Can we sharpen our attention to see subtler mind states arising and passing away?

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Practicing sustainably

In the context of the Buddha’s 8-fold path, right effort (sammā vāyāma) holds a pivotal role. One essential quality of right effort is that it’s balanced – not too much and not too little.  This balanced effort comes into play when contemplating and exercising all the other factors of the path.

[The Buddha said] “Soṇa, when you were alone in seclusion, didn’t the following course of thought arise in your mind: ‘I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging. Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds’?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“Tell me, Soṇa, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“What do you think, Sona? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“But, Sona, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Sona, resolve on a a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.”   (from AN 6.55, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In this story, Soṇa is a monk considering returning to his family because he feels he’s failing in his efforts to develop concentration and insight, a goal of monastic life. But the Buddha tells Soṇa that he only needs to adjust his effort, tightening and loosening as he goes, to make it sustainable. The story ends happily with Soṇa quickly achieving full awakening by following the Buddha’s instruction.

Many meditators struggle with this conundrum. We’re encouraged to put in effort, but find that sometimes we try so hard that we only get frustrated. One way to address this problem is to take the long view. Sitting in meditation for a half-hour each day will help our mood, but will probably not result in full awakening. So why meditate? Because it’s a good thing to do; wherever we’re starting from, it will move us in the direction of a more peaceful heart and mind.

Expecting or working towards a specific result in meditation is an obstacle. Taking things as they are, as they come, as they change, will bring about beneficial results if we are persistent. After decades of practice at home and on retreat, I finally came to understand that sustainability is a functional goal of practice. It has to be challenging enough to hold our interest, and rewarding enough that we do it regularly. There’s no finish line where practice becomes irrelevant; it is (for me, at least) the best way to live.

The Buddha’s 8-fold Path

1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)

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