Friday, February 28, 2014

Playing with Concentration and Insight

Inspired by Gil Fronsdal's recent talk on concentration, I digged deeper into the interplay between the two practices of concentration and insight. And came across, The Path of Concentration and Mindfulness, a very helpful article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on his website. 

Both teachers emphasize the same thing, that concentration and insight cannot be separated, but rather work in concert. This is certainly what I have experienced in my practice:

We start with the intention of concentrating on a chosen object, most commonly the breath or the body. This becomes our frame of reference. Of course, for most of us, the mind does not stay still. Instead, it wants to wander. Hindrances become more obvious. We keep working on bringing back our attention to the breath, and in the process we get to clearly see the arising and passing of hindering thoughts:

What you need at this stage is a fixed point of reference for evaluating the events in the mind, just as when you're trying to gauge the motion of clouds through the sky: You need to choose a fixed point — like a roof gable or a light pole — at which to stare so that you can get a sense of which direction and how fast the clouds are moving. The same with the coming and going of sensual desire, ill will, etc., in the mind: You have to try to maintain a fixed reference point for the mind — like the breath — if you want to be really sensitive to when there are hindrances in the mind — getting in the way of your reference point — and when there are not.

Sometimes, and that was Gil's point during his talk, we are in such a state a mind, that we cannot even make it past the first couple of breaths. The mind is too unsettled and riddled with hindrances. The temptation may be great to abandon sitting altogether. That would be the wrong approach to meditation. Instead, we can make the hindrance the object of our meditation:

Suppose that anger is interfering with your concentration. Instead of getting involved in the anger, you try simply to be aware of when it's there and when it's not. You look at the anger as an event in and of itself — as it comes, as it goes. But you don't stop there. The next step — as you're still working at focusing on the breath — is recognizing how anger can be made to go away. Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away; sometimes it's not, and you have to deal with it in other ways, such as arguing with the reasoning behind the anger or reminding yourself of the drawbacks of anger. In the course of dealing with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to try and figure out why the anger is coming, why it's going, how you can get it out of there, because you realize that it's an unskillful state. And this requires that you improvise. Experiment. You've got to chase your ego and impatience out of the way so that you can have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, so that you can develop a skill in dealing with the anger. It's not just a question of hating the anger and trying to push it away, or of loving the anger and welcoming it.

We shift our attention to the business of setting aside the hindrance. This may be our whole meditation and it can go on for one day, one month, one year or more . . . Still, every time, we start with the breath or the body. Once we have purified our mind enough, then and only then, can we go back to working on truly concentrating on the breath. We want to pursue this lofty goal because a wisely concentrated mind gives us the chance of experiencing a stress-free state, independent of outer conditions. We are developing the inner happiness habit.

This is what happens for most people . . . There is the case also of persons for whom reaching deep concentration for a long time is possible right away. Gil cautioned against getting mistaken by such phenomenon, for it may be that we have learned to dissociate early on in our life, as an adaptive mechanism to traumatic circumstances for instance. Such people may be able to transfer that skill into their meditation practice, and literally cut themselves off from themselves. They are not able to integrate the transient freedom from concentrated states into their lives, and are therefore unable to gain insights into the trappings within their own mind. Their lives remain unchanged, and the opportunity for acquired wisdom and true inner happiness are missed altogether.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Past, Present, Future, and Mindfulness

Re-reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu's excellent book, The Wings of Awakening,  I stopped at page ten. There, the teacher gives a clear expose of this/that conditionality, and of how it gets played out moment to moment in our lives. This is a notion well-worth pondering and understanding, as it is the glue that links together past thoughts (and actions) with our present moment experience and also future states. Sitting still now, I not only experience what is happening in the moment, but also the consequences from past thoughts, actions, words that keep on reverberating in my mind, in often times mysterious ways. This is why despite all our intentions to meditate and experience peace, we often find our mind hindered by automatic thoughts related to the past.

How we relate to the present moment may, if it creates strong enough of an impression, impact our future. That impact may come in the form of lingering thoughts or emotions, or outside consequences from our environment. It can go both ways, positively or negatively, depending on the nature of our meeting with the moment. We also have some (limited) power regarding how we mediate the outcome of past experiences in the present moment. This in a nutshell, is my take away from Thanissaro Bhikkhu's explanation.

Of course, what is done is done, and the only freedom we have regarding our past deeds, is in how we meet their outcome, both inner and outer. Do we linger in guilt and self-hate? Or do we use our past unskillfulness as a mean to feeling more compassion towards others, and even more importantly ourselves? Do we use our mistakes as a reminder to practice mindfulness, which we know is the best safeguard against such unfortunate events? Do we surrender to the reality of our very human fallibility? Can we relax around gnawing thoughts, and embrace them with all the loving kindness we can find in our heart?

Screwing up is acceptable as long as we learn from it . . . How do you learn from the past?

I inherit the nature of my actions in body, speech and mind. 
My actions are the ground on which I stand. 
(Buddha's Fourth Remembrance)