– Sayadaw U Tejaniya
Taking up a comfortable sitting position, we bring attention to the body sitting here. We sense into the physicality of body, receiving it as it is. We notice the general condition of body at this time, and whether there are any places where there are strong sensations.
Then we bring attention to the breathing process at the nostrils and notice our relationship to this breathing. Do we connect with it easily, or is it somewhat faint and distant?
Notice how attentive we can be to the breathing. How far are we able to sustain attentiveness to it? We see if we can steadily and consistently follow the breathing process through its phases of inhalation to their end: a slight pause and then exhalation begins, continues, ends; a slight pause, and then inhalation begins again.
Now for a moment bring attention to the condition of mind. What degree of calm is there in the mind? Is this clear calm or dull calm? Is there interest in the calm or the busyness? As you sustain attentiveness on the breathing do you notice any change in the level of calm? Are any other mental conditions present with the calm?
Concentration is one of the most important themes in the Buddha’s teachings. ‘Concentration’ is a translation of the Pali word ‘samādhi’. Like mindfulness and energy it occurs in several of the different categories of the Buddha’s teachings, in the Five Spiritual Faculties, the Five Spiritual Powers and the Eightfold Path.
Samādhi really encompasses various kinds of concentration. They range from a rudimentary form, which is present in all states of consciousness, to the very powerful concentration resulting in the states of absorption (jhānas). Concentration is quite a weak definition of the term samādhi when referring to the absorptions, since other noticeable factors such as mindfulness, joy, happiness and energy are also present in these states, while many of the usual mental disturbances, referred to as the Five Hindrances, are temporarily suspended. During my student years I tried not so successfully to concentrate on my studies. However, I lacked some important supportive qualities such as interest, and definitely joy and energy, and was often assailed by a variety of ‘hindrances’ such as sleepiness and restlessness. We all need some degree of concentration to be able to function effectively in life, and may temporarily become concentrated on something which attracts our attention, but often our concentration isn’t supported by other qualities or doesn’t extend to other areas of our life.
Right concentration is the last factor of the Eightfold Path. We could say there is wrong concentration too. I’m sure a skilled burglar has very strong concentration; he must be very concentrated to break into a house without being heard or seen, but that’s not what Buddhism would call right concentration. Concentration is basically a neutral quality that can have both right and wrong aspects to it. Right concentration refers most specifically to the development of concentration to the very deep levels of the absorptions, the jhanas. This requires a considerable degree of ethical conduct and mental poise, undisturbed by distracting thoughts.
The development of concentration usually proceeds from an initial degree to ‘approaching’ (upacara) concentration, and then to ‘attainment’ (appana) concentration, the strong degree of concentration of the absorptions, which are designated in four basic levels. In simplified form they can be designated as follows.1 The factors of the first absorption are vitakka (initial mental application), vicāra (sustained mental application), pīti (joy), sukha (happiness) and concentration (samādhi). That’s all there is to it – no distractions, no disturbances, but some degree of mental activity is still going on. As absorption concentration develops it becomes more and more refined. Thus mental application falls away in the second absorption, and in the third joy falls away; just happiness and concentration remain. And finally, in the fourth absorption even happiness is seen as a bit coarse and falls away, leaving just equanimity and concentration. So we could say that as this more and more refined concentration is developed, the coarser aspects of selfhood fall away, and there is a predominance of more purified states of mind which are less involved with selfhood. Equanimity is a very refined state of mind, whereas in happiness there’s still choice or liking, and with joy there’s not only liking, but some exuberance too.
Supporting the development of these very deeply concentrated absorptions is the suspension or temporary quietening down of the Five Hindrances of greed, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt. These are unskilful qualities which in general disturb mental development. They aren’t necessarily immoral, but they’re disturbances, distractions, obstructions to the development of more refined and exalted states of mind, and especially the very deep levels of absorption concentration. Distraction runs counter to concentration. For example, when trying to focus attention on the breathing, we develop concentration
through maintaining attentiveness, but if thoughts arise we are distracted from the breath before going back to it again. But if our mind is not distracted it may just settle on the meditation object. Why can’t we always attend to the breathing? It’s there all the time, why can’t we stay focused on it? Because other things come along. ‘I don’t want to watch my breathing because I’m hungry. I’m cold. There’s more to life than just breathing. In fact, breathing’s boring, actually.’ However, even when there are many distractions, it is still possible to put forth some energy towards focusing attention and thus develop an increasing degree of concentration.
In the Buddha’s teachings concentration is kept within the wider context of the Eightfold Path and not seen as an end in itself. This is important to keep in mind, because I think many people mistake concentration for some advanced state of spiritual attainment. Formally speaking, the concentrated mind is stable upon the meditation object and not disturbed by greed, aversion or delusion, so it can appear as if we have attained some exceptional state. I don’t know how many times I have thought I had done so. During meditation the mind may quieten down (sometimes it’s more like absent-mindedness than focused attention), but then we may think, ‘Oh look, no greed, no aversion, no delusion – that’s it! Awakening…I want it! Oops, greed. I lost it! Oops, anger. I shouldn’t have it, delusion. Oh well, back to the breath again.’
So the main quality of concentration is a very focused stability of mind, which also manifests as an energy and strength of mind, comparable to focusing a spotlight. When the mind is focused upon a single object the subjective experience is one of exceptional mental calm, quiet and, ultimately, silence. The usual internal dialogue of interpreting, analyzing, discussing, etc. is reduced and eventually ceases. The mind can also seem extraordinarily clear and lucid, because it’s focused on one particular object. We can appreciate how helpful this can be for increasing the level of awareness. We may simply be aware of a sensation in the body, and the mind does not spin off into all the stories about it – ‘Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that; I like this and I don’t like that’. The mind can just peacefully and carefully observe what is there. Concentration can thus support a very clear awareness, a very settled and stable awareness, without all the interpretations and stories about what is observed.
The traditional presentation of Buddhist meditation involves first developing these deep levels of concentration, and then, when the mind is very highly developed and focused, stable and clear, turning to insight meditation. Usually this is all in one paragraph – first absorption, second, third, fourth, then turn to insight, and whoosh! – we’re awakened and live happily ever after. But in actual practice it may not be quite so easy, and may take a little longer than a paragraph – perhaps a lifetime or twenty.
So how do we actually develop this quality of concentration? Basically there are two main approaches, depending upon what one emphasizes or what the teacher emphasizes. They aren’t exclusive; in fact, they should actually support each other. We can say that Right Concentration is development of the four absorptions and/or suspension of the Hindrances. We can either develop concentration directly to experience the absorptions through deep concentration, or we can deal with the Hindrances so that the mind can return to a natural concentration, a natural clarity, stillness and stability. Developing concentration directly is quite simple. Concentration means singleness of mind; how much simpler can we get? We just keep focusing attention. However, during the process quite a few complications may arise. Dealing with the Hindrances is not quite so simple (there can be quite a few of them), but it has many fewer complications.
WORKING WITH THE HINDRANCES
My understanding of Ajahn Chah’s teaching was that he emphasized mixing these two approaches, and in fact inclined more towards dealing with the Hindrances. I heard him teach almost every day for about five months, but I only remember his teaching the development of concentration directly once. That wasn’t his main emphasis, very likely because he realized that for most people it’s not very easy. It’s simple, but not so easy. As a wise teacher, he knew that at least for the initial stages, it’s helpful to deal with the various Hindrances first. We are invariably assailed by distractions as we attempt to develop concentration, and rather than brush them aside and go deeper into concentration, we attend to these mental disturbances. It is most important to recognize that they are not things to be ‘got rid of’ as we may normally think; rather, they are symptoms of grasping at selfhood to be worked with skilfully and wisely. However, we do so from a mind that is more calm, stable and clear than usual, which is not quite the same thing as having the idea that, ‘OK, I’ll sort out my problems first and then I’ll have concentration.’ We actually aim towards some degree of calmness and clarity of mind, and then work with the obstacles that may arise during the process of experiencing deeper levels of mental calm. We have the meditation object of breathing as a foundation and we can always return to it, but in the process, rather than just ignoring the Hindrances – going back to the breathing, back to the breathing, back to the breathing until we’re deep in absorption – it can be useful to look at what is distracting our mind. What kinds of disturbances come up in the mind – thoughts of the future, memories of the past, particular issues with people, the angry discussion we had with somebody last week? Dealing with them is not easy, because they come in many different forms. There are said to be five basic distractions, as mentioned above, but I have observed more than just five and you may have done so too. Indeed, we could make a list of them and see how many we can find.
Everybody experiences the basic Five Hindrances to some degree. One or other may predominate in practice at certain times, so it’s helpful to be reasonably proficient in confronting all of them, because we’ll have to deal with each one eventually. There are some basic principles we can use in working with each of them. When our mind drifts off the meditation object we bring it back again, back to the object, back to the object. But sometimes just going back to the meditation object isn’t quite enough. Some of these disturbing thoughts or influences may keep pulling us away persistently. My personal rule of thumb is that if something returns at least three times it’s becoming serious, and so it may be beneficial to give it some special attention. The mind may just forget about the breathing once or twice, but the third disturbance shows it is persistent and must have some power to it.
DEALING WITH DISTRACTING THOUGHTS
In a scripture2 the Buddha describes how to deal with distracting thoughts. Basically there are five different ways. The first approach when some disturbing thought or emotion arises and continues is to attend to a more positive aspect of it. For example, a thought of anger towards somebody which arises again and again is an unskilful distraction, so we try to focus on something more skilful. Thus, rather than being angry at that person, we can bring up forgiveness or practise friendliness (mettā). If we dwell on the anger it just goes on and on, unresolved, and the other person may not be present to talk with and resolve the matter. If we bring up more wholesome thoughts, wishing that person well rather than dwelling on anger, we can break out of the grip of the distracting thought.
If physical attraction comes up, rather than obsess about the attractiveness of the body, we turn attention to the four elements or the thirty-two parts of the body. For example, we reflect on the skeleton. Somebody may be very attractive on the outside, but consider that person as a skeleton under that flesh – not very cuddly then.
Sloth and torpor is a difficult Hindrance. It is basically due to a lack of physical and/or mental energy, so we need to find ways to generate more energy. Try sitting with the eyes open, making sure that the back is straight and upright, or sitting at times when the mind is clear and well-rested. And especially, be aware of any attempt to suppress the wandering thoughts rather than energetically observing them.
Restlessness and agitation is an excess of energy, so it needs calming down or channelling. Rather than sitting meditation, some walking meditation may channel that restless energy into skilful activity which can develop more concentration and awareness. If we are distracted by restlessness when we try to sit, by turning that restless energy into the energy of walking meditation, we channel it into a more beneficial activity.
There are many kinds of doubt: doubting about practice, about our own abilities, about the Buddha. Whatever kind of doubt it is, we can find a way to work with it more skilfully. If it is self-doubt, rather than dwelling on all our mistakes, we can reflect on our successes too. Instead of doubting the Buddha’s teaching, we could read some of the scriptures and recognize the great words of wisdom there. Our interpretation of them may not be clear and thus may lead to doubt, but if we go back to the original texts they can seem much clearer, and inspiration can be ignited. One way which I’ve found very helpful is to read stories about enlightened disciples. The Pali Canon contains a series of poems by enlightened monks and nuns, and reading them can be very inspiring. The incredible energy and faith of those early enlightened ones give awareness of another dimension of spiritual practice, and help to make it more personal and alive. Sometimes, if we’re too narrow-minded or closed-in on our own practice, we can seem a long way away from the path. We become preoccupied with our faults, the limitations of our practice and the length of the journey, and lose sight of our successes. But by reading the personal stories of people engaged in spiritual practice, perhaps we may see the path in a more positive perspective, so that paralyzing doubt fades into the background.
Thus there are various ways to relate to the Five Hindrances more positively and wholesomely. A wiser, more balanced perspective may resolve and put an end to them. But if a Hindrance continues to arise and has more power than we expected, the second approach is to reflect on its unwholesome, unhelpful aspects. Thus, does dwelling on anger do any good? It’s just going to make life more miserable, isn’t it? We fume and get high blood pressure, while the target of our anger wonders what is the trouble with us. Anger damages our life, disturbs our mind. Anger might hurt the other person if it became aggression, but as we stay on the meditation cushion, we don’t act it out. Thus we dwell on the fact that anger just ruins our life without affecting the other person, so it’s really quite useless to dwell upon anger.
The third way to deal with disturbing thoughts is to ignore them, not pay attention to or dwell on them. This means changing our state of mind. So if distracting thoughts keep coming up, instead of proceeding with the meditation, we could do something else, such as reading some of the scriptures. We could read some of the Buddha’s wise teachings and this may help to shift our thought patterns to more meditatively supportive ones, for example, changing from our fixation on anger to something more skilful. Sometimes these thoughts persist because of association. We think of anger, and then we think about the last time we were angry, and the time before that, and before we know it we’re full of angry thoughts. It can be very helpful to notice how our own train of associative thought normally works. Being able to observe this cascade of thoughts triggering thoughts can be a valuable insight into impersonality, into how conditioned we are by our programmed thought patterns. We start off by being angry at the insect that bit us this morning, and we end up angry at the gods – this is a celestial conspiracy; all mosquitoes are out to get us. But if we can turn to reading or listening to some Dhamma teachings we can interrupt the train of associative thought, and this could shift us into a more wholesome, beneficial mood, conducive to developing concentration.
The fourth method is to contemplate the very source of the distracting thought. Where did all this come from? We don’t ask why it came – if we ask why we are angry with someone, we may end up with distracting reasons – ‘Because they did this, and they did that, and they’re like this …’ and so on. Just looking at the fundamental mechanisms behind the whole process of aversion, irritation or anger enables a reflective experiential enquiry – ‘I feel angry at that person because I was hurt. So I’m hurt, right? He wasn’t hurt. He said something insulting and I felt hurt. What was hurt? My pride was hurt, that’s what was hurt.’ That’s quite a different story from being angry at that person because he said something. ‘He said something and I heard it, but maybe I heard it wrongly. Maybe he didn’t say I was a fool, but that I was “foolproof”, and I misheard him.’
If we can contemplate the initial sources or foundations of anger, this turns things around. Rather than being angry at the other person, I realize I’m angry because my precious pride has been hurt. Another source of anger is righteousness – that person shouldn’t get away with that. He should be punished for it, so I’ll punish him with my anger. But that’s like whipping ourselves. If we can turn things around and contemplate the source of the distracting thought, anger in this case, it actually comes back to ourselves, our own perceptions and attitudes.
When the Western monks first went to England they stayed in a house in north London, and across the street was a pub with live music on weekend evenings. Ajahn Chah taught them, ‘The noise doesn’t bother you, you bother the noise.’ It’s just sound, we’re the one who says ouch. It’s our personal interpretation, our conclusion, which is the cause of the hurt, the cause of the disturbance. Sound is just sound. Sound is happening all the time, and we say, ‘I like this sound, I don’t like that one. This sound bothers me, that one pleases me.’ So when we contemplate the source it goes back to ourselves. This can provide an entirely different perspective on a distracting or disturbing thought. We see what the real sources within us are, and at the same time we learn about ourselves. Rather than trying to get rid of our anger, we look at what causes it in the first place. We may try to suppress it and get rid of it with concentration, but it’s caused by relationship to selfhood. When we understand this we can begin to unravel some of these thought patterns. We can learn to let go of our righteousness, we can learn to be less sensitive to our hurt pride.
And finally, the absolute last choice mentioned in the scriptures is that if the thought still persists, we should chase it out of our mind with clenched teeth. We must be very careful here, because if we have, say, anger and we chase it out, more anger may arise. We might just change anger at another person for anger at ourselves – ‘I’m angry at myself because I’ve got this angry thought in my mind, so I’ll chase it out. Get out of there!’ So the right attitude is most important: we drive out that distracting thought because we realize it is unskilful and troublesome, and not conducive to concentration, but not from anger. Perhaps a more helpful image is that of a hand reaching into the brain, picking that angry thought out and putting it in the garbage bin. Or if we’re familiar with computers, we can just move it to the recycle bin, or delete that program.
So dealing with these different distractions and disturbances is not quite so simple, because there are a variety of them and different ways of dealing with them. We may work with anger by bringing up forgiveness for the focus of the anger, and that may succeed for a while, but we may come across situations where we’ve reached the limit of our forgiveness and have to find another skilful means, another way to work constructively with anger. This will require more reflection and contemplation, and very likely more concentration, tranquillity and mindfulness, so that we have the right state of mind to deal with these different disturbances. This is the fertilizer for wise reflection and wisdom.
Many of these distractions happen at different levels of our consciousness. Usually the ones on the surface, the first ones we come across, are relatively benign. They’re just little irritations we have in the course of our life. We generally become aware of them first because they’re less threatening. But as we become more calm and aware, we notice different levels of them. We have had a long history of aversion and greed, etc., and with increased awareness we can arrive at deeper existential levels. Then our selfhood may feel threatened. Imagine having to deal with anger towards your parents, for example – but we all have some anger from our early years with our parents. At some levels this could become existentially difficult, because we’ve built our ego on the security of our parents and yet we still have to deal with our reactions to them. This is the fertile soil which germinates wise reflection to facilitate the releasing of grasping. The more we let go of grasping at selfhood, the more we experience deeper collectedness as a stable foundation for ever clearer insight.
DEVELOPING CONCENTRATION DIRECTLY
For most people with a busy life and many responsibilities, the development of concentration is not easy and usually does not bring any extraordinary results. Concentration is, however, one of the key factors in Buddhist meditation, so it is definitely a necessary quality to develop. For most people the main thing is really the meditative process, the inner spiritual journey through which we proceed as we attempt to develop concentration in the course of our everyday life. However, for anyone serious about developing concentration for any length of time or to any depth, it is crucial to have the guidance of a teacher, because many kinds of unusual things can happen when we focus the power of mind and at the same time raise our level of consciousness.
In simple theory the development of concentration proceeds like this: we, the subject, focus consistently on a meditation object, until with perseverance and diligence we arrive at absorption or unitary consciousness, at samādhi. In this strong concentration the subject is united with the object, and it is usually accompanied by ecstasy, energy and other exceptional qualities. In fact, however, the practice of concentration is not quite so simple. It is a mysterious journey through an amazing display of self-images, manifesting in all manner of appearances. Increasing our concentration can be like turning a spotlight on various parts of the mind, and often we come across aspects of ourselves we never knew were there. What focused awareness may reveal can be quite disconcerting. At the same time, with the quietening down of the self-referencing mental dialogue, we have a different experience of our sense of self which can sometimes be quite disorienting. In the process, with increasingly focused psychic energy, a variety of psychosomatic symptoms may manifest. Some people can have strange things happen in their bodies, such as experiencing the body floating, feeling bloated like a balloon, or flowing with pulsing energy expressed as tingling sensations, quivering, shaking or convulsions. Likewise, a variety of mental phenomena may appear. The most prominent ones are probably mental images, which may initially be vivid memories returning. In my early years trying to meditate in Thailand, some of the memories I had from travelling would come up so vividly that they seemed more real than the original experience. Sometimes they were very distracting; for example, I’d be sitting trying to watch the breathing and an image of a beach in Greece would come up. And I would know, ‘Oh, no, it’s going to be a Greece day today.’ Sure enough, all day long images of beaches in Greece (sometimes beaches in Turkey) would pop up one after another, and the breath would seem ever further away. I could smell the air and sense the sunshine; then I would open my eyes and realize I was in northern Thailand a couple of years later, with no sandy beach or sea anywhere.
So as the mind becomes more focused and concentrated, visions or hallucinations may come up, or we may start to hear special sounds. Some of them can be very positive and enticing – golden lights, bright colours, ‘celestial’ music, etc. However, the most important point is to relate to them as just ‘mental phenomena’. They are just passing phenomena similar to thoughts, sensations, breathing. If we become fascinated by them we may be side-tracked, sometimes for years, or our fascination may lead to an attraction to them which can result in dependence. Often, too, once we become attracted to some of these phenomena, they can turn from beautiful to terrifying. One woman I heard about became quite fascinated by the visions which came up in her meditation, even though she was warned by her teacher. One day she saw a person hanging from a rope. Intrigued, she went closer to investigate, and got the shock of her life when she saw it was she herself who was hanging. Although the explanations about developing concentration are quite logical and systematic, the Buddha also said that the realm of the absorptions was one of the ‘incomprehensibles’ (acinteyya);3 that is, they cannot be comprehended by conceptual thought. Also, with the development of the fourth absorption, various forms of psychic power (abhiññā) 4 can manifest. Thus the guidance of an experienced teacher is a most valuable support through the meditative process.
The development of concentration gives rise to some powerful experiences, and yet it is still a mundane, ego-based reality. Because the basic disturbances are suspended, it can sometimes seem as if we have attained very highly. We can experience mental stability, energy, peace and happiness that last for weeks, and we may think, That’s it, I’m happy and blissful – enlightenment!’ But eventually we may ‘crash’ and all kinds of negative thoughts may arise – aversion, confusion, fear, doubt, etc. We lose our mental stability because it’s a conditioned activity of the mind, only a temporary experience, and we may become disappointed, even disillusioned when it changes. It’s very rare for anybody to be able to sustain deep concentration for very long; we eventually have to come back to ‘normality’ as a subject relating to an object. Of course, in that process of experiencing deep concentration, we may transcend our usual perceptions of subject and object to some degree. We’re usually locked into a dualistic relationship of subject relating to objective world – here I am, and there’s the world out there. But with the experience of subject uniting with object, that coarse perception of subjective selfhood is altered. We at least understand how much it is merely a perception, and not quite as stable as we usually assume.
Even though deep concentration is a temporary state, it provides supportive qualities like stability of mind and the loosening of subjectivity, which can be a valuable foundation for developing deeper investigation and enquiry. When the self-obsessed mental dialogue quietens down, concentration provides a more objective, less subjective view of reality. We are able to view reality more directly, with less reactive interpretation. The quieter the mind, the more ‘space’ there is between observing phenomena and reacting habitually to those phenomena. We can watch the breathing or investigate parts of the body, without the associated stories or associations that usually well up. We can observe reality more as it really is.
But the experience of unitary consciousness or trans-dualistic concentration can only be sustained temporarily. That’s why, in the Buddha’s teachings, concentration is not the end of the practice. Just absorbing subject into object is only a temporary loss of oneself, and we eventually have to come back to that familiar self. Thus the Buddha was not convinced that this was the way to Awakening. Rather, he discovered the path of realizing the nature of the subject/object relationship and liberation through non-grasping of the attributes of selfhood. When there is no grasping or holding onto subjective selfhood, there is no holding of the contrasting object; they are seen as inter-dependent processes. The Buddha taught a way to develop a thorough understanding of the process of grasping at selfhood, so that we can step out of it quite consciously and systematically – we do not just lose our self temporarily in concentration, but release the grasping of selfhood with insightful wisdom. We still have a reference to a relative sense of self, but we no longer believe it to be ultimately true.
I would say the approach of working with the Five Hindrances has fewer complications than just repeatedly returning to focus on the meditation object, because it doesn’t usually generate so much concentration that unusual physical and mental phenomena arise. Also, we are typically dealing with our everyday self issues of greed, aversion, and delusion, and learning actually to resolve those issues, which are not only hindrances in meditation, but also hindrances to a contented, peaceful life. Anger does not just disturb meditation; it’s also disturbing to our family relationships and work situations. It’s quite a common experience for people who have some unresolved aversion to end up dumping it on somebody else who had nothing to do with it, because they can’t handle it themselves. Hence learning to deal with the problem at any concentration, even to a minor degree, we observe various aspects of the nature of body and mind. If we try to concentrate for hours at a time we empower the mind, but if it is not overseen by wisdom, it could go off into all kinds of strange places. Concentration is a very strong power, and without the supportive qualities of a stable way of life, stable relationships and a stable mind, it can even be dangerous for some people. But the Buddha taught how beneficial the development of Right Concentration in the correct context, with morality and wisdom, can be for spiritual liberation and life in general. By developing concentration a little at a time, day after day, we may begin to recognize that it has some effect upon us. If we have the ability to sustain it through the different fundamental habits of the mind – tiredness or sleepiness, restlessness, and so on – we then find we’re changing some of those habits. We can actually make the usual distracted, wandering mind experience more collectedness and concentration. Most of us have unwittingly trained our minds to be distracted. We can multi-task, but it can be quite a challenge to try to do just one thing at a time. But we can re-condition or re-train our mind to have some stability and concentration. If we do this step by step with some continuity, we will notice more concentration as a normal way of being; we will see it begin to grow in our life. Perhaps we will not experience profound states of absorption, but we will experience more general stability of mind. Developing concentration in this way has very few complications.
Unfortunately, many people mistake concentration for meditation. They think they’ll just sit there and watch the breathing, watch the breathing, watch the breathing, and forget about their problems and distractions. Then they become repressive and compulsive, and end by not dealing with the problems and issues that arise – they keep pushing them away until one day there’s a crisis and all the backlog of unresolved problems comes flooding in. This was my own experience during my first years meditating in Thailand. When I arrived there I thought meditation was just concentration, that I particular level will help us to find more peace in life generally.
Even if we don’t experience deep concentration, working with the Hindrances contributes to greater psychological balance and self-awareness. Through the meditative process of developing concentration, even to a minor degree, we observe various aspects of the nature of body and mind. If we try to concentrate for hours at a time we empower the mind, but if it is not overseen by wisdom, it could go off into all kinds of strange places. Concentration is a very strong power, and without the supportive qualities of a stable way of life, stable relationships and a stable mind, it can even be dangerous for some people. But the Buddha taught how beneficial the development of Right Concentration in the correct context, with morality and wisdom, can be for spiritual liberation and life in general. By developing concentration a little at a time, day after day, we may begin to recognize that it has some effect upon us. If we have the ability to sustain it through the different fundamental habits of the mind – tiredness or sleepiness, restlessness, and so on – we then find we’re changing some of those habits. We can actually make the usual distracted, wandering mind experience more collectedness and concentration. Most of us have unwittingly trained our minds to be distracted. We can multi-task, but it can be quite a challenge to try to do just one thing at a time. But we can re-condition or re-train our mind to have some stability and concentration. If we do this step by step with some continuity, we will notice more concentration as a normal way of being; we will see it begin to grow in our life. Perhaps we will not experience profound states of absorption, but we will experience more general stability of mind. Developing concentration in this way has very few complications.
Unfortunately, many people mistake concentration for meditation. They think they’ll just sit there and watch the breathing, watch the breathing, watch the breathing, and forget about their problems and distractions. Then they become repressive and compulsive, and end by not dealing with the problems and issues that arise – they keep pushing them away until one day there’s a crisis and all the backlog of unresolved problems comes flooding in. This was my own experience during my first years meditating in Thailand. When I arrived there I thought meditation was just concentration, that I could sit there in my hut in the forest and concentrate my problems away. And it almost worked. Once I was sitting in my hut intently watching the breathing when a man came to visit. I heard him come down the stairs, but I just kept sitting. He walked in, not seeing me sitting in the corner, but as soon as he saw me he came striding across the room with outstretched hand and said, ‘Hello, I’m John Smith.’ And I said, ‘Hello, I’m …I’m … I’m …’ But I couldn’t remember who I was – I was just my breathing. When I did remember who I was, all the self stories came back again.
People can very easily be sidetracked by concentration, because it can give some very noticeable results. But as explained, if we keep emphasizing it too much, it seems as if it is the end of the path, and some people have been misled into believing they have attained awakening because they have experienced deep concentration. Ajahn Chah’s teaching was mainly about the nature of the mind and working with the conditions of mind, resolving the endless tricks it gets up to. On occasions he did mention the development of concentration and the factors that lead to the absorptions, and it’s generally held that he was able to access some of these deep levels of concentration himself. But mostly his emphasis was on different degrees of peacefulness of mind, and I think that’s a very good standard. There are many views and opinions, and thus confusion, about what exactly jhāna is, and how to distinguish its different levels. It’s quite a complicated area of understanding, and if we become involved in it we could end up with more distraction than concentration. Rather than spending time discussing the theory of concentration, the real issue is experiencing it for oneself, experiencing the various degrees of mental calmness personally. I don’t know how many times I’ve been sitting reasonably peacefully when the thought arose, ‘Is this the first jhāna?’ (Obviously not if I can think about it!) However, if we reflect in general terms on different degrees of calmness or peacefulness of mind, we don’t need to be caught up in specific explanations or debate – this is the first level, second level, third level, whatever. There is just the direct personal experience of different degrees of peacefulness of mind.
Ajahn Chah gave the simile of taking a big rock and putting it on grass. When the rock is on the grass, the grass doesn’t grow, but when we take the rock away it starts growing again, because it hasn’t completely died. The point is that concentration just temporarily suppresses the Hindrances, the disturbances of the mind, so it appears as if they’re completely gone. But when we come out of concentration the mind starts going back to its old habits again, because the Hindrances aren’t cut off. The roots of the grass are not dug up yet. Of course, if we put a rock on the grass it’s easier to dig up the roots. If the grass is growing tall, people come along and cut it, and think that’s enough, but a week later it’s growing again. Concentration makes it easier to dig up the roots, but I think that emphasizing it too much misses the point of liberation through wisdom, and even that there are some dangers to it.
One of the most obvious dangers is disembodied spirituality. Some people who come to spiritual practice have experienced quite a bit of suffering, and one of the typical unspiritual ways to deal with a lot of suffering is called dissociation. It’s a survival technique for the psyche. If we have a lot of bodily pain, for example, we dissociate from the body; if we have much emotional pain, we dissociate from the emotions. If we have suffered much mental pain or turmoil, we dissociate from our mind. And when we come to spiritual practice and hear about concentration with states of bliss – ah, dissociation! The same kind of syndrome is triggered off; we sit there and dissociate. Some people are quite good at this; they take up meditation to dissociate in the meditator’s posture, calling it a spiritual virtue. If we dissociate in ordinary life we’re considered a bit spacey, but if we sit dissociating in the meditation hall it’s often mistaken for spiritual progress, and unless we have a very good teacher, most people wouldn’t even know what we’re doing. Thus some people intrinsically have a predisposed tendency, and society has an undiscerning propensity, towards a dissociated, disembodied spirituality. I think, however, that the Buddha was well aware of this frequent tendency. That is why in the formulation of the Seven Factors of Awakening and the Eightfold Path, the factor of mindfulness is mentioned before the factor of concentration. That is, the emphasis is placed on developing a firmly grounded awareness of the body, feelings and conditions of mind before embarking on the development of concentration, which can lead to a powerful experience of altered states of mind, perception and reality. Being mindfully and wisely attuned to the body and well aware of the variety of feelings and mental states reduces the possibility of slipping into states of dissociation.
Another danger, if we can call it that, is that if people can access some of these deep states of concentration, this may short-circuit their interest in liberation. When they have any suffering they may just sit in concentration, sit in these absorptions and become peaceful, rather than actually having to investigate and deal with the sources of their suffering. They can relieve the suffering temporarily through concentration, and their enthusiasm to work on a solution to suffering is dampened down.
Then we come to the question of how much concentration we need for liberation? There’s quite a range of different opinions. Some of the Forest Tradition Ajahns say we need at least the fourth jhāna. This may seem very discouraging. But there are other options too. Some say just the first absorption is all we need, and others talk about what’s called kanika samādhi, which means ‘momentary concentration’. When we have some awareness, when our attention is focused on something, we have concentration too. In this way the concentration is led by the awareness, rather than meaning the fixing of attention on a certain object and not being distracted no matter what comes along. If we emphasize awareness, then the awareness is looking around at things to focus on or settle on. Some teachers say that’s all we need, just this momentary concentration, that’s enough for a real breakthrough into realization. So there’s hope yet.
I personally like Ajahn Chah’s definition. When I asked him how much concentration we need, he said it should be developed until the mind was ‘just calm enough’. Maybe this sounds a bit vague to some people – enough for what? What is enough? Actually it was a profoundly wise answer, because each of us has to find out for ourselves through practice. It also helps us keep the right perspective. Calm enough for what? Calm enough for insight. Calm is not an end in itself. Calm is a tool, a foundation, a basis for clear seeing, for insight. Only insight leads to awakening; concentration alone does not. It’s only one of the Factors of Awakening, but it can be a very helpful support for insight. And each person is different. For some people ‘calm enough’ could mean a lot of concentration. Some people have a very busy, slippery mind, which doesn’t really hold onto or settle on any object easily or for any length of time, so perhaps they need to put more emphasis than most people on developing concentration. For other people whose mind can settle on things quite easily, concentration may not need much developing. A man on a retreat in England came to me during interview time and explained about the very intricate workings of his mind. It was quite amazing. I was surprised and curious, and asked what his job was. He was a television repair man! To him, looking at all the circuits in a television was just like looking at all the circuits in his brain. So he’d trained his concentration on the job. His limitation was looking at the bigger picture. He was caught up in looking at all these minor workings of his mind, but the purpose of meditation is to realize the bigger picture, the overall principles of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality.
So Ajahn Chah’s advice was to experience just enough calm for insight. And we all have to know for ourselves, discover what for us is calm enough. Also, each time we practise is different. Sometimes the mind may be really busy, so we need to spend the whole time just focusing on the breathing. Other times we come and sit, and after a few minutes the mind is calm already. What kind of calm is it? Is it light calm or heavy calm? Is it calm conducive to increased mindfulness or investigation of dhamma? Is the calm supported by joy, energy, tranquillity? Then we can either put more energy into insight meditation or continue to develop ever deeper levels of concentration. As Ajahn Chah taught, ‘The deeper the calm, the deeper the insight.’