(Cute cat, or a display of serious concentration in progress?)
Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not.
The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway? Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn't, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place.
A path that journeys into new territory is always going to provide surprises, the unexpected and new experiences in unfamiliar surroundings. A one-to-one teaching situation should support us in making our own way, rather than impose a set of rules and instructions which we ought to adhere to religiously. In such a dynamic, negotiation and exchange are a more useful relationship dynamic than superior and subordinate roles. I personally have always preferred the idea of spiritual friend to guru or master for this reason and been highly suspicious of powerful, aloof, all-knowing men sat on high thrones. Institutionalised Buddhism often has the most authoritative sounding say on Buddhist matters, but to accept dogmatic, doctrinal view as the most authoritative would be a mistake. Relying on impersonal, external authority to determine the validity of your own first-hand experience in practise and in life is likely to lead to blind faith, group think and a lack of self-authority and imagination. Negotiating authority successfully entails levelling the field. The same seductive ease which convinces individuals to vote for ‘strong leaders’ plays out in spiritual communities.
The path is your own personal-direct-firsthand experience of putting meditation and new concepts into practise and exploring the results and consequences as they evolve in an ongoing discipline. The rest is an add-on that may or may not help you on your way. At the end of the day it is good to be able to trust yourself to know what works for you and what doesn't, and stand on your own two feet. It takes courage to do so, but it is well worth it. It is certainly better than ending up in bed with a wrinkly, 70-year-old,guru…or maybe not, if that's your thing.
Now, on with the last element of the Eightfold Path.
Buddhist meditation can be loosely divided into two core practices; the development of concentration, and the development of insight. The latter emerges often as a result of the former. This is a division that is most clearly visible in the earlier schools of Buddhism such as the Theravada. For other schools of Buddhism, including the varied forms of Tantra found in Tibet and Japan, concentration and insight make up part of a wider range of esoteric practices including complex visualisations, physical practices such as extensive prostrations, and the use of sound. Whether it is mantra chanting, Amitabha devotion, 100,000 prostrations, koan practice or mindful cleaning, concentration is always required and developed, as well as challenged, by these practises.
Concentration is essentially a skill. It requires training and develops and strengthens over time. To begin with, we might define it broadly as wilfully applied attention. This is the starting place: instead of allowing random things to just happen in our field of experience, we choose a specific object to relate to, exclusively, bringing our attention back to it again and again through wilful and disciplined consistency. Formal concentration practice entails choosing a specific, selective object and continuously relating to it for a given period of time. Developing ability in concentration with discipline and consistency eventually builds an ability to be present with whatever is taking place, without being pulled this way or that way by distractions and reactive habits.
This is the ideal scenario, but as you may already know, experience just happens to be marked by impermanence. Concentration should not be interpreted as some sort of power or ability that enables us to control our experience and dominate our internal subjective reality like a psychopathic robot. Ability in concentration needs to result in the capacity to respond and relate effectively to ever changing circumstances and to internal material that has a habit of arising throughout life. Often the idea is wrongly transmitted in traditional dharma books that an advanced practitioner of concentration becomes a sort of super being, unperturbed by emotions, thoughts and experience. This sounds suspiciously like a form of disassociation from our all too human reality. The development of inner-calm is both stabilising and sobering, resulting in greater autonomy, but when it veers over into frosty detachment, we lose some of the richness of life and healthy detachment can quickly form into an unhealthy inability to connect and feel. A tell-tale sign is arrogance and aloofness, which are usually accompanied by a clear lack of a sense of humour! This explains why it is important to understand the need for the integrative aspect in concentration practise, so as to avoid developing the ability to simply exclude whatever is unpleasant or deemed undharmic from our experience.
Although concentration and disciplined focus can be developed in any situation and without any specific meditative ability, such as in sport or in specific types of detailed work like watch making, surgery and cat burglary, concentration developed through meditation is quite different and with time develops into an integrated presence in which there is an experiential unification between the observed and the observer. It gives rise to insight, enabling us to shed our confusion and ignorance regarding the essential nature of our existence. Insight is an aspect of the path similar to a forest opening, or a mountain peak in which our perspective opens profoundly. We are able to gain greater perspective on the human condition and such vision can be both uplifting and crushing; either way it leads to a taste, and sometimes a morsel, of wisdom and we are changed by it.
Initial concentration meditation is exclusive. In focusing attention on a single object we begin to gather together our energies and in a sense they begin to compact. The analogy of muddy water in a cup is illustrative of how through focusing and settling the mind, not only does the water become clearer, but the earth element of mud settles into a grounded, compacted single mass. In allowing our energies to settle into a unified and cohesive single whole we move away from the habitual dissipation of energy that marks daily life for most. Initial concentration then begins to develop clarity of mind, and consistent practice results in a harmonizing of our energies. We become more balanced. We start to feel better in our skin and suffer less and we begin to uncover some of those precious Four Immeasurables of happiness, joy, equanimity and moments without suffering.
With time, concentration practise becomes more about inclusion. As we increase our ability to bring attention and our energies into a single sphere of experience, we begin to dissolve the apparent boundaries between ‘I’ as a person and the experience that is taking place. This develops into intimacy with experience through softening of boundaries and our sense fields. We start to discover at this point that ‘to be’ is a process and that relating to self as ‘being in process’ brings about a very different quality of experience. Life becomes less about moving from one position to another, less about fixing on a future goal and attempting to move away from a fixed past and more about relating to whatever is taking place. Being is happening right here, right now. So much of what stops us from getting in touch with this modality is distraction and the dissipation of attention and energy. More grossly, the internal psycho-emotional structures that make up the edifice of self drive us to play out impulsive and reactive habits that make up the dual natured way of being. Attraction and repulsion, attachment and aversion, desire to be with and to have, to be without and to avoid having, all play their part in running us in circles trying to escape from ourselves. These patterns tend to play out as narratives that make up our concept of who we are and of how the world is. These stories emerge in the internal dialogue we face when sitting and meditating. Breaking through these narratives is a key aspect of awakening insight.
This short overview illustrates the fundamental difference between concentration developed through long-term meditation and concentration developed in non-meditative circumstances. Meditative concentration practise unfolds in a practice environment in which distractions are reduced to a minimum and specific internal environments are stimulated and strengthened. With time we get better at aligning all aspects of our being with this simple goal of focusing energy and attention to what is immediate. We become more present in what is taking place and in a way more solid, more engaged and more willing to participate in life.
Bringing in the Four Foundations
Concentration is not only developed as a practise on cushion as it is also honed through practising the Four Foundations of Mindfulness off cushion. This is known as the practice of active concentration, as opposed to static or selective concentration practice, which takes place in formal sitting practise. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness were explored in previous posts in this series. Viewed as a vehicle for the development of active concentration, we choose to relate to a specific foundation, with the most pragmatic choice being the body. Active concentration practise can also be defined as the development of momentary concentration involving relating to the multiplicity of phenomena in an open field of attention: maintaining a continuous awareness of whatever arises without clinging to anything, inside or outside. We relate to the constantly changing screen of experience and events and we allow whatever arises to come. For most of us, this is a lifelong practise and new levels and dimensions of inattention tend to show up consistently. Just when you think you have nailed it, and your attention is as sharp as a knife, life has a way of slipping a banana skin in front of you, and tho and behold, there is more work to do, a new edge to meet. If anything, this acts as a reminder that everything is impermanent and this includes any fixed ideas we may have about practise results.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness tend to shift, to wax and wane due to changing and shifting circumstances and the multiple roles we may inhabit throughout the day. It can be useful to choose one of the four as a key object to ensure we are connected into what is taking place in shifting environments. This helps when we are busy, distracted, tired or particularly weak. As the quality of attention and relating to that foundation builds, we naturally realise that its exclusive nature is blocking a richer level of attention, so we simply add in another of the three remaining foundations. This may spontaneously lead to an inclusion of all four. If not, we can build up inclusively or focus back down to fewer foundations as the need arises. Notions of better or worse are not necessarily so helpful at this point. It’s more a matter of flexibility and an intelligent response to actual circumstances. Even very advanced meditators get thrown off and need to return to narrow focus. The basic materials of experience don’t change however advanced you may become, you are always relating to the body, sensations, emotions, thoughts and the immediate field of phenomena.
Careful now Ted…not to lose your way
Whether static or active, inclusive or exclusive, developing concentration deepens our level of presence. At its basic level, concentration is a skill and should not be viewed as especially mystical or spiritual, but at advanced stages of practise, which are mostly reached through serious dedication in a retreat setting, a practitioner can meet all sorts of mystical experiences. Concentration practice can be pushed hard and give rise to very abstract experiences that would traditionally be termed as deeply spiritual, or visionary. These experiences, or states, are traditionally called Jhanas and run on a scale with the higher levels leading to states of intense bliss and visionary potential and the initial stages marking progressive levels of strong concentration.
Because concentration practice leads to a temporary end in suffering, and to potential bliss, it can actually be quite seductive and become a sort of refuge into disassociated ‘spiritual’ states. In some spiritual and religious traditions these bliss states are the goal and are interpreted as the end of the path. In Buddhism they are not.
Many a New-Age guru has fallen foul of being seduced into interpreting blissful concentration states as enlightenment, as awakening and as the end of the path. Under the guidance of an intelligent and experienced teacher, such a trap can be avoided, but all too often practitioners either make their way on their own, have rather poor teachers with only minimal experience of the more advanced stages of practice, or are following a teacher or path that is unaware of the need for further levels of practise and the development of insight beyond the higher Jhana states. There are four/eight or nine levels of Jhana depending on the tradition, which are generally divided into form and formless categories. These Jhanas have led to a lot of debate in Buddhist circles and even rivalry. If you are curious to know more, follow the links below. My only advice would be to treat the subject lightly and avoid any fanatical interpretation.
Although it is definitely possible for anyone dedicated enough to reach these extreme states of pleasure, bliss and awareness through cultivating the advanced stages of concentration, it is useful to be aware that this practise can potentially lead to some practitioners shutting off areas of their lives and even become talented at avoiding ethical and moral dimensions of the path. In this way sharp, focused attention becomes a means for shielding yourself from what is unpleasant, painful, uncomfortable, disagreeable or too much to deal with. As the world tends to mirror our own internal cosmos to some degree, shutting off parts of our internal environment means that we are most likely shutting off from the same material out in the world, or at the least warping our relationship with it. Concentration should make us more effective at relating to the whole gamut of experience and not become a means of refuge from what we deem to be outside of our comfort range, or nondharmic.
(Jhana state, level 10: 3rd eye detaches, eyes turn green)
Many spiritual types use their spiritual practises and gains to shield themselves from reality. It is fairly common in the New-Age movement, as well as among some Hindu Advaita teachers and Neoadvaita teachers. In my opinion spirituality worth a damn engages fully with life as it is in all of its wild and weird forms and in all of its seemingly mundaneness and is highly suspicious of any forms of utopian escapism. Any instruction that says all we need is to ‘be here now’ equates the path with a meaningless affirmation. Being here now is an ongoing process of deepening, enriching, exploring, awakening, discovering, curiosity, creativity, questioning, disappointment, frustration, joy, sadness, understanding, contemplation, not knowing and so on and so on. Please don’t consider the end of the path to be a happy, numbed utopian La La Land. The quick fix solution is always tempting and there’s always a new one emerging everycouple of years and surprise, surprise there is inevitably an individual getting very wealthy in the process. An appearance on Oprah or three, and hey presto, a million copies sold of their latest book, public appearances follow and yet, a few years later, poof, gone, return to minor celebrity. Reality hits and the quick fix seeking public are on to the next happy, smiling guru selling snakeoil.
Concentration then provides greater ability in successfully navigating the challenges of life. It also leads to insight, which is quite different from concentration states. Insight is the goal of Buddhism. As it accumulates it leads us to break through illusion and ignorance. Insight is both mundane and supramundane. It has as much to do with breaking through as it does with profound understanding. It can regard our own personal world of experience and the greater picture of life on this planet and the essence of the human condition. Insight in great part means surrendering to the unknown, opening to what is outside our field of knowledge, experience and awareness. It has as at its heart the ability to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is seen as weakness in a dog eat dog world and yet as an experience it implies a profound state of openness, without which, certain forms of change and insight are simply not possible. One of the simple and most powerful keys to ensuring that the development of concentration and meditation in general leads to an integrated and balanced experience is inclusion. Without guidance, this is easily ignored, perhaps even viewed as a weakness.
Last thought on the matter
Concentration works best when aligned with seeking insight, with questioning our experiences and existence and finding our own answers through relating to the teachings on our own terms. Our own burning questions, concerns and curiosity are tools that lead us on the path and allow us to make our own way through our own experience. The famous one-liner by the Buddha could serve us at this point, ‘Rely on yourself and no one else’, but it doesn’t need to be the Buddha that said this, if he ever did. It can be anyone who finally figured out that they are going to have to try it for themselves. Although slightly flawed as a concept because navigating life is inevitably bound up in relationships and the negotiation of meaning, it does act a reminder to not invest our hopes and dreams and authority in another.
I wrote this series of blog posts for myself. This blog actually started as an experiment in writing and in ideas. I wanted to see whether I could express my own experience, understanding and interpretations of teachings from Buddhism and Shamanism in a way that was coherent and clear. You will be the judge of whether that has been successful. I am no authority on anything I have written about. In fact, authority is a tenuous subject and is usually a social role which may or may not warrant respect. In the 21st century, in a postmodern reality in which meaning is multiple and ultimate truth is having a bad hair day, we are inevitably left to our own devises. Avoiding solipsism entails a renegotiation of roles and dedication to transparency in relationships both with teachers and other practitioners, as well as with the practises and ideas themselves. Meaning and relevance are also to be negotiated, especially when examining teachings and practices that emerged in very different times and in very different cultures. When not viewed as pure, as ultimate, they are modalities for engaging with experience and the world. We need to be at the centre of such examination, unafraid to question the status quo, examine and deconstruct the sacred. If Buddhism is to survive the 21st century as a viable means for navigating the complexities of life it will have to become a 21st century tradition and become native to its host countries. This will entail continued adaption and evolution, like all forms, if it is to survive. We are active partners in this process anytime we dedicate ourselves to a Buddhist practise, or a Buddhist ideal. I don’t know what it’s like for you to consider the path in this way, but for me personally, it renders it much more meaningful and much more exciting.
I am currently writing a book that like this blog sets up a meeting between Buddhism and Shamanism. I will likely start another series on this blog, if my wife and son allow me, but not for a while. If you’ve enjoyed reading my posts, I’m happy. This is added value.