Monday, June 1, 2009

Concentrate is what we do to oranges

Several times now, I've had occasion to meet with groups of practitioners whose practice is based on focusing attention on an object or observing thoughts and sensations or watching the breath. They frequently report difficulty, a kind of catch 22: either the effort they make in concentration works against stability or they lose clarity when they try to relax. They are usually trying to control their experience, to make it conform to certain expectations of how meditation should be.

All forms of practice that involve such effort, i.e., "I am doing something", inevitably reinforce that sense of separation from experience that arises as "I".

A monk sat meditating in the courtyard of a monastery.

"What are you doing?" asked the abbot.

"Meditating to attain enlightenment," replied the monk.

The abbot sat down beside him, picked up stone, and started to polish it with his robe. After a while, the monk's patience ran out.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Making a glass tile," replied the abbot.

"You can't make a glass tile by polishing a stone."

"Nor can you reach enlightenment by meditating."

Part of the problem is the word concentration. It has, unfortunately, become an accepted translation for the Sanskrit samadhi, a choice that was made about 100 years ago before many Westerners had much experiential understanding of Buddhism. And it sets up expectations, always a problem in meditation practice.

Samadhi denotes a deep level of attention, usually accessed through some form of meditation. In samadhi, it is said that the mind joins with the object of attention. But this union is not brought about by concentration on the object. That just squeezes the mind. It comes about by resting in the experience of the object.

When I suggest in these groups that, instead of concentrating or observing or watching, they just rest and open to what arises, they have a very different experience. The sense of "I" subsides naturally and they come to rest in experience, not separate from it.

We truly rest only when there is no enemy: we include everything that arises
in experience, excluding nothing. We have to build the capacity to do this, of course, but we can build that capacity through resting and opening, not concentrating or focusing.

Catch 22

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.


asp said...

Then there is "gently holding" or "caressing"...we are so often trapped by the weight of the single words we have to chose from.....

ellen said...

Resting and opening,
resting and opening.
The process of just letting things happen has led to many painful sits.
painful when the fear literally came rushing out of my pores.
All said and done though- I no longer hide from it-
the enemy as you said is not so apparent to me now.
I will do it again whenever that enemy shows up,
as the experience moves on a calmness can follow.

Loved the Catch 22 story- your musing was once again a thought provoking one.
Thanks Ken

Anonymous said...

I practise to concentrate on the breath as a way to develop samatha. Can this exercise build my 'I' intead than releasing it? Is this a possible misunterstanding?
Thank you in advance


Ken said...

Dear Stefano,

Yes, it's definitely possible to reinforce and build the sense of "I" by meditating the wrong way. The only way I could get a clear sense of what was happening in your practice is to talk with you about your experience. Basically, if you rest in the experience of breathing, rather than focusing on the breath, you'll probably be fine.