I’m currently working through Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samdahi, as well as Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep. Both works examine concentration in the context of Buddhist meditation. Concentration allows us to gradually let the mind further open to itself, leading to an understanding of mind and body that is more nuanced, detail-oriented and case sensitive. It also has incredible implications for self-awareness, potentially promising fundamental changes in how we understand our own minds and their attendant capabilities.
For many years after I first began meditation, I simply sat, going out into the fringes of my own internal world to see what I could find. I did not have any kind of end in mind other than not getting lost in thinking. Doing this repeatedly changed my own internal processes. Thought became a small part of reality that did not take on any importance beyond what I ascribed to it. The value of this practice is the way that it began to subtly move my experience away from certain expectations and absolutes. Life could open to me in ways that I had not understood with my closed body and mind.
In the past year, I have been steadily building to more concentration based exercises in my mediation sessions, coupled with my original “free-play” style of attentional exploration. Exposure to books such as Focused and Fearless (also by Shaila Catherine) and Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington piqued my curiosity about concentration-based practices. I have come to view these practices as necessary for my ongoing study of Buddhist traditions in general. In order to see for myself how this type of concentration affects the mind, I began watching the breath. This is an important practice for developing concentration. It involves focusing on breathing, noticing when attention becomes distracted, and redirecting it back to the breath.
At the beginning, the mind can’t focus on the breath. The thought that it generates becomes like a space that the mind creates in order to experience pleasure, strategize, and avoid pain or boredom. The mind is so habituated to associative thinking that attention must be brought back and focused on the breath. That process gets repeated every meditation. Seeing our limitations in doing this kind of practice lets us get creative each session and see if we can push our limits a little. This pushing of limits is extremely physical and demands our continued presence. I’ve experienced a kind of nervous exhaustion as a result, which indicates that I’ve run aground and need to try again, maintaining that focus longer.
Progress in this regard is nonexistent at first, and this kind of attention unfolds very slowly, if at all. Once this practice is done enough times, however, there begin to be very definite changes that take place in the character of the mind. Rather than being dissolute and continually chattering, the mind becomes highly focused and quiet. Concentration can then engage with whatever is present without being perpetually diverted. This is useful because we are engaging with felt characteristics rather than what we think about them. Rather than simply thinking about our problems, concentration starkly brings them out so that we can really feel them. We can then use this concentration for our own purposes in helping us dissolve ingrained constructs of the mind.
It also begins to free our awareness up to focus on things that really matter, priming us for better ways of understanding. This understanding divulges what seems to be a common liability of the human mind: the ways we are accustomed to using our attention serve only to cloud the issues and postpone actual solutions. In Wisdom Wide and Deep, Catherine describes this process as beginning to take control of our own attentional biases.
Every person has a unique attentional bias that is reinforced by a lifetime of habit. Your habits may support you in one role but pose formidable barriers in other arenas of life. Sometimes these habits are highly trained skills —doctors are trained to focus on physical symptoms, soldiers are sensitized to signs of threat, parents become responsive to their children’s distress. As you train your mind to stay steady, calm, tranquil, and equanimous with the whole breath, you are not merely replacing one habit with another, more spiritual, pattern. Rather, through concentration practice, you enhance the flexibility and durability of attention as you gain control over the attentional bias of your mind. (Kindle Version, loc 1246-1255)
Recognizing these biases is the first step towards changing them. A lifetime of socially encouraged self-construction has left us with maladaptive processes of every kind. Our biases towards pleasure and status are like grasping at smoke in every moment, and are gone as soon as we obtain them. With stronger concentration, we can see these mental and physical processes more clearly as they occur, and how quickly they disappear. We can use these exercises to see that these types of behavior are often props that are obscuring a very rich vein of freedom that we are always embodying.
This is important to Buddhist practice because we sleep within our own illusions, telling ourselves stories about ourselves, others, and the world. And it is through these illusions that we hurt others and crave the stability of comforting ideas and situations, done in the name of a ghostly and malformed sense of self. Since Buddhist practice is aiming to bring us into a more complete understanding of ourselves, concentration is an indispensable part of realizing the phenomena that make up our bodies and minds. With a thorough reckoning of this practice we will develop more of an understanding of the cause and effect nature of these bodies and minds, and how to use them to help others, finding our own liberation in the process.