The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)
August 11, 2008
So, as I'm sure everyone has noticed by now, there are ups and downs, there are waves, and [I] don't know where you are right now; you may be on a high. You may be on a low. You may be in between. And if it's low, it could be agitation, could be tiredness, sluggishness, could be doubt. So we get this. We get waves, absolutely. And we need to actually expect the waves. There's no question about it. It's part of the practice.
As I was saying last night, a big part of it is attitude. And if, in our attitude, we're actually expecting the waves, we're kind of getting off on the right foot. If we feel insulted or inadequate because, you know, the wave goes down into a trough, then we're off on the wrong foot. We're kind of starting by shooting ourselves in the foot. Attitude is so, so, important, so important. It's really half the battle, like I said last night. How important it can be, how useful it can be, as I've done sometimes in here, starting the meditation, really realizing: this is for my own good. This is why I do this. There's no other reason. There's no other reason than I'm taking care of myself and connecting with that gesture of care, of well-wishing. It's why I practise. It's why we practise. And also for the benefit of others. Really connecting with that, setting a tone of attitude, a climate of attitude -- really, really helpful.
And again, as I said last night, even when we're in the trough of the wave, even when things don't seem to be going that well, when we're struggling, just to realize: this is still a really good use of our time. So twenty ... I don't know how long I've been meditating, twenty-four, twenty-three years, whatever -- I've never felt that meditation, even when it was really difficult, even just for a little bit of time, was a waste of time. There's always more to the picture that we're developing, and sometimes we can ignore that. What else is being nurtured even as we feel we're struggling? What else is being nurtured? It's huge. It's a much bigger picture.
[2:42] So, also to do with attitude: can we incline the mind -- as I said in the opening talk -- towards appreciation? This is actually not a small thing. People have been remarking on this in groups. It's actually something very, very fundamental. It sounds a bit like, you know, "That's a bit of superficial cosmetic surgery," but actually it's something very deep in the mind: inclining towards appreciation.
And patience, this word that I introduced on the first night, patience -- really, really, important. Can we have a part of the mind that's just a steady observer, learning? What can I learn here when it's difficult? What can I learn when it's going well? What can I learn when it just seems to be plateauing? The teacher who I first learnt this approach from, Ṭhān Geoff -- he was a monk in Thailand for twenty-something years. And in his first year there, he spoke fluent Thai. But he said they were going on about this, his teachers, and teaching him this. And it took him six months before he even knew what they were talking about, all this business about breath energy and body and ... he didn't even, it didn't even make any sense to him. Just patience, patience.
And the final piece about attitude: to be contented with what we have. So, I'm talking about comfortable feeling, pleasant feeling. However that is, can I just be contented with that and nurture it, and nurture it? So, attitude. Really, really key. Checking in with the attitude. Taking care of the attitude as much as we can.
Then there's the whole area of thoughts, which I want to touch on. Of course, we meet thoughts. We meet a lot of thoughts in the course of meditation. Some of you will remember -- I can't remember if it was Hillary Clinton or Nancy Reagan had this anti-drug campaign in the USA. I'm not sure if it arrived over here. The slogan was "Just Say No." Did you get that over here? Yeah, "Just Say No." It's a bit like that with thoughts. You "Just Say No" ... sometimes. There's a kind of renunciation involved. Part of the difficulty with thoughts is that we're actually infatuated with them. We believe, not even consciously, that they're going to provide some satisfaction or some excitement or some interest in an otherwise dreary and dull day, or sitting, or whatever it is. So, there is an element of renunciation here. And sometimes you just, in the middle of a thought, "I actually don't need to get to the end of this thought. I'm not going to be that much happier at the end of the thought than I am in the middle of the thought. Why pursue it? Just Say No."
[5:35] Slowly, slowly, we begin to get a sense that there's actually more satisfaction in that "No" than there is in the kind of following a thought or filling out an idea. And there is some satisfaction and fulfilment in, you know, exploring ideas and following thought, etc. But actually, we begin to see, that's actually quite limited and not very rich or deep. And we get used to saying "No," and that renouncing of thoughts actually begins to feel, "Oh, this actually feels quite good." And we see -- I was talking at one point about impulses. We have this impulse to follow thoughts, or an impulse to look up: you're meditating, and someone comes in late, and "Who's that?" Or you're walking, and someone comes into the walking room: "Who's that?"
Again, are you happier now, for knowing who it is? Just to see what's being fed by something. Is it feeding happiness? Or is it actually just feeding hunger again -- the hungry mind, always needing to look, always needing to follow this thought? A lot of this is quite subtle.
It moves to a place where we begin to see there's nothing really tempting in the thought. There's nothing really there that's very juicy for us. We're interested in juice, we're interested in happiness, and you begin see that there's just, like, some dry bones there. Nothing to sink your teeth into.
So, sometimes, when the mindfulness is quite refined, a thought comes up, and it's almost like the beginning of a thought, and a part of the mind -- you may notice, part of the mind is kind of peeking: "Is this going anywhere interesting? Might I be interested in the end of this thought?" Don't even ask that question. This is quite subtle, but sometimes it's just, "Is it going anywhere interesting?" Don't even ask that.
Now, we're talking quite subtly now, but sometimes, it's almost -- one's meditating, things are going quite well, and then there's a vague stirring. It's like the beginning of a thought, or almost a thought that's not quite fully formed. And we kind of, a part of the mind wants to define it and say, "That was this kind of thought," or label it, if you're used to a labelling technique from a different approach, and to be clear about what it was that I was thinking about. But also, we don't need to be clear. It can just be a vague sort of cloud of something, a fuzzy cloud. It doesn't need to be so clear.
[8:15] In the practice, we bring the mind back an infinite number of times. We will go off hundreds, thousands, I don't know, millions of times. That's okay. And we just bring the mind back, just very simply, very simply, over and over.
And sometimes the mind begins to stay a little bit. It stays with the sense of the body. It stays with that sense of comfort. And this is very interesting. What is it that enables the mind, that encourages and helps the mind to stay with that nice feeling? Sometimes, we're just tuning into the pleasure, and that's really what helps. Sometimes, we're there, and it feels comfortable, and it feels okay, and you begin to sense in the mind a little bit of antsiness. It hasn't moved anywhere yet, but it's just kind of looking. It's scouting for somewhere to move for, and it's just a sense -- either you feel it in the body, or you feel it kind of vaguely in the mind. There's just a little bit tension or antsiness. You can actually be sensitive to that and actually relax the tension, and the mind doesn't need to move off the comfortable feeling. It doesn't need to move off the body.
So, in a way, we need to expect this antsiness and expect that the mind will want to look for somewhere to move. We can actually start watching for the sense of antsiness. Watching for that sense of just a little bit of, just a stirring of restlessness and tension, and responding to that.
How might we respond? Well, it might be that we need to nurture the comfort a bit more. Maybe work with the breath, maybe make the breath a bit longer, a bit shorter, a bit more strong, a bit more refined, whatever it is. There isn't quite enough comfort for the mind to feel totally settled there yet. The mind is antsy because there's not enough comfort.
[10:23] So, we can respond by working with the breath. We can respond by refining the quality of attention. Sometimes the mind wants to be a bit more subtle in what it's paying attention to, tune in a bit more subtly.
If there's boredom at any time -- this is a whole interesting thing, boredom -- but boredom arises when we've withdrawn our sensitivity from the present moment, when something in us just ... we've lost that alive kind of interest, delicacy of attention. With that withdrawal, boredom arises. So, if there's a moment of boredom and the mind feels antsy with boredom, to just check the sensitivity. Is it possible to reinvigorate the sensitivity?
Attitude, thoughts, and the movement of mind towards thoughts. The last thing I want to touch on today is the relationship of the mind in terms of how light or heavy the pressure, the effort is -- and I touched on this last night in the talk -- so that we're not pushing the mind too hard to concentrate. We're not forcing it to stay with the breath, to stay with the body. And we're also not just letting it float away. There's a real delicacy of art here. And so there can be a very light question in the practice: "How heavy right now? How heavy should the attention be?" And sometimes we can actually focus on a quality of lightness. We can actually focus on a quality of lightness in the body and that actually helps lighten the mind. The body can actually feel very light instead of heavy sometimes, and that can help. Or we find the quality of lightness in the global experience of the body. That can really be helpful. Or we just play with this: "Can I have a feather-lightness of attention on the whole body area?" Just the most delicate touch of attention actually can be the most helpful sometimes.
[12:45] This awareness -- often, with attention, we're used to thinking of, "Here's the attention, and I'm paying attention to something over there," or "I'm up here, paying attention to the breath and the body down here." What would it be to have a kind of 360 degrees awareness? It's almost like the awareness sinks into this bubble, this egg of the body, and it's just permeating that completely. 360 degrees, aware of the back, aware of the whole of it, really permeating and suffusing. And then, with that, kind of, the awareness is actually melting -- it's a very good word -- melting into the comfortable areas. So, we can probe what feels good, certainly. But we can also just melt into it.
Last night, I very briefly mentioned in one or two of the groups, it's possible to conceive of the breath energy as being all around the body, all around, so the body is kind of surrounded by this breath energy. Or this bubble of the body is surrounded by breath energy. And in a way, what you're doing is you're opening the body, the sense of the body, to being in this breath energy. Or a sense of receiving it with the whole body -- all the pores are receiving this breath energy. It's going in and out everywhere in the body. And you can melt the body into it. You can melt the body 360 degrees around into this breath energy that surrounds the body. Or you could melt that breath energy into the body. Melting is a very useful thing to play with. And I think I already said the breath is all around, can be all around, and the sense of comfort, the sense of fullness is being bathed by that. We're bathing it by that. We're nourishing that sense of fullness and the whole body sense by the in- and out-breath. Every time a breath goes in and out, it's like bathing and nourishing that whole body sense.
[15:14] In a way, what can happen is one is allowing the breath to open up more and more. It's like the whole sense of the breath begins to open up more, can begin to open up, and you can encourage that. The whole space of the experience begins to open up. And with that, it can become more and more gentle. It's possible it can become more and more gentle, more and more sort of porous. "This is the body. This is the breath. This is where I end" -- all that can begin to sort of become more porous. And it's almost as if the awareness can seep into the breath and into the body.
One thing I very briefly said at the end last night: sometimes, we can be aware of a kind of background energy. So, you've got the breath coming in and out, but you've also got this kind of how this body area feels. Someone was saying, asking me, you know, using these words -- 'textures,' 'vibrations,' 'energy field.' How does this bubble, how does this egg, how does it feel? It has a certain quality. Just putting the attention in that whole space, how does it feel? And begin to get a sense of, well, it feels a certain way. That global sense, it feels a certain way. And sometimes, the totality of that begins to feel a little bit pleasant, and that's the breath energy. Sometimes it feels a bit constricted, and that's also the breath energy. It's constricted breath energy or pleasant breath energy. But it's a more subtle level of breath energy than the kind of in and out. So, sometimes, you might be aware of that, too, and that can actually be very helpful, tuning into that level of experience. And in a way, the in- and out-breath, then, is just one part of the total breath energy experience. It's more subtle, but it can be really, really useful to tune into that. For instance, you breathe in, you breathe out, and there's a pause before the next in-breath. Just checking, how does the body feel then? The next in-breath hasn't started, but what's the tone in this space? How does that space feel, the space of the body? That's the sense of this more subtle body sense or subtle breath sense. Sometimes, the breath energy and the body energy feel like two distinct things. At other times, they're kind of melted in that more subtle sense.
Okay, so let's do a sitting now.