To Each His or Her Own Meditation…and Teacher.

Via on Sep 2, 2010

Concentration or Insight Meditation? Which One is Right for You? Which Teacher Can Best Help You?

Whether to engage in concentration versus insight practice, is a huge topic for meditators. It seems that every teacher has a different answer. One teacher instructed me to focus on insight. Another one was adamant that I should develop concentration first . . . Who to believe? What to do?

U Pandita favors starting with concentration practice,

Concentration is the proximate cause for the unfolding of wisdom. This fact is very important. Once the mind is quiet and still, there is space for wisdom to arise. There can be comprehension of the true nature of mind and matter. Perhaps there will be an intuitive insight into how mind and matter can be differentiated, and how they are related by cause and effect. Step by step, wisdom will penetrate into more and more profound levels of truth. One will see clearly the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self; and finally insight is gained into the cessation of suffering.

U Tejaniya emphasizes wisdom over concentration,

In reality, if there is awareness, wisdom will arise. However, if the awareness is too focused, then wisdom does not have a chance to arise. That is why you should not force, focus, control, or restrict the mind. Have no expectations about your meditation. Do not be discontented with your meditation. Be aware of all that is happening, all that is passing away. Do not try to make anything disappear. Do not forget . . . Please do not choose objects. All objects are dhamma nature, dhamma phenomena. You cannot hold onto any object with lobha. Do not perceive object or experience as good or bad. No object or experience is better than any other. Objects are just that: objects. They are to be known—that is all.

Ajahn Chah recognizes two different types of persons – one is naturally inclined towards concentration practice, the other towards insight,

Some people have insight and are strong in wisdom but do not have much samadhi [concentration]. When they sit in meditation they aren’t very peaceful. They tend to think a lot, contemplating this and that, until eventually they contemplate happiness and suffering and see the truth of them. Some incline more towards this than samadhi. Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying, enlightenment of the Dhamma can take place. Through seeing, through relinquishing, they attain peace. They attain peace through knowing the truth, through going beyond doubt, because they have seen it for themselves. Other people have only little wisdom but their samadhi is very strong. They can enter very deep samadhi quickly, but not having much wisdom, they cannot catch their defilements, they don’t know them. They can’t solve their problems. But regardless of whichever approach we use, we must do away with wrong thinking, leaving only right view. We must get rid of confusion, leaving only peace. Either way we end up at the same place. There are these two sides to practice, but these two things, calm and insight, go together. We can’t do away with either of them. They must go together.

Three great teachers. Three different takes . . .

I found the best answer here :):

“Monks, these four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four?

“There is the case of the individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness, but not insight into phenomena through heightened discernment. Then there is the case of the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness. Then there is the case of the individual who has attained neither internal tranquillity of awareness nor insight into phenomena through heightened discernment. And then there is the case of the individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.

“The individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness, but not insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, should approach an individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment and ask him: ‘How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?’ The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: ‘Fabrications should be regarded in this way. Fabrications should be investigated in this way. Fabrications should be seen in this way with insight.’ Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.

“As for the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness, he should approach an individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness… and ask him, ‘How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?’ The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: ‘The mind should be steadied in this way. The mind should be made to settle down in this way. The mind should be unified in this way. The mind should be concentrated in this way.’ Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.

“As for the individual who has attained neither internal tranquillity of awareness nor insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, he should approach an individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment… and ask him, ‘How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated? How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?’ The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: ‘The mind should be steadied in this way. The mind should be made to settle down in this way. The mind should be unified in this way. The mind should be concentrated in this way. Fabrications should be regarded in this way. Fabrications should be investigated in this way. Fabrications should be seen in this way with insight.’ Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.

“As for the individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, his duty is to make an effort in establishing (‘tuning’) those very same skillful qualities to a higher degree for the ending of the (mental) fermentations.

“These are four types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

~ The Buddha: Anguttara Nikaya AN 4:94 ~

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Looking at my own practice, I would place myself in the second category. While wisdom and insight come relatively easy to me, deep calm or concentration are another matter. This is due to my anxious nature, a trait that I inherited from my mother. I wonder, is U Tejaniya the right teacher for me right now? I have been planning a trip to see him at his monastery in Burma, early next year. Now, I am not so sure. That I feel great affinity for his teachings, is more a reflection of my own tendencies towards insight. It may be that someone like U Pandita, although more challenging, is exactly what I need at this point.

Which one of those four persons are you? How should it inform your meditation practice, and your choice of a teacher?

Flickr photo credit—Lloyd Morgan

About Marguerite Manteau-Rao

Marguerite Manteau-Rao, LCSW, ATR, MBA, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist in private practice in Menlo Park, California, and MBSR facilitator. She also volunteers for Zen Hospice Project and the Stanford University No One Dies Alone Program. A student of Vipassana meditation at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, Marguerite co-founded the IMC Online Community, a place where members of the growing worldwide IMC sangha can find refuge. She is the creator of Mind Deep, a blog on mindfulness practice, that appeared on Elephant Journal’s list of “Best Female Buddhist Bloggers of 2009”. She was on San Francisco Examiner’s list of “Buddhist Twitter Feeds to Follow” in 2010. Marguerite is a weekly contributor for Huffington Post. Prior to Mind Deep, Marguerite was the creator of "La Marguerite", a blog on the psychology of climate change, that was named one of “Top 10 Eco-Blogs for Earth Day” by Times Online in 2008. As co-founder of Green Moms, a group of women environmental activists, she won Twitter 2008 Shorty Awards in the Green category. She was also named one of the top Web green thinkers to watch for, by UK Guardian in 2009. In case you're wondering about the origin of her name, Marguerite was born and raised in France.

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5 Responses to “To Each His or Her Own Meditation…and Teacher.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    I would consider that at the point of death the condition or awareness of your mind is most important. Of course bodhicitta is of primary importance…the "why" we practice to attain "Fully Awakened Buddhahood". To place all beings beyond samsara and nirvana.

  2. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for your post. Like Steven, I've found myself to be of different types at different times in the same day. I practice both Insight and concentration. I also practice metta and the other brahma viharas. My experience is that brahma vihara practices bring both insight and concentration.

  3. YogiOne says:

    This is a very timely post for me. My Yoga practice has led me toward improving awareness and concentration to the point that I am ready to take my meditation practice more seriously. It seems to me that some level of concentration is needed before attining insight. If the monkey mind is constantly disrupting awareness, how could you develop wisdom? Of course, some level os wisdom is also necessary in order to have the patience to consistently redirect the mind in meditation. My guess is that concentration and wisdom always go hand in hand to some extent.

    I am a person who would be classified by western standards as ADHD. Very active mind with little concentration. Thoughts usually fly by so fast I can't catch them. Sensations capture my awareness and swamp other conscious processes. Being distracted is practically a way of life. It seems like meditation is a practice that was literally made for people like me. Wish me luck on my journey.

    • Charlotte says:

      Concentration and wisdom definitely go hand in hand for me. They feed each other. I find the boundaries between them very hard to distinguish. Good luck on your journey!

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