May 16, 2012

Wise Concentration: Moving Away from Multitasking.

image credit: loveyourchaos tumblr

{part eight of the eightfold path series}

We live in a distracted way, in a digitized modern world.

“The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague,” according to Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch. He said that in 1905.

Over a century later, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton claims that “silence has become an endangered species,” and in any twenty-first century city or suburb, that’s hard to refute. Our own Mindfulness Manifesto here at elephant urges reader to stop, unplug, do nothing, and relax at least a little bit more each day.

The eighth and final “step” of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, wise concentration, is to cultivate a mind that is not multitasking but rather directed toward a single-pointed purpose. The Sanskrit term samadhi can be broken down thusly: sam = “with” and “adhi” = to stand. Samadhi is to stand with a solid foundation.

There are two categories of concentration: one-pointed focusing and moment-to-moment concentration, which is also known as mindfulness. All forms of meditation employ both concentration and mindfulness; what varies is the emphasis on each and the specific technique of instruction.

Single-pointed concentration practice

Also known as samatha or calm-abiding meditation, this is a wonderful practice for beginning meditators and for anyone who needs to quiet the mind at the beginning of a sitting session. It is done by simply choosing an object to pay attention to and using mindfulness to notice when the mind slips away. The most common and most readily available object is the breath, but others could be a candle flame, a mantra, the image of a deity, a flower or a waterfall. Rather than using force, we practice letting go of everything except the object of concentration. Concentration puts the five hindrances at bay, but it doesn’t uproot them. That’s why incorporating mindfulness is essential.

Present moment concentration

Mindfulness is simply watching the unfolding of life from moment to moment. As we watch the flow of physical and mental phenomena, we begin to see why we suffer. We see that there are no fixed things, only processes. We realize in our innermost core that there is actually nothing to hold on to. Through the concentrated, mindful mind, truth becomes integrated into our very veins and touches every aspect of our lives. The mud begins to settle and the factors of concentration begin to emerge. Paradoxically, it takes practice and wise effort, but it’s also available to each of us at every moment.

The following five qualities of concentration start to arise with both categories of concentration practice:

1. Initial application: aiming of the mind to the object of concentration (e.g. hitting the gong)
2. Sustaining the connection: holding the mind on the object of concentration (e.g. the resonance of the gong’s sound)
3. Rapture: delight, joy and interest (e.g. seeing a distant oasis in the desert)
4. Happiness: the pleasant feeling that accompanies deep concentration (e.g. arriving at that oasis and drinking the cool water)
5. One-pointed attention

Each of these five factors is said to directly counter one of the five hindrances. Initial application counters sleepiness. Sustaining connection counters doubt. Rapture is the antidote for ill will. Happiness is the antidote for restlessness. And one-pointed attention eradicates sense desire. (Unless, of course, your object of concentration is that sticky desire.)

It’s important to note that concentration is a double-edged sword. Just as a knife can be used to create beautiful carvings or to injure or kill another being, concentration can be directed toward good or evil.

Concentration is the last aspect of the Eightfold Path, yet it is not the culmination of the path. The wisdom of the integration of all eight aspects could be considered the culmination—the way to full liberation.

{Deep gratitude to Andrea Fella of Insight Meditation Center for her clear and lovely Dharma talk on wise concentration.}

Read the whole series:

Right View: Elationship.

Right Intention: Surrender & Be Kind.

Right Speech: May Your Voice Be Full of Truth, Gentleness & Purpose.

Wise Action: Anything Could Happen Next.

Right Livelihood: What Makes Work Worthwhile?

Wise Effort: Neither Slacking Nor Overachieving.

The Four Foundations of Wise Mindfulness.

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Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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