At this week’s Mission Dharma sit, Howie talked about Mara and all the ways Mara keeps us stuck in the world.  At the end, he talked about stages of meditative concentration – beginning with directing the attention (to the breath), sustaining the attention, and finally being so fully concentrated in the moment, that the thought of wanting anything (else) is absurd.  He called this quality of mind “ekaggatā”. Then translated it as “one pointed”.

Directing the mind to an object of meditation, which is called (vitakka) and sustaining the attention on that object, which is called (vicāra) are very familiar meditative experiences. That these two are the first two Jhana Factors is interesting because they both resonate so fully with the experience of practice.  Hearing the description of the ekaggatā factor – it sounded at once very familiar; very much like the experience of resting in pure awareness, with all of the happiness, joy and equanimity inherent in that state. Simply hearing these three meditative states discussed and given names gave my practice a little boost today – a little clarity and a little extra motivation.

I’ve heard the concept of ‘one pointedness’ before many times, and while that isn’t how I’d describe the experience of being fully concentrated in the present moment — I now think that’s exactly what it means. I’d always seen ‘one pointedness’ as inherently contracted. The image of a pin-point comes to mind. Is a pin-point the right metaphor to use when trying to get someone to understand ‘staying in the present moment’? I think the metaphor of balancing works better – not falling into the past or the future, but balancing in the current moment as it unfolds. Being “open” is another way to describe it, because what one is doing when they are in the present moment is being open to real-time experience, which is the only experience there is, and allowing awareness to simply be open to receiving it (without getting sidetracked by the mind into thinking of past and future). Could “Open, Effortless Awareness” be the same as “Onepointedness”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this..


Know Thyself

Mindfulness is a process of getting familiar with our own flow of experience. We may focus on any number of objects external to us – or internal to our bodies or our minds. This kind attention makes us less reactive, brings us deep wisdom regarding the changing nature of phenomena, leads us to question our very nature and the nature of existence.

Can it all be boiled down to the two words spoken by Jesus: Know Thyself?

Back to the cushion, back to the breath

Those who may be following the posts here know that I’ve been exploring the impact of meditation on daily life; or meditation as a lifestyle as opposed to a casual activity (of a once-in-a-while or new meditator) or an isolated activity (as might happen on retreat).

Lately, I’ve been tracking how my practice is sometimes stronger, sometimes wobbly, and sometimes succumbs to the busyness of life all together. And along with my practice, my sense of connectedness, concentration, clarity, compassion rise and fall in relation to my confusion, frustration and stress.

What I’ve found is that while I’m “off balance”, I’m really just as lost in the woods as I ever was. I feel like mindfulness doesn’t even exist. Of course it’s impossible to know if this is the case or not – there is no way to do a controlled study with myself, but it feels like when I’m lost in thoughts and emotions, my practice is nowhere to be found.

However, just as the clarity is easily lost, it is easily found again — given that one has built up a habit of practice and gotten to know oneself through practice. Even when I feel I’ve had a “bad week”, I find that a return to the cushion brings a swift return to my calm, peaceful mind. I can’t express how glad I am of this. Practice becomes a refuge, indeed, when life is difficult. Maintaining the practice through the difficulty is the best path, but when we find we’ve wandered, it’s good to know the path is not only accessible, but that our prior work helps us settle more quickly and come back into balance again.

How many patterns in nature exhibit that curious quality of chaos — that they resemble themselves in the macro and micro views?  While sitting, we come back to the breath when we find we’ve been lost. With a solid practice, we come back to the breath when we find we’ve been lost. I wonder if that pattern holds throughout our many rebirths?  In any case, the key is to strengthen the practice by doing it.. back to the cushion, back to the breath, back to the Buddha.

sequential / simultaneous causality

Meditation practice -or better yet, the life of a practitioner isn’t always about achieving some lofty state of freedom and bliss. Sometimes the sensations and thoughts of the present moment are unpleasant. Sometimes instead of the subtle breath, you get the heavy chest and tight jaw. Sometimes you get the cloudy mind, the frustrated mind, the angry mind.

During the difficult times, it’s easy to let go of our practice. It’s easy to fall into old patterns and bad habits. If we’re not able to contact the happy, concentrated, centered, peaceful nature of our awareness — why bother sitting on the cushion? Why not turn on the tv, crack a beer and skip the sitting?  I have a few thoughts on this matter. Maybe they’ll help you if you’re having one of those days [weeks, months, years?].  Maybe they’ll help me, if I can get them out and organize them.

I’ve been very inspired lately by the book The Island. In it, there is an excellent explanation of the buddhist concepts of interdependence. I always had a very simplistic view of this, namely,”all things are connected” which is not very meaningful or helpful in guiding one’s thoughts or actions. The concept in the book, however, does provide some guidance (and also seems to solve the ‘free will problem’ in a way I’ve not seen it approached before). Causality functions in two ways — in sequence and simultaneously. They give two examples. You write a friendly note to someone, then, when you see them next, they have some pleasant thought arise upon seeing you.  This isn’t your typical billiard ball cause and effect – it’s operating through time, but not one-moment-to-the-next. It’s also operating in the realm of psychology, not physics. The second example is physical and simultaneous: the sun shines on you and you cast a shadow.  There is no delay between the cause and the effect. They happen at the same time. Allowing for these two different modes of cause and effect produces a complex, interwoven matrix of events and objects interacting upon each other from both the past and the present. It allows our past actions to cause our current situations AND our current attitudes to play a role as well.

In Buddhism, you hear about Karma. Typically, we think of Karma as a simple formula – past actions bring current conditions; current actions bring future conditions. But this more complex view of causation allows us to not only plant seeds for the future, but also to meet our current conditions in different ways – bringing different results. We inherit the fruits of our past, but we also have a choice – we have some freedom. We can meet conditions either unconsciously and with a reactive mind – or with awareness and equanimity.

Another way to look at it is that we are not just creating our future – we are also creating our present moment. If our past actions have planted seeds and brought us some unpleasantness.. we still have the opportunity to greet the resulting bitter fruit with a graciousness and acceptance that can free us from the cycle – can keep us from replanting those same seeds. “Ah, bitter fruit tastes like this.”  As with all experience, we have the opportunity to really see it – really get to know it. With this kind of loving attention, the mechanisms of grasping and rejecting cease to function. Knowing takes the place of reacting. We free ourselves just a little more.

Thought of in this way, our difficult times become tremendous opportunities to be present, be kind, and let go (or burn up!) some of what is keeping us bound.

So when you are flying high on the Dharma and feel the strong pull to the cushion – Sit! When you are living in the unpleasantness and frustration of life – Sit!

Meet it all with kind awareness, as best you can. No matter what it is. As they taught us in the desert, “Right now, it is like this.” That’s a great one to remember, as often as possible – even in the tough times.