I read a great post the other day on “Not Knowing” by Gil Fronsdal. Among the many many things the not-knowing practice can do for you is to get you comfortable with uncertainty. Sometimes things in your life are simply not known and not knowable. Sometimes patterns are in flux. Sometimes we are in a period of confusion about something. Sometimes we are learning how something works and we haven’t quite gotten there yet.
In many ways, I feel like my exploration of meditation and Buddhism is a lot like this. Questions keep coming up despite my long time interest in and practice of meditation. I’ve developed some knowledge on the topic, and I have a lot of experience to draw from but often a question will arise that reminds me that I’m still learning — that I don’t know. This is especially true now that I’m writing about my experiences more and realizing that while I want to say something definitive – I don’t want to be misleading. Can I really say ‘such and such’ and is that really true? In some cases, I’m ok with saying what I am thinking at the time, knowing that I’ll probably say something contradictory later. Different books, different teachers, different schools often contradict one another — offering teachings that prescribe different techniques. Some confusion seems to be par for the course. Don’t know lets us be with that and hold it all as we work through it.
So, what is the current edge? What am I ‘not knowing’ right now?
Meditation seems to have 2 directions and I’m working on how they really fit together. The two directions, might be categorized broadly as ‘mindfulness’ and ‘concentration’. Now, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are both aspects of the 8 fold path. I don’t mean to suggest that they contradict each other or cannot both be fully developed on the way to awakening. I guess the question is — which one should be cultivated at any given time? Which practices are most fruitful?
Mindfulness is being aware in the present moment, in a non-judgemental way. Mindfulness can be broad or it can be narrow. It can include all current sensation, thoughts, hearing, vision, taste and smell at once or it can be any one of them alone. Often, mindfulness is developed by limiting it to one tiny aspect of one of the senses and staying with that single experience over a period of time. This could be following the breath only at the nostrils or upper lip; it could be focusing only on ‘talk’ in the mental stream; it could be focusing only on hearing. The possibilities are as endless as experience itself. Regardless of the focus or content of the meditation, the idea is to stay present with what is arising and see it just as it is. The trick is not adding to it with our running commentary, judgement, craving, or aversion — or getting distracted and lost in thought.
Concentration practices, in my experience, tend to work more like “diving down” into more and more subtle layers of experience. Stilling the body, we encounter the thinking mind. Coming to know the thinking mind, with it’s words and images, judgements, cravings and aversions, its soundtracks and favorite shows — we eventually begin to still the mind and begin to experience the witness. Experiences of silence and stillness, peace and equanimity begin to mark our sitting. This is where the Jhanas come in. Asking questions such as “who is experiencing this thought?”, “Who am I?” or “Where do these thoughts come from?” bring us deeper into stillness as we seek within ourselves for the answers. Other practices, such as “neti-neti”(ie. “not this, not that”), “I am”, or “That which exists, that which has arisen, that I abandon” lead us towards an unknown, unspoken state of emptiness, pure consciousness, radiant mind — or total release. But what happens when we get off the cushion? What happens when we have work to do — or have to take a pee?
The buddhist suttas and stories seem to support each of these practices in various ways. Are these different paths? Are they just different skills that must both be developed? Are they really different at all when they are developed fully?
Practicing Concentration on the cushion can lead to profound states of silence and emptiness — which then allow for a very spontaneous state of mindfulness while ‘walking around’ (ie. between formal meditation periods). Perhaps Concentration is like cleaning the bowl, whereas mindfulness is filling it back up with pure experience. Concentration certainly supports mindfulness, even if they aren’t the same in practice.
In some ways it works the other way, too, that is — Mindfulness supports Concentration. Practicing Mindfulness can lead us to insights about the nature of that-which-is-arising. Joseph Goldstein includes an element in his definition of mindfulness– one should be aware of the object as “not-me” and “not-mine”. This insight, when fully developed, is precisely what allows us to drop down from one level of experience into a more subtle level – from body to thinking mind to quiet mind to stillness. If we identify with the content of a level, we can’t really let it go and get past it.
I guess my conclusion for now is that one should practice with a clear intention. Choosing a practice for the meditation period and then sticking to it. Perhaps there is a better formula for which meditation to do at what time in order to facilitate our awakening — but at this time, all I can say is: I don’t know.