The happiness of a concentrated mind

It is said that ignorance is one of the three roots of our unhappiness. Ignorance takes many forms. Simply not knowing the joy of a concentrated mind–a mind at ease with itself–is one form of ignorance that causes us to continually search outside ourselves for “something”: something to make us happy, something to make us whole, something to peak our interest, or something that will finally let us ‘get ahead’ of the struggles of life.

During this journey of self discovery I’ve been on I distinctly recall a time when I started to notice this kind of “looking”. I would seek often, if not continuously, for that something. I would seek for it in my mind, thinking “what can I do to finally become successful?”. I would look in the windows of the passing cars for a smile or pretty face, to get a little hit of pleasure. Seeking for satisfaction in the external world of things can cause us to eat things that make us feel bad (after the fleeting taste of sweetness has faded); drink things that make us feel tired and dull (though they temporarily allow us to change the flavor of consciousness and lay down our responsibilities); and buy things we don’t need and cannot afford, just to gratify our grasping mind and feed our habits of desire for desire’s sake alone.

The key to seeing this clearly, to illuminate the patterns and remove the ignorance is to see that it isn’t the objects we are after, as we’ve mistakenly assumed–it’s the pleasant feeling tone that arises dependent upon contact with the object in the mind. If we miss this feeling tone as it arises–or more precisely, if we conflate the feeling tone and the object itself, we will generate an attachment to the object and expect it to provide in us the satisfaction we seek, although it is woefully unable to do so. If we miss this link in the chain, we end up deluded and unable to escape the never-ending cycle of seeking satisfaction in the very things that cause us to overlook our innate happiness.

Once we are lucky enough to have practiced sitting still, breathing in and out, bringing our awareness to the present moment, developing kindness with whatever arises–once we are able to establish some concentration, we discover another whole category of happiness. We discover the happiness of the concentrated mind. We discover the joy of mindfulness and equanimity. Once we start to see that all of the seeking of objects, the chasing of things, the looking in windows, the need for approval and appreciation– all of it is just busy-ness that keeps us from our own innate stillness. It keeps us from being in the present moment–from our very lives as they unfold. Seeking happiness outside keeps us from finding happiness right where we are. Becoming established in this new way of being and seeing the ‘unworldly pleasant feelings’ that come from practice is like turning a corner. This is the current edge of my practice.

The joy of practice

The second foundation of mindfulness, the contemplation of feelings, presents a clear distinction between pleasant worldly feelings and pleasant unworldly feelings (i.e. pleasant feelings associated with renunciation and practice) and has brought about a clarity with regards to the practice and the path that has been very inspiring.

Seeing the benefits of practice directly has always been tricky. I know it’s good for me. I know that somehow I have better days when I’m sitting more often. I know it’s ‘informed my being’, as I like to say, over the many years.  But how? What can I point to? Well, now there is some clarity around it. I’m experiencing the joy that comes not from gaining anything, but from the natural state of the mind that is letting go and allowing the stream of experience to flow without as much interference. There is a joy inherent in the process of letting go–of not grasping, of generosity, of opening to what is.

Clearly seeing this profoundly different kind of happiness is inspiring for practice. Last night, I sat for 45 minutes. At first I felt concentrated, but then by the end, my energy lessened some and my mind felt more contracted. I was able to stay mindful of the contracted quality of the mind, though, and remained alert through the sitting period. This morning, I was lucky enough to have the possibility to sit for half an hour (before catching the bus to work). The mind was focused on the simple in-and-out breathing, knowing it as either long or short. This simple focus is enough to maintain mindfulness and by the end of the period, I was experiencing the “unworldly pleasant feelings” of a calm and open mind and a happy and loving heart. This isn’t something you can buy. This isn’t something you can “gain” in any way. This is the joy of practice.

Fractal teachings & deepening spirals

The Satipatthana Sutta is a brilliant roadmap to meditation practice.  It encapsulates the Buddha’s method of self inquiry–allowing the practitioner to fully come to know themselves, how to abandon that which leads to suffering, and develop the qualities and skills that lead to freedom. I’ve come to see that it may very well encapsulate the whole of the Buddha’s teaching.

The teachings themselves are woven together, not like a flat tapestry, but rather like a fractal design. If you study one of them fully, you encounter all of the others. The last of the Four Noble Truths, for instance IS the Eight-fold path. The Eight-fold path contains “right mindfulness” which leads one naturally to study the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, which is the Satipatthana Sutta. The final foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana is the “contemplation of Dhammas”, which then contains the Four Noble Truths.

Seeing how these teachings fold into one another, it is clear that it is no accident. In fact, it points to an elegant solution to a problem that has arisen in my own mind while studying this text*.  The method described by the Buddha here is so complete and thorough. It is simple, yet it contains many pieces. While the text is meant to be read, as with any other text, and the words are meant to form perceptions in the mind to extract the meaning–the real purpose of the Sutta is to bring the practice to life. One has to DO the practices, not just read the words. The perceptions that arise from the concepts are important, but mindfulness of that actual flow of a particular category of experience is where the juice is.

The joy that comes from reading the instructions and hearing such a clear interpretation of them is great. The intellectual mind wants to devour it. I want to read to the next section, listen to the next talk. There is a grasping. There is a desire for getting or gaining the knowledge. The practice of any one piece of this technique, however, requires a great deal of time. You have to literally “sit with” each piece in order to bring it to life–to allow mindfulness of that element to deepen. So at once, I have the desire to sit with each piece and go slowly, as well as to forge ahead and hear what comes next!

At times this has led me to re-listen to a talk or re-read a chapter. I also like to re-read the original text from time to time, which is only a few pages long. But what I’m realizing is that the process is going to find it’s own pace. I won’t gleam 100% of the insights along the way on any one reading– or by sitting with a single section until it’s insight has been unlocked. It will have to be the case that each reading will bring a little bit of understanding, each sitting will deepen the mindfulness of it; the different techniques will support each other and at the end of one text– lies the complete body of another, which in turn leads back to the beginning of this one again. I guess that’s why realization is often compared to a deepening spiral that goes down and down in ever widening circles… I think Rumi had a poem about that. If I’m coming to that conclusion by studying the Buddha and Rumi said the same– I must be on the right track.


*I have to clarify, that by “text” I am referring to the Satipatthana as a written text, but also the commentaries by Analayo’s book and Joseph Goldstein’s series of talks).