Concentration, tranquility and the malleability of the mind

One of the main take-aways from the Concentration Retreat was the active encouragement of a particular state of mind. Rather than just being exactly with what is and observing it, in concentration meditation one actually invites or encourages a state of calm, relaxation and contentment.

Following the breath very precisely, one is encouraged to drop any distractions. The phrase used a lot was to incline the mind to calm. Suggestions to relax the body, quiet the thoughts and calm the mind can be very effective when a certain state of concentration has already been achieved. During Samadhi meditation, it is said that the mind becomes very “malleable” or “flexible” and open to suggestion. Much to my amazement, I found this to be very much the case. Dropping in words or phrases like “not now” to let go of a thought, or “calm” to settle the mind further really did have the intended effect. “Relax, Quiet, Calm” became a very effective shortcut to a more tranquil state. The “quiet” and the “calm”, it should be pointed out, are different. Quiet refers to dropping verbal activity while Calm can sooth restless or unsettled mental energies. This language isn’t very precise, but in practice, there is a calming that can be sensed beyond simply quieting the mental talk.

Once the mind had settled to a greater degree and there was truly some aspects of the mind that were quiet and still, we were encouraged to focus on the calm part of the mind itself– to pour our attention on that still part of the mind. There may have been some gentle talk or the noticing of body sensation.. but once the mind is directed towards the quiet aspect of it’s own experience – that aspect could be allowed to grow and fill more of the space of awareness and the result was a more calm state.

In order to encourage the mind to stay with something subtle and not revert back to fabricating new content or seeking stimulus, another major concept used was contentment. Dropping in the word “content” seemed enough to get the mind to rest with something simple, like the texture of the breath. Resting there allowed for the mind to become more focused on the subtle aspects of the breathing. Any movement by the mind that is a distraction from simple awareness of breath is released by “not now” or labeling the movement a “fabrication of mind”. This label is a little long and cumbersome, but it’s so accurate it wakes the mind up immediately to the nature of the movement and encourages a non-clinging and dropping of the fabrication immediately.

At one point, the texture of the breath was so fine that the movements of the breath were taken as movements of the mind.. the subtle texture filled awareness.. the minute sensations appearing and ceasing were magnified to the point were they were taken as movements of the mind and an attempt was made to drop them, too. Realizing that the movements of mind and the sensations of the breath were in that instant one-and-the-same lead to a short experience of unity with the breath — a merging of subject and object.

During other sitting periods, a focus on “calm” lead to experiences of vivid awareness emerging into some kind of interior space. It was as if my awareness folded in on itself and discovered a new space of empty calm within and could inhabit that interior space. Of course attention remained on the breath, but keeping it there was effortless, as the breath and attention were all that existed within that space. Had I stumbled onto a Jhana? Access consciousness? I can’t say for sure. Perhaps it was just a “meditative phenomena”. More experience with this will be required to understand it. I didn’t get much feedback on this particular experience in teacher interviews.

Bhante Vimalaramsi: The Relax Step

This week at Mission Dharma, we had a guest teacher: The Venerable Bhante Vimalaramsi. I got to introduce him.*

I got several things out of the talk by Bhante: a new and useful definition of Mindfulness; the importance of the tranquility, or calming steps found in the Anapanasati Sutta (what he calls the relax step); and the importance of dependent origination: both the impersonality of that process and the ability to interrupt the chain of causation by letting go of thoughts and intentionally relaxing before returning to the object of meditation.

Intellectually and functionally, these concepts fit so nicely together and are so easy to put into practice that this could form a fundamental shift in practice for many (myself included). Here are some quotes taken from the talk.

A definition of Mindfulness that “works in every situation..”

“[Mindfulness is] observing how mind’s attention moves from one thing to another. That’s what it is.” “When you start watching closely you’ll start to observe how the links of dependent origination actually do work.

Letting go of thoughts:

The first thing we need to do when we notice a distraction, is to not feed on that distraction. By feed, I mean you don’t give it nutriment. How do you give thoughts nutriment? By indulging in them. … So the first thing we have to do is let go of the thoughts. How do you let go of thoughts? By not keeping your attention on them. Right? Just let it be there. It’s not your thought anyway. You didn’t tell that thought to come up.. it came up by itself, so why do you think that it’s your thought? It’s just a thought. Allow it to be. Relax the tension caused by mind’s attention moving to those thoughts. How do you do that? You notice the tightness in your head around your meninges**… and you relax. As soon as you relax, your mind is going to be very clear, very bright, and there’s not going to be any thoughts in your mind at all. Why? Because you’ve let go of the craving.

More about the “relax step”

“If you just add this one step – of relaxing – it will change your entire meditation and your progress in meditation will be amazing.” “Even if you want to do straight vipassana, if you add that relax step along with that, that will change your meditation and you will see amazing progress.” “When you start recognizing that tension and tightness in your head, in your mind, and you relax, you are purifying your mind. Why? Because you have let go of craving at that time.”

A working definition and use of the Chain of Dependent Origination

“I’ve been talking to you about dependent origination and how it works.. There is Contact. The Eye hits Color & Form– Eye Consciousness arises. The meeting of these three things is called Eye Contact. With Eye Contact as condition, there is Eye Feeling: pleasant, painful, neither painful nor pleasant. With Eye Feeling as condition, there is Eye Craving; Eye Craving is: I like it or I don’t like it.  When your awareness becomes sharp enough, you can see that start to get tight and you can relax right then, and then the rest of the links of Dependent Origination do not arise. So there is no sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. When you start getting that balance of recognizing that tightness in your head and relaxing.”

The way to practice Samatha Vipassana, or Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation:

“Recognize when your mind has been distracted. You release the distraction by not keeping your attention on it. You relax the tightness caused by that. You smile. You come back to your object of meditation; stay with your object of meditation. Repeat.”

I could say much more about how I see these concepts fitting together, but I’ll leave it here for now; keep practicing and revisit this teaching more in the future. Happy sitting!!

* My intention was to link to the recording of the talk, but Howie has not released it for inclusion on the Mission Dharma site, so I can’t link to it at this time. However, I transcribed some of the main points related to sitting practice in this post.

** When Bhante talked about the meninges, he held up a little model of the brain and talked about a band around the brain that contracted when thoughts, sensations, likes and dislikes or any other distracting stimulus was introduced. This band is tight, holds tension and is where he seemed to suggest one would relax the “tightness in your head, in your mind”.  He literally called this tightness “craving” — the very craving that causes suffering.