Monthly Archives: May 2015

Concentration & The Problem with problems

The word ‘concentration’ is so misleading because of the way we think we need to configure our brains to do it. We think of it as a tightening and narrowing of or focus. But Wise Concentration is actually a much softer and friendlier way of paying attention to what is arising in this moment.

I recently attended a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on the Anapanasati Sutta led by Tempel Smith who is able to express the heart of the teachings in a way we can easily understand it. The Anapanasati Sutta is the Buddha’s sixteen-part exploration of using a focus on the breath to deepen one’s practice and perception. Tempel recommended the book Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, which I have been reading and highly recommend if you are interested in deepening your meditation practice.

Because in our weekly women’s meditation class we have been revisiting the Noble Eightfold Path, I held off on discussing Wise Concentration until I had had the chance to attend that retreat, read that book and experiment with the teachings on the Anapanasati Sutta.

Ana is a pali word that means life energy that comes in; apana means waste as it is expelled; sati means mindfulness, the ability to notice in an open way. So this teaching (sutta) is all about being mindful of the whole process of the breath. If you have never meditated on the breath then the idea that there could be sixteen levels of exploration sounds improbable, but if you have spent any time noting the breath you have most likely found it to be a whole lot more interesting than you would have imagined. With this sutta we have a guide to being with the breath in a way that really deepens the practice.

The sixteen contemplations of the Sutta are divided into four groupings, called Tetrads. This week we practiced the first Tetrad within our regular meditation, first becoming aware of the breath, the quality of the breath in this moment. Without judgment we notice the breath is long, short, deep, shallow, rough, smooth, etc. Then the awareness broadens to sense the whole body in relationship to the breath. Having deepened and broadened awareness, we calm the body. The breath comes in bringing fresh air, creating spaciousness; the breath leaves taking with it all the excess energy and tightness.

Off to a good start! In the coming weeks we will practice adding in each of the other three Tetrads in our meditation.

‘There is Nothing Wrong Here’

After answering any questions about this Sutta, we had time for another discussion. I always read a little excerpt from our Pocket Pema Chodron book before beginning my dharma talk or discussion, and the one I read last week, #88 titled ‘An Open Ended Approach’ really resonated, so we discussed what it brought up for us. It is about the importance of working with rather than struggling against whatever we are finding unacceptable in ourselves and in the world. Pema talks about how when we think in terms of problems and solutions we are making an enemy and that is not the relationship that will bring an end to suffering. 

I was reminded of how in the Church of Science of Mind, where a friend of mine is a minister, there is a phrase they use when coming upon what might be considered a problem: ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ That’s a very fun phrase to play with every time something unsettling happens, but all of us can think of situations where saying such a thing would make no sense at all. For example, if someone is abusing a child, imagine saying ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ Really? It looks VERY wrong to me, and it makes me angry and I want to haul that abuser off and… 

But if we go deeper into it, we can see that making this person the enemy or even this action the enemy is not going to change anything. Bringing a more open compassionate space and a clarity of mind that is not judging but seeing all of what is going on — all the causes and conditions, all the pain within the abuser as well as the one being abused — creates a safe space for the person doing the abusing to let down their rigid defensive posture and feel he or she can look at the whole of what is going on. In class someone brought up dealing with someone who is addicted. Again, how much more helpful it is provide a loving non-judgmental but very aware space for that person to be able to let down his or her defenses and gain some clarity. Since real change comes from deep within, providing a safe space for that inner exploration is infinitely more useful than acting out in anger, making demands, making an enemy, seeking a solution to a problem.

Pema ends with: “The approach we are suggesting is more groundless…” And that reminded me of what Tempel Smith said at the daylong retreat about how with our meditation and mindfulness practice we are developing the ability to function well in the state of groundlessness we find ourselves in. For those of us who are always searching for solid ground, this is an alarming statement. But true! In this experience of life there is nothing solid, unchanging that we can stand on and make everything stop and be predictable. Instead we have better success and lots more joy if we learn how to live in this groundless state. Think of Alice as she falls down the rabbit hole finding interest in all she encounters even as she doesn’t know where this journey will take her. Isn’t that how life is? We pretend we know what will happen based on our plans and informed calculations, but then the unexpected happens and we are thrown for a loop. Why? Because we believed we were standing on solid ground, but in fact the reality of our experience is much more groundless than that. So maybe we are learning how to float in space or even fly?

Vive la différence!

Cross-section of male and female brain differences


Recently I heard from the editor at the Buddhist publisher where my book is under consideration. She was very enthusiastic, but wanted to see more focus on women’s experience and how the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness address women’s particular issues. Because, after all, the book is titled A Woman’s Guide to Awakening.

I absolutely agree with her. So to help me dive in a little deeper, I did some research and found an article in Psychology Today that says there are over 100 ways men and women are different. The author, Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D., focused on four main areas of brain function: processing, chemistry, structure, and blood flow/activity.


These difference are crucial for any meditation teacher to know because they affect how the two genders practice meditation. Jantz says that male brains use nearly seven times more gray matter while female brains use nearly ten times more white matter. The gray matter activity enables the average male to focus on something very intently. The white matter activity enables the average female to network. Hmm, that makes a lot of sense!


Other differences that may affect meditation practice: Because of differences in chemical composition, men are generally less able to sit still for long periods. Because of more neural density in a larger hippocampus, women are more sensate, more able to feel and describe the feelings through all their senses.


So the average male may be able to take the instruction ‘follow the breath’ and really focus on that breath, but may get restless and need to move. The average female may have a harder time with the single-focus, but is more able to be aware of all sensory activity going on in the present moment, and to describe that activity.


These differences are important! It helps us to understand why we women may struggle with a single-focus practice and allows us to accept that the multi-sense-focus is perfectly fine. Knowing that there are these and many other differences lets us understand that much as we might want them to, men will never be like us, and that is okay! Viva la difference.


While we are fortunate to have many women meditation teachers and authors, when it comes to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so far it has been explored by male teachers who provide information for the general Buddhist scholar, but by nature continue as the Buddha did to look at it from a male perspective. Totally fine, but why not have  something a little more personalized to our own experience as women? It is not my intention in the book to make a big deal about the differences, only to make a book that women can relate to and learn from in a way that is useful.

If you have any thoughts that might be useful to share on this subject, please comment below. Thank you! — Stephanie