Category Archives: concentration

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too. 

A fun way to learn to focus

When we sit in meditation, the untrained mind naturally runs amok. No fault there. We live in a culture of constant distraction and short attention span. The mind, even in silence, gets caught up in thinking or gets lost in a fog. Cultivating inner calm, ease and balance, we become better able to focus on one object, like the breath rising and falling. We create a spaciousness that lets us befriend what arises without engaging with it.following-thoughts-bench

Imagine sitting on a park bench on a pleasant spring day. All manner of people pass by and you not

ice them, maybe smile at them, but you don’t rush up to them and have a conversation, do you? That’s a skillful way to be with all the sensations, thoughts and emotions that pass through your inner ‘park’, that compassionate field of awareness in your meditation practice. How nice!
But, because, being human, we have lots of opinions and preferences, we may find certain people passing by our park bench grab our attention in various ways:

  • Perhaps there’s an attractive person we’d like to get to know. Or we see an ice cream vendor and suddenly we’re salivating, even though we weren’t the least bit hungry. Maybe we find this moment so extraordinarily pleasant that we never want it to change, We think, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’
  • Perhaps someone walks by smoking and now the air is full of a foul smell. Or someone looks evil and we imagine horrible things they may have done. Or someone’s wearing an outfit that just doesn’t work – ‘What were they thinking?’ Or we wish the park bench was better positioned so we could see both the pond and the rose garden. If only that tree was a little to the left, then it would be SO much better.
  • Perhaps, even with all that’s going on around us, we get lost in a fog, and only after an unknown period of time do we notice again where we are and what’s going on. But then we’re lost in the fog again.
  • Perhaps a band of pranksters come along and lure us away from the bench entirely. We get swept up in their big to do, and it all seems so much more interesting than sitting on that boring old bench. They can magically travel into the past and the future! Why wouldn’t we hang out with them? But finding ourselves swept away, there’s also a sense of feeling lost and worried. Where is that park bench? Where is the park? Where the heck are we?
  • Perhaps we’re concerned because we’re not sure if we’re allowed to sit on this bench. Is this a private park? Do we need an invitation? Are people looking at us as if we don’t belong? And if we are allowed, is this really a good thing to do?

What I have just described in that park scenario are the Buddha’s Five Hindrances: craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt. What are they hindering? They hinder our capacity to focus, to concentrate and to awaken. Let’s look at them one by one. These emojis I created for an exercise we did in class to help recognize and remember these Hindrances. craving-green

Craving

Whether we crave sweets, sex, adventure, love, power or something else, that grip of craving throws us off-balance. We’re leaning into longing, missing what’s here and now.
Craving can be a specific physical addiction, but it is more universal than that. It’s like a dangling fishing lure that we keep leaping after, only to discover the pain of the hook. Even when we enjoy getting what we had craved, there’s an edge to that enjoyment because now we fear losing it. Clinging and craving go hand in hand. Even if we feel we have come to terms with the nature of impermanence, we hope against all reason that the rules don’t apply to us.

aversion-red

Aversion
Hatred is the most virulent form of aversion, and the one that causes mental blindness. This ‘blind rage’ sabotages any possibility of happiness. The mental knots of grudges and pet peeves we’ve been exploring recently, that entangle our thoughts and emotions in misery of our own making, are also aversion. As is the habit of fault-finding. How often have you been enjoying an experience but found some way in which it would be even better?torpor-face

Torpor

This is a kind of mental malaise, a state of fogginess, a ‘huh?’ quality, as if we’re just floating along mindlessly, not really living. There could be a physical component to this, when there’s a sluggishness in the body that is not just needing to rest after being active but an ongoing state of lethargy.restlessness

Restlessness

The restless mind has difficulty settling down and focusing on this moment. It is always leaping to the next thing on the calendar or to do list, or solving a problem or planning an event or a creative project. Worry and anxiety can arise here as well. The restless mind is everywhere but here and now.doubt

Doubt

This is not the healthy questioning that is an intrinsic part of our insight meditation practice where we ask ‘Is this true?’ This is a sneaky self-sabotaging doubt: Doubting that we can meditate or do whatever task we set ourselves. It’s also the doubt that our wise effort will be rewarded. Doubt may arise about the value of the practice and teachings, even though we have experienced their benefits. It’s the belief that somehow we are uniquely unqualified to awaken.

In class we did a practice of sitting as we would in regular meditation, but instead of just sitting on our metaphorical park bench and feeling friendly toward all that passes by, we made a point of identifying them as one or another of these Hindrances. I gave each student a sheet of Five Hindrance emojis in a pie chart, and every time a thought or emotion arose they were to make a mark in the section of the Hindrance where it best fit.
Contact me if you would like to get a downloadable PDF of this exercise sheet.
Please note that we are not categorizing or labeling ourselves. We are looking at thoughts passing through and categorizing them. If we find that most of our marks are in one area, say ‘aversion’, it would be counterproductive to label ourselves an ‘aversive personality’. In the Buddhist tradition, we are letting go of as many labels as we can, not adding more. So, watch for the all-too pervasive mental habit of labeling yourself, and resist!
Coming into Skillful Relationship with the Hindrances
Noticing these five hindrances as they arise in our experience is the first step, but how do we disengage from them? First and foremost, we don’t make enemies of them. That’s just aversion, one of the hindrances! Instead, we recognize their intention to improve things for us. They are patterns developed to ‘save us from ourselves’ in some way. But because they are based in fear and are myopic and misguided, we lovingly and respectfully cultivate enough space for them to exist without feeling we need to adhere to their plans for us, many of which are cockamamie schemes. We remind ourselves that they are not the bosses of us! As we practice, our own quiet inner wisdom can be heard and appreciated. We develop the ability to see the Hindrances for what they are and see that we have the choice not to succumb or engage in them.

We can develop some phrase to use in that moment of recognition that will bring us back to the moment in a skillful way. Your own inner wisdom will have the best phrase, but here are some ideas to get you started. Just be sure they are wise speech: kind, true, timely and not scolding.
Craving: This moment is enough.
Notice all that is arising in this moment to fully engage all the senses. Take sensory pleasure in the feel of your tongue in your mouth, the air on your skin, the light on your eyelids, etc. It was only ever not enough because you weren’t paying full attention.
Aversion: This too shall pass.
Remembering the nature of impermanence helps to ameliorate momentary annoyances. But a deeper practice of coming fully into the senses and thinking of whatever arises as part of this unique moment’s ‘symphony of now.’
For aversion that wants to makeover everything, the study of wabi sabi, where we are encouraged to find the beauty in all phases of life, not just some ‘perfect’ moment, like a flower at the peak of its bloom. How much richer life is when we expand our appreciation to include the beauty of wrinkles! Once you understand the concept, you can answer aversive thoughts with a whisper of ‘wabi sabi’.
Restlessness: This moment matters.
Gently and repeatedly bring the mind back to the here and now from wherever it wanders. In class I found myself almost in tears in defense of this moment, so often ignored. Poor little thing. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Especially when you consider that it’s the only moment that exists! All other moments are memory or imagining.

If worry is involved, you might bring out your inner Doris Day and remember ‘Que sera, sera – what will be will be.’
If anxiety is present, one student mentioned the skillfulness of switching out the word ‘anxiety’ for ‘energy’ and then asking, ‘How is this energy benefiting me?’ and other skillful inquiries. And again, letting go of the habit of labeling yourself ‘an anxious person.’
Doubt
I can do this.
I am worthy.
I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
You are not uniquely deficient in whatever qualities are needed to meditate or undertake other activities. And you deserve this! If you think you don’t you might use the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river.’ as a chant. It can release any sense of feeling unacceptable. Also, make a habit of sending yourself infinite loving kindness — May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — or other supportive loving phrases.
If you are doubting the value of the practice or the teachings, find examples in your own life, or if you’re very new to the practice, in the lives of people you know, where meditation and the dharma have been of value. If you feel you haven’t achieved enough, let go of any sense of a time frame or progress chart. That’s just more self-sabotage.
Torpor
Here and now. Wake up! This moment is worthy of my attention.
To keep your attention present, you might give yourself extra sensory stimuli: Wiggle your toes, rub your fingers together, or some other small but effective way to maintain present attention. Encourage the mind to be curious about all that is arising in this moment in the field of sensation. Question your desire to escape.
With this look at the Five Hindrances, we have launched our exploration of Concentration, the next Factor of Awakening. I hope you have found this an interesting way to look at your busy thoughts. I appreciate your comments.

Develop concentration in your meditation practice

breathConcentration is the heart of the practice. It is how we cultivate Mindfulness. We center in and focus on the senses that are activated in the present moment. Instead of talking about it, I will offer a couple of concentration exercises for you to use.

The first is a focus on the breath. For meditators who struggle with finding the breath and staying with it, this will really help.

GUIDED MEDITATION ON THE BREATH

All sensations can be the focus of concentration practice. Sound is a particularly pleasurable sensation to attend. Here is a recording I made of a series of sounds.

MEDITATION ON SOUND

After spending time editing the recording of bells and various water sounds in nature, I was washing up the breakfast dishes and, because I was in that listening space, the sounds were absolutely amazing and wonderful. (It reminded me of being on retreat and, by the fourth day, the racket of clatter in the dining hall sounded like a beautiful symphony to me. What a gift to myself to find the joy and the beauty in simple sounds.) 

I wondered if my students, after meditating on sounds for a good part of the class, would also find the washing up so intoxicating. So we assembled in the kitchen and I did a short meditation at the sink. And indeed, with their eyes closed and their attention focused, they also enjoyed the ‘symphony’ of pouring water from pot to glass to sink and around again.

Next time you are washing up, you might try it for yourself. (Of course, don’t be wasteful of the water!)

As with all the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have written quite a bit. If you are interested, feel free to check them out.

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/04/22/eightfold-path-right-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/02/23/eightfold-path-spacious-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/22/wise-concentration-the-four-jhanas/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/05/24/concentration-the-problem-with-problems/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/02/breath-focus-continues/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/09/thoughts-emotions-in-meditation-continuing-the-anapanasati-sutta/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/12/the-wisdom-of-the-breath-the-last-tetrad-of-the-anapanasati-sutta/

What’s Up with all the Buddha’s Lists?

All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.


The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.