Concentration as a Spiritual Faculty

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed faith (saddha in Pali) and energy (viriya) as two of the five spiritual faculties that support practitioners in freeing the mind from attachment and suffering.  Tonight we’ll examine a third faculty: concentration (samadhi).  As a way of laying a foundation for reading Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless, which examines concentration, I’ll map out this theme in some detail.  If you can bear with some Pali terminology, you may share my excitement about the Buddha’s explorations of vast territories of consciousness that elude most people.

The spiritual faculties of faith, effort and mindfulness help the mind to become concentrated.  Concentration refers to a mind that is focused, steady and unified, so that attention is stable and coherent, without distractions.  During intensive meditation practice, concentration can become very refined, with penetrative power amplified like a corrective lens.

The February 3, 2014 issue of Time magazine features on its cover an photo of a woman meditating above the title of Kate Pickert’s lead article, “The Mindful Revolution: The Science of Finding Focus in a Stressed–out, Multitasking Culture.”  The article mentions research findings that the current habit of multitasking leads to lower overall productivity.  Students and workers who constantly and rapidly switch tasks are less able to filter out irrelevant information and more likely to make mistakes than peers who aren’t multitasking.

Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, was so exhausted after campaigning for the 2008 election that he relinquished his two Blackberry phones and attended one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness retreats.  In his subsequent book A Mindful Nation, Ryan reports, “My mind got so quiet, and I had the experience of my mind and my body actually being in the same place at the same time, synchronized.”  Impressed by how meditation improved his concentration, he secured a $1 million federal grant to fund mindfulness classes in his home district’s schools.  Now Ryan hosts meditation sessions on Capitol Hill for House members and their staffs.   May they bear fruit!

Dedicated meditators have identified five intensifying factors that develop concentration through continuous mindfulness and that lead to mental states of absorption known as jhanas:

Vitakka refers to the initial application of the mind (or thought) to an object (like the breath, a mantra, a candle flame, or a colored disk called a kasina).

Vicara (pronounced “vishara”) refers to sustained attention on the object.

To differentiate vitakka from vicara, the Buddha used the following images:

Aiming a rag at a copper pot, and then rubbing it steadily to clean it.

Hearing a bell ring, and then listening to its resonating sound.

Touching a mound of clay with the hands, and then applying sustained pressure to form a bowl

A bee diving towards a flower is like vitakka, and its prolonged hovering is like vicara.

Vitakka and vicara are followed by three more factors:

Piti means joy or delight, and refers to rapt interest or refreshing, engaged attention.  With piti, waves of joy and rapture can make the hair stand on end.  A meditator may feel a tingling sensation throughout the whole body or experience the body becoming very light, as if it were floating in space. The body and mind become still and peaceful.

Sukha means contentment or quiet happiness.  When piti becomes very powerful and reaches its full development, it transforms into sukha.  In this state, the body feels deeply relaxed and heavy, and there is a sense of inner satisfaction and bliss.

Ekaggata refers to one-pointedness, when there is a single focus and the mind is unified with the meditation object. When sukha becomes intense enough, the mind doesn’t move any more and stays calm.  In this one-pointed state, it rests peacefully in itself, uninterested in thoughts or in sensory input from the outer world.

On the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right Concentration or Samadhi is the eighth and culminating step.  It is informed by understanding the causes of suffering, according to Right View.  In deeply concentrated states, the practitioner is secluded from sense pleasures, attachments, and hindrances.

Wise concentration is more than a focused mental state, which could be directed towards vengeance, lust, or desire for worldly pursuits, such as personal power or wealth.  In his teachings about Right Concentration, the Buddha stated that “one who is concentrated sees things as they are” with wisdom and clarity.  The aim of wise concentration is to free the mind from suffering.

Shaila Catherine’s book describes four stages of deep mental collectedness called Rupa Jhanas (fine-material states of absorption), which are in the category of Right Concentration.  (All four states entail unification of mind, contact, perception, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity and attention.)

The first jhana involves the factors of applied and sustained attention, joy, contentment, and one-pointedness (vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, and ekaggata), and it is characterized by directed thought.  The five hindrances disappear, and intense unified bliss remains.  There is subtle mental movement, but the ability to form unwholesome intentions ceases.

The second jhana involves the factors of joy, contentment and one-pointedness (piti, sukha, and ekaggata), and it is characterized by internal assurance.  All mental movement ceases, and there is only bliss.  The ability to form even wholesome intentions ceases.

The third jhana involves the factors of contentment and one-pointedness (sukha and ekaggata), and it is characterized by equanimous pleasure.

The fourth jhana involves the factors of equanimity and one-pointedness (upekkha and ekaggata), and it is characterized by neither pleasure nor pain, and serene awareness that is free of worries.  The Buddha described this state as a subtle form of happiness more sublime than piti and sukha.  At this point, the breath may cease temporarily, and the practitioner may have access to psychic powers.

Beyond these states of absorption, very experienced meditators have experienced four Arupa Jhanas, known as the formless or immaterial dimensions.  Briefly, they consist of the dimensions of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception.  Supposedly the Buddha had the capacity to enter an even more exalted state called Norodha Samapatti, where all feelings and perceptions cease.

Samadhi states are powerful and lead to active clarity and wisdom.  When we practice Insight or Vipassana meditation, we are developing momentary concentration (kanika-samadhi), as we focus on the breath and note whatever takes the attention away from the breath.  (Kanika means “little.”)  Over time, with dedicated practice, we may enter longer-lasting, peaceful states called upacara-samadhi—concentration that is almost still and on the threshold of entering the first jhana.

Avid meditators, who pride themselves on non-attachment to mundane things, can become attached to the pleasurable experiences of jhana states.  Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry deals with the challenges of returning to the activities of daily life after blissful retreats.

Those of us who find even momentary concentration a challenge can enjoy practical benefits from creating conditions that orient the mind towards settling and focusing.

Shaila recommends noticing how the mind is pulled into distraction.  Thoughts about “me” or “I” are never concentrated and always distract the mind.  It’s helpful to ask, “What do I desire that’s pleasurable?  What pain am I trying to avoid?  How do I invest energy in stories about my self?  How do my self-stories gratify me?  Can I remember that this kind of gratification is impermanent and distracts me from more lasting satisfaction?”

Our goal is to develop contentment with the natural unfolding of life just as it is, and to recognize that peace and quiet is enough.   Once we settle and become still, we can release and let go into concentration, simply focusing and resting on the object of our breath.  More and more I honor the breath as a path to freeing the mind.

Last Thursday evening, Marilyn, Amira, Dan, Joshua and I attended a Twilight Meditation session in the Tibetan Bon tradition led by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche at the Rothko Chapel.  Under his guidance, I entered a state of peaceful concentration.  I’ll guide you through a shortened and adapted form of his meditation:

Close your eyes and bring attention to the chakra of insight at the center of your forehead.  Imagine that you can clear away any blockages to seeing clearly, as if clouds were dispersing to reveal a spacious, open sky.  Together we’ll tone the sound “AH” five times.  With each intonation, sense your inner vision becoming clearer…. Now bring attention to the throat chakra, and, with five intonations of the syllable “OM,” visualize the sun of awareness shining brighter and more radiantly in the clear sky….Finally center attention in the heart chakra, and as we tone “HOM” five times, sense the contentment of being at home inside….End by listening to the deep inner stillness and silence that are always within you.