Shaila Catherine’s ‘Focused and Fearless’ (1)

Some of you have been reading Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity.   Tonight I’ll discuss some of the ideas in the introduction and first chapter, but first let’s practice together, following Shaila’s initial instructions for a meditation to enhance concentration:  (For any newcomers, this is slightly different from the Insight meditation that we usually practice.)

Sit comfortably with eyes closed. 

Feel how your body is sitting, and sense its contact with the chair. 

Bring attention to the breath.  First feel the whole breath, how the chest and abdomen expand and contract. 

Then, settle the attention on the sensation of the breath at the very tip of the nostrils; observe that initial point of contact with the breath. 

Note the sensations of breathing without altering or manipulating the breath.  Let the breath come naturally, and observe it throughout the duration of inhale, exhale, and pause; inhale, exhale, and pause.

 If the attention drifts off into thoughts, bring it gently back to the breath. 

The mind will probably stray many times.  

When you wake up to the bare fact that thinking is occurring, redirect your attention to breathing.

Without judging your capacity to meditate, simply return to the perception of breathing.

Attention is not developed by forcefully riveting the attention to the breath.

Attention becomes unwavering with a consistent and gentle willingness to begin again.

As you meditate, you are cultivating your capacity to let go of distractions and strengthening your ability to direct attention in a way that enhances a peaceful and calm awareness. 

Shaila has spent about seven years of her life in meditation retreats, where she cultivated sublime states of mental absorption called jhana.  In the Pali language of ancient India, jhana means “to think” or “to meditate.”   During the recent week long new year’s retreat at the Margaret Austin Center, I benefited from Shaila’s precise instructions about how to develop states of deep concentration, satisfaction and ease.

She refers to jhanas as states of rest, healing rejuvenation and comfort that “create a stable platform for transformative insight.”  Her book serves as a manual to guide us through a traditional sequence of eight levels of meditative absorption, focusing in detail on the first four.  Shaila assures us that, although jhana practice is not intended for dilettantes, diligent beginners can benefit from the mental stability of concentrated states, and experienced meditators can use them to intensify insight.

Long before Prince Siddhartha Gotama began the quest that led to his enlightenment as the Buddha, meditation masters and lay disciples had been practicing techniques of intense concentration that lead to jhana states.  You have probably read about how Siddhartha left behind the sensory delights of his father’s palace and joined a group of ascetics.  For six years, he practiced rigorous yogic disciplines and deprived himself of food and sleep until he became so sick and emaciated that he nearly died.  Collapsing on a riverbank, Siddhartha realized that harsh austerities were not leading to the spiritual liberation that he longed to attain.

At that moment, he recalled a childhood memory of resting under a rose apple tree at the edge of a field, during the annual celebration of spring plowing.  As he sat in the cool shade, the young child watched men laboring and oxen straining to pull the plough.  He saw insects dying in the cut grass and freshly overturned soil.  Siddhartha’s heart opened with compassion for the suffering that all beings experience.  At the same time, he delighted in the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms and the sight of birds flying gracefully across a brilliant blue sky.  Surrendering to a state of deeply concentrated peacefulness, the boy recognized that the sacred mystery of life contains enormous joy and sorrow.

The memory of this experience gave Siddhartha insight into a radically different path to liberation.  If an untrained child could taste freedom so spontaneously and effortlessly, such a state must be a natural part of being human.  Siddhartha knew that it was possible to awaken by ceasing all struggles and by opening tenderly to all of life just as it is.

Those of us who practice meditation are aware of how challenging it is to let go of struggling, striving and clinging.  No matter how much we yearn for the inner peace of concentration, we are still tempted by the distractions that preclude it.

Last week I returned from music therapy meetings in Mexico with an intermittent pain on the right side of my back that made it hard to breathe.  By Tuesday morning the discomfort was so intense that I was gasping for air.  Mark was empathic, and we both had catastrophic fantasies that that I might have a tumor.  I skipped my regular yoga class and doubted my capacity to lead a bereavement group for Spanish speakers at Houston Hospice that day.  After I phoned our chiropractor to ask for an urgent appointment, I was greatly relieved to hear that the pain was probably due to a displaced rib from hoisting luggage during my trip.  As soon as I stopped worrying that my condition was terminal, I could breathe more easily.  Since the doctor couldn’t attend to me until late that afternoon, I decided to honor my commitment as a Hospice volunteer.

The bereavement group jolted me into the present moment: After six of us gather in a circle, a Mexican woman reminisces about her daughter’s rare genetic disease, which killed her at the age of 17, after eight years of epilepsy, recurring strokes, and eventual paralysis.  When the grieving mother passes around photos of her child’s quinceanera fiesta, each of us express compassion for the short life of the wheelchair-bound girl, smiling in her pink satin dress.  A newcomer to the group comments, “I’m only a few years older than your daughter was.”  She goes on to tell about her father abandoning the family when she was 7 years old, and she sobs about her mother, who died recently of cirrhosis at the age of 40: “She was my closest friend.”  A maternal Salvadoran woman, who lost her husband of 42 years in August, transcends her own mourning to comfort the orphaned girl.  An elderly man speaks up, “You were blessed to have a loving relationship with your mom.  Mi madre never loved me.  Yesterday I phoned her in Mexico to wish her a happy 90th birthday.  When I proposed a visit, she made it clear that she didn’t want to see me.”  He receives such supportive comments from the women around him that I tease him, “You’ve found a roomful of mothers!”

For two and a half hours, my attention was so concentrated on listening and responding to people in the bereavement group that I felt no uncomfortable physical sensations.  On my drive to the doctor’s office afterwards, the sharp pain in my back returned, and I was very grateful for chiropractic adjustments that shifted my displaced rib back into its usual position.  You have probably had similar experiences of noticing the ebb and flow of bodily aches and pains depending on how and where your attention is focused.

Shaila’s book aims to help us cultivate states of samadhi, when the mind is profoundly undistracted and unified, regardless of pleasant or unpleasant circumstances.  According to Buddhist tradition, there are three levels of samadhi: the samadhi of momentary concentration, the samadhi that grants access to the jhanas, and the samadhi of absorption into the jhanas.  Each of these levels is characterized by a deeply undistracted state of consciousness in which clear, sustained attention calms the mind and restricts energy that might feed unwholesome or distracting mental states.

On Monday evenings, we usually practice Vipassana or Insight meditation, which cultivates the first level of samadhi—that of momentary concentration—through a continuity of mindfulness of changing perceptions.  We focus on the sensation of the breath as an anchor for the attention, and we note as carefully as possible sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and pass away.  With the momentum of mindfulness, concentration becomes stronger.  As we note varying intensities of vibration, pulsation, pressure, heat, and cold, we realize the impermanent nature of all phenomena.  We witness the relationship between mind and body, observing aromas triggering vivid memories, intentions affecting physical movements, and emotions manifesting in the body.

During Insight meditation practice, I’ve noticed how my body tends to lean forward when I think about something I desire or when I plan for the future.  Likewise, I tilt backwards and hold my breath when a thought arises about an aversive stimuli or memory.  For example, I almost fall off the chair if I don’t nip in the bud pleasant fantasies about receiving a relaxing massage.  With alert attention, I catch my body starting to incline forward, and I immediately note, “Thinking, thinking,” without being seduced by the content of the thought.  My body language helps me monitor mental distractions, so that I can focus on whatever is arising in the present moment—perhaps a breath, a sensation, or a sound.

Achan Chah, a master in the Thai Forest Tradition, likened momentary concentration to taking a walk, resting, walking and resting again.  Our journey is interrupted periodically and briefly with the arising of a thought, yet undisturbed, because the journey continues.  Insight meditation practice follows as precisely as possible a dynamic flow of changing sensations.

In contrast, the samadhi that gives access to jhana uses the occurrence of the breath as a fixed meditation object.  With steady attention, the breath is no longer experienced physically but gradually transforms into a bright light in awareness or a “subtle field of vibrations” in the mind, which withdraws from its orientation to the sensory world.  In the place of sensory distractions, mental factors of pleasure, focus, mindfulness, happiness and equanimity arise.

Ajahn Chah compared access to jhana to wandering about inside your own home.  Consciousness is at ease within the confines of a comfortable arena of perceptions.  Attention stays with the meditation object.  Light, wispy thoughts may arise, often as reflections on the meditation process, but this mental activity does not disturb the mind’s tranquility.

The samadhi of absorption into the jhanas is even more still, and it’s devoid of discursive thinking.  The specific object of focus becomes increasingly refined from physical sensations of breathing to a perception of inner light.   Rapture, and equanimity often accompany a bright radiant mind, while attention is continuously directed towards the place where the breath is known.  In jhana states, attention merges with its object, creating an impression of complete unification.  Sensory contact—even strong pain or loud noise—does not affect the mind’s stable brightness.  Jhana can be sustained for very long periods of time.    

Concentration practices require appreciating both the power of seclusion and the forms of happiness that transcend sensory gratification.  In the coming weeks we’ll use Shaila Catherine’s book to help us examine these kinds of happiness.