Reducing Mental Checklist / DM and NDM Convergence / “Right Concentration” Book Review / Practice Update / Insight Meditation Thoughts
Rather than a long post about one topic, here’s a shorter post about several topics.
Reducing items on your mental checklist during meditation
I was teaching a Skype session the other day and showed the student my meditation posture – the posture I sit in, sometimes for several hours continuously.
The Indian yogis of yore are pictured in a variety of cross-legged poses, such as the lotus. Those yogis however grew up sitting on the floor, whereas we in the West grow up sitting on chairs almost all the time. Sitting in chairs makes fairly irreversible changes to hip and leg flexion. If you are slender and flexible regardless, good luck to you, but I have never been able to sit cross-legged. I once spent three months doing daily stretching to get into one of the basic cross-legged poses and found it made absolutely no difference whatsoever.
So, I use a kneeling chair, similar to this:
I also use the dhyana mudra:
The combination of these two things makes an extremely stable and pleasant upright posture which has very little variability – in other words, it’s almost impossible to screw up. The mudra creates an upwards “energy pathway” which the body finds easy to organize itself around over time.
The student said, “But your shoulders are slumped forward. Aren’t you going to pin them back?”
“Are you talking about the seven-point posture of Vairochana?” I asked.
“Yeah, that sort of thing,” he said.
My reply was twofold. Firstly, the pose I had just shown him was only the pose at the start of the meditation. As the body became pacified, upward energy became coherent, and myofascial unwinding took place on the micro level as awareness penetrated more and more finely into the body, the posture would automatically straighten up and out. So, ten minutes from now it might look very different. This is a completely automatic process driven simply by staying still. You can’t “hack” good posture via mechanical methods, because the problems lie on the fine energetic level – so actively trying is a waste of time, and can become a massive distraction and energy drain.
My second answer was that this is a good example of reducing items on your mental checklist during meditation. Really, you want to be getting on the cushion (or kneeling chair) with just one thing in mind – the particular meditation method you are employing – and nothing else. Once you get into your head that posture needs to be done a certain way, or feel “right”, or whatever, you are just setting up an endless mental checklist of nonsense. You would not be surprised if, 30 minutes later, you were still worrying about your posture.
You really want to be arriving to meditate with only one thing in mind. For an absolute beginner, I would actually recommend that he just gets used to sitting very still for an hour. If you can sit very still for an hour continuously, you will learn more about meditation than from reading a thousand books. For him, his mental checklist has only one item on it: sit still. This is a very powerful meditation, despite seeming so simple. This is literally how I would advise someone on how to get started with meditation from scratch: sit very still for progressively longer sessions until you can sit still for an hour continuously. Then sit still an hour a day for two months. You are allowed to think and feel and pay attention to anything your mind is drawn towards. The only instruction is: sit still. You would probably be floored by how much this could change you for the better.
Convergence of directive and nondirective meditation
After spending something like nine months practising “Do Nothing” nondirective meditation (alternating sessions between upright and supine poses), I went back to directive meditation with the breath as the object, exclusively sitting upright, for sessions of an hour or longer. Well, some interesting things happened. Firstly, my concentration has improved manifold, meaning deeper states of absorption with fewer distracting thoughts or other obstacles. Concentration feels a lot “cleaner”, like a bunch of stuff has been emptied out of it. On the surface this would seem strange: practising nondirective meditation has led to a surge in directive meditation. Aren’t they supposed to be opposites? Well, no, is the answer, which brings me to my second point.
In the first session after switching back to directive meditation, I quickly became aware of two concurrent mental processes: the first was my mind tracking my breath and becoming more concentrated, which we would expect since this is a directive breath meditation. The second however was a load of internal dialogue and flash imagery, exactly the kind of crap you simply sit through and allow to happen while doing nondirective meditation. So, part of me was concentrating, while another part of me was having conversations with itself and reading all the emails in the proverbial inbox. Mental quiet could be perceived “around” that chatter, too, meaning that chatter was largely non-intrusive. Additionally, jhana factors such as piti and sukha were arising right on schedule, despite the mental chatter.
This concurrence led me to two thoughts. The first was that this is how concentration meditation is supposed to develop anyway. So, when I first started practising concentration meditation 10 years ago (without strictly knowing that was what I was doing), my tendency was to see mental chatter as the enemy of concentration, and to clamp down on it hard in order to suppress it. In the short term, mental chatter is the enemy of concentration. However, in the medium and long term, the effort required to constantly suppress mental chatter is far more costly than simply “letting it talk itself out”. One will relax faster and more deeply while not running around trying to intercept and suppress thoughts before they begin. A gradual tapering-off of thoughts while the mind simultaneously grows more concentrated seems the much more organic path, having now seen it both ways.
The second thought I had was that perhaps directive and nondirective meditations were never separate in the first place, and that they are more like two sides of the same coin. After all, in nondirective meditation (e.g. Do Nothing), the mind does eventually become concentrated by itself. It can spontaneously start tracking the breath, or various ambient sounds, or become concentrated on awareness itself, at which point a natural Awareness Watching Awareness arises. I like the analogy of “walking up different sides of the mountain, but reaching the same peak” when considering that all meditation styles may eventually converge to the same thing.
Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas by Leigh Brasington
I am halfway through reading Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas by Leigh Brasington. I considered waiting and writing a full review, but I’m not sure it needs one.
Right Concentration is a decent book and should be very useful for beginners, even those without any prior meditation experience. The method is highly accessible and is virtually identical to the way I found the jhanas through my own efforts around 10 years ago (before even knowing what jhanas were). An excerpt from the book containing the method for entering the first jhana can be found here: Entering the Jhanas.
The “TL;DR” version:
- Keep awareness on the breath until the breath becomes very subtle or appears to have stopped.
- Look for a pleasant feeling somewhere in the body.
- Forget about the breath and keep awareness on that pleasant feeling. First jhana will eventually arise.
I was pleased to find that I already had all eight jhanas according to the criteria established in Right Concentration. Those jhanas developed by themselves in the first couple of years after I started meditating. I was also relieved when I read in Right Concentration that the jhanas can arise “out of sequence”, since I have found it quite typical for that to happen, which had led me to believe I was doing something massively wrong.
The jhana method in the book is unlikely to lead to the super-deep Ajahn Brahm–style Visuddhimagga jhanas. To attain those, you typically need to spend several hours in access concentration before trying to shift into jhana. However, Right Concentration is certainly capable of producing very pleasant altered states in the lay practitioner.
For those interested in learning about the various interpretations, definitions and classifications of jhana, Leigh Brasington has dedicated an entire section of his website to this topic. Start off with the following article: Interpretations of the Jhanas.
Practice update, and thoughts about insight practice
I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t had much to say. I’d rather just practise. This stuff really is mostly about just putting the hours in. Sitting still for an hour or two a day is eventually going to clear the mind in ways the intellect cannot even touch. And these effects begin to become permanent and cumulative.
I’m happy almost all the time, now. My negative emotions arise at only five percent of their original strength, and even then have a comic feel to them. This has all come from just putting the hours in. I used to say that there’s a noticeable improvement going from 15 minutes per session to 30 minutes per session. Well, shifting from 30 to 60 minutes is even more noticeable. And I put in far longer than that at weekends.
I also stopped caring entirely whether or not jhana or some other altered state of consciousness arises. It’s like, so what? I know just from putting in the practice that my mind is going to go extremely quiet as soon as I sit on that kneeling chair. It’s good enough. And this kind of carefree attitude is actually a lot more conducive to pleasant states arising. It’s an attitude I recommend.
My regular meditation practice is sitting on the kneeling chair, eyes closed, doing a pattern of long-phase breathing very similar to the one I have while I’m falling asleep. (However, I most certainly do not fall asleep, and the posture advised earlier takes care of that.) This leads quickly to the hybrid directive/nondirective meditation I described earlier. This is essentially a pure concentration practice. It is filled with delicious feelings and leaves a drug-like high that lasts the rest of the day.
I currently do not practise insight meditation at all. The reason is that I simply do not have confidence that the methods I have read are what the Buddha intended. I think insight practice has been too corrupted as it has been passed down. Admittedly, most of my knowledge and experience of insight practice comes from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, particularly the “shooting space aliens” method. I think this method is insane and is the cause of the Dark Night experienced by its readers. I have also read odds and sods from other insight traditions and been similarly unimpressed. Maybe I will finally get around to reading The Mind Illuminated and see how its insight section compares. Overall, I think it’s telling that concentration practices are more or less consistent across traditions, but insight practices deviate wildly.
Currently I content myself with reading original Eastern scriptures and philosophies (such as the Nikaya) and have faith that concentration will sort out what’s what.