Friday, 15 March 2013

Samādhi: what, why, how?

It’s winter time in Britain, and if there’s ever a time to settle in and snuggle down, this is it. Hence at Cittaviveka, we have the winter retreat, and meditation is a main theme in that. What I am questioned about (and have questioned myself about) is the rationale behind samādhi – what is it, how much do you need, how to do it?  Look into the early Buddhist texts and samādhi is there, as a matter-of-fact mainstay; but look around in the here and now, and people struggle with how to get it. ‘Maybe there’s another way to peace and liberation; or, dreadful though it may seem after ten or twenty years, maybe I’m just too polluted to get there.’  Certainly folk tie themselves into knots of striving to get the stuff – and fail. Aaagh.

In the texts, it’s matter-of-fact for a Dhamma practitioner, it occurs ‘in accordance with nature’, is ‘dhammatā’. And maybe the ‘unnaturalness’ of trying is part of the difficulty – as well as the idea of getting, and of course the sense of self.  But to begin with the mind, and with stress. After years of living with what the mind does, what do you sense it is? In my view, there’s intelligence (not always smart, but a system of monitoring and processing data in accordance with aims and perspectives), and this intelligence is affected by impressions: it feels – and moreover, it empathises. This affective sense is the intelligence that senses what’s happening out there means something to me.  So for that a sense of ‘me’ and ‘other’ have to be evoked to act as reference points – even though they are often inaccurate assumptions and affected by bias. But where is this ‘me’ anyway? Well my home base is the body, because that also feels and therefore affects me. So ‘me’ is hypothesised as the point over which these waves of feeling break, and the monitoring and processing occurs with reference to what will feel good or least harmful to a me which is located in a non-specific way, through the body. As you see, the foundations of ‘me’ are quite vague, but that’s overlooked because of the waves of feeling, and because the monitor becomes ‘I’ – an agent that starts to speculate and create a series of hypothetical gains and losses. It gets busy. Consequently, because the busyness is stressful, and because feeling is a wave you can’t grasp or control, and because the hypotheses aren’t always correct, there is stress, suffering, unsatisfactoriness – general dukkha.

The Buddha points to a way out of this dukkha; and samādhi – which, OK., I’ll define here as a deepening and firming into the true nature of mind – is part of that way.  And to summarise again the nature of mind, as it is a central reference: it’s embodied (body-referencing, but not located in any particular place in the body), empathic (‘heart’-referencing, though not centred on any particular emotion) and monitoring (capable of assessment, but not any particular set of ideas of ideologies). So the specifics are all variable, but the referring activity happens through these bases. (I’ll come back to that later.) The problem is that the monitoring assembles these variable reference points into a fixed entity  – me. Of course, at any given time my body and my feelings, are specific and real (‘this hurts me right here’) but the specifics continually fluctuate: there’s no continual and real ‘me.’ The monitoring also suggests wishes, which are again specific but variable: ‘I want to relax/ have something to do/ be left alone/talk to someone’ – but generically amount to being fulfilled and happy, whatever that would be. So samādhi can be there on the wish list, and the idea of  ‘me getting it’ become the strategy that we hope will bring it about. However, it doesn’t – because the scenario isn’t based on the true nature of mind, but on the construction of a self.  This is why samādhi is better understood in terms of the way the natural mind operates, through referencing variables rather than assembling solidities. It’s relational rather than object defining. And its development is best reviewed in terms of a three-part cultivation that includes ethical integrity, samādhi and clear understanding – this process is dhammatā.

The fact that, as a map, the process begins with understanding the value of ethics is a clue as to the way samādhi happens. You don’t really ‘get it’ any more than you ‘get’ ethics. Ethics is about relational doing: it’s about steering intentions, wishes and directives, towards what is for my welfare and your welfare and leads out of contention. This is a doing that has results. Samādhi arises out of a similar intention, which is to harmonise the three aspects of mind – to be embodied in a settled way, to be empathic and relate ethically to what arises within that sphere of experience, and to moderate the process. That’s the rationale behind samādhi, and it suggests that we attend to the process of being truthful, kindly and non-demanding about ourselves. This is ethics directed towards oneself; it’s not a demand to conform to laws or face punishment, it’s a review of the quality of mind and intention and bringing the soundest response to the fore. It’s a kindly process.

The process is also about being embodied: about being here in a settled and responsive way. To participate in this process, of putting aside unskilful intentions and centring on the skilful has samādhi, unification, as its result. Personally, I find ‘unification’ a more useful term than ‘concentration’ because to me concentration isn’t empathic and it’s not embodied; it’s the brow-furrowing exercise I do when I work on maths, or other abstract material.  To concentrate when riding a bike, or when scaling a cliff, or doing Tai Chi is nearer the mark; but when you prioritise the ethical empathy – what is suitable, what is harmonious in a holistic way – I think you’re on a more long-term, daily-life ground.

Then trying: doesn’t that just strain the mind? Yes, I think if it’s the over-exercise of the hypothetical object-seeking drive – the one that murmurs or proclaims how good I’ll feel, and how I should be, and so on. But that’s leading from the wrong foot. However, you can’t not lead. We’re in the desire realm, we use it to make choices every hour of the day, so you can’t check out of that. What you can do is discern (through monitoring and feeling) the difference between desire as a pathology, a blurring compulsion known as ‘thirst’ (tanhā), and desire as a chosen motivation (chanda) that can be chosen and whose cause and effect can be assessed. Thirst is about getting hold of an object for a hit, but motivation is about wanting to find out what brings you to a good place in yourself, and steering intentions and assessing results in that light. So although thirst can find problem with ethics, motivation sees them as ways of health.

One of the ways we channel our desire-energy, our motivation, is to work on how we attend, so that the mind is less compulsively grabbed by what comes into consciousness: you step back a tad, rather than jump into contact. The other way is through moderating intention, in which ethics is the key. Noting the indifference, and even brutality through which humans relate to the earth and other creatures, let alone each other – while barely acknowledging it – we can reflect that the nature of intention is often not apparent.  So a couple of questions to bring to mind are: ‘What is the cause of this action, and what the result for myself and the other?’ Can we experience the ‘other’ – person, creature, planet, or even our own bodies, as ‘you’ rather than ‘it’?  Can I come into a relational rather than object-defining sense? This is a choice, and one that we must make and act upon many times during a meditation practice, until the projecting of ‘it’ goals onto life, our bodies and our minds is worn out or seen through. That in itself is a process – non-involvement, dispassion, ceasing and relinquishment – that needs to be understood.  And it can be carried through by meditation, the classic scene for samādhi.

So: ‘Meditation: Act One, Scene One’ – enter: ‘The Witness.’ ‘The witness’ is the ability to attend with a decreasing degree of personal reaction or identification with what arises in consciousness. It means we step back from ongoing activity or reactivity; this ‘non-involving’ (viveka in Pali) is the prerequisite for any kind of inquiry into the causes and effects of what we do. We all have the ability to step back – although some people shift to witnessing less frequently, more briefly and in fewer areas of their lives than others. Witnessing is a given ability that helps the mind to get things into perspective; but employing it means choosing to do so. And when you notice that witnessing makes you clearer, calmer, more assured, you get motivated to strengthen and sustain it. You also begin to recognise, probably, that there’s a lot of times when your mind goes into automatic or jumps to get or get away, or there are times when you don’t really see into why you say and think the things you do. So you look to support your witnessing capacity with some skilful means – like calming, steadying, deepening. But it’s also the case that we don’t always want to see too clearly, because the witness can be followed by the Judge.  So the stepping back is also a withdrawal from judgement. Self-acceptance; or the ‘this is how it is’ focus of mindfulness.

The correct establishment of mindfulness is a defining characteristic of samādhi, because it checks the ‘me’ and ‘I’ reference, and returns the moderating process to the natural mind – which is embodied, empathic and monitoring. So the unflustered focus of mindfulness is to be brought to bear on the whole range of phenomena. Ideally the witness should just let things arise and pass and be that which knows them; but how much you can let arise, and how much you can let pass, and how clear and unbiased your knowing is, depends on how strong your mindfulness is. As it is, when the mind does open up, we often see some unresolved stuff; and it isn’t always easy to find a steady ground to witness that from.

So what samādhi provides is the firmness and the ease or just this.  It comes with unification of the three mental domains. These again are: the cognitive, monitoring process – which is silent and attuned, but produces thoughts, opinions and ideals; the emotive process – the affective sensitivity out of which anger, affection, sympathy, jealousy, fear and all the other emotions get constructed; and the ontological – the sense of being here, located in time and space, which comes through the body. This latter sense needs attention because although our sense of being here manifests through the body’s nervous system, it doesn’t necessarily stay embodied. A lot of the time the sense of being is transferred to one’s possessions, fellow humans, beliefs and self-image; which is why loss or abuse in these areas can feel devastating. We literally feel that we’ve ‘fallen apart’ at the loss of a partner, or of a job; or if a trusted person abuses our trust, that also is scarring, because our sense of being here transfers to what we care for, invest in, identify with or have placed our trust in. Disturbance at this ontological level then triggers the emotive stuff. And when we’ve got our breath back after the big emotional waves, then the cognitive faculty gets to work on judging who was right and wrong, how things should be or what I’m going to do about it. The reaction might be to seek comfort in something else or to annihilate myself: say someone loses an argument so they go out and get drunk. In more traumatic instances this might even be to kill oneself, in order to get out the predicament of being here without value and meaning.  More often, we just leave the damage unresolved; there’s some scarring, but we shrug it off.

So although we may wish to find a cognitive solution, or an emotional resolution to what arises in the mind, in some cases, the root of the problem is in terms of being (safe, solid, of value, etc.); and there is a bodily sense that has to be attended to. For example: if I lose status in the group, I may feel useless and resentful or humiliated, and I could look into that experience with a witnessing mind. Now that isn’t going to be that useful unless there is the embodied steadying that helps my attention to stay there and not jump out, react, or create ideas of ‘me’ and ‘them’. But if there is an embodied steadiness, there’s a location that the empathic sense can respond to. This location may be in your guts, your heart, or your head, or nowhere specific, just a fog that surrounds you. It shifts, the location is temporary, but however you feel yourself located in terms of that mood – that’s embodiment, and it enables you to refer to experience as ‘there it is.’ You may not want to ( it’s uncomfortable) but you don’t have a better choice; if you don’t place that experience, you just keep being caught in a whirl or a frozen numb heart. Embodying the pain helps the empathic sense to come into play – which is essential for healing.

All these qualities – the deepening, the empathic witnessing and the embodied steadying all come with the samādhi package. You can’t think the healing, and you don’t do them with your normal self; the deepened mind ‘does’ them – because that’s its nature. So the return to the natural and whole mind is samādhi. It presents a clear witnessing –   ‘this is the way it is right now’; it gets the ontological, embodied aspect to hold firm to presence; and it has an emotive aspect that’s empathic, and that meets phenomena as ‘you’ becoming ‘us’, rather than ‘me’ struggling with ‘it.’ There’s no judging, blaming, or blocking the ‘it’, there’s a meeting. And with the meeting, the intensity drops, the emotions deconstruct to a more primal sympathy and fullness of heart. And there’s a unification that is healthy. So when we experience our problem spots melting and transmuting into natural health, then, yes, this is worth doing.

Now you can’t do this in theory, and transference isn’t a cognitive process. Hence you have to enter these ‘holding on’ and ‘coming apart’ events and places as they happen, at a heart (emotive) and also at a gut (ontological) level. You have to be able to enter and hold the energy that is otherwise drawn out in attachment. And whenever you do fall apart (get used to it), then bring your awareness back into knowing its unity through embodied calm, benevolence and patience. Embodied, because the ontological domain, the basis that the others arise from, is embodied with birth. It’s the body that gives us the sense of location: I am here, rather than there.  After death (to digress a little) then that embodied sense is dislocated from this form, and if it hasn’t been released, it then projects a consciousness into a new body.  To emphasise: the ontological sense, where it’s healthy, is embodied, but it’s not identical with physical form. The process one wants to undertake then is to check the sense of being from oozing out over cars and buildings and status, and get it to stand on its own. Then when we see in the body, that it’s not this body, when we feel that the empathic sense is not bound to the physical heart, when we know the natural mind of no location, then there’s some liberation from birth and death.

To add one more map: the stages of that liberation are also in terms of the three domains. At the stream-entering stage, one witnesses and regains dispassionate awareness around cognitive structures: personality realm with its systems and customs and speculative doubt. The once-returning is about dealing with relatively gross emotive inclinations of irritation and sense-stimulation. Non-returning is cool around those tendencies, but still has to work through the emotive transference of awareness into subtle and formless states. Arahantship is described as being a person of nothing: ‘a person with nothing in them that they grasp at as theirs and nothing in them that they reject as not theirs’ ( Sutta-Nipata 859). Wisdom and compassion are complete.

The momentum that moves awareness through this series of attachment points is the increasing  ‘rightness’ or ‘gravity’ of the natural mind. This mind doesn’t annihilate mental structures – an arahant still conforms to systems and customs, but he/she isn’t held in them. Awareness doesn’t get energetically tangled up in the structures that the mind adopts for functioning; so the dysfunctional, toxic, or useless manifestations of, say, systems and customs can end altogether. Then I don’t fall apart if the Christmas tree doesn’t get here on time; I can eat burgers without mustard; I can go to an interfaith meeting without needing to judge who’s right; my life can be arranged differently and I still feel safe and intact. What I’m suggesting is that to clear one of these domains takes some samādhi. It takes feeling the need, the pull and the insecurity, finding how that is registered in the body and coming back into wholeness.

So far I’ve mapped a path. Then let’s look into the process, the how of samādhi. And back at Meditation: Act One, Scene One, along with The Witness there’s The Body. This means sit and just sit rather than try to meditate, stand and just stand rather than wait, walk and just walk without getting anywhere. The theme is: in the present moment, fill awareness with what’s here at the embodied level.  And my first suggestion is to play it, rather than work. The energy of play is not a trivial thing – it just means that the motivation isn’t about achieving some imagined goal in the future. Games should be like this, and still can be – until you do them for a living. Play is about giving oneself in terms of intention, application, attention and response to the doing – giving intention and attention. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to bring forth the volunteer heart. This is our willingness to tune in and respond; it’s our natural ability to be empathic and responsive, an ability that we sacrifice at the altar of goals and projected results.

As I mentioned above, this empathic sense – to open and be touched by what you’re with – is an essential feature of the meditation process. Mostly I get meditation wrong when I work at it and try to get somewhere – I lose responsiveness to the present moment, and things get stiff and dry and bored. So samādhi hinges around careful play:  you bring something to mind (vitakka) and you feel it out (vicāra). This pair form a normal aspect of the cognitive mind. When they’re not driven by craving, assumptions or fear, they allow us to pick up an idea or an apple and sense how that feels. You have to use vitakka and vicāra for designing a room, for cooking a meal, and for meditating. But with meditation we’re operating with the overall interest in loosening out of thirst and compulsion and being more fully present. So here the advice is ‘bring the body into your mind.’ Which is Lesson One, probably, along with the proviso – ’but gently!’ The Buddha likened it to holding a bird: too tight and you scare it and kill it, too loose and it flies away. So play with being embodied: how do you know, directly, that you have a body? How does it feel? Then Lesson Two, ‘Get comfortable – but stay alert!’

In this respect, the Buddha said to sit cross-legged with spine erect ( no chairs in the forest, so the legs have to serve as a seat) – I’d say the most important thing is to have the spine erect. Bring the posture and the overall structure of the body to mind, and feel out how the whole body sits as a unity. Then comes the snag: a lot of people don’t have unified bodies; a great proportion of energetic awareness gets placed in the head and shoulders, very little in the belly, back and legs. That’s the way we’re activated in a thinking society where we much of the body just sits there, somewhere, while the head and hands get on with twiddling knobs and wheels. Thus, I think, we’ve got to emphasise this aspect of the whole body more than in the Buddha-time. So Lesson Two goes into centring in the lumbar region, pushing down a tad through the pelvis, and feeling and moderating the curve in the lumbar spine to allow the abdomen to lengthen. Energising the ‘slump spot’ of the lower spine transforms posture. In that mode, the weight of the torso is transferred down through the pelvis and into the ground. The pressure of the chest is taken off the belly, the diaphragm can move easily and, as you draw the mid-spine in behind your heart and release your shoulders, you start to get some relief. So like learning tennis, or aikido, you play with that exercise for the time that you can manage within the parameters of ‘comfortable/alert’; you keep coming back to that every time you sit, and every time the posture sags or goes rigid.

Thus in Scene Two, breathing makes an entry as a relevant player rather than a stage-set. Breathing is not the breath, but the energy and sensation flow that we may summarise as the breath, but which is a process rather than a fixed thing. (The Buddha never specified a point where you should focus on the breathing.) It’s first function is to bring the body into unity and ease. The way I do this is to first of all get the whole body into comfortable/alert and then look/listen out for anything that tells me I’m breathing. It begins as a rhythm, and the more consistently I tune into it, then the mind finds a focal point in the body that fits ‘comfortable/alert’. Then breathing is more fully felt as an energy that repeatedly generates and regenerates the direct experience of the body. And if you relate to the body from the heart (the ‘you’ lens) your intention calms the body. As the Ānāpānasati sutta has it: ‘ … thoroughly experiencing the bodily formation … soothing the bodily formation … one breathes in and breathes out.’(M.118.18) It’s about kindly response – meeting ‘you’ rather than getting ‘it’ to calm down.

This takes application, and that means that again you revisit the area of desire and check out whether craving – the need to be good at or to get somewhere – has moved in. If so, we lighten up, and, acknowledging that the body doesn’t crave in these cognitive terms, go back to just being here, and feeling out how thinking and the emotions that power it play out in the body.  And so to Scene Three : The Hindrances. And here the learning is about sankhārā.  But before translating that word, I’ll say that sankhārā keep cropping up in all kinds of places in the teaching, right down to the Buddha’s last words: ‘All sankhārā are subject to dissolution, stay alert in your practice.’  These things are then core structures or phenomena. One way in which they are placed is as a trio: bodily-sankhārā, heart/mind (citta)-sankhārā, and ‘verbal’ or cognitive-sankhārā – which correspond to the three domains I mentioned earlier. Bodily sankhārā is ‘in and out breathing’; heart/mind is ‘perception and feeling’; and verbal is ‘bringing to mind and evaluating’ (vitakka-vicāra). What these sankhārā have in common is that they are all directly experienced as an energy. In the bodily domain there’s the movement of energy – qi, prana or anapana – a ‘breathing’ that is more than respiration. In the heart, there’s the flush of recognition as a perception of ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ lights up and triggers mental feeling; and in the head there’s the whirr and the flash as we get an idea, think and speak.  Sankhārā can be translated as ‘formations’, ‘volitional formations’, or ‘fabrications’ – I use ‘formative energies’, ‘activations’ or even, likening them to the means through which computers operate, ‘programs.’ Like programs, they’re installed at birth, otherwise you aren’t functioning; and like programs they go through their set behaviours, and they may program subsidiary programs to support details of what they do. So: we have defence and acquisition programs plugged into our heart-program to fend off the disagreeable and look out for the pleasurable. As best they can: they don’t quite work – we’re still working on the bugs … but, ah-hah! – that’s why the Buddha said they’re subject to dissolution. Firstly, they break down, and secondly, if you unplug the program, it dissolves and there's release. Getting through the hindrances then is about learning to unplug some programs. It’s about staying steady and seeing and healing the hunger behind the glittering fantasies. It’s about easing out of wilfulness and impatience, loosening up the acquisition program and refitting the motivation from a work/conquest mode to a play/moment-at-a-time mode.

The other relevant thing right now about sankhārā is that its three modes are in sympathy. If you feel happy, your body is light and open. If you’re depressed, your body is going to be slumping, or tight and dull. And if you’re out of your body, then your verbal stuff is going to grab all the awareness. So the trick is to get the three in sync, and, through enhancing your bodily awareness through breathing within the comfortable/alert mode, finding out that your heart-mind is comforted and begins to calm, and your verbal patterns start to unravel. As a process then, as you come into hindrances of ill-will, sense-desire, dullness, restless and doubt, you feel their bodily effect. This may be tightening around the eyes, chest or abdomen, or a slump in the back, or a jangling in the nerves. Here the advice is to meet that in your body and breathe your good heart through it. Widen your awareness to include your whole body, meet the hindrance as an energy and let the energy of good heart and breath unravel it into the wider sense of being here: the natural mind.

Samādhi develops from here, because whatever brings you well-being will naturally become more and more your focus. This is why ‘being with’ in a comfortable and kindly way is a foundation for samādhi. What comes with that is a sense of uplift, a kind of embodied buoyancy called ‘rapture’(pīti). It may be that this is because it takes hold; it’s like how, when a boat that is intact and placed in the right place, it gets gently and repeatedly lifted by the incoming tide. It is the experience of beauty. This and the consequent ‘ease’ (sukha) are how the state of unification, of samādhi comes around. ‘ … for one feeling ease, no volition need be exerted – may my mind be unified. It is natural (dhammatā) that for one feeling ease, the mind is unified’ as the sutta (A.10, 2) has it. Right here is this beauty and ease, so why go anywhere else? Enjoy, learn to enjoy, learn to surrender the time and the person in order to do this. This is steadying and soothing the citta-sankhārā.  With this you’re starting to come out of the psychological compulsions that have seemed like ‘me’ for a long time. And as you notice what has ceased, what isn’t a problem, you realize that liberation is this way.

However … by this time I’ve gone on long enough for a one-session read ( and write), and probably only a piece or two of the above is of immediate relevance to you. Time for a break. I’d just like to add the suggestion that we can (I’d like to say ‘should’) cultivate all the time. Return to the natural mind in how you sit and walk and eat and talk. Pause long enough to get embodied, tune in the monitor and feel ‘How am I with this? Where does a true response come from?’ It’s trial and error – but you can only get better at it.

PS. reference to this earlier entry might add something useful:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this. I can appreciate the time it took to do so. Once again, a wonderful distillation and explanation of Buddhist terms and practice techniques, I've been repeatedly reading this to myself out loud, and slowly. The key points are seeping in.

    I think ethics must be based on kamma. As we cycle through lifetimes we build a base of experience, even though we don't see it as such in our current life. That experience could be the source of the empathy we feel for other beings we live with now, because we've been those other beings before, many times. We sympathize with the prey, and yet don't totally blame the predator, because we've been both before. Or perhaps it's the Universal in us, or the Unconditioned that breaks through occasionally, and must be present in all beings. I wonder sometimes how my dog could possibly and obviously love me so, if we don't share that emotion in common. We're pretty disparate beings after all.

    Thanks again. I'm looking forward to Part Two.