Rounding off our exploration of the eight fold path with Right Concentration. Listen to the recording here or read the write-up below.
This brings us in to the higher reaches of the path and some aspects of it may be difficult to grasp. First, let me say here that although I have touched the beginnings of right concentration, I am a way off experiencing the higher levels. So, a little of my personal experience I can talk about but mostly I’m going to be covering what I have read or been taught.
Although I’ve said here, the higher reaches of the path, we should not view this as the culmination or the end of the path. Actually, in May ways, what we started with is also the end. The Right View. As we said at the start, this may change as we progress, and it is right concentration that contributes to that change.
So, a little context first. Let’s head back to our analogy of the journey. We need some sign posts. When we are driving we get a great deal of help with sign posts. Some are very detailed but some are a little more generalised. “The North” is an example of a sign that crops up on the motorway.
The advice we get from right concentration can be seen as this generalised advice. Nothing is ever exact in Buddhist practice as we are all so very different. Our minds are so individually complex so our journeys are going to very different. In our analogy with the journey, to get to Scotland from Taunton, there are many options. But one definite piece of advice applies. Head North! The advice in right concentration is like this. There are many approaches but there are some milestones which apply to us all in our practice and we will pass them on our journey.
Before we delve into this though, the phrase right concentration, implies that there is a wrong concentration. What might this be? At a board level we all intuitively know that right concentration is focussed and not distracted. It is able to keep attention to the chosen subject. This, in itself, takes practice. But remember that the practice of Buddhism trains the mind to be focussed, free from the Hinderances, wholesome, compassionate and tranquil. So right concentration also carries all these elements. All aspects of the eight fold path come into play here.
As an example, a sniper has a very concentrated mind. They must be able to take aim and hit their target under extreme conditions. A honed skill and extremely difficult. But not compassionate. The intent sitting behind the action will result in unwholesome mind states and the Karma Vipaka (the result of the action) will sit with that soldier for the rest of their life. We must remember the purpose of the eight fold path is to move towards the cessation of suffering in ourselves and others. That must be build into the right view. So the action of the sniper is clearly not on the path. Clear and calm as their concentration may be, it is not a part of the eight fold path. So in our exploration of right concentration, we should look at it and keep the right view in mind. Is our practice, that may well be developing a calm concentrated mind also going to developed a mind that is wholesome, compassionate and carries with it an equanimity towards love for all beings?
So, what are these milestones like? They are the jhana’s and there are 8 of them. Essentially these are states of deep mental unification and they are accessible, with practice, to all of us. The idea of a signpost is a very good analogy. As we progress on our journey, we don’t deliberately think about the signposts. We don’t think “I’m now on the M5 and in 30 miles I will see another signpost and it will say “Birmingham so many miles”. We come upon the milestones and they are useful and helpful. They confirm that we are heading in the right direction and we use them to help guide us. But they aren’t the sole aspect of our journey. Our purpose isn’t to collect milestones, it is to arrive at the destination. So the Jhana’s are very similar. We come across them in our experience and when they arise we can notice them and say “ah good, I’m heading in the right direction.” We can listen to and feel what they teach us and hen come back to the practice.
The jhana’s arise out of the right conditions. We won’t see a sign for Birmingham if we have turned south west and heading for Cornwall! The Jhana’s arise because of moral, ethical and mental preparations and conditions and of course, this is why the Buddha set out the eight fold path. To help us to develop those conditions. When the conditions are right, they arise. One The of the primary conditions is the removal of a set of mental objects or mind-experiences that we know as the 5 hinderances. These are sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt.
When these are fully and completely removed, the Jhana’s materialise. The practice of meditation and mindfulness is out vehicle for removing the hindrances. The Jhana’s themselves, when we experience them, directly help us to further remove the hinderances.
It is however another list. Sorry about this! Buddhism has many lists. The jhana’s are split into two groups of 4. The first four I see as earthly and their main focus is Samadhi or gentle, absorbed, focussed concentration. Developing that ability to sit undisturbed by our minds. The second four are more “heavenly” for want of a better word. Or perhaps immaterial as they are sometimes known. In these Jhana’s we start to experience Vipassana. Insight and wisdom into the nature of things. We can get flashes of these very early on in our meditation, but we can only really abide in these states for periods of time, if we have attained the first four.
As we drive north, we may come across people with a Scottish accent, but it is not until we arrive in Scotland will we hear the accent from most of the people we come across!
The fist Jhana can come as a brother big shock. What does it feel like? For me a deep physical rush goes through my body. A sense of calm floods the mind and a feeling that I could sit and meditate for ever. Associate with all Jhana are physical sensation. After all we now know Mind and body are not separate. It is a beautiful feeling. It has its down sides. When you hit it, excitement cuts in and meditation comes crashing down and so we have to go back to work again. But slowly we learn to enter into the first Jhana gently and enjoy the experience without becoming dependent on it and letting the mind become too energised by it.
The first Jhana is very important because it shows us how to work with the Jhana’s and therefore how to continue forward. The Jhana’s can be seen as parinig up with the hinderances and also to help battle with them on a longer term basis. The first Jhana pairs with sensual desire. In order to enter it, we must have a mind that isn’t constantly distracted by sensual pleasure. Ranging from desiring pleasant tastes and smells, food and pretty objects that are pleasing to the eye and our natural craving through to full blown lust. With our exploration of the eight fold path we have learnt to develop a degree of acceptance to our life as it is and to not go chasing sensual pleasure. But to just be content with what we have. In meditation we experience this wonderful state of bliss and Elaine that here we are, just sitting on a cushion and experiencing this amazing experience. No money involved. We don’t have to buy a new car or eat amazing food. We can just sit and be content. Because of this, we will now know that the next 3 of the Jhana’s will be similar. They will help us to understand and let go of the hinderances.
Once we have mastered the first Jhana, we should look to enter into it as often as we can. To develop an acceptance of the Jhana itself and make it a part of our life. It forms a solid bedrock for us to progress.
However, the first Jhana has its limits and at this time sustained application will still be rather course, requiring what feels like discipline, effort and hard work. After a while these elements subside and we slip into the second Jhana and we that this has a different feeling. Here, our meditation seems effortless and we can just. It feels like we are just sitting with the breath rather than have no to focus on it. The physical feeling is often described as rapture. Personally, I’ve never really understood what that meant. It feels too generic for me. I experienced a feeling of calm confidence and actually a feeling of relief (surprisingly) as the heady physical feeling from the first Jhana settles and you do feel a great deal more grounded and calm.
This is as far as I have personally got on my journey. But let’s take a look at what the Buddha taught us about the next states.
The third Jhana is where the deep unification of the mid starts to kick in. Calm comprehension and single pointed concentration are said to combine. Often I talk about the mental habit in our lives that meditation seeks to dig us out of. It is said that at this stage, this mental habit really starts to break down, the subconscious starts to let go of it and in this way our ability to concentrate gets heightened still further. One thing really emerges here. Equanimity. A true appreciation of all parts of our life equally. We no longer seek to push away aspects of our life or grab others. This effects us deeply in many ways. A contented stabilisation appears. True contentment perhaps. If you think of those 5 hinderances, sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt, these will still be there is the background but now we will be really feeling how they pull on our lives and how they disrupt equanimity.
The forth Jhana. Fundamental change here. The real and genuine letting go of self. When we let go of our concept of self, we let go of the cause of suffering. Simple as that. I can understand this at an academic level but have no idea what it must feel like to truly get there. It will change our lives and change us as a person. Because, to attain this state, we let go of that person. Who can really predict what effect that will have on us. Keep in mind that this is very deep. In the Buddhist community you get people who describe themselves as free spirited. They travel widely and dress in a certain way. But that in itself is ego. They are holding on to that aspect of themselves. “I’m a free spirit” is a badge in itself and there is pride and purpose there. What we are talking about here goes behind that.
So that’s 4. But there is then a further four! I’m not going to dwell much on these. They are a long way away and I am certainly not qualified to speak much about them. But here real insight and wisdom develop. The first of these four is said to encourage and understand the feeling of boundless space. Again we can examine these at an academic level but the experience of the Jhana puts into direct connection with this. We understand it within the very cells of our bodies and feel it.
So meditation. Let’s develop right foundation. Focussing on the breath we will concentrate on the nature of the breath intently. Developing a focussed and clear mind.