Harnessing the Power of Concentration
Excerpts from How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama
Focusing Your Mind
"Let distractions melt away like clouds disappearing in the sky." - MilarepaIn all areas of thought, you need to be able to analyze, and then, when you have come to a decision, you need to be able to set your mind to it without wavering. These two capacities - to analyze and to remain focused - are essential to seeing yourself as you really are. In all areas of spiritual development, no matter what your level is, you need both analysis and focus to achieve the states you are seeking, ranging from seeking a better future, to developing conviction in the cause and effect of actions (karma), to developing an intention to leave the round of suffering called cyclic existence, to cultivating love and compassion, to realizing the true nature of people and things. All these improvements are made in the mind by changing how you think, transforming your outlook through analysis and focus. All types of meditation fall into the general categories of analytical meditation and focusing meditation, also called insight meditation and calm abiding meditation.
If your mind is scattered, it is quite powerless. Distraction here and there opens the way for counterproductive emotions, leading to many kinds of trouble. Without clear, stable concentration, insight cannot know the true nature of phenomena in all its power. For example, to see a painting in the dark, you need a very bright lamp. Even when you have such a lamp, if it is flickering you cannot see the painting clearly and in detail. Also, if the lamp is steady but weak, you cannot see well either. You need both great clarity of mind and steadiness, both insight and focused concentration, like an oil lamp untouched by any breeze. As Buddha said, "When your mind is set in meditative equipoise, you can see reality exactly as it is."
We have nothing but our present mind to accomplish this with, so we must pull the capacities of this mind together to strengthen it. A merchant engages in selling little by little in order to accumulate a pile of money; the capacities of the mind to comprehend facts need to be drawn together and focused in the same way so that the truth can be realized in all its clarity. However, in our usual state we are distracted, like water running everywhere, scattering the innate force of mind in multiple directions, making us incapable of clear perception of the truth. When the mind is not focused, as soon as something appears, it steals away our mind; we run first after this thought and then after that thought, fluctuating and unsteady, powerless to focus on what we want before being pulled away to something else, ready to ruin ourselves. As the Indian scholar-yogi Shantideva says:
A person whose mind is distracted
Dwells between the fangs of afflictive emotions.
Despite the fact that distraction is our current state, the capacities for knowledge which we all possess can be drawn together and focused on an object we want to understand, as we do when we listen to important instructions. Through such focus, all practices - whether love, compassion, the altruistic intention to become enlightened, or insight into your own nature and the actual condition of all other phenomena - are dramatically enhanced, so your progress is much faster and more profound.
Buddhism offers many techniques for developing a form of concentration called "calm abiding." This powerful state of concentration earns its name because in it all distractions have been calmed and your mind is - of its own accord - abiding continuously, joyously, and flexibly on its chosen internal object with intense clarity and firm stability. At this level of mental development, concentration does not require any exertion at all.
Laziness comes in many forms, all of which result in procrastination, putting off practice to another time. Sometimes laziness is a matter of being distracted from meditation by morally neutral activities, like sewing or considering how to drive from one place to another; this type of laziness can be especially pernicious because these thoughts and activities are not usually recognized as problems.
At other times, laziness manifests as distraction to thinking about nonvirtuous activities, such as an object of lust or how to pay an enemy back. Another type of laziness is the sense that you are inadequate to the task of meditation, feeling inferior and discouraged: "How could someone like me ever achieve this!" In this case you are failing to recognize the great potential of the human mind and the power of gradual training.
All of these forms of laziness involve being unenthusiastic about meditation. How can they be overcome? Contemplation of the advantages of attaining mental and physical flexibility will generate enthusiasm for meditation and counteract laziness. Once you have developed the meditative joy and bliss of mental and physical flexibility, you will be able to stay in meditation for as long as you want. At that time your mind will be completely trained so you can direct it to any virtuous activity; all dysfunctions of body and mind will have been cleared away.
Conditions For Practice
For beginners, external factors can have considerable impact on meditation because your internal mental capacity is not particularly strong. This is why limiting busy activities and having a quiet place to meditate are helpful. When your internal experience has advanced, external conditions will not affect you much.
At this early stage of cultivating calm abiding, you need a healthful place to practice, away from busy activities and persons who promote lust or anger. Internally, you need to know satisfaction, not having strong desires for food, clothing, and so forth but being satisfied with moderation. You need to limit your activities, giving up commotion. Busyness should be left behind. Of particular importance is moral behavior, which will bring you relaxation, peace, and conscientiousness. All of these preliminaries will help to reduce coarse distractions.
When I became a monk, my vows required limiting my external activities, which placed more emphasis on spiritual development. Restraint made me mindful of my behavior and drew me into considering what was happening in my mind in order to make sure I was not straying from my vows. This meant that even when I was not purposely making an effort at meditation, I kept my mind from being scattered and thus was constantly drawn in the direction of one-pointed, internal meditation.
People sometimes look on vows of morality as confinement or punishment, but that is entirely wrong. Just as we take up a diet to improve our health and not to punish ourselves, so the rules that Buddha laid down are aimed at controlling counterproductive behavior and overcoming afflictive emotions because these are ruinous. For our own sakes, we restrain motivations and deeds that would produce suffering. For example, due to a serious stomach infection I had a few years ago, nowadays I avoid sour foods and cold drinks that otherwise I would enjoy. Such a regimen provides me protection, not punishment.
Buddha set forth styles of behavior in order to improve our welfare, not to give us a hard time. The rules themselves make the mind conducive to spiritual progress.
Meditative posture is important, because if you straighten your body, the energy channels within the body will also straighten, allowing the energy flowing in those channels to balance, which in turn will assist in balancing your mind and putting it at your service. Although meditation could even be conducted lying down, a cross-legged sitting posture with the following seven features is helpful:
1. Sit with your legs crossed, with a separate cushion under your rear.
2. Calm abiding is cultivated by focusing the mind not on an external object but on an internal object. Thus, with your eyes neither widely open nor tightly closed but open a little, gaze down toward the tip of your nose but not intensely; if this is not comfortable, gaze toward the floor in front of you. Leave your eyes slightly open. Visual stimuli will not bother your mental consciousness. Later, it is fine if your eyes close of their own accord.
3. Straighten your backbone, like an arrow or a pile of coins, without arching back or bending forward.
4. Keep your shoulders level and your hands four finger widths below the navel, with the left hand underneath, palm up, and the right hand on top of it, also palm up, your thumbs touching to form a triangle.
5. Keep your head level and straight, so that your nose is in a straight line with your navel, but arch your neck slightly, like a peacock.
6. Leave the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth near the front teeth, which later will enable you to stay for long periods in meditation without drooling. It will also keep you from breathing too strongly, which would dry out your mouth and throat.
7. Breathe in and out quietly, gently, and evenly.
...excerpts from How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama
Daily Words of Wisdom
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