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page 111

Concentration with Composure



Concentration is based on the enjoyment that is connected with the subsiding of wanting. Two
principles are important for the accomplishment of concentration: first, granting ourselves the
possibility of dwelling on what is dear to us; second, skillfully dealing with distractions and
disturbances. To do both, we must be left in peace. Then we can give our attention more and
more to happiness-furthering objects of concentration, such as mindfulness of breathing and
radiating kindness, and let them become dear to us.
Before we consider suitable objects of concentration in greater detail, let us ask ourselves what
composure really is. In organizing this book, I have adopted the strategy of leaving you, the
reader, in peace and always respecting your right for self-determination. If there is anything I
question, it is the idea that you ought to become different from how you are. Perhaps you recall
that you were able to develop best when your parents and teachers left you the choice of being
the way you wanted to be. In those times, you flourished and as a result were able to open
yourself. Free from interference, you opened yourself to receive what was offered to you.
Because of this, it is my conviction that what is offered in this book will also be best received if it
remains up to you to take what is helpful to you, what grows dear to you because your unforced
attention turns toward it. That constitutes your composure with regard to this book and lets you
happily concentrate as you read it.
When, more than ten years ago, I asked my teacher Nyanaponika Thera how, in the advanced
stages of concentration, to get rid of unwanted perceptions that distract one from the
meditative object, he replied: You don't get rid of anything. The mind concentrates itself on
what interests it when it is left in peace. Then he had me think about the example of a child
who is so absorbed in playing with a toy train that he does not even hear his mother's voice
when she calls him to come and eat. At that time, I had been involved for months with the
introspective analysis of mental processes that take place during the onset of meditative
absorption and had made a fairly great effort to understand them conceptually. This led to my
temporarily losing the ability to attain the higher stages of concentration in my meditation.
Only when I once more left my experiential process in peace, left off making it an object of
investigation, did I once again find the composure to enjoy concentration. I then only continued
my analytical investigation when observing children at play.

I will come back later to some discoveries I made in this connection. Let us provisionally sum up
the moral of this story with the following formulation: The composure necessary for
concentration consists in part in leaving oneself in peace.

In order to attune ourselves to an object of concentration that is dear to us, all distractions must
leave us in peace. You have probably noticed by now in reading along that letting be is always
emphasized in connection with concentration. This is intentional, because I am trying here to
make available the insight that we cannot create concentration. We can let concentration
happen by letting ourselves enjoyably dwell on the subject of concentration. How do we create
this possibility? Certainly not by fighting off the distractions, because the rejected and
suppressed distractions, in reaction, exercise a kind of counter-pressure as soon as suppression
leaves off and we cannot concentrate as long as we have to keep suppressing distractions. The
only help here is dealing with the distractions skillfully. This leads to detachment of the mind
from disturbances.

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Transforming Distractions into Supports of Concentration

In reading an important newspaper article as well as during the meditation exercise,
concentration can get lost by being distracted by nearby beings. We have already talked about
dealing with distractions in connection with the exercise in mindfulness of body (at the end of
chapter 2) and kindness meditation (in chapter 3). The procedure there was, first, simply to label
the disturbance and return immediately to the main object of mindfulness and, second, to use
the disturbance as a secondary object of meditation, as for example, in apprehending the
elements. We did not treat the distortions of kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy
explicitly as distractions, but rather termed them 'near enemies/ Probably it occurred to you
even then that the ' near enemies' (for example, frivolous good humor) actually might function
as preliminary stages of the pure form not yet attained (for example, calm sympathetic joy).
Thus an enemy can be made into a helper or harbinger. At this point let us discuss this principle
more technically and in greater depth.

Let us carry on with the example of the newspaper article. The page of a newspaper bearing
many sensational headlines lies in front of me. I pick out the headline of an article that interests
me, I have shielded myself from gross disturbances and prepared myselfthrough the use of a
technique I know for some concentrated. I am composed and I have time. I allow myself the
time and do not let myself bothered about it. Once more I leaf through the whole newspaper
and conclude that there is really nothing interesting in it. Then I return to the chosen article.

The newspaper page with the article I have chosen is in front of me, and I know: This is the
most interesting one. Nevertheless, I shift my gaze back immediately in the direction of my
chosen article and comment mentally: But his is more interesting! and stay with this for a few
seconds. Then I glance again at the other neighboring article and acknowledge: This is also
interesting, but go back again immediately to the chosen article and say to myself softly with
the emphasis: Yes! This is more interesting! I continue in this way deliberately to distract my
attention from the object of concentration, but each time immediately going back to the chosen
one, because it is more interesting. Of course it could happen that during this process my gaze
shifts unexpectedly away from the newspaper altogether, onto an open box of candy (a bowl of
fruit, a package of cigarettes) on the table, and immediately the intention almost arises to reach
out my hand for a piece of candy (an apple, a cigarette). . . . However, I know: There are so
many interesting articles here in front of me and let my gaze come back to the newspaper
page. And now the technique I learned before spontaneously comes into play: Clearly knowing
the purpose, I let my glance come back to the newspaper page. Once there again, I yield to my
reinforced tendency to give my attention to what interests me the most.

page 120

Did you take so much pleasure in your deepened understanding that you stayed fully
concentrated on this mental content without interruption? Or did you perhaps feel from the
beginning an aversion or even anger at having to read the whole chapter again? If that is the
case, there is some lack of composure. Or did you completely reject the invitation to reread? Did
you notice alterations in your state of mind: inquisitive openness, blunt rejection, swinging back
and forth between different spheres of experience?

What does your mind tend forward, at what point does it flow all together as one?

Objects of Meditation: The Gates to Ecstasy

The beginning of the way to ecstatically concentrated awareness was shown through the
example of concentrated reading of a newspaper article. We are acquainted with the right
means for bringing about ecstasy from concentration. Diagram 5 synoptically illustrates how
distractions can be reworked into preliminary stages of concentration, to wit, by the same trick
we used with reading the newspaper. The technique encloses the inevitable fluctuations of
attention in a circle in such a way that gross deviations are forestalled. In this way, awareness is
separated from the more distant manifoldness of things. According to the definition of ecstatic
concentration introduced at the beginning of the chapter, it requires detachment (viveka) from
manifoldness so that concentration can be intensified into one-pointedness (citta-ekaggat);
also, dwelling on the object of concentration should be accompanied by a feeling of happiness
(sukha).

Concentration achieved by means of repression of distractions and without an accompanying
feeling of happiness would not be a concentration leading to ecstasy. Such a tense and loveless
concentration would not even allow effective comprehension of a newspaper article.
Unfortunately, such a way of looking at concentration is all too widespread. Taking this
approach, for example, school psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, and childcare personnel try
to suppress obstacles to concentration and get children painfully to give up their spontaneous
interest in things by the most diverse means. They know nothing about affection toward the
object of concentration, nothing about detachment and composure. They do not know that the
so-called obstacles to concentration are in fact healthy reactions of a mind defending itself
against violations by boring, wrongly conveyed, and meaningless material. Not only newspaper-
reading and meditation, but also learning, traveling, discussing, playing, and working can be
ecstatically experienced and enjoyed.

The ecstatic experience is characterized by the even flow of a feeling of well-being (sukha).

page 124

Stages of Concentration

The complete absorption of jhna is characterized by an undisturbed unity of experience.
Technically this means that there is only one object present in consciousness and all mental
formations like noticing, concentration, will, joy, and so forth are in equipoise and flowing
evenly. Such a harmonization is the result of a painstaking labor of mindfulness in which,
through frequent repetition, skills for accomplishing the transitions between states of
consciousness are trained. By progress in practice the meditator is able to discover technical
tricks within the process and to apply them appropriately.

For the sake of illustration, let us once more compare meditative concentration to a child
playing with a toy train. With the help of an adult (here parallel to meditation teacher), the child
first learns simply to lay a circle of track and to put locomotive on it - that is, to establish the
meditative object and direct mindfulness toward it. This corresponds to the stage of preparatory
concentration (pari-kamma-samdhi). This is the level on which a beginner's meditation takes
place. Though the beginner remains concentrated on the meditative object alone throughout
the session, his meditation is characterized by many distractions and discoveries that are not
part of the unitary image of the primary object. With time the child learns to round out his game
to a greater level of completeness and at the same time to neutralize the events of the outside
world so they will not cause interruptions. Continuous time spent in playing with the train is
extended by perceiving any external events such as the mother bringing something to drink or
a piece of furniture having to be moved in order to extend the track as a useful part of the
game. During periods of meditation when, in a similar way, the primary object is held at the
peak of the hierarchy of attention (aggat), we may speak of a neighboring concentration
(upacra-samdhi).

Only when no more changes are taking place on the peripheries of the meditative object and no
things neighboring on the meditative object are drawing attention to themselves only at that
point, a new experiential space opens up that is completely filled with a single object of
consciousness. This is full concentration (appan-samdhi). I the experiential sphere of
meditation, full concentration goes together with the harmonization of all mental formations
(sakhra-upekkh). Without any longer having to control outer or inner disturbances, we enjoy
the even flow of awareness. Only the most elementary forms of thinking are still necessary in
order to apprehend the reality-anchoring impressions of the meditation objects (vitakka) and to
administer the inner household (vicra). Joy (pti) keeps interest in continuing alive, and the
feeling of calming, pleasant freedom from care (sukha) strengthens the one-pointedness of
mind (citta-ekaggat), which shuts out (viveka) perceptions from other spheres of experiencing.
This is the full concentration of meditative absorption (jhna), which goes beyond ecstasy of the
sensuous world (kma-bhava).

We must be clear here that it is no more possible to convey such an experience by means of a
description than it is, for example, to convey color perception to someone who has been born
blind; and indeed, we are usually born without the experience of jhna. Thus perhaps we will
get a better idea if, with the help of clear comprehension of the sphere of experiencing (gocara),
we try to understand ecstatic concentration through the example of the child playing. The child
is functioning in the experiential sphere of family life, and playing with trains is part of the
manifoldness of this sphere just as meditation exercises are part of the manifoldness of the
sphere of training in Dhamma strategies. Within this manifoldness, the child shows preference
toward those things that help him to prepare for an intensive play. While playing, he
concentrates his perception in such a way that does not touch on his game. However, the paths
of transition between the experiential sphere of family life and that of the game remain open; it
is just that whatever is connected with playing the train is favored. However, from the moment
when the world of trains is established and the child's interest is fully given over to the functions
of train traffic, all other spheres of experiencing disappear. As long as there are no disturbances,
the ecstatic train journey continues alone or, who knows, perhaps in interaction with new
companions whose natural habitat is the sphere of ecstasy. This metaphor could be pursued
further into the investigative sphere concerned with the psycho-cosmology of gods and demons
who dwell in the worlds accessible by means of meditative objects. For the development of
Dhamma strategies, however, such a geography of psychotope is less important than the
development of skills that assure our competence in all spheres of experiencing and especially in
making transitions between them.
Page 141

During the exercise, sit erect, relaxed, and comfortable so that you have the blue disk three to
five feet in front of you, not too low and no higher than your head. The perception of the blue
disk, to whichwithout effort, sitting comfortably and calmlyyou turn your attention, is called
parikamma-nimitta, the "preparatory image." The process at this stage of the exercise is similar
to that illustrated in Diagram 5 (page 119). Speaking softly to yourself, label the inner arisings
and clearly comprehended that the perception of the blue disk is the most interesting and
rewarding one at this time. If your eyes become tired, this is a sign that you have been looking in
a way that was not entirely composed and relaxed. In such a case, close your eyes for a while
and recover your composurefor example, by means of mindfulness of breathing. If you feel
heavy and lethargic, then it is a good idea to check your sitting posture, sit up straight, and
possibly stretch your arms above your head with a deep inbreath a few times. Then go back to
the meditative object. If the preparatory image begins to shimmer or changes in other ways, this
only means that the mind is a bit agitated. Calm yourself again with a few minutes of
mindfulness of breathing or, if you cannot do it sitting up, practice sayana for a while. There
should be no changes in the preparatory image (parikamma-nimitta); the most that is allowable
is that with time it can become clearer and more vivid.