In the time that I have been exploring the role of choice as a crucial element of practice, it has given me a new perspective and understanding of the various skills that we develop as part of the path. As well as coming to appreciate how important it is to be able to let go of anything that arises with as little effort as possible, and for a strong awareness of what the peaceful mind feels like, I have also been considering what it means to have ‘perfected’ a skill, like mindfulness, or concentration, and how, or if, its perfection actually leads to our development.
At the beginning of our practice it is natural to assume that the skills we are working on create the changes that lead to progress. But while it is clear we are constantly being reshaped and polished by each new step along the way, I find myself wondering if development doesn’t just come from these preliminary skills being taken to a high level of mastery. Is the function of these skills not realised by being perfected in and of themselves; but instead, after sufficient insight has been achieved, by being the tools that allow us to make the choice over and over again to move away from desire, hatred, and delusion?
We work on these skills, like the Noble Eightfold Path, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four foundations of mindfulness, the divine abidings, etc. long before we have any level of insight, so it would be hard for us to comprehend fully what their ultimate role is. Our sense generally is that these are skills to be mastered, but what if the real purpose of them is not mastery in and of themselves, but for use at a later point in the practice?
In the 80’s movie “The Karate Kid” (strange reference for a Buddhist blog, I know), the protagonist Daniel wanted to learn karate from the mysterious and aloof Mr. Miyagi, but instead of being given instruction he was given mundane chores to by his teacher instead, such as waxing his car – ‘wax on, wax off’ – and painting his fence. It is only towards the end of the film when Daniel is in the middle of the big fight to win the tournament that he realises that the motion of waxing the car is the same as the one used to block attacks, and that the seemingly pointless amount of time that he was asked to stand on one leg like a crane was to develop the standing position he needed to be in to launch the kick that won him the fight.
Anyone who has blundered their way through the early years of their practice in the way that most of us do can appreciate that it certainly doesn’t seem possible to perfect our skills early in our path; we are far too rough around the edges and often bringing too much ego to our attempts at perfecting ourselves. Even with a great teacher like Maha Boowa, who was thought by some to have achieved enlightenment, it was many, many years into his practice before he was able to develop good concentration.
Before we reach a certain level of insight we are still labouring under a lot of mistaken ideas about what ‘good looks like’ and how we should go about achieving it. We are very much at the whim of our feeling – both physical and mental – and are endlessly tossed about by, as the Buddha calls them, the tides of conceiving (MN140).
My own experiences are often like this: a feeling of pain comes up, I let it go. A few beats from a song float in from the back of my mind, I hold my attention still and let the sound fade back to silence. A task from my daily chores fires into my mind – remember to do that thing – I breathe slowly and don’t allow the mind to follow it. A line of internal dialogue starts chattering, I notice it, let go, and push my attention gently away from it like pushing a boat away from the shore. An urge to stand up appears, and I cut it off before it can be acted on. This all happens in the space of a few seconds.
It certainly can feel like tides of conceiving; there almost constant movement of the mind being pulled and pushed, like a boat being rocked endlessly by the waves. It requires mindfulness of every moment to both notice each sensation and to check that the response to it has been appropriate. Attention is being constantly pulled away from a position of stability towards or away from each sensation that arises, and this is happening every split second.
But there are moments of peace too; in between the end of one sensation and the start of the next there is stillness and calm. The awareness of this ‘home’ position is crucial, if the mind didn’t have somewhere to go when it wasn’t chasing after sensory stimulation then it would just be floating aimlessly in space, and without a stable place to abide in it wouldn’t make any sense to give up the ‘fun’ of your old habits for amorphous nothingness.
At this point in my practice the constant application of mindfulness isn’t so difficult or tiring to do. Yes, it requires constant effort, but it is not too effortful. It doesn’t require a great act of will or a lot of determination to pull the focus of the mind away from mundane internal dialogue, or an outbreak of proliferation; it is just a simple lifting of attention from one place to another, like picking up a pencil and putting it down again somewhere else.
But I can remember all too well what it would have been like to endure this level of constant mindfulness in earlier stages of my practice. I can remember clearly that I even had the thought that being mindful all the time would be awful when I first started to learn it. The idea of having to pay attention to everything I was doing and thinking, all day, every day, without a break sounded torturous. And would it mean that I didn’t get to think about fun stuff anymore?
The beginning of mindfulness practice can indeed be torturous. I remember hearing Ajahn Sucitto recounting a part of his life when he had been following the Burmese practice of labelling everything very seriously for two years, and that this had made him very ‘intense’. It clearly hadn’t been a peaceful experience for him. Similarly I can remember spending a whole weekend retreat trying to be totally mindful of the breath or of my feet when walking, for the entire retreat, and how incredibly tiring it was. At some point the penny drops and we realise that the way we are trying to practice isn’t making us calmer but is instead making us more tense. At this stage we then start to understand what the more experienced practitioners meant when they told us to not be too hard on ourselves.
What is it though that makes mindfulness so arduous in the beginning? One of the big factors seems to be around self-view and the impact it has on how we apply ourselves to the practice. When we start our practice we bring our sense of “I” with us, and when we are learning to be mindful it is hard initially to avoid the feeling that “I” have to be mindful. When “I” have to be mindful, then I put pressure on myself to get it right, and that creates a state of tension. Ironically as we develop more mindfulness this tension increases as we become more and more painfully aware of the gap between what we think we should be doing and what we actually do. If we were already self-critical, as unfortunately many of those drawn towards mindfulness practice often are, then this can be like pouring petrol on a fire in an attempt to extinguish it. Instead of giving us some relief from our problems, it makes us even more acutely aware of them and how badly we are dealing with them. The practice of doing mindfulness isn’t inherently torturous though; the pain comes from how we respond to seeing ourselves being heedless, deluded, and unskillful in every moment, and in greater and greater levels of detail.
To break out of this we need to learn to loosen the feelings around our sense of self. Metta and self-compassion can be the initial solutions that can take a lot of heat out of our harshness towards ourselves when we get things wrong; further down the line seeing deeply into the nature of reality loosens the attachments of self even more. Once the sense of self is sufficiently placated then it is much easier to make mindfulness practice the simple observation of what is occurring in the moment, and not something that requires a lot of effort or creates a lot of recrimination.
In the beginning we do not have enough clarity of vision or experience to know how to apply skills like mindfulness and concentration wisely, and we run the risk of doing this so unskillfully that the pursuit of the path can increase our delusion. To this extent I could contend that trying to perfect our skills too early in our practice creates more problems than it solves. I’m sure most people who are part of a practice community will have heard stories of people who completely burned themselves out – or lost their minds – by going in too hard too soon at the start of their practice, and I’m sure many of us have learned over the years the importance of softening our approach.
I admit that I have often wondered over the years if I had mostly gone a bit too easy on myself though; I have always felt like I haven’t really perfected mindfulness. The unwavering presence of someone like Thic Nhat Han has always eluded me. Mindfulness has never been the main focus of my practice, I always found investigative meditation more interesting and naturally my attention went to the practices I was making faster progress in. As someone who would get bored pretty easily, spending all day trying really hard to be mindful held very little appeal for me and I rarely ever engaged with it as a standalone skill. The development of mindfulness did happen but mostly as a by-product of insight meditation, not by the deliberate cultivation of it on its own.
When I think about what I consider ‘perfect mindfulness’ to look like, someone completely composed moving slowly and deliberately comes to mind. Someone so entirely absorbed into their movement and experience that the mind is completely unruffled by trivial thoughts. Admittedly I have, largely, never been that person.
Likewise I would say that I haven’t perfected my concentration either, although this is a skill I have spent a bit more time working on than mindfulness. Before now ‘perfecting concentration’ to me meant something like being able to sit with complete laser-like focus on the meditation object to the exclusion of everything else. The person who immediately comes to mind is jhana-master extraordinaire Ajahn Brahm, who can seemingly simply put his attention on the breath and it stays there as long as he wants it to.
But now I wonder if this kind of concentration would be so useful if all the mind was able to do was to fix itself onto one object. How would this allow the opportunity to observe cravings, aversions, and delusions? Many jhana meditators would say that it is by reflection after the jhana meditation that the insight arises, but this explanation doesn’t indicate how concentration is useful to us while we are working our way through our kilesas in real time.
One of the dispersions cast at jhana practice (albeit largely by die hard mindfulness devotees) is that it can become little more than escapism. This isn’t an incorrect assertion, once someone has got the hang of jhana they can quite easily leave their problems behind and transport their mind to states of bliss and peace. Instead of observing the kilesas, you can just blot them out. Without understanding what the real aim of jhana practice is, it can become just another source of sensual pleasure, can obscure aversion to difficult feelings, and will not uproot any ignorance nor lead to insight.
The actual learning point from jhana practice isn’t achieved when you reach the highest jhana state, but when you see clearly that all of the jhana states are conditioned, fabricated, not real but just the work of your mind. So perhaps it isn’t too much of a flight of fancy to wonder if similarly the learning point from developing concentration isn’t realised when you can sit with only one object in your mind and no other thoughts can get in, but instead it is when you can successfully hold the mind still in the face of the tides of desire and aversion.
Mindfulness could be considered in the same way. Rather than reaching its peak when you can be mindful of all of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that by keeping these in focus that you stop any kilesas from arising, instead it reaches its full capacity when you can repeatedly observe each and every sensation that arises in your experience and not lose track of what you are supposed to be doing.
Luang Por Sumedho’s description of breath meditation, anapanasati, shows us that being mindful of the breath doesn’t need to be intense or complicated, and there’s no sense that there is a mastery of it beyond watching one breath after another:
“To practise anapanasati, one brings the attention onto one inhalation, being mindful from the beginning to the end. One inhalation, that’s it; and then the same goes for the exhalation. That’s the perfect attainment of anapanasati. The awareness of just that much, is the result of concentration of the mind through sustained attention on the breath. From the beginning to the end of the inhalation, from the beginning to the end of the exhalation. The attitude is always one of letting go, not attaching to any ideas or feelings that arise from that, so that you’re always fresh with the next inhalation, the next exhalation, completely as it is.”https://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebmed087.htm
So maybe the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t whether we have mastered mindfulness or concentration, but instead simply “are we doing it?” Are we watching the breath? Are we keeping the mind still? Because ultimately if all we focus on is whether we are doing it in the present moment then its development will happen as the natural outcome of that.
Everything I have talked about is just ideas though, an interesting observation of how our relationship to these skills that we dutifully develop might change as our practice changes. I didn’t think my mindfulness was well developed at all, but it seems that it is good enough to do the job it has to do right now. My concentration was a little better but certainly nowhere near Olympic standard; but it too is good enough to do what it is needed to do right now. And actually now that I can see what it is that these two skills do to help uproot the kilesas, I am much more inclined towards developing them more.
The teachings tell us that nothing we do is ultimately perfected until we have let go of all delusion, and have achieved nibbana, so we never rest on our laurels. All the skills that we are developing are the rafts that help us to cross to the shore on the other side, so we don’t stop working on them until we get there. Our perspective on them might change along the way, but our effort in using them should never wane until the work is finally complete.
And the path to perfection isn’t necessarily about being spotless all the time either, as Ajahn Amaro says:
This … is the true development of wisdom: the mindfulness to recognise the conditioned nature of a state , to turn away from it, and to attend to the deathless, even while the state is still around.”p57 Small Boat Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu