This is the ninth in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.
Parts 1-7 available here:
- Part 1: The Noble Eightfold Path: An Introduction
- Part 2: Right Understanding
- Part 3: Right Intention.
- Part 4: Right Speech
- part 5: Right Action.
- Part 6: Right Livelihood
- Part 7: Right Effort
- Part 8: Right Mindfulness.
Aspect Eight – right concentration
Right concentration means developing something called ‘one-pointedness of mind’ (Samadhi), so that one’s mind is wholly and singularly focussed on an object of attention. This one-pointedness in right concentration should be wholesome, that is done with right intention and effort of lifting the mind to a higher plane of consciousness. The following passage from Bikhu Bodhi serves to illustrate the characteristics of right concentration.
‘The commentaries define Samadhi as the centring of the mind and mental factors rightly and evenly on an object. Samadhi as wholesome concentration collects together the ordinary dispersed and dissipated stream of mental states to induce inner unification. The two salient features of a concentrated mind are unbroken attentiveness to an object and the consequent tranquillity of the mental functions, qualities which distinguish it from the unconcentrated mind. The mind untrained in concentration move in a scattered manner which the Buddha compares to the flapping about of a fish taken from the water and thrown onto dry land…. But the mind that has been trained in concentration is like a lake unruffled by any breeze… a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.’
In order to practice right concentration we need to find an object of attention to focus on. There are various objects that are recommended by different teachers and schools of Buddhism, but the two most well known are Mindfulness of Breathing (anapana sati) and Loving Kindness Meditation (metta bhavana).[i]
Buddhanet (2013) offers a useful summary of what both these forms of meditation involve – If you are to practice mindfulness of Breathing–
“You would follow these easy steps: the four Ps place, posture, practice and problems. First, find a suitable place, perhaps a room that is not too noisy and where you are not likely to be disturbed. Second, sit in a comfortable posture. A good posture is to sit with your legs folded, a pillow under your buttocks, your back straight, the hands nestled in the lap and the eyes closed. Alternatively, you can sit in a chair as long as you keep your back straight. Next comes the actual practice itself. As you sit quietly with your eyes closed you focus your attention on the in and out movement of the breath. This can be done by counting the breaths or watching the rise and fall of the abdomen. When this is done, certain problems and difficulties will arise. You might experience irritating itches on the body or discomfort in the knees. If this happens, try to keep the body relaxed without moving and keep focusing on the breath. You will probably have many intruding thoughts coming into your mind and distracting your attention from the breath. The only way you can deal with this problem is to patiently keep returning your attention to the breath. If you keep doing this, eventually thoughts will weaken, your concentration will become stronger and you will have moments of deep mental calm and inner peace.”
And to practice Loving Kindness meditation
The practice always begins with developing a loving acceptance of yourself. If resistance is experienced then it indicates that feelings of unworthiness are present. No matter, this means there is work to be done, as the practice itself is designed to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. Then you are ready to systematically develop loving-kindness towards others.
Four Types of Persons to develop loving-kindness towards:
- A respected, beloved person – such as a spiritual teacher;
- A dearly beloved – which could be a close family member or friend;
- A neutral person – somebody you know, but have no special feelings towards, e.g.: a person who serves you in a shop;
- A hostile person – someone you are currently having difficulty with.
Starting with yourself, then systematically sending loving-kindness from person to person in the above order will have the effect of breaking down the barriers between the four types of people and yourself. This will have the effect of breaking down the divisions within your own mind, the source of much of the conflict we experience. Try different people to practice on, as some people do not easily fit into the above categories, but do try to keep to the prescribed order.
One has to be cautious when talking about ‘purpose’ or ‘control’ in meditation, as meditation can easily drift into an ego-centred activity in which one is ‘desperately trying to achieve enlightenment” rather than simply being aware in the moment, expressing our true nature. As an antidote to this Suzuki (1998) helpfully suggests that ‘we are already our true nature’ and if we just adopt the correct posture and ‘sit well’, fully experiencing whatever arises when we sit, we are already expressing all that we are. This kind of ‘open-minded attitude’ is a healthy antidote to meditation becoming ego-centred.
The benefits of meditation are that one’s mind should be calmer; one should become more detached from the world, and better able to endure the cravings to seek happiness through attaching oneself to particular things. Eventually, although this might well take many decades, if one persists enough to refine one’s meditative practices, the individual will supposedly progress to more esoteric levels of meditation which involve simply being one with the object of meditation, experiencing spiritual powers, or evolving into different planes of awareness, ultimately to enlightenment itself. Such transcendence can only be discovered personally through intense effort, and to give you some idea of how far beyond ordinary consciousness on might advance, Buddhist scriptures suggest that there are eight stages of concentration.
The eight stages of concentration
After the initial phases of practice one will enter what can be approximately rendered as the ‘eight stages of meditative absorption’, more colloquially known as the eight stages of concentration. The good news is that it is in these states that you start to experience the five enlightenment factors directly while doing nothing other than experiencing breathing, or whatever other object has been selected as an object of concentration. It is thus in this final element of the path that we find true, deep happiness through attachment from material things. The bad news is that this kind of happiness will probably take years for most of us to obtain, and it is strongly implied that a monastic life, and thus a very forcible renunciation of the trappings or ordinary mundane life, is required to attain these states of meditative absorption.
Before one reaches the first meditative state there is a long process of initial practice. Taking mindfulness of breathing as an example, in the earliest stages of meditation practice one will struggle to hold one’s attention on one’s breath. After many months of practice one will finally be able to sit and concentrate on the breath for a reasonable amount of time with minimal drifting of the mind into flights of fancy. At this point, the five hindrances start to become a barrier to one’s concentration – that is desire, ill-will, restlessness, sloth and uncertainty, and it may well take the practitioner years to let these settle and genuinely focus on concentration in a sustained manner.
With persistent effort, at times during one’s practice one will start to experience the ‘five enlightenment factors’ which are initial application of mind, sustained application of mind, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness, the characteristics, which overlap with the seven enlightenment factors, are as follows.
Initial Application of mind – Necessitates energy and clarity of focus, as one directs one’s attention on the object as one would drive a nail through wood.
Sustained Application of mind – Like initial application but more sustained. Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) refers to the difference as the former being like striking a bell and sustained application as like the bell’s reverberations.
Rapture – Is the intense joy in the object of concentration.
Happiness – Is a subtler feeling of happiness which accompanies the joy of concentration
One-pointedness – Is a feeling of equanimity, or of being one with an object of concentration.
With practice at overcoming the five hindrances, and with the help of the five enlightenment factors, one enters what is called ‘the neighbourhood’. During this phase one’s concentration intensifies as one gradually becomes closer with the breath and more removed from the outside world. This intensification of concentration takes the form of deepening levels of visualisations. Initially, one concentrates on the actual object, but later on the actual object is replaced by a mental image of the object known as the ‘learning sign’. Eventually this internal mental image is replaced by what is called the ‘counterpart sign’ which is a purified mental image many times brighter than the original mental image.
After practice at concentrating on the learning sign, one eventually enters the first of the eight stages of concentration proper. What differentiates the eight stages of meditative absorption from preliminary concentration and the neighbourhood is that the enlightenment factors are now steady and fully established.
Each stage of concentration has overlapping qualities such that the practitioner can enter one stage from the preceding one, and each stage is a degree subtler than the previous.
The first stage of concentration contains all five enlightenment factors – Initial and sustained application of mind, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. This stage is seen as somewhat crude because it still requires one to actively engage in initial and sustained application of concentration.
With more concentration one enters the second stage of concentration in which one leaves behind the initial and sustained application and just experiences the rapture, joy and one-pointedness of being with the object of concentration. In this stage, however, rapture is seen as somewhat crude because it is an agitated state.
The third stage of concentration consists of happiness and one-pointedness, in which one resides in a subtler feeling of contentedness at being one with the object of attention.
The fourth stage consists of merely one-pointedness in which one is simply in a neutral state of being with the object of attention.
The first four stages of concentration are collectively known as ‘the material stages of concentration’. After these stages come the four immaterial stages of concentration in which the mind transcends even the subtlest traces of visualised images. It is hard to talk about these four stages, but in order of progression they are known as…
Stage five – The base of infinite space
Stage six – The base of infinite consciousness
Stage seven – The base of nothingness
Stage eight – The base of neither perception nor non perception.
Although these stages of concentration start with rapture, moving through equanimity and a long way beyond, according to Bikkhu Bodhi (2000) even stage eight is not liberation from suffering and thus this is not the end of path. Once right concentration has been mastered one has to reapply oneself to a gain a deeper level of understanding of the first two aspects of the path in order to gain ‘insight-wisdom’ which is where one finally penetrates directly the truth and achieves genuine liberation from suffering.
As a final world on the subject, I am not an expert in meditation. In fact I would say I am quite bad at it, and in this I know I am not alone. Readers are advised to seek expert guidance under people who have been meditating longer than I have, and to this end I can thoroughly recommend the Buddhist Society in London[ii] [iii]
[i] Bodhi points out that the meditation manuals suggest that there are 40 different objects available for developing serenity meditation. I am not going to go into all 40 here, but they include a range of things, including the most.
[iii] If, however, you live nowhere near London, check out your local meditation group. I suggest attending with some level of caution to ensure the instruction you are getting is not ‘ego-centric’.