I believe some of our struggles in meditation could be eased if we recognized there are two paths to meditative concentration, or samadhi – directed effort, and letting go – and what works well for one person may be frustrating and fruitless for another. In this episode I briefly discuss what samadhi is, and then describe the two very different ways to achieve it. In the next episode I’ll describe the “letting go” approach in more detail.
Quicklinks to Content:
Samadhi, or Meditative Concentration
Samadhi In and Of Itself Doesn’t Lead to Liberation
Samadhi Through Directed Effort
Confessions of a Failure at the Directed Effort Method
Buddhadhasa’s “Insight by the Nature Method”
The Other Way: Letting Go
In all forms of Buddhism that emphasize the practice of meditation, it’s understood that deep, liberating insight depends on our ability to achieve some degree of samadhi, or meditative concentration. Most of us find it extremely challenging to achieve samadhi for even a few moments at a time, let alone develop the ability to do so reliably, or for prolonged periods. To some extent, I suppose, that’s just part of a spiritual path that never promised to be easy.
On the other hand, I believe some of our struggles in meditation could be eased if we recognized there are two paths to samadhi – directed effort, and letting go – and what works well for one person may be frustrating and fruitless for another. In this episode I’ll briefly discuss what samadhi is, and then describe the two very different ways to achieve it. In the next episode, I’ll describe the “letting go” approach in more detail, because I believe it’s rarely taught to people in a pure form, and because I believe we have a cultural bias against it. Hopefully, you’ll come away from the two episodes with the courage to do the practice that works for you, even when you hear emphatic instructions to do the other kind of practice.
Samadhi, or Meditative Concentration
About meditative concentration, James Austin, author of the hefty, intellectual tome “Zen and the Brain,” says:
“A slippery topic, samadhi. A word so many-sided that it poses major semantic problems. It suffers in translation, as will anyone who tries to tag it with but one meaning. Some render it as ‘concentration,’ others as ‘absorption,’ still others as ‘trance,’ ‘stillness,’ ‘collectiveness,’ etc.
The difficulty in defining samadhi, of course, isn’t just due to translation problems. The biggest challenge lies in the fact we’re trying to put a word to a subtle, complex, completely subjective but real experience. Reality is impossible to convey entirely and accurately in words. In addition, how do I know my experience of samadhi is similar to yours?
Still, there are some common themes that pop up in people’s descriptions of their deeper meditative states. In general, in a state we might call samadhi, the discursive, thought-generating part of our minds slows way down, sometimes even stopping completely. Instead of the usual flurry of mental activity going on for us, we can perceive space between the thoughts and watch them float into and out of consciousness without caring much at all about them. Similarly, any physical sensations, feelings, or perceptions that arise are untroubling and unexciting; we experience them, but we’re grounded in a deeper or larger sense of reality. We feel stable, still, and spacious all at the same time.
In samadhi, there’s often a sense of peace, or a perception of inherent luminosity within everything that has nothing to do with physical light. Although we’re focused intently on exactly what’s occurring in the present time and place, there’s also a sense that we’re tapping into a reality which is timeless and boundless. Whatever we perceive with our senses – our own body, the bodies of others, whatever else is in our visual field, whatever we happen to hear or touch – is encountered in fresh and direct way, at least momentarily free of any label or associated narrative. The sense of separation between self and everything outside the self may fall away, leading to a surprising recognition of all things as self (that is, part of “self” in a larger sense). Generally speaking, in samadhi a deep conviction arises that we’re seeing reality more clearly than we do at other times. It feels like waking up out of a dream – and that very compelling dream overtakes us again all too soon, leading some of us strive diligently for samadhi states even when they elude us for years.
Samadhi In and Of Itself Doesn’t Lead to Liberation
Before I get to my discussion of the two paths to samadhi (directed effort and letting go), I want to make it clear samadhi states are not the goal of Buddhism. Well, to clarify: The goal of Buddhism isn’t attaining samadhi states for their own sake, just so we can enjoy sitting there all blissed out. Additionally, it’s easy to tie your practice in knots over trying to achieve samadhi states, regardless of whether your method of choice is directed effort or letting go. Generally speaking, it’s best to simply do our practice, thereby creating the right conditions for samadhi, and allow the states to occur when they will, without grasping after them. One of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, said samadhi states are like a cat: You make a nice lap for them, but you can’t force them to settle in. In fact, the slightest grasping after some cats, even if it’s only energetic, will creep them out and make them avoid you. So, even though I’m talking about samadhi states, I don’t want you to concretize them as a goal or think they’re the only sign of fruitful practice.
At the same time, samadhi in the sense of concentration – alternatively, collectedness or stillness of mind and body – is a necessary component of the Buddhist path of practice if you really want to work for liberation and transformation. According to the Pali Canon and Theravadin Buddhism, samadhi is one of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path, and one of the Seven Factors of Awakening. As Piyadassi Thera says in an article “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment” on the Access to Insight website:
“The sixth enlightenment factor is samadhi, concentration. It is only the tranquillized mind that can easily concentrate on a subject of meditation. The calm concentrated mind sees things as they really are. The unified mind brings the five hindrances under subjugation.
“Concentration is the intensified steadiness of the mind comparable to an unflickering flame of a lamp in a windless place. It is concentration that fixes the mind aright and causes it to be unmoved and undisturbed… Right concentration dispels passions that disturb the mind, and brings purity and placidity of mind…”[ii]
The idea is that you need to settle way down compared to your usual way of operating in order to at least temporarily be able to drop the thick, almost opaque filter of preconceived ideas that usually stands between you and your experience of the entire world. Then you can see reality more clearly and directly, opening the door to liberating insight. As Mark Epstein puts it:
“Concentration is the secret ingredient of meditation, the backbone of the entire endeavor… It is a means of temporarily dispelling the repetitive thoughts of the everyday mind, a way of opening the psyche to new and unscripted experiences…”[iii]
The description of the Buddha’s mind right before his enlightenment, according to the Pali canon, was “concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability,”[iv] and it was with this mind he investigated the problem of human suffering and came up with the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path. In different kinds of Buddhism, we go about the quest for liberating insight in different ways – for example, Theravadins systematically investigate the nature of reality, particularly the truths of impermanence (anicca), dissatisfactoriness (dukkha), not-self (anatta), and the Four Noble Truths, while in Zen we seek to awaken to emptiness and suchness in a manner somewhat more intuitive and organic – but in any case, we’re trying to see through delusions that cause suffering so we can subsequently act with great wisdom and compassion.
Samadhi Through Directed Effort
Unless you’re at a hard core, purist Zen/Chan practice center focused solely on silent illumination or shikantaza (not many out there I know of, at least in the west – I think they’re more common in Asia), chances are most of the meditation instruction you’ll get will tell you to summon your willpower and make an effort to calm your mind. You’ll be asked to concentrate on something – to tame the mind by tying it to its meditative object, like you would tame a wild elephant by tying it to a stake until it eventually settles down. Usually, this approach is just called “concentration,” but to differentiate a meditative technique from samadhi itself, I’m going to call this approach “directed effort.”
It’s very easy to find descriptions of the straightforward results you can expect from a directed effort to calm your mind. This is Maria Reis Habito in a Dharma Talk from Tricycle magazine:
“If we learn to concentrate our usually distracted mind on just breathing in and out, the distractions become fewer and our concentration becomes stronger, and over time our practice develops into a luminous dimension and fills us with the energy of concentration.”[v]
Here’s Mark Epstein from a Tricycle article on concentration called “Meditation’s Secret Ingredient:”
“Concentration, from a Buddhist perspective, means keeping one’s attention steady on a single object such as the breath or a sound for extended periods of time. This is not something that we do ordinarily, and it is not something that comes easily. Those who try to fix their attention in this way for even five minutes will see this for themselves…
“But right concentration asks us to persevere. Beginning meditators struggle with this very simple task. Whenever they notice that their attention has strayed, they return it to the central object. Lapses in attention happen not once or twice but over and over and over again… Ancient texts compare the process of concentration to the taming of a wild animal. It is a difficult endeavor, full of ups and downs, but one that yields reliable results if practiced diligently and with patience.
“As concentration increases, the mind and body relax. Thoughts diminish, emotional pressures weaken, and a kind of calm takes over. The mind gradually comes under some degree of control and settles down.”[vi]
The Buddha himself taught directed effort, and clearly countless practitioners through the millennia have found this approach fruitful. Over years of practice, the story goes, you become able to settle the mind and achieve samadhi more readily, reliably, deeply, and sustainably – particularly if you attend extended meditation retreats. No one would say it’s easy, but, as Epstein says, directed effort at concentration is a method “that yields reliable results if practiced diligently and with patience.”
Confessions of a Failure at the Directed Effort Method
For some people. I’ve been practicing patiently and diligently for 23 years, and I confess that I’ve rarely experienced my mind “gradually settling down” as a result of directed effort in meditation, whether that effort was to follow the breath, listen to sounds, or concentrate on any other meditative object. Pretty much the only time this approach has led to samadhi, for me, has been in the middle of week-long intensive meditation retreats where we sit at least 8 hours a day. Even then, the samadhi was limited to the better parts of one or two or three meditation periods, and then it would be gone – sweet but ephemeral reward for dozens of hours of grueling effort. I’ve often spent the rest of such retreats trying to get back to that level of stillness and concentration, but the harder I tried, the more it eluded me. And outside of retreat? Whether we’re talking about seated meditation or daily life mindfulness, any effort to control my mind backfires and makes me even less concentrated. I really did my best to practice “diligently and with patience” as Epstein suggests, but when I wasn’t getting substantially better at concentration through the direct effort method after twenty years I began to wonder if there was another way.
Well, to be completely accurate, I wondered if there was another way all along, and in fact the “other way” – letting go – was in front of me all the time. I do belong to a Soto Zen lineage, after all, in which we ostensibly practice shikantaza, the ultimate “letting go” practice. However, even shikantaza is usually taught along with preparatory practices like breath following or counting. Most teachers – at least in the west – seem to believe that you can’t sit shikantaza until you first settle the mind somewhat, and in order to do that you use a direct effort method. Therefore, even as a Soto practitioner, willful control of the mind is my go-to approach to either meditation or moment-by-moment mindfulness off the cushion. (I’ve been conditioned to believe, “You can’t just go straight to letting go without first taming that wild elephant of a mind!”)
The ways I can get tripped up by directed effort can be pretty subtle, too. For example, for a long time I was simply trying to “return to the present moment” when I noticed my mind was wandering. That’s not too much effort, right? And hardly an ambitious goal. But then I recognized this approach wasn’t helping to settle my mind at all, and I realized I’d made some vague thing called “the present moment” into my meditative object and was trying to apply the direct effort method. How frustrating!
Buddhadhasa’s “Insight by the Nature Method”
It was nearly twenty years ago I was first exposed to the suggestion it might be possible for me to taste the fruits of Buddhism and experience liberation even though my ability to concentrate through directed effort was limited. I was spending the better part of a year at Tassajara Zen Monastery, and a friend introduced me to piece of writing by Thai monk and philosopher Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu. In the Handbook for Mankind, Buddhadhasa emphasizes the importance of developing liberating insight, as I just discussed. Then he has two chapters: One, “Insight by the nature method” – which comes first, by the way – and two, “Insight by organized training.” As I read his chapter on what he calls the “nature method,” my heart leapt with hope and excitement:
“In this chapter we shall see how concentration may come about naturally on the one hand, and as a result of organized practice on the other. The end result is identical in the two cases: the mind is concentrated and fit to be used for carrying out close introspection. One thing must be noticed, however: the intensity of concentration that comes about naturally is usually sufficient and appropriate for introspection and insight, whereas the concentration resulting from organized training is usually excessive, more than can be made use of. Furthermore, misguided satisfaction with that highly developed concentration may result. While the mind is fully concentrated, it is likely to be experiencing such a satisfying kind of bliss and well-being that the meditator may become attached to it, or imagine it to be the Fruit of the Path. Naturally occurring concentration, which is sufficient and suitable for use in introspection, is harmless, having none of the disadvantages inherent in concentration developed by means of intensive training.”[vii]
Buddhadhasa then describes how there are numerous cases in the Pali canon where people experience liberating insight quite naturally and spontaneously. They’re often simply listening to the Buddha or one of his disciples preach the Dharma, rather than meditating in a state of deep concentration. Buddhadhasa goes on:
“These examples clearly show that natural concentration is liable to develop of its own accord while one is attempting to understand clearly some question, and that the resulting insight, as long as it is firmly established must be quite intense and stable. It happens naturally, automatically in just the same way as the mind becomes concentrated the moment we set about doing arithmetic. Likewise in firing a gun, when we take aim, the mind automatically becomes concentrated and steady. This is how naturally occurring concentration comes about. We normally overlook it completely because it does not appear the least bit magical, miraculous, or awe inspiring. But through the power of just this naturally occurring concentration, most of us could actually attain liberation.”[viii]
Before I leave Buddhadhasa’s writing, one more section where he discusses the two methods of practice explicitly:
“The Buddha defined Nirvana as simply that condition of freedom from bondage, torment and suffering which results from seeing the true nature of the worldly condition and all things, and so being able to give up all clinging to them. It is essential, then, that we recognize the very great value of insight into the true nature of things and endeavor to cultivate this insight by one means or another. Using one method, we simply encourage it to come about of its own accord, naturally, by developing, day and night, the joy that results from mental purity, until the qualities we have described gradually come about. The other method consists in developing mental power by following an organized system of concentration and insight practice. This latter technique is appropriate for people with a certain kind of disposition, who may make rapid progress with it if conditions are right.”[ix]
Leaving off with Buddhadhasa there might give you the impression he thought organized training was a more efficacious method that requires certain skills, and if you didn’t possess the skills you could always use the nature method. But in fact, his bias went the other way. At the beginning of the chapter on organized training he says, “This kind of practice [organized training] is suitable for people at a fairly undeveloped stage, who still cannot perceive the unsatisfactoriness of worldly existence with their own eyes, naturally.” When I first read this, my competitive side sang, “Alleluia!” At last, someone was suggesting I didn’t have to feel inferior to people who could willfully concentrate! (I actually don’t think one path or the other is superior, and comparing ourselves to others is just an obstacle in practice. Still…)
Despite the solace I found in Buddhadhasa’s words 20 years ago, I didn’t commit myself to the “nature method.” It was probably because of his suggestion that the “organized training” path could lead to “rapid progress;” I certainly didn’t want to be some inadequate slow-poke practitioner. I wanted liberation now, not gradually over the course of decades. So, I continued to struggle with directed effort, feeling alternately determined and frustrated. In retrospect, of course, no effort in practice is wasted. Even though I periodically struggled with the direct effort method, I was practicing the nature method all along, in each and every moment. My life was gradually transformed and I was gradually liberated… my small insights added up until one day I realized my major, painful doubts had been resolved. I made enough quote-unquote “progress” for my teacher to transmit the Dharma to me, and the journey continues.
The Other Way: Letting Go
Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to practice for the last 20 years while calmly and confidently committed to the nature method, or what I call the approach of “letting go” (for reasons that should become clear later). What would it have been like to have teachers reassure me I didn’t need to beat my head against the brick wall of directed effort – that, in fact, I shouldn’t waste my time doing it, but instead explore letting go even more deeply? What if, as Buddhadhasa suggests, some people do well with directed effort, while others benefit from taking a different approach?
To be fair to my many teachers – those I’ve encountered in person, and those who’ve taught me through the written word – I’ve been surrounded since the beginning of my practice by descriptions of the “letting go” approach. I recited Fukanzazengi on a weekly basis for 15 years, in which Zen master Dogen gives these instructions for zazen, or seated meditation:
“Do not think ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha.”[x]
Sounds pretty different than directed effort, doesn’t it? Then there’s this advice from 20th-century Chan master Sheng Yen, who was clearly familiar with the experience of frustration in trying to concentrate through directed effort:
“The most important thing in practice is to be natural and spontaneous. Being natural does not mean neglecting everything. It requires careful attention. In meditation, you should sit in a natural posture and use your mind in a natural way… To use your mind in a natural way means to avoid trying to control it. The more you try to control your mind, the more stray thoughts will come up to bother you. In fact, the very fear of stray thoughts is another stray thought. Therefore, if you have many stray thoughts, consider it a natural phenomenon and do not despise them. But on the other hand, if you completely give in to a train of wandering thoughts, that is not correct either. What is the best approach? Pay close attention to the method. If you do that, stray thoughts will be kept to a minimum. It is not that they will not arise, but you will not worry about them. If you are really paying attention to the method, you will be aware of a stray thought as soon as it arises. When it comes up, just let it go. Do not be afraid that another thought may follow it. That fear is an extra stray thought…”[xi]
Given these Chan and Zen teachings, why didn’t I just do shikantaza and forget about directed effort? Well, as I mentioned earlier, shikantaza (or, in Chan, silent illumination) and the whole associated practice approach of no gaining idea is rarely taught by itself. Particularly when I have attended intensive meditation retreats, the teachings frequently recommend some form of directed effort. Such teachings often use the words of the Buddha himself, who isn’t recorded as teaching anything remotely like “sit still and let go of any effort to control your mind.” It’s awfully hard to blow off the Buddha, or ignore the words coming out of the mouth of a respected Zen teacher. So, even though my heart has always leaned toward just letting go, I’ve been repeatedly tempted to wrestle with directed effort. It sounds so straightforward: Just set your intention, apply the effort long enough, and voila – concentration! That’s the approach I take with the rest of my life, and it works so well. Why not with meditation? It’s been awfully hard not to regard my lack of ability to achieve concentration by directed effort as a moral failing.
I also think we’re culturally biased against a practice like letting go. It sounds lazy, and we want to work hard and achieve things. The idea of our mind as a wild elephant that needs to be tamed fits with our sense that we need to be fixed somehow – that our naturally tendencies will lead us astray according to the whims of the id or the devil. Ironically, the “letting go” method isn’t easy. It’s very different than directed effort but demands just as much energy, determination, and patience. In fact, letting go may take more patience and humility than directed effort because it’s much less straightforward. How on earth does just sitting and giving up any effort to control anything lead to samadhi and therefore to liberating insight?
I’ll describe letting go as a path to samadhi in detail in the next episode. As a little preview, let me wrap up by briefly describing the “letting go” I did in the meditation retreat I recently attended, because the more completely I embraced that practice, the deeper my samadhi became. (Yes, samadhi. I can become concentrated too! Just not if I try…).
I would find myself sitting there on the meditation cushion, “doing” shikantaza – that is, I would surrender as completely as possible to the physical act of sitting, and try to allow whatever was going to happen, to happen. Then I would recognize the presence of a very subtle intention or expectation (I’m meditating now!), and let go into an honest presence in which my body, mind, and heart all equally participated. This was my life. This moment sitting on my cushion was in no way different from any moment earlier in the day, when I was working and eating and resting. Nothing was special about this moment except that I was trying to pay attention to it. I tried to show up for it as wholeheartedly as I could, as if this was last meditation session I would ever sit, letting go all thoughts about the future or past. As I settled a little, things would start to feel kind of cool, and some expectation and greed would sneak in. (Maybe if I settle a little more, then…) I would remind myself that the reality I want to see clearly is already right in front of my eyes; it’s only my concept of there being “something else” that obstructs my direct experience.
And so on, and so on… always doing less, letting go, relaxing more. Of course, with the letting go approach you have to learn to deal with dullness and laxity – a tricky thing when you’re trying to do it without directed effort! But I’ll go into that in the next episode.
[i] Excerpts from Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness (1998) by James H. Austin, M.D., reprinted with permission from The MIT Press in Tricycle magazine: The Semantics of Samadhi, https://tricycle.org/magazine/semantics-samadhi/
[ii] “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment”, by Piyadassi Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/piyadassi/wheel001.html
[iii] “Meditation’s Secret Ingredient: Right Concentration” by Mark Epstein, Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2018. https://tricycle.org/magazine/meditations-secret-ingredient
[iv] “Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html .
[v] Embodying Compassion: The Power of Emptiness by Maria Reis Habito, in Tricycle Magazine Nov 2018 (https://tricycle.org/dharmatalks/embodying-compassion/the-power-of-emptiness-prajnaparamita/)
[vi] “Meditation’s Secret Ingredient: Right Concentration” by Mark Epstein, Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2018. https://tricycle.org/magazine/meditations-secret-ingredient
[vii] Buddhadhasa, Bhikkhu. Handbook for Mankind. Buddha Dharma Education Association. Available as a pdf: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/buddasa.pdf
[x] Eihei Dogen, Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen (Fukan zazengi). https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html
[xi] Sheng Yen, Faith in Mind: A Guide to Chan Practice. Dharma Publishing, 1987