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From "A Heart as Wide as the World -- Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness" by Sharon Salzberg

Happy to Concentrate


      WHEN I FIRST STARTED practicing meditation, I assumed that it took a great deal of laborious, grim effort to tame the mind and develop concentration. In my first meditation retreat, I became so frustrated with the persistent wanderings of my attention that, in a frenzy, I declared to myself that the next time my attention wandered I would start to bang my head against the wall. Fortunately, the lunch bell rang just then. Standing in the lunch line, I overheard a conversation between two students I did not know. One of them was asking the other how his morning had gone. The other man replied with apparent great lightness of spirit, "I couldn't really concentrate strongly, but this afternoon may well be better."

      I turned around in great shock and regarded him with disbelief. "Why isn't he as upset as I am?" I wondered. "Doesn't he take this stuff seriously at all?" This was my first meeting with Joseph Goldstein. Five and a half years later, along with Jack Kornfield and many committed friends, we would be the founders of the Insight Meditation Society. By that time, I had come to understand what lay behind Joseph's lighthearted statement.

      As my practice evolved, I learned that the conditions required for concentration to develop were far from the kind of tormented struggle I had engaged in. In Buddhist psychology, every wholesome quality of mind has what is called a proximate cause. This is the condition, or the basis, that most easily and readily gives rise to a particular quality. For example, the proximate cause of metta, or lovingkindness, is seeing the goodness in someone, so metta most easily arises when we can see the good in someone. I had expected the proximate cause of concentration to be something like intense zeal or valiant struggle. Instead, much to my surprise, according to the Buddhist teachings the proximate cause of concentration is happiness.

      As I had realized, straining to keep the mind on an object does not create the condition for concentration to most readily arise. However, when the mind is at ease, serene, and happy, we can more easily and naturally concentrate. Happiness in this sense does not mean the fleeting experience of pleasure, which inherently contains a quiet anxiety based on knowing that the moment will pass. The kind of happiness that is the proximate cause of concentration is a state of tranquillity in which our hearts are calm, open, and confident. This is the fertile ground for the growth of concentration. But how do we arrive at this state of happiness?

      To some degree we arrive there by having a correct per- spective—the perspective Joseph was evincing in that lunch line so many years ago. There are always what we perceive as ups and downs in practice. Meditation is a cyclical process that defies analysis, but demands acceptance. As my practice developed, I found that the ability to accept and allow for changing experience was connected to my degree of self-respect.

      When my sense of self-respect was strong, I could go through difficult periods without being so disheartened. Difficulties did not reflect a lack of self-worth to me. And I could go through pleasant periods without trying to get a death-grip on them, for fear they would change and leave me feeling badly about myself. For me, self-respect definitely seemed a key component in maintaining the happiness that, in turn, helped give rise to concentration. And it became clear that my level of self-respect was rooted in how I behaved during the rest of my life, when I was not sitting on the meditation cushion. I found this truth not only in my practice, but in the classical Buddhist teachings as well.

      These teachings are often presented in a causal sequence, which shows how one state of mind helps create the conditions for the arising of the next. In the Visuddhi-magga (The Path of Purification), a famous commentarial work of the Theravada tradition, happiness takes its place in a logical unfolding that leads from morality to ultimate liberation.

      The text opens by telling us that morality is considered the foundation for the development of restraint. In Buddhism, morality does not mean a forced or puritanical abiding by rules. Morality means living with intentions that reflect our love and compassion for ourselves as well as others. As the philosopher George Santayana said, "Morality is the desire to lessen suffering in the world." When we live in harmony with the innate truth of our interdependence, we want to refrain from doing harmful acts. This leads to the next mental condition of restraint.

      Restraint is the foundation for the development of the absence of remorse. When we restrain a momentary impulse to do a harmful act, we are able to see the impermanence and transparency of the desire that initially arose. Having avoided harmful action, we also avoid the guilt, fear of discovery, and the confusion and regret that come when we forget that what we do has consequences. The positive condition that results from restraint is called "gladdening." Absence of remorse is the foundation for the development of gladdening. Gladdening is the state of lightness and ease we find in our lives as we increasingly care for ourselves and other beings. Because we genuinely experience a connection to others, we let go of actions that are hurtful and do fewer things that keep us feeling separate from others. Thus our common, dispiriting sense of loneliness and alienation is relieved. Gladdening is the foundation for the development of happiness.

      In this way we arrive at happiness—the happiness of peace, composure, and strength. This is happiness that is not going to fracture as conditions change, as people behave in disappointing ways, as we do not get what we want. This is happiness based on knowing our interconnectedness, on the integrity of acting from our deepest values. It is based on a mind at ease. This is self-respect. It then follows, according to the Visuddhi-magga, that happiness is the foundation for the development of tranquillity. Rather than the turbulence and agitation that we experience when the mind is full of worry, remorse, and guilt, the mind is quieter. Because there is not a great bundle of complexity that we need to disentangle and make amends for, we can be more peaceful in this moment. Tranquillity, arising from happiness, is the foundation for the development of concentration. (It was obviously this tranquillity that I was lacking in that retreat long ago.)

      Concentration is steadiness of mind, the feeling we have when we are one-pointed and powerful in our attention. When we can concentrate, a door opens to insight and wisdom. Concentration is thus the foundation for the develop- ment of correct knowledge and vision. This means being able to see things as they actually are, without so quickly distorting the experience through the filter of our hopes and fears. It is the release from these filters that leads us personally, intimately, to trust in our own senS!: of truth. Correct knowledge and vision, once firmly a part of our lives, is the foundation for the development of dispassion.

      Dispassion does not mean coldness or indifference but, rather, a spaciousness of mind in which we enjoy a sense of wholeness and sufficiency no matter what the particular transitory life situation. It is equanimity in the face of the changing circumstances we continually meet. Whether we get what we want or not, we can see things in perspective. We can do what needs to be done to try to alleviate our own or others' suffering, and we can do it from a place of inner peace. This was Joseph in the lunch line, though at the time I thought he was frivolous for not torturing himself, as I was doing myself.

      Dispassion is the foundation for the development of the fading away of greed and anger. Once we are moving through life's circumstances with more balance and the happiness of self-respect, we are not so mechanically driven by old habits of reaction, like desperately trying to hold on to pleasure or flee from pain. These old habits cannot take root in our hearts in quite the same way. Even when they arise, there is a porous quality to them, so that we need not be afraid of them any longer, and we can choose not to follow their call.

      The fading away of greed and hatred is the foundation for liberation. Liberation is "the sure heart's release"—an understanding of the truth so powerful that there is no turning back from it. When we are not approaching our experience with an agenda, trying to have it complete a sense of lack in ourselves, we can pay careful attention to what is arising. We can open to life and learn from it, for our own experience reveals the truth of all of life. When we can pay careful, unbiased attention, we discover the cause of our suffering as well as our freedom from suffering.

      This sequence, as described by the Visuddhi-magga—morality, restraint, gladdening, happiness, tranquillity, concentration, dispassion, the fading away of greed and anger, liberation—is as natural as the movement of the wind. When happiness is seen in the context of this process, it becomes an integral part of our spiritual life. We dedicate our inten- tions to nonharming, to love and compassion, and we are led to the prospect of freedom.

      While happiness is an end in itself, one of the fruits of meditation, it is also the state of mind we can have right now, simply by respecting ourselves and living a life of caring. This is the happiness that is an essential ingredient for the ultimate liberation of our minds from suffering.


From A HEART AS WIDE AS THE WORLD by Sharon Salzberg.
(C) 1997 by Sharon Salzberg.
Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston

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