The Fourth Noble Truth: Insight 2 The Eightfold Path Step 8 Skillful Concentration

Dancing with Life (DWL) Chapter 20 Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (ESMTH):  Step Eight (pp. 223-43) Mindfulness:  A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 397-8)

“And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. (ii) With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. (iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ (iv) With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration.” The Buddha

Step Eight:  Skillful Concentration

Skillful concentration leads to happiness and peace with more energy, stability and confidence.  These effects come not from sensual pleasure but from the non-attachment of sensual pleasures (rapture and pleasure drawn from withdrawal).  “Joy arises because wholesome concentration keeps the hindrances suppressed.”  (EMTH p. 226)

Skillful concentration has three characteristics:

  • It is always wholesome (skillful)
  • It goes into very deep and powerful levels of one-pointed focus
  • It incorporates the use of mindfulness to develop wisdom.

Mindfulness and concentration complement each other and both are necessary in our practice. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the objects (aggregates) that arise and concentration allows us to see deeply into that object.  Bhante G. compares this to using a laser beam to burn through a hard substance.  The hard substance must be identified and aimed (mindfulness) and then powered (concentration) to work effectively.

Practicing Skillful Concentration

Developing skillful concentration takes training in sitting practice so that you can bring up skillful concentration easily and at will.  The progressive levels of concentration are called jhanas, “states of deep mental unification which result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place.”  (The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation Bhante G, 1995 Accesstoinsight.org)

With full concentration or jhanic meditation, you go deeper and focus directly on the experience of impermanence without the objects, investigation, or thinking.  The mind is focused on the mind.  “This is the experience of pure impermanence, the impermanence of experiencing awareness itself.” (Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English. Bhante G. page 94).

To attain the first jhana:

  • Clear the mind of hindrances.
  • Start concentration with an initial application of thought (focus on an object such as the breath) and sustain this application (continued focus).  Counting up to five and back with the breaths or spelling a word (e.g. meditation) can be a way to get started if focus is initially difficult.
  • Notice Joy and happiness arising.  Joy arises from the hopeful anticipation of happiness.  This is the joy of non-attachment.  Happiness arises out of contentment when the hopeful anticipation has been fulfilled.
  • Notice that object of concentration seems to fade and becomes a mental image (sign of concentration).
  • The sign of concentration fades and the mind concentrates on itself.

Know that achieving skillful concentration takes practice and may come about with small gains.  Each time you practice with Skillful Effort, you will make progress.  Don’t set a goal or timeline for achieving skillful concentration.  Just practice.

“At this point you have gained the real force of concentration.  The mind has consolidated, become pure, bright, free of hindrances, and steady.  It is malleable yet imperturbable, strengthened and sharpened for its most important task.  When you focus that concentrated mind on an object, you see that object as it is.  In other words, the perfectly concentrated mind can penetrate into the true nature of reality.”  (EMSTH p. 236

The other jhanas are described on our website.

Summary

“Both concentration and mindfulness must work together to see things as they really are.  One without the other is not strong enough to break the shell of ignorance and penetrate the truth.  You may start with concentration and gain jhana, and then use the concentration to purify insight or mindfulness to see things as they are.  Or, you may start with mindfulness, then gain concentration to purify mindfulness, so that you can use this purified mindfulness to see things as they really are.”  (Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English. Bhante G. page 17

Full concentration focuses on the smaller and smaller details.  These are called moments of mind and each mind moment consists of three briefer mind moments:  rising, peak and dying mind moments.

“When meditators cultivate sufficient concentration guided by mindfulness, they can trace back their mental images of events, time, thoughts, and previous behavior until they perceive the link between the present continuous flow and the events, thoughts, and actions of the past.  That link is greed and ignorance.  They see for themselves the relationship between impermanence, greed for impermanent things and suffering.  The penetrating wisdom of the meditator also recognizes all negativities in all dimensions and how and why they arise.  Wisdom recognizes that all negativities come from grasping.  It recognizes that this grasping can end and that the way to end it is by ending one’s own greed.

Through this knowledge, the mediator comprehends, by personal and direct experience that everything is impermanent, that clinging to anything impermanent causes dissatisfaction, and that everything that exists is without permanent substance.  Gaining this threefold knowledge is the doorway to enlightenment” (ESMTH p. 239).

What Bhante G. says about perceiving the link between the present continuous flow and the events, thoughts and actions of the past is critical to our understanding.  Memories and thoughts that arise from the past do so because in some way we are attached (clinging) to them.  We may be clinging intentionally because we want to remember something for a reason (an appointment or where we put something).  In this case, the memory of something is useful.  On the other hand, memories from other past actions or experiences arise because we are clinging to them for some other reason.  Using mindfulness and concentration, we can look deeply and see the link of greed and ignorance.

Reflection

Meditation

  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness, going back and forth as noted above.

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