Whenever I finally sit down to write these posts, the first thoughts or concerns that come to mind are that they not be interpreted as definitive ways of practicing or ways to achieve something or become someone beyond what you have already achieved or who you already are. My hope is that they are more like reflection pools that invite you to see the way that you are already practicing to end suffering in the world and the goodness of that. I also hope that they might offer insights into how to stay with the practices of the paramitas and dhyana/meditation in particular. The second part of exploring dhyana is concentration.
Concentration. Meditation is shoveling the snow from the path, so that more snow can fall, be seen, and shoveled, until spring.
The buddhist practices that guide us to awakening to the truth of the nature of reality and bringing about an end to suffering throughout the world might be compared to the path that leads from the entryway of your home to the path, sidewalk or street that connects to the rest of the world and also allows the rest of the world to come to you. Meditation, in particular, is a way to keep that path clear of obstructions.
Dhyana is a Sanskrit word that is translated in the Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras as concentration.1
“Concentration is a translation of the Sanskrit term dhyana. The ya subscript is equal to a ra, … which means “to hold”. Concentration is therefore, when the mind is held to its inner observation without being distracted outwardly.”
(I like to use “to hold to” or “to stay with” as an understanding of concentration because these do not have a sense of attachment or force when I hear them.)
If you have ever lived in a place that has long frozen winters with a lot of snow, you probably developed the practice or art of snow shoveling. If you have not had the fortune of that experience, you have probably seen images of folks carving out paths, through high accumulations of snow, from the entryway of their homes to the rest of the world. The concentration aspect of meditation practice is kind of like that. If the simile of snow shoveling doesn’t resonate, perhaps there is something in your experience that has some of the same opportunities for simile; gardening, dusting, gutter cleaning.
When that first snowstorm hits and brings inches, if not feet, of sparkling white crystals there may be a reluctance to clear the path from the front door. “It’s so beautiful and clean!” “Aw, it’s only a few inches, I’ll get to it later after the Super Bowl.” “Arrgh! It’s so much work. I have to go get the shovel out and find my gloves and put on my winter boots. Maybe it’ll melt on its own.” “There is too much on the schedule today. I just don’t have time.”
This might seem similar to when we first approach the practice of stillness in meditation. We might read about how the practice helps calm our mind and heart, or how it helps us be kinder or more compassionate and then think, “I am already pretty calm and kind. Life is beautiful just as it is. I probably don’t need to meditate.” “I only have a few problems and I really want to have a cup of coffee and read the news, I’ll get to it another time or another day.” “How can it possibly bring calm? There is so much to do to prepare for it. I have to buy a cushion and then clear a space in my home to sit. I’ll have to set up an altar or light a candle which I don’t have.” “ I just don’t have the time in my busy life to just sit and do nothing.”
When we finally realize that winter is here and it will remain in freezing temperatures for weeks or months, we might be convinced that it’s time to shovel the snow. It seems daunting. There is more snow than we imagined. It has already started to freeze. The temperature and wind make it very uncomfortable, even painful to be outside. It might be overwhelming. We might want to give up. But we know that we need to be able to get out of the house to get sustenance and to continue living. We know that we cannot help ourselves much less others that rely on us if we don’t clear the path of snow, so we begin and we stay with it even if it takes several attempts, until the path is at least a little clearer.
Like finally realizing that winter is not going away soon, we may realize that the suffering that we are experiencing or causing in this life are not going away by themselves. We have had a taste of that calmness, when we have met folks who seem at ease in life, or when we read inspiring messages from spiritual leaders about joy and peace. Or when we have walked in the stillness of the wilderness or woke up to the morning sun bringing soft soothing light into our bedroom and we are stopped in the stillness of its beauty. We begin to realize that something is needed to bring ease and joy so we find a way to practice. Perhaps we begin the practice of meditating in stillness and are immediately flooded with a torrent of thoughts. We try to follow the instructions of staying with the breath or the point of focus, but it is daunting. Being still is hard. We sense the constrictions and pain in the body and want to stop. This is when concentration in meditation comes in. We remember why we are practicing; to end suffering for ourselves and others and to rest in joy and ease. We use the memory to inspire us to concentrate, to stay with the breath, to continue to come back to the breath, to hold to the point of focus. We find a way to practice.
As the winter goes on and our shoveling skills improve, we develop muscles that support the work and we might even begin to look forward to the steady, quiet rhythm of moving the newly fallen snow off the path. While shoveling, perhaps we come across old lost things, a missing glove, a child’s toy, the hot mug, that we thought was left at work. There is an impulse to deal with these things right away. Take the missing glove inside and find its match. Bring the toy to your child and give a lengthy reprimand about being careless with our things. Take that beloved mug inside and make a nice hot fresh pot of coffee. In the process of leaving the shoveling, another snow storm threatens and we are left with a partially cleared path and the potential of new snow hardening and freezing the part that was left unattended. Or perhaps we take the newly found items and set them aside until we have finished the clearing for the day. When finished we attend to those things as needed.
Little by little, from one practice to the next, some ease and the rhythm of meditation and concentration are more accessible. We develop the mental muscle of concentration and might even look forward to the time in stillness. During the practices, memories that feel important to attend to might arise; like actions that we have taken that have caused suffering that we want to remedy or joy that we want to enhance. The normal, habitual thought might be that we have to attend to these things right now or we will forget them and so we turn the focus away from the breath and follow the thought stream that leads away from the practice of calm abiding. Following these thoughts that seem important during the practice will tend to lead down a long and winding road of endless problem solving or dream planning. In reality, once revealed those insights will be available as needed after the practice period and there will be an appropriate time to attend to them. Returning to the practice of stillness and setting those thoughts aside for the moment, might give us an opportunity to approach them with ease and mindfulness at the appropriate time.
One day while shoveling, we notice that the snow is the perfect consistency for building a snow person or a snow castle. We begin to imagine all of the things we will do to make the snowbeing and the castle beautiful, fun, or even permanent! We begin to build them right on the path and marvel at their perfection and then want everyone to see. At some point there is the realization that the constructions, beautiful as they seem, are obstructing the path. We can’t go out and no one else can come in. Instead, perhaps, we might let the idea rest, knowing that the yard in front of the picture window will have the same snow with more space to craft the snowperson. So we choose to continue to clear the path.
While practicing there will be experiences and realizations that are beautiful and exquisite and important. We might then cling them in the practice and develop them, sometimes stopping the practice completely. We look forward to hanging on to them and making them a part of our life. In the moment of the practice we turn away from the concentration with its resulting ease and become lost in the idea. We might even be so enamored with them that we leave the practice to write them down and save them. Maybe a post-it on the refrigerator, a t-shirt or a bumpersticker! We might begin to talk about them all the time with everyone, no matter what the situation. At some point we may realize that this profound idea has turned into a rigid concept that obstructs the path to the world and prevents the world from reaching us. Instead of this agitative approach, an option would be to stay with the practice in the moment and later, upon reflection or in a journal, explore the idea and see how it might be applied to the everyday practice of living.
Through the winter, if we haven’t kept up with the shoveling, the snow turns to ice, becomes difficult to walk on, and it takes a great deal of effort to clear.
Staying with the meditation practice by setting up a regular schedule, helps keep the practice, of understanding and peace, active in our life. Taking time daily to rest in stillness and to clear the mind of habitual, engrained thought streams that tend to accumulate in our unconscious, allows us to be awake and available in the present moment of experience. Setting aside or interrupting the regular rhythm of practice tends to make it more difficult to return to the experience and the benefits of a quieter, more easeful mind.
Blizzards may come and last for hours or days, building up high banks of hard packed snow. There may be no time to clear the snow as it falls so we sometimes just have to watch and wait for a clear sky. When it does and we try to go out to assess what is needed, the path may be completely blocked and a great effort will be needed to clear it. This is a time to remember the community of friends and neighbors. A time to ask for help clearing the path or to reach out to those who may need help clearing theirs.
There are times when situations overwhelm and take hold of all of the time of this life; life and death situations, loss or suffering of loved ones, natural catastrophes, depression, addiction. Formal practice may not be possible, but the practice still seems to happen. The strength and resilience that is a natural quality of beingness steps up and steps in. It is OK and even necessary to put down the shovel, stop concentrating and just be fully present and available to what is happening in the moment. This is a time to make the personal practice a global practice. To reach out for support if needed and to respond when called on.
And then there is spring. The snow and ice begin to melt in the light and warmth of the unclouded sky and unobstructed sun. The first thing to completely clear is the path that you have been staying with through the winter. Then outward from this path the clearing spreads without any effort on your part. There may still be patches of frozen snow and ice in the places where the sun never reaches and perhaps you will have time to look into those and clear away trees and shrubs that prevent the sun from getting through. Winters and snow will inevitably return but for now instead of clearing we might begin to loosen the soil and add amendments so that we can start a garden.
There are times during the practice of concentration, as a result of staying with the practice, that we might experience some spaciousness. It is an experience , like the advent of spring, that is not brought about by conceiving of it, or trying to achieve it. The blizzards of thought have diminished or have become translucent memories that can be seen through and experienced as without substance and empty. This spaciousness is a quality of our true nature. It comes about as a result of the consistent warmth and light of attention during the practice of concentration that melts away rigid concepts, habitual patterns or ingrained behaviors that obstruct our natural open state of awareness. Resting in this awareness without effort, clinging, or attachment eventually allows the warmth and light to spread beyond our immediate experience to bring warmth and spaciousness to others in the same way that the light and warmth of spring melts away the ice and snow of winter. It is from the ground of this quality of beingness that we are drawn to cultivate and deepen the practices of selflessness, harmlessness, peace, effortlessness, attending and insight; the paramitas.
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.
1. Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras. Maitreya’s Mahayanasutralamkara, with commentaries by Kehnpo Shenga and Ju Mipham. The Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Shambhala Publications 2014. pg. 510. This collection of sutras is one of the five treatises of Maitreya transmitted to and transcribed by the monk Asanga. He’s the fellow the story who came across the dying dog and the road and realized enlightenment through his compassion for the dog.
Image: A Winter Morning. Shoveling Out. Drawn by Winslow Homer. 19th Century.
Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome.
We practice on ZOOM:
- Mondays – Calm abiding. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Thursdays – Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Wednesdays and Fridays – “Formal” Practice 7:00 AM Pacific TIme
- Sundays – Paramitas. 7 AM Pacific Time
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789
Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to email@example.com
If you have questions about meditation practice, or would like to have a conversation about the practice or anything else, you can check in with William by making an appointment. Go to “Check In Appts.”