I like to set my intention through this first week of 2022 by reviewing my understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path, being a Zen Buddhist and all. On Monday I went over the first of the Threefold Division, sila (or ethics). That blog post was unforgivably dry reading it over — sorry about that. I’m still nervous about writing words that other people see, so I’m a little rusty.
Today, let’s talk about the second group in the Threefold Division, samadhi. This group is all about mental discipline, which is usually cultivated through meditation. Taken together, these steps on the Path help us bring the gentle, accepting awareness of meditation from the cushion to the rest of my life. When samadhi is developed, we’re aware of what’s happening around us, what’s happening inside of us, and make the commitment to choose what’s best for both environments all the time.
This honestly sounds like an exhausting prospect, but I’ve found it can be really easy when rooted in practice. Meditation is a wonderful opportunity for us to learn about ourselves — the ruts that form our trains of thought, how our emotional response to our thoughts manifest physically, and the surprising connections among thoughts or experiences. Once we learn to view the storm-tossed landscape of our own minds with a bit of detachment, we can hold the most difficult feelings with loving-kindness. In time, we learn to see the same cycles ensnaring others and can create space to hold those experiences with the same unqualified acceptance. That’s the dream, anyway. That’s what I’m striving to do.
Right Effort is the fourth step of the Path, aimed at easing our attachments to the things that cause our suffering. Through meditation, we learn the way we attach to the things we find pleasant or avoid the things we find unpleasant. These are the things that carry us away from the present moment into the stories we build for ourselves, keeping us from seeing things as they really are. In many traditions, we focus on the Five Hindrances. Buddhists are super into numbered lists, in case you haven’t noticed. The five hindrances are sensory desire (seeking pleasure through our five main senses), ill-will (hatred, resentment, jealousy), sloth (not just laziness, but taking action half-heartedly with no concentration), worry (hello, anxiety!), and doubt (lack of conviction in our abilities).
Oh man, these last two years have not been great for me here. My anxiety has largely been through the roof and doubt has curdled into despair for months at a time. My aversion to worry and doubt has been so strong I’ve only sought refuge in sensory pleasure — food, marijuana, sleep. It’s incredibly difficult to find equanimity in a world that is actively burning down around you.
That being said, I’ve worked out a lot of the issues driving my anxiety and feel a lot better about my ability to handle stressors. I can’t guarantee I’ll always feel this way, but I can take advantage of this time to learn how to hold difficult emotions with more grace. I mean, I’m a Rabbit — anxiety is going to be a deep part of me for the rest of my days. It’s a fool’s errand to expect I’ll never feel overwhelmed, but I can learn to make friends with my fear.
Part of that is learning how to practice Right Mindfulness more often. With this step of the Path, we set our intention to be ever conscious of what we’re doing. When we walk, we do so mindfully. When we sit, we do so mindfully. Even those things that we do hundreds, thousands of times a day can be done mindfully. Meditation, the heart of Buddhist practice, helps with this.
When we sit, we train ourselves to hold a ready attention for whatever arises by concentrating on one of the most basic activities we’re always doing — breathing. We can notice the way our breaths change when we’re conscious of it, or when we think of something that excites or angers us. We can learn the difference in our breathing when we’re uncomfortable, sleepy, sad, angry, worried. And through that, we learn what happens within our bodies whenever an emotion arises.
Better still, we learn to experience our internal landscape without trying to influence it. If we’re angry, we can sit with our anger and note the tension in our shoulders or chests. When we’re restless, we can feel our muscles tense seemingly on their own. And if we sit with these feelings long enough, we can watch them fade away. We learn that all of these feelings are manageable, and transient. We don’t have to act in anger, or fear. We can note it, think about what are emotions are telling us to pay attention to, and take actions with Right Effort towards the most compassionate outcome.
I meditate more days than not, but I still have a bad habit of checking Twitter or the news first thing in the morning. If I’m not careful, I end up a victim of the infinite scroll, letting waves of information wash over me without really absorbing anything beyond the surface emotions that information triggers. It’s the exact opposite of what I’d like to do when I wake up — settle myself into my body, my world, and feel connected to it instead of afraid of it.
All of this is training for Right Concentration, which is the trickiest step of the Path for me to understand. In many traditions, this is the last one, the culmination of each step we’ve taken thus far. It’s all about the act of cultivating the meditative state in our every day lives.
My understanding is that this is the ability to experience sensations and phenomena without attachment, without getting carried away with the stories we associate with them. It’s seeing past the surface of things into the truth of them, so when something that normally raises a difficult emotion arises we understand how it arises and how to deal with it without being affected by that emotion.
One of my big pet peeves, for example, is when someone interrupts a thought I’m working through to correct me on a technicality — even though it’s clear my meaning is understood. Talking to people is a lot harder for me than writing because I can’t always think of the best way to express myself off the top of my head. There’s a lot behind this, but essentially it makes me feel like the content of the thought isn’t being considered, just the form.
But applying Right Concentration to this scenario would allow me to work past that reactive feeling of frustration and shame to understand why someone would do that, and to address that directly. No one is a mind-reader, so while something is “close enough” to the intended meaning for my point to make sense that might not be the case for my audience. I can take a look at the situation without the story running in my head and choose a response that increases understanding and connection.
This is not easy. Emotions frequently run away from me, and in those cases my perspective of the world shrinks to just mine. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to break away from that. But that’s the dream.
So that’s it. Mental discipline is not something I’ve excelled at in general, but focusing on meditation, stress management, and loving acceptance of my emotional state can help me deepen my practice so I’m further along this time next year.
Tomorrow, the two steps constituting Prajna, or wisdom.