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Living Meditation, Living Insight
Dr. Thynn Thynn

Reflections on Meditation

Concentration and Meditation

For many people the act of concentration is synonymous with meditation. That is probably the reason why so many good Buddhists are more or less satisfied with the notion that when they are doing something in a concentrated fashion -- such as reading, working, playing golf -- they are already meditating. They are partly right and partly wrong.

Actually, concentration is only a part of meditation. The essence of meditation is to reach a higher form of understanding, panna, to stretch the mind beyond the boundaries of the intellect into the realm of the intuitive, of insight-wisdom. In most cases, meditative disciplines require collecting the mind to a one-pointed state in the initial stages. The first method used is to train the mind to concentrate on one single object.

If one considers the pure act of concentration one uses in one's work or hobby, one sees that the objective of such a feat is quite different from that of meditation. In our work or hobby we are merely concerned with accomplishing something that is outside of us generally, like job success, winning a game of golf, completing a scientific experiment, etc. In meditation, however, the achievement is inward, an achievement of self-understanding and spiritual insight. In the initial stages of meditation it may be necessary to concentrate on objects that are external to one's mind, like on the nostrils, or on the movement of the abdomen, until the mind is collected at one point. This type of one-pointed collectedness also occurs while we work or play, but that's where the similarity between concentration and meditation ends.

Concentration is pure and simple collectedness of the mind, whereas meditation is the collected mind moving further toward the development of insight-wisdom, or vipassana. In meditation, the awareness of the mind automatically shifts onto the mind itself and of its own accord focuses on its workings and processes, ultimately leading to true self-knowledge.

Though we may come to some form of understanding while concentrating on work and play, this type of knowledge or understanding is intellect-bound, whereas meditative knowledge is intuitive and spiritual. Therefore, the two kinds of understanding are entirely different in nature and serve completely different purposes.

In pure concentration, there is always duality in the mind -- "I" and "what I am doing." There is a subject, an object and the process of doing. In other words, there is the knower, the known and the knowing. Meditation also begins with these three. But eventually the mind transcends these divisions by turning inward toward itself. The ultimate enlightenment experience is the state where the differentiation of knower, the known and the knowing ceases.

To confuse concentration with meditation leads to the difficult-to-overcome states of apathy and self-satisfaction. Thus, the concept that concentration and meditation are the same is a misunderstanding that offers us no help on the path to liberation, and may even hamper aspirants in their inner progress.

MS: You said that in the concentrated activities of daily life, such as reading or working, there is always a duality in the mind -- that is, there is the knower, the knowing and the known. It seems to me that there is a distinction between concentration in an ordinary activity and absorption in an actifity like painting or making music or some other artistic endeavor where the knower, the knowing and the known seem to disappear. This grey area comes up again and again in Dhamma talks and questions. Would you elaborate on this?

Thynn: Actually, during absorption in artistic activities like painting or making music, etc., the knower, the knowing and the known do not completely disappear. What happens is that, in these moments of heightened artistic activity, the person experiences a kind of rapture where the sense of "I-ness" fades away to a great extent but not completely. Also, the person is still conscious of the object, be it painting or making music or whatever. Therefore, the known also does not completely disappear. I call these kinds of experiences "pseudo-spiritual incidences," because they come close to jhanic absorptions, but are not quite so. On the other hand, these raptures in artistic endeavors allow the artist to become more pliable and spiritual than most people.

Mindfulness and Awareness

E: How we can practice mindfulness in daily life?

Thynn: Generally, our awareness is very much preoccupied with the external situation, with whatever we contact through our six senses. Invariably, we react to these sensations in a habitual way. We repeat our behavior again and again, without awareness of what is happening in our minds. In Buddhism this is known as avijja, or ignorance. This does not mean intellectual ignorance, but specifically lack of insight into oneself.

E: But we do seem to know our own minds, don't we?

In one sense we do, but only in a sluggish manner. For example, when we go through an emotional upheaval, we are aware of it only after the incident is over. At the time of the turmoil we are lost in our confusion.

We generally focus on the external factors we think are affecting us. Take, for example, the case of eating. Our attention is focused on the food: its taste, its smell and appearance. If the food is not up to our expectations, we immediately react to it with annoyance -- or even anger, if we are already in a bad mood. Then we are apt to vent our anger on anyone or anything we come into contact with.

But if we look at the situation analytically, we will see that the problem does not begin outside of us. Another person who is not concerned with that food, or who even likes it, will enjoy it without making a fuss. So the root of the problem is not in the food but in our judgmental and discriminating mind. The moment we start thinking, "I don't like it," we reject the existing situation as being unacceptable. This rejection always ends up in anger or tension in one form or another.

E: Then how do we practice awareness?

Awareness cannot be practiced.

E: Oh? But we hear and read so much about practicing awareness in Buddhism, don't we?

There has been some confusion between awareness and mindfulness.

E: But I always thought they were the same.

They are related, but distinct. Sati, or mindfulness, implies there is action of the mind. We purposely set ourselves to pay attention to our minds. We exert effort. Awareness is different. Awareness is devoid of any action.

The mind simply "awares." There is no action here, only a collected and spontaneous awareness that just "sees." Here, mindfulness is the cause, and awareness is the effect. You cannot practice or train the effect. You can only practice something that will cause it. We have to start with mindfulness so that awareness may arise in us.

E: How do we practice mindfulness?

Normally, our minds are in constant motion, thinking, feeling, endlessly flitting from one thing to another. Because of this perpetual motion, there is little room for awareness to arise. Awareness may peek through at times, but it is too timid. It is sluggish and dull. Most often our noisy thoughts and emotions dominate the scene. The mind must get out of this perpetual cycle for awareness to arise fully.

E: How does this happen?

The mind must readjust itself, redirecting its usually externally oriented attention onto mindfulness of itself. When we redirect ourselves in this way, we replace all other mental activities with mindfulness. Rather than getting caught in all the mental activities, we are left only with "paying attention." At each single moment the mind can accommodate only one mind state. For example, we cannot be angry and be happy at the same time, can we?

E: Goodness, no.

When there is anger in our minds, there is no room for happiness. When mindfulness occupies the whole of our minds, there is no room for any thought or emotion to arise at that specific mind-moment. There is pure attentiveness. When this attentiveness is total, the perpetual roller-coaster state of the mind is broken: the mind finds a balanced footing in itself. Then awareness can arise on its own accord. When there is complete balance, there is awareness.

E: Can you relate this to the incident of eating?

Well, suppose you are used to paying attention to your mind. As soon as you see the food, and thoughts of dislike enter your mind, you will be aware of what is happening in you. When you watch your feelings of like and dislike without judgment, you will be left only with the watching. There is no chance for subsequent thoughts to arise. In short, your emotions will be stopped in their tracks instead of building up. Maybe you cannot stop your dislike of the food, but that is not important. The crucial thing is that when you are stopped in your tracks, you begin to see the situation "as it is" and not "as I want it." This "seeing" is the awareness we are talking about. Instead of reacting with anger, you can now relate to the situation in a relatively calm way and deal with it rationally, with harmony. The situation leads constructively to your own and others' satisfaction.

E: You mean awareness dispels all the confusion in you?

Yes, it does.

E: But how?

You see, in awareness the mind becomes an "all-seeing" state -- which in Buddhism is called panna (insight wisdom). Although we say awareness, this awareness is not just "being" aware. It is not a passive state. It brings with it a dynamic perception which cuts through all confusions in the mind.

The total external situation is revealed in its entirety with transparent clarity. When we see the world through our own confusion, the scene is very much distorted. The more confused we are, the more distorted our view of the world is. Therefore, our reactions are also distorted, and we create confusion around us. It is only when confusion is transcended by panna that we have clarity in ourselves. With this clarity we can deal with the external situation in a wholesome and creative way.

In the Moment

P: Why is it that we find it so refreshing to go to a place which is totally different from what we are used to? I always find it necessary to get away from my normal life and take a break, to find a change of scene and environment. Is that quite normal?

Thynn: I don't know whether you would call it normal or abnormal, but one can say that it is quite usual. It is quite usual for us to feel suffocated and hemmed in by our lives. One feels the need to get away from it all, to take a break, and to find new experiences to sustain oneself.

But you must also understand that it is not mainly the suffocating life situation that is driving us to seek relief temporarily, though that does help to some extent. The main reason is that one is not free in the present moment. When one is not free, one cannot experience this very moment fully and completely.

P: So one is actually seeking a diversion when one does not find satisfaction in the present. But even when one gets to a new place and finds the new experience to be exciting, the satisfaction does not last for long, because it only satisfies the senses and not the spirit.

Yes, this is true. When you get back to your original situation, you find that you are on the old treadmill again. But, come to think of it, what is it that makes you feel contented and satisfied? You can be contented and satisfied only when the mind is free from desires and clinging, for only the free mind can experience each moment fully and completely.

To a mind free from desires, free from conflicts and frustrations, each moment is fresh and new. If your mind is always burdened with conflicts and frustrations, you cannot experience the moment fully. There is no clarity or room for experience. In this sort of situation you are either living in the past or in the future; the experience of the present is only partial. You are only partly aware of the present, so to say. You do not experience the freshness of the moment, the joy of everything you come into contact with. So you go out to seek freshness in other places, from other people, in new relationships and so on. However, the cycle continues, because the root of the problem is not in the environment but within yourself. Until that truth is properly understood and dealt with, you continue the search for satisfaction everywhere, and yet find it nowhere.

Meditation without Meditation

R: What is sitting meditation?

Thynn: You purposefully quiet your mind so that you can go deeper and deeper within yourself.

R: Then why don't you teach us sitting meditation?

Buddhist vipassana meditation (insight meditation) involves four methods. First, kaya-nupassana, meditation on the body. For example, the in-breath and out-breath, walking, sitting and standing. Second, vedana-nupassana, contemplation on sensations and feelings. Third, citta-nupassana, contemplation on the mind. And fourth, dhamma-nupassana, contemplation on mental and intellectual objects.

R: You mean all this time I have been meditating on the last three?

What else? Yes, you have been meditating on the last three.

R: You mean in all the struggling I have done watching my feelings and confusions, struggling with the discussions in the group and with my readings, I have been meditating all the time and never even knew I was meditating?

This is a good way of putting it. Yes, you have been meditating without knowing that you were meditating. This is called "meditation without meditation."

R: But why are we so stuck with the idea that to meditate we must sit in a certain way at a certain time?

You see, institutional forms of vipassana meditation have become extremely popular in Asian Buddhist countries and in the West. Whatever methods the teachers and founders of these institutions may use, there is one feature common to all of them: a structured system or form within which the student of meditation learns to meditate. So meditation has become synonymous with sitting meditation.

R: But how does meditation without meditation work? I mean, how does it achieve results without our having to go through rigorous discipline?

I think you mean the rigor of the sitting meditation as a discipline. You see, the sitting is only an aid to the more important discipline of the mind. The sitting is not to train the body per se, but to train the mind in the art of mindfulness and in going beyond. In formal meditation you concentrate on the body at one point -- either on the breath or on sensations -- in order to relinquish any thoughts, feelings or intellectual activities of the mind, to help it become collected at one point. In the process you learn to watch the mind without judgment and discrimination and also learn to let go.

R: But you have been telling us the same thing: to watch the mind, to let go, etc.

Exactly. You can watch your mind while you quietly sit in the meditative posture, or you can do so while you function in your daily life. Either way is feasible, depending on your own disposition.

In the unstructured approach, you have to face yourself very often. In trying to let go, you must first of all face your own ego and pride. Nobody wants to face his or her own ego. It is too painful. It takes great mental effort to do so. In this unstructured approach, facing your own ego is itself a meditative act of the mind. It requires sati (mindfulness), effort, samadhi (collectedness of mind) and equanimity. It may not require the rigorous disciplining of the body, but it definitely requires perseverance and rigorous disciplining of the mind.

R: But what about our discussions and readings? How do they help develop insight?

In sitting meditation, you purposefully waive intellectualization by concentrating on one single point -- let us say, on the breathing. However, in this less formal approach I am teaching, you use the intellect as a tool to develop insight. Reading, discussing and contemplating the Dhamma sharpen your intellect and insight. But there is a very important point here. If your efforts are only at the intellectual level, then you will only collect intellectual knowledge. This is quite different from actual experiential insight. In our discussions we have always gone beyond intellectualization of the Dhamma. We have gone into personal experience, into the nitty-gritty of life as we live and struggle through. Do you remember many times you've said: "It's impossible; I can't understand it. I can't let go of my opinions and clinging"?

R: Yes, that's right.

And many times you've said, "if I understand, I'll let go." But you found that: you can understand only when you let go of intellectualization.

R: That is correct.

You make use of your intellect only where it works. The intellect has a limit; it can only go so far. When it is exhausted, it just lets go. That is when you experience the "seeing." Then the "understanding" just hits you.

R: But there is a price for this. My goodness, I had to pay so much -- all my pride, my likes and dislikes, my clinging. How I loved my clinging! I had to learn to let go of all that. It was not an easy thing. In fact, it was an enormous struggle, mind you, and sometimes agonizing.

Yes, one does not get something for nothing. But it depends on how we persevere, how willing we are to look within ourselves. We have to be brave enough to face ourselves. That is a great struggle and it takes great effort and courage to do so. But it is, in fact, an effortless effort.

R: Oh?

Yes, you are making an effort without really consciously "trying" to make an effort. In Buddhism that is called viriya. It can happen in daily life or in sitting meditation.

R: You mean we are transcending ourselves during all this struggling?

Exactly. You've been doing that without knowing you were transcending yourself. In sitting meditation, you are taught the "how-to" of letting go at each and every step of the way. The difference here is that you let go without knowing it. Your intellect just simply cannot go any further; it just lets itself go.

R: Oh, that's why, when I try to think about the Dhamma and our discussions, I don't really understand. But later on when I stop thinking about them, the "understanding" just strikes me. It isn't my doing. It just comes like lightning out of the blue. At one point I thought your discussions were too intellectual, especially the Abhidhamma teachings.

Yes, you can even make use of the dullest intellectual treatise in the Pali Canon to transcend yourself!

R: Well, that's something new.

Even that is not! Nothing is ever wasted, if you know how to make use of it. All of our sessions, even the Abhidhamma teachings, helped you stretch your mind. You were making your mind more and more elastic without knowing it. You went further than you had ever gone before. Your mind had to stretch beyond its previous rigid orbit. The more difficult the discussions, the more your mind was exercised. You may not have understood anything during those sessions, but they helped you acquire the plasticity of mind that is so essential to going beyond the mundane.

R: Yes, many times I felt lost and confused.

That was because your intellect was at work. But when the intellect reaches its limit, it just drops away. Many of you have been asking me: what is the method? What do we have to do to achieve understanding? You are so conditioned to systems and methods and to structured learning that you can't see that there is an approach without any form or structure. What have we been doing in all our sessions? All the struggling you had to do within yourselves is the means to self-understanding. Whether you call it method or non-method is irrelevant.

R: I see now. We were left very much on our own to sort things out by ourselves. No methods and no gurus.

Yes, that is the way it is. When you have a guru, you cling to your guru. When you are working with a method, you cling to your method. You become dependent on them. Then you lose the impetus to investigate freely and learn for yourself. Our approach has no strict form or structure in the practice, but all the qualities of the bojjhanga -- the seven factors of enlightenment -- are already integrated in the process we have been in.

R: What are the seven factors of enlightenment?

They are mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity. You have been practicing mindfulness with perseverance within the context of daily life, which in fact has been slowly building up concentration or samadhi. Not only that -- the act of mindfulness in daily life is also an investigative process into the nature of your own mind with equanimity.

The investigation is also taking place while you are reading, studying or discussing with the group. Remember that our discussions were not just theoretical. They dealt with how to incorporate the teachings into our lives and to see through our problems of living by using the Dhamma. We have also seen how we need the right amount of effort and energy to observe our mind, to study and investigate it. And we have found that the pursuit itself, though difficult, brings peace and joy. In this manner, our way of life itself then becomes the Path to Enlightenment. This is the practice of dhamma-nupassana.

[0. Contents] [1. Introduction] [2. Freedom to begin]
[3. Living Meditation] [4. Reflection on Meditation] [5. Creative Living]
[6. Appendix] [Back to the Buddhasasana Home Page (English)]