Let’s look at the idea of concentration, or samadhi. When you hear those four little syllables—con-cen-tra-tion—what do they imply to you? Maybe you get a sense of doing something, working hard at it to get it right. That’s the normal take. We say to ourselves, “Samadhi. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.” It’s intensive practice. No slacking allowed! We rev up the controlling systems, the duty systems, the work systems, the get-it-right systems.
These tactics may work for a while, but in a few days we will start to tire out. Something in us tightens up, hardens up. And at the same time, something else in us is probably saying, “Ah, the hell with this.” We want to get some enjoyment, so we look for legitimate ways to avoid “the practice.” After all, how many people would actually like to practice all the time? Of course, the idealistic mind says, “Yes, I’d like to commit myself to Dhamma all the time.” A little voice chirps up, “Yes sir, that’s me!” But underneath it’s saying, “An evening off every now and then would be nice.” So it’s important to question our perception of concentration. This grim view is not going to bring about samadhi, unification or wholeness. If we examine this “getting it” attitude, we can feel how destructive it is, how it causes us to lose heart. There’s no appreciation in it. We can feel how it makes us feel stressed and critical.
Instead, let’s consider the way the Buddha described it. Concentration is an enjoyment experience. He said, “For one whose body is balanced and at ease, there’s no need to set up the wish ‘May I feel happy, may I feel relaxed in myself.’” In other words, we don’t need to make any effort. If the body is in harmony and its energy is balanced, then we will feel at ease. There is no need to set up the intention “may I concentrate.” Someone who is at ease will be naturally concentrated. That is samadhi.
Instead of basing samadhi on an object, turn it around. Forget about the breath for a moment. Look more at subjective qualities. How are you feeling now? Just being here—sitting, walking, living—how does it feel? How do changes happen for you? When do you feel happy? When do you feel sad? When do you feel busy? When do you feel calm and easeful? When do you feel life as “just this”? What’s the energy like then?
In the beginning stages of samadhi, we work within the boundaries of experience to sift out the kamma, the patterns and habit tendencies of past actions. We start within the boundary of the body to clean out all its inner boundaries—the unawareness of the body, the inability to flow with the energies of the body, the congestions in the body as an experience—so that it is no longer cramped, tight, knotted, twisted or unbalanced. Once there’s fullness of body, we don’t have to do anything in bodily terms. The body is at rest; just being a body is enjoyable.
Learning the essence of the practice within the body makes use of a safe, manageable boundary. The body is easy because it’s tangible and gross. Enjoy embodied presence—sitting, walking, standing. The body then trains the mind to stop creating all the injunctions, controls and nervousness. It trains the mind to stop the ignoring and forgetfulness and wrong seeing, to stop the conceit and shame and violence. This leads to pañña, or wisdom—that is, an understanding of the process—which in turn brings release. Release from fear, from worry, from tension, from ignorance.
Release is itself a graduated process. We get the mind to change its behavior. This is something we can do only with the body because the mind can’t change itself. It needs a reference. So we focus the mind onto something and ask, “Hmm. What is this like? Why is my breath like this?” The breath is a good place to start in developing concentration. Of course, we often think, “I need to adjust the breath to get it right. There’s something wrong.” So we tinker with it and refine it. Fine, if this leads to ease. But if we make elaborate concoctions or formulations around breathing, it gets to the point where we don’t even want to hear the word “breathing” anymore.
We need to unravel stress. Simply notice you are breathing. It’s very simple. Watch how you receive, very consciously connecting with the word “receive,” because it’s the least intense “doing” that can occur. At first, perhaps your receptivity will not be very clear or sharp or bright. Enhance the receiving; stay with it. Then ask, “What can I receive?” Focus in terms of patterns, like knowing the difference between the sounds and the silences when you listen to a voice. Feel the modulations, the ins and outs and the pauses; you can pick that up quite quickly. When you’re breathing, simply receive the patterns of sensation and allow yourself to enjoy it, to rest in it, to flow with it. “For one who is at ease with the body there is no need to wish, ‘May I be relaxed and enjoy myself.’ It is a natural thing. For one who is relaxed and at ease, there is no need to wish, ‘May my mind become concentrated.’ It is a natural thing.” These are the words of the Buddha.
When we’re contemplating the breath, we’re really looking at a metaphor for the mind. We have to look at this metaphor in the same way we’d appreciate a poem or a painting. Don’t go up to the canvas and hook your nose on it. Keep it at a distance where your eye rests comfortably. That’s going to be different for different people. Put it where you feel comfortable. The idea of focusing is to settle, so focus in a way in which you feel settled and easy, not confused or sleepy. That’s the only point where you’ll actually experience a steady breath sign.
Where do you feel your energies come together? Get there. Let the breath pass through that, time and time again. You’ll find yourself neither snagging on it nor moving away from it. You’ll find yourself settling in. Then you’ll begin to experience some kind of continuing tone, which is another metaphor. Listen in to that if it’s something you experience more as a listening. If it’s tactile, feel it. If it’s got an emotional base, resonate with it. If it’s visual, open to it. This is the “sign” of meditation. The quality of that experience is beautiful. Notice the beauty. What is this beauty? It’s where the mind feels delighted, charmed, moved. This is joy.
But we can’t hold beauty. A relationship to beauty is something akin to devotion. We don’t hold it; we’re aware of it in a way that’s both loving and respectful. Give yourself to it. Of course, this is something we’re not used to, so it must be done with care. This is not a reckless experience; it’s something that requires trust. Trust your body first of all. The body is something that can be trusted much more than the mind. And as one learns to trust, one receives the blessings of that: what is pure, what is conducive to the heart’s welfare, what gives joy.
Receiving joy is another way to say enjoyment, and samadhi is the art of refined enjoyment. It is based in skillfulness. It is the careful collecting of oneself into the joy of the present moment. Joyfulness means there’s no fear, no tension, no “ought to.” There isn’t anything we have to do about it. It’s just this.
Adapted from a talk given at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.