05 August 2010

Six Paramitas: Dhyana or Concentration (6 of 7)

For present purposes, it makes sense to distinguish actions that are mechanical from those that are conscious.

The term mechanical actions are the patterns of behavior that you or I can do without devoting any attention to it. With enough repetition, nearly any complex task can become automatic to someone. An example might be learning how to drive a car: at first it feels like you are doing eight or ten different things all at once and you feel very very alert ("beginner's mind" in a new context!); as time passes, you may find yourself driving from Idaho to Iowa in a state of deep sleep. (Do not do that.)

We have other patterns of behavior that are just as automatic, however. It is easy to find these patterns in other people, especially people you know well: you can predict when your dad is going to exaggerate about his success as a fisherman, or you notice that your mother is forcing herself to laugh very loudly after everything she says when she gets nervous, or the way your father-in-law eats his dinner with his mouth open and face smacking around with each bite may drive you to the bottle. In each example, human behavior is totally out of control and the people involved are totally unaware of it.

This constitutes a serious problem if you intend to make a break with all that old karmic conditioning and start again on more responsible grounds. (It is hard to take responsibility for your actions when you don't even know what you're doing or why.) If you are a liar, but you don't want to be a liar anymore; if you can't stop yourself from kicking the cat when you get angry about a football game, even when you know it's wrong; if you want to stop being so damned selfish and start being useful to others, you need to do something that is not at all automatic in order to break in. I'll call this conscious action: intentionally doing things in a way that is not automatic but is instead mindful, aware, conscious.

Dhyana or concentration is the sixth paramita. When you develop dhyana you develop samadhi, which is to say you develop the stability of mind needed to Say No: to notice in yourself, objectively, those tendencies that make you behave like a crazy person, without being tricked into identifying with those tendencies.

Concentration is one-pointedness of mind. To cultivate it, you focus the mind on one object. It may be the sensation of your breathing coming in and out through the nose, or your belly moving in and out with the rhythm of your breath. That is very effective, but arbitrary. Also effective and arbitrary: counting your breaths, gazing at a lit candle or a flower, gazing deeply into a source of physical pain (if you are already in pain that is). One-pointedness of mind is usually quite pleasurable, and most pleasurable experiences usually involve one-pointedness of mind. Most Buddhist practices, even the ones that seem most divorced from formal seated meditation, involve or rather require cultivating this kind of concentration, especially devotional practices such as nembutsu.

Dhyana also involves relaxation. The mind broadens and tension falls away. This can work in two directions: If you want to relax, cultivate concentration. If you find yourself struggling to concentrate, relax the body a bit.

Finally, it should be said that deepening one's samadhi makes a person more free. You are less constricted by your constipated beliefs about who you think you are or ought to be, just less hung up and more self-trusting in a positive sense, less closed-minded. So that when your teacher suggests to you that you might benefit from, say, reciting a section of a sutra or practicing nembutsu in addition to seated meditation, you are much more inclined to give it an honest and joyful effort--and to get good results from it.

So much of Dharma is just being game. Just being willing to try, to have a gentle sense of humor about it, to throw yourself into it. Practice with dhyana can help you find the courage to be simple and easy in this way, to be game.

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