Friday, March 8, 2013

Starting with Samadhi

Is samadhi—the Pali/Sanskrit word used in Buddhism to refer to concentration—a good starting point for teaching meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular? It is common for meditation instructors to ask their students to focus their attention on some object, such as the breath or body. A clear benefit of this approach is that many people are familiar with relaxation techniques that involve attention to the breath or body. However, one reason these techniques are so useful for relaxation is that they can be quite boring. Thus, they often produce sleepiness in the meditator, or restlessness in those feeling energetic and not inclined toward sleep. Moreover, asking someone to be mindful of just one aspect of experience is tantamount to asking them to endure repeated failure. Without a self-compassion practice to draw upon, this can be extremely disconcerting for beginning meditators. After all, the instruction to “Simply focus on the breath” sounds like it ought to be, well, simple. Add to the mix the inner turmoil and lack of self-efficacy felt by many therapy clients, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and disappointment. At a minimum, I think the beginning meditator deserves to be apprised of the difficulty of the task he or she is about to undertake, and to be informed of its true purpose: the development of mental awareness and the ability to refocus the mind. If the immediate goal is relaxation/stress reduction, why not use breathing exercises or progressive relaxation instead of samadhi?

Today I shared this idea with a friend who finds meditation intolerably dull, and she thought that starting with something other than concentration would have been helpful to her, but then asked what I thought would make a better starting place. I need to give the question more thought. Since I started with Samadhi myself—and beat myself up for years about my lack of success, but also persisted because of the relaxing effect—it’s impossible for me to know how it would have felt to start with some other practice. My immediate guess is that a practice of self-compassion, mental noting, or simply saying “Yes” to whatever came up would have worked well for me. Of course, a hypothetical sample of one isn’t much to go on, and results may vary. I’ve heard from seasoned therapists that many people’s sense of their lack of self-worth is so ingrained that attempting a self-compassion exercise is an incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant activity for them.

As a philosophical aside, I often wonder whether mindfulness of just one element of experience can be considered true mindfulness. I tend to think not, but I suppose it depends on the attitude in the mind. If I am practicing mindfulness of breathing, and I experience a sensation of pain in my leg, I can be accepting of the pain even as I redirect my attention back to the breath. My skepticism arises from the fact that, if the pain persisted for a significant length of time, I find it unlikely that I would be able to repeatedly redirect my attention without feeling that I was pushing away the pain. But that is really my limitation, not a limitation of the practice.

Clarity of Thought and Prose: Orwell and the English Language

“As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

                                                                                                                                  - George Orwell

Until today, I don’t think I’ve ever read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language in its entirety, and his thesis hit home like a slap to the neocortex, both with respect to what I read every day in the media and what I write myself. His essay also ties in nicely to a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks explaining why I blog so infrequently even though I have a lengthy and ever-growing list of ideas for posts. It's gotten to the point where once-meaningful jottings like "Ajahn Sumedho and principles" and "The simplicity of awakened awareness" no longer connect to anything in my brain--though I think the latter phrase could be an excellent title for a blank post.

Orwell argues that instead of writing each sentence to express exactly what we want to say, and using fresh imagery to make our ideas clearer, we often write in abstractions and string together a series of shopworn phrases (e.g., shopworn phrases) and unnecessary, superfluous, and infelicitous jargon. In doing this we not only muddy our meaning to the reader, but to ourselves.

This is a tendency I’ve noticed in my own writing for quite a long time. I’ll often write some statement that sounds very powerful and persuasive, but when I consider its truth in concrete terms, I realize that it’s an overgeneralization. Typically, my response is to further complicate the statement by throwing in some qualifiers. At other times, when I try to clarify the meaning of some abstract statement, I realize that I’m not entirely sure what I meant to say in the first place. This happens quite often when I try to write about Buddhism. I realize that I’m using some term, such as awareness, in a vague way, and even if I understand the meaning I’m trying to convey, I wonder whether my language is consistent with that of more learned students of Buddhism. As an example, is my experience of metta substantially similar to theirs? Is the common term “lovingkindness” really an apt representation of the experience? If I said “warmth and friendly good wishes” instead, would anyone understand what I was talking about? If I just stick with the Pali term so that people can choose their own preferred translation, will they think I’m being pretentious? How quickly I’ve moved from the sincere desire to write clearly and truthfully to a concern about the opinions of others, and all without having gotten down a single sentence.

I often find it even more difficult to express experiential phenomena or self-insights in clear language. What feels profound comes across as trite or banal on the page. Simple language is easy to overlook or dismiss as oversimplification. Orwell argues that employing fresh metaphors is a good way to clarify and concretize our ideas. There’s a reason a book like Animal Farm has such a deep and enduring impact on the mind, yet coming up with original metaphors is serious work, at least for someone like me who is not primarily a visual thinker. Oh well. As Boxer said in Animal Farm, “I will work harder.”