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.

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