Friday, February 7, 2014

ASK MAYA: Meditation vs. Absorption?

Maya, Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Kelly Y., Wisdom Quarterly  ASK MAYA
Not excited, not distracted, not asleep, not doing, wakeful-attention to a single object eventually leads to what we were always missing. (Sue90ca/flickr)
This question comes from Wisdom Quarterly reader Ron: "What is the difference between meditation and absorption?" Here we answer in a more practical than theoretical way with instructions.
Meditation is dull and unclear until...
"MEDITATION" (bhavana) is a very general term. It literally means, "bringing into being." So it is often translated as "mental cultivation" or "self development." The mental and self can be misleading if taken too literally; it is not a brain or head thing, nor is the ego being built up. Intellectualizing the process or cultivating ego are the opposite of what's happening.
One might cultivate or develop many beneficial things such as virtue (the foundation of concentration) or calm or restraint.
One might develop one's knowledge of the Dharma (Buddhist Doctrine) through fantastically woven Mahayana stories penned long after the Buddha but written as if the Buddha had said them. Or one might get closer to the source by studying Theravada "lists," sutras, and commentaries.

Or one might learn the precepts, further precepts, or Disciplinary Code for long-term intensive practice. Or one might study the life of the Buddha and various figures from ancient India, such as these four fascinating enlightened Buddhist nuns: Khema, Uppalavanna, Bhaddhakaccana, and Sundari Nanda. Little is heard of them today as nearly all of the focus is put on monks, kings, and warriors. (The first two were the Buddha's beautiful chief disciples, the third his former wife, and the fourth his princess sister).

Stay awake (PeterFroehlich/
Or one might learn a meditation technique from a teacher and regularly cultivate it.

Sitting-meditation to bring "right concentration" into being first means settling the mind/heart (more correctly, letting it settle). This is done so that it can strengthen and achieve its potential. What potential?

The heart/mind has the miraculous ability to so focus its attention that it becomes one-pointed. This temporarily purifies it. 

Absorption! (Jess Allison)
"ABSORPTION" (jhana) is this effortless focus as the mind/heart is "absorbed" or pulled into the appropriate single object of its attention.
Getting to this point can be a long slog or a spontaneous occurrence. (No one for whom it happens spontaneously was expecting it, so it is better to prepare for a long slog. Expectations kill concentration).

So does it take effort, or is it effortless?
Until one lets go of the striving, efforting, grunting, and "trying," the heart/mind will not cohere and blossom. This is why we refer to it as "effortless." 
But one had made the effort to cultivate virtue and to meditate with regularity, which develops the Five Factors of Absorption (jhananga). Meditation will all seem to have been preliminary and preparatory when one tastes the first absorption. All of that effort was unnecessary and in the way? Yes and no. Would we have stayed with it and gotten here if we had not put forward a tremendous amount of effort to abstain from many distracting things, to develop regularity in practice, to inquire, to study, and so on? Virtue is the foundation. It's benefit is "concentration" (samadhi).

Samsara is turbulent, swirling flood (FP)
Concentration is a misleading English translation. The word in modern American English suggests scrunching our foreheads and trying. That is NOT samadhi. 
Imagine when one wants clear water, but it's cloudy; one wants it clean, but it's full of obscuring particles in suspension. What is the best way to get it clear?

Let it settle. How much effort does that take? None or next to none. But we're going to need tons of effort to be patient, sit still, and wait. "Patience is the highest virtue," the Buddha said. As an American, that's the last thing we have. Clear water? Drain it, filter it while pouring it back in, irradiate it, and throw in some chlorine because we're busy! Who has time to wait and do nothing?
The heart/mind is naturally clear, but there are all of these defilements floating around so that we never see things clearly. And we will do anything -- except the easiest and most natural thing -- to clear things up.

ANSWER: The difference between "meditation," usually thought of as sitting crosslegged even though it means so much more, and "absorption" is like the difference between muddy turbulent water and a crystal clear still forest pool.

One can suddenly see clearly in a still forest pool (nyanamolibhikkhu/
The Buddha gives an analogy to explain the first two Factors of Absorption, "applied-attention" (vitakka) and "sustained-attention" (vicāra).
These factors form the bridge between meditation and absorption. They are like the effort a bird makes to get into flight and the effort(lessness) to stay in flight. One is messy jumping and flapping, the other easy holding and gliding.
  • Translating vitakka as "thought-conception" and vicāra as "discursive thinking," as was done by the earliest Western translators is incorrect and completely misleading. Scholarship by nonpractitioners has this liability. Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw, who is both a scholar and a meditation master with many accomplished Western students, was able to clarify this matter for us.
"The first absorption is free from five [hindrances], and five [Factors of Absorption] are present. Whenever the meditator enters the first absorption, there have vanished: sensual craving, ill-will, sloth/torpor, restlessness/worry, and doubt. And there appears: applied-attention, sustained-attention, rapture, joy, and concentration (samādhi)" - Path of Purification (Vis.M. IV).

Another analogy used is that of poured water, which is choppy and broken. It is contrasted with poured oil, which is steady and unbroken. If one practices consistently and correctly then it no longer becomes anything about thinking. Instead, it becomes all about "getting in the zone." As soon as we start thinking, we are no longer in the zone. The same is true of absorption, which is free of discursive thinking. It is full of one-pointed attention. It's all zen (jhana). It is different from "the zone" in sports because it is full absorption; there is only one object of attention. 
Translating absorption as "trance," as the earliest Western translators did, can be misleading because it suggests that there is no object of attention at all. There is only one object.
Note, not all objects of meditation can lead to absorption. For example, we loosely say we were "totally absorbed" in a movie or videogame such that we lost track of time. That form of high external stimulation in no way leads to meditative-absorption. In fact, it leads away from it because the mind/heart becomes weaker and weaker, growing more and more dependent on intense stimulation.
The Buddha suggested the breath as suiting most temperaments (among 40 different objects of meditation), but it is very easy to misunderstand what he meant. Fortunately, he explained it to Ananda. He meant the subtle breath at the tip of the nose just under the nostrils when it becomes so still as to be almost imperceptible. And it will be imperceptible until the mind intensifies enough to notice it no matter how subtle it has grown. This is one of the great benefits of choosing the breath, he explained to Ananda: The more one pays attention, the subtler the breath grows. The subtler it grows, the more one needs to pay attention. This feedback loop leads right to absorption BECAUSE it leads to more subtlety with more attention.
If one strains or pushes or is otherwise disturbed, the breath will instantly be disturbed (becoming grosser and easier to notice). This does not strengthen attention, and one must again wait for it to settle into the subtle breath, which is the object of meditation. Therefore, a balance must be kept or one will go from strain and overeager striving for something to happen to sleepiness and lapsed attention (distractability).

Any strain reflects craving. And it is the very problem pointed out in the famous Indian expression ridiculing the origin of meditation: "One meditates, mismeditates, premeditates, overmeditates... One is like a cat or an owl waiting by a mouse hole..." This is what meditation was in the beginning according to the Buddha. It comes from the Buddhist "Origins of Life on Earth" story (the Aggañña Sutra, DN 27). It is called "meditation" (from the stem related to jhana), but it is not right-meditation. It will not lead to absorption. But why? They look exactly the same!

Looks have little to do with these matters. What is the state of mind of an unsuccessful meditator? Expectant, eager, craving, impatient. Like a cat or an owl, one looks patient just sitting there staring hour after hour. That is not patience; that is greed. When one meditates in another way, fully attentive but not expectant, eager, impatient, or full of craving, suddenly things happen. One did not do them; they happened. But one did set up the causes and conditions without which they would not have happened.

In absorption there is no thinking about the meditation object. One is aware of it without evaluation and without lapse. Meditation, on the other hand, means bringing attention back to the object again and again every time it wanders, which can be millions of times. Absorption refers to being immersed in one object without distraction or wavering or struggling. It is very blissful. People would never guess how blissful it is. (Next we will explain how to take this to enlightenment).

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