Tonight we’ll continue with our discussion of Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless. Let’s start with an adaptation of one of her guided meditations from Chapter Seven, which is titled “Effort, Ease, and Intention:”
Close your eyes and settle into an erect but comfortable posture. Relax habitually tense places in your jaw, neck, shoulders and belly. Turn your attention inward to follow the sensation of each in breath and each out breath at the site where the breathing seems most obvious.
During this meditation session, notice the quantity and quality of energy you are applying to observation. Note if there is interest or dullness, precision or diffusion, and intensity or passivity.
Notice the conditions in which greater energy is available, such as when interest is piqued. And notice when there is less energy, such as when the attention is dulled by fantasies.
Sense your ability to adjust the quality and quantity of energy and effort.
Note how much effort is required initially to direct the attention to the breath. As you return to the breath, note if the same quality and quantity of energy are needed.
Notice how the level of energy and effort change depending on how much noise is in the room, how much pain there is in your body, and how sleepy you feel. Be aware of the varied modulations of effort necessary to precisely meet each changing condition.
Chapter Seven begins with a quotation by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche:
Leave everything as it is in fundamental simplicity, and clarity will arise by itself. Only by doing nothing will you do all there is to be done.
Most of us find, however, that when we sit still in silence, we encounter a wildly active and restless mind inside. We tend to face self-doubts, laziness and resistance. It doesn’t work to try to force distractions to leave the mind in peace. Shaila asks, “How can you develop a deep friendship with your own mind, so deep that your mind becomes your trusted ally?” Instead of struggling against restlessness, she recommends cultivating concentration by being willing “to encounter, understand and eventually remove all the agitates the mind.”
To do so, we must use Right Effort. After 45 years of ministry, characterized by diligent effort, the Buddha paused at the threshold of his death and urged his disciples to “Strive on untiringly.” Even today, our challenge remains how to balance disciplined strength and gentle attentiveness, applying just the right amount of energy to be fully present with the reality of each moment. Sometimes I feel as if my meditation practice is like navigating in a sailboat. If I pull in the sails tightly and point too directly into a head wind, the boat is pushed backwards, but if I steer away from the wind and let the sails luff, I won’t make forward progress.
Shaila suggests that we try doing less rather than more. Most of us have a perfectionistic streak, and want to meditate just right. I often catch myself clenching my jaw when I’m practicing with excessive striving. It helps to rest my attention softly on the meditation object of the breath. Shaila refers to this approach as “dropping back to observe” or “settling into the experience,” or merging with the perception.”
In a recent book called The Rise of Superman, author Steven Kotler writes about extreme sports enthusiasts whom he says are “decoding the science of ultimate human performance.” He quotes surfer Laird Hamilton describing his experience of being in the flow while riding giant waves in his native Hawaii: “When you’re in that moment, there’s no beginning and no end…. It’s just pure. You are and it is, and that’s why we continually seek it out, and always search for it and need it. We need to feel alive and complete.”
According to Kotler, who directs research at the Flow Genome Project, “In flow, every action, every decision leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high speed problem-solving, it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.” He explains that the brain’s pre-frontal cortex is where thoughts occur that so often lead to complexity and confusion. Because flow is the opposite of thinking, the cortex must be temporarily deactivated in order to reach a state of flowing.
Flow is caused by what Kotler calls a “mighty cocktail” of powerful chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which are released into the brain. Referring to the dark side of flow, he warns that many addicting substances, from marijuana to Oxycontin, contain these same chemicals: “Americans are literally killing themselves to achieve artificially the same sensations that flow produces naturally.” Craving for flow can lead to risky, even lethal behavior.
The Buddha may not have identified the specific neurotransmitters that lead to blissful states of concentration, but he taught how to practice mindful attention with loving diligence until deep absorption arises naturally. He used a simile of a cowherd guarding and prodding his cows in the autumn to curb their tendency to wander into fields of maturing crops. So too, wise meditators are dedicated to actively removing unwholesome thoughts and hindrances. In the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been harvested, the cowherd can stay at the root of a tree to watch over the cattle. Analogously, a wise meditator recognizes when concentration has deepened and consciousness is refined enough that busy, agitated thoughts give way to more spacious thoughts of kindness, compassion and peace. At that point, the meditator needs only to be mindful that wholesome thoughts are present.
As a musician, I like the Buddha’s comparing the effort involved in meditative practice to continuously retuning the strings of a lute—neither too taut nor too loose. Likewise, meditators who are connecting and sustaining attention with each inhalation and exhalation, will avoid the polarities of restlessness and lassitude.
Last Friday evening, I had the pleasure of listening in a front-row seat to contemporary composer and pianist Haskell Small performing one of his own compositions in the Rothko Chapel. The piece, which was inspired by viewing a museum exhibit of Rothko’s magnificent red paintings, is subtitled, “Journeys in Silence.” His rendition brought tears to my eyes because he played the piano with such simplicity and purity of concentration. Haskell Small’s composition was an exquisite blend of sound and silence, with regular pauses to fully absorb and appreciate the tone poem that so aptly reflected the mystical feeling of Rothko’s art. He seemed to play effortlessly, and I received his musical offering just as effortlessly. His music invited the audience into the flow of life just as it was unfolding in the moment.
Now reflect upon similar experiences of flowing in your own life.