Concentration and The Jhanas: A Primer for Deepening Your Practice

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Right Concentration is the final leg of the Buddha’s eightfold path but it is frequently misunderstood. Concentration and mindfulness differ, although right mindfulness is a support for meditative concentration. Skillful concentration often leads to the jhanas, the eight altered states of consciousness that can deepen joy and improve your insight practice. In this half day retreat we will explore meditation through the lens of concentration and the jhanas as a path to awakening.

The morning will consist of instruction, meditation and discussion. This retreat is suitable for all levels of experience although an existing mediation practice is recommended.

Cost is $50. A reduced fee, scholarship spot is available in the case of financial need. Email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com to inquire. Payment can be made through Paypal here. Venmo is available @onedharma.

Avoiding the Dangers of Isolated Samadhi

“What the hell is isolated samadhi?” you may ask. Currently we’re in a mindfulness meditation boom and samadhi is not emphasized as often in this practice. With mindfulness practice, we’re focusing on objects, such as breath, body, emotions and thoughts. We watch them arise and pass away, doing our best to see their impermanence moment to moment. This is a wonderful practice and helps us become more familiar with our minds, our habitual patterns and how we function in the relative world.

Samadhi is a state of meditative absorption where we access deep insights into the mind and heart and the nature of interconnection. In samadhi, our minds are calm, our meditation is effortless and often includes feelings of bliss, joy and equanimity. It has great appeal but I find many practitioners of mindfulness don’t reach this state often. Their concentration isn’t developed enough or the focus remains subject/object oriented. In samadhi, the subject/object separation disappears. That is, “self and other” cease to exist as a fixed experience. A strong mindfulness practice can lead to samadhi. But it takes commitment and adequate time devoted to meditation.

I began my practice in the Zen tradition, where samadhi was emphasized. Through rigorous practice, I quickly reached deep states of meditative absorption. I found it invaluable in helping me with intractable depression and grief; I was able to see thoughts and emotions as empty of any abiding reality. I found the courage to experience the grief and depression directly, which allowed them to finally pass through to their end.

But I also became aware that many accomplished teachers seemed lost outside of the meditation hall. They spoke eloquently of emptiness and seemed to have deep dharma insights. But their “everyday” behavior was puzzling and in some cases, inexcusable. Whatever clarity they gained through samadhi was lost as soon as they entered the everyday world. It was as if a barrier had been erected between the two, and no amount of practice penetrated the clouded mind of craving and addiction. I was on the receiving end of this craving with two Zen teachers and it shattered my trust in the path. I didn’t understand how such seemingly awakened men could be so blind in other parts of their lives.

I started to realize they had not developed their capacity to be mindful in daily life in a way that would bridge their insights and samadhi from the cushion. I knew I didn’t want to follow that route, so I took up Vipassana mindfulness as a counterbalance to samadhi practice. I had to let go of my pride of accomplishment on the path and approach this practice as a beginner. With its emphasis on ethics and compassion, and de-emphasis’ on holding teachers up as gurus, Vipassana helped me find a way back to the practice and to the dharma. This doesn’t mean I think one practice is better than the other. Both have merit and both need to be approached in a balanced way.

Many newcomers do best when they begin with mindfulness. But at some point they may need more. Mindfulness and meditative absorption are both important practices. I would not abandon one for the other, nor emphasize one over the other for the mature and committed practitioner. They are not mutually exclusive. Just enter the way with a good dose of compassion and find the path to your heart. All practices are like a finger pointing to the moon, as one saying goes. We don’t want to mistake the finger for the moon, and become attached to any one practice. Knowing when to let go is as important as skillfully developing these practices. When I let go of samadhi, I didn’t lose it, but gained another doorway into compassion and insight, especially in my everyday life.

Why Do a Residential Meditation Retreat?

I’m often asked this question by newer meditation students still unsure of the value of taking that “next step,” from home and group sitting practice to devoting three or more days to meditation. Could there possibly be more to it than just sitting and walking over and over again? Each person who decides to take this step will answer that question in his or her own unique way. I can elaborate, however, on some common experiences.

What I hear repeatedly from people after their first residential retreat is how deeply they settled into their meditation periodically through the course of the weekend. Nearly all new retreatants experience some resistance at the beginning of a retreat because the activities seem so removed from everyday life. But once they make peace with the retreat rhythm and lack of external distractions, they find a way of settling in that allows for substantial deepening of concentration (Samadhi).

Through this Samadhi, the door to insight gradually opens. This is where each person’s experience is unique – the fruits of insight manifest in myriad ways. It may reveal the very nature of mind, an opening into emptiness.  Some people will awaken to the endless arising and passing away of phenomena with equanimity. Fresh insights into difficult life challenges are common as well. Some people experience a deep opening of the heart with occasional or extended periods of  stillness and joy. Usually these openings, however they manifest, are exactly what a person needs at the time  – the wisdom of the dharma truly reveals itself through this process. It often differs from the expectations a person brought into the retreat, but letting go of fixed agendas is key to the unfolding of genuine insight.

Returning home, many people feel lighter and less caught in reactive patterns for a while. Others may feel heightened sensitivity because their hearts have opened so fully. Its important to maintain compassion and awareness during this transition back into everyday activities. At some point the after retreat high inevitably wears off, but the mind and heart retain a new depth of insight that can be accessed through continued practice.  Most people experience a greater appreciation for the value of meditation and many make a stronger commitment to their practice.