What is trackable is tractable - how clear seeing helps
This is the second of three articles heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
What is sensory clarity?
A key part of meditation and mindfulness - both the techniques themselves, and how they're used in the course of our lives - is to develop sensory clarity. When we see clearly, we can act wisely. The opposite of this clear seeing is confusion - being mistaken about what's going on, and acting from this place of misunderstanding. You can probably think of a time when you did something that seemed totally sensible at the time but turned out to be a big mistake, because you were mistaken about what was going on.
For example, I've noticed that when I have too much going on, and my stress levels cross a certain threshold, I tend to lose perspective on whether a problem is a big deal or a trifle. Before I noticed this pattern, I would take my assessment of the severity of the problem completely seriously - this seems like a disaster, so I'd better treat it like one! And then I'd wonder why nobody else could see this world-shattering disaster that I was grappling with. These days, I'm much more likely to notice when I'm in one of these slumps, and I know that my own judgement is probably a bit wonky, so I tend to ask a friend or colleague for their perspective before getting too invested in solving a problem that might actually not be worth the time and effort to resolve.
Sensory clarity can also help to increase our enjoyment of life. As we learn to tune in to our present-moment experience more precisely, our sensory experience comes alive - colours are more vibrant, scents and flavours richer and more interesting. Through meditation we can, in effect, learn to see the world in HD. (Maybe 4K is a better analogy these days!)
The meditative skill of sensory clarity has three major aspects, which we'll now consider in turn. We could give each aspect a few names; I've picked the ones starting with 'd' for all three, because I like alliteration, but I'll also offer an alternative in each case. The names don't really matter provided you get a general sense of the concepts behind them.
Distinguishing (resolution, discrimination)
(Hopefully it goes without saying, but 'discrimination' is intended in the sense of 'recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another', as opposed to 'prejudice'. Nevertheless, 'discrimination' has so much baggage attached to it that I'll stick with 'distinguishing' for now. If you're scientifically inclined, 'resolution' might also work for you. If it makes you think of how many pixels you can fit onto your screen, that's maybe not so helpful, because that's closer to another quality of sensory clarity, 'depth'.)
A key part of sensory clarity is to be able to make distinctions between different aspects of our experience. Often, we will experience a strongly negative situation as a kind of giant hairball of nastiness, where the whole thing is bad, and the badness seems huge and potentially even overwhelming. But if we look more closely, we can start to break it down into its components.
One way of doing this looks at our experience as being made up of these six aspects:
(If that list seems incomplete to you, this might be an interesting subject of contemplation for a meditation practice...)
So part of the art of clear seeing is being able to distinguish these different aspects of our experience. If we do this, that giant hairball of nastiness starts to break down into several strands of nastiness - and some of the power of that unpleasantness falls away. Shinzen Young likes to say that when we see a situation without clarity, it's like the unpleasantness multiplies - so if you have 10 units of unpleasant physical sensation, 10 units of unpleasant emotional sensation, and so on across the six categories, you end up with 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000,000 units of unpleasantness. Gah! But if you see a situation with clarity - seeing the physical sensations as physical sensations, the mental talk as mental talk, and the two being separate - then it's more like the unpleasantness adds together, so instead you end up with 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 60 units of unpleasantness. A reduction from one million to sixty - not bad!
The key point here is that we become overwhelmed by an experience precisely at the point when we lose our sensory clarity - when we can no longer distinguish the different threads of our experience from one another. At that moment, we shift from 'this part of my experience is bad' to 'everything is bad', and that's too much to handle all at once. By training in sensory clarity, we can maintain this distinguishing ability in more difficult circumstances, and thus it takes more to overwhelm us.
The second component of sensory clarity is how able you are to detect the various comings and goings in your experience.
Suppose you're trying to detect communications from aliens in outer space. So you get a big dish and point it straight up, and then listen to see what you can pick up. The trouble is, the aliens are probably far away, so maybe their signals are really faint. If your receiver is quite noisy, you might miss the signal because it's swamped by noise. On the other hand, maybe the aliens communicate via Galactic Twitter, so their signals are very short-lived. If your receiver is only switched on occasionally, or if it takes you a couple of minutes to notice the signal coming in, you'll probably miss them because they came and went before you realised what was happening.
In a similar way, many of the sensations that make up our experience are either faint, short-lived, or both, and as a result, we don't notice them at the conscious level. However, our bodies are much more switched on than our conscious minds, so we tend to pick up a huge amount of information unconsciously. If you've ever found yourself feeling a bit down after spending a few days around someone who's constantly complaining about everything, you might not be able to pinpoint a specific moment when your mood changed for the worse, but you've clearly been influenced by that drip, drip, drip of negativity nonetheless.
I borrowed another catch-phrase from Shinzen Young for the subtitle of this article: 'What is trackable is tractable.' In other words, when large parts of our experience are totally unconscious, it's very difficult for us to work with that material in a conscious way, because we don't even know it's there. People who meditate for a while often find themselves noticing unhelpful patterns of behaviour coming to light which they'd never consciously recognised before; until that happens, there's no way to change that pattern of behaviour for the better, because you literally have no idea it's happening.
So improving our detection capabilities is another major asset, both for our meditation practice and our lives - as we become more aware of what's going on, we bring light to previously dark corners of our experience.
The final quality of sensory clarity is depth, which is essentially the thoroughness with which the details of an experience are perceived.
A new meditator trying out mindfulness of breathing for the first time may well experience the breath at a largely conceptual level. 'Breathing in now... Breathing out now... Breathing in now... Breathing out now...' As the depth of sensory clarity increases, the meditator will start to notice the physical body sensations making up the breath, which are much richer and more complex than the simple sense of 'breathing in, breathing out'. And as clarity increases still further, the meditator will start to find that those physical sensations are constantly changing, moment to moment, in a beautiful, ungraspable, dance-like flow.
In a sense, depth and detection go hand-in-hand, because as the depth of our clarity increases, we will start to detect more and more in our experience; and as we detect more and more, we have further opportunities to increase the depth of our clarity.
We can look at this like our experience is a deep lake, witnessed on a dark night. At first, maybe we can only see what's right on the surface; nearly the whole lake is hidden from view. Then we switch on a torch, and point it at the water. Now the surface is illuminated, and we can maybe see a little way below the surface as well - so some of what was previously unknown to us now starts to become available, although it's still indistinct. As our torch becomes stronger and brighter, we can see further and further down into the lake, maybe eventually reaching all the way to the bottom.
Practising sensory clarity
Any time you're looking at your immediate sensory experience, with the intention of seeing in detail what's going on, you're practising sensory clarity. If you find it helpful to break things down in terms of the six categories described above, great, but if trying to hold a list in your head while practising gets in the way, it's not necessary. Simply keep coming back to the present moment each time the mind wanders away, and endeavour to be specific about what's going on.
Much like the way that concentration power (see the previous article) can be developed either with a narrow focus or a broad focus, we can also bring sensory clarity to all aspects of our experience, great or small. Many people like to work with the breath, because it's easy to find and doesn't need any external props or setup time, and it's constantly changing so there's endless richness to be explored. Alternatively, if you'd rather go for a broader focus, you could work with the sensations of the whole body, or even the total field of awareness. My Audio page has guided practices for mindfulness of breathing and open awareness to help you get started.
Training ourselves to be less distractible, and why this is a good thing to do
This article, and the next two, are heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
What is meditative concentration?
One of the key skills that we develop through meditation practice is the ability to direct our attention where we want it to go, when we want it to go there. This skill is often called 'concentration', although that word is tricky for a lot of people, as we'll see below. For now, though, I'll keep using it anyway, for the sake of using standard terminology.
So when we 'concentrate', in the meditative sense, we're generally separating our experience into two components: the part of our experience that we're choosing to pay attention to, and everything else. We then focus on the relevant part, and set everything else to one side for the time being.
A common meditation - and one which is often given to beginners, but please don't think of it as a 'beginner practice', because it can be incredibly profound - is to pay attention to the breath. You breathe in, you breathe out, and you notice the physical sensations of the breath. Every time the mind wanders away from the breath - when you start thinking about what you're going to do later, or get distracted by a sound outside the room - you gently bring the attention back to the breath. Simple, right? (If you'd like to give this a try, there are guided breath meditations on my Audio page.)
Concentration in practice
In practice, most people quickly find that the mind doesn't want to stay put. In fact, as Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida wrote in his 1975 'Zen Training': "Any beginner who has tried [breath counting] for the first time must have experienced this failure and been surprised by his inability to control his thoughts as he wanted. Some readers may find this hard to believe. Then they should try it themselves, and they will say, 'Indeed!' and say to themselves, 'This won't do.'"
On the other hand, many of us have had at least glimpses of what it can be like to be totally focused on something. Athletes call it being 'in the zone', and psychologist Mihaly Csizszentmihalyi coined the term 'Flow' to describe it. This condition has now been studied quite a lot, and as a result we can say some things about what it's like to be highly concentrated with great confidence.
1. It's rewarding.
People who experience flow generally want to experience it again and again. When we're fully engaged with something, all of the usual mental chatter falls away, and we're left with a pristine experience of total immersion which flows (hence the name) from one moment to the next.
In fact, happiness researchers have shown that people tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being (i.e. they feel better) when focused on what they're doing, compared to when distracted. Perhaps more surprisingly, the level of focus is a better predictor of happiness than the type of activity being undertaken. This is great news, because it means that we don't need to wait for ideal external conditions in order to be happy. We can actually improve our happiness by paying attention to whatever we're doing.
2. It's effective.
When we're completely focused on what we're doing, we tend to do a better job. Being distracted from the task at hand is clearly a recipe for mistakes, but so is focusing more on the outcome of the task than the task itself. When we're fully present for what we're doing, we notice more details and can respond better to the particulars of what's happening, and this makes for better results.
Some misconceptions about concentration
1. If you're not 100% focused on the breath, you're doing it wrong and wasting your time.
This is probably the single biggest misconception about meditation in general, never mind concentration practice. I've lost count of the number of people who've complained that they're unable to stop their mind wandering when they meditate.
Mind wandering is part of the practice. The mind simply doesn't stay put, at least until you're advanced enough that you probably aren't reading this article. But the mind-wandering is actually a great opportunity, because each time it wanders we can notice that it's wandered, and return our attention to the object of focus. Doing this repeatedly encourages our attention to stay put for progressively longer stretches of time, and we also get better at spotting the wandering, so we notice and come back sooner. Eventually you may reach a point where you can see the mind starting to wobble, and catching it before it wanders away. Now that's a high level of skill!
2. Concentration means actively suppressing everything else.
Please don't do this. Trying to play whack-a-mole with wandering thoughts is not only futile, but it actually makes matters worse. Our minds are busy because we're constantly filling them with stuff, until there's so much pressure that random thoughts can't help but leak out all day long. Trying to suppress those wandering thoughts actually adds more pressure to the system, shaking things up even more. Talk about counter-productive!
To borrow an image from Shinzen Young, you can give the spotlight to one dancer without pushing all the other dancers off the stage. That's what we're doing here: spotlighting some part of our experience, and simply leaving the rest of it alone.
3. Concentration involves a ton of effort.
Not really. It does take some effort to learn a new skill, or to improve an existing one, but you don't need a furrowed brow and tensed muscles to concentrate. Unfortunately the word 'concentration' implies effort for many people, so sometimes I'll explore other terms with them, like 'stability', 'resting', 'focus', or my teacher Leigh's preferred term, 'indistractibility'.
When you're doing the practice, each time the mind wanders away and you come back again, that process of 'recommitting' to the object does take a little bit of energy, and you'll probably find that your concentration is worse at the end of a long day when you're tired. But, over time, your baseline level of concentration - i.e. how indistractible you are in the course of your daily life - will increase, so you'll find yourself becoming steadily more focused without applying any conscious effort.
4. Concentration means focusing on something small.
It's pretty common for concentration practices to be taught using a small area of focus, such as the sensations of breathing at the nostrils. Focusing on a small area can be a nice way to train concentration for many people, because it's crystal clear when you're focusing and when your attention has wandered.
On the other hand, some people find too narrow an area of focus to be tight or confining, and that they do much better with a broader area of focus, such as the breath in the belly, or even the sensations of the whole body. For the ultimate in 'broad focus', you can even rest in open awareness, experiencing all sensations freely without focusing in on anything in particular. (Again, you'll find a guided open awareness practice on the Audio page.)
It's also a good idea to step outside your comfort zone once in a while. If you mostly work with the breath at the nostrils, try working with the whole body, or open awareness. And vice versa. Challenge yourself!
5. Concentration means keeping your attention on one fixed point for a long period of time.
Although many concentration practices do aim to cultivate stable, unmoving attention - 'one-pointed', as it's called in the tradition - we can also cultivate another kind of concentration, called 'moment-to-moment'. This means that, in any given moment, we have a high degree of focus on one particular sensation, but in a subsequent moment we might move to another sensation, with an equally high degree of focus.
For example, in the popular body scan practice, your attention moves around the body in a methodical way, spending a few seconds in each location. Wherever your attention is, you focus deeply on the physical sensations at that place - so, in that moment, that particular area of the body is very much in the spotlight, and everything else is out of it - but the spotlight is moving from place to place, rather than resting in one place for half an hour. (This practice is definitely worth trying too; you can find a couple of guided body scans on the Audio page.)
Building concentration power, your way
Actually, all meditation practices cultivate concentration power, so there's no need to practise in a special way; simply focus on whatever practice you're doing, and keep coming back to the practice each time your mind wanders.
That said, if you want to turbo-charge your concentration skills, you can work in a way which emphasises concentration and downplays everything else. The basic instructions for a pure concentration practice are simple:
1. Pick an object
2. Notice the sensations in your experience which correspond to that object
3. Each time the mind wanders away, gently bring the attention back to the object
4. Do nothing else
As for the object, you can pick anything at all, internal or external. The breath is a very common one, but some people like to use candles, sounds, mantras... There's a traditional list of 40 objects of meditation (many of which are pretty grim - take a look!), but feel free to get creative and use whatever you prefer. I suggest you try fairly simple, unchanging objects, because if you pick something too dynamic and 'interesting' then it's too easy to stay focused and you aren't really building the skill. (It doesn't take much effort to get absorbed in a good movie, but it also doesn't really train your indistractibility - if it did, we'd all be masters by now...)
So give it a go, and see how you get on!
tl;dr: More writing coming soon; value uncertain.
I've been teaching a weekly class for about two and a half years now, and over that time my class plans have gotten progressively more detailed and unwieldy. It's getting to the point that I often don't have enough time to say everything I've planned to, which cuts into meditation time. In a meditation class, that's... less than ideal.
Recently, there have been a few occasions when I haven't used the class plan, and have instead just followed the usual class outline (opening sit, talk, movement, closing sit) without any notes to back me up. It's been nice - I'm not so tied to my iPad, and I don't overrun because I shut up when it's time for the movement practice.
On the other hand, I kinda like planning. I spend a lot of time on it. Often, I'll do some research. And I'm just not interesting enough to speak extemporaneously every single week without any kind of prep work. Also, from time to time I've shared previous class plans with people and they've been useful, so it's nice to have something written down.
So the new plan is that, once a week, I'll write an article for this blog, and save it as a draft. Then I'll use that as the basis for the talk that week, and finally publish the article after the class has happened (so no spoilers). Maybe that will be of interest to people who can't make it along to the physical classes. It'll also allow me to exercise another of my passions (I like writing but don't find time for it any more), and it'll add a bit more of my personality to what is otherwise a fairly bland website (which might be good or bad, depending on your taste...).
That's the experiment; what's the caveat?
A question I've considered a lot lately is: 'Who am I to be teaching people about Zen?' I've been practising for about twelve years (I'm not sure exactly when I started), and I've had a certain amount of experience over those twelve years, but I regularly meet people with thirty or forty years of practice experience, compared to which I've barely begun. I'm nothing special, and, as keen as I am to share the practices that have been so valuable for me, I do sometimes wonder if calling myself a teacher is just a giant ego trip.
Still, people keep coming to my classes, so evidently at least some people get some value out of them, and perhaps by posting articles here, a few more people will benefit too. For my part, I'll do my best to give credit where it's due, rather than try to pass off the words of the great Zen masters as my own ideas - hopefully I won't pollute their teachings too much as I put them into my own words.
New articles will be posted most Thursdays, assuming I wrote something new that week and didn't have one of my improv sessions instead.
I hope you find something of value in these writings.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!