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Meditation 101: Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight
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Meditation 101: Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight (19 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
August 16, 2015 - Dallas, Texas

So, a couple of weeks ago we talked about seven benefits of meditation, and last Sunday, we talked about different methods of meditation. And tonight, we will have a teaching on these four aspects of meditation. Before I talk about four aspects of meditation, I would like to share something about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Because those three are the three main ingredients of our practice.

So, mindfulness and concentration are very similar energies, but they are slightly different. Actually, I consider it one energy and two aspects because you really can't have one without the other ultimately, but you can emphasize one more than another and vice versa. And it is the combination of mindfulness and concentration that create the reason why there are so many varieties of meditation techniques and practices, because some meditation teachers like to develop their mindfulness first for a while and then their concentration later, and others like to first develop their concentration and their mindfulness later. Others like to develop mindfulness and concentration simultaneously, and both of them, if they are true mindfulness and concentration, lead to insight, but some techniques try to develop your insight first, and then once you have insight to motivate you and empower you, they then train you in mindfulness or concentration.

So that is why there are so many different varieties, even in Buddhism, as well as in other traditions. But to me, as long as you're practicing all three in some way, that is fine. What's the difference? Well, mindfulness is like this. First you want to have a little bit of concentration power in your mindfulness, and from that center of centeredness, you just allow your awareness and consciousness to become equally aware of everything in your experience, so it is like it is your awareness and consciousness is expansive and all-inclusive.

So, in mindfulness, you allow your awareness of the breath to be there, and when you hear the sound of a bird singing, you allow your mindfulness to encompass the sound of the bird. And if someone sneezes or coughs in the room while you are meditating, your mindfulness allows that sound to be there. And if you have an itch or a twitch in your back or whatever or if your legs fall asleep, you allow this sensation to be present.

So mindfulness is very much about nonjudgmental acceptance and awareness and allowing. It is very spacious. Of course, as we begin our practice, our mindfulness is not so centered, so we are kind of wobbly in our mindfulness, because what happens is we are trying to be mindful of the breath, and then when we hear somebody sneezing or coughing, instead of staying aware of the breath and the sneezing, we go away from the breath and start thinking about the sneezing and kind of feel irritated about it, and then you start thinking about other things.

You have lost your concentration energy in the mindfulness, so it is kind of wobbly, rather than this nice circle, it is kind of wobbly, and then the next thing that happens—oh, that thought, or oh, that sound, or that feeling. And you forget about the breath altogether. But in true mindfulness, you are always aware of the breath as well as aware of everything else, without judgment, with full acceptance, with equanimity, and it is very loving, accepting, inclusive.

Now in concentration, that requires obviously a power of awareness and mindfulness also, but it is much more in the direction of bringing our consciousness to one-pointedness. So we allow our awareness, our mindfulness to then focus and concentrate only on one point. So you bring your mind into deep presence, fully present here and now, fully present with the breath or fully present with the mantra or fully present with whatever it is that is your object of concentration, and you allow your mind to be fully there so much that you reach the point that there is no separation between you and the object. There is only this oneness of experience. And when you have a very deep concentration state of consciousness, it can open you up to inexperience of deep, profound, bliss, and oneness.

Now because of the bliss side effect of concentration that happens from time to time, you have to use some caution because if you get addicted to that feeling of bliss, you will completely ignore mindfulness and insight, and you're just going to only focus on concentration because you just want to keep getting the bliss. But if you do that, you shortchange yourself, because without all three of these energies, you cannot really be fully awakened and enlightened.

So, enjoy the bliss if it happens once in a while, but don't be addicted to it. Don't be caught up in it. Just allow it. Let your mindfulness include the bliss, but not exclude the normal everyday life and experience, because true enlightenment is not about just bliss. True enlightenment encompasses everything, both the blissful times as well as washing the dishes, doing the laundry, taking care of the kids, driving to work. It includes everything. Mindfulness includes it all.

And hopefully, as we develop our ability to be spacious and inclusive as well as one-pointed and concentrated, these two energies working together hopefully can produce insights, also called wisdom and understanding. And there are many, many levels of insight, wisdom, and understanding. A very deep level of insight is when you realize the true nature of the self, the true nature of the universe, the true nature of reality, the true nature of the ultimate. But we start with insight into impermanence, nonself, suffering, and nirvana, peace, and we move on from there.

In one particular technique of meditation I was a part of, we actually started with insight first. It was interesting. I had already spent several years developing mindfulness and concentration, so I was prepared for this experience of just focusing on insight, and in three hours, this genius of a teacher was able to lead this whole group of maybe 50 people at this retreat workshop into a step-by-step process of suddenly awakening from the ego personal self to awareness of the universal.

Now not everyone in the room had that experience. I don't think it's possible that everyone at the retreat had a sudden insight, but because certain people in the room had already practiced mindfulness and concentration for a while, this just kind of tipped us over into awakening insight. So I would say maybe one corner of the room had this experience, including myself, of awakening to this vast universal reality just for a few seconds or minutes.

And for me, it kept growing over a few weeks and months until just at home by myself meditating, I suddenly had this experience. It was like a little bubble just popped, and the bubble wasn't really substantial anymore, because the bubble is sort of my personal self. I think of the air inside the bubble as me and the air outside as not me, but the bubble burst metaphorically, and I realized there is no separation between personal self and universal self. There is only the one true self, and it was very profound for me, and I remember being just pure awareness and consciousness and kind of looking at this body-mind; there is no separate self inside this thing. There is only this one consciousness that is the one true self that manifests as this body-mind, that body-mind, that body-mind, that body-mind. But there is really only one true self. And so, for a few weeks, I was sort of on cloud nine in a very blissful state, but eventually, it faded, and I was much more aware of my personal self and all of that.

So that was just an initial glimpse of enlightenment, and one of my Zen teachers confirmed in questions, koans with me that yes, it was a genuine experience of what they call kensho, which is an initial awakening glimpse of enlightenment. But that is not the end of the story, because as you gain insight early in your practice, wait. It is a motivation to keep going. But if you think of it as okay, I got it. I don't need to do anything else, well, then you have derailed it yourself from the path of enlightenment, because additional awakening is not full enlightenment. It is just the start.

And so, that motivated me to keep practicing mindfulness and concentration, and I had to learn that I cannot cling to that experience. I can't cling that blissful state of being. I have to also allow awakening, enlightenment to encompass going to the bathroom, doing laundry, doing the dishes, having the hard days as well as good days. Enlightenment has to be able to encompass everything equally, with equanimity and patience. So I am still on the path, and so I encourage you also, but it is really nice if you have an insight experience early on or in the middle of your path because it is a very good motivator to keep going.

I think that in a way I felt like I was a flower that blossomed prematurely, because looking back on it I thought, I didn't really do that much to have this awakening. I am not really any better at the practice than other people that I know. Why did I have this insight at this time? And I think it is because the universe knew, at least in my case, that I needed something to help me keep going. I think at that time in my life I was a little bit discouraged, and I just wasn't sure about some things in my path, my practice, and so I think this was more like a gift of grace. Just hey, you know, keep going. There is something. There is something that is real, and you are able to realize that. So I think of it as a little kiss from the universe, just to say, "Hey, there is wisdom. There is love. There is a greater reality. Don't be discouraged. Keep going."

So, some people like to try to help the students start with some awakening insights and motivate them, and others start with simple mindfulness or concentration or a combination of one or the other or simultaneously, etcetera. Or maybe even all three slowly, simultaneously.

I think Thich Nhat Hanh, my teacher, he is a very gentle teacher. From what I have observed, I see that he teaches mindfulness, concentration, and insight simultaneously, but in a very gentle way. So when you do have your heart opened up one of his retreats, it can be just a very gentle opening of the heart, a gentle awakening, but it feels so loving and so wonderful. I love the insights and the experience that I have with his teachings and his practice. It is very heartful. It is also very gentle.

So, that is what I would like to share about why we have so many different meditation teachers, meditation traditions, meditation techniques. There is not one better than the other. It is just whatever works for you is the one that is good for you, so here in our community, we try to help you develop all three very gently and simultaneously, so we encourage you to make this a lifelong lifestyle practice.

Enjoy the blossoms when they do come, and also appreciate life when there are not any blossoms. Because when a tree goes through winter, it has no leaves on the branches, no fruits. It looks very barren, but there is something deep going on. It is deepening and lengthening its roots into the earth, nursing itself so that by the time spring and summer comes, there is a lot of energy there to then produce the leaves and flowers and fruit.

So don't underestimate this kind of practice, even though it is gentle and slow, but it is very powerful also, just like the tree in the winter. There is something going on at deep levels, so don't be deluded by those who only propose kind of a Hollywood enlightenment. I don't know what else to call it. They're always promoting the next biggest experience, some sort of high, some sort of spiritual major kind of awakening.

And those are great if they motivate you to do the gentle, daily, everyday, normal life enlightenment practice, because having high spiritual experiences is not the point at all. If they happen, great. Enjoy them as a motivator, but the real place where the rubber hits the road is our daily life, our daily ways of interacting with people, the way we radiate, the way we have relationships, the way we speak, think, and act in the world. That is where enlightenment really makes the impact.

So, I guess that is actually enough teaching for tonight. I'll talk about the four aspects of meditation next time.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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