Ajahn Sumano is a Chicagoan who worked in the corporate world before becoming a Buddhist monk and living in a cave in Thailand for 15 years, intensively practicing meditation. You’d therefore expect him to have a deep understanding of meditation, and The Brightened Mind suggests he has.
Unfortunately, just as Sumano had to go through his corporate phase before he hit his meditative years, so do we. Almost the whole first half of the book has a “marketing” feel to, it where you’re constantly told about the benefits meditation will bring, without any meditation actually being taught.
The meditation instruction, when it comes, isn’t extensive, but it’s full of precious nuggets of spiritual gold. I’d almost suggest skipping over the first half of the book just to get to this material.
Actually, the meditation teaching doesn’t start in a very promising way. The first direction is “put your mind at ease.” That’s a good aim, although of course it’s one that is easier said than done, and Sumano doesn’t tell us how to accomplish it. Having (somehow) put the mind at ease, we then focus on some neutral object such as the breath, and “just stay with what’s happening right in the moment.” This is a very important suggestion, of course. Then Sumano suggests “holding one inhalation for as long as you can” and tells us that you will “immediately feel the presence of serenity and peace.” I’m unclear what he means by holding the breath for as long as possible. Surely he doesn’t mean that we should hold the breath until we almost pass out? That would seem to lead anywhere but serenity and peace. So up to this point I was becoming increasingly skeptical that I was going to get anything from The Brightened Mind — but then I turned the page and hit the mother-lode.
The second half of The Brightened Mind is solid gold. Sumano’s strength is in emphasizing the “naturalness” of meditation. The second meditation exercise begins with the suggestion, “Allow your eyelids to close gently and begin to think ‘soft.’ That means relaxing the mind and smiling within.” This is beautifully put, and a valuable reminder that meditation can be something we let happen rather than make happen. We don’t try to “do something,” the Ajahn reminds us, but rather meditation is ultimately “a way of undoing and letting go into the smile.” From this point on the instructions are precise and emphasize a profound letting go: “You can just allow gravity to relax the body from the top of the head all the way down to the soles of the feet … when the body has opened and extended fully, the mind will follow and respond accordingly.”
Ajahn Sumano suggests using the evocative power of words, and he says something that I’ve said many times myself: “Every word has power. Every word, even if we do not speak it but simply think of it, emits a vibration in our mind.” And so we breathe in words such as “calm,” “clear,” and (intriguingly) “beyond,” allowing them to work their spells. Sumano explains that we “breathe in” a word by “mentally inclining toward it with a silent whisper as we inhale.” Beautifully put.
The next section, which I thought was highly effective, involves taking meditation into our daily life. Say we are a student listening to a lecture. Sumano suggests that we pay minute detail to everything the lecturer does: every movement, every gesture, the tone of voice, etc. We do this with a “fascinated scrutiny that measures the present moment accurately and precisely.” The net effect of this is that the mind becomes “sensitive, sharp, and focused.” If I may interject an element of my own teaching here, I emphasize a similar quality of total attention in sitting meditation. I find that by paying attention to many sensations simultaneously, in a wide-open field of awareness, there is simply no room for inner chatter (see Meditation and Mental Bandwidth). The effect of that is to bring us rapidly to a state of calmness and happiness. We also become more intimate with and closer to our experience, because as soon as we start to talk to ourselves about our experience we erect a barrier. As Sumano puts it, “In relaxing into this awareness, you are learning how to link the outside world with the inner world.” We are, in fact developing (although Sumano never mentions this term) a non-dual awareness that can lead (and again Sumano doesn’t use this terminology) to what are often called the “formless absorptions.”
In this chapter Sumano also suggests that the attitude with which we approach our lives should be a “resolve to do well in everything we do.” I often find that Buddhists lack this resolve, and are content to just bumble along in an almost haphazard way, with their email inboxes overflowing with hundreds or even thousands of messages, and their minds full of unhelpful stories whose validity and ethical skillfulness they never question. A commitment to excellence is essential. Once we have that resolve, Sumano tells us, “the mind will gather focus and stability and launch itself into the process without conscious effort from you.” That is profoundly true.
Working in this way (letting meditation happen, paying total attention, committing ourselves to excellence) leads to concentration and, eventually, to insight. “This present-moment focus is the key to penetrating the understanding of anything and everything.” What would that look like? “In this state of deep concentration, the contents of the mind (objects, moods, thoughts, memories, feelings, etc.) take on a light and translucent quality, allowing us to investigate these elements without getting stuck in any of them.” And so we begin to realize that we are not our experience.
“With this discerning detachment, we can see [these experiences] for what they are: ever-changing energy patterns that don’t belong to anyone and are not ours to keep.” We thus come to weaken and eventually lose the sense of having a self.
The remainder of the book consists of a summary of the benefits of practice, some reflections on the ultimate goal of practice (enlightenment), and a number of short reflections on lovingkindness, an awareness of impermanence (the better to have a sense of urgency about our practice), and on the value of spiritual friendship (giving it as well as receiving it!). This is all valuable material, although Sumano is pretty much dropping spiritual wisdom into your mind at this point, and leaving you to engage with it. This is fair enough. He’s already given us the tools by which we can radically transform our approach to such material. The extraordinary thing is the very compact way in which he’s done this, by simplifying his presentation of the spiritual path down to those three key activities of letting meditation happen, paying total attention, and committing ourselves to excellence.
Although I think the first half of the book should have been dramatically cut (and I wonder if some editor insisted that the core text on meditation needed to be fleshed out with some “spiritual marketing” to extol the virtues of the goodies to come) the pith instructions themselves are excellent, and I’d highly recommend Sumano’s spiritual manual.