concentration

The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

scientific pentagram diagram showing angles, proportions, and other things I don't understand.

Buddhism is full of lists: the three trainings, the four foundations of mindfulness, the five skandhas, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold dependent origination, the 37 limbs of awakening, and so forth. Often these lists are presented in a rather static way, as if we’re just being offered an overview of some area of life. So the four foundations, for example, are often described as simply being four aspects of our experience that we can be mindful of, and the five skandhas as simply a way to break down the idea of a unified self.

The five spiritual faculties

One such list is the five faculties, or five spiritual faculties, as it’s often termed. If you aren’t familiar with the five spiritual faculties, they’re a very common teaching. They are faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. They tend, as I’ve suggested is often the case, to be presented as if they just are, or as if they are five things we simply need to develop in order to become awakened. That’s how they’re often presented in the scriptures, as in the following:

A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment. What five? The faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

My impression of the Buddha is that he wasn’t really interested in providing overviews, but that he was instead very interested in how things work. He had a mind that was perhaps a bit like an engineer’s. His teaching on dependent origination, for example, is all about how one thing provides conditions for another arising and that to another, each of those conditions leading to a greater sense of freedom and joy. So when I see Buddhist lists one of my first thoughts is, how might the items on that list work together as a dynamic system.

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The five spiritual faculties as a dynamic system

As it happens, when I was doing some background reading for writing this article, I found that there’s a relatively early text that does just this with the five spiritual faculties. In one Sanskrit commentarial work, “The Discourse on the Analysis of Topics” (or Arthaviniscaya Sutra) they’re presented as a dynamic series, with each of the factors building on the previous one. Although this text is called a “sutra,” a term usually reserved for records of things the Buddha and his disciples said, the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics is actually a commentarial text. It was created by monks a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, as they tried to explain some of the teachings found in the actual scriptures. And in the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics the five spiritual faculties are described as contributing, step by step, to the development of the skillful qualities needed for awakening to take place.

Here’s how that works:

  1. The faculty of faith is an awareness of the possibility of practicing in order to be happier.
  2. The faculty of vigor allows us to actually practice and develop skillful qualities.
  3. The faculty of mindfulness helps us to preserve and maintain those skillful qualities.
  4. The faculty of concentration allows us to stay focused on those skillful qualities.
  5. And finally the faculty of wisdom allows us to “penetrate and reflect on the birth” of those things, and thus to develop insight.

This early text tries to show the five spiritual faculties as working together as a system. And the explanation makes sense, although I’ll shortly show another way of looking at how they can work together.

The five spiritual faculties, moment by moment

Recently I taught a class in a local Buddhist center where I explained how the five spiritual faculties can work, moment by moment, working together more or less simultaneously, in order to help us move from unskillful to skillful states of mind, from states of mind that cause suffering to states of mind that are imbued with a sense of peace, calm, and even joy.

So let’s say that we experience anger, and see how the five spiritual faculties function. Because they work together in a simultaneous way, we could deal with them in any order.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the activity of observing our experience. Without mindfulness no practice can take place, which is why I prefer to start with its role. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see that anger has arisen. So rather than simply being angry, now we’re aware that we’re angry.

These days there’s a tendency to see mindfulness as the only spiritual quality we need. But really it’s nothing more than simply observing. In itself it does nothing, which is why we also need the other spiritual faculties.

2. Wisdom

Often (especially in a Buddhist context) we might think about wisdom as an enlightened quality, as seeing reality as it really is, as something that arises at the end of the path and that we’ve yet to gain. But early Buddhism saw wisdom as consisting also of a very mundane form of understanding spiritual truths. For example, understanding that “There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds” are forms of wisdom.

So, in our example of being angry, our mindfulness tells us that anger is present. Wisdom tells us that this anger isn’t good for us and will likely lead to our suffering. Our wisdom also knows that there are alternatives to anger — curiosity, patience, kindness, and so on — that will make us happier in both the short and long terms.

3. Faith

Faith in Buddhism is not blind belief. It’s more like a sense of confidence and clarity. It’s from a root that literally means “to place the heart upon.” So we can know on some level that anger is going to cause problems for us, but on some other level believe that we need anger to get what we want. So our confidence in our practice is compromised.

But as we continue to mindfully observe actions and consequences unfolding in our lives, and with wisdom to see how those things are connected to each other, we can start to have more confidence that letting go of anger, and instead practicing things like curiosity, patience, and kindness, has both short- and long-term benefits.

So in this example, we’ve now mindfully noticed that anger is present, have wisely seen that anger causes suffering, and now, with faith, have confidence that some alternative to anger is more appropriate. Now, coming from the heart, there’s a desire for change. But we still haven’t actually acted.

4. Vigor

Vigor is virya, also sometimes rendered as “energy.” This is the faculty of taking action. So, now that we have confidence that non-anger is preferable to anger, we now act. We can act by letting go: we might have angry thoughts or be speaking angry words, and we simply let go of those. We can act by opening up to the possibility of acting in ways that are more helpful than anger, so that we have a sense that curiosity, patience, and kindness are there, waiting in the wings, ready to be activated. And some actions involve actually bringing those skillful qualities into being. We speak kindly or apologetically, for example. Or we empathetically try to understand a person we’re angry with.

5. Concentration

Concentration is samadhi, which comes from a root meaning something like “bringing together” or “holding together.” It refers to the mind being unified around one purpose.

Often when we hear the word “concentration” we think of a narrow focus, but that’s not necessarily what samadhi is about. Samadhi is more about having an absence of internal conflict, and therefore continuity of mindfulness.

So, in our example of dealing with anger, our concentration can mean keeping up a sustained effort to respond skillfully. As we all know, that’s difficult to do. There are parts of the mind that want to be angry and that see anger as solving our problems. And those parts of us can be very persistent, and can come back over and over again and hijack our attention. This is why maintaining concentration is necessary. So that’s one thing that concentration can mean in this instance.

But it can also refer to the state of mind that emerges from mindfulness, wisdom, faith, and vigor. As we continue to give priority to the wiser parts of our mind, the more reactive parts become weaker. They’re less able to affect us. They’re less able to control us. We’re less likely to do things we regret by acting unskillfully. And so, over time, we experience less inner conflict. The mind is more harmonized, more (to coin a word) samadhic.

But although I started to talk in that last paragraph about the long-term functioning of the five spiritual faculties, what I want to emphasize is how they function moment by moment, and how they’re intrinsic to every act of skillful change that we bring about. They function together, supporting each other, very time we work with an unhelpful or destructive habit. And as we exercise them over and over again in this way — at least if we do this in a half-way consistent way — they become stronger. So when the scriptures say something like “A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment,” this is what they’re talking about: change, taking place moment by moment, and those acts of change developing habits that help liberate us from suffering.

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Seven ways to collect and concentrate your mind and energy

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”

In the last few months I’ve been very busy myself and starting to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like an octopus squished between two sheets of glass.

You know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.

Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching into a run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.

1. Savor Pleasure
As the brain evolved, pleasure and its underlying endorphins and other natural opioids developed to pull our ancestors out of disturbed fight-flight-freeze bursts of stress and return them and keep them in a sustainable equilibrium of recover-replenish-repair. Let physical or mental pleasure really land; give yourself over to it fully rather than looking for the next thing.

2. Move
Dance, exercise, yoga, walks, lovemaking, play, and athletics reset the body-mind. For me personally, movement at either end of the intensity spectrum – very subtle or very vigorous – has the most impact.

3. Get Wild
We evolved in nature, and multiple studies are showing that natural settings – the beach, wilderness, sitting under a tree in your back yard – are restorative.

4. Enjoy Art
By this I mean making or experiencing anything aesthetic, such as doing crafts, listening to music, watching a play, trying a new recipe, playing your guitar, building a fence, or taking a pottery class.

5. Feel the Core
Most of the inputs into your brain originate within your own body, and most if not all of those signals are like night watchmen calling, “All is well. All is well. All is well . . .” Feeling into your breathing, sensing into your innards, and noticing that you are alright right now are endlessly renewing opportunities to settle into the physical center of your being.

6. Be Now
The center of time is always this moment. A primary difference between humans and other species (with the possible exception of cetaceans) is our capacity for “mental time travel.” But this blessing is also in some ways a curse in that the mind keeps dispersing itself into the past and the future; it proliferates worries, plans, rehashings, and fantasies like manic vines in a speeded-up jungle. Instead, right now be now. And again.

7. Get Disenchanted
This means waking up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce. We normally pursue hundreds of little goals each day – return this call, organize that event, produce these emails, get across those points – associated with presumed rewards produced by ancient brain centers to motivate our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Let the truth land that these rewards are rarely as good as promised.

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself to quit chasing the brass ring. While staying engaged with life, return to the reliable rewards of feeling already full – the undoing of the craving, broadly defined, that creates suffering and harm. Try a little practice on first waking or at other times in which you take a few seconds or longer to feel already peaceful, already contented, and already loved. This is the home base of body, brain, and mind.

Come home to center.

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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How mindfulness can help us appreciate food

wildmind meditation newsDerek Watson, Herald Scotland: When I was a wee girl my daddy used to cajole me and my brother and sisters into finishing our meals by playing a game in which we were to imagine each forkful going to a different part of our bodies. Beef and potato, for instance, would be mashed up and formed into a pie shape, which we took great delight in dividing into wedges. On dad’s instruction we’d scoop up each piece and as we swallowed we’d imagine it going to, say, our left knee or our right pinky toe or a bicep or an eye. We imagine …

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Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up

Steady mindfulness requires overcoming the natural – and evolutionarily adaptive – tendency of mind to scan endlessly and think of new things.

So the basic capacity to steady the mind – called concentration, as a short-hand – is a condition for mindfulness.

Right here, if you like, you can do a little tune-up of your mindfulness and concentration skills.

Mindful Presence Series

  1. What is “Mindful presence”?
  2. Why develop mindful presence?
  3. Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
  4. Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.

Instructions
You could take 10 minutes or so to just concentrate on one thing. You can pick whatever object you like, and I’ll give instructions in terms of the sensations of the breath felt around the upper lip. If those are too subtle, you could also use the sensations in the belly.

For concentration, it’s generally best to pick a single, focused object of attention – such as the sensations of the breath in one area, rather than the feeling of breathing overall – and stick with that object rather than moving from object to object.

So let’s get started:

  • Sit in a relaxed yet comfortable position.
  • Eyes open or closed, whatever works for you. Eyes closed often helps people focus on the breath.
  • If you feel sleepy you could open your eyes or stand up.
  • Try to be aware of the sensations of each breath – inhalation and exhalation – from beginning to end.
  • It’s OK to have your mind wander some. Just return your attention to the breath. Be kind to yourself as you do so.
  • If you like, you could count each breath, and start over when you get to 10 or if you lose track.
  • Try to be with each breath as a fresh, unique breath, an individual in its own right.
  • Increase your attentiveness if you feel it starting to crumble or wander.
  • Keep watching your quality of intention and focus. You are watching the watching to make sure the watcher is doing a good job.
  • You’ll be getting increasingly absorbed in the sensations of the breath.

Try this for as long as you like, maybe around 10 minutes.

OK, how was that for you?

What helped you stabilize attention, steady your mind?

Basic Mindfulness

Next, we are going to shift to a standard form of mindfulness meditation, in which you keep maybe a third of your attention on your breath (or something else) that helps stabilize and anchor your attention. With the rest of your attention, you are simply aware of whatever else streams through awareness.

Remembering the metaphor of the meadow, you are not getting caught up in the “trains” of mental contents, but simply watching them go by.

You may find it helpful to softly note some of those contents, including more global states of mind, such as “thinking,” “worry,” “itching,” “pressure,” “coughing,” “peacefulness,” “quiet,” “restlessness,” “doubt,” “self,” etc.

If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath. If it is wandering a lot, maybe take a minute to reestablish concentration on the breath – so it is your only focus for that minute – and then resume the standard mindfulness meditation.

You may find your mind growing very quiet or peaceful or happy. Then those states of mind are what is present in awareness, and you can be mindful of that.

It is alright to have a gentle quality of investigation, of curiosity, but this is not the time to psychoanalyze yourself – you can get caught up in investigation just like any other mental content.

It’s also alright to register insights into yourself individually or into the general nature of mind or existence. You can take a moment to digest the insight so it becomes a part of you and available for reflection later, and then return to the formal mindfulness meditation.

Again, for this practice you can take as much time as you like.

OK, let’s dive in.

[Try the practice, taking as much time as you need]

How was that for you?

Could you get a sense of spacious awareness, through which the contents of the “stream of consciousness” flowed?

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Conscious breathing to regular breathing

Partha Pratim Bose, The Hindu: A 65-year-old alcoholic with irregular heartbeats was subjected to a rehabilitation programme. He was subjected to cognitive behaviour therapy and trained on this breathing technique to control his mind.

Have you observed that when you tickle your own armpits you do not feel ticklish. If another person does the tickling, however, you feel ticklish. Why is this? Recently, it has come to light that when you move your bodies, the cerebellum, related to physical movement, suppresses emotions. We also now know that emotions are suppressed even at times when the results …

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How to use distractions to help your meditation

wildmind meditation newsMichael Taft, The Huffington Post: When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?

The funny thing is that, more than 30 years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of …

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Mindfulness for kids: Why we should be encouraging young people to find inner peace

wildmind meditation newsBrogan Driscoll, Huffington Post UK: Once upon a time mindfulness was reserved for spiritual types sitting cross-legged on the tops of faraway mountains, but these days the mind-calming practice has well and truly gone mainstream.

Now, everyone is doing it, from comedian and HuffPost UK blogger Ruby Wax to high-flying bankers ditching the city for a life of peace.

But what exactly is it? Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that involves focusing on the present moment while acknowledging and accepting feelings and thoughts – whether positive or negative.

While the practice is certainly helping adults deal with negative tendencies such stress, self-doubt and anxiety, …

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Does meditation make a person smarter?

wildmind meditation newsKimberly Ruble, Guardian Liberty Voice: In spite of or even in absence of religious views, many individuals have tried meditating at various times throughout their lives but does meditation make a person smarter? A new research study is claiming that meditation appears to stimulate portions of the brain that basic relaxing does not and they are areas of the brain in which intelligence is believed to come from.

People who meditate appear to process more feelings and ideas than when they are only resting and letting their minds roam seems to be more effective than trying to empty the head of any thought …

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Meditation improves productivity

wildmind meditation newsBeth Taylor, PayScale.com: When we think of meditation, we may think of relaxation, breathing, and emptying the mind of stressful thoughts. It may be surprising to learn that the act of quiet meditation increases mental acuity and makes us more productive at work. Instead of meditation emptying our minds, it actually helps fill them with improved concentration and creativity.

Psychology Today reports on a plethora of benefits from including meditation in your routine. Decreasing stress is one, and improving physical health is another. Some of the benefits, however, are directly related to work productivity.

Improved Attention
A study published in 2007 found that after …

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