Right Concentration

bald-faced hornet (but really a wasp)

I have mentioned before how it seems strange that the third subsection of the Eightfold Path, Concentration, had stacked inside it the sub-subsection called Right Concentration. After thinking for a while about this sub-sected subsection, I realized that every part of the Eightfold Path is stacked inside Right Concentration. What I mean is that you can’t do anything useful (in terms of Buddhism) unless you concentrate on the exact thing you are contemplating or doing. If you are going to breathe, concentrate on breath. If you are going to dig in the garden dig in the garden. If you are going to contemplate the idea of Right Action, concentrate on it.

But what is concentration? According to the dreaded Wikipedia, concentration is simply turning your mind to the task, and then turning it to the task yet again — and again. If you are breathing, then constantly turn your mind to awareness of the breath. This is necessary to the start of zazan practice. Zazen practice is nothing so much as constantly turning your attention…

To be silly, concentration is the process of concentrating on concentrating on whatever you are concentrating on. The trick in using this technique to further oneself along the path to the ninth and tenth part of the eightfold path (ten parts to the Eightfold Path? who knew?) is that one must remove all objects of thought that are counter to Buddhistic ideas: always limit harm to oneself and others, remove dualist thoughts, refrain from judging, banish biases and prejudices, etc., etc. This is necessary as these types of thought prevent one from seeing what really is. When studying any of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path one has to concentrate, to constantly turn ones mind back to the item of study. The result of all this concentration? Attaining #9, Superior Right Knowledge and #10, Superior Right Liberation. But attainment is complex in the doing because concentration requires you to be cognizant of all eight parts of the path all the time.

When I am digging in the garden I have to consciously try to develop the Right View. And here I do not mean merely the politically correct view. I mean being conscious of every effect that I am having in the garden. When I put bird netting on the cherry tree, the robins had a harder time finding food — until they discovered the raspberries. When I rip out the kale plants because they have gone to seed, I have to know that I am preventing the kale plants from continuing into newer generations. And if you discount a plant’s desire for life and progeny, then consider the effect on the world you have when digging with a shovel. How many worms do I kill? How many worms and bugs do I expose to the ravening appetites of birds? The right view is inescapably that I live and die by helping and by killing. Doing no harm is impossible. All I can to do is minimize the harm I do — and I can only do that by being aware of my harmful actions, concentrating on them (so I can understand them), fessing up, and then trying to limit the harm — and that is a good definition for Right Intention.

Inextricably interwoven with the fabric of life as I am, as I strive for right intention while I work in the garden, I sometimes talk to the birds, the plants, the bugs. I don’t want to get all mystical and magical here, but I want to tell you about the long conversation I had with the wasps in the garden. Big black and white striped things, about the size of the first joint of my baby finger, and I’ve got large hands. Makes your arm swell up, from the finger tips to the shoulder, just thinking about getting stung. In the spring their nest was the size of a quarter, hanging in the lilac tree right over the compost heap. I’d stand there and talk to them as they buzzed me. Talked about how we are all in it together, that our needs did not interfere with each other, that there was plenty of room for both of us, and weren’t they pretty wasps (once you get over the terror of stings). That was in the spring last year. By mid summer the nest was larger than a football, about eighteen inches long (that’s about 40 centimeters for those initiated in scientific reckoning). There were so many wasps that going out to the compost heap was like running across a twelve lane highway at rush hour. Every once and a while one would crash right into me, bounce off. Never got stung once. I’m not saying that talking to the wasps made the wasps tolerate me, that some special bond was formed (don’t need one beyond that which is already there). What I am saying is that talking, right speech, made me not afraid of the wasps. No harm in that. And I did not have to destroy the nest for prevention of stings that never happened. This year the wasps went elsewhere, probably not wanting to be around me anymore. And that is a good definition of Right Action.

Concentrating on right livelihood while in the garden, is noticing the effort it takes to grow things, noticing how much you need to know about general gardening practices, and noticing the things you need to know about your garden’s micro environment. And what is the right view about gardening in general, about gardeners and farmers? Acknowledging our absolute dependency on growers of food! We are willing to give hockey players millions of bucks to play a game while knowing that if hockey disappeared we wouldn’t die of it. But if farmers all refused to grow food? Can you grow enough to feed yourself? How much do the pickers of that necessary indulgence, coffee, get paid? What is right effort if not trying to understand what is really going on and trying to act so that things (oneself) are brought into line with actuality? Keep that thought in your right mind by constantly concentrating, turning your attention, again and again, to what is right there if front of you right now.
source for picture of

Right Mindfullness

sweet tomatoes

Again from Wikipedia.

“Here, practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind.”

How simple can this be? Oh ya, real simple. So simple that it’s hard to notice that you ever do it. Paying constant and complete attention? Giving full awareness to all the phenomena of mind and body? When do we do that? In this culture we’re trained to pay attention to TV. To money. To who won the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, Miss Universe Contest. The latest traffic accident or robbery. And are all those beautiful people going to make it out of the jungle without throwing up because they have to eat grubs? Oh, the anxiety, the excitement, the suspense! What might happen?!

Right Mindfulness is noticing what is happening to oneself right now. We each do this some time during the day, but we don’t necessarily notice we are doing it. The first step is to pay attention to yourself so you notice those times when you are awake noticing the simple fact of your existence, noticing those times when there is nothing happening in your head beyond simple engagement in what you are doing.

In my case I pay full attention to my existence when I paint and when I garden. Then the only thing going on is the brush against the board or the water pouring over the soil under the tomato plants. The feel of cold as the water splashes my hand as I weed. The green smell as I pick off new growth so the tomato plants won’t grow too big. The snap of picking peas for dinner. The tight hobbling sensation in the small of the back when I get up from a crouch. Bending the upper back backward to relieve the old tendons. Failing at the task of mindful attention every once in a while when I notice how many raspberries are half eaten by the d#@m robins, or worse, when a berry has only been slashed at with a beak. The robins sit on the berry canes and break them with their weight. Whenever I walk out into the garden, those wing-rats give a cry of warning and fly off. As far as they are concerned, I’m the one stealing their food.

But how to take the mindfulness I get while engaged in the small activities in the garden, or at my easel, into my day to day life? There are all sorts of techniques. By now, for old fart me, it is simply a matter of remembering to do so. And I have to remind myself to do it a lot. The hardest times are when I get stressed out, like immediately after the opening reception for my show. That night, about 3:00 pm, my mind just would not stop. Monkey mind, jabbering away. This and that. Who said what and why. Old patterns in my mind reawakened, stimulated by the strange energy of exhaustion. Not one thought important because I didn’t need to make any of it important. But nothing I could do in the situation except just watch the thoughts go by. Sleepless. Here I am awake, I thought. Trying to be awake to being awake.

Here’s a technique I learned in my twenties: in a whisper recite the phrase, “This is what I’m doing now.” Say it over and over. All day long. Quietly, but out loud. Then, the next day, repeat the phrase all day long to yourself, in your mind. After a week or so of remembering to keep saying the phrase, it sinks into your subconscious mind and becomes the observer, watching what you are doing, noticing what you are thinking. Then whenever you notice you are not paying attention to the things right there in front of you, or the things inside you, start saying the phrase to start the observer up again. It’s pretty hard to get distracted when you are reciting a phrase, or counting your breath, or fixing on a mandala or candle (on the other hand it’s pretty hard to focus on a candle or the breath etc)….

And after you get good at bringing your mind back to the phrase, the candle, the mantra, the breath, then the next trick to master is to take your developed, practised focus and generalize it so that it encompasses whatever is happening to oneself at every moment, day to day, so that you become totally aware and awake to the infinite world of your own experience. Right Mindfulness, Right Now.

May you be blessed with a day full of awareness.

The source for above image