MCTB Concentration vs. Insight

There is a lot of confusion on the differences between concentration practices and insight practices. This may be caused in part by the “Mushroom Factor,” or may be due in part to other factors, such as concentration practice being easier than insight practices and distinctly more pleasant most of the time. Concentration practices (samatha or samadhi practices) are meditation on a concept, an aggregate of many transient sensations, whereas insight practice is meditation on the many transient sensations just as they are. When doing concentration practices, one purposefully tries to fix or freeze the mind in a specific state, called an “absorption,” “jhana” or “dyana.” While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity and stability certainly can be cultivated, and this is concentration practice.

Insight practices are designed to penetrate the Three Illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness and separate self so as to attain freedom. (N.B., the illusion of satisfactoriness has to do with the false sense that continuing to mentally create the illusion of a separate, permanent self will be satisfactory or helpful, and is not referring to some oppressive and fun-denying angst trip). Insight practices (various types of vipassana, dzogchen, zazen, etc.) lead to the progressive stages of the progress of insight. Insight practices tend to be difficult and somewhat disconcerting, as they are designed to deconstruct our deluded and much cherished views of the world and ourselves, though they can sometimes be outrageously blissful for frustratingly short periods.

Concentration states are basically always some permutation of great fun, extremely fascinating, seductive, spacious, blissful, peaceful, spectacular, etc. There is basically no limit to how interesting concentration practices can be. Insight practice stages and revelations can also be very interesting, but are not potentially addictive the way concentration states and side effects can be. Insight practices tend to be hard work most of the time even if that work is just surrendering to things as they are.

One of the factors that actually adds to the confusion is that the concentration state terminology (jhanas) is used in the original texts to describe both the progressively more sophisticated concentration states and also the progress of insight, with little delineation of which is which. This was solved to some degree a few hundred years later when the stages of the progress of insight were articulated in the canonical commentaries, but the original problem was not mentioned. It was only in the second half of the Twentieth Century that the problem was sorted out to some degree by the Burmese, and I will delineate the vipassana jhanas later.

To try to keep this clear in a way that the old texts simply don’t, whenever I refer to jhana without mentioning whether I mean samatha or vipassana jhana, I always mean samatha jhana, a stable state produced by concentration practices. When I refer to those jhanas produced by insight practices, I will always call them vipassana jhanas.

Concentration practices develop concentration but they don’t develop wisdom. The problem is that concentration states can easily fool people into thinking that they are the end goal of the spiritual path because these states can become so blissful, spacious, and even formless, and thus can closely match some imprecise descriptions or expectations of what awakening might be like.

However, concentration practices can be very helpful and are very important. Without at least some skill in concentration practices, insight meditation is virtually impossible. There is an esoteric debate in the ancient commentaries about some students who got enlightened without even attaining the lowest of the concentration states (the first jhana, explained later), practitioners called “dry insight workers,” but I wouldn’t bank on this being a common occurrence. Luckily, insight practices themselves can simultaneously develop concentration and insight, though the dangers of being seduced by concentration states can lie in wait there as well. In short, you must master the first jhana as a minimum basis for beginning the progress of insight, but this is all that is required for enlightenment.

So long as one is very clear about what is concentration practice and what is insight practice, which may not be as easy an understanding to come by as some might think, concentration practice beyond the first jhana can be helpful to the insight practitioner. All of the concentration states stabilize the mind, obviously, and this has four primary benefits. First, just as a movie camera that is shaking wildly will not be likely to produce a clear or intelligible movie, so a mind that won’t stay settled on an object will not clearly perceive the ultimate truth of it. Second, as concentration states cultivate deep clarity and stability on content, they are very useful for promoting deep and healing psychological insights. Put another way, if you want to bring up your stuff, do concentration practices.

Third, concentration states can be a welcome and valid vacation from stress, providing periods of very deep relaxation and peace that can be an extremely important part of a sane, compassionate and healthy lifestyle. The Buddha highly praised those who had mastery of the concentration states, and this should serve as a reminder to those who underestimate their great value or erroneously feel that not enjoying one’s life is somehow “spiritual.” Fourth, concentration practices can help the insight practitioner stay somewhat more mentally stable and balanced as their old concepts of their existence are rent asunder by insight practice. However, if these states end up blocking this process by solidifying a sense of self as being anything or creating aversion to clearly experiencing suffering then they become a hindrance.

This is a very tricky balance. If a student clings to stability or fluidity they will surely not make progress in insight. However, if they plunge into the fast and harsh vibratory experiences of insight practice without the soothing effects of concentration practice to help them stay somewhat grounded, the student can be a bit like someone who has taken a small dose (or a big dose in the worst cases) of LSD or drunk way too much coffee. I spent the first five years of my practice giving only a moderate amount of attention to the samatha jhanas and I now realize that this was probably an error.

Sometimes spiritual openings can be extreme and dramatic, and being able to slow things down and calm down can sometimes be very useful and skillful if we have to deal with the world and deal with these openings at the same time. In short, if you want to gunk up your insight practice because you simply need to slow down so as to be able to get on with your life or not completely flip out, such as to study for medical school boards, etc., one way to do this is to indulge in concentration states. Coupling this with formal resolutions to not make progress in insight can be very effective.

There are many concentration states, and they become progressively more refined as one masters them. A brief description of the concentration states follows. It is basically straight out of the standard texts and very accurate. Regardless of the tradition you are following, when you begin to get some mastery of its concentration practices you will go through these states in this order up to the level of your current ability, though some people can master skipping over jhanas.

The specific object of meditation may limit the level of jhana that can be attained, as well as color the experience of these states. Such details are spelled out in various canonical texts, such as The Visuddhimagga and the more readable but harder to find Vimuttimagga. Bhante Gunaratana’s The Jhanas, included in his more complete work The Path of Serenity and Insight, is a scholarly work on the subject, as is Nyanatiloka’s Path to Deliverance (published by the Buddhist Publication Society out of Sri Lanka).

Some of these texts (particularly the first two) go into long and sophisticated discussions about which posture and which object might be best suited to the individual proclivities of various types of people. It is unfortunate that this sort of information is not in common use today. I suppose that a suit off the rack will work for most occasions, but there is something about one that has been tailor made. I am told that there are still a few monasteries that provide this sort of traditional training. Unfortunately, this topic is way too complex to treat properly here, but those of you who are that serious about these subjects are highly advised to check out the original sources. They contain an astounding amount of powerful information but unfortunately make for fairly tedious reading.

Many traditions use the breath as the primary object initially and then shift to the qualities of the states themselves as the object of meditation when they arise and the concentration is strong. The quality of a jhana can either be “soft” or “hard” depending on how solidly one is in the state. In soft jhana, the qualities of that particular state are definitely recognizable in a way that is different from the ordinary experience of those qualities to the degree that we are confident we are in the altered state defined by those qualities.

In really hard jhana, it feels as if our mind has been fused to those qualities and the object with superglue, as if we were nothing but a solid block or field of those qualities or that object, as if they and the object were the whole world with nothing else remaining. Getting into really “hard” jhana states dramatically increases the beneficial effects of the practice, though it takes greater strength of concentration and usually requires more favorable practice conditions to do so. Taking the beneficial factors of the jhana solely as the object of concentration is helpful for this, as can be using an easily identified external object such as a candle flame or colored disk.

For detailed instructions in practices that use an external object, called “kasina” practices, the works listed above, particularly Bhante Gunaratana’s The Path of Serenity and Insight, provide such a good treatment of them that you should simply obtain and read those sources. However, the basic instructions are these: stabilize your concentration on an external object (kasina) until you can see the object with your eyes closed or when you are not looking at the object. Take that vision as the new object and stabilize your attention on it until your concentration is like a rock. From this foundation, you should be able to easily attain any of the states I am about to describe.

The basic pattern one goes through with these states is as follows. First, one develops enough concentration to attain the jhana. Then the mind sees/feels the jhana, moves towards and into it, with almost all such state shifts occurring between the end of the out breath and the beginning of the new in breath, sometimes accompanied by the eyelids flickering. Then there is the honeymoon period, where the jhana is fresh but unsteady. Then there is the maturation period, when the jhana really comes into its own more solidly and shows its true glory. Then the faults of the jhana tend to become noticeable, as well as the proximity of the state to the state below it and the ease of falling into that lower state. Next, the concentration deepens, and some sort of equanimity about the good and bad aspects of the jhana sets in. When the concentration grows strong enough and the current jhana is no longer desirable, the mind will naturally shift to the next higher jhana and the cycle goes around again within the limits of the humanly attainable states and your current skill level.

MCTB The First Jhana