The Kamma of Concentration

February 16, 2017

Years back, I was asked to write a review of a book on positive psychology—the psychology of how people find happiness—and to approach it from a Buddhist point of view. One of the things I noticed, as I was reading through the book, was that there was no consideration of what the impact of your search for happiness might have on other people. The writer, as a psychologist, was claiming to be morally neutral, which is supposedly scientific, but there was no consideration at all that your search for happiness might harm others or yourself. So I pointed that out: that from a Buddhist point of view, this was a huge gap, and a huge missing part of the equation.

The editor of the magazine said he was surprised that I’d focused on kamma as the missing factor. He was expecting something more along the lines of emptiness, say, or the bodhisattva vow that you shouldn’t be looking for happiness anyhow. But I was surprised that he was surprised, because from the very beginning, the teaching was all about happiness, and it was all about kamma. That’s how the Buddha differentiated his teachings from others’. He was a kammavadin, someone who taught kamma.

This relates to another surprising incident. I was asked to give a talk on kamma to a group of meditators on the relationship between kamma and meditation. I spoke about how the teachings on kamma are all designed to show that it is possible to master a skill. If kamma, at least as the Buddha taught it, were totally deterministic, there’d be no way to develop a skill, and there’d be no reason to teach at all. After all, people wouldn’t be able to change their ways, everything they did would be totally predetermined. If, on the other hand, everything were totally random, there’d be no ability to develop a skill either, because something you might master today wouldn’t mean anything tomorrow if everything kept changing in a random way.

The way the Buddha taught kamma was that past actions have an influence on the present—and there is a pattern to how that influence works out—but the present moment is also shaped by your present actions, your present decisions, and you have some freedom in shaping those present decisions. It’s precisely this understanding of kamma that allows you to develop skills.

As I was explaining this to the meditators, I kept getting blank looks. I found out later that they had been taught that meditation was not about doing anything at all. You’re not supposed to do in meditation, just be. But that sets you up for all kinds of problems, because if you’re going to understand concentration as you attain it, you have to understand it as a kind of action. Otherwise you hit some non-dual states and you think you’ve become one with the non-duality at the basis of all reality. And then you get stuck. But if you see that even “non-dual” is a perception, a fabrication, an action, then you can take it apart.

So the teachings on action, on kamma, are directly relevant to how we meditate.

First, there’s the basic principle of developing a skill: You look at your actions and notice the effect that they have, both immediate and long-term. Think of the Buddha’s instructions to Rahula. Before you act, ask yourself: What’s your intention?—because, after all, the intention is the kamma. It determines the quality of the kamma. If you expect that the action is going to harm yourself or others, don’t do it. If you don’t foresee any harm, go ahead and do it. While you’re acting, look for the results that are coming immediately, because sometimes some of the results do come right away. You put your finger on a stove, and it’s not going to wait until the next lifetime before it burns. Other times, though—as when you plant a seed—you won’t see the results until a later time, so you’ve got to look for those long-term results, too, after you’ve finished the action. If you see the action is a mistake while you’re doing it, you stop. If you see that it was a mistake after you did it, you resolve not to repeat it. That’s how you learn any skill.

And it’s not the case that the Buddha leaves you to explore everything. He gives advice on things not to do under any circumstances. You don’t want to break the precepts. You don’t want to engage in wrong speech—not only in lying but also in divisive speech, harsh speech, idle chatter. And you avoid greed, ill will, and the view that your actions don’t yield results, don’t make a difference. Those precepts are principles you don’t have to test. Just use them. But you find there are a lot of other things that you do have to test in practice. As you get more and more sensitive to the impact of your actions, you keep looking for subtler and subtler forms of harm that they might be causing.

But it’s important to understand what “harm” means here. As the Buddha said, if you break the precepts, you’re harming yourself. It’s interesting. If you kill other people, kill other animals, he said, you’re really doing harm to yourself. They get killed once, but you may have to endure a long, long time of suffering because of that action. If you want to harm other people, he said, you get them to break the precepts because, after all, they’re agents, too. They’re engaging in actions and they’re going to be experiencing happiness or pain based on their actions.

So when you’re thinking thoughts of goodwill for yourself, you’re basically thinking: “May I act in a skillful way so I can create the causes for happiness.” And you think the same for other people: “May they act in skillful ways, too.” And that’s a thought you can have even for people who have been destructive, horrible, and cruel. Your goodwill for them expresses itself that way: “May they understand the causes for true happiness, and have the strength and willingness to act on them.”

But the important principle is that you’re working on developing skills: learning how to be more skillful in how you do things, more skillful in how you say things, more skillful in how you think, how you order your mind.

And this is where kamma comes into the meditation, particularly when you engage in directed thought and evaluation. Some people say that when you get in the first jhana, the directed thought and evaluation are just an unfortunate wobbly or unsteady part of the concentration, but actually they’re the work of right resolve. As the Buddha said, noble right resolve is the directed thought and evaluation in your concentration. And what are you evaluating? You’re evaluating your actions. You sit here and you choose to focus on the breath. That’s an intention right there.

And the next question is: How do you maintain that intention? How do you keep supporting it with other skillful intentions? This is where you have to deal with the different techniques of how you get the mind to settle down, how you focus on the breath, how you focus on the parts of the body, whichever topic you choose as your theme. Then you make adjustments, both in the mind and in the theme, so that they fit snugly together. Then do your best to maintain that snugness, to keep an interest in it. Learn how to ask questions about what you’re staying with. And one of the big questions is, to what extent is there still some disturbance in this state of concentration? If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice that the disturbance is in what you’re doing. So is there something that you’re doing that you can drop and still stay concentrated?

In the beginning, you don’t want to drop things too fast, because you need a fair amount of directed thought and evaluation to get everything together and keep them together in a balanced way. The Buddha’s image is of a bathman. Bathmen in those days would prepare your soap dough for you. Instead of having a bar of soap, they would have some powder and they’d mix it with water and create ball of dough, like bread dough. Then you’d rub that over your body as you were bathing. The bathman’s job was to knead the water into the soap dough so that everything was well mixed. Like bread dough: You want to make sure that all the flour has been moistened, but you don’t want any excess water to drip out. You want everything just right.

So the bathman has to use discernment in working the water through the dough, in the same way the Buddha says you work the sense of ease and well-being, the sense of rapture, as it develops in your concentration, though the body. Because in the next step, you want to be able to just sit there immersed in the well-being, as if the body were a large lake cooled by a spring of water welling up from within. In this case, you’re not outside of the dough, working the water in. You’re actually totally immersed in the water. The water here stands for pleasure. And you’re not going to be able to feel immersed in the water of pleasure unless you’ve worked it through the body.

This is why Ajaan Lee talks about the various breath energies and breath channels in the body. His instructions give you some ideas about how you might direct that sense of ease through the body or think of it spreading through the body, to work its way around any pains you may have, to work its way around any sense of blockage.

Then, when everything is well moistened with the pleasure, you can drop the directed thought and evaluation because they’re the disturbance there. Just allow yourself to be immersed in the sense of ease. But, you still have to maintain it. You still have to stay with the breath. Otherwise, if you just drift off into the ease, you lose your balance, you lose your focus, and then you sit there without any real clarity or alertness, or you lose the concentration entirely.

So there’s still a certain amount of tension required to keep the object in mind. Remember, you’ve got to maintain that intention to stay here with clarity. So it’s the same principle that the Buddha taught to Rahula. You do something and then you look at the results, and then if the results are not what you like, you change. This is a kind of kamma. It’s good to keep that in mind, because sometimes you get into states of non-duality, or a sense of the body disappearing, and you think you’ve hit something cosmic. But in actuality, you’ve just hit another perception.

The important thing is that you learn how to keep that questioning attitude in mind: Where is there still disturbance? And look for it not so much in things outside but in the actions of the mind. You see this especially clearly when you’re working with pain. The real disturbance there is not the pain. It’s the mind’s commentary, or the perceptions you’re bringing to it.

The Buddha has that tetrad in his breath meditation instructions where he talks about training yourself to breathe 1) with a sense of rapture, 2) with a sense of pleasure, 3) sensitive to mental fabrication—i.e., feelings and perceptions—and then, 4) calming mental fabrication. Those first two steps give you, basically, Ajaan Lee’s recommendations for how you start working with pain. There may be pain in one part of the body, but you focus on getting a sense of ease and well-being in another part. Then you allow the ease and well-being to spread through the pain, to loosen things up.

Then, in the next two steps, you’re basically taking Ajaan Maha Boowa’s approach, which is when you notice, “Here’s the pain, but what are the perceptions that make that pain a mental issue?” Learn how to question them. That’s how you calm them. In other words, you replace a disturbing perception—one that says the pain has seized the body, the pain hates me, the pain is after me, whatever crazy ideas you may have about the pain—with a perception that’s less disturbing. And a lot of your crazy perceptions are hidden behind some more sane-sounding ideas. Even the idea that the pain has invaded your leg: Actually, your leg is still a leg, and your sensation of the leg is just earth, water, wind, and fire: solidity, coolness, energy, and warmth. The pain is something different. The leg stays as a leg, but the pain keeps changing, coming and going. And when it comes, it’s not coming at you. As soon as you detect a moment of pain, you can perceive it as going away, going away. Each moment of pain, as it appears, is already going away from you. If you can learn how to use those perceptions, they’re calming. The mind can then stay with the pain and not feel pained by it.

So here again, it’s a question of your actions. The perceptions you choose are determining whether or not you’re going to suffer from things here in the present moment. All too often, we don’t think we have a choice. We have our old set of perceptions. We’re equipped with perceptions we’ve picked up from who-knows-where and who-knows-when, and for most of us that’s what reality is. But the Buddha says that you can question them, replace them with new ones, and they’ll have a different impact on the mind.

So in all these ways, you have to keep remembering that as you meditate you’re engaged in kamma, you’re engaged in actions, and there are things you can do more skillfully that give results in the immediate present and on into the future.

We all want happiness, but our problem is that we act under the influence of ignorance. We don’t see how our perceptions and thoughts are shaping reality. All we see is the product, and we don’t like it. Sometimes we like it, sometimes we don’t, but it seems to be like a crapshoot. You never know what’s going to come up—and that’s because you’re not paying careful attention to what you’re doing, in your physical, verbal, and mental actions. But the meditation gives you a sensitivity to your mental actions while you meditate, and to all three kinds of action as you go through the day.

And the teaching on kamma reminds you that you can change what you’re doing right now. You do have that freedom of choice. The act of meditation—by making the mind more sensitive, more mindful, more inquisitive—puts you in a position where you can take more and more advantage of that freedom, for the sake of the happiness you want.