"Two things will lead you to supreme understanding (prajnaparamita). What are those two? Concentration (samatha) and insight (vipassana)."
--- The Buddha
Two things will lead you to supreme understanding (prajnaparamita). What are those two? Concentration (samatha) and insight (vipassana).
If you develop concentration, what benefit can you expect? Your mind will develop. The benefit of a developed mind is that you are no longer a slave to your impulses.
If you develop insight, what benefit will it bring? You will find wisdom (prajña). And the point of developing wisdom is that it brings you freedom from the blindness of ignorance (avidya).
A mind held bound by unconsidered impulse and ignorance can never develop true understanding. But by way of concentration and insight the mind will find freedom.
--- Anguttara Nikaya
All meditation involves the two mental faculties of concentration and mindfulness. They work in tandem and depending on which is emphasized, the meditation practice leads to different outcomes. In forms of meditation that emphasize concentration, we focus on a mantra, or the rising and falling of our belly as we breathe, or upon a geometric form like a yantra, a colored disc, or the visualization of an image – most usually a chosen deity. The honing of our attention on that one object is concentration. We are literally concentrating our attention, narrowing from the default mode of mind-wandering, and distilling awareness onto that one object. And then the mind wanders. Whether to a thought or image of what we plan to do in the future, or to a memory of something from the past, or to a fantasy, or external sound or some other sensory perception the mind wanders and eventually it is mindfulness that sees or “captures” the wandering mind. And then we bring our attention back, concentrating it once again on our mantra or whatever the object of meditation is. Without mindfulness, the mind is ensnared in the proliferation of thought and the object is lost.
It is for this reason that I often remind students that when they notice that the mind has wandered away from their object of meditation, it is not a time to fall prone to self-recrimination, or self-judgment. Still less, when you notice that the mind has wandered, there is absolutely no justification for any irritation or frustration; after all, when you notice that your mind has wandered, you have successfully practiced mindfulness! If anything, we need to appreciate that moment of clear seeing, then let it go and re-concentrate the attention. And we do this again and again.
Now, depending on many factors including individual temperament, the environment and the object itself, if we are able to concentrate to the point that the mind ceases to wander, we enter into what yogis call “one-pointedness” (ekagrata). If that state of one-pointedness lasts over time, the meditator is said to move into or “be in” samadhi which is most often translated as “absorption.” In fact, in Yoga-Bhashya, the commentary on The Yoga-Sutra, Vyasa says: “Yoga is samadhi.” In that state, one is so absorbed in the object of meditation that the sense of separation between the meditator (observer) and object dissolves. This is poetically evoked in the poem by Li Po:
The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud has drained away.
We sit together the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Samadhi is a state of bliss; the mind is clear, lucid, spacious and tranquil. In fact, the word samatha is actually most often translated as “tranquility” but I chose above to use “concentration” because it is understood that it is concentration that leads to tranquility. The highest state of samadhi that is listed in both The Yoga-Sutra and the teachings of the Buddha is referred to as “neither perception nor non-perception.” Basically, in that state, there is no perception of anything that could bother you so of course it is epitomized by tranquility.
Now, if your meditation practice emphasizes mindfulness (sati), it is referred to as vipassana, generally translated as “insight meditation.” A direct way to understand what this might look like is to look at mindfulness of breathing. When we are cultivating concentration, we may use the rising and falling of the belly to focus our attention to the exclusion of all else. When we observe breathing as a mindfulness practice, we begin to penetrate the nature of the breath, noting whether a breath is long or short, slow or fast, smooth or rough, etc. We are ultimately looking at the ‘empty’ nature of the breath: that there is no breath as some kind of ‘thing’ or entity, but rather there is breathing as a process. In full satipatthana (the establishments of mindfulness) practice, we may move on to mindfulness of body positions and activities, the elements and parts of the body, sensations and their feeling-tones, as well as mental activities. The insight we come to through this investigation is again, ultimately, the empty nature of experience; how everything experienced, including the bodymind, lacks any essential core but rather arises (and constantly changes and/or ceases) based upon myriad causes and conditions. In other words, all phenomena are dependently arisen or contingent.
In the passage above, the Buddha is talking about the practice and benefits of samatha-vipassana, a meditative practice that integrates concentration and mindfulness which he says can lead us to “supreme understanding” which is one way to understand the term pranjñaparamita, most often translated as “perfect understanding” or “perfection of wisdom.” In the Mahayana, this is the understanding that all phenomena are empty of self-nature or essence.
The Buddha specifies that the benefit of concentration is that the mind will develop and that a mind that is developed is no longer a slave to impulses. The original sense of the term yoga, was yoking: the yoking of mind and body with breath the tether or yoke. A typical metaphor was the yoking of an ox to a cart in order to do work. When a mind is tethered or yoked, we can contain our impulses and not fall into typical conditioned reactivity, clinging to the pleasant, averse to the unpleasant, and oblivious to the neutral experiences. While we often think of spontaneity as the epitome of freedom, if we are merely reacting to stimuli, there is actually little if any freedom. If we can restrain our impulses, we create the opportunity to more skillfully choose how to respond to experience.
And then he emphasizes the benefits of insight is wisdom which itself benefits us by freeing us from ignorance (avidya). Literally translated as “not seeing,” this is the ignorance of not seeing reality as it is: contingent, lacking solidity or essence. In some ways this is the denial of our own perceptions which if we actually paid attention to, would be seen to be fully dependently arisen. That there is literally no-thingness to any phenomena. This is not a nihilistic nothingness asserting that nothing exists; it is simply pointing out that nothing that exists is a ‘thing’ or entity.
In Mindfulness Yoga, we use the various postures and movements of hatha-yoga (including vinyasa flow, yin, and restorative approaches), pranayama, and some practices from other movement modalities as vehicles for practicing mindfulness. We see the deeper implications of the fact – often overlooked – that when in a twist, for instance, we experience the twist differently whether we are inhaling or exhaling. We also see that we experience the breathing differently when we are in a twist from when we are not. These differences are all pointers to the reality of emptiness: if a twist (or any posture) had self-nature, by definition it could not change simply because we are inhaling or exhaling.
Finally, we may experience a freedom that arises when we see for ourselves that there can be no such thing as “holding a posture.” When we integrate concentration and mindfulness we see for ourselves the empty nature of the posture: how the posture is never the same, not just from day to day but from breath to breath. The Downward Facing Dog of the first breath is not the same as the Downward Facing Dog of the tenth breath. With the insight that comes from the practice of Mindfulness Yoga, we may taste the freedom promised by the Buddha himself.