Friday, August 23, 2013

The role of joy in sustaining uninterrupted attention

(image source: http://www.urbanzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/buddha_maggie.jpg)

In July 2013, I hit a milestone in my meditative practice.  I managed to maintain uninterrupted attention on the breath for about one hour.  "Uninterrupted attention" means the attention doesn't leave the breath, but the attention is not exclusive to the breath.  There are still distractors, mind is still drawn by thoughts, sounds and sensations, but mind never loses touch with the breath.  My previous record was about 30 minutes (achieved in 2006 after sitting for 3-4 hours every weekday for almost a month).  This one-hour milestone was achieved at the end of a 5-hour sit.  Four hours of painful, seemingly hopeless struggle, ending with one hour of calm uninterrupted attention.  Very surprising.

I investigated the state of mind that is highly conducive to uninterrupted attention in meditation, and found that it has a very particular characteristic as relating to mental energy.  That state of mind is more subtle than the normal awake state (probably higher in alpha brainwaves and lower in beta).  It has some tolerance for mental chatter, but only if that chatter is "soft".  If that mental chatter gets too "loud", uninterrupted attention breaks.  In other words, too much mental energy breaks that state.  The other thing that breaks uninterrupted attention is on the other side of the mental energy spectrum: when the mind drifts towards sleep.  In other words, too little mental energy also breaks that state.

That means that the mental state that enables "uninterrupted attention" seems to exist on a very narrow energy band that is just below the fully awake state but just above the drowsy state.  That is why that state is so hard to maintain.

From an engineering perspective, there seems to be two ways to solve that problem.  One is to increase the width of that energy tolerance band.  The other is to become more skillful at maintaining one's mental energy within a narrow band of tolerance.  I suspect the answer is: do both.  I haven't yet fully figured out how, but that line of inquiry led to a really important discovery: the role of joy in maintaining uninterrupted attention.

Buddhist meditative tradition identifies at least two types of joy, each qualitatively different from the other.  They are piti ("energetic joy") and sukha ("non-energetic joy").  My current finding is that piti is the sustaining factor of uninterrupted attention.

This finding begins as a question which leads to a key insight that is so retroactively obvious it sounds like a stupid joke.  The question is, "Why does the mind wander or drift to sleep during meditation?"  The obvious answer (and key insight) is, "Because the breath is not sufficiently interesting.  Duh."  I realized the mind gets seduced away by sounds, thoughts, etc because each instance of a distractor is more interesting to the mind than the breath.  Even the internal commentary on the meditation is more interesting (to the mind) than the meditation itself.  On the other end of the spectrum, the mind drifts to sleep because even the sleep is more interesting than the breath.

That suggests that a possible strategy is to solve that problem of the breath (and/or the meditation process itself) being insufficiently interesting.

I reflected on the time I sustained an hour of uninterrupted attention (corroborated with data from subsequent shorter sits), and here are some findings:

- The main mental factor that enabled my one hour of uninterrupted attention was energetic joy (piti).  Specifically, it felt identical to the joy of playing a challenging game.  It was initiated when I suddenly found myself "in the groove" of a good attentional mode and then deciding to play it like a video game.  There was an element of excitement.

- I realized it was the same as practicing for a sufficiently difficult skill, such as surfing, juggling, skating, etc.  The key motivator that motivates the repeated practice necessary for mastery is "fun", specifically the piti that arises out of the fun.

- This is why the motivating factor at this stage is piti, not sukha (non-energetic joy).  Piti is the sense of fun, sukha is the sense of contentment.  Contentment does not motivate you to practice a difficult skill which you are not yet proficient at.  I think this is why piti is one of seven factors of enlightenment while sukha is not.

- The big complication: at a low skill level, piti is only a sustaining factor, not an initiating factor.  In other words, it only kicks in after you "get in the groove" and it starts to become fun, it doesn't kick in before that.  For example, juggling practice only becomes sustained by fun after you can juggle for 3 to 4 throws.  If you keep losing the ball after the second throw, it's no fun, so the fun cannot initiate the practice.  Of course, at sufficiently high skill level, fun can become the initiating factor, but it takes a certain high skill level.

- The extra big complication for meditation:  Too much piti itself becomes a distractor in meditation.  That is because in meditation, the most important factor is letting go, and too much gross excitement interferes with that.  This problem does not occur for the physical skills (like juggling) where letting go is not the most important success factor.

I spoke to one of my main teachers, Shaila Catherine, about these findings.  Shaila says what I reported are actually mentioned in the Abhidhamma, I just independently re-discovered them.  She also added a few important points from the Abhidhamma:

- The immediate causes of piti are directed attention and sustained attention (vitakka and vicara, respectively).  When vitakka and vicara are strong, piti arises as a consequence.  On a practical level, therefore, the skillful meditator focuses on mastering the attention factors (pun not intended) and then have faith that piti will eventually arise.  Once piti arises, it becomes the key sustaining factor for uninterrupted attention.

- The meditator should not try to arouse piti intentionally.  Piti should be a natural consequence of vitakka/vicara.  Arousing piti, even if possible, is unskillful and causes hindrance to progress.

- And yes, at this stage, piti is the sustaining factor of attention while sukha is not (even though sukha is present whenever piti is).  One important reason being that piti is much more of a pure mental factor than sukha is, sukha is more closely related to the senses.

I feel so lucky that I'm surrounded by enlightened masters.  And,  yeah, it always delights me when something I discovered turns out to be already mentioned in some sacred text.  :)

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