Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Single-pointed focus and the heart

I ran across something this week that gave me a pause. I have heard dharma talks and read books by Buddhist monks and lay practitioners about methods for achieving and maintaining single-pointed focus. I have also heard/read contemplatives in other traditions talking about attaining and keeping such focus. There has been a lot about emptiness, form, potential, actual, mind/self, no-mind/no-self, and all of the usual stuff. I am not suggesting that such advice or description of experiences are bogus. However, for the first time the other day someone connected the idea of such a single-pointed focus with the heart. That is, while we live in our heads, and while our initial practice (focusing on a spot, bodily function, image, mantra, etc) is more or less done repetitiously by a conscious mental will or thought-process that initiates and maintains the activity, this is just the beginning.

In Prayer for People Who Think Too Much, author Mitch Finley cites an example involves a literary character taken from a Russian novel The Pilgrim who is a seeker of sorts. Following some advice he has been given, the character repeats a short prayer frequently when not engaged in activities that would distract him from it, and keeps doing so as suggested. Eventually, he gets profoundly bored with it, but he keeps repeating the prayer anyway. After a long dry spell of boredom and disinterest, an unanticipated change occurs and the prayer moves from his head to his heart. He no longer needs to say the prayer with his lips or in his mind, even though he still does at times, because it has become almost a living thing.

Interestingly enough, from what I have observed and read over the last few years, getting over an initial phase of interest or anticipation and then passing through a tedious period of seemingly endless and fruitless desert of monotony and a virtual loss of total interest seems to be a common theme/requirement of the basic prayerful and meditative practices of (most/all?) major religions. It's a test I haven't passed yet. I get bored, distracted, busy, or frustrated, and working along it is hard to maintain a serious commitment. But that aside, what is interesting is that Finley, as per his exemplar from The Pilgrim, equates having a single-pointed focus as something that comes from your heart rather than your head. That we rest in the deep spaciousness of our hearts once we have drilled through the layers of delusion, (false) expectations, and exaggerations that have accreted like arterial plaque, choking off our inherent awareness of ourselves. The prayer/meditation, according to this perspective, is no longer something we do but something that is that we become aware of (and follow along with in our devotions).

I have read and heard quite a bit about different methods for cultivating such focus, particularly in Buddhism but also from some Christian circles, and I have yet to have come across this explicit connection. I wonder if that is why so many people have trouble with working on this focus? and when we don't get the result we want as soon as we want, do we not then try this, try that, and try something else? To use an analogy Finley himself borrowed, it is like starting to dig a well several times and continually stopping and starting over somewhere else before you ever hit water. Which makes me wonder, how many people who are parroting and quoting the the teachings or insights of those who have successfully penetrated through such focus to the cave of the Heart and accessed the Spirit/Source/Nature/Way they had been alienated from have themselves realized such awareness for themselves?

(PS - And it reminds me of these musings and whether I in my ignorance and impatience might have, by serendipity, have skirted this insight before. To give a few examples that spring to mind...

A Little More On Sitting As Surrender
Sitting As Surrender
Pondering the Meaning of Liberation from Suffering, Part 4
Regarding Silence
No mind but Mind
Buddhism and the Divine)

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