CCCE: Concentration, Clarity, Curiosity, Equanimity
Charles T. Tart
I teach a three-week web course on meditation and mindfulness a few times each year, giving students basic understanding and practice in developing essential skills for meditation practice, but even more for their eventual mindfulness application to everyday life. Our mind can working in kind of crazy, mindless ways while we’re sitting on a little cushion doing formal meditation, and while that may bother me at times, there is generally little harm coming from it. But when our minds do crazy things, mindless things, in the midst of everyday life, we sign contracts, write checks, say things to friends who now perhaps become former friends, etc., things that can get us into a lot of trouble. It’s nice and better than nothing if a few hours later (and too many times a few weeks or more later!) if you suddenly realize “Why in the world did I say something so stupid!” but it’s much better to learn to spot some funny feeling starting to warp your mind before you open your mouth!
I enjoy the feedback I get from students in these courses, as it helps me understand certain fundamentals of mindfulness more clearly, as well as practically helping me to teach others more clearly. This essay came from a student’s puzzlement about what I meant by “clarity” when I talked about it as an essential aspect of meditation and mindfulness practice.
The words “meditation” and “mindfulness” are used in a wide variety of ways, so much so as to be almost useless for trying to understand what in particular someone is talking about. For our purposes, I like the formulation I learned from meditation teacher Shinzen Young that a good part of the essence of meditation is when you focus on something, a fixed something or the passing stream of experience, with Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity. I would also explicitly add Curiosity to those 3, and say that meditation and mindfulness involve doing something with the intention (and varying degrees of success, moment to moment) of CCCE. Curiosity, Concentration, Clarity, and equanimity.
You’re taking a web course on meditation and mindfulness. Even without knowing you personally, I think that means, at a minimum, that your life is not completely satisfactory and there is suffering in it (so far I’m basically including the entire human race), and you realize that at least some of that suffering is caused by the fact that in some ways you don’t understand, your own mind, is too often out of control.
How do you get better understanding and control? You practice both control exercises, like Concentration meditation, and you practice Vipassana, insight meditation, to get a better understanding of what your mind actually does moment-by-moment in various situations. You cultivate skill in Equanimity so that you can concentrate and perceive more clearly by not overreacting to the contents of your ongoing experience. In formal Vipassana, where you’re sitting quietly, you get to observe your mind when there is little outside disturbance so you can see its internal dynamics pretty well, in (Gurdjieffian) Self Remembering in everyday life you have to deal with more distraction from outside events, but this is where it really matters to better understand what your mind does.
When you get better at observing your own mind, you will see many situations where something happens (someone says something, or a memory or thought comes up), some thought or feeling reactively pops up in your mind and tends to take your mind over. In turn, related thoughts and feelings come up…and come up and come up and….for way toolong! Your initial perception of what happened may be unclear because you didn’t have concentration, things kept changing too fast, too automatically, for you to get a good look. When you are able to concentrate better on things that come up, you may then see more clearly exactly what it is, or, realistically, at least more clearly what it is even if not exactly see it, and this gives you a possibility of intelligent change.
Sometimes just seeing one of these automatic aspects more clearly once or a few times is enough to drain the emotional and cognitive power out of it so it stops happening, sometimes it’s tougher than that (there is a whole chapter devoted to this in my Waking Up book, and it’s touched on numerous times in my other books, Living the Mindful Life and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People on mindfulness) and you have to do something more specific to change it. So clarity is about both slowing down the rate of change in something, it’s hard to see what it is if it’s replaced almost instantly by something else, as well as a clearer perception. One aspect of increased clarity, for example, is that sometimes you see that what you thought was a single emotional quality to an experience actually consists of two or more, and you won’t really understand it well until you can separate out these different aspects. Concentration supports Clarity and Equanimity, Clarity supports Concentration and Equanimity, and Equanimity supports Concentration and Clarity. They’re different ways of looking at aspects of a single mind in operation.
Now, when I divide things into CCCE, in some ways that’s a linguistic maneuver which hopefully will communicate more clearly what I’m trying to point your attention to. But the reality is CCCE is a convenient, but not absolute, analytical division of what happens in your mind, and different parts of it may be interacting or essentially the same at times. To give an example:
My truck is 19 feet, 6 inches long, has 4 wheels, and is painted blue. (My wife says it is painted teal, which just shows what an insensitive male I am) :-).
My truck is a Ford F-150, with 8 cylinders, and runs fine on regular gasoline, not requiring higher test gasoline.
Which is the truer description?
Of course that’s a silly question. A more realistic question would be which is the more useful description? The answer to that, of course, would depend on what you want to do. If my problem is the engine running irregularly when I’m on the freeway, the first description is of no value whatsoever, the second allows a mechanic to start thinking about more relevant things. If my problem is that I would like to have the truck painted a different color but I’m not sure whether I can afford it, the first description is much more useful to allow an auto painting shop to begin to make an estimate of what it would cost.
If you took a momentary slice of your experience in time, you could make some estimates of how concentrated were you, how clear were you on what was happening, how equanimous were you about what was happening, how genuinely curious were you. But remember the point is to have more focused, more clear, more equanimous perceptions of what’s happening to you, rather than making intellectual distinctions about aspects of the process. Unless making those distinctions helps you carry out the process better, of course.
A very important point to consider though is to be careful not to fall into grandiose, absolute definitions of CCCE. There are extreme values, but I don’t think they mean much to us who are learners rather than experts.
Some meditators, for example, judging from their self-reports, can put their attention on a single concentration point (their own breathing is a common example) and report that they didn’t think of another single thing for an hour of more! I think of that as Olympics level Concentration. That is so far beyond me that I have to remember to not automatically assume that they are lying. Some meditators will report experiences of Clarity where the thing being focused on at the moment was the absolutely only perception they had and it was brilliant, glowing, psychedelic, full of meaning and wonder! Some will report horrible memories of, say, torture arising in meditation but they were able to let the memories just flow through their mind, cognitively and emotionally, with little or no emotional reaction. As to Curiosity, that’s tougher, but some people report suddenly understanding something during meditation as if they finally know the Absolute Truth about it, and whatever Curiosity they might have had is completely satisfied.
My advice about these absolutes? Forget them!
I’m talking about a strategy for learning to get better at this, of course, not any absolute rule about the way to deal with life. For whatever reasons, I tended to judge my own meditations in absolute terms for many years, as I’m sure some others do. Why couldn’t I be aware of one thing for more than 2 seconds at a time before something else came in? Why were my thoughts, feelings, perceptions kind of fuzzy, instead of possessing a kind of psychedelic clarity where I would jump up and say “Wow! Now I really understand this!” Why would I notice that when anything came up that I didn’t think was properly “spiritual,” much less pleasant, my mind automatically tried to change it into something that met my standards of spirituality better? And I didn’t even notice that for all my conscious commitment to being Curious about the workings of my mind, I was manipulating, or at least trying to manipulate, my experience instead of really paying attention to what it actually was at any moment.
So it might help to take half a minute at the beginning of a meditation session to consciously remind yourself of your goals. That might even involve saying your goals out loud. “In this session, I want to have my mind be steadier so I can learn better Concentration.” Or “In this session I want to be less reactive to whatever arises in my experience, without immediately trying to change it.”
Note very carefully that I did not say “steady,” but “steadier.” I did not say “un-reactive,” but “less reactive.” My experience is that if you remember these things are on a continuum, then you will slowly notice you get better and better at these practices, even though there are occasional reverses. But if you judge them according to absolute standards, you’ll probably have the kind of experience I had for the first few years of attempting to learn meditation, that I was no good at it at all! :-
In all of the teachings in our webinar, I constantly put things on a relative basis, as I think it allows almost everyone to progress much better.
>2. Once in a while during meditation, I felt like coughing, yawning, sneezing, adjusting body position or taking a deep breath. Should I go ahead just do it or just experience the sensation of wanting to do it during the meditation?<
I think the main thing that matters here is that you remind yourself of what the rule is for this particular session at the beginning. If you constantly interrupt your meditative focus by coughing, yawning, etc., such that it’s a real problem for you, then it would be good to have practice sessions where your conscious goal was to indeed notice the sensations but not act on them. This runs a danger of getting too harsh on yourself, but you should be able to control sensations when it’s necessary. But to think that you always need to control every sensation that might lead to an action is pretty extreme, so I generally prefer the other Vipassana type rule that when you have that need to move, or the like, do it slowly and mindfully. That way you’ll mindfully come into motion from where you were just before that and make it easier to mindfully get back into where you were going after that.
Thank you for the questions! As you can see, as I’ve gone on and on, I think it was a good idea to clarify these things. You certainly will find teachers and systems that have more rigid rules for dealing with all these, but my own preference is developing mindfulness in changing situations, like life, that is more useful for most of us, so mindfulness of whatever you do in various situations is a good idea.
But, careful! Part of my mind says, saying that will make people think they’ve got to go around being really uptight and fanatically examining every sensation every moment of life! No! When you’re lying on the couch reading a good novel, forget your body, the sight of the room, the sounds of the room, and enjoy! When you’re walking down the street, on the other hand, do not look at the tiny screen on your phone and block out outside sounds with your headphones, you may get mugged or run down… Practicality, sensibleness!