What happens when a pill engineered to increase focus is combined with a meditation practice designed to hone concentration? Let’s find out.
Subject: (see above)
Materials: Alertex (Modafinil) 200mg. Couch
Optional: Latin American electronica blaring from the appliance store across the street
Currently, my practice of meditation is called samadhi (or samatha). An exotic term for focusing on just one thing. Usually the breath. Samadhi, or concentration meditation, is often poo-pooed by other serious adherents to meditation like the Vipassana practitioners. At best they see it as stepping stone to stabilize attention for more serious practices. At worst they believe samadhi may lead to getting hooked on blissful states and paranormal phenomenon that sometimes arises.
Serious samadhi practice leads to a set of states (and strange phenomenon); these states are called jhanas, and are reached from a sort of staging area called “access concentration.” The staging area is reached by sustaining concentration for an extended period of time, long enough for things to start dissolving into very pleasant and distinct feelings that mark the entry to the 1st jhana. There are 7 more jhanas awaiting as concentration deepens even further.
Reaching the staging area requires stilling the mind; bringing it back to the breath again and again as it flits off with whatever arises. After a while, the mind gets like Teflon and thoughts and feelings arise to just slide off rather than catching the attention. At least it’s how it normally works. With modafinil, the process alters. Instead of mind getting slippery, formless and more relaxed, the attention gets stickier. That’s the best I can describe it.
Both approaches seem to facilitate passage to the staging area of access concentration, but the state waiting across the threshold is different.
Rather than the familiar pīti (bliss) and sukha (pleasure) bubbling up in the traditional first Jhana, another state is accessed in Modafinil which is a feeling of deep and resourceful “readiness.” Also pleasant, but very distinctive. Whereas pīti and sukha encourage one to hang out and enjoy, the readiness “Jhana” of modafinil, while not suggesting anything in particular, is ready to kick some ass somewhere. In a motivational sense. But it is not compelled to do so. It just wants you to know it could. If that’s what you wanted.
Will I repeat this experiment? Probably not. Modafinil demonstrated that concentration can also tap into a great reservoir of potential. A potential available to work with complete, settled focus rather than the low level, almost subliminal agitation of distraction that is usually a constant companion in our activities. Very useful, especially in contexts of learning.
But I prefer that type of focus that comes in samadhi practices as an encompassing and relaxed sense of abiding. A flow where the moment is complete as it is, there is nothing to add, that unfolds just as it should and must without effort. Which is sort of counter-intuitive to what one might think a strongly focused state entails. But some things change, once they deliver us to the threshold, and another journey begins. And it may have to do with whether the attention to get there was sticky or frictionless.