Book – Focused and Fearless

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Focused and Fearless

A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity

By Shaila Catherine

Focused and Fearless offers the richness of an ancient meditative tradition as interpreted through the practice of a contemporary American laywoman. This orientation represents a landmark shift in Theravadan Buddhism by bringing jhana into the reach of ordinary, busy practitioners.

Focused and Fearless speaks to ordinary meditators who wish to attain non-ordinary states with ease. It offers a creative and contemporary slant to this ancient path of happiness and wisdom. Blended with contemporary examples, pragmatic exercises, and “how to” instructions that anyone can try, this book provides a wealth of tools to cultivate non-distracted attention in daily life and retreat.

Focused and Fearless presents an accessible, friendly, and wise approach to establishing ecstatic meditative states that lead to liberating insight. This is more than a book about concentration. It offers a complete path for awakening that is firmly based on the power of a unified mind.

“Focused and Fearless is a beautifully written introduction to jhana meditation that demonstrates the importance and necessity of deep concentration. Without a concentrated mind one can not understand, by direct knowledge, the four noble truths.
The Buddha said Develop concentration. One who is concentrated understands things as they really are. And what does he understand as it really is? He understands as it really is:

  1. This is the noble truth of suffering
  2. This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering
  3. This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering
  4. This is the noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

—Venerable Pa-Auk Tawya Sayadaw


ISBN-13: 978-0-86171-560-2
Wisdom Publications, May 2008, 259 pages

Click Here to buy both of Shaila Catherine’s books at a discount.

Inside the book

Book Reviews

by Santikaro
by Christopher Titmuss

Talks, Interviews, Articles


For inquiries or to submit reader’s reviews contact books.

Praise from Buddhist Authors

Focused and Fearless is a wonderful book. Shaila Catherine describes the paths of deep concentration and transforming insight in a way that both inspires and enriches our practice. Her prose and her understanding are exceptionally lucid. This book is a treat to read”

Joseph Goldstein, author of One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism
"Written lucidly by one of the most experienced meditators in the West, Shaila outlines the way to develop the four jhanas (deep absorptions) and experience the four Formless realms. The Buddha spoke of the great value of the jhanas and the formless realms as major steps to a truly enlightened life. Shaila has spent much of her adult life devoted to the dharma in the East and West, including some seven years in total in retreats. The wealth of her experience, insights and explanation of practice for depths of concentration and wisdom shine through the pages. This book is for the practitioner. It’s the best book on these practices I have seen. It’s five-star.”...more...
Christopher Titmuss, author of Light on Enlightenment
"This book is both scholarly and personal. It describes the terrain of intensely concentrated mental states and the dedication required for their cultivation in language that is so alluring and thorough that readers will, I am certain, be inspired to redouble their zeal for practice. it’s also poetic. Who could resist Shaila Catherine’s invitation to, “Frolic with a joyful heart, courageously exploring this undependable fleeting world.”...more...
Sylvia Boorstein, author of Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness
"I love Shaila’s book. Her exercises for daily life are truly original—and fun, plus they really work. She makes renunciation sound good—she’s very humble, but at the same time, wise. Her descriptions of deep jhanic states are imbued with her own experience. As you read, you know she would never stretch the truth in order to be impressive, but there’s some impressiveness that comes thru almost in spite of itself. As a bonus, the connections she makes to the Suttas make the Buddha’s time seem much closer to our own, lit up with relevance and interest.”...more...
Kate Lila Wheeler, editor of In This Very Life and The State of Mind Called Beautiful
"Rigorously investigated and lucidly explained, Shaila Catherine penetrates the mysterious world of jhana practice. Her book’s strength lies in that she knows the territory intimately and teaches from her own experience. The author has deeply devoted her life to awakening through meditation, and her confidence and wisdom ring true throughout the whole book. This inspirational and fascinating manual will help many of the rest of us down this path.”...more...
Diana Winston, author of Wide Awake, A Buddhist Guide for Teens
"Among the many how-to books about Buddhist meditation, this book stands out for its deep commitment to the frames of reference developed in the Pali Canon, specifically the role of concentration (both 'momentary concentration' in the insight path and the jhana path), and its relationship to insight. With these frames, Catherine is able to create exercises and steps that develop calm meditative states and lead to liberating insight. This book is both a pragmatic manual and a deeply traditional understanding of Buddhist meditation practice. It suggests itself as a helpful guide both to beginning and advanced students.”...more...
Mu Soeng, author of The Heart of the Universe
"This is the best jhana book I’ve come across in English. Focused and Fearless is inspiring, practically detailed, systematic, and well-grounded in the Pali sources. Building upon the teaching of pioneer Western vipassanā teachers and drawing upon some of the best modern Dhamma teachers from Theravāda Southeast Asia Shaila both reconnects with vital Pali sources and develops the jhāna teachings for modern practitioners. The book aims at making these teachings alive and relevant today, not merely repeating the Theravāda orthodoxy a lá the Visuddhimagga. While based in the four foundations of mindfulness of Theravāda practice, this understanding of practice goes beyond them, deepening samatha-vipassanā and leading to liberation from suffering. Focused and Fearless passes my first criteria of a book on meditation: it inspires me to practice with sobriety. Shaila gives us detailed, workable descriptions of how to practice jhāna. I have not come across better. They seem to have worked for her — she never sounds as though she’s just repeating received teachings. Will these explanations work for you and me? We will have to practice to find out! She inspires us enough to make that possible. ...more...
Santikaro, editor of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree

“Developing a stable and undistracted mind is essential to most forms of meditation. This book will be of interest to anyone, regardless of their style of practice, wishing to incorporate the deeper stages of concentration of jhana into their meditation.”

Inquiring Mind

“This is a “user-friendly” concentration book. Through practical exercises and clear examples, Shaila makes the ancient wisdom of the jhanas accessible to all.”

Amy Schmidt, author of Dipa Ma: The Life and Teaching of a Buddhist Master

Readers Reviews

"Focused and Fearless is a reliable and pragmatic guide to the practices of absorption concentration, or jhana. It presents them within the broader context of the path of liberating the mind from suffering and dissatisfaction through non-clinging. The descriptions of these practices are clearly based in Shaila Catherine’s own intensive and systematic exploration of them while also being solidly based in the Buddha’s discourses and the commentarial tradition. Her writing is very clear and a joy to read. Whether you are simply curious about the jhanas or are interested in practicing with them, Focused and Fearless is a highly recommended practice guide.” ...more...
Phil J., Columbia, Missouri
"Meditating is not easy, at least it hasn't been for me. It's essential to understand the importance of meditation to our lives, and to see how far we can go in the meditation process. Focused and Fearless not only detailed the meditation process thoroughly, but it also described in great detail the deeper stages of pre-jhana, and the jhanas themselves. It became obvious to me right away that the author has firsthand experience with the deeper levels of meditation and thoroughly understands the topic and difficulties people have. Reading this book invigorated my practice, helped me see where I can eventually go, and helped me to deepen my own personal practice. It’s a must read book for anyone on the path!”...more...
Dana N., San Jose, California
"I found Shaila's book to be clear, deep, joyful, and also to have a certain streak of humor. Overall, Shaila makes it very clear how the mind in jhana is used as a tool, not as an end in itself. There is something poignant about the purpose of these beautiful states being their very destruction. We create in order to let things fall apart? There is much depth here—worth pondering, experiencing, and understanding fully. I gained the most from observing the type of reflection questions that were posed regarding each jhana state. For example, the questions for the first jhana seem indicate that it is most appropriately used for insight regarding the body, whereas for the 4th jhana, the questions concern breaking the link between feeling and craving in the cycle of dependent origination. This makes sense as the 4th jhana is considered quite well-suited for liberating insight. I know I will be able to use this book for many years, coming back to hear it differently as my own mind changes.”...more...
Kim A., San Jose, California
"I came to know Shaila Catherine’s teachings when I was in one of the most important jhana-based monasteries in Sri Lanka, where I was encouraged to read her books. Focused and Fearless is a meditation handbook where one can find the best of the Theravadin meditation tradition, sprinkled with sayings and poetry from other traditions such as Advaita, Tibetan, and Sufi, all of which transmit the essence of the deep spiritual experiences that come with this practice. It was a major discovery for me and very helpful for my practice to read and work intensively with Focused and Fearless. This book offers thorough instructions in the Burmese tradition, while also communicating the freshness and intuitive flavour of the Thai Forest masters. Most advisable for any serious meditator.”...more...
Jose A., Spain
"Focused and Fearless is a marvelous contribution to the dharma and support to meditators. Shaila Catherine writes with clarity, passion, and conviction that comes from experience. This book has been a guide and a support for our Christian Insight Meditation group. Now, her years of practice are a blessing for so many more.”...more...
Joseph M., Louisville, Kentucky
"Focused and Fearless—Transformative! Focused and Fearless is a superb, powerfully transformative guide for meditators. The instructions are accessible and immediately helpful, beautiful in their simplicity and relevance. It's rare to encounter meditation instructions so precise and descriptions so exquisite. Shaila Catherine writes with the authority of a practitioner and teacher who knows the deep states of meditative absorption like the back of her hand.”...more...
Ann D., Gainsville, Florida
"This book delivers on its title. Shaila Catherine clearly explains the purpose and value of having a focused and fearless mind and lays out in practical terms the guidelines for inclining the mind to states of deep joy, calm and clarity. Based on her personal experience and wisdom, Shaila Catherine writes in language appropriate for these times and the current culture.Sincere students of meditation will find encouragement and reinforcement for deepening subtle levels of concentration and refining perception of mental factors through jhana meditation—crucial steps on the path of liberation. Focused and Fearless is not just another book on Buddhist philosophy. It is a practical how to description of a little taught meditation practice of enormous benefit. Any meditator who aspires to having a mind that can remain unmoved by the occurrences in the sensory fields will want to have this book as a resource. It is beneficial for all levels of meditation practice.”...more...
Sharon A., Sunnyvale, California
"Focused and Fearless is exceptionally helpful for those interested in exploring the sublime meditative absorptions known as jhana states. I read the book in preparation for a 7-day meditation retreat with Shaila Catherine, and also found it invaluable as a reference text during the retreat and afterwards. Shaila’s simple and clear writing style succeeds in delivering useful information with a light and authentic touch. The first and second parts of the book lay the foundation for jhana practice, while the third part provides more specific instruction on attaining the first four jhana states. Other parts describe the four higher jhana states and how to use jhanic practice to attain insight into how things really are. Exploring the jhana states can seem a little like feeling your way through a cave without a light, but when I reach an impasse, I am able to find tips in this book that help illuminate the path ahead. I highly recommend Focused and Fearless to anyone embarking on an inner journey to find happiness.”...more...
Tom G., Nevada
"I recently went back and re-read parts of Shaila Catherine's first book, Focused and Fearless. My experience was like a visit and conversation with an old friend whom I hadn't seen for too long. Not that I needed any reminder as to why this book might be looked upon as an old friend, but it sure was nice to be able to say Hello again. Like many outstanding books,re-reading random passages as well as old favorites led to new realizations, which in turn triggered a reflection as to why I might be motivated to renew my acquaintance with this little gem in the first place—a particularly telling urge given the growing stack of unread books in my library. Getting into the book again, I was quickly returned to my initial reading and its gift of fresh insights—all within the context of the key liberation teachings of the Buddha—and how Shaila’s uncommon ability to present what some might call old material with clarity and to do so in a way that makes it interesting. Re-visiting Focused and Fearless made it clear that much of what she had to say during my first reading has stuck with me during the past couple of years. At the same time, the richness and freshness of her presentation helped create many new aha moments during the re-reading. On some sublime level, that’s probably why I was drawn to opening the book again—knowing that I would once again be rewarded. Although Focused and Fearless may appear on the surface to be primarily directed toward cultivating Buddhist concentration/jhana practice, let there be no mistake—this book is no one trick pony—its ultimate, overall focus is clearly aimed at developing the breadth and depth of insight required for liberation from suffering/dukkha. This is indeed a great introduction to the techniques of jhana. However, it should be even more valuable to the practitioner by taking the reader through the contributions that jhana makes to the insight meditation process (with concentration and mindfulness together for optimal benefit). In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Shaila is a teacher with whom I have spent quite a bit of time as a student. That relationship not only motivates me to write this review, but also allows me to personally confirm that Shaila’s writing style (as well as her speaking and teaching style) is largely based on her actual personal experience (verses an academic approach) . . . rich, broad and deep experience informed over the past three decades: years of time on-the-cushion in retreat as well as years with an impressive list of many leading and well-regarding teachers. Invaluable characteristics for someone with my existential leanings. Accordingly, I look forward to her second book. I would recommend reading (and re-reading) this book for anyone who has a whole-hearted interest in freeing themselves from the shackles of their conditioned mind.”...more...
Glenn S., California
"Not yet mentioned by other reviewers is one facet of this book that I find particularly useful: its combination of practice with theory. By using a generous sprinkling of exercise and reflection boxes throughout the text, Shaila Catherine keeps one grounded, helping avoid the mind-muddle that can occur with an over-emphasis on theory. A bit from an exercise box gives a taste of the book: Right now, as you are reading these words, sense present awareness, that natural open knowing of things as they are. Feel the contact with your chair, feel the temperature of the body, feel the sensations of the breath moving, notice the sounds in the environment, sense the texture of the pages on your fingertips… (p.175) And another favorite:  As you go about your daily activities: Notice the space between things. Notice the pause between breaths. Notice the space between thoughts. Rest at ease with a spacious attention… (p.196) This is a book well worth reading and rereading.”...more...
F. L,, California
"Focused and Fearless had been extremely helpful to me long before I was introduced to Jhana practice. I must confess that I never read it methodically, cover to cover, stage by stage. The first thing I did when I got the book was to eagerly jump to the section that speaks about the four formless realms, thinking it would be fascinating and inspiring. Indeed it was! But later I realized that it was more beneficial for me to read the sections on developing mindfulness, deepening my meditation practice, and understanding of the workings of the mind. I found that it is not just a Jhana book, but is tremendously beneficial to all meditation practitioners. It is an excellent and necessary book for anyone who wants to transform the mind, deepen their understanding of concentration practices, and realize the Buddha’s path to liberation. Both beginners and seasoned practitioners will enjoy the comprehensive how to guidance that author and Dharma teacher Shaila Catherine provides. She gives methodical and thorough step-by-step instructions into the realm of deep concentration. In addition, the book is interspersed with many helpful suggestions, tools, and tips that enhance concentration and mindfulness through daily-life awareness. She offers practical instructions for working with difficult thoughts, noticing the space between things, mindful eating, wakeful walking, and much more. Reflections on the quality of our daily lives, the conditions for happiness, our relationship to pleasure, and the nature of mind broaden the scope of Focused and Fearless to encompass essential transformative insights. Watching and learning about the mind is not an easy task. It takes courage, consistency, determination, patience and dedication to apply skillful effort, direct the power of intention and mindfulness, work with emotions that arise in meditation, and practice letting go. With the support of Shaila’s very clear, gentle and precise instructions in Focused and Fearless, it becomes easier to overcome the obstacles and apply the principles of the Buddha’s teachings on liberation through non-clinging. The many years that Shaila has dedicated to the development of her own practice and mastery of concentration and insight are evident in this book. To me, this is what makes this book so illuminating and powerful. It keeps its promise: not only does it decipher the enigmatic Jhana practices, but also portray the way to live an awake and happy life. I hope and wish Focused and Fearless will be translated into many more languages, as many meditators around the world could and will benefit tremendously from this important and rare book.”...more...
Sandya, Pardes Hanna, Israel
"Other reviews here for Focused and Fearless have pointed out a number of its significant strengths as an effective, eminently useful presentation of deeply beneficial meditative practices, written in a style that is very well-informed by the author's extensive experience, with a balance of personable reflections on such experience along with an expert presentation of the classic teaching sources upon which those practices are based. As a longtime meditator, as well as a lay scholar of religious and contemplative traditions, I would like to add to those reviews the comment that this book makes a particularly signficant contribution to the overall body of Buddhist teachings in the West. Much of what we have received before has been heavily weighted towards the ‘insight’ (vipassana) side of the classic, old school Buddhist practice instructions. But largely left out to date has been any thorough-going presentation of the ‘other half’ of traditional Buddhist meditative techniques, namely, the ‘calming and concentrative’ side— the side of samatha and samadhi—the side specifically marked by the exploration of the jhana states. The jhanas are exquisitely beautiful experiences, and Shaila Catherine’s effective presentation of their nature and of the practical techniques for their realization makes an important contribution to our understanding both of Buddhism and of the human mind, as well as to the possibilities for meditators’ personal spiritual development.”...more...
David C., Austin, Texas
"After years of my enjoying various styles of meditation and so many beautiful books on Buddhism, Shaila Catherine and this book have advanced my meditation to new depths. It impresses me how someone might write an entire book about endeavors that are beyond most typical description. This book conveys her impressive knowledge on insight meditation in general, and jhana in particular. However, the text never bogs down despite the potential weight and depth of it all, given its very comfortable and well-organized pace, and her gently wry humor. Additionally, the included exercises and reflections, peppered throughout the chapters, are bridges toward mindfully integrating these experiences into the rest of one’s daily life. The book bears repeated readings, not so much for density as for the fascinating transformations that take place as one puts these practices into motion. This practice is not always easy work and requires some dedication, especially outside the support of a retreat setting. But one’s efforts are buoyed through the undeniable swells of energy that arise – the techniques all the more confirmed when chaperoned by her exquisitely described steps and stages. Every portion of this process, no matter how far one might ultimately ‘go’ with jhana practice, can – and should – feel deeply worthwhile. This book is the take-home manual. Enjoy!”...more...
Lisa B., San Jose, California
"The Placerville Sangha has just completed Focused and Fearless as a group study. I was taken by the clarity of the directions leading one on the path to the jhanas. I initially wondered if the topic of the jhanas might be too advanced for the group (we have various levels of meditation experience). To my delight, everyone was excited to study Focused and Fearless and all have gained skill in their meditation practice. My opinion is that even those relatively new to meditation can benefit if the text is studied in the group setting.”...more...
Will L., Placerville Sangha, Placerville, California
“For those interested in learning about and ultimately attaining the jhanas, particularly as based in the Abhidhamma, Focused and Fearless is an indispensable read. Those new to this practice will find Shaila’s descriptions remarkably illuminating, her clear and spacious writing style mirroring the very nature of the jhanic experience. And having devoted several years to Pa Auk Sayadaw’s method, including eight months in Asian monasteries, I can say that even for experienced practitioners there is much wisdom and useful advice to be gleaned from this book. I give it my highest recommendation.”...more...
David B., Nevada City, California

“I love this book. I have now read it twice and both times I have learned things. I am going to keep this on my reference shelf. Her great examples and clear writing style really helped me understand. I am eagerly awaiting her next book”

Betty C., Pacific Grove, California
“I probably came to Focused and Fearless from a different place than most readers who will pick up the book. I had just begun meditating and, from the little reading I had done, was somewhat wary of concentrated practice. Focused and Fearless was not a book I would ordinarily have read. But my mind was so wild, when I was given the book,I figured a little focus might not be a bad thing. Despite my initial reservations, I found Focused and Fearless extremely helpful and I devoured Shaila’s personal stories. Two years later, I still sometimes rely on some of her exercises. Even individuals who aren’t drawn to concentrated practice will find Focused and Fearless engaging and useful. Shaila’s suggestions for practice off the cushion are concrete and down to earth—for example, she mentions exposing ourselves to challenging situations, such as foreign travel, to develop equanimity. Her vivid description of learning to live in India, as well as her account of coming to terms with life after a serious car accident, gave me a new perspective on the tumultuous last few years of my life. I am currently reading Focused and Fearless for a second time and am finding Shaila’s insights even more helpful and true. As a beginning meditator, I haven’t yet tackled the later chapters on jhana, but I hope to in the near future. Shaila has inspired me!” ...more...
Leslie K., New York
“I came to Shaila’s book after 15-plus years of daily Buddhist meditation and I have to say that using this book is transforming my practice in ways I would never have imagined. I think a lot of us out there have either never heard of this approach or always assumed it was just for those enlightened monastic types. Shaila makes it accessible, clear, and delightfully possible for us all. She is an amazing writer who has obviously really done this work herself in great depth. I especially love how she conveys the great joy that can arise from spiritual work. One of my favorite phrases, which is on a yellow sticky on my wall: Loving diligence is stronger than the tense shell of striving. This gives you a sense of what a treat you’re in for: don’t miss this book!” ...more...
Mary Leigh B., Oregon
“Shaila Catherine explains exactly what to look for, what to do, how to do it, and why…..with no added fluff. This book has helped mature my practice from years of a loosey, goosey, bring your attention to the breath then gently bring it back when it wanders kind of thing to one of true intention and focus. I now clearly discern three qualities of concentration. I see a distinct connection to the start middle and end of each breath, a developing and sustaining of that connection to more and more detail, and at the same time a focusing to a finer and finer point. When my mind wanders I see exactly which of these has faded and can clearly apply the right effort to bring it back. My biggest challenge now is deciding whether to dwell in the joy and calm that have arisen or to focus even more to move toward the deeper states she describes. While this book does deal with relatively advanced topics the first half is very suitable for both newish meditators and anyone serious about deepening practice. It is a book to be done rather than just read. Though the focus is concentration (shamatha), she never ignores the insights (vipassana) that are the real point of it all. The jhana states described in the latter half still elude me but reading about them in the words of one who has clearly been there serves as a signpost, a billboard, to where I am heading. This inspiration alone is priceless. Reading this book is a constant reminder that FREEDOM IS TRULY POSSIBLE. How can my heart/mind thank her enough for writing this clear guide to the neighborhood? I feel sure she would say…..Practicing is exactly enough….”...more...
William M., Austin, Texas
“This book is one I have read twice and expect to read again. The second read was in preparation for retreat and I found it helped immensely in making the transition between a busy life and a silent retreat center. I have found it equally helpful to use in recalibrating my intention and attention in the midst of a busy life. Catherine’s clear and thorough explorations of mind are easy to use and inspirational, as they come from her direct experience and broad understanding of living the dharma in everyday life. This book is profoundly refreshing, as she speaks with such grounded confidence and clarity that a beginning or experienced meditator will find inspiration for practice. Although it is geared toward deepening concentration practice, anyone who has a desire to live with more awareness can use it skillfully.” ...more...
Mary R., Seattle, Washington
“Shaila Catherine’s Focused and Fearless was a centrally important book in the development of my understanding and practice of meditation starting back in 2010 when I first read it. It was the first time I had read candid and detailed personal descriptions of deep meditative states similar to what I (like many of my friends) had serendipitously stumbled upon when I first began practicing meditation (some 40 years earlier in my case). When I would get up the nerve to mention these states of sometimes overwhelming delight, deep happiness, and abiding peace, meditation teachers would consistently caution me not to get attached to these experiences, as if there was something bad or maybe dangerous about having them. But I didn’t know any teachers who seemed to really understand and be comfortable with these states. Similarly, when I talked about this with fellow meditators, many seemed to have had similar experiences, but still no one really seemed to know what they meant or how to work with them. I now liken those early explorations in meditation to strolling around on a beautiful mountainside with interesting and charming springs, flora, and fauna, but without having a map or knowing anything about the natural history of the area. Metaphorically, the discovery of Focused and Fearless was for me, after 40 years of searching, a map and a natural history, giving me a vocabulary and descriptions of territory I had already come to love and appreciate in my own feeble way. Shaila Catherine’s book taught me to understand the ecosystem, and showed ways I could protect, support, and nurture this inner world. I also learned how these states could be useful in helping me to (at least temporarily) loosen the grip of greed, hatred, and delusion in my life, and to recognize the transient nature of all things, including who I am. I whole-heartedly recommend Focused and Fearless to anyone who is drawn to deepening their meditation practice.” ...more...
Jim F., Berkeley, California