Insight Meditation Houston

Concentration: The Collected Nature of the Mind

Tonight we will be continuing our discussion of Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, focusing on the fourth chapter: Concentration: The Collected Nature of the Mind.

On previous occasions, we have mentioned ardency, clear comprehension, and mindfulness as three qualities of mind that the Buddha considered essential for awakening. Samadhi is a term that refers to the qualities of concentration, composure and unification of mind that can arise when the mind is free of habitual desires and discontents.

Of the different ways of developing concentration, Ajahn Sucitto, a British monk in the Thai forest tradition, favors samadhi arising from embodied presence. He instructs practitioners to enjoy settling into the body and to allow tensions to dissolve by simple awareness of stress whenever it presents itself. In his words: “[S]amadhi is the act of refined enjoyment. It is based in skillfulness. It is the careful collecting of oneself into the joy of the present moment. Joyfulness means there’s no fear, no tension, no ‘ought to.’ There isn’t anything we have to do about it. It’s just this.”

Without a foundation in the ethical principle of non-harming, the mind is filled with worry, regret and agitation, so that concentration is hard to establish. Joseph Goldstein’s first Dharma teacher, Munindra-ji, taught that meditation that lacks morality is like trying to row across a river while the rowboat is still tied to the dock.

Traditionally, lay practitioners cultivate sila or ethical behavior by taking five precepts about refraining from killing, stealing lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants that cloud the mind. Each morning I recite my own affirmative version of these precepts:

I undertake the precept to protect all life.

I undertake the precept to take only what is freely given.

I undertake the precept to speak truthfully, wisely, kindly, and in a timely manner.

I undertake the precept to use sexual energy wisely.

I undertake the precept to protect the clarity of the mind.

 When sila and a calm mind are established, we can settle into a happy, relaxed state, which is the proximate cause of concentration. Although most of us face challenges in practicing meditation, it is truly a path of increasing happiness.

Concentration is strengthened through a continuity of mindfulness. There are two ways to practice this continuity: Firstly, we direct our attention steadily towards a single object, such as the breath, the movement of taking a step, or the arising and passing away of a sound. Secondly, with “choice-less awareness” of so-called “momentary samadhi,” we cultivate one-pointedness of mind on changing objects.

Insight meditation practice involves a skillful interweaving of both approaches. When the mind is sluggish or distracted, we can focus on a single object to develop internal joy and serenity. Once the mind is collected, we can open up to an undirected, choice-less kind of awareness. With dedicated practice, we cultivate an intuitive sense of which approach is required at any given time.

To enhance concentration and embodied presence during walking meditation and while just walking around, Joseph recommends noting precisely the particular sensations of each step—lightness, heaviness, pressure, stiffness, and so on.

One benefit of deepening concentration is diminishing the influence of the five classic mental hindrances of craving, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt. As we open up to refined pleasures of the mind like contentment, ease, rapture and joy, we are motivated to develop concentration even more. Over time, inner peace is established.

According to the Buddha, respect for concentration contributes to the longevity of the Dharma. Concentration is not the final goal of meditation practice, but it plays an important role on the path to awakening. For Westerners who want everything—including enlightenment—to be quick and easy, the time and effort necessary to cultivate concentration may seem daunting. But as samadhi deepens in our daily lives, we become freer of desires and discontents, and we develop a peaceful composure that is the basis for greater happiness.

This week I read an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence. In his latest book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, he collaborates with His Holiness. In order to improve the world, the Dalai Lama encourages us to manage our own destructive emotions, so that we don’t operate from anger, frustration or fear. When we are calm and clear in our thinking, we speak and act more skillfully. The psychologist, Paul Eckman, defines maturity as widening the gap between impulse and action. Concentration is one of the most effective ways to counteract impulsive reactivity.

The Dalai Lama’s vision begins on a personal level: when enough people have transformed themselves, social, political, religious and economic systems will transform. His is a message of hope: if an individual—especially someone young—changes a bad habit and starts to contribute to a worthy cause such as sustainability, this change makes a significant difference over that person’s lifespan. As a pragmatist, His Holiness refers to big data analysis, which views each of us as an aggregate, so that whatever each one of us does matters in the long run.

Concentration practice is a life-long endeavor, and the fruits are well worthwhile for us as individuals and for society in general.