Tonight we will be concluding a series of Dharma talks about Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, focusing on the fourth chapter: Concentration: The Collected Nature of the Mind.
On previous occasions, we have discussed ardency, clear comprehension, and mindfulness as three qualities of mind that the Buddha considered essential for awakening. Continuity of mindfulness, moment by moment, lays the foundation for the fourth mental quality of concentration. 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.
Concentration means training the mind to focus and to follow clear intentions. Every spiritual tradition has repetitive techniques to promote concentration, such as centering prayers, chants, mantras, mudras, prostrations, mandalas, or gazing at candlelight. In Vipassana practice, we use the sensation of breath as the main object of our attention. Sharon Salzberg observes that the art of concentration is a continual practice of letting go of what is unessential or distracting. By returning over and over again to the focal point, the mind and emotions become still and stable. With regular practice, we develop composure, tranquility, and mental clarity.
Meditation teacher Arinna Weisman likens the untrained mind to a dispersed herd of sheep with no sheepdog to guide them. The benefits of concentration motivate us to make an effort to round up stray thoughts and impulses.
Joseph suggests that we begin by simply being mindful of whether concentration is present or not. Sometimes the mind is quiet in a dreamy, hazy, undefined manner, which is not concentrated. Each time we wake up and nonjudgmentally guide the attention back to the anchor of the breath, we are strengthening concentration. This process requires patience and perseverance, one breath at a time. Gradually, we learn to bring a more seamless attentiveness to our experience, without so many random thoughts fragmenting our perception.
Joseph Goldstein emphasizes the connection between concentration and morality. 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’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.
In Buddhism, morality does not mean a puritanical obedience to rules but living with intentions that reflect love and compassion for oneself and others. Traditionally, lay practitioners cultivate sila or ethical behavior by taking five precepts about refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and clouding the mind with intoxicants. 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 relaxed state, which is the proximate cause of concentration.
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.”
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. In his own sitting practice, he uses mindfulness of breathing because the breath is so intimately connected with mental states.
Concentrating on the breath helps us understand what’s happening inside our emotional life. We learn that when we’re afraid, the breath is shallow and rapid. With close attention, we can notice how the breath becomes coarse and intense when angry feelings arise, and how it slows down and lengthens when we calm down. If we are feeling openhearted and connected to people around us, our breath tends to be expansive and smooth. When the heart is closed and we feel isolated, the breath is usually constricted and superficial.
It’s unrealistic to expect the heart or the breath to be soft and open all the time. With concentration, we can observe these natural ebbs and flows in our breathing without adding unnecessary judgments. To stay connected with the vital importance of breathing to sustain us, we can imagine that each breath is the very first breath or the very last breath of our life.
Joseph refers to the book Pure and Simple about the Dharma teachings of a Thai laywoman named Upasika Kee. Her concentration practices entailed using awareness of in and out-breaths as a step towards awareness of the knowing mind that observes the breathing. We tend to think of concentration as a rare state, but Joseph refers to the ordinariness of simple everyday awareness that simply knows the breath and stays with the experience of knowing.
Sometimes we view thoughts as enemies to concentration. Joseph cites Sayadaw U Tejaniya:
When the mind is thinking or wandering…just be aware of it. Thinking is a natural activity of mind….The wandering mind …is not the problem. Your attitude that “[thoughts] should not be around” is the problem…. Remind yourself that a thought is just a thought—[not] “my thought.” When you feel disturbed by the thinking mind, remind yourself that you are not practicing to prevent thinking, but rather to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises.
Often thoughts dissipate in the moment of awareness. But we can become involved in thoughts and carried away with their stories. To disentangle and to remember our higher aspiration to develop concentration, Joseph recommends questioning if a persistent thought is skillful, helpful or necessary.
The concentration we develop by repeatedly bringing our attention back to the focus of the breath is directly related to how well we concentrate in our everyday lives. Concentration practice enhances our capacity to be attentive during daily activities.
The Buddha pointed out how mental distractions create suffering by separating us from what we are experiencing. On a warm, sunny spring day, I was riding my bike to Omega House hospice. While I was concentrating on the sensations of my moving body, the bike seemed to glide effortlessly. Each time I broke concentration to anticipate what might be happening at work, I had to bring more effort to pedaling. The bike ride gave me instant feedback about any fluctuations in concentration.
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.
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 or the movement of taking a step, letting go of anything else that arises in awareness and returning over and over again to the fixed object. Secondly, with “choice-less awareness” of so-called “momentary samadhi,” we cultivate one-pointedness of mind on changing objects, witnessing body sensations, feelings, thoughts, and Dharma concepts arising and passing away without identifying with any of those objects as “me” or “mine.”
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 serenity.
One technique for centering the attention on breathing is to count breaths from one to ten. You can try noting “1” after a cycle of inhaling and exhaling, “2” after the next cycle, and so on… If your mind wanders, gently bring the attention back to the breath, and start again with number “1.” The point is not to reach “10,” but to use the numbers to notice whether or not you are still concentrating on the sensation of breathing. Another way to establish a steady focus is to note “in” each time you inhale and “out” each time you exhale. Once concentration is established, noting techniques naturally fade away.
When the mind is collected and balanced, 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.
With a steady and one-pointed mind, we can see things as they truly are, without distorting experiences through the lens of our hopes and fears.
Deep insight is necessary for transforming habitual misperceptions and reactive attachments that cause confusion and suffering.
The pleasure of concentration enables the mind to stay comfortably in the present moment, stabilizing it enough to gain insights. Joseph points out that because this pleasurable alertness and equanimity is more exquisite than sensory pleasures, and because it exists independently of the five senses, it can help the mind become less attached to material desire. Have any of you experienced this refined level of concentration?
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 impatient meditators 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.
EX: With a partner, take turns recalling a time when you established a state of concentration. What factors contributed to that experience?