In our exploration of the components on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we have examined the wisdom of Right View and Right Thought and the moral implications of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Last week we discussed Right Effort, and tonight we’ll look at Right Concentration.
Concentration means focusing on an object with undivided attention. Every spiritual tradition has techniques to promote concentration, such as centering the attention on prayers, chants, mantras, mudras, prostrations, mandalas, or candlelight. In Vipassana or Insight meditation practice, we use the sensation of breath as the main object of our attention. Concentration brings stability and tranquility to practice, so that the mind stays focused and still.
In our culture, we tend to move rapidly through noisy environments and to fill up our lives with activities. Our minds can become dispersed and overwhelmed with stimuli. Concentration helps us to pause and slow down.
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. We’ve all enjoyed moments when we are so focused on a particular activity that we lose track of time. When I’m absorbed in reading a good book, I feel content in the present moment, and I forget about any physical discomfort.
My teacher Jack Kornfield says that to concentrate the mind means to collect it, to have it become steady, like a candle flame in a windless place, where it barely flickers. Living simply and cleanly support conditions for peace of mind, which is essential for developing concentration. I can focus more easily when my desk is clear, and my environment is organized, and when I am free of remorse about unskillful words or actions.
When we begin to practice meditation, the mind may jump around or seem dull and drowsy. Each time we guide our attention back to the anchor of the breath, we are strengthening the mental muscles of concentration. Gradually, we learn to bring a more seamless attentiveness to our experience, without so many random thoughts fragmenting our perception.
Sometimes the mind is quiet in a dreamy, hazy, undefined way, which is not concentrated. A skillful remedy is to use Right Effort to raise enough energy to focus the attention and to infuse the calm state with the alertness of Right Concentration.
At other times the mind is overly active and restless. One technique for steadying attention is to count breaths from one to ten. Try noting “1” after a cycle of inhaling and exhaling, “2” after the next cycle, and so on… If the mind wanders, gently bring 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. Or you can note “in-out-space,” paying attention to the spaces in between each breath, instead of ignoring them or filling them up with thinking. If the mind wanders during those spaces, you can practice noting touch points in the body: where the lips touch together, the hands touch the legs, or the feet touch the floor. Noting “in-out, touching, in-out, touching” may help the attention be continuous.
Paradoxically, one of the greatest aids to concentration is relaxing. Concentration doesn’t entail forcing your mind to stay with the breath. Instead, with a sense of opening, softening, and receiving, concentration allows the mind to settle on the breath. In this process, we learn how to let go of trying to control so much. By letting go, we see that the world has a natural order that runs itself.
A young spiritual seeker hiked into mountains in India, where yogi hermits had spent decades meditating in caves. He asked one adept, “What techniques do you use?” The yogi responded, “Techniques?” The seeker continued, “Yes. Do you use a mantra or do you follow your breath?” The hermit laughed and said, “The breath, it breathes itself.”
To paraphrase some of Jack Kornfield’s insights about the vital connection between breathing and Right Concentration: we live in a sea of air, composed of gases: mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with a dash of carbon dioxide. Six to twelve times a minute we breathe this mixture into our lungs and exhale carbon dioxide to cleanse our system. We are so immersed in this ocean of air that we’re like fish in water; we don’t notice it, and most of the time we forget that we breathe it. Yet it’s essential to our life — connecting with it is a way to open up to our spiritual life very practically and directly.
My own experiences of connecting with the breath may remind you of similar instances in your life: After I had surgery to repair broken bones from a bike accident, I emerged from anesthesia and realized with gratitude that I was breathing on my own again. To strengthen my lungs, I had to blow hard enough into a plastic tube-like device to lift three little balls from the bottom to the top. I was aware of how much effort it takes to breathe fully and no longer took spontaneous breathing for granted.
Soon after recovering from surgery, I accompanied Dolma, a Tibetan friend, to the hospital room where she delivered her firstborn son. When the baby was born, there were some complications, and a midwife intervened to make sure he could breathe. While a nurse was tending to Dolma, the midwife wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed him in my arms until his mother was ready to hold him. As I watched his tiny face, he took a breath and opened his eyes with a blurry stare at me. I sensed the miracle of witnessing one of the very first breaths of this newborn child.
As my friend Andy was dying of bone cancer, his lungs filled with fluid, and he had to wait for extended periods, not knowing if the next breath would come. His longtime practice of meditation helped him stay quite calm during the last week of his life, as his breath grew slower and fainter and finally faded away. Andy inspired me and his circle of loved ones by the way he stayed connected to the breath until the very end of his life.
As Jack says, our breath is a mirror of how we are in any moment. We seldom look in this mirror, which reflects our changing degrees of energy and openness. Concentrating on the breath helps us understand what’s happening inside. 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 Right Concentration, we can observe these natural ebbs and flows in our breathing without adding unnecessary judgments. Tuning into the breath is a practical tool for daily living. We can concentrate on the breath to connect with movements in yoga, sports, or martial arts. During boring or difficult meetings, paying attention to the breath can help us literally “take a breather.”
Concentrating on the breath is fertile ground for learning how to concentrate the mind. When the mind is scattered and filled with thoughts, all we see is ordinary reality. When it is centered and collected, the mind becomes like a steady, powerful and penetrative lens. Like a microscope, it can investigate tiny details. And like a telescope, it can expand to perceive other levels of consciousness. Concentration is the main path in almost every yogic and spiritual tradition for expanding our perspective and for becoming more present with each moment.
In Vipassana meditation, when we practice in a continuous and focused way, we activate five mental factors known as jhanas. They are directed attention, sustained attention, rapture, peaceful happiness, and one-pointed concentration. These factors counteract five classic hindrances or impediments to meditation: sleepiness, doubt, ill will, restlessness, and desire. The effort to direct our attention towards one object counteracts drowsiness. Sustained attention anchors the mind on one object and overcomes doubt. Rapture suffuses the body and mind with joy and blocks ill will. Peaceful happiness leaves no room for restlessness and worry. One-pointed concentration blocks craving. We can achieve such single-pointed attention by returning again and again to a fixed, relatively unchanging object like the breath.
In the Buddha’s discourses, he explains that Right Concentration involves not only focusing awareness on a single object, but also allowing the object to fill our whole awareness. Simultaneously our awareness expands to suffuse the entire object. The mutual pervasion of awareness and object in a state of expansion is called “absorption.” A meditator who has Right Concentration is often sensitive to the entire body while breathing in and out. The pleasure of concentration enables the mind to stay comfortably in the present moment, stabilizing it enough to gain insights.
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. Even as beginners, we can take pleasure in brief periods of Right Concentration.
We’ll close with the opening lines of the Desiderata, dated 1692, and found in Baltimore’s Old Saint Paul’s Church: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”