Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind… It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower… Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one… Concentration provides the power… Mindfulness… notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady… If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.
– Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
When learning Buddhist meditation we must begin with concentration. Buddhist meditation is the training of the mind into subtler, deeper, more stable and insightful states of consciousness, and this training can be viewed as therapeutic or rehabilitative, for our culture does a very poor job of training young people to have calm and focused minds. We overload them with stimulation and anxieties about their status in the world, causing minds that are easily distracted, that tend toward compulsive self-absorption and are too easily indoctrinated into acceptance of attitudes and ways of seeing the world that are conventional and far short of their true potential.
As with issues of personality neuroses and disorders, our culture has a very low bar for what is considered “normal” when it comes to mental focus and discernment. Attention-deficit disorder is epidemic and what constitutes a diagnosable level is just the tip of the iceberg. We simply do not know how to concentrate our consciousness in ways that can lead to the world revealing itself in its full subtlety, variety, interconnectedness and wonder, and it is the purpose of Buddhist meditation training to realize these capacities.
In our training, we must begin with concentration. All more refined levels of meditation are dependent on cultivation of the ability to hold consciousness steady, to not flit from one thought, emotion, and sensation to the next. And to develop our capacity for concentration, we must have what is called an “object of meditation,” something to concentrate on. In the Zen, Vipassana and Shamatha styles of Buddhist meditation, the principle object of meditation for the training of concentration is one’s own breathing.
As Gunaratana pointed out, this level of meditation training is work – it requires effort. We begin by taking a posture that supports alert relaxation and good dynamics of breathing. We then place our attention on the sensations of breathing, the gentle rise and fall of the chest and diaphragm, the sensation of the breeze of air across our nostrils. We attempt to hold our concentration on these sensations, and when concentration wanders, we notice that it has wandered and replace attention back on the sensations of breathing. It may sound easy, but to sustain it successfully is very challenging. It requires the willpower to which Gunaratana refers.
Encouragingly, however, there is almost immediate benefit for most people. Using the breath as the object of meditation is really quite ingenious because conscious breathing readily brings with it calming of the mind and body along with enhancement of sensory experience. Usually, a sense of balanced presence and clarity also will occur as the rhythm of the breathing and the access to the parasympathetic nervous system that comes with conscious breathing creates these results naturally. The experience can be a reminder of what real sanity feels like.
With a little practice, most people can fairly readily learn to hold awareness on the breathing for a noticeable, if brief, period. The mind’s long established habit of wandering off into thought or sensory distraction, thereby disrupting concentration on breathing, will occur readily and frequently, and this can be a discouragement for people who are not being instructed that the noticing of this phenomenon is a very important development in their training. It is opening the door to mindfulness, to the noticing mind of wisdom and discernment.
It is very important to realize that this distractibility had been happening regularly before we began our meditation training, but had never really been noticed, and that the noticing is important progress. The very noticing of this distractibility is a new insight, and so too, our now flowering capacity to hold attention on and notice our quiet mind while also holding attention on the breathing is a new insight. We are learning to expand concentrated awareness in a stable field that can hold seemingly separate phenomena in perceived unity.
We are developing what is called shamatha, a mind that can “peacefully abide” in the present moment with increasingly less distractibility. We are also at the doorstep of Vipassana: insight, wisdom and increasing clarity. As the power of our concentration stabilizes, we begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to the field of the sensations of our entire body and its perception of the environment without losing any focus on the central object of the breathing. We begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to include activity of the mind without being distracted from the sensations of breathing and body/environment. We begin to notice that we are noticing, to have awareness of awareness.
Perhaps the insight even arises that most fundamentally we are awareness that notices we have a body and we have a mind that function in particular ways in a society and among people that function in particular ways. This awareness of awareness and how our body, mind and the environment occur in and are all connected within awareness is mindfulness, and its application and benefit are virtually boundless, for we begin to realize the quiet mind of awareness is the actual source of intelligence, wisdom and discernment.
Again, it must be emphasized, developing our capacity for concentration is essential to this opening of the door of mindfulness, of opening the door to noticing with increasingly sensitive, subtle and discerning skill the marvel and beauty and mystery of Life. We then, as Gunaratana noted, must continue our practice in balancing these two mental capacities of concentration and mindfulness hand-in-hand. The benefits of this work grow and grow as our sense of mental balance and even the spiritual realization of our connection to our fellow beings in this unbroken field of awareness grows and grows.
Now, with practice, we can sit, walk, work, play, and relate in ways that will ultimately reveal the great realization of Buddhist meditation: that there really is no separate “me” that suffers from the insecurities of our cultural training in materialism and competition. We begin to accomplish glimpses of Samadhi – the sense of oneness, the consciousness of non-duality – in expanding circles, first with individual people, animals, and plant life, perhaps with whole scenes and vistas. Eventually, we can experience this oneness with Life itself, realizing the ultimate in “refined sensibilities.” Do the work of developing concentration power – then balance it with awareness – mindfulness – and the world gently opens.