The following article is adapted from a dharma talk Kate Munding gave to the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley on September 4, 2014.
It might be surprising to learn that when you read the suttas, the Buddha talked a lot about concentration and how to cultivate a concentrated mindfulness practice, as well as how to absorb into very concentrated states called jhānas. In fact, oftentimes, the Buddha gave this as the first practice—first concentrating the mind and then allowing that to hold steady our mindful awareness.
So what I want to talk about and normalize is the ability to simply become concentrated in our daily practice. The word for concentration in Pali is samādhi. It is often translated as “concentration,” but there are other words that maybe are a better fit. A lot of the time, the English translation of a Pali word doesn’t hold the essence of what the word means.
So a few words and phrases other than concentration are non-distractedness, a collected mind, a unified mind. The image that comes to my mind is a sheep herding dog. Growing up, my best friend had an Australian sheep herding dog. We would go walking up in the hills where there were cows grazing, and the dog, who had never been trained to do this, would start herding the cattle. It was amazing how skilled she was at bringing the scattered cows into a semi-circle and keeping them in line. We can actually train our minds to do the same thing, to collect itself, to collect its attention. And when we do this, we become less distracted, or our mind becomes more focused.
Richard Shankman wrote a wonderful book titled, The Experience of Samādhi. This is how he defines samādhi: “Samādhi, generally translated as ‘concentration,’ is derived from the Pali prefix ‘sam,’ meaning ‘together’ and the root ‘da’ meaning ‘to put’ or ‘to place.’ It is related to the Pali verb ‘samatati’ meaning ‘to put together, to bring together and to concentrate.’” Thus, samādhi entails the unifying of the mind in a steady undistracted awareness.
So when we sit here for 40 minutes, or however long, our mind often doesn’t just stay unified, undistracted, concentrated, does it? Maybe for some of you, it does. Some people have a natural ability to concentrate the mind. But for the majority of us, this isn’t true. So what is it that distracts us from our concentration, from our unified collected mind? What gets in the way of that here when we’re on the cushion? Just call them out. “Emotions.” “Work.” “Pain.” “Sleepiness.” “Memories.” “Ideas.” “Urgency.” “Plans.” “Hunger.” “Fantasies.” Yes, all of these things.
And what about in our day-to-day lives when we’re not on the cushion? We put a lot of value in our busyness. It’s like when someone asks, “How are you? What have you been up to?” And you say, “Oh, I’ve been really busy.” As if to be saying, “I’m a valued person and have important things going on because I’m ‘busy.’” But if you say, “Oh, not much of anything,” then what’s with you? Are you just being lazy?
We have this funny thing in our culture where we tend to value busyness, which often can be a factor in our distractedness, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily; there could be a unified mind in our busyness and a lot of concentration there. But it could also be a very distracted kind of busyness.
So what is it in our daily life that distracts us from concentration? You can call them out again. “Cell phones.” “Multi-tasking.” “Social media.” “Overstimulation.” “Associative thinking.” “Too many choices.” “Our senses get bombarded.” “Stress.” “Restlessness. “Too much caffeine.” “Judgments.” “Self-consciousness.” “Not being satisfied with who we are and where we’re at.” “Feeling like we need to be someone or get somewhere.” “Loneliness.” Yes, we could go on and on, couldn’t we?
In the Buddhist texts, there’s a list that all these things fit into—the Five Hindrances. These are states of mind where there’s unwholesome desire that is coming from greed, ill-will or aversion, restlessness, worry, sloth, and torpor. You know, when we just can’t be bothered anymore. We’re just spent. You know that feeling? And the last one is doubt. Doubting ourselves, doubting our abilities, doubting what’s true.
The hindrances, classically, are what get in the way of not only seeing things clearly for what they really are, but they also get in the way of our concentration. And interestingly, the practice of concentration is offered as an antidote sometimes to the experience of the hindrances.
When we are bombarded by these hindrances, it’s difficult to be concentrated and to keep them at bay. They’re really powerful when we are swept up by them. A concentrated mind will actually give us relief and safety from the power of the hindrances.
There’s a quote here from the Digha Nikaya, “Free of the Five Hindrances, joy arises. In (her) who is joyful, rapture arises. In (her) whose mind is enraptured, the body is stilled. The body being stilled, (she) feels happiness. And a happy mind finds concentration.”
So oftentimes when we talk about concentration, or we are practicing concentration, or we think we’re practicing concentration, there can be this idea that to get concentrated, we’ve got to push ourselves into it, to force it to happen? Is this your experience?
I sat a month-long retreat at the Forest Refuge in Barre, MA, a long time ago. The purpose of my retreat was to practice high states of concentration, the jhānas. I spent a lot of time in that retreat trying to make it happen. I had headaches and muscle tension and ended up with tinnitus, ringing in my ears. I was trying so hard because there was something in my view—that to become concentrated, you have to strive to make it happen. My understanding of the amount of effort that was needed was wrong.
And so that was a pretty uncomfortable retreat for me. I know better now! I share this with you in the hopes that you never have to go through that because it’s completely unnecessary. So in some ways, the practice of concentration can be counterintuitive. Concentration actually arises with qualities like tranquility and relaxation, and ease—the type of effort and energy that then balances that ease is just enough to allow our mind to be clear and not fall into sleepiness. And it is just enough effort to continue to hold our attention in one place or at least to keep bringing it back. It can be relatively little effort that’s needed for concentration once there is some momentum. When we are trying too hard when we’re striving to have a concentrated mind, we lose the tranquility and the relaxation and the inner stillness, and we end up tight. This can open the door for the hindrances—hindrances such as aversion and restlessness, and maybe even doubt. The hindrances that can arrive when there isn’t enough effort and there’s just too much tranquility are sloth and torpor. You know, “Oh, this is so nice.” And then we start nodding off. And so in concentration practice, there’s a learning we have to go through that’s understanding that balance and getting a real feel for that balance of how much of each of these qualities is needed in the given moment. When we sit down to practice concentration, we’re first looking to see what is needed right now in order to bring about this balance.
There are two different ways to experience concentration. Well, there’s maybe many different ways, but I’m going to focus on two different ways that I think will be familiar to most of you. Sometimes when we’re sitting here, the mind just all of a sudden is aligned. It is alert, present. You’re with whatever the object is, whether it’s the breath, the body, a sound, or maybe an emotion, but you’re aware of it, and your awareness is collected and unified. This is the unified mind.
And so, this type of concentration is necessary in our mindfulness practice. Without this level of concentration, we are only able to stay mindful, maybe for a moment, right? And then our mind is gone again; we bring it back, and then it’s gone again. We’re doing this back and forth. This quality of concentration is what stabilizes our mindfulness to just stay and to be aware of all the comings and goings in our experience, whatever it is.
So during the last sit, I instructed you to pay attention to the body and to pay attention to breath. But mindfulness excludes nothing. So it might be that in that place of unified awareness, you’re able to pay attention to the arising of the breath as well as sound, as well as knee pain, as well as some emotion that is coming up in relation to the knee pain. And so suddenly you’re able to be with everything that’s going on, for the most part. This is a unified mind. In that moment, not a lot of effort is needed. It’s just happening. It reminds me of passing a large magnet over metal shavings; you don’t have to bring the magnet to the shavings, they come to it.
This is the practice of concentration and of mindfulness, but with collected attention where you’re not having to take your concentrated mind to the object. You’re sitting back and allowing all to be experienced. You’re resting into the experience, not striving, not needing to try so hard. It’s coming to you. It’s right there. We often use the wording of “bring your awareness to the object.” And, for instructional purposes, that’s really helpful, but I think the experience of a concentrated, unified mind that is tranquil is one where really the experience is coming to you.
And you can imagine that in that moment of experiencing the unified mind or one-pointed mind, there’s less room for the hindrances. There’s less room to get swept away or distracted. When we aren’t bombarded with distractions, the experiences of delight, of joy, of happiness are present. When the hindrances are not here, our mind is a happy mind.
So now I’d like to take you through a practice of concentration. Begin by bringing attention into the body. And you can do this by closing your eyes. If you’re feeling really tired, keep your eyes open and just look down in front of you with your eyes open. This will allow for a little bit more energy in the body.
Notice any areas of the body that are tense or holding. You might do a quick body scan, noticing the face, the muscles in the face, the shoulders, the neck, the arms, letting them hang. The hands are relaxed. Noticing the chest, opening that area. The stomach allowing it to relax. The legs. And as much as you can, without forcing it, see if you can bring the body into more relaxation.
Notice the stillness in the room, the relative quiet. And notice if this feeling of being here, relaxing, and sharing in this quiet brings a sense of happiness and contentment. Noticing if there are flavors of gratitude, curiosity, and maybe even amazement that here we all are doing this together. How lucky are we? See if you can gently bring your attention to the breath, perhaps taking a few deep breaths, noticing where you feel the breath the most.
Choose an area that feels most comfortable, most alive, as you’re breathing. So it might be in the stomach or your chest, or at the tip of your nose. And then, as if you are looking through a microscope, see if you can zoom in that attention. Or better yet, imagine your attention is that large magnet, and you’re now allowing the subtle sensations in this one particular area that you’ve chosen to come forward. So at the nose, maybe it’s that subtle feeling of air going in and out. Or maybe it’s the temperature of that air.
If it’s at the chest or the stomach, notice the subtle sensations of movement, expansion, and contraction. And as you do this, notice if there’s any tightening of the muscles in the body, especially in the face. See if you can relax again, bringing your attention back to those subtle sensations that you are not paying attention to. It can be helpful for some people to use noting phrases. So if it’s the rising and falling that you’re noticing, you can use the words “Rising, falling, rising, falling.” Or at the nose, “In, out, in, out.” Just simply directing the mind gives it something to do and to focus on what it is you are actually experiencing.
Notice the pause that comes at the end of the in-breath. And then there’s the out-breath and then another pause. And then the in-breath again. And then, if this is feeling good, stay with it. If you want, you can follow me along. So we’ll zoom out now, noticing the whole breath as it comes in through the nose and down into the chest, which then expands and pushes out the stomach.
And then the reverse action. And so now following with ease this breath, feeling it moving through the body. Again, if it’s helpful, you can use noting phrases, “Breathing in, breathing out.” Following the full breath. Really allowing yourself to enjoy each breath.