Cultivating Concentration

An Article by Shaila Catherine

Concentration is a central feature of a contemplative life, cultivated through formal meditation practice and also through many daily activities such as drawing, kayaking, skiing, music, cooking and research. Learning or observing anything — whether a technical repair of a computer, a creative pursuit in art, a masterful move in dance, or simply quieting the mind in meditation — requires stability of attention. Concentration brings with it a natural joy that arises as the mind settles. Regardless what perception or activity the mind becomes unified through, the basic absence of distraction brings joy. A surgeon may love surgery, not because the operating room is a pleasant place to be, but because the task demands such complete attention that the mind is filled with the delight associated with concentration. Kayakers are often enveloped in rapture even though their bodies are cramped in little boats and the water may be cold. The danger and intensity of the sport excludes all distractions, bringing a brightness to the eyes and mind, and a feeling of intense happiness. A concentrated mind is steady, unified, one-pointed, and stable, regardless of uncomfortable or luxurious conditions.

For concentration meditation we establish a very simple task. We choose one object. Although it could be anything: the sound of a mantra, the sight of a candle flame, a sensation in the body, or a thought of loving kindness, we generally use the breath as the initial focus for attention. We give ourselves the task of observing the sensations of the breath as it enters and exits at the nostrils. Narrowing the focus to a single object discards many of the stray thoughts that occupy and divert precious mental energy. As concentration grows you will notice when the mind is cluttered with extraneous concepts, and when it is in alignment with your aspirations. You will recognize expressions of agitation, and the sublime beauty of a deeply settled state. With an established practice you will recognize the concentrated mind and the unconcentrated mind. Each has distinct qualities.

Daily Meditation

       Sit in a comfortable posture. Feel how the body is sitting. Feel the contact with the chair. Gently bring attention to the breath. First feel the whole breath, and how the chest and abdomen expand and contract. Then, settle the attention on the sensation of the breath at the very tip of the nostrils; observe that initial point of contact with the breath. Observe the sensations of breathing without altering or manipulating the breath. Let the breath come naturally. Attend to the breath as it is now, not as you think a breath should appear. Follow the sensations throughout the duration of inhale, exhale and pause; inhale, exhale and pause.

        If the attention drifts off into thoughts, bring it gently back to the breath. The mind will probably stray many times. When the mind is lost in thought and mindfulness is weak or absent, the conditions are not present to choose alertness. Your moment of choice is that precise instant when you wake up to the bare fact that thinking has subsumed the attention. Without judging your capacity to meditate, simply return to the sensations. Attention is not developed by riveting the attention to the breath with super glue or hammering it into the nostrils with nails. Attention becomes unwavering by the consistent willingness to gently begin again.

This simple practice of repeatedly directing the attention to the breath and letting it rest there forms the basis of this meditation. With this exercise you are cultivating your capacity to let go of distractions and strengthening your ability to direct attention. This practice affects the conditioned tendencies of attention, diminishing habits of distraction and cultivating a peaceful and calm awareness. Please set some time aside each day to do this fundamental meditation exercise. I recommend twenty to sixty minutes a day as the general guideline for a committed daily practice; however, it is fine to do more or less as your lifestyle and interest allow. A daily practice of any length can bring great fruits in concentration and wisdom.

What Is Samadhi?

In the Pali language of the early Buddhist scriptures, samadhi is the term that is most often translated into English as concentration. Samadhi describes more than the narrow focus implied by the English term concentration. It refers to a calm unification within the mind that occurs when the mind is profoundly undistracted. It is an experience of unreproachable happiness and peaceful tranquility. Samadhi is the beautiful state of an undistracted mind, described in the Pali texts as “internally steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated”.

These four qualities indicate that samadhi is not merely focusing on a single object. This state of profound serenity encompasses a balanced, joyful composure that varies in depth, duration, intensity and strength. Samadhi expresses the naturally settled dimension of undistracted awareness.

Three Kinds Of Concentration

Three kinds of concentration are described in the Buddhist Tradition.

  • Momentary Concentration
  • Access To Jhana
  • Absorption

Each level of samadhi is a deeply undistracted state of consciousness; all three can be the support for liberating wisdom. In samadhi the mind is tranquil and calm. It contains only wholesome qualities; greed, aversion, anger and fear are in abeyance as a prerequisite to any kind of samadhi. The development of samadhi requires a persistent willingness to pay attention. The momentum of clear and sustained attention brings calmness to the mind as it simultaneously restricts energy that might nourish unwholesome or distracting mental states. Don’t worry if you feel far away from these beautiful calm states. Most people need diligence to develop the inner conditions for samadhi. Continue with the basic daily meditation instructions; feel the sensations at the nostrils and let go of distracting thoughts. This is the necessary training that purifies the mind of obstruction.

Momentary Concentration

Buddhist disciplines distinguish between the quality of samadhi developed through a continuity of mindfulness of changing perceptions and the quality of samadhi developed with a fixed focus. Readers with experience in mindfulness practices that employ the breath as the primary object of attention may wonder if there is a difference between mindfulness and concentration practices. When the breath is used to develop mindfulness, emphasis is placed on clear perception of changing sensations through the full duration of an inhale and exhale. The meditator experiences with tremendous precision a multitude of fleeting sensations: tingles, vibrations, pressure, heat. Pressure may increase or decrease. Pulsing may vary in rhythm. The intensity of heat or cold may fluctuate. This meticulous sensitivity to physical variations brings the mind to a state of exquisite clarity; you see the impermanent and empty nature of phenomena in the light of mindfulness. With mindfulness you’ll witness the relationship between the mind and body. You can observe how sights and smells can trigger vivid memories, how intentions affect physical movements, and how emotions manifest in the body. Mindfulness encompasses the observation of all mental and physical processes; how does mind and matter interact and change? As the momentum of mindfulness increases, concentration correspondingly strengthens.

The concentration that develops through a continuity of mindfulness with changing objects is called momentary concentration. Through mindfulness based practices the mind is unified, but for only short periods of time. It momentarily collects, but then disperses as the flow of sensory experiences ebbs and alters. Thinking can arise as another sensory perception, but the thoughts do not diminish the concentrated state. Steadiness of samadhi is established even as perceptions rapidly change. The content of thought relates to the phenomena at hand. Mindfulness inhibits proliferations of thought because it meets the experience of thinking immediately. Before samadhi is established, thoughts may multiply through cognitive associations. A personal story is fabricated out of simple sensory triggers. For example, what begins as the simple sight of a stain on my shirt could proliferate into a train of thoughts that include planning how to wash it, reflections on the last meal that might have caused the stain, embarrassed recollections of who I encountered since my last meal, speculations of what those people might think of me, fabricating excuses for the stain. A thought of one of the people I met might spark various tangential story lines, that could drift my attention far off the original subject of the stain.

In contrast to this proliferating tendency, when mindfulness is present, we apprehend the thought quickly. For example I arrived at a retreat quite tired and slept through the early morning meditation on the first day. As I sipped some tea after breakfast, my mind was active: sustaining the story of how tired I was, creating an identity of being a busy person, justifying my extra hour of sleep because of all the important things I was doing in the previous days. Between sips of tea I became aware that this story of being someone was activating restlessness. I reviewed my physical condition and noticed that I was not actually tired. Although the theme of the story was tiredness, my present condition was not tired. The only thing that seemed to be sustaining tiredness was a perverse identification with the story of exhaustion. As I became aware of the experience of thinking, the story of being tired dissolved. The proliferations on that topic ended by becoming mindful of it. Then attention settled easily in the present moment experience of feeling the cup in my hand, hearing the sounds of activity that surrounded me, and sensing my body and breath. Present moment attention is often this ordinary. The mind gathers its energies by connecting with basic physical and mental experience in the present moment. Unobtrusive thoughts might arise, but when there is mindfulness, they quickly pass: as empty ephemeral thoughts they just float by without causing disturbance. We remain steady and present, not swept up in the story line.

Achan Chah, a master in the Thai Forest Tradition, compared momentary concentration to taking a walk, resting, walking, and resting. The journey is periodically interrupted with the arising of a thought, yet undisturbed, because in a short time the journey is continued. Developed through a continuity of mindfulness, momentary concentration can grow very strong.

Access to Jhana

The next two kinds of samadhi (access to jhana and absorption) are developed by focusing on a fixed perception. Focus on the breath as a fixed point. The basic occurrence of breath becomes the object for attention rather than the dynamic flow of changing sensations. Sensations are in fact changing, however, to attain the stage of access you don’t highlight the changing nature of experience. As concentration deepens, the physicality of changing sensations becomes less dominant. The expression of a steady mind comes to the fore as the predominant mental object. This commonly manifests as the occurrence of bright light in awareness or a subtle field of vibrations in the mind. Each practitioner will discover how this shift in consciousness is perceived; experiences can vary.

As samadhi deepens and the conditions for meditative absorption (called jhana) develop, the mind gradually withdraws from its orientation to the sensory world. Sensory orientation is a deeply ingrained aspect of the healthy functioning of perception. It plays a valuable role in the survival of animals, the development of children, and structure of social organizations. The critical refinement that sets the stage for the possibility of absorption and marks jhanic states of concentration as “altered states” occurs as consciousness withdraws its dependence on sensory perception. With access to absorption the object for concentration shifts from the physicality of phenomena to a subtler experience of mental factors or mental reflection of the object. These include but are not limited to mental factors of pleasure, focus, mindfulness, happiness, and equanimity. In the access stage attention dwells consistently in relationship to these positive and pleasant mental qualities. No hindrances or unwholesome states arise. It is a distinctive shift in the direction of seclusion, but not yet the withdrawal into an altered state of jhana.

Achan Chah compared the stage of access to jhana to wandering about inside your own home. Consciousness is at ease within the confines of a comfortable arena of perceptions. Attention does not move away from the meditation object. Thinking may still arise but it circles closely around the meditative experience. Light and wispy thoughts can arise, often as reflections on the meditation process, yet this mental activity does not disturb a calm tranquility that pervades the mind. Attention is still moving, but it does not drift off the meditation object. A strong and fundamental purity has been achieved, yet there is still a subtle restlessness that inhibits the depth of stillness required for absorption.

In an interesting discourse the Buddha reflected on his relationship to the subtle wholesome thinking characteristic of this stage of access that precedes absorption and commented, “If I think and ponder upon thoughts of letting go, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering, I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind might become disturbed. It is far from concentration. So I steadied my mind and concentrated it so that it would not be disturbed.”

Although there is nothing wrong with thoughts that regulate the meditation experience, greater rest and seclusion can be attained with further stillness. As attention continues to still, an opportunity for absorption (entering the next level of samadhi) may arise.

Absorption into Jhana States

When the mind abandons its contact with the senses, including discursive thinking, the concentrated absorption of jhanas begins. In jhana the mind is utterly still and focused on its object. The specific object of focus becomes progressively refined in the development of concentration, from the physical sensations of breathing, to light, rapture, pleasure, and equanimity. As these perceptions grow increasingly subtle, attention rivets itself to its object. In jhana, attention is virtually merged into its object, creating an impression of complete unification. Even if there is sensory impact from sounds and sensations, the mind remains completely unmoved. Sensory contact, whether strong pain or loud noise, does not disturb the tranquillity or affect the unification of the mind with its object of concentration. It is as though you don’t hear anything in jhana, yet the capacity of hearing is not impaired. It is as if you don’t feel pain, and yet the bodily processes are functioning. There may or may not be subtle awareness of the contact, but the mind lets go so automatically that there can be no residue of the sensory impingement to disturb the concentration. Because the mind is so still that even pain will not disrupt the attention, jhana can be sustained for very long periods of time. Although this depth of detachment is often challenging to attain, once seclusion is established, the sequential development through the stages of jhana unfolds rather effortlessly.

Releasing into the experience of samadhi the meditator encounters positive attributes: happiness, purity, clarity, confidence, ease, interest, alertness. Samadhi reveals the lustrous qualities of mind: bright, concentrated, purified, and ready for insight. Samadhi is the experience of an utterly beautiful mind! Each of the three kinds of samadhi describes a deep state of the stable mind. When attention is perceiving a changing field of phenomena, momentary samadhi develops. When a fixed object for attention is used, a sequential development of samadhi ensues. The purity of mind produced at the threshold of absorption is called access to jhana; the complete absorption is called jhana.

The standard formula that is repeatedly presented in the Discourses of the Buddha describes concentration through the development of jhana. The Buddha presents the sequence as, “And what, bhikkhus, is the faculty of concentration? Here, bhikkhus, the noble disciple gains concentration, gains one-pointedness of mind, having made release the object. Secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, he enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘he is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called the faculty of concentration.”

Recommended reading on the development of concentration: Focused and Fearless.
Online Courses on the development of concentration: