The Focused Mind

The following article by Shaila Catherine was originally published in the Insight Meditation South Bay e-newsletter volume 8, October 2012.

Do you sit down to meditate and find that your attention is quickly swept away by plans, fantasies, and stray thoughts? Are you unable to sustain the focus and interest required to follow projects and tasks through to completion? Do you find it difficult to hold complex problems in mind? These are common expressions of a distracted mind.

Concentration not only supports our proficiency in life, it also brings the consistent happiness and ease that is the expression of a calm, clear mind. The undistracted mind is a bliss filled state.

A concentrated mind is focused, unified, and stable, whether the physical and social conditions are uncomfortable or luxurious, pleasant or unpleasant. When you establish a calm abiding during meditation, the mental acuity that results spills over into every aspect of life — academic achievements, creative problem solving, patience in difficult situations, all grow from the power of seeing everything with clarity.

Concentration has many practical benefits, however, the Buddha’s teachings are not concerned with improving our productivity at work or making our home lives more comfortable. Instead, he harnessed the potency of the unified mind to transform concentration into a catalyst for spiritual awakening. The Buddhist approach to the development of mind describes how to use concentration to uproot the deep and subtle causes of suffering.

The Pali term, samadhi, is usually translated into English as “concentration.” Yet samadhi describes something more than the narrow focus of attention that is implied by an instruction to “concentrate your attention on an object.” Samadhi refers to a calm unification that occurs when the mind is profoundly undistracted; it is characterized by a profound stillness and stability. The early discourses of the Buddha describe samadhi as “internally steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated.”

There are different types of samadhi. The concentration that develops through a continuity of mindfulness with changing objects is called “momentary concentration” or khanika samadhi. Momentary concentration can be very strong during insight meditation practice. With this strong samadhi focused on changing perceptions, the mind will be radiant and experience insight through clearly seeing the rapid arising and perishing of phenomena.

Since 2004, I have emphasized the cultivation of concentration with a fixed focus—appana samadhi. Concentration with a fixed focus has the potential to lead to four sublime absorptions called the four jhanas.

Jhana practice develops efficient skills for setting aside habitual distractions, stabilizing attention, and immersing attention in a single coherent focus that brings enduring joy and ease. Jhanas are states of profound tranquility that are imbued with a depth of happiness and peace that surpasses any conceivable sensory pleasure. But most importantly, the stability of the concentrated mind is an effective platform for liberating insights.

Blissful states may arise with either practice, but dwelling in blissful states is not the purpose for meditation. The central aim of Buddhist practice is to realize liberating wisdom, which teaches us to let go of the causes of suffering. Without samadhi, we may have a certain degree of insight, but a distracted mind will primarily have insights into the ways it is distracted; our insights remain at a superficial level and usually focus around our personal tendencies. It is very useful to see these tendencies, but deep samadhi as a platform for insight helps us to see reality so much more clearly than is possible for an unstable mind.

Generally I teach mindfulness with breathing as the initial and primary object for concentration. We observe the basic occurrence of breath, rather than the dynamic flow of changing sensations. As concentration deepens, the physicality of changing sensations becomes less dominant and the breath is known as a mental sign, such as a luminous field of perception, called a nimitta. When the nimitta is stable, jhana becomes readily accessible.

Several conditions must come together for absorption to occur. The mind must be calm and virtually thought-free. Defilements and hindrances such as aversion, desire, restlessness, and doubt will have ceased arising. The wholesome faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom will be strong. And the five jhana factors must be well developed and refined — initial application of the mind, sustained attention, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. As concentration develops, the mind gradually withdraws from its preoccupation with the sensory world, all thought ceases except the singular concern with the meditation subject (such as the breath nimitta), and the mind grows increasingly bright and settled. When conditions ripen, the mind may release into a stable experience of absorption.

In jhana, attention is occupied with its meditation object. Jhana can be sustained for very long periods of time, because sounds, sensations, hindrances, or pain will not disrupt the one-pointed attention. Although this depth of detachment is often challenging to attain, once seclusion is established, the sequential development through the four stages of jhana unfolds rather effortlessly. The hard part is establishing the conditions for the first jhana — after that it is clear sailing.

Having taught jhana practice now for over eight years, I have found that the single most important technique for students to learn is skillful effort. Jhana requires a nuanced application of effort — the integrity of complete resolve combined with total ease. It is a state of deep relaxation and letting go — it is as though the mind rests into its meditation object — and simultaneously it requires clear determination and intention.

Some meditators come to a retreat well prepared and even a retreat as short as ten days is enough to open to these states. Most people, however, need more time to cultivate the conditions and the skills required for a genuine taste of absorption. It does not matter whether students attain jhana on a ten day retreat. I teach these practices because I know that it is important to develop concentration. By cultivating concentration we clarify our aim, develop skillful effort, learn to overcome restlessness and obstructions, nurture letting go and relinquishment, and intensify a host of wholesome states. It is a worthy training that has great value whether or not the student sustains it long enough to experience the particular four jhanas. I recommend that students let go of the expectation for certain experiences, and simply cultivate concentration as a means of developing the mind. See what there is to learn through enhancing focused attention—jhana may be accessible, or it may not in the conditions of a particular retreat.

Traditionally jhana practice was not reserved for special people, or restricted to the monastic order. During the Buddha’s day, lay disciples and busy merchants would, from time to time, enjoy the benefits and joys of jhanic abiding.

In an effort to encourage the cultivation of concentration in daily life, and help make the traditional practices of jhana as a basis for insight accessible to western meditators, I wrote two books — Focused and Fearless and Wisdom Wide and Deep — and I lead retreats that emphasize concentration (and jhana) in the context of insight. If you’d like to strengthen your concentration, don’t wait until you are in retreat. A daily meditation practice, of any length, can bring great fruits in concentration and wisdom.