Concentration is one of the Five Inner Strengths that can be cultivated to help us in our mindfulness journey. The Pali word for concentration is samadhi, which means “single-pointedness” or “non-distraction”. Its a steadiness of the mind that we develop through mindfulness practice. Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says it’s the “unification of mind that can occur when the mind is free of desires and discontents.”
Most of the time we’re thinking about experience rather than truly experiencing. Gradually, through practice, we can learn to bring a more seamless attentiveness to what is arising in awareness that is free from obstacles and struggle.
You might be wondering, how is concentration related to mindfulness? Mindfulness is a broader lens of awareness that’s available to us in every situation. During single-pointed concentration, there is a withdrawal of the senses that requires stillness and non-doing. Not every context calls for single pointed concentration, but we can be mindful wherever we go and whatever we are doing.
Concentration protects the mind from the common obstacles to mindfulness. Joseph Goldstein likens it to building a fence that keeps out intruders so we can create an inner space of peace. So, how do we create a protected space to cultivate concentration? We can do so through:
- Finding the support of a teacher and/or community
- Cultivating mindful attitudes such as compassion, patience, trust, beginner’s mind
- Limiting demands and unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves
- Limiting sensory distractions
- Noticing miswanting and discursive thinking and redirecting attention
- Inviting stillness in the body
- Befriending obstacles rather than struggling against them
- Applying antidotes to obstacles
Habitually suppressing, ignoring and indulging obstacles generally aren’t effective “go to” strategies because, as psychologist Carl Jung once said, what we resist persists – and the neuroplasticity of the human brain means habits are strengthened through repetition. Acknowledging obstacles with fierce self-compassion can help us understand them and let them go.
Concentration is in some ways a continuation of the work of mindfulness, deepening our capacity to contact the inner calm that resides within us all. As we free ourselves from our obstacles, we tend to suffer less, enjoy greater focus and energy, and gain an understanding about ourselves and experience that can’t be learned through reading, listening, or thinking about. Buddhist Scholar Edward Conze wrote, “One who is concentrated knows, sees what really is”. So, the paradox of this single pointedness is a growing expansiveness of awareness and understanding.
Usually the energies of the mind are scattered in a thousand different directions. The mind is all over the place, and its energy is simply frittered away in random thoughts and desires, hopes, fears, feelings. All the huge potential power that it has is wasted. But as the effort to be mindful becomes more consistent, these scattered energies come together and converge around a single point, and the mind becomes focused, like a lens. If parallel rays of light fall upon a piece of paper, they won’t do much more than warm the paper. But if the same amount of light is focused through a lens, the paper will burst into flame. In the same way, concentration focuses the energy of the mind, and gives it the power to cut through surface appearance… The key to developing concentration is one word: effort. It’s the effort to pay close attention, to keep coming back. – Sarah Doering