-adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, April 1st, 2000
Just as a rudder can hold a ship steady on its course, concentration offers stability and steadfastness to the practice of mindfulness. Indeed, concentration is so important in Buddhist practice that it is often considered an equal partner to mindfulness. Without the stabilizing force of concentration, we cannot sustain mindful attention on the things that are most important to us, including meditation. We all too easily become preoccupied instead of awake.
develop concentration, it helps to understand its value, to appreciate that it is actually useful to focus mindfully on something like our breathing. To someone unfamiliar with the practice of concentration, it can seem illogical and counter-intuitive to focus on something unconnected to our major concerns. But twenty or thirty minutes attending to the breath gives most people a tangible appreciation for the power of concentration.
A mind without concentration is distractible and easily lost in preoccupations. The mind can be so “distracted by distractions it does not even know it is distracted,” so tight around preoccupations that it’s difficult to see beyond the tightness.
The concerns of our lives can preoccupy us very powerfully —so much so that we often do not notice that we may have some choice about the ways we understand and relate to them. Sometimes we assume that if we can only find the right understanding of a problem, we will be able to resolve it. We think that the only way of relating to our thoughts and concerns is in the very world of our thoughts and concerns itself.
It is as if we were in the middle of a maze in which the walls are just a little higher than our eyebrows. We walk around looking for the way out, bumping into walls, going down dead ends. Our emotions swing between hope and discouragement, unfounded confidence and fear. Stuck in the maze, it can seem so important to get out, and yet so difficult. But if we simply stood on our tiptoes and looked over the walls, from a higher vantage point we would easily see the way out.
Our world of thoughts and concerns can be like a maze; we don’t realize that all we have to do is “stand on our toes” to get a broader view. From a higher vantage point, our problems may appear very different. We may not be able to change the problem itself, but through mindfulness supported by concentration we may be able to shift our perspective and radically change the way we relate to the situation.
Concentration brings calm, which can open the possibilities of new relationships toward our concerns. Most of us know that a calm mind allows us to see and think more clearly. But it can also help us to understand our concerns in a completely new way. It allows us to step outside of the maze-like context of the concerns themselves. Such problems as inter-personal relationships, work, health, and personal identity can be seen through our deepest integrity and values rather than through fears, desires, and popular, superficial values.
In a more profound sense, the over-arching perspective of calm awareness may show us that having problems may be completely acceptable. We realize that our ability to be whole and complete is not compromised by the problem. In fact, our wholeness actually includes the problem. This does not mean we become complacent, but that our attempts to fix our problems need not be colored by a sense of preoccupation, inadequacy, or neediness.
When we are caught by a problem, a great deal of energy can be poured into our pre-occupation. With concentration practice, we consciously put our energy into staying present and awake to something wholesome.
A classic focus for developing concentration is the breath. By staying with the breath and matter-of-factly returning to it when the mind wanders, we strengthen our concentration and weaken preoccupation. With time, the mind finds rest, openness, and calmness.
To cultivate concentration on the breath, it can be useful to explore various ways of paying attention to the breath. You can try resting your attention on the breath or floating on the sensations of breathing. Try taking an interest in each breath as if it were your first—or last. See if you can enjoy the sensual quality of breathing. Let yourself become absorbed in the breathing process. Feel devotion and love for your breathing. Discern when gentle, compassionate acceptance supports the development of concentration and when a greater firmness of purpose is most appropriate. As your ability to sustain attention on the breath strengthens, the forces of preoccupation will weaken and you will probably find yourself calmer, lighter and more spacious.
When the mind becomes quite spacious and open, it is possible to experience difficulties without feeling that they belong to us personally. For example, seeing physical pain as “my” pain tends to trigger feelings and ideas associated with our self-concept; seeing it simply as pain can make bearing it much easier. Likewise with strong emotions: if we aren’t preoccupied with interpretations of what the emotion says about our personal identity, our emotional lives become easier.
The most important function of concentration within mindfulness practice is to help keep our mindfulness steady and stable in the present so that we can see clearly what is actually occurring. Our present lived experience is the door to the deepest insights and awakening. Concentration keeps us in the present so mindfulness can do its work.