Concentration; the 6th Factor of Awakening

  • Concentration; the 6th Factor of Awakening

This week we continue the exploration of the Factors of Awakening with the factor of Concentration, which develops out a mind that is calm and tranquil. In Pali, the word for concentration is Samadhi; a clear and focused settled back abiding, an undistractedness of mind that leads to deeper and deeper meditative states of absorption, and the ability to see things as they are with greater and greater clarity, insight, and wisdom.

In Buddhist traditions, developing concentration through meditation is commonly approached in two ways: 1) through single object concentration or “one-pointedness,” and 2) through momentary or “moment-to-moment” concentration.  One-pointedness focuses the attention on a fixed object like the breath, a mantra, a prayer or visualization for the purpose of steadying, quieting, and stilling the mind, much like a high powered zoom lens. Moment-to-moment concentration broadens the view. It cultivates a keen awareness of changing phenomena as they occur without getting caught by any single thought, feeling or sensation. Momentary concentration develops the capacity to take it all in, moment by moment with calm, clarity, and steadiness, like that of a wide angle lens.

Last week we discussed the Buddha’s basic teaching on mindfulness of breathing and its function for developing calm in the mind and body. What follows is an explicit teaching of how this one-pointed practice leads to a widening out into momentary concentration practice. It is from Upasika Kee Nanayon, an extraordinary 20th century Thai Buddhist laywoman who grew to be one of the most famous teachers in Thailand. From her book Pure and Simple:

“The texts say to breathe in long and out long, heavy or light, and then to breathe in short and out short, again, heavy or light. Those are the first steps of the training. After that we don’t have to focus on the length of the in-breath or out-breath. Instead, we simply gather our awareness at any one point of the breath and keep this up until the mind settles down and is still. When the mind is still, you then focus on the stillness of the mind at the same time you’re aware of the breath. You focus continuously on the normalcy of the mind at the same time that you’re aware of the breath coming in and out, without actually focusing on the breath. You simply stay with the mind.”

Normalcy is the mind as it is; the ordinary awareness of what’s already right here, right now. It’s home base.[1] As the mind stabilizes and concentration deepens, we begin to see our thoughts in a more transitory way. Thoughts come and go, but we do not get caught in their stories. We become much more skilled at seeing them for what they are, naturally occurring formations of the mind.  The contemporary Burmese Buddhist teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya offers this instruction:

“When the mind is thinking or wandering, just be aware of it. Thinking is a natural activity of the mind. You are doing well if you are aware that the mind is thinking, but if you feel disturbed by thoughts, or if you have a reaction or judgment of them, there is a problem with your attitude. The wandering mind is not the problem. Your attitude that they should not be around is the problem. So understand that you have just become aware of some functions of the mind. These, too, are just objects for your attention. When you feel disturbed by the thinking mind, remind yourself that you are not practicing to prevent thinking, but rather to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises. If you are not aware, you cannot know that you are thinking. The fact that you recognize that you are thinking means that you are already aware. Remember, it does not matter how many times the mind thinks, wanders off or gets annoyed about something, as long as you become aware of it.”

Whether practicing single object or momentary concentration, a practical steady mindful awareness develops as the mind strengthens and learns to settle back. This opens the door to samadhi, deep levels of meditative absorption, inquiry and insight.

“This freedom from distraction further induces a softness and serenity… Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.”

     -Bhikku Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, 1994.

The possibility of developing an unruffled mind is very motivating to me. Experiencing moments of that kind of steadiness, peace and clarity is the purpose of practice.

[1]Joseph Goldstein, Dharma talk on the Satipattana Sutta, April, 2008

Sign up to be notified about new classes & articles

On Purpose:

Stories & Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma,
and Waking Up Each Day

Read Blog