Concentration: Getting Your Head Together
The second great part of the path is what I call “getting your head together” and it is all about meditation. Most of what is discussed in this site regards this part of the Dharma. Just like “Buddhism”, the word “meditation” is often used as if it were one thing, but actually there are many different kinds of meditation. It is way beyond the scope of this site to get into the many varieties of meditation, so I will limit this to the two big categories of meditation: concentration (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana).
In English the word “concentrate” has a different meaning than it does in Pali (the Buddha’s original language). I grew up thinking that to concentrate meant to think really hard. But in meditation concentration more closely resembles the concept of concentration in chemistry. To concentrate a chemical in a solution you filter out the impurities and then gradually reduce a large amount of solution down into a tiny distilled essence. This essence is the chemical concentration. The same process takes place in concentration meditation, only what is being concentrated is the mind itself.
The meditation instructions for concentration meditation are wonderfully simple: pick an object, like the breath, and place your attention on it – to the exclusion of all else. You pick a spot to watch the breath, say the upper lip or the tip of the nose, and just watch it come and go right there. Like a carpenter watching a band saw blade cut through wood who only focuses on the spot where the blade and the wood meet, the meditator focuses all attention on that spot where the breath enters and leaves the body. Every other function of the mind, listening to noises in the environment, planning what to do later, noticing an ache in the knee – all other processes get “turned down” so to speak, as if they were on an internal dimmer switch. This process of narrowing attention down on a single small object and dimming all other functions “distills” the mind into a very concentrated form. But it won’t be long before you find yourself drifting off and thinking about something other than the object, as if one of the dimmer switches suddenly went all the way up. No worries. This is what this meditation is for. It identifies the things that drag the mind away and helps you overcome them, or filter them out.
To concentrate the mind you first filter out the “impurities” in it (hence the title of the ancient meditation manual “The Path of Purification“). The impurities in this case are those things which get in the way of concentration, and they are known as the five hindrances:
1. sensual desire
2. restlessness and worry
3. ill will
5. sloth and torpor
Many meditators will recognize at least one of these as their own personal super-villan. It is near impossible for a beginner to try an meditate without at least one of them getting in the way. And often that one will come back again and again. There are many practices for filtering out these impurities (sometimes called antidotes), but the most powerful practice for filtering them out of the mind is investigation. When a hindrance comes up in the mind, become a private eye of your own mind, and notice it and watch to see if it diminishes on its own. If it doesn’t, start picking it apart. Ask yourself what are the individual sensations that make up the hindrance, what other experiences, thoughts and feelings are bundled up with it, is there some part of me that wants to hang on to this hindrance, am I wrapping my sense of self into it? Keep asking questions and working on it until it falls apart under the purifying light of your mindfulness.
At some point the impurities will be reduced to a point that is sufficient for concentration to proceed. You will know when this has happened because some fascinating, mystical-type, experiences will begin. The most common experience is to see light with the eyes shut. This is meant literally. It actually seems as if there is a light that is brightening. At this point the meditation is getting really good and the meditator is cooking along and suddenly it will be as if someone is gradually turning the lights up in the room. You may even find yourself peeking to see if the lights are actually going up in the room. What is happening is the mind is becoming concentrated and strong, and you’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. The mind does not know how to interpret that experience, and it grabs onto something it knows that represents what is occurring: in this case it chose “light,”but it could choose something else depending on the person.
From this point the meditator has a couple of choices about what to do, but to proceed with pure concentration meditation you would deepen attention on the object while simultaneously letting go of the effort involved in doing so. Needless to say, this takes some savvy skills, but it can be done. When attention is strong enough and the effort is of the right kind (with little ego control involved), the meditator begins to enter altered states called “Jhanas” (more about Jhanas in a future post).
How does concentration lead to enlightenment? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is purify the mind and make it so strong that when the mind is turned toward the work of insight, then the insights are powerful and easy to get. The difference between a normal mind that is diffuse and scattered among all the different senses and thoughts, and a concentrated mind that is deeply focused, is like the difference between a flashlight and a laser. With a flashlight you can look at what is around you, but with a laser you can actually do work and cut through things. In this case, the laser of the concentrated mind is used to cut through the illusions that keep us from waking up.
The next type of meditation is Vipassana or “insight” meditation. Vipassana begins just like concentration meditation, but the goal of Vipassana is not to distill the mind down but rather to get it just strong enough to begin investigating experience in the moment. To go back to the analogy of the light and the laser, in vipassana the meditator does not concentrate the energy of the light to the point of a laser, nor does the meditator leave it diffuse. Rather, you focus the light in such a way that whatever it shines on becomes easy to see clearly.
The technique of vipassana is somewhat more complicated than that of concentration. With concentration meditation one gets the mind to stay on an object to the point where it becomes very strong, but with Vipassana it is not necessary to keep the mind on one thing and distill it, instead, the meditator puts effort and energy into focusing the beam of the flashlight just enough to get a clear look at things. In this case, the “light” of the flashlight beam is the mindfulness, or deepening momentary awareness, used to know each object as it changes from one thing to the next. This is a very different experience than concentration meditation, because there is no need to stick with a single object. Rather, the effort is in the quality of knowing the objects that come up. So, when the mind starts off on the breath and then shifts to a new object – there is no problem at all! Let the mind wander, but stay with it in the moment. The intention is to follow the mind as it does what it does.
For example let’s say you sit down and place your attention on the breath (just like in concentration meditation), but then a motorcycle goes by outside your window, and your mind begins to focus on the sound. No problem. Now you just notice the sound and watch what happens to it the same way you would with the breath. But then the mind creates a mental image of a motorcycle and begins to focus on that. No problem. You notice the image and be as attentive as you can to that image and the process of the mind creating that image. But then the mind begins judging the person riding the motorcycle for being so loud. No problem. Just notice everything you can about the judging, and so on… The mind loves to wander, it is in its nature really. The beauty of Vipassana is that you truly go with the flow of the mind, letting it lead you to the next object rather than bringing it back to your chosen object.
What is most important to know about Vipassana (and is the very thing that most beginning meditators keep forgetting!) is that you don’t want to get caught up in the content that the mind generates, instead you just want to watch it. This is like the difference between a sports broadcaster describing a game on the air and a player in the game. When you are doing Vipassana you are the sports broadcaster, who is outside of the game but is still watching every little nuance of it as it unfolds. The player that remains in the game is the mind itself, which keeps on generating content and going about its business. The mind is in the midst of all the things that it typically does, building up scenarios, having opinions, taking positions, remembering things, etc., but the mind’s interpretations and ideas about all these things is not at all important. Rather, it is the process of what the mind is doing from moment to moment that really matters. And your job as the meditator is to be aware of it all without getting caught up in it.
Sound tricky? It can be! With this kind of meditation there is a real danger of discovering that you just spent 20 minutes wrapped up in a fantasy or reminiscing about the past. Such experiences are totally normal for new meditators (and even old ones). Just recognize when it happens and put effort into getting back on track. Just like with concentration meditation, in Vipassana you run right into the five hindrances. However, rather than turning your attention back to your chosen object, you simply take the hindrance as the new object and get to know it as best as you can. This will often take the wind out of the sails of the hindrance and the mind will simply jump to another object.
Having a teacher to check in with about this is helpful, because teachers have almost always run into the same problems and know the ways to work through whatever content is most “sticky” for the meditator. This skill of watching the mind do what it does without being caught up in what it does is a skill that can take some time to learn. So don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself daydreaming. It still happens to me all the time. Just get back to the task at hand and watch what the mind is doing. There are many ways of doing vipassana meditation, and you may find that some approaches are more productive for you than others. The approach that worked for me was the noting approach used in the Burmese tradition (look for a meditation instruction page in the future), and that is where I begin when I teach. However, it may be worthwhile to experiment with a few different techniques and see which one best fits you.
A note about vipassana: it can often be a problem for a meditator who is having a big problem in their life not to get caught up in the content related to the problem. If you are going through a really rough time, or you are in therapy, please know that Vipassana is NOT the same as therapy. It is not even close and it was never intended to be. It is a modern myth that insight meditation is somehow similar to “insight” in therapy. Insights in therapy are similar to a sudden pattern recognition, an “aha!” moment where you suddenly see that your insecurities are all about a specific trauma or difficult relationship. These kinds of insights are extremely valuable and are an important part of life – I urge everyone to work to gain these kinds of insights on their own or with a therapist. Sometimes they do arise spontaneously when the mind becomes calm. However, in meditation the word “insight” has a very different meaning, because it does not refer to the content of the mind or to the issues of the individual who is getting the insight. Rather, meditative insights are about understanding how reality is presenting itself at this very moment. With a very clear awareness of how the myriad objects are presenting themselves moment-by-moment, the mind steadily becomes conditioned to see what are the common threads through all of those clear, wakeful moments. It are these common threads that make up the next section on “getting it done.” Suffice it to say, the wisdom gained through meditative insight is highly impersonal. It does not relate to the dramas of the individual doing the meditation, but rather, relates to the way the universe operates. These are insights of an entirely different order than the personal ones that come to us in therapy.
Let me give an example of this situation. A meditator is currently in a relationship that is not going well, and while meditating the image of the his significant other comes into his mind, followed by feelings of anger, then by memories of something cruel he said, then by feelings of guilt, followed by tension in the chest, and then a desire to cry. In this scenario a novice meditator would get caught up in the story of what has happened: “… I remembered my girlfriend and the hurt she has caused, but then remembered how I have hurt her too, and in a fit of regret I understood my own contribution to the pain in our relationship.” This is good therapy, but it totally misses the mark as meditation. A mature meditator will experience the same sequence of events as: “the mind produced an image that triggered an emotion, and there was a craving to develop it into a story about myself. The image fell away and so did the feeling, but then the mind just produce another image and feeling to take that empty place in the mind. I then experienced tightness in my chest and there was a strong urge again to get caught up in a story about the image and feeling, but as I watched these also just disappeared…”
So how does vipassana lead to enlightenment? It leads to enlightenment by getting to the third chunk of the Dharma right away: getting it done. And it does this by seeing whatever is in the mind in that moment as clearly as possible. That clarity attacks ignorance at the roots – and it is ignorance which is keeping us from enlightenment. Ignorance has a special meaning in Buddhism. There is no original sin in Buddhism, but if there were it would be ignorance. Ignorance in this case refers to our lack of knowledge about the true nature if reality. The more clearly we see reality, the less ignorance there is and the more wisdom dawns on us. When we see things clearly enough, long enough, then enlightenment happens (more details on this in “Getting it done”).
The Double Helix of Meditation
Now that I’ve presented meditation in this way, as two overall different types (concentration and insight), I’m going to muddy these clear waters by explaining that these are, in reality, not two different types of meditation but one type of meditation, but each with a different emphasis in technique. In order to do concentration meditation you need a fundamental level of investigation and insight. And to do vipassana you need a basic level of concentration called “access concentration.” Each type of meditation contains the other within it as a necessary practice. The famous meditation teacher Ajahn Chah once explained that insight and concentration are like the front and back of your hand. If you look at one side of your hand you can rest assured that the other side is right behind it. So, you can select a technique that emphasizes concentration or insight, but you will really always be doing both. I call this the double helix of meditation. For a gene to be fully expressed, DNA requires two strands woven together to hold the genetic material. For wisdom to be fully expressed, the strands of both concentration and insight are needed to hold the meditation together. Whichever strand of meditation you choose to emphasize, you can rest assured that if you are making progress you are truly doing both.
Once meditation begins to deepen and the insights into the nature of reality begin to alter how your mind functions, you are well on your way to enlightenment. This is discussed in the next section on awakening wisdom, which I call “Getting it done.”