3. Concentration, The Second Training
Concentration is the ability to steady the mind on whatever you wish and attain unusual and profound altered states of consciousness. Training in concentration relates to formal meditation practice, though some of these states can arise spontaneously during other activities. The second training is also called training in “samadhi” (meaning depths of meditation), or sometimes “samatha” (Pali) or “shamatha” (Sanskrit) practice. The word “samadhi” is used differently in various traditions, with the Theravada using it as a near equivalent of shamatha, but some traditions, such as some of the Indian Vedantic traditions and some of the Mahayana traditions, use it to describe high states of realization (Vedantic) and extremely high levels of deep concentration (Mahayana), so please be careful when using the word “samadhi” and be aware when reading it that it can mean very different things to different authors. My apologies in advance for people who prefer “samatha” or “shamatha”, as I will use these terms interchangeably.
Concentration practice involves working at a level that might be considered unusual, particularly when contrasted with the ordinary level of training in morality. Training in morality is something nearly everyone can relate to, at least to some degree. Buddhism frames all the trainings in terms of the reduction of suffering and the liberation of mind, and while reduction of suffering is easy for most people to relate to, liberation of mind in the grand classical sense is not. Training in concentration is only easy to relate to if you have attained to unusual states of consciousness or at least have faith that they can be attained.
Training in concentration has had thousands of pages dedicated to it, and there are probably thousands of concentration exercises. Some very commonly used objects of meditation are the breath (my personal favorite), our posture, a mantra or koan, a colored disk, an image, a candle flame, various visualized objects from simple to complex, feelings such as compassion, and even the experience of concentration itself. The object you choose should be one on which you would be happy to steady your mind.
The essential point about meditation is this: to get anywhere in meditation you need to be able to steady the mind and be present in the present. That’s all there is to it and it is largely a question of just doing it. There is an important shift that happens in people’s practice when they really make the commitment to develop concentration and follow through with it. Until we do this, not much is likely to happen in our meditation practice!
If you decide to do a concentration practice, stay on the chosen object like a dog with a bone until you have enough stability and skill such that the mind can rest on it effortlessly. Let me say here that there are various types of concentration, with the relevant distinction being continuous concentration versus moment-to-moment concentration. Both types develop concentration, but they feel different. For this section, I am talking about continuous concentration, which feels steady, smooth, and analog, rather than the concentration required to investigate individual sensations moment by moment that will be addressed when I discuss training in insight.
The first formal goal when training in continuous concentration is to attain what is called “access concentration”, meaning the ability to remain focused on your chosen object with relative ease to the exclusion of distractions. This is the basic attainment that allows you to access the higher stages of concentration and to begin the path of insight, which is the third training, so make it a priority to attain access concentration in your meditative practice. The first edition of this book said, “You will know it when you have it,” but I have realized that I was very wrong regarding this, and I also underestimated the different standards people have for what they consider access concentration. Regardless, for the sake of discussion, when you can keep your attention on your object of meditation second after second, minute after minute, without letting it go to other objects, but before any interesting, blissful, unusually steady alteration of perception happens, that is what I call access concentration.
To digress before I continue, those who wish to define “access concentration” some other way, please do, just realize that we may have a problem here, with this being the first instance of what I call “term wars”, which highlight the fact that there really should be multiple qualifiers of a term or even multiple terms for various experiences. However, we have for this whole range of accomplishments only one term from the sanctified past. We end up with various factions struggling to control the meaning of that sanctified single term, in this case “access concentration”, but also, as we will see, nearly all the other map terms as well. What generally happens is that, instead of doing the intelligent thing, which is to recognize that we need more terms, and instead of using those, we mostly just battle it out in sectarian ways like dysfunctional, territorial academics.
For example, let’s say that some guy whose initials are something like BAW and I want to define “access concentration” very differently. Perhaps we could have “DMI access concentration” and “BAW access concentration” to help distinguish the usages, as neither is likely to want to give up their use of the term “access concentration”, and yet each may be using it to describe states of mind that are significantly different. By using the qualifiers, we can at least realize which set of criteria are being used.
However, just as I tend to loathe eponymous medicine (e.g. Colles’ fracture, Hansen’s disease, etc.), I don’t like eponymous meditation terms. Hopefully, by enough non-eponymous qualifiers related to things like depths of attainment, degree of stillness, steadiness of focus (and duration, for those who like duration as a criterion), etc., we will have some idea of what we mean rather than warring over single terms that are clearly inadequate to describe the wide range of meditation territory in a way not bound up in individual practitioners and authors. I have this odd notion that Buddhists, who often pride themselves on their terminological sophistication, precision, and mental clarity, will come together from across the traditions and cultures (just like the chemists did back in the day to systematically standardize the nomenclature for molecules, and as mathematicians did for mathematic notation) and do the same for meditative attainments. That, unfortunately, would require us all getting over ourselves and getting on with the work of bringing meditation into the twenty-first century. Don’t hold your breath, as it were. Back to the instructions.
The essential formal concentration practice instructions are: pick an object (the list on page 13 is a great place to begin), find a place to practice where you are as free from distractions as possible, pick a sustainable posture in which the spine is relatively straight (it doesn’t really matter so much, but for this training it helps if it is somewhat comfortable), focus your attention on the object as completely and consistently as possible for the duration of that practice period, allowing as few lapses in concentration as possible, and learn to stabilize all of your attention on that object. The more you practice and the better your practice, the better you will become at concentrating. Find the balance of effort and steadiness that works for you.
If your effort is too light, your mind will slide off the object, but if it is too tight you will wind yourself up and be too tense to settle into steady concentration. Be kind to yourself when the mind wanders, returning it with minimal fuss to the object of concentration again and again. Practice again and again until you can attain access concentration. Tune in to anything smooth, flowing, and nice about what you are concentrating on and experiencing. While these two paragraphs may seem trite or sparse, they contain the formal instructions on how to begin training in concentration. More advice on the proper balance of mental factors is given shortly.
Should you need someone to tell you how long to practice, start with ten minutes a day and work up to an hour or two each day as your life allows. If you can learn to hold your attention completely on your chosen object for even one solid minute, you have some strong concentration skills. That said, you might have ten or more hours a day to devote to practice. Don’t let me hold you back! If you can go on retreat and do this sixteen or more hours a day, even better, as you would be amazed how in just a few days of that sort of high dose many people can get into very interesting meditation territory if they practice well. How long it will take you to develop access concentration depends on multiple factors including practice conditions, your natural and cultivated concentration ability, the strength of your drive to succeed, and how much you practice.
Sharpening your concentration may help almost everything you do, and can provide mental and emotional stability that can be very useful, translating to many other areas of your life. Concentration can also lead to very pleasant states referred to as “jhanas”. These can be extremely blissful and peaceful. Being able to access these states of mind can be ridiculously enjoyable and profound. These states are valuable in and of themselves and serve the important function in the Buddhist tradition of providing a disposable foundation for insight practice, in that you can build those states up and then tear them down with investigation of the sensations that make them up, which is the third training.
I will leave off describing the specific concentration attainments until Part Three to keep this section focused on the essential skills necessary for meditation, as once you gain access concentration, getting into those states is relatively easy. Until you gain access concentration, you ain’t got squat. Thus, pick an object, practice well and often, attain access concentration, finish reading this book, and by that point everything should be straightforward.
The world of concentration is vast and contains within it myriad skills that can be developed to remarkable degrees. As the number of objects that we can get good with and the many ways we can tune our minds are remarkably complex, it is hard to clearly delineate a simple and manageable inclusive list of all the things we can learn in the vast realms of concentration. However, were we to try, we might start with the following:
• The speed with which we can get into skillful altered states of awareness (generally called here “concentration states” or “jhanas”).
• The depth to which we can get into each of those states.
• The number of objects that we can use to get into each of those states.
• The stability of those states in the face of external circumstances.
• The various ways we can fine-tune those states (such as paying attention to and developing their various sub-aspects).
I will talk more about this in Part Three, saving this section for the more fundamental aspects of training in concentration. Now, it must be said that concentration practices, like all practices, have their shadow sides. For instance, pleasant and unusual experiences can become addictive and extremely seductive, causing us to give them more attention and focus than they deserve or than would be beneficial to deeper practice. They can also lead to people becoming way “out-there” and ungrounded, very much the way hallucinogens can. They can cause the “real world” to seem harsh by comparison, causing us to be tempted to reject the world, withdraw, or dissociate into the world of concentration states. They can also bring up lots of our psychological “stuff”. This last limitation could be a benefit if we were in a mood to deal maturely with our stuff. Perhaps the most important limitation of concentration practices is that they do not lead directly to the insights and irreversible realizations that come from training in wisdom, as much as we might like them to. That brings us to the third training …