November 4, 2013
We commonly think of the concentrated mind as the kind we think we need while driving in rush hour traffic in an unfamiliar city trying to find the way to an important meeting, when our partner starts talking about the details of last night’s dinner. In this moment one might easily snap and blurt out “Be quiet so I can concentrate! Now, I just missed the exit!” Focusing the attention on one thing to the exclusion of everything else is sometimes exactly what’s necessary, but when it comes with a lot of tension, rigidity and constriction, it may not be entirely effective or without unintended consequences.
The capacity of the mind to collect and gather itself in order to direct and sustain its focus for an extended period of time in a relaxed manner is skillful wise concentration, the last factor on the Eightfold Path. This kind of concentration is expansive, at ease and leads to deepening states of calm and happiness. This is a mind that can take it all in without contention or getting carried off on tangents. It is also the capacity of mind to quiet down sufficiently to really notice and hang out with whatever is happening, which cultivates insight and wisdom, the purpose of mindfulness. Ajaan Geoff, an American Theravadan Buddhist monk says
“Mindfulness is what keeps remembering where to stay focused and what to keep doing. Concentration is what maintains the steadiness of your gaze.”
Here’s a story by Gil Fronsdal from his book A Monastery Within about the challenges of cultivating a concentrated mind.
A young monk complained of having too many distractions to be able to meditate. He explained to the Abbess that he had tried every possible approach to overcome the distractions. He had redoubled his efforts at concentration. He had been diligent in trying to let the distractions go. He had also tried many antidotes, including ignoring them. When none of these approaches worked he even tried turning toward the distractions to include them as part of the meditation. He had also investigated the reactions, feelings, and beliefs he had in relation to the distractions. None of this had helped. He remained plagued.
“In that case, said the Abbess, “there remains only one thing for you to do. Please gaze upon the distractions with kindness and be still.”
One of the purposes of extended silent meditation retreats is to intentionally and deliberately cultivate a quiet and concentrated mind often by attending to the breath in both sitting and walking meditation. Having recently returned from a ten-day retreat, I learned, once again, just how difficult it is to sustain this practice. Sometimes it’s difficult to sustain the attention for three minutes, let alone day after day. The mind really is like a puppy needing constant training to sit and stay. And, when it does quiet down, the rewards are beautiful. An ease-filled concentrated mind accommodates pain and joy, feels and knows happiness as its natural state, and softens and opens the heart.
“The mind, hard to control,
Flighty-alighting where it wishes-
One does well to tame.
The disciplined mind brings happiness.”
-The Buddha, The Dhammapada
As I think about ways of spontaneously experiencing the concentrated, still, unencumbered and uplifted mind outside of meditation, I think about experiences that bring about reverence and awe. I love the question “What evokes my reverent heart?”
Last year my husband, Bill, and I went to a k.d. lang concert. Towards the end she sang an acapella version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah.” It was so beautiful, so exquisite that the audience was stunned into silence, a state of utter concentration. There was nothing else going on in those moments except the rapture of this angelic voice singing this perfectly beautiful song. At the end of the piece no one clapped, no one cheered, and as if we were all part of the same gathered and collected mind everyone just stood up in total and complete awe and reverence for what we’d just heard. Finally, after a long concentrated silence, the audience erupted in cheers and applause.
I believe we stand in reverence when we have those experiences that take our breath away, those times that we’re stopped in our tracks from an experience of beauty, joy, love or peace. I have a sense that the connections we feel at those moments are among the deepest and most profound. By staying connected to reverence, we stay connected to our innately clear mind and good heart. This, too, is wise concentration.