5th Paramita—Concentration

We have discussed the first four paramitas, or perfections, of Generosity, Ethics, Patience, and Joyous Effort. Tonight we’ll examine the the perfection of Concentration (Dhyana Paramita), helpful to cultivate when we are homebound during the pandemic. This paramita reflects enlightened factors of meditation, contemplation, mindfulness, mental stability, and samadhi.

In Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein says that samadhi refers to “the qualities of concentration, composure and unification of mind that can occur when the mind is free of desires and discontents.” He describes the practice of Ajahn Sicitto, an English monk in the Thai Forest tradition, who lets samadhi develop naturally by enjoying embodied presence, settling into the body and allowing stress and tensions to unravel through simple awareness of whatever presents itself. The monk speaks about “the careful collecting of oneself into the joy of the present moment.”

Joseph cautions that unless our actions are based on nonharming, the mind is too filled with worry, regret, and agitation to concentrate. Jack Kornfield jokes that people who spend their days killing, stealing and lying find it hard to sit still in quiet contemplation. By training in ethical precepts, we can settle into a relaxed, contented state, which is recognized as the “proximate cause” of concentration.

Continuity of mindfulness strengthens concentration. Every spiritual tradition has repetitive techniques to promote concentration, such as centering prayers, breathing exercises, chants, mantras, mudras, prostrations, or mandalas. By returning over and over again to a focal point, the mind and emotions become still and stable. Regular practice develops composure, calm, and mental clarity—essential qualities during troubled times.

Joseph Goldstein distinguishes between fixed-object concentration, which aims at full absorption, and the momentary concentration of insight meditation practice, which develops one-pointedness on changing objects. In the first, a meditator keeps the mind steady on a fixed object (such as the sensation of breath or the image of a candle flame) and lets go of anything else that arises, releasing all distractions, in order to return repeatedly to the object. The goal is to be completely absorbed and at one with the experience.

On the other hand, in Vipassana or insight practice, although the primary object of attention may be the sensation of breath, the goal is to concentrate on whatever is arising, moment by moment.

Instead of becoming absorbed in sensations of the breath, the meditator stays present as a witness to changes in the breath and to any other impermanent phenomena that arise. Joseph’s teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya has some wise words of advice about developing this kind of momentary concentration:

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 ‘[thoughts] should not be around’ is the problem….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 when 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 aware. Remember that 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.

One of the first things we notice when we meditate is the mind’s tendency to be distracted and restless, moving from one thought or feeling to another.

The concentration we develop by repeatedly bringing awareness to these inner movements and by bringing our attention back to the focus of the breath is directly related to how well we concentrate in our everyday lives.

Concentration practice enhances our capacity to be attentive during daily activities. At the age of 93, the famous cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he was still practicing his instrument three hours a day. He responded, “I’m beginning to see some improvement.”

Meditation teacher Arinna Weisman likens the untrained mind to a dispersed herd of sheep with no sheepdog to guide them. A restless mind separates us from what we are experiencing. Mark can testify that I tend to lack concentration as a sous chef. One day, he asked me to chop two teaspoons of parsley for a dish that he was preparing. Distractedly, I chopped away until the cutting board was full of parsley—a challenge for the busy chef!

Joseph acknowledges that it takes time to establish concentration. When he first started practicing meditation, he was often lost in thoughts and reveries. He needed the paramita of joyous effort and perseverance to develop concentration. During walking meditation, he changed the focus of attention from simply knowing that he was stepping to feeling more precisely the particular sensations of each step. As he noted “lightness, heaviness, pressure,” etc., he cultivated embodied presence and concentration.

Although it is not the final goal of practice, concentration has an important role on the path to awakening. In the West, where we are conditioned to seek instant gratification, many meditators resist dedicating time and effort to developing and deepening concentration. But as samadhi strengthens, it protects the mind from the five mental hindrances. Joseph likens it to building a fence that keeps out intruders, so that we can create an inner space of peace. Then we are open to more refined pleasures of the mind.

The pleasure of concentration enables the mind to stay comfortably in the present moment, stabilizing it enough to gain insights. Because this delightful alertness and equanimity is more exquisite than sensory gratification, and because it exists independently of the five senses, concentration can help the mind become less attached to material desires.

Since before the Buddha’s era, dedicated meditators have identified intensifying factors that develop concentration through continuous mindfulness and that lead to mental states of absorption known as jhanas.  Shaila Catherine’s book, Focused and Fearless, describes five factors:

The first two are applied attention and sustained attention. The Buddha used the following image to differentiate between them: A bee dives towards a flower, applying attention, and then hovers around it steadily, sustaining attention. Applied attention counteracts the hindrance of sloth and torpor, and sustained attention blocks the hindrance of doubt.

The 3rd factor is rapture and involves intense interest or refreshing, engaged attention. Rapture disarms the hindrance of aversion, and the body may tingle or feel like it is floating.

This state transforms into the 4th factor, quiet happiness, when the body feels deeply relaxed and heavy. Happiness dissolves the hindrance of restlessness.

With the 5th factor, the mind doesn’t move and stays calm for extended periods. In this one-pointed state, there is a single focus. Unified with the meditation object, the mind rests peacefully, uninterested in thoughts

or in sensory input from the outer world. One-pointedness dissolves the hindrance of desire or greed.

The first jhana involves all five factors. As the five hindrances disappear, rapture predominates. There is subtle mental movement but no unwholesome intentions arise.

The second jhana entails the factors of rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. All mental movement, including wholesome intentions, ceases, and delight remains.

The third jhana involves the factors of happiness and one-pointedness, and it is characterized by quiet, subtle enjoyment of an equanimous mind.

The fourth jhana entails the factors of equanimity and one-pointedness. There is a state of serene awareness that is free of worries. The mind is profoundly stable and still. Of course, none of these jhanas lasts forever.

Avid meditators, who pride themselves on non-attachment to mundane things, can become attached to the pleasurable experiences of jhana states.  Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry describes the challenges of returning to activities of daily life after blissful retreats.

Many meditators who never experience jhana states can enjoy practical benefits of concentration by creating conditions that orient the mind towards settling and focusing. While sheltering in place during the pandemic, a regular daily schedule for Metta, Qigong and sitting practice supports concentration, especially when I limit the time I spend on social media.

Shaila recommends noticing how the mind is pulled into distraction.  Thoughts about “me” or “I” are not concentrated and unsettle the mind.  When such thoughts arise, it’s helpful to investigate, “What do I desire that’s pleasurable? What pain am I trying to avoid? How do I invest energy in stories about myself? How do these stories gratify me? Can I remember that this kind of gratification is impermanent and distracts me from more lasting satisfaction?”

Our goal is to develop contentment with the natural unfolding of life just as it is. Once we settle and become still, we can relax and focus. Establishing a base of concentration through regular meditation practice and daily mindfulness helps us develop sufficient inner awareness to achieve the other paramitas. In a few weeks, we’ll discuss the 6th and last paramita, the perfection of wisdom.