5th Paramita – Concentration

Over the past weeks, 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) This paramita is the enlightened quality of concentration, meditation,

contemplation, samadhi, mindfulness, and mental stability. The perfection of concentration means training the mind to focus and to follow clear intentions.

Every spiritual tradition has repetitive techniques to promote concentration, such as centering prayers, chants, mantras, mudras, prostrations, mandalas, or candlelight. In Vipassana or Insight practice, we use the sensation of breath as the main object of our attention. By returning over and over again to the focal point, the mind and emotions become still and stable. With regular practice, we develop composure, tranquility, and mental clarity.

Concentration leads to the deep insight necessary for transforming habitual misperceptions and attachments that cause confusion and suffering. This transformation allows us to directly experience the joy, compassion, and wisdom of our true nature.

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

Everyone here can assure you that yours is not the only monkey mind in the room! The concentration we develop by repeatedly 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.

The Buddha saw how a restless mind creates suffering by separating us from what we are experiencing. For example, one Thanksgiving weekend Mark and I hosted some friends who were visiting Houston for the first time and were eager to see our favorite sites in the city. We toured them through the Asia Center, the Museum of Fine Arts,  Rice University, and Hermann Park.

At each place, I was content until I lost my concentration and thought about where we were heading next. I noticed how planning ahead detracts from appreciating beauty right in front of me. I was contemplating an exquisite painting of water lilies by Monet, and suddenly a thought arose: “Where would be the best place to eat lunch on our tour?” Although my body was still facing a masterpiece of art, my mind was visualizing possible venues and menus.

When our awareness stays on a superficial layer of thoughts and emotions, we tend to repeat the same habitual patterns of behavior. At one point on our tour of Houston, the four of us were rushing through the Japanese gardens in Hermann Park to catch the last planetarium show of the afternoon at the Science Museum. Suddenly we stopped and realized that we were trying to cram too many experiences into one day.

My own habit of being greedy for experiences was reflected by our friends, who wanted to see everything possible during their short stay in Houston.

Once we went home to rest and integrate the day’s activities, we could all concentrate better on our interactions with one another.

Meditation teacher Arinna Weisman likens the untrained mind to a dispersed herd of sheep with no sheepdog to guide them. The benefits of concentration motivate us to make an effort to round up stray thoughts and impulses.

Sometimes the mind is quiet in a dreamy, hazy, undefined way, which is not concentrated. This is one of the instances when the paramita of joyous effort and perseverance is crucial for developing concentration. Each time we guide our attention back to the anchor of the breath, we are strengthening concentration.  Gradually, we learn to bring a more seamless attentiveness to our experience, without so many random thoughts fragmenting our perception.

When the mind is overly active and restless, one technique for steadying attention is to count breaths from one to ten. You can try noting “1” after a cycle of inhaling and exhaling, “2” after the next cycle, and so on…  If your mind wanders, gently bring the attention back to the breath, and start again with number “1.” The point is not to reach “10,” but to use the numbers to notice whether or not you are still concentrating on the sensation of breathing. Another way to establish a steady focus is to note “in” each time you inhale and “out” each time you exhale.

I’ll paraphrase some of Jack Kornfield’s insights about the vital connection between breathing and the paramita of concentration:

We live in a sea of air, composed of gases: mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with a dash of carbon dioxide. Six to twelve times a minute we breathe this mixture into our lungs and exhale carbon dioxide to cleanse our system. We are so immersed in this ocean of air that we’re like fish in water; we don’t notice it, and most of the time we forget that we breathe it. Yet it’s essential to our physical life — connecting with it is a way to open up to our spiritual life very practically and directly.

Sometimes to motivate myself to pay attention to breathing, I imagine that I’m taking my very first breath or my very last breath. In this way, I’m connecting to the vital importance of breathing to sustain my life.

Some of you may have seen a movie called The Sessions. It tells the story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who was paralyzed by polio from the neck down. Most of the time he was encased in an iron lung, which helped him breathe, and he could survive outside of it with an oxygen inhaler for only about three hours. Under such conditions, the poet’s courage, humor and motivation to experience love were remarkable. During the movie, I was conscious of how fortunate I am to be able to breathe on my own.

As Jack says, our breath is a mirror of how we are in any moment. We seldom look in this mirror, which reflects our changing degrees of energy and openness. Concentrating on the breath helps us understand what’s happening inside.

We learn that when we’re afraid, the breath is shallow and rapid. With close attention, we can notice how the breath becomes coarse and intense when angry feelings arise, and how it slows down and lengthens when we calm down. If we are feeling openhearted and connected to people around us, our breath tends to be expansive and smooth. When the heart is closed and we feel isolated, the breath is usually constricted and superficial.

It’s unrealistic to expect the heart or the breath to be soft and open all the time. With the paramita of concentration, we can observe these natural ebbs and flows in our breathing without adding unnecessary judgments.

Tuning into the breath is a practical tool for daily living. We can concentrate on the breath to connect with movements in Qigong, sports, or yoga. During boring or difficult meetings, paying attention to the breath can help us literally “take a breather.”

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

Establishing a base of concentration through meditation practice and daily mindfulness helps us develop sufficient inner awareness to achieve the other paramitas. Next we’ll discuss the 6th and last paramita, the perfection of wisdom.