Mindfulness and Concentration

Generally speaking, there are two main areas of meditation: mindfulness and concentration. Sometimes there is a bit of confusion about the definition of each of these. This blog post will offer introductory descriptions of mindfulness and concentration.

Mindfulness

The closest English word that helps to describe mindfulness is awareness. Awareness is indeed a large part of what mindfulness is, but there is much more to it. Mindfulness also involves clarity of mind and an exploration within.

Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images

The word mindfulness was initially derived from the accent Pali language term Sati. It describes the mental state that the Buddha used along with concentration to obtain enlightenment. Sati, as described in the Glossary of Pali Terms (that was released by the World Federation of Buddhism) is defined as: Non-forgetfulness of what is wholesome and, non-forgetfulness of realities which appear. Mindfulness is our awareness as well as the remembering of what is good. This includes what we are doing and thinking at the present moment. Mindfulness is also what is used to see things for what they are; to experience mental and physical phenomena without judgment or any pre-conceived ideas that are based on past conceptual ideas or experiences.

This particular definition of Sati contains two parts:

First it states that Sati is non-forgetfulness of what is wholesome.

  • It is very difficult to do something unwholesome while being mindful. If we are watching the mind, watching the feelings and emotions that are arising within us at each moment, we are observing without trying to manipulate what is happening. By not manipulating, we are not attempting to change the situation or the results.
  • By not manipulating, we are not being selfish. Any desired change, as subtle as it might be, would be for the benefit of bettering our feelings, to change negative feelings into good or to change the unpleasant into the pleasant. When mindful, we wouldn’t think of changing the good into bad or pleasant into unpleasant because these actions can only be motivated by greed and desire (in other words, selfishness and egoistic viewpoints).
  • When truly mindful the ego plays no role in making things better or worse within the situation. It is attention that is bare or stripped away from these things; there is no personal gain to be had when one is in the state of mindfulness.

The second half of the definition states that Sati, or mindfulness, is non-forgetfulness of realities which appear.

  • The realities are all of the things that we come into contact with through our senses (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and touch). The reality we are discussing is our ability to experience all of these things that we connect with for what they are, with no mental manipulation.
  • This experience can be looked at as a moment in time. This moment is experienced when we connect with something. It is the moment before there is any judgment or labeling. It is the moment before we start the thinking process and discern how this experience of something, relates to the experience that was encountered in the past. It comes before the consideration of what this experience can do for me as a separate self and how it can be used.
  • It is the awareness we use before we begin thinking “this is good or this is bad, this is pretty or this is ugly”. This short span of time between the moment we notice a thing and immediately before we start conceptualizing is a moment of pure mindfulness. Our job is to widen this moment. The moment when we are experiencing that which appears as a reality is the moment we are living and seeing the truth.

Mindfulness is our normal way of experiencing things before the mind starts getting involved. It is remembering the short span of time when a thing is nothing more than the truth. It is the understanding that this span of time can be broadened with practice. This is the practice of mindfulness, to recognize and broaden these moments as well as to watch the passing of thoughts, emotions and feelings, and to notice how we can wrongly, habitually react with subtle selfishness and gain what appears to the mind. The key is to continue the practice of mindfulness meditation and apply this all of the time, throughout our entire day.

Concentration

When our attention or focus is placed on a single object with control, we are said to have a concentrated mind or to experience concentration. In a concentration meditation practice, we turn our awareness to one object of meditation and exclude everything else.

This practice is often referred to as the “purification of mind” and it does so in two ways:

First, the practice reveals our habitual patterns that cause us to suffer both on and off the cushion, called hindrances.

Second, as we build the capacity to turn away from these patterns, a strong awareness can develop that leads to profound stillness and joy, as well as the possibility of the arising of deep meditative absorptions that can burn up our habitual patterns of greed, hatred, and delusion.

Concentration is sustained by having the ability to not become distracted or disrupted. We do this by reducing the distractions, or by developing methods to disregard them.

One way is by mentally placing them in the background; ignoring them.

Another possibility is to reduce the things in our outside world that disturb our concentration. We can reduce the things that we would normally pick up with our senses such as sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touch or sensations of the body. We reduce these disturbances by finding a quiet place to practice meditation. We make the body comfortable and close our eyes; we avoid strong odors and refrain from tasting food.

Once the disturbances in the outer world are reduced (the worldly distractions) we can then begin the work on the inner world; the mental distractions. These are the thoughts, memories, feelings and emotions that we continually deal with.

In some forms of concentration-based meditation, we can learn to place our mental distractions (the disturbances of the mind) so far in the background that they no longer disturb us. This is a temporary reduction of the disturbances because the mental distractions such as worry, anger, and confusion will eventually come back once we are no longer concentrated and will likely have to be confronted again, possibly repeatedly, in order for them to lose their grip on us entirely. 

Often, the practice of concentration meditation and its approach to mental distractions is looked at as being separate from mindfulness based practices of meditation. Mindfulness being a practice where we are learning to notice these mental distractions as they arise and then disarming them by confronting them. Mindfulness is needed to notice what our meditation object is and when concentration is no longer on that object. For example, if we use the breath as our object, it is mindfulness of the breath that takes us there and it is also general mindfulness that tells us what the distraction is so that we can deal with it, and then again, it is mindfulness that takes us back to placing our concentration on our meditation object, which is in this case the breath.

Concentration is the staying power whereas mindfulness is the wisdom that gets us there.  Concentration is a key ingredient in many areas of meditation. These include staying with the meditation object as well as it having the ability to still the mind and relax the body. When we concentrate and stay concentrated on an object while we are meditating, we will notice that the body and the mind become very still. It is at this time that the mental activity slows down enough for us to take a closer look at the thoughts, feelings and mind states. If we choose to do so, this looking is optional. When this looking is done, we are practicing mindfulness/awareness based meditation, which is often called Vipassana. This process involves both concentration and mindfulness. 

Many Vipassana teachers prefer not to look at concentration and mindfulness as separate practices. Although, in order to strengthen their usefulness in meditation, it is frequently felt by many that a separate look at concentration and mindfulness be done by keeping in mind that it can only strengthen our understanding of them and thus making their unity that much stronger. When we take a clear and separate look at what can cause difficulties and disturb our concentration, our overall meditation becomes very powerful. 

The Breath and the Body

The techniques used in the practice of concentration are very simple. You will not find intricate guided meditations, instructions or objects when working with concentration meditation because the best object to use in this practice is a stationary one, one that does not move; there is little thought involved as well. The process is meant to be as simple as possible. 

All we need to do is to point out a particular meditation object in order to explain this process. We begin by using a very simple meditation object to place our attention upon and one that is used more frequently than any other. We will be using the breath as our primary meditation object.

The breath is the very best object to use in the beginning of one’s concentration meditation practice. Once we deeply understand how the process of meditation works and we feel very familiar with the practice, we can then experiment with other meditation objects. It is recommended that you first become familiar with this simple and readily available meditation object, the breath. This one object can take you as far as you would like to go in the practice of meditation and you need not ever change objects, you can choose to stay with the breath. 

The activity of the breath and the activity of the mind are joined in much the same way that the breath is affected by the movement of the body, much like when we exercise. Meditators commonly refer to the breath as being the link between the body and the mind and through the practice itself, this will become an experiential understanding and we will naturally progress along the following steps: 

  • Relax the body.
  • When this is done the breath slows down.
  • As the breath slows the mental activity slows down as well.
  • Slowing of the mental activity allows ease of concentration and the absence of the hindrances (the disturbances of the mind).
  • Allowing the true nature of mind to show through: spaciousness, clarity, freedom, balance, and joy.

To differentiate between mindfulness and concentration we can quote their characteristics:

  • Concentration holds on to and fixes the mind to the object. It is like when you are holding tightly to something and not letting go. It is also like when you are staring at the television screen, unable to tear yourself away from it.
  • Mindfulness, however, is like making a careful observation of what is happening on the television screen.

In other words, concentration pins the mind to its object, while it is mindfulness that carefully and thoroughly gets a good look at it. When you have found out what that thing really is you have developed insight wisdom. From here we can conclude that concentration cannot come without mindfulness, but when mindfulness is present, to some degree, there is concentration.

Regular meditation practice will improve both our mindfulness and our concentration. 

Future blog posts will explore these subjects more deeply.