How Concentration Works

“It is through the cultivation of inner concentration that luminous purity of mind arises. It is through luminous purity that access to expanded states arise. It is from the profound concentration of samadhi that liberating insight is revealed. – Majjima Nikaya

To some degree, we all concentrate.  Ordinary levels of concentration steady our mind as we read a book or cook a meal. Because concentration is a neutral quality, it can be used for both skillful or unskillful, even nefarious purposes.  A skilled thief or burglar needs concentration, as does a card shark, a sniper and a terrorist. The power of the concentrated mind can be directed toward the creation of suffering or well-being.

Concentration develops from our whole hearted dedication to a subject or activity. As we develop the ability to concentrate, our steadiness and focus grows. We find ourselves able to be more fully present with our whole being. Through concentration our intuition and vision open, and we experience what western psychologists describe as “flow,” being fulfilled, transported and refreshed as we act. Skilled athletes call this “being in the zone,” and for an athlete to enter the zone, concentration is a key.  George Mumford is a Buddhist teacher who was hired by Phil Jackson to be the meditation coach for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.  He trained the players in mindfulness and concentration. But their star player didn’t need this training.  Mumford reported that Michael Jordan’s natural power of concentration was phenomenal.  The ability to concentrate brings vitality and clarity to any activity, whether basketball, computer programming or playing chess. It enhances love making and turning pottery, it is essential to making music, writing legal contracts or forging complex business deals. In each of these areas, the ability to focus is crucial.

In meditation, the systematic development of concentration brings access to deep inner states and insights. Meditative concentration grows as we become fully focused on one experience to the exclusion of others. Our consciousness becomes “absorbed,” united, one with the subject of our concentration.  The subject of meditative concentration can be simple. We can focus on a candle flame or a light, on a visualization or the body, on the breath or a prayer, on a mantra or a feeling.

As we concentrate, our consciousness becomes flavored by the subject of our focus.  If we focus on love, the consciousness will be filled with the quality of love.  If we focus on a flame, on earth or on equanimity, each of these will fill the state of concentration.  If we visualize the Buddha or Kwan Yin, St. Francis or Mother Mary, the visualizations can produce inner states filled with their particular qualities of peace or compassion..

Once a subject has been selected, concentration grows through dedication and repetition, as we connect with our subject again and again. We recite a prayer or a mantra ten thousand or a hundred thousand times. We visualize an image or concentrate on the breath over and over, releasing distractions whenever they arise.  For modern minds conditioned to distraction, this is not easy. Anne Lamott writes, “I have a tape of a Tibetan nun saying a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over and every line feels different, feels cared about and fully experienced as she is singing.  You never once have the sense that she is glancing down at her watch thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s only been 15 minutes.’  Forty-five minutes later she is still singing each line distinctly, word by word, until the last word is sung.  Mostly things are not that simple and pure, with attention to each syllable as life sings itself.  But that kind of attention is the prize.”

In most of western psychology, our vision of human happiness is actually quite limited. Much greater happiness is available to us. Whole realms of joy and clarity are possible, and Buddhist psychology offers sophisticated and detailed maps of this territory as part of our human potential.

This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”

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