The eighth aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Concentration.
How is this different from Right Mindfulness?
The best way I can phrase it for myself right now is that Right Concentration is a dedicated practice that builds the muscle of mindfulness.
Why isn’t it taught first, not last?
The Eightfold Path is seen as petals on a flower, all working in concert expressing different aspects of a single truth. Although it might seem sensible to teach Right Concentration first (and of course it is taught as part of any meditation practice), teaching it last assures that it is grounded in the wisdom of Right View and Right Intention and informed with the ethics of Right Speech, Right Action and Right LIvelihood. Understanding Right Effort helps to temper the potential for intensity in a concentration practice. And understanding Right Mindfulness adds clarity to the practice.
This makes sense given our general life experience of the word ‘concentrate.’ The word may bring up associations that cause tension. “Concentrate!” a teacher tells us, as if squinching our brains up tight and hunkering down over our paper will somehow produce the desired result. “I can’t concentrate!” we tell our kids when they are racing around the house as we are trying to do the taxes or some other equally challenging task. From these experiences, concentration seems to be about being able to think really really hard. And it’s really really hard to do.
Right Concentration is something else entirely. Done with Right Effort, it is a steadying of the mind so that we can sustain a clear focus on a single object or experience, or sustain a broad awareness of all experience that occurs from moment to moment.
Developing Right Concentration begins with relaxation. A little metta (loving kindness) practice is very helpful to soften the tension that can build up around the prospect of concentrating. “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at peace.” When we really feel ourselves bathed in the infinite loving kindness, this incredible unconditional good will, our muscles and minds relax quite naturally.
In Vipassana (insight) meditation we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. But in developing Right Concentration, we can also experiment with other objects of focus: a candle flame, a shell, a flower, allowing ourselves to become fully absorbed in the experience. Choose your object, then close your eyes and do a little metta practice. Then in the light of that loving sense of presence, open your eyes and gaze upon the object of your focus. Allow the labels, associations, memories, etc. to rise and pass as part of the experience. Allow the background to come forward and recede, as part of the experience. Simply be with whatever arises.
Bring the fruits of this experience into your regular meditation, with your focus on the breath. Bring the fruits of this experience into a walk in nature, noticing, noticing, pausing whenever something draws your attention. Forget about getting anywhere. You are already here. Bring the fruits of this experience into your daily chores. Allow the water in which you wash your dishes to captivate your attention. Bring the fruits of this experience into your relationship. Aren’t your loved ones, your friends, your co-workers each as uniquely fascinating as a rose?
This kind of deep absorption is a lovely gift we give ourselves through the exercise of single object focusing. Next we can experiment with expanding our field of focus. We are fully aware of our bodily sensations and all that the senses perceive: sounds, smells, tastes, textures, temperature. A sound will become dominant and we stay with that until a it passes, then the most dominant sensation is our heartbeat, so we stay with that awhile, etc. Whatever arises we notice with a soft and open attention. Whatever thoughts or feelings arise we notice as well. They are simply objects of curiosity arriving and leaving this field of our awareness. As if we were sitting in Grand Central Station enjoying the comings and goings of people and trains – all the hustle bustle – as we sit holding the whole experience with great compassion in this still point of center.
We will undoubtedly have the experience of our thoughts getting caught up in story about some aspect of our experience. Upon hearing a sound, our habit of mind is to identify its source, so not surprisingly we may find we have sent our mind to investigate and conjecture. Left to its own devices without the intention to be present and the practice of Right Concentration, we may get caught up in further habitual thought patterns. We might wonder ‘Who would be making that noise at this time of day? Don’t they know better than to…’ Judgment gets into play. Then memory might leap in. The sound reminds us of something else. The person making the sound once did something else to annoy us. We may feel victimized. Why can’t I live in a quieter place? Which sparks a daydream about a little house in the country, etc. etc. You know all too well what I’m talking about. Our minds may have different patterns, but they all have patterns, patterns of story making. And all the stories are sticky like flypaper. The flapping paper always looks enticing, always seems to promise something fascinating, but then there we are, stuck in the story again.
Fortunately, unlike the poor fly, we truly can unstick ourselves at any moment. Right Concentration is the gentle practice of staying with whatever arises, hearing the sound as pure sound. And if we succumb to the lure of the flypaper story, Right Concentration paired with Right Intention can bring us back to the present and Right Mindfulness.
You may be familiar with the work of John Cage, the 20th century avant-garde composer. His most famous and controversial composition, titled 4’33” is performed without a single note being played. Imagine the first audience in 1952 waiting for the piece to ‘begin.’ For four minutes and 33 seconds Cage offers the audience the chance to listen to …the sound of an audience. Whatever coughing, restless stirring and maybe whispering sounds occur become the composition. Cage creates a formal place and time to frame these few minutes of direct experience.
I am sure that there were members of the audience who took the performance as a joke. If they took it as a joke on them, they were probably angry and that anger fueled attitudes toward every subsequent exposure to anything in art they didn’t readily understand. If they felt they were ‘in’ on the joke, because they were clever enough to ‘get it’ then they might have been smug, and they tripped over that smugness in every subsequent experience, never allowing themselves the pure joy of not knowing.
No doubt others barely noticed what had happened, so tuned into their own thoughts, so ready to tune out of whatever experience was presented, that those few minutes were a blur, and afterwards they looked around asking, “Wha..?”
Some chalked it up to a waste of time but let it go as soon as they were out the door. “What can you expect of artists? They’re all crazy, just confirms what I’ve always said…”
Others, after two or three minutes of this strange un-event, probably started noticing the quixotic tumble of their own thoughts and emotions: the confusion, irritation, amusement, impatience, aggravation — whatever arose from this unusual situation.
Of these, some may well have become aware of the noise in the hall as pure sound, and they may have had a profound experience of being fully present for whatever arises, experiencing the sounds of coughs and stirrings as a life symphony.
No doubt, some of those who did probably turned that into a sticky story of how insightful they were, shoring up a sense of identity to protect them from the dreaded void. But others were undoubtedly affected deeply and began to experience the world around them in a very different way.
As a meditator practicing Right Concentration, why not give yourself 4 minutes and 33 seconds to formally be attentive to the composition that arises right now. Even as you read this, there are sounds and sensations around you to attend. Sensing in to your body, its pulsing energy and whatever else is present right now; sensing sound as pure sound rather than the ‘sound of’ something happening; looking around you, allowing the light and shadow to become prominent, then allowing color to become prominent, then allowing foreground and background to dance with each other; feeling the texture of your clothes on your skin, the pressure of your feet or buttocks resting on the surface below you.
Both deep absorption and spacious awareness are Right Concentration. And Right Concentration is possible even when the kids are racing around the house! Just think of them as a gift of awareness from John Cage.