The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on August 1st, 2023.
*** Feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest ***
In the last newsletter, I talked about the major takeaway from my recent three-month retreat — dropping into a fundamental okayness of being.
Today, I intended to offer a part two, where I would discuss some of the basic methods and techniques that help do this. However, a few conversations I’ve had since then have inspired me to offer an intermediary reflection, where I talk about the purpose and limitations of having good “concentration” or a “stable awareness.”
What is “Concentration?”
To put it really simply, “concentration,” aka samādhi in the Pāli language, doesn’t necessarily mean one-pointed focus on a single object, like the breath. Instead, it more accurately means having a “collected mind,” or a mind not caught in distractions.
In this way, even though one-pointed focus is the most common way to develop a “collected mind,” one could also develop strong “concentration” by practicing, say, open awareness, where one just abides in presence without any particular focus.
The secret ingredient in the open style is that if rather than grabbing hold of thoughts, impulses, and reactions, one instead just lets them unimpededly pass through, their mind would be very collected/undistracted, and their samadhi/concentration would be quite good.
In this spirit, I’ll be using the terms “concentration” and “stable awareness” interchangeably.
A Tale Of Two Meditators
I recently talked with someone who had a couple of really profound meditation retreats late last year, where their meditation practice went deeper than it ever had before. They became very concentrated and touched into a place of deep peace, calm, and presence. All their usual anxieties in their day-to-day life disappeared.
And then, as Jack Kornfield puts it, they experienced the classic, After the Ecstasy, The Laundry.
In other words, then they returned to their busy daily life, and, slowly slowly slowly, all those profound feelings started to wear off. They once again felt frequently restless, scattered, and anxious. They described having a hard time being with it all — feeling a fundamental non-okayness of being.
In turn, they noted they were craving to go on more retreats as soon as possible. It’s as if those retreats last year showed them what was possible with their mind in a way they never knew before. Now, all they wanted to do was go on more retreats, so they could touch into that “deep” state again.
In responding, I first shared that I’m obviously a big fan of retreats — I’ve literally spent 3 of the last 11 years on retreats, for goodness’ sake! There is something really powerful and important about having that container to go deeper.
Likewise, there is also something quite noble & beautiful about feeling the pull to deep spiritual practice. There’s actually a word in Buddhism for the emotion of “spiritual urgency,” samvega, which is when our heart is so pulled to a deeper spiritual calling that how can we do anything but listen?
And yet, in sharing all of that, I also relayed the most important Buddhist teaching — true freedom comes from letting go of clinging/craving. The teachings are making the radical statement that you can actually have deep peace, or a fundamental okayness, amidst anxiety, restlessness, scatteredness, and even the intense craving to get back on retreats — sometimes, this is called a “happiness independent of conditions.”
In other words, while concentration and going on retreats are really important and helpful, you can have all of that and still not have true peace. This brings us to our next story:
I recently had another conversation with someone who is a bit of a concentration virtuoso, far beyond my abilities. They can easily lock down on their breath in their daily meditation period with little-to-no distractions. On retreats, they have attained all 8 jhanas, aka states of deep meditative absorption.
However, they were telling me they’ve largely approached their life as looking for peak experiences, as much deep meditative states as seeking out psychedelics, immersive dance, festivals, and sexual experiences, among other things.
They said their life is something like a roller coaster — they touch into the big experiences, but then when difficulty comes their way, they often sink into overwhelming periods of despair, anxiety, and sorrow, and have a really hard time being with them. A fundamental non-okayness of being. As a response, they historically look to the next peak experience to get out of the rut, and on and on their life roller coasters around.
They said to me, “I remember when I was just starting meditation and I would hear teachers say things like, just be here now, or it really comes down to accepting things as they are, I would think yeah yeah yeah, but what about the bliss? And what comes after the be here now part?”
In sharing this with me, they reflected it took them actually getting really successful at concentration to understand its limits — that you could get into all the jhanas, have the capacity for great concentration, and still have a lot of suffering.
Freedom > Concentration
To go back to the core teaching, when there is grasping for something other than what’s happening right now, there is suffering — it’s that simple.
However, meditators time and time again — and I am also not immune to falling into this trap — start to look towards the future for their freedom. They think, “if only my concentration were a little better, then I could really make some progress. If only this unpleasant feeling would go away, then I’d drop deeper into the meditation and all would be good.” All of these if onlys are just more suffering.
In other words, while stable awareness is important, it’s not the end goal.
One teaching from my recent 3-month retreat that I loved was the continual pointer to touch into one’s deepest experience of freedom. To actually take a moment to ask oneself, “what has been my deepest experience of freedom?” And then rather than spend the whole retreat trying to return to that place, ask oneself, “to what degree can I touch into that right now?” Freedom is always right now; not after any given if only.
Why Concentration is Important
Thus far, I’ve been making the point that meditation practice is ultimately about letting go; however, even though concentration isn’t the end goal, it does have a very important role to play.
I sometimes think of it as one of the most essential “dominoes” that tips over into liberation. Here are three reasons why concentration is so important:
- When we taste the deep peace and joy that can happen within our own being, there is a natural movement away from more fleeting worldly pleasures. Even a little taste of this can offer major wells of motivation to go meditate or make proactive changes in your life. As one teacher puts it, it’s like “trading candy for gold.”
- It gives us a wholesome & pleasant rest from the chaos of our mind and the world — sometimes, it’s taxing and draining to be with all the things all the time. Dropping into solid meditative concentration offers a rejuvenating rest, where we can emerge with more energy and zest to meditate or attend to our life.
- It helps us to see reality more clearly; i.e. realize transformative insight. To use a metaphor, imagine trying to see what’s at the bottom of a pond when there is a wind storm and the waves are all choppy — it’s practically impossible! In a similar vein, when the winds of our thoughts/emotions are raging through our mind, it’s also nearly impossible to “see clearly” what’s actually happening.
Having good concentration / stable awareness calms the waves, which helps us to clearly see “the bottom of the pond,” where we can see, for example, the changing, selfless nature of all happenings. When we have a deep glimpse of “the bottom of the pond,” it stays with us even after the retreat or meditation period — for example, if you have even a moment of clarity where you see that the bottom of the pond is rocky, even once the waves return, you know not to walk out there barefoot.
Similarly, if you even have one deep glimpse of how “you are not your thoughts” or “all is empty” it can leave you with a profound freedom & capacity to not grasp that really stays with you.
In today’s reflection, I’ve tried to give a balanced look at concentration, aka really strong, stable awareness.
If we turn it into the ultimate goal, we miss how freedom happens right now; not after some if only. Instead, if we can see it as just one important domino on the meditative journey, we can apply ourselves towards it as appropriate, but without all the craving and clinging.
To put it more directly, the basic balancing act is to firstly radically accept this moment, over and over and over, and secondly, from that depth of acceptance, to apply ourselves to deepening awareness. And when all goes awry and the waves are roaring, rather than freaking out, we just relax & patiently keep going — no storm lasts forever.
To turn all this from a good idea into a lived experience, basically, go meditate! Maintain a consistent daily formal meditation practice. Apply oneself to being mindful across the day. Go on multi-day (or month!) retreats. Let the concentration build up naturally.
And at each step of the way, noticing the subtle (and gross) ways that craving and clinging try to hijack our minds. Whenever we notice them present, reminding ourselves, “oh, that’s just craving; relax & let it pass on through; not a problem.”
In closing, maybe take one deep breath and settle into relaxed awareness. Freedom is right now, always.