Mindfulness and Concentration

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana on the difference between mindfulness and concentrationBhante Henepola Gunaratana

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                        Courtesy Anjali Jacques Oule

Vipassana meditation is something of a mental balancing act. You are going to be cultivating two separate qualities of the mind-mindfulness and concentration. Ideally, these two work together as a team. They pull in tandem, so to speak. Therefore it is important to cultivate them side by side and in a balanced manner. If one of the factors is strengthened at the expense of the other, the balance of the mind is lost and meditation becomes impossible.

Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point. Please note the word force. Concentration is pretty much a forced type of activity. It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower. And once developed, it retains some of that forced flavor. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.

Concentration could be defined as that faculty of the mind which focuses singlemindedly on one object without interruption. It must be emphasized that true concentration is a wholesome one-pointedness of mind. That is, the state is free from greed, hatred, and delusion. Unwholesome one-pointedness is also possible, but it will not lead to liberation. You can be very single-minded in a state of lust. But that gets you nowhere. Uninterrupted focus on something that you hate does not help you at all. In fact, such unwholesome concentration is fairly short-lived even when it is achieved—especially when it is used to harm others. True concentration itself is free from such contaminants. It is a state in which the mind is gathered together and thus gains power and intensity. We might use the analogy of a lens. Parallel waves of sunlight falling on a piece of paper will do no more than warm the surface. But that same amount of light, when focused through a lens, falls on a single point and the paper bursts into flames. Concentration is the lens. It produces the burning intensity necessary to see into the deeper reaches of the mind. Mindfulness selects the object that the lens will focus on and looks through the lens to see what is there.

Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. A sharp knife can be used to create a beautiful carving or to harm someone. It is all up to the one who uses the knife. Concentration is similar. Properly used, it can assist you toward liberation. But it can also be used in the service of the ego. It can operate in the framework of achievement and competition. You can use concentration to dominate others. You can use it to be selfish. The real problem is that concentration alone will not give you a perspective on yourself. It won't throw light on the basic problems of selfishness and the nature of suffering.

Really deep concentration can only take place under certain specific conditions. Buddhists go to a lot of trouble to build meditation halls and monasteries. Their main purpose is to create a physical environment free of distractions in which to learn this skill. No noise, no interruptions. Just as important, however, is the creation of a distraction-free emotional environment. The development of concentration will be blocked by the presence of certain mental states which we call the five hindrances. They are greed for sensual pleasure, hatred, mental lethargy, restlessness, and mental vacillation.

A monastery is a controlled environment where this sort of emotional noise is kept to a minimum. No members of the opposite sex are allowed to live together there. Therefore, there is less opportunity for lust to arise. No possessions are allowed. Therefore, no ownership squabbles and less chance for greed and for coveting. Another hurdle for concentration should also be mentioned. In really deep concentration, you get so absorbed in the object of concentration that you forget all about trifles. Like your body, for instance, and your identity and everything around you. Here again the monastery is a useful convenience. It is nice to know that there is someone to take care of you by watching over all the mundane matters of food and physical security. Without such assurance, one hesitates to go as deeply into concentration as one might.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such particular circumstance, physical or otherwise. It is a pure noticing factor. Thus it is free to notice whatever comes up—lust, hatred, or noise. Mindfulness is not limited by any condition. It exists to some extent in every moment, in every circumstance that arises. Also, mindfulness has no lixed object of focus. It observes change. Thus, it has an unlimited number of objects of attention. It just looks at whatever is passing through the mind and it does not categorize. Distractions and interruptions are noticed with the same amount or attention as the formal objects of meditation. In a state of pure mindfulness your attention just flows along with whatever changes are taking place in the mind. "Shift. shift. shift. Now this, now this, and now this."

You can't develop mindfulness by force. Active teeth-gritting willpower won't do you any good at all. As a matter of fact, it will hinder progress. Mindfulness cannot be cultivated by struggle. It grows by realizing, by letting go, by just settling down in the moment and letting yourself get comfortable wlth whatever you are experiencing. This does not mean that mindfulness happens all by itself. Far from it. Energy is required. Effort is required. But this effort is different from force. Mindfulness is cultivated by a gentle effort. Persistence and a light touch are the secrets. Mindfulness is cultivated by constantly pulling oneself back to a state of awareness, gently, gently, gently.

In a state of mindfulness, you see yourself exactly as you are. You see your own selfish behavior. You see your own suffering. And you see how you create that suffering. You see how you hurt others. You pierce right through the layer of lies that you normally tell yourself, and you see what is really there. Mindfulness leads to wisdom.

Mindfulness is not trying to achieve anything. It is just looking. Therefore, desire and aversion are not involved. Competition and struggle for achievement have no place in the process. Mindfulness does not aim at anything. It just sees whatever is already there.

Mindfulness is a broader and larger function than concentration. It is an all-encompassing function. Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quiek to notice any change that occurs. If you have focused the mind on a stone, concentration will see only the stone. Mindfulness stands back from this process, aware of the stone, aware of concentration focusing on the stone, aware of the intensity of that focus and instantly aware of the shift of attention when concentration is distracted. It is mindfulness which notices that the distraction has occurred, and it is mindfulness which redirects the attention to the stone. Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration because it is a deeper-reaching function. Concentration is merely focusing the mind, rather like a laser beam. It has the power to burn its way deep into the mind and illuminate what is there. But it does not understand what it sees. Mindfulness can examine the mechanics of selfishness and understand what it sees. Mindfulness can pierce the mystery of suffering and the mechanism of discomfort. Mindfulness can make you free.

There is, however, another Catch-22. Mindfulness does not react to what it sees. It just sees and understands. Mindfulness is the essence of patience. Therefore, whatever you see must simply be accepted, acknowledged, and dispassionately observed. This is not easy, but it is utterly necessary. We are ignorant. We are selfish and greedy and boastful. We lust, and we lie. These are facts. Mindfulness means seeing these facts and being patient with ourselves, accepting ourselves as we are. That goes against the grain. We don't want to acccpt it. We want to deny it. Or change it, or justify it. But acceptance is the essence of mindfulness. If we want to grow in mindfulness we must accept what mindfulness finds. It may be boredom, irritation, or fear. It may be weakness, inadequacy, or faults. Whatever it is, that is the way we are. That is what is real.

Concentration and mindfulness go hand in hand in the job of meditation. Mindfulness directs the power of concentration. Mindfulness is the manager of the operation. Concentration furnishes the power by which mindfulness can penetrate into the deepest level of mind. Their cooperation results in insight and understanding. These must be cultivated together in a balanced manner. Just a bit more emphasis is given to mindfulness because mindfulness is the center of meditation. The deepest levels of concentration are not really needed to do the job or liberation. Still, a balance is essential. Too much awareness without calm to balance it will result in a wildly over-sensitized state similar to abusing LSD. Too much concentration without a balancing ratio of awareness will result in the "Stone Buddha" syndrome. The meditator gets so tranquilized that he sits there like a rock. Both of these are to be avoided.

The initial stages of mental cultivation are especially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will actually retard the development of concentration. When getting started in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how incredibly active the mind really is. The Theravada tradition calls this phenomenon "monkey mind." The Tibetan tradition likens it to a waterfall of thought. If you emphasize the awareness function at this point, there will be so much to be aware of that concentration will be impossible. Don't get discouraged. This happens to everybody. And there is a simple solution. Put most of your effort into one-pointedness at the beginning. Just keep calling the attention from wandering over and over again. Tough it out. A couple of months down the track and you will have developed concentration power. Then you can start pumping your energy into mindfulness. Do not, however, go so far with concentration that you fmd yourself going into a stupor.

Mindfulness still is the more important of the two components. It should be built as soon as you can comfortably do so. Mindfulness provides the needed foundation for the subsequent development of deeper concentration. Most blunders in this area of practice will correct themselves in time. Right concentration develops naturally in the wake of strong mindfulness. The more you develop the noticing factor, the quicker you will notice the distraction and the quicker you will pull out of it and return to the formal object of attention. The natural result is increased concentration. And as concentration develops, it assists the development of mindfulness. The more concentration power you have, the less chance there is of launching off on a long chain of analysis about the distraction. You simply note the distraction and return your attention to where it is supposed to be.

Thus the two factors tend to balance and support each other's growth quite naturally. Just about the only rule you need to follow at this point is to put your effort on concentration at the beginning, until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness.

One of the most difficult things to learn is that mindfulness is not dependent on any emotional or mental state. We have certain images of meditation. Meditation is something done in quiet caves by tranquil people who move slowly. Those are training conditions. They are set up to foster concentration and to learn the skill of mindfulness. Once you have learned that skill, however, you can dispense with the training restrictions, and you should. You don't need to move at a snail's pace to be mindful. You don't even need to be calm. You can be mindful while solving problems in intensive calculus. You can be mindful in the middle of a football scrimmage. You can even be mindful in the midst of a raging fury. Mental and physical activities are no bar to mindfulness. If you find your mind extremely active, then simply observe the nature and degree of that activity. It is just a part of the passing show within.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana is a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka and president of the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia. "Mindfulness versus Concentration" is excerpted from Mindfulness in Plain English, reprinted with permission from Wisdom Publications.

Image: The Thousands, Anjali Jacques Oule, photograph. Courtesy Anjali Jacques Oule.

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LindaG's picture

The intricacies of mindfulness so aptly described. I will be more attuned this morning while I sit...and hopefully as I move through my day.

John Haspel's picture

This is a very insightful article on a generalized application of mindfulness and concentration from one of the leading mindfulness teachers from the Vipassana school. As part of the comprehensive Eightfold Path to awakening the Buddha taught Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, or Right Meditation. Within the framework of the Eightfold Path, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation, “mindfulness” of the Buddha’s path is easily maintained.

In the Majjhima Nikaya 117 the Buddha teaches Right Mindfulness in relation to the path to awakening:

“Be mindful to abandon wrong view and enter and remain in Right View. Be mindful to abandon wrong intention and enter and remain in Right Intention. Be mindful to abandon wrong speech and enter and remain in Right Speech. Be mindful to abandon wrong action and enter and remain in Right Action. Be mindful to abandon wrong livelihood and enter and remain in Right Livelihood.”

In the Digha Nikaya 22 the Buddha teaches Right Mindfulness in relation to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness:

“… Remaining focused on the body itself, ardent, alert and mindful, putting aside greed and distress (clinging) with the world. Remaining focused on feelings arising in the body, ardent, aware and mindful, putting aside greed and distress (clinging) with the world. Remaining mindful of thoughts arising in the body, ardent, aware and mindful, putting aside greed and distress (clinging) with the world. Remaining mindful of the quality of mind, ardent, aware and mindful, putting aside greed and distress (clinging) with the world. This is called Right Mindfulness. This is the direct path for purification.”

In the Bahiya Sutta, the Buddha succinctly teaches an impatient Bahiya Right Mindfulness in relation to the Dhamma:

“I will teach you the Dhamma, Bahiya. Listen carefully to my words. Train your self in this manner: In what is seen, there is only the seen. In what is heard, there is only the heard. In what is sensed, there is only the sensed. In what is cognized, only the cognized.

This is how you should train yourself. When for you there is in what is seen only the seen, in what is heard only the heard, in what is sensed only the sensed and in what is cognized only the cognized, then Bahiya there is no you in connection with what is seen, heard, sensed or cognized, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor there nor anywhere in-between. This and only this is the end of stress and unhappiness.”

Upon hearing the words of the Buddha Bahiya’s mind cleared. Clinging and grasping, greed and aversion ended, and all views were extinguished. Bahiya  awakened.

It is by being fully present with dispassionate mindfulness that we are able to truly see our attachments. In this brief teaching the Buddha taught Bahiya to put aside all views of self arising from discriminating thoughts  based on clinging and craving.

To truly understand any problem, the problem must be observed clearly, without discriminating thought and without a view of self attached to what is observed. This includes the immediate and mundane problems of the ever-changing physical world, and the individual and immediate problem of the distraction of stress and unhappiness.

Prior to settling on Shamatha-Vipassana meditation, the Buddha studied with the foremost meditation teachers of his time. He was taught and practiced the most advanced meditation techniques. He found them all lacking in developing a tranquil mind generating insight into impermanence, stress and the ego-self.

From Alara Kalama the Buddha learned Kalama's doctrine through reading aloud and repetition. He also mastered the meditation technique that Kalama taught, known as “Dwelling in Nothingness.” The technique was practiced to take the mind to a place of nothingness. Once a mind state of nothingness was achieved, one's true nature would become apparent. The Buddha rejected these teachings and this meditation technique.

He stated: “this dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.”

The Buddha then studied with Uddaaka Ramaputta. Using the same methods, the Buddha learned Ramaputta’s doctrine. He also learned a meditation technique that developed a mind state of “neither  perception nor non-perception.” The Buddha rejected these teachings and this meditation method as well.  He stated:

“This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.”

In both cases the ego-self was simply established in another impermanent mind state still subject to the distraction of dukkha.

Neither of these doctrinal teachings or meditation methods could develop the insight necessary to understand dukkha.  Neither could generate disenchantment with the ego-self.

Right Meditation will quickly develop two conditions that are essential to achieving the Buddha’s stated purpose: the understanding of stress and the cessation of stress. These two conditions are Shamatha and Vipassana. Shamatha means serenity or tranquility, a quiet mind. A quiet and non-reactive mind is our natural and awakened state. Vipassana means insight, insight into the true nature of stress, impermanence and the ego-personality.

The Buddha taught that what we think, what is generated in our mind, is what we will experience. This is why quieting the mind and gaining insight to thoughts and thought constructs is so effective in developing understanding and wisdom.

Awareness into the confusing, impermanent and delusional nature of conditioned mind is the “insight” gained in vipassana. Always preceded by shamatha, a tranquil mind, we are able to be mindful of our conditioned thinking and put our conditioned thinking aside. Nothing else needs to be done or should be done with these fragments of conditioned thinking.

John Haspel

wattermelann's picture

Simply put. Joyfully recognized. Enthusiastically persued!

marckapla@gmail.com's picture

Yes both concentration and mindfulness are necessary to achieve calmness of the spirit and ability to
face adversity with equanimity a third way is to practice everyday and let it be part of your daily routine.

axle's picture

As usual, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana explains things beautifully. His books have helped me a great deal. I feel so lucky to have discovered his writings. Thank you.

Elizabeth's picture

This article is great and excellent. Many people can profoundly learn about Buddha's doctrine. I suggest that the Tricycle should distribute this knowledge to many channels. There are many beginners and non-Buddhists don't understand the difference and how to practice on Concentration and Vipassana.