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15 April 2017

The Art of Concentration

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Concentration, Motivation and Attitude

So concentration, you should see like a craft, something that takes great endeavor and commitment to reach a state of mastery. It is a parami and our capacity for practicing concentration is one of the baselines of our mind. Being the kind of humans that we are now, in the kind of human realm and the occupations of human beings now, in general, our concentration is extremely poor and the way we live our lives is completely opposed to concentration. I wonder how many people alive right now would be able to paint one of those masterpieces that Rembrandt could paint and stick it to or these kinds of masteries that take great concentration, we just have such poor concentration.

It’s something that isn’t just going to happen to you, you’re not going to just get concentrated even if you’re a meditator, even if you decide to spend your life meditating you’re not just going to get concentrated. Your concentration is not just going to become real concentration because the sort of a concentration you’re going to get just by meditating regularly for many years is very ordinary concentration. The sort of concentration that we might call samadhi, which is kind of the entry level of real concentration is something that you have to work very, very hard at. It’s something that you have to decide to put your effort towards. If having the ability to concentrate is something that you want in the future, it will be something that takes a lot of time and energy and effort to achieve. But, you can considerably expedite the process of learning to concentrate, to really concentrate, by doing it with some degree of mastery, or craft, or skill, by really working at it in a way that is likely to lead to progress. Because it is easy to hit brick walls and reach places that we never get beyond.

If you really look at your meditation, your average meditation, there’s probably a few minutes when you are really working as completely as you could. During our practices of calm abiding, obviously there’s no effort that you’re making, and that is the point of these practices. But even then it’s very easy, very easy to fall into complacency where you’re quite satisfied with where you are and you just stay there. And it’s extremely easy to do that with concentration. How hard do you really work at it? You have to really work at it. It doesn’t mean you have to drive yourself to distraction otherwise you’ll go over the top and cook your mind with excessive effort, but, you absolutely have to work at it. Like if you were playing piano or violin, you would spend hours weeks, months or years learning to move up and down the keyboard, learning the fretboard, learning to get your notes right. You have to put time into it. So now if you decide to practice Samatha, really practice it, decide you want to get really accomplished, then you’ve got something that you are going to need to spend a long time practising. Don’t kid yourself that you are just going to get well concentrated just by doing lots of meditation.

There is a quantum gap between the sort of place you see most meditators getting to with regards to concentration, even the very committed ones, and reaching the point of absolutely unwavering concentration. It’s something that you have to build into the architecture of your body. And it needs to be but into your psychic architecture too. It’s something that has to get imprinted in you. It’s something that you have to bring with you and then build on. I have spent a tremendous amount of time practicing concentration the so there’s an architecture in my subtle anatomy which means I can sustain my attention. That is something you have to build, you have to work at, so if you decide to do it you have to put the work in. Of course you can do anything you like, you can have a little go at it, or you could keep meditating and see how your concentration develops as a byproduct of the fact that you sit on the floor for 45 minutes everyday. Or you can really decide to work at it and through that process you will change the architecture of your subtle body. The architecture, the subtle anatomical infrastructure that we are running supports the kind of human mind that we are fixated with. Nowadays we are fixated on being clever, thinking about stuff, having ideas and opinions, debating stuff. And our subtle architecture is changing very dramatically from the way that we would have been 30 years ago. And it’s all moving in the opposite direction of real concentration. And concentration is the doorway to the very depths of our experiences. It is this depth that we are losing in our over stimulated lives.

When I was living in Bali, I was amazed by how many people could concentrate and I was amazed by how many people could pick up a piece of wood and turn it into something beautiful with an ordinary knife or carve stone. How much art and craft they had in them, because they could just sit and concentrate. In the village, where I started building my place, everyone was skilled. They were, in fact, all just simple fishermen, but almost anything you asked them to do, they could do, because they knew how to apply themselves. They were used to spending time with not much going on, their minds weren’t cluttered, they weren’t restless, they didn’t get bored quickly. You put them to something and they could stick at it. Not all of them but it wasn’t uncommon.

When I was living in Burma, I would go to Shwedagon pagoda on a Sunday afternoon to meditate or to walk around the pagoda, and ordinary folk would come out of their houses on a Sunday afternoon and they would be sitting in the deep states of concentration, so completely absorbed with what they were doing, but they were not yogis. Yes, they meditated, and they went out to do their religious observances on a Sunday, but they weren’t yogis. The number of people I could see that could just sit and become still, whether they were reciting their mantra with beads or they were chanting or whether they were just sitting, you could see that there was a capacity for concentration within them, they have it in their architecture.

We have the opposite. It’s like it’s an engine that’s geared differently. So if you’ve got the mind that is clever, intelligent, thinks things through, has got something to say about everything, worrying about whether it has thought about things correctly, all this kind of stuff, this is a completely re-geared engine. It’s not the way the concentrated mind is geared. The concentrated mind is not fussed, it doesn’t sweat the small stuff. It doesn’t bicker over opinions. It doesn’t worry about this or that, whether it goes this way or that, it doesn’t obsess about things. The concentrated mind is alright, it is able to allow things to be the way they are so that it’s undisturbed by them. So our fixation on the what, why and how, is completely the opposite to the way our mind needs to function if we want to become concentrated. So why would we learn to concentrate? Why would put that much effort into learning how to concentrate when we really rather enjoy the way our mind is. Ok, we don’t like the fact that it’s got control of us, but we’re rather pleased with our ideas and our intelligence and our capacity to debate stuff with people and convince them that we’re right and all this kind of stuff.

So why would we want to concentrate? Well you probably wouldn’t think you need to concentrate if your mind is pretty good at all that other stuff that I’ve just been talking about. But all that other stuff that I’m just talking about what we do, in our mind, means we’re missing something in the experience. There’s a great big hole in us and we fill it with our mind. And the hole in us is the lack of depth to the experience that we’re having. And that lack of depth, comes from a lack of concentration in all its forms. What concentration does is give us the ability to totally focus in the moment and to sustain our attention, to not become disturbed by distractions, to not get restless, all of these things. So that hole in us, that lack of concentration is filled with our mind and it is concentration that is the doorway through which we see what we’re missing. I can ask you to tune into the stillness of the room with me and in the moment, there’s a feeling, sometimes you get a feeling of tremendous serenity and peace and relief and everything just feels alright. It’s not an earth-moving experience, you’re not convinced without doubt of the unity and connection that you have with everything, you get a sense or a hint of it or a sniff of it, because you can’t concentrate enough. So concentration is the doorway through which we have the experience of awakening.

So you have got to build this architecture with conviction if you want to learn to concentrate. That doesn’t mean that you have to be the person banging their head, gritting their teeth, hanging on for dear life trying to watch their breath. You’ve got to be a skilful meditator. You can butcher a violin and play it really badly and keep going and keep going and keep going and you’re never going to become a master. You have to understand consciousness so you can see why you can’t get anymore concentrated rather than just sit there and keep trying. And you have to be interested in what it is that you’re doing when you decide to do it. Always you have to be interested, because without interest there is no enthusiasm, and without enthusiasm there is little energy. Every time you sit down and meditate, if you want to get concentrated, you absolutely have to be interested in what you’re doing. It has to engage you. It has to excite you, which is why I think meditating in the body is a great place to start because there is so much to get absorbed in. And then you have to get so into it that days could go by without coming up for air. And that interest is the backbone of your initial concentration because you may not have yet entered into the real bliss that comes from deeply serene concentration. You aren’t yet in an ecstatic state of serenity or profound state of serenity. So interest and enthusiasm and willingness to do and abandoning yourself to it and sticking at it is the key to success. That’s what you have to build it upon initially. Ask yourself, are you the sort of person that does a jigsaw or paints a picture that takes time to finish? Are you the sort person that finds themselves for hours absorbed in this jigsaw and interested in it? Not push on simply because you’ve got this wretched thing finished. When you’re painting a picture do you get so absorbed in it that the whole day could go by and you lose a whole day because you were so interested in what you were doing? You’ve got to have this ability to absorb yourself, because that’s where your energy is going to come from initially, you’re going to have to give yourself to it. Give yourself completely to what you are doing, which right now is just meditating inside this body or whatever meditation you are doing.

And then in the night when you wake up, any time that you haven’t got something else to do, you sit and you meditate, and you’re in there, and you get concentrated, even if it’s for 5 minutes between two tube stops. You get incredibly concentrated on the teeth or the gap between the teeth and then suddenly everything’s gone and there’s nobody on the tube, you’re not on the tube, nothing, just the gap between the teeth. You’ve have to keep practicing, you’ve got to keep working at getting really in there.

So while you have a busy mind that’s opposed to abiding, you have to really apply yourself, this applying application of your mind. Keep putting the effort forward until you don’t resent having to do it, until there’s no sloth in doing it, until there’s enthusiasm in doing it, interest in doing it, and then you enjoy the fact that you’re engaging yourself. And all that laziness is gone. Then as you build that energy, as you build it and build it over days and weeks and months, then the flavour of absorption will start to come. And the doorway to real concentration will slowly open. So this is a little about the attitude that we need to bring. A change of approach from our normal expectation of instant reward and gratification. A willingness to work hard over long periods of time to achieve something special. Because thats really how life is…To achieve the greatest things in life we cannot rely only on good fortune and we cannot just expect things to come to us just because we want them…Life doesn’t work like that and neither do our minds.

In the second part of this article, which will come next, I will discuss some of the mental qualities that we need to develop if we want to learn to concentrate deeply. Because in many ways we can say that our ability to concentrate is a marker of the quality of our mind and the endeavor that it takes to learn deep concentration equates ultimately to the gradual process of the refinement of our character.

 

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