I definitely think that learning concentration practise needs to be done with reference to a teacher and somebody who knows how to do it and can understand what you are doing. Because it feels as if there are so many ways of putting forth a tremendous amount of effort and not getting concentrated. But there is a way to do it properly. And I think all of the manuals out there are so misleading in a way, they are so formulaic that the chances of actually getting concentrated by following them is quite unlikely. Concentration is such a live and fluid process that needs to be very carefully steered because it becomes very delicate and subtle, and it’s not the same for everybody and what is going to get each individual person to the point of really deep absorption is quite varied.
Also making informed decisions for oneself about how to approach what comes up and what direction to go, I think without guidance, I think is, tough. So coming on retreat is really the best way to do it. It’s like a series of hurdles to keep getting over that need to be navigated.
You should view learning to concentrate like learning to play a musical instrument. It’s like that. When you have learned to do it then it’s great, if you keep it up, but if you’ve not learnt to do it, you’d think it would be such a simple thing. But because of the parts of the mind which aren’t inclined to concentrate it’s almost as complex a process to learn to do this very simple thing as it is to learn to play a complicated musical instrument, because there are lots of things which have to be removed that aren’t concentration and they need to be removed properly.
It’s a faculty, you’ve got a black and white camera; it can only take black and white photographs. A mind that can’t concentrate, can’t concentrate, you try and you try, you keep saying you are going to do it and you can’t, you just don’t get concentrated. And then you have kind of got to transform this black and white camera into a colour camera so that it can start taking colour photographs. You have got to transform this mind into one that can concentrate from one that can’t. It is quite a job. But once it’s a colour camera, it will always be able to take colour photographs; it will never be a black and white camera again. You can loose concentration to a degree, but the path to concentration, the programme, whatever, its there somewhere. So in a way it’s another operation on the mind. Do you find yourself getting to the point where you are getting more concentrated and understanding how, rather than just sitting banging our heads away?
You can make quite quick progress if you do the right things in the right order in the right way. Its an investment, it is like taking your Harley Davidson 883 back to the dealer and saying, do you know what, I’d like an upgrade to the 1200, you’ve got to take it apart, take a few bits out, throw them away, discard them, put some news bits in, put it all back together again, now it rides so much more sweetly.
In a way, although we make it tremendously difficult, its actually so simple. It is! If you do exactly what is asked of you and nothing other than that and don’t fuss about, it is that easy, it’s the fact you don’t do what is asked of you and everything but!
It’s like all of these, things it can be done, that people don’t do it is because its hard work. You try and teach yourself to play the violin. I wonder how many people manage to teach themselves to play violin. But if you go to a lesson and you get instructed and you get given your exercises and you go and do your exercises, you come back and get the next one, you do it diligently, you learn. It’s only a matter of time. Ok, some people are more talented naturally than others, but anyone can do it and it is worth doing, it’s like an optional extra in the world of Meditation, but it is the one that most people don’t take up, they say: ‘I’ll have meditation, standard model please!’And they don’t go for the one with the extra performance because it is hard to come by.
You can’t just tick the box in the order form. There are lots of ways to get into a reasonably peaceful state without being very concentrated. And there are lots of ways of getting to the point where we think we understand things without really being able to see whether we are right or not. And so we can meditate without concentration. You can’t meditate without mindfulness, that’s called ‘a trance’. But you can meditate without concentration.
The reason I am a big campaigner for the virtue of concentration is because it has almost been vilified in recent times and in its place mindfulness has become the golden nugget. I don’t know whether that was because it takes so much effort and that it is easier to say, ‘Oh no no, concentration, don’t worry about concentration, that’s not the way to go.’ But it is, because it cleans up all the bits that you can get away with not cleaning. It is the effort that it takes to actually get deeply concentrated that purifies the mind and refines the character.
I was doing a consultation the other day with someone who has been meditating for the last few years without working to hone or develop their mind. I.e. practising abiding, and there was just so much slackness in their mind. There was no brightness, they are forgetful, they can’t be bothered to do things, its all a little bit too much effort and in truth you loose a lot of potential in this way. I just wrapped their knuckles and said, right you need to do body parts meditation every single day for the next year. It keeps you on your toes.
To be honest focused concentration, applied effort, probably in your daily life actually, is more useful to you than the sustained concentration, it is great to be able to stick at something and there are times when you need to so you do need that ability to sustain your effort, but also just be able to pick yourself up and going on stuff that otherwise you can’t be bothered, that is a huge benefit, that makes you much more effective, massively improves your output.
Rather than having a mind which is constantly overwhelmed with all the things I have got to do. Learn to be totally focused upon whatever you are doing; not only because it will mean you get less distracted, but because it is by being totally absorbed in what we are doing that the magic of it starts to shine through. Everything we do with total concentration becomes a powerfully moving and enriching experience.
Audio recording of the original discourse live from retreat: