Friday, November 7, 2008

Concentration, Spiritually Speaking

The subject of "concentration" gets a lot of attention in spiritual circles, particularly among Buddhists. Concentration is courted in a meditation practice is thought to be a trait of substantial benefit to progressing on a spiritual path. However, confusion often arises because the traditional western definition of concentration isn't quite the same thing as the Buddhist meaning of the term.

Modern westerners approach meditation with a gung-ho goal of achieving a fierce, single-pointed that involves a highly focussed, intellectual obsession with some object that has been selected for attention. While this kind of concentration, similar to what we used to cram for an exam in our school days, can be useful for beginning to quiet a mind that wanders wildly, it isn't exactly what genuine concentration is about.

Spiritual concentration is a more refined thing. It's is not about intellectual ferocity, but comes about when a mind exists in unity and connectedness to circumstances as they actually are at the moment. Concentration is absent whenever the mind finds itself alienated from real conditions, obsessed instead with goals and outcome.

Browbeating oneself into banishing all thoughts, sweatily focussing on the breath, or a mantra syllable, or a flame, or an mental image of a lotus flower, isn't the end goal at all. This rudimentary form of intellectual concentration is useful only as a bare starting point for beginning the process of quieting the mind. It should be dropped the moment we begin to glimpse the quiet awareness beneath, which is what we're actually seeking.

What we're seeking to join ourselves to during meditation is not an object at all, but the restful, wide awake quality of bare awareness itself. A concentrated mind isn't one that lacks thoughts, feelings and concepts. It's one that is awake, present to whatever phenomena are occurring.

In practical terms for the meditator, this kind of concentration will have a more subtle feel to it. When I reach it in my own sittings, it's sometimes accompanied by a physical sensation of first becoming microscopically small, then paradoxically large. This kind of concentration feels like a fine jeweler's hammer—much smaller and humbler than a sledge hammer, but capable of far more intricate and powerful work, in the end. It's this tool, after all, that can carve diamond.


Jerri said...

Your mind could carve diamonds, my friend. Sharp and strong and bright. So damn bright.

I love that small/enormous feeling. Incredibly freeing.

excavator said...

Mercurious, I really appreciate your posts. Thank you very much.

Having watched "God On Trial" last night on PBS, where the themes of suffering, just and unjust, and the presence and goodness of God are debated, I was wondering if you could give a modern-day Buddhist's perspective on the Holocaust?

And, if I could make a request, that you visit my blog and the 2 posts just prior to my "God On Trial" post? I know it's an imposition to ask someone on their blog to read the requester's blog; but some of the things you've written have resonated with some of the feelings I've had that inspired my posts. I don't expect any commentary, but I guess I was wondering if perhaps what I describe has anything in common with this small/enormous feeling.