Weekly Practice (Mindfulness & Concentration)

| February 1, 2012 | 12 Comments

If you followed along last week in the Weekly Practice (Impermanence), you may not have realized it, but we were also laying some groundwork for this week’s practice on mindfulness and concentration. If you didn’t do last week’s practice, you can go back and start there, or you can begin here. You can also take how ever much time for each practice. No one is keeping a clock on you.

We aren’t going to drop last week’s practice, but continue to notice impermanence in our meditation and daily practice. Impermanence leads us to mindfulness and concentration. Both are facets of the Eightfold Path, and they are the foundation on which all Buddhist practice relies. Without mindfulness and concentration, we tend to wander through life caught up in thoughts, opinions, emotions, stories built in our minds, which can carry us far from the here and now, what is really happening.

Mindfulness and concentration work hand in hand. While mindfulness is awareness, being present, instead of lost in thoughts, concentration focuses awareness.

What Buddha Said

(Samadhi Sutta: Concentration translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

“Monks, these are the four developments of concentration. Which four? There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to a pleasant abiding in the here & now. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the ending of the effluents.”

“And what is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness? There is the case where feelings are known to the monk as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. Perceptions are known to him as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. Thoughts are known to him as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. This is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness.”

 

 

Question What Buddha Said

There is an important part of the discourse above that’s easy to miss but vital to understanding: known to him as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. In other words, our usual habit is not to notice as something arises, but to get caught in it once it has arisen and force it to persist and persist and persist. Instead, the Buddha is saying, notice it arise, notice it persist, notice it subside. It can only subside if you let it go!

Let’s try this out in our meditation and daily practice, see if the Buddha is right, that developing concentration in this way will lead to pleasant abiding the here and now.

Set aside time for meditation every day, either sitting or moving, or both. Make sure you’re in a comfortable, safe place, with the likeliness of interruption minimal. You can deviate from the instructions below, but do try them out.  Read through the sutta snippets above and the directions below daily before each session. Save a few minutes for the end of the session to reflect on the meditation experience.

Sitting meditation:

  • Once seated and comfortable, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe in and out naturally. Follow the breath in and out. Allow your attention to notice the body as you breath in and out.
  • If a feeling arises from the body, from your knee, your back, wherever, just notice the feeling has arisen, note if it is fleeting or more persistent. Then bring your attention back to the breath, in and out, in and out, concentrate on the breath.
  • If a thought arises. Notice a thought has arisen, notice if it is fleeting and disappears on its own, or is it persistent. Notice if it is trying to entice you. Then bring your attention back to the breath, in and out, in and out.
  • If a sound arises, notice the arising of the sound, notice the reaction of the mind, notice if the sound suddenly disappears, or if it persists. Then return to the breath, concentrating only on the breath, in and out, in and out.
  • If an emotion or reaction to something arises, notice it has arisen. Notice if it tries to persist, then return to the breath, concentrating on the in and the out of the breath.
  • If your attention veers off the breath, notice where it has gone, notice if it tries to persist, then gently return your attention to the breath. Concentrate on the in breath. Concentrate on the out breath. Stay with the breath, noticing it arise, noticing if it pauses, then notices as it subsides.
  • Whatever takes you off the breath, whether a thought, feeling, emotion, sound, boredom, excitement, simply notice what has arisen, notice it’s persistence, then let it go by returning to the breath.

Moving Meditation

  • Moving meditation can be done through walking, yoga, tai chi, or simply moving your body in a designated, safe area.
  • Bring your awareness to the top of your head and bring it slowly down to your neck, shoulders, arms, torso, hips, legs, and feet. Notice any sensations, lack of sensations, etc. Take your time doing this.
  • Begin your movements in your preferred form. Pay attention to how each  muscle feels as you move. Notice your breath, in and out. Keep your movements small and deliberate, your attention on your body, as you move your arms or legs. Notice how muscles contract and release. Is there tension in your body anywhere? Can you relax the muscles you are not using?
  • Bring your awareness to balance. How does your balance change as you move? How does your awareness need to change as you shift your balance? Do your muscles perform consistent with each similar movement?
  • Keep your concentration on the movement of your body, each limb, where your balance is, how your weight shifts.
  • Notice whenever a thought arises, notice if it tries to persist, then return your concentration back to your body.
  • Notices when an emotions arises. Notice if it tries to persist, if you can feel it in the body. Then let the emotion go and return your concentration to the next movement.
  • Notice feelings that arise in the body, if it tries to persist, then bring your attention back to the body, your breathing.
  • Whenever  your concentration on the movement of your body broken by outside sounds, arising thoughts, feelings, emotions, simply return your concentration back to the body, your limbs as they move, the feeling of your center of gravity.
  • Repeat this session every day.

Notice in all of this there is no judgement. Judgement requires you to stop and think and access a situation. Here, we are simply noticing what takes our attention away from the breath or the body, without censure, without judgement, noticing how the thing tries to stay in our attention, then mindfully and with intention going back to concentrate on the in and out of the breath.  If your concentration remains on the breath, or body, without interruption, that’s fine, keep focused. If you find objects constantly vying for your attention, simply notice what it is, and let go by returning to the breath.

You will be amazed over the course of the week how much you learn from this. Please note the goal is not to be without thoughts, emotions, or feelings. The idea behind this is to learn to be mindful when anything arises, to note how persistent is it, then to let go by returning and concentrating on our breathing. There is no bad meditation, even if every 1/4 of a second something new arises. This is a fascinating learning process. See yourself as a guinea pig, so to speak, and take interest in the process.

Bringing Meditation into Daily Living

Throughout the day as you go about your daily tasks and concentrate on what you’re doing, notice what tugs at your focus. Simply notice whether it’s a thought, emotion, or sound, and let it go by returning to the task at hand. If you get swept up in a mental tirade, an emotion, simply note it’s persistence, then again, return to the task at hand.

When you can, stop what you are doing, and simply become aware of the body. Note any tension, relaxed points, etc. Bring your attention to your breath, in and out, just for a minute or two. Then return to what you were doing. Can you be mindful of your breath while doing repetitive tasks? What happens when you try?

Can you notice thoughts and emotions arise throughout the day and then let them go by returning to the task at hand or focusing on the body? If you come across a task that requires a lot of thinking, does your body or emotions interrupt you? Can you simply return to what you were supposed to be thinking about?

Can you see how mindfulness, the awareness of objects arising and subsiding, plays in with concentration, and how they help each other?

Last week we saw how everything is impermanent, and now we see how we can let go of those things even more quickly by simply returning to the breath or body. Sometimes, though, it isn’t simple, but the more you practice the easier it gets to let go of persistent thoughts and emotions.

When sounds, people interruptions, etc. arise in your environment, can you be mindful of them, then return to what you were doing without judgement and thoughts forming stories in your mind? Try simply noticing your breath and body, then going back to what you were doing. What happens when you practice this? How present are you in the here and now when your attention is on your breath?

Be sure at the end of each day to reflect on your meditations and practice sessions. Notice what you are learning and observing. Share with us here any insights you have, questions, difficulties, etc. It’s encouraging for us all to hear from others!

 

For More Information:

The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness

See All Weekly Practice Exercises

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Category: Weekly Practice

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (12)

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  1. PatrickT says:

    Hi Dana. Just to let you know, I’ll be taking part but won’t have internet access for a few days, so don’t interpret my silence as lack of interest. Thanks for preparing this.

  2. PopeEggsBenedict says:

    Hi, thanks for this.

    I’m a little confused as to the distinction between the two weeks actually. Can I clarify the following? In last week’s practice we used mindfulness to be aware of impermanence in all things. As an example, we were mindful of the impermanence of distractions / hindrances during meditation. To use the same example, in this week’s practice we are moving beyond simply being mindful of thoughts etc as they arise, towards using concentration to bring our attention back to the breath? Have I got this distinction between the two weeks correct?

    Thanks again for a useful series.

    • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

      Exactly! Yes, we improve concentration by focusing on the breath, and using mindfulness of the things that do come up.

      • PopeEggsBenedict says:

        Thanks for the reply. Some observations from my meditation this morning (I’ve been interested in Buddhism for some time, and have attempted to establish an effective practice, but would very much consider myself a novice, and therefore very grateful for this series!):

        – I found that distractions in the form of sounds were easily noticed, and did not persist for long at all. It was easy to take my awareness back to my breath
        – I find I am often distracted by what I’ve come to call ‘rehearsal’ or ‘recital’ distractions. These are where my thoughts take the form of either imagined conversations or interactions, or the going over of past conversations or interactions. They are actually quite subtle sometimes, in that I am not always aware that I am doing them. When I do notice them, I find that they do not persist, and I am easily able to take my awareness back to my breath.
        – Physical discomfort I find comes to my awareness in an obvious way, and is slightly more persistent.
        – Anxiety on the other hand i find to be much more subtle. For example, I was quite interested to find that more distracting than actual physical discomfort was the anxiety that I would have physical discomfort and would therefore be unable to maintain my attention on the breath. When I brought my attention to this anxiety it was not actually all that persistent – whereas whilst in remained uncovered it was chipping aware at my focus.
        – The most powerfully distracting of all were coherent thoughts born of aversion. For example, I found that I became annoyed at the prospect of being disturbed, and began telling myself stories etc around this theme. I found this to be the most persistent of my distractions actually.

  3. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    PopeEggsBenedict, you are making some great observations. Those head conversations can be so appealing. In your daily life be mindful of when that happens and bring your attention to your breath, and let those conversations go. Those head conversations can get us into all kinds of trouble from eliciting unnecessary emotional reaction, to feeling like the conversation really took place (the brain doesn’t know the difference between imaginary conversations and real ones) and they pull you way out of the present.

    It’s always fascinating to me how much easier pain is to deal with when we let go of the anxiety that often arises with it. Pain, too, like the breath, can be an excellent focus point. If you find something is painful, sit and use the pain as your concentration point instead of trying to ignore it. You’ll discover some fascinating stuff not just about the pain itself, but your relationship to it as well.

    Whenever we go through daily life and we find ourselves living in our heads, a good way to ground yourself back in reality is too bring your awareness to your breath, or your body, just for a minute or two. That is often long enough just to come back to earth and let the thoughts go. When you find thoughts being particularly pesky, focus on a single body part for as long as you can, and see what happens.

  4. lca473 says:

    Thank you for this week’s Practice.

  5. PatrickT says:

    Thanks Dana. I didn’t get into this as much as I’d hoped due to a change in my routine.

    I found it hard to spot thoughts as they arose. Then as soon as I noticed them they tended to slip away quickly. They were rather like gatecrashers at a party. They came in, ate, drank, danced and had an all-round good time, until they noticed that the host had spotted them. Then they made a speedy getaway.

    Sensations – itches and aches – were more easily noticed in their arising and tended to persist a little longer.

  6. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    No problem, Patrick, meditate and incorporate into daily life as you can. It sounds like you are noticing valuable information about how the arising of thought differ from bodily sensations.

    Thoughts are very hard to see arise. Often we don’t notice a thought until we are caught up in it. It’s kind of like a marry-go-round, but you don’t notice the ride until you’re on it! The good thing is, you can jump off. No need to be stuck there.

    Keep working on being mindful of what arises, letting go, and returning to the the breath.

  7. KimberleyJade says:

    Thank you for your explanation of mindfullness and concentration, as basic concepts, its helpfull to hear them explained differently as it helps add depth to our own personal understanding.

  8. Paul Mc Paul Mc says:

    Hi Dana, I really connect with introduction phrase from What Buddha said; “pleasant abiding in the here & now”
    I was searching for simple way to express my experience and: an increased sense of pleasantly abiding in the here and now sums it up succinctly.

    And I feel drawn-pulled-attracted-motivated by this pleasantness. Also, noticing how inadequate my vocabulary feels for communication. Gaining a deeper appreciation for how some folks can talk and teach about these subjects!
    Thanks!

  9. Paul Mc Paul Mc says:

    Hi Dana,
    Difficult 2 weeks: work challenges, car troubles, head-cold….”life”. I found routine of each day in lighting candles, incense, setting timer, sitting to be helpful in understanding what each day and moment meant/brought to my life. Bringing practice into my world slowly. Started participation in a Non-violent Comm Study group with local Unitarian Universalist. Many parallels between NVC and loving kindness….

    Thank you for the guidance!

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