An Island of Concentration
April 23, 2024


April 23, 2024

As the chant said just now, “The world is swept away.” If we could see time pass, we’d realize there’s no place that you can settle in. It keeps flowing, flowing, flowing. This is why the Buddha uses the image of a river. He calls it the flood of sensuality, becoming, views, ignorance. These currents push us along.

We try to find a place where we can establish ourselves so that we can have a little bit of a breather, some happiness, but it keeps getting swept away.

The people we hold on to: Often it’s not so much the people themselves, it’s our perceptions of them, our thoughts about them, our feelings around them, and those are very ephemeral. If you try to hold on to them, they cut into you.

One of the Buddha’s images is of a person being swept downstream, and there are grasses growing on the riverbank, so he tries to hold on to the grasses. But as he tries to catch hold of them, they get pulled away from the bank. In some cases, they have sharp edges, so they cut his hands.

What we need is an island, and you can’t find the island outside. You have to find the island inside, where at least you can get some respite, where you can make something good inside you a refuge.

This is an image for establishing mindfulness. You choose one topic, like the breath, and you try to stay focused on it in and of itself. You try to stay with the breath as it comes in, goes out, and discern when it’s long, when it’s short, and try to figure out if long breathing feels better or short breathing feels better. That’s because the Buddha also tells you to breathe in ways that give rise to a sense of refreshment, a sense of pleasure, and those feelings are not going to happen just by watching the breath willy-nilly.

After all, the breath is a kind of fabrication. It has an intentional element, so you can make use of that: You can try not only long breathing and short breathing, but also fast, slow, heavy, light, deep, shallow, to see what feels best right now. Then, when you have a sense of breathing that feels good, try to make yourself aware of the whole body as you breathe in, the whole body as you breathe out. Allow that sense of pleasure or ease to spread throughout the body. In this way, you’re practicing both mindfulness and concentration at the same time.

There’s a school of thought that divides them into two very different things, saying that mindfulness is a broad, open, accepting state of mind that doesn’t react to whatever comes up, doesn’t pass judgment on whatever comes up, just accepts it for what it is, whereas concentration is supposed to be narrow, focused, restrictive.

But the Buddha never talked about those qualities in those ways. For one thing, he didn’t make a clear distinction between the two. Right mindfulness, in his explanations of meditation, shades into right concentration. It’s how you get the mind into right concentration to begin with. For another, he did point out that mindfulness has to be very selective. The definition of right mindfulness begins by saying that you stay focused on the body in and of itself—in this case, that would be the breath—and you put aside greed and distress with reference to the world. In other words, any thoughts having to do with the world, for good or for bad, you put them aside right now.

You don’t follow them, because you’ve got something more important to do—staying focused on what’s happening with the breath. When you stay with the breath, you can begin to see your mind a lot more clearly. If you’re jumping around, your focus is on the places you’re going to jump, rather than on where you are. But if you’re settled in, then you have room to expand and to explore where you are.

But at first, you have to narrow your focus. It’s interesting that, for mindfulness, the Buddha gives images of having a very clear sense of what is your territory and what’s not your territory. There’s the story of the monkeys living in the Himalayas. As long as they stay in the areas where no human beings go, they’re safe. But if they start wandering into areas where human beings do go, they’re in danger of getting trapped. There’s also the story of the quail who wandered out of the field where he could hide behind rocks, and a hawk swoops down and catches him, the point being that once you leave your territory, your foundation of mindfulness here, you’re in danger. Greed, aversion, and delusion can swoop down and get you. So you do have to restrict your range of awareness.

But then when you stay with the body as you get more and more firmly centered, you don’t have to keep it just at one point. The Buddha talks about mindfulness of breathing as a kind of concentration. When a monk came to him one time and asked about different ways of getting the mind into concentration, he gave eight. Four were the establishings of mindfulness: body, feelings, mind states, mental qualities. The other four were the brahmavihāras: goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, equanimity.

What’s interesting is when the Buddha talked about the establishing of mindfulness to this monk, he said that when you’re focused on the breath this way, being mindful of the breath this way, you develop the concentration with rapture, with pleasure, without rapture, without pleasure, with directed thought, without directed thought. In other words he was talking about right concentration.

There’s no clear line between the two. The whole purpose of right mindfulness is to get the mind to settle down into right concentration. That’s when you have your safe island in the river, in the flood.

So that’s what we’re working on right now. The world may be swept away, but don’t let your thoughts be swept away with it. If you see that you’re focusing on anything outside right now, remember that it’s like the grasses on the bank of the river. You can try to hold on to them, but they have very weak roots, and they’re going to be pulled out as you grab on. And the grasses with sharp edges will cut into your hands. They offer you no real security at all.

This, however, is your safe place. Try to get established here and then expand your awareness to fill the whole body. This is another one of the ironic things about the typical picture of mindfulness and concentration: that mindfulness is expansive and concentration is restrictive. But as I mentioned just now, mindfulness has its territory, but its territory can be fairly large—like the whole body. That’s also the range of right concentration.

Can you be aware of the whole body all at once? In the beginning, you’ll have to scan, starting from the top of the head down to the soles of the feet, back and forth, back and forth; down the arms through the torso. Try to get an expansive sense of how the breathing can permeate the whole body.

The word “breath” for the Buddha is not so much the contact of air at the nose, it’s the flow of energy in the body that allows you to breathe. That’s most directly related to the muscles around the lungs, but those are connected to other muscles, which are connected to still others. If you get really sensitive, you can see that all your nerves, all your blood vessels, all the muscles throughout the body are involved in the breathing process. It’s just that in some cases you’ve squeezed them off, allowed them to get tense, so some of them don’t participate as fully as they could. But here you’re trying to open everything up.

So on this island, you want everything in the island to be connected. And then what do you do? You stay right here.

Too many of us are in a hurry. We say, “Hey, I want to get on to insights. After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?” Well, yes, but where do the insights come from? They come from a mind that’s very still but alert. And that combination of stillness and alertness requires real skill.

Usually we err on one side or the other: We get very still and then drift off, or we’re too alert, thinking about this, thinking about that. Real alertness is watching what you’re doing as you’re trying to get the mind to be still. That’s the kind of alertness you’re trying to develop. And that takes practice—particularly, as you’re dealing with the parts of the mind that say, “This is getting boring. Nothing’s happening.” A lot of things are actually happening, it’s just that they’re very subtle, and they’re in the part of the mind that’s doing the watching, and not so much in the breath. But they’re right near the breath as you focus on it, which is one of the reasons why we focus on the breath.

When the Buddha talks about the four ways of establishing mindfulness, he gives most detailed instructions on being with the breath, and then had points out that when you’re with the breath, you’ve got feelings right there: the feelings of pleasure you’re trying to create as you pay attention to the breath. You’ve got mind states right there: the mind state of concentration that you’re trying to develop. And you’ve got mental qualities.

The mental quality he emphasizes in this case is equanimity: the ability to not react to things so that you can pass clear judgment on them. Often we’re told that you try to be non-reactive and non-judgmental, yet the Buddha said that judgment is an important part of the practice. You’re trying to judge which of your actions are skillful and which ones are not, which things in the mind should be encouraged and which should be discouraged. And to pass judgment like that—clearly, fairly, objectively—you have to be non-reactive.

So if something bad shows up, you don’t hate it. You don’t deny it. You allow it to be there for a while so that you can observe it. Then you ask yourself, “Well, what allure does this have? Why does at least part of my mind like this kind of thinking? And what can I do to put a stop to it? How can I undercut the allure? Can I see the bad side of this kind of thinking?”

To see this requires that you get really still, and very open. This is why the Buddha taught step number three in breath meditation: Be aware of the whole body. As you develop that whole-body awareness, it becomes a whole-mind awareness as well, and you become more sensitive to the voices in the mind that would pull you away, more sensitive to the nibbling thoughts around the edges of your concentration.

So right here is where you want to be: alert, mindful, and ardent in doing this well. That’s how you develop all the qualities you need to provide yourself with a real refuge inside. Or better yet: to dig deeper into the mind and find that there is a refuge in there that’s already there, but requires a lot of discernment.

But it’s on this island you’re going to find it. So try to be secure, stable, well established here. As for whatever else gets swept away, don’t try to grab on to it, because you’re going to get swept away too. Hold on right here instead.