January 24, 2017

The Pali word samadhi is usually translated as concentration. I know at least one teacher, though, who objects to that translation on the grounds that we associate the idea of being concentrated on something with being tense. The spot where we’re staying concentrated is a concentrated spot of tension. As he points out, that’s not the quality we’re trying to develop at all.

There are other ways, though, of thinking of concentration: that you’re not focused on a spot outside of your center of who you think you are. The center’s supposed to be right inside where you think you are—like a lens whose focal point is zero, inside the lens itself. It’s a different kind of concentration. Just think of it as being centered. And the quality that the Buddha recommends is eventually one where your awareness fills the whole body, and every part of the body has almost equal importance.

It’s like the concentration you use when you’re playing a video game, and the enemy could appear at any point on the screen. Your awareness has to be spread out to the whole screen, giving equal importance to every pixel, so that as soon as the enemy appears—no matter where—you can detect him and zap him in time.

Another comparison is the way trackers go through the forest: They’re looking for signs of animals who’ve been there. And they can’t focus only on the ground. They have to focus also on the leaves of the trees, the branches that might be broken. The signs of animals having passed by can be anywhere, so the trackers need what they call “scatter-shot” concentration. In other words, your concentration is spread out in all directions, while your awareness is centered inside, so that no one spot in your outside range of vision is getting more attention than others. Everything is equal. You’re ready to pick up the signs wherever they are.

One way of developing this kind of concentration is to think of your awareness starting with your hands and your feet and then moving inward. Relax your hands. Relax the wrists. Go up the arms, the shoulders. Then start with your feet and come up from the bottom, through the legs, the pelvis, up the back. Bring your awareness into the area around the heart or into the area right where your field of vision seems to be centered. See if you can maintain a sense of being centered there, but at the same time maintaining the full range of where you’ve been—all connected together.

That’s the kind of concentration the Buddha’s talking about, where you’re one with the object, which in this case is the whole body. It’s not like you’re sitting in one spot of the body watching the breath in another spot of the body. You’re sitting in the middle of the breath, and the breath is bathing you on all sides. And think of it, as it comes in, as being totally unobstructed: It can come in, go out, with a sense of ease. You’re centered, but there’s a sense of ease. You’re not using tension to hold yourself there. There’s a little bit of tension, but not much.

Because, after all, we’re trying to create a state of mind that we can maintain for long periods of time. If there’s a lot of tension in maintaining it, it’s not going to last. Your strength will wear out; you’ll start getting tired of it. And instead of being nourishing and refreshing, the concentration will become tiresome. But if you can think of all the scattered tentacles of your awareness coming back into the center and leaving everything on the periphery very relaxed, it creates a kind of stability that’s easy to maintain. It may not be easy to get used to this in the beginning, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to be focused just on one point. But this type of concentration is longer-lasting, once you master it.

So it’s a talent worth developing. It changes your relationship to how you relate to the body, how you relate to events in the mind, because this broader concentration is very hard to knock over. If your concentration is one-pointed, it’s very easy to lose, because once you move the point, the concentration’s slipped. But with this, you’ve got a larger frame of reference. Things can come and go in the midst of that frame of reference, and you can see them, but they don’t shake the frame. The frame is still there.

Like that image I sometimes use of being a screen on a window: Sounds go through the screen. Wind goes through the screen. But the screen doesn’t get moved, and it doesn’t obstruct the sounds and the wind from moving through. It’s open: open to things outside but at the same time unaffected by them. The same observation can apply to your thoughts: Thoughts can come floating through the mind, but you don’t latch onto them. You don’t get interested in them. You’re centered right here. You know they’re there, but you don’t really pay attention to them. Your center stays maintained right here. All your awareness gravitates to the center.

That’s the quality of concentration we’re looking for. Because only

in that kind of concentration can you spread the sense of ease, well-being, and rapture through the body. You’ve opened up all the channels as you’ve moved into the center. That gives a feeling of being connected to the breath energy fields, that everything is in harmony throughout the body.

This is an ideal state of mind for observing what’s going on in the mind. Thoughts can arise and pass away, you see them arising and passing away, but you’re not shaken by them. And you’re not arising and passing away along with them. They have their ups and downs, but you stay still, here in the middle. And so the processes of thoughts, as they arise and pass away, become a lot clearer. You can see the machinations of the mind as it creates a thought. And as in the video game, you can zap the thoughts whenever and wherever they appear.

Because it’s not that thoughts don’t have a place in the body. For a thought to stay and to be the kind of thought that you can hold in mind for a while, there has to be a pattern of tension someplace in the body associated with it. That’s the marker that keeps it there. Without that marker, thoughts can’t stay. To hold them in mind, you have to hold them in the body, too. It’s because of those little markers of tension that any work involving a lot of thinking and planning is really tiresome. You can sit at your desk and not really do any physical activity, but you come away very tired, because of all the tension that’s been playing around in the body.

But when you get the mind centered like this, you can see the little pattern of tension as it comes together with the thought, and you can zap the pattern of tension, and the thought will dissolve. The more quickly you can do that, the more you see the early stages of how the mind constructs a thought—and you’re less likely to be taken in by those processes. You can stop them when you see that they’re arbitrary and are not going anywhere useful. If it turns out that the thought is something you need to think about, okay, you can think about it, but you can exert more control over where it’s going, because you’re staying with this larger framework of the entire body. You’re not getting into the framework of the thought.

And if you lose the center, well, go back to the periphery again. Start with the hands, start with the feet, and move back into the center again. Or think of yourself backing into the body, if that’s a helpful perception—anything to give the sense that you’re here sitting surrounded by the breath, by the body. And your center is firm. Not firm through tension, firm simply through the fact that it’s right in the middle, where everything gravitates on its own. That’s the kind of center you can maintain for long periods of time.