The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Alternate format: [book icon] A printed copy is included in the book Noble Strategy.

Many people tell us that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation — mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route that you take at your own risk because it's very easy to get caught there and you may never get out. But when you actually look at what the Buddha taught, he never separates these two practices. They are both parts of a single whole. Every time he explains mindfulness and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of Right Concentration — to get the mind to settle down and to find a place where it can really feel stable, at home, where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they are.

Part of the "two practices" issue centers on how we understand the word jhana, which is a synonym for Right Concentration. Many of us have heard that jhana is a very intense trance-like state that requires intense staring and shutting out the rest of the world. It sounds nothing like mindfulness at all. But if you look in the Canon where the Buddha describes jhana, that's not the kind of state he's talking about. To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body. One of the images the Buddha used to describe this state is that of a person kneading water into dough so that the water permeates throughout the flour. Another is a lake in which a cool spring comes welling up and suffuses the entire lake.

Now, when you're with the body as a whole, you're very much in the present moment. You're right there all the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana — in which the body is filled with bright awareness — is the point where mindfulness and equanimity become pure. So there should be no problem in combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that gets very settled and still. In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation: (1) being aware of long breathing, (2) being aware of short breathing, (3) being aware of the whole body as you breathe in and breathe out, and then (4) calming the sensation of the breath within the body. This, as the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness practice. It's also a basic concentration practice. You're getting into the first jhana — Right Concentration — right there, at the same time that you're practicing Right Mindfulness.

To see how Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration help each other in the practice, we can look at the three stages of mindfulness practice given in the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. Take the body as an example. The first stage is to keep focused on the body in and of itself, putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. What this means is taking the body as a body without thinking about it in terms of what it means or what it can do in the world. It could be either good or bad looking. It could be strong or weak. It could be agile or clumsy — all the issues we tend to worry about when we think about ourselves. The Buddha says to put those issues aside.

Just be with the body in and of itself, sitting right here. You close your eyes — what do you have? There's the sensation of "bodiness" that you're sitting with. That's your frame of reference. Try to stay with it. Keep bringing the mind back to this sense of the body until it gets the message and begins to settle down. In the beginning of the practice you find the mind going out to grasp this or that, so you note it enough to tell it to let go, return to the body, and hold on there. Then it goes out to grasp something else, so you tell it to let go, come back, and latch onto the body again. Eventually, though, you reach a point where you can actually grasp hold of the breath and you don't let go, okay? You keep holding onto it. From that point on, whatever else that happens to come into your awareness is like something coming up and brushing the back of your hand. You don't have to note it. You stay with the body as your basic frame of reference. Other things come and go, you're aware of them, but you don't drop the breath and go grasping after them. This is when you really have established the body as a solid frame of reference.

As you do this, you develop three qualities of mind. One is mindfulness (sati). The term mindfulness means being able to remember, to keep something in mind. In the case of establishing the body as a frame of reference, it means being able to remember where you're supposed to be — with the body — and you don't let yourself forget. The second quality, alertness (sampajañña), means being aware of what is actually going on in the present. Are you with the body? Are you with the breath? Is the breath comfortable? Simply notice what's actually happening in the present moment. We tend to confuse mindfulness with alertness, but actually they are two separate things: mindfulness means being able to remember where you want to keep your awareness; alertness means being aware of what's actually happening. The third quality, ardency (atappa), means two things. One, if you realize that the mind has wandered off, you bring it right back. Immediately. You don't let it wander around, sniffing the flowers. Two, when the mind is with its proper frame of reference, ardency means trying to be as sensitive as possible to what's going on — not just drifting in the present moment, but really trying to penetrate more and more into the subtle details of what's actually happening with the breath or the mind.

When you have these three qualities focused on the body in and of itself, you can't help but settle down and get really comfortable with the body in the present moment. That's when you're ready for the second stage in the practice, which is described as being aware of the phenomenon of origination and the phenomenon of passing away. This is a stage where you're trying to understand cause and effect as they happen in the present. In terms of concentration practice, once you've got the mind to settle down, you want to understand the interaction of cause and effect in the process of concentration so that you can get it to settle down more solidly for longer periods of time in all sorts of situations, on the cushion and off. To do this, you have to learn about how things arise and pass away in the mind, not by simply watching them, but by actually getting involved in their arising and passing away.

You can see this in the Buddha's instructions for dealing with the hindrances. In the first stage, he says to be aware of the hindrances as they come and go. Some people think that this is an exercise in "choiceless awareness," where you don't try to will the mind in any direction, where you simply sit and watch willy-nilly whatever comes into the mind. In actual practice, though, the mind isn't yet ready for that. What you need at this stage is a fixed point of reference for evaluating the events in the mind, just as when you're trying to gauge the motion of clouds through the sky: You need to choose a fixed point — like a roof gable or a light pole — at which to stare so that you can get a sense of which direction and how fast the clouds are moving. The same with the coming and going of sensual desire, ill will, etc., in the mind: You have to try to maintain a fixed reference point for the mind — like the breath — if you want to be really sensitive to when there are hindrances in the mind — getting in the way of your reference point — and when there are not.

Suppose that anger is interfering with your concentration. Instead of getting involved in the anger, you try simply to be aware of when it's there and when it's not. You look at the anger as an event in and of itself — as it comes, as it goes. But you don't stop there. The next step — as you're still working at focusing on the breath — is recognizing how anger can be made to go away. Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away; sometimes it's not, and you have to deal with it in other ways, such as arguing with the reasoning behind the anger or reminding yourself of the drawbacks of anger. In the course of dealing with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to try and figure out why the anger is coming, why it's going, how you can get it out of there, because you realize that it's an unskillful state. And this requires that you improvise. Experiment. You've got to chase your ego and impatience out of the way so that you can have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, so that you can develop a skill in dealing with the anger. It's not just a question of hating the anger and trying to push it away, or of loving the anger and welcoming it. These approaches may give results in the short run, but in the long run they're not especially skillful. What's called for here is the ability to see what the anger is composed of; how can you take it apart.

One technique I like to use — when anger is present and you're in a situation where you don't immediately have to react to people — is simply to ask yourself in a good-natured way, "Okay, why are you angry?" Listen to what the mind has to say. Then pursue the matter: "But why are you angry at that? " "Of course, I'm angry. After all..." "Well, why are you angry at that?" If you keep this up, the mind will eventually admit to something stupid, like the assumption that people shouldn't be that way — even though they blatantly are that way — or that people should act in line with your standards, or whatever the mind is so embarrassed about that it tries to hide from you. But finally, if you keep probing, it'll fess up. You gain a lot of understanding of the anger that way, and this can really weaken its power over you.

In terms of the positive qualities like mindfulness, serenity, and concentration, it's a similar sort of thing. First, you're aware of when they're there and when they're not, and then you realize that when they're there it's much nicer than when they're not. So you try to figure out how they come, how they go. You do this by consciously trying to maintain that state of mindfulness and concentration. If you're really observant — and this is what it's all about, being observant — you begin to see that there are skillful ways of maintaining the state without getting all tied up in failure or success in doing it, without letting the desire for a settled state of mind actually get in the way of the mind's settling down. You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody's keeping score or taking grades. You're here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not "just watching." It's more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.

Once, when I was in college, I wrote home complaining about the food, and my mother sent me a Julia Child cookbook. In the book was a section on dealing with eggs in which she said that the sign of a really good cook is knowing eggs. And so I took an egg out. You can watch an egg — you can learn certain things just by watching it, but you don't learn very much. To learn about eggs you have to put them in a pan and try to make something out of them. If you do this long enough you begin to understand that there are variations in eggs, and there are certain ways that they react to heat and ways that they react to oil or butter or whatever. And so by actually working with the egg and trying to make something out of it, you really come to understand eggs. It's similar with clay: you really don't know clay until you become a potter and actually try to make something out of the clay.

And it's the same with the mind: unless you actually try to make something out of the mind, try to get a mental state going and keep it going, you don't really know your own mind. You don't know the processes of cause and effect within the mind. There has to be a factor of actual participation in the process. That way you can understand it. This all comes down to being observant and developing a skill. The essence of developing a skill means two things. One, you're aware of a situation as it is given and, two, you're aware of what you put into it. When the Buddha talks about causation, he says that every situation is shaped from two directions — the causes coming in from the past and the causes you're putting into the present. You need to be sensitive to both. If you aren't sensitive to what you're putting into a situation, you'll never develop any kind of skill. As you're aware of what you're doing, you also look at the results. If something isn't right, you go back and change what you've done — keeping at this until you get the results you want. And in the process, you learn a great deal from the clay, the eggs, or whatever you're trying to deal with skillfully.

The same holds true with the mind. Of course, you could learn something about the mind by trying to get it into any sort of a state, but for the purpose of developing really penetrating insight, a state of stable, balanced, mindful concentration is the best kind of soufflé or pot you want to make with the mind. The factors of pleasure, ease, and sometimes even rapture that arise when the mind really settles down help you stay comfortably in the present moment, with a low center of gravity. Once the mind is firmly settled there, you have something to look at for a long period of time so that you can see what it's made up of. In the typical unbalanced state of the mind, things are appearing and disappearing too fast for you to notice them clearly. But as the Buddha notes, when you get really skilled at jhana, you can step back a bit and really see what you've got. You can see, say, where there's an element of attachment, where there's an element of stress, or even where there's inconstancy within your balanced state. This is where you begin to gain insight, as you see the natural cleavage lines among the different factors of the mind, and in particular, the cleavage line between awareness and the objects of awareness.

Another advantage to this mindful, concentrated state is that as you feel more and more at home in it, you begin to realize that it's possible to have happiness and pleasure in life without depending on things outside of yourself — people, relationships, approval from others, or any of the issues that come from being part of the world. This realization helps pry loose your attachments to things outside. Some people are afraid of getting attached to a state of calm, but actually, it's very important that you get attached here, so that you begin to settle down and begin to undo your other attachments. Only when this attachment to calm is the only one left do you begin work on loosening it up as well.

Still another reason why solid concentration is necessary for insight is that when discernment comes to the mind, the basic lesson it will teach you is that you've been stupid. You've held onto things even though deep down inside you should have known better. Now, try telling that to people when they're hungry and tired. They'll come right back with, "You're stupid, too," and that's the end of the discussion. Nothing gets accomplished. But if you talk to someone who has had a full meal and feels rested, you can broach all kinds of topics without risking a fight. It's the same with the mind. When it has been well fed with the rapture and ease coming from concentration, it's ready to learn. It can accept your criticisms without feeling threatened or abused.

So. This is the role that concentration practice plays in this second stage of mindfulness practice: It gives you something to play with, a skill to develop so you can begin to understand the factors of cause and effect within the mind. You begin to see the mind as just a flux of causes with their effects coming back at you. Your ideas are part of this flux of cause and effect, your emotions, your sense of who you are. This insight begins to loosen your attachments to the whole process.

What finally happens is that the mind reaches a third level of mindfulness practice where the mind comes to a state of perfect equilibrium — where you've developed this state of concentration, this state of equilibrium to the point where you don't have to put anything more into it. In the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta this is described as simply being aware — if you are using the body as your frame of reference, being aware that "There is a body," just enough for knowledge and mindfulness, without being attached to anything in the world. Other texts call this the state of "non-fashioning." The mind reaches the point where you begin to realize that all causal processes in the mind — including the processes of concentration and insight — are like tar babies. If you like them, you get stuck; if you don't like them, you get stuck. So what are you going to do? You have to get to the point where you're not really contributing anything more to the present moment. You unravel your participation in it. That's when things open up in the mind.

Many people want to jump right in and begin at this level of not adding anything to the present moment, but it doesn't work that way. You can't be sensitive to the subtle things the mind is habitually adding to the present until you've consciously tried to alter what you're adding. As you get more and more skilled, you get more sensitive to the subtle things you didn't realize you were doing. You reach a point of disenchantment, where you realize that the most skillful way of dealing with the present is to strip away all levels of participation that cause even the slightest bit of stress in the mind. You start dismantling the levels of participation that you learned in the second stage of the practice, to the point where things reach equilibrium on their own, where there's letting go and release.

So it's important to realize that there are these three stages to mindfulness practice, and to understand the role that deliberate concentration practice plays in taking you through the first two. Without aiming at Right Concentration, you can't develop the skills needed for understanding the mind — for it's in the process of mastering the skill of mindful concentration that true insight arises. Just as you don't really understand a herd of cattle until you've successfully herded them — learning from all your failures along the way — you can't get a sense of all the cause-and-effect currents running through the mind until you've learned from your failures and successes in getting them to gather in a state of concentrated mindfulness and mindful concentration. And only when you've really understood and mastered these currents — the currents of craving that cause suffering and stress, and the currents of mindfulness and concentration that form the Path — can you let them go and find freedom from them.