By Wayne Ren-Cheng
Appropriate concentration, along with effort and mindfulness, is an aspect of the Eightfold Path that leads to a meditative bodymind on-and-off the cushion. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are the path to insight. Whether it is called concentration or focus it begins as a meditative practice, particularly in the case of Mindfulness Meditation. Much instruction is given about ways to maintain concentration during meditation sessions. Some focus on a candle flame, the sound of a ching bell, or breathing. Concentration must also be actively practiced when off the cushion.
Last weekend I attended a mini-retreat at the Mid-America Buddhist Association (MABA). One of the teachings was on Mindfulness Meditation. It is well-known that while in meditation the bodymind can be distracted by feelings, thoughts and sounds. A dharani to help maintain concentration by re-focusing on breathing was handed out. It reads:
Focusing on the Breath – Anapanasati Practice
As you sit, notice the breath. Whenever distracted by feelings, thoughts, or sounds say
feeling-feeling-feeling, return to the breath,
thinking-thinking-thinking, return to the breath,
sound-sound-sound, return to the breath
or any method which helps keep the mind focused and brings it back gently when it strays.
Whenever distracted by feelings, thinking or sounds one must return to the breath, return there gently. Doing this gradually trains the bodymind to maintain focus on the cushion. With some creative re-description that dharani can guide one to deeper levels of concentration off the cushion where let’s be honest, we spend a lot more of our time.
That the task of meditation requires the practitioner to set-aside feelings, thinking and sounds in order to remain focused is realized quickly in Buddhist practice. However, some people find it difficult to practice that same concentration in other aspects of their moment-to-moment lives. I’ve encountered practitioners whose concentration and focus on the cushion is incredible. No phenomena messes with their meditative mojo. They maintain their meditative state no matter the external influences or the internal ones. Off the cushion they would engage in attempting to multi-task . . . something they wouldn’t consider while meditating. Concentration isn’t only appropriate during meditation.
In moment-to-moment living there are a lot of tasks that need to be done, and some things we just want to do. Like in meditation, feelings, thoughts and sounds can distract from the task . . . if they are allowed to. Physical sensations or emotional arisings, feelings can be distracting if you let them. Thinking about other projects, about home, about what you’d rather be doing . . . anything but what you need to be doing can be distracting. The sounds of fire engines, the dog whining, the television on in the other room can be distracting. It is not the phenomena that are distracting, it is the bodymind letting them be distracting, not bringing the bodymind gently back to the task at hand. Like in meditation any distracting feelings, thoughts and sounds must fall-away leaving the bodymind in a state of concentration.
A creative re-description of the Mindfulness Dharani and it gains value off the cushion:
Dharani for Concentration
Be mindful of the task. Whenever distracted by feelings, thoughts, or sounds say
feeling-feeling-feeling, return to the task,
thinking-thinking-thinking, return to the task,
sound-sound-sound, return to the task
or any method proven to keep the mind focused and bring it back gently when it strays.
Any task can be a meditative experience when Appropriate Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration are applied. Be mindful of why the task is important. When you notice a twinge in your back from sitting in the office chair for so long, stand up and stretch, then gently return your attention to the task. Anxious or agitated because there is something you’d rather be doing, or because the task is difficult, let the emotions fall-away and gently return to the task. You think about the weekend, what to make for dinner tonight, how great the new X-Men movie is going to be, and any of the other thoughts not related to the task, then return your concentration gently to the task. The sound of “you’ve got mail”, the phone ringing, kids playing right outside the window, gossiping at a nearby desk can all be distractions unless you gently return to the task.
Like you gently return to watching breath, you gently return to the task. Why gently? There is no need to be forceful or rude because you are returning to something you want to do, that you know needs to be done. You say feeling-feeling-feeling, thinking-thinking-thinking, sound-sound-sound as an intentional way to remind yourself to set aside any bodymind activity that isn’t necessary to complete the task.
Appropriate concentration isn’t only for meditation. The contemporary world is packed with distractions that the Buddha wouldn’t have imagined. No matter the time or culture there is value in its practice. Whatever the task is that needs to be done, it deserves total concentration and focus so that it is done well.