You know how there are certain people who, when you meet them, make you feel like you’re the only person in the world for as long as they’re talking to you? The full weight of their attention is startling at first, because it’s not something we’re used to. In these busy times, there are always distractions trying to tear us away from where we are. If we’re at a party, there are snatches of interesting conversation; if we’re on the street, there’s no end to visual stimuli. Even in relatively quiet surroundings, we often have to battle with someone’s inner thoughts or phone for their attention.
So it’s noticeable when it’s clear someone is paying attention solely to us — to what we say, how we say it, and all of the non-verbal cues we give both consciously and subconsciously. That level of focus can make us feel important, even confident. And then we notice that the next person this same fellow meets gets that same treatment.
When this happens to me, I feel confused, maybe even a little slighted. People can’t actually work that way, right? Focusing on one individual at a time, one conversation at a time, being fully present in the moment they’re in before letting that go and moving on. What gives?
It took me a long time to realize that cultivated concentration looks just like that. Being able to focus squarely on the one thing we’re doing while we’re doing it, giving it our total effort and full being, is one of the best things we can do as Buddhists. It is the practice of Right Concentration.
Mindfulness and concentration are closely connected, but I think it’s good to view them as a broad searchlight (mindfulness) and a narrow spotlight (concentration). While mindfulness allows us to take in the many different aspects of a situation and come to an understanding with it to determine the best response, concentration is what allows us to commit to that response wholly and fully.
A lot of what we see as stereotypical monastic life feels like it’s geared towards this purpose. Monks simplify their lives in order to learn how to live each moment with total concentration. When they are meditating, they meditate; when they’re cooking, they cook; when they’re gardening, they garden. The act of losing one’s self in the absorption of their activity has always been tremendously appealing to me, and I think this is why.
You see this a lot even outside of a Buddhist context. My favorite conversations with people are when they “step out of their own way” and become a conduit for the wonder and excitement that their favorite hobby or life’s work brings to them. You see them get so lost in the work that there’s almost no ego at all; just someone performing this activity. It’s a kind of rapture, this state, where you’ve drawn in to the pursuit of the perfect sentence, or musical phrase, or brushstroke. It’s so difficult to get to, but it’s a wonderful place to be.
Right Concentration posits that this state can be expanded beyond a rapturous creation of art and carried with us into everyday life. In fact, the very idea of total concentration and complete absorption is actually nothing special. It can be reached when you’re shopping for your groceries, washing the dishes, putting the children to bed, or lounging by the pool. You can do it in conversation, or solitude, in passive observation or active participation. The most important thing is to allow yourself the chance to concentrate on the task in front of you.
That is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s difficult to perform one task with a single-minded focus in this day and age. It’d be much easier if we were monks in a temple, with no distractions. But that is not the world we live in. There are countless things vying for our attention every waking moment, and part of our practice is to understand and accept this, then move forward with clear concentration anyway.
This is why our time on the meditation bench is so important. It allows us to simply be with what is present — whether it’s a pain in our legs or a troubling memory we can’t shake. By accepting what is present, we learn how to shift our perspectives so that what arises is not suddenly our entire world, but just a temporary piece of our experience. It will be with us for a while, and then it will fall away.
With mindfulness, we can determine whether or not what arises should have our attention. If so, our views and intention will direct our speech and action to work towards the most harmonious outcome. And our concentration will allow us to continue that work whole-heartedly, without ego, clear and faithful in our work.
The steps on the Noble Eightfold Path aren’t linear. Right View does not necessarily lead straight into Right Intention, so forth and so on until we reach Right Concentration and into Right View again. Sometimes we will need to focus on one aspect or group above the others, or sometimes we’ll need to take things step by step in order to steady our footing. But overall, the Noble Eightfold Path is one of those things that can’t helped but be worked all at once, with one aspect helping us to move forward in every other. Wisdom, ethical conduct and mental training go hand in hand; it’s really difficult to focus on one without the effects of your study filtering through everything else.
So for me, this is what the Path looks like. It’ll be interesting to revisit this in a year or two to see what’s changed.