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Concentration meditation (samadhi) explained

Here's my attempt to clarify concentration meditation in my own mind. This is in contrast to an earlier post on mindfulness meditation. I won't try to explain all the different techniques you might use to get concentrated as this would take too long, so I'll focus on using the breath and deep relaxation.

The first thing to understand about concentration meditation is that it has very little to do with everyday concentration as we know it, i.e. focusing on a task intently, thinking hard about something. It has more to do with tranquility and letting go of contraction and allowing a new kind of experience to arise - altered mind states known as jhanas. The intention is to generate a unity of body and mind.

Anyway, first things first. We begin concentration meditation by placing attention on a single object, such as the breath, using mindful awareness. We use mindfulness as a technique to stabilise our attention (this is probably why people get confused between mindfulness and concentration meditation). As in all meditation, during this initial phase we are engaged in a struggle between remaining mindful and being distracted by thoughts (in the guise of the five hindrances). Each time we get lost we simply return to the object of our attention - the breath. We can use various techniques to remain interested in the breath such as breath counting or repeating phrases as we breathe in and out.

Once we have stable attention, we then use the breath to purposefully relax the body and tranquillise any tension that we might be holding. At some point we will notice pleasureable feelings arising in the body and we can then switch attention to them. We abide with these pleasurable sensations and allow them to expand so that we become fully drenched in them. These feelings envelope us and, as we stay with them, we notice a great contentment being felt. We follow the contentment and this, in turn, gives way to an easeful stillness. People seem to disagree about the naming of these states, but I'd say that this is access concentration.

At this point we are still 'ourselves' and we might be able to recognise the five so-called jhanic factors pulsing round our system:

- initial application of attention
- sustained application of attention
- rapture/joy
- happiness/contentment
- one pointedness or singleness of mind.

Any stray thoughts that may arise at this time will be of little interest and easily let go of.

So, onwards. The next stage is to dwell in the singleness of mind with all our senses working with the mental experience of the breath. Our intention is to let go and surrender our mind. At some point, if we stick with the breath, a switch happens and the mind is liberated from its normal operations and we feel profoundly different - we are in jhana. There are no stray thoughts here anymore and if we do think we immediately fall out of the jhanic state. The jhanic states continue as we go deeper into them until it all goes very bizarre indeed.

I think that will do for now. Hopefully I've illustrated the difference in approach between continuous mindful awareness and concentration meditation.

The difficulty with concentration meditation is letting the positive mental states dominate us totally - that's why it's best to limit the distractions in our life and generate goodwill for everything.

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Ingredients

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A standard view of the Jhana states (what happens when we meditate)

Here is a diagram of the Jhana states as they are generally explained. The first row consists of the Jhanic factors (I have compressed the first two, applied and sustained thought, into one called "Settled mind" to make the diagram more consistent). The second row are the first four Jhanas, and the bottom row are the formless states of mind. (If you click the image, it gets bigger).



So then, how do we use this kind of information as we meditate. Well, I spent many years wondering about various experiences that occurred during meditation and only when I discovered this information was I able to get a sense of the whole map. This was helpful.

Generally, I like to use these states not as a list of achievable things but as a conceptual map of what is possible with the mind. As you meditate, it can be useful to incline the mind towards contentment and wide open space rather than simply counting 10 breaths. Even though the depth of the actualized Jhana states is tremendously profo…

Meditation is simple

Here are the simplest instructions I know for meditation. It's a good place to start:

1. Find somewhere quiet and comfortable.

2. Pick something you want to rest your mind on: your breath coming in or out; staring (eyes half down) at an object; listening to a steady sound. As you breathe in and out, maintain relaxed attention on the object. Maintain attention on the object as you breathe in, as you breathe out and during the gaps in between.

3. Your mind will wander off.

4. Cultivate a laissez faire attitude to what is going on. Let things come and go. Return to gently to your object.


Do this for 10-15 minutes to begin with. Observe any relaxation that may occur: your body giving way, the mind calming.

From here, you can begin to investigate what is happening, but this is where you start.

A nice exercise in whole body awareness

It all starts with the body. Your body is your greatest asset.

Take a seat somewhere. Go inside your body and take a relaxing breath. Become aware of your body. Start at the feet and then expand from there. Sense your awareness of the body growing - become aware of the feet and legs; then feet, legs and torso; then feet, legs, torso, arms and hands. Have a sense of energy growing through the body.

Finally, as you breathe, hold your entire body in awareness - feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head. Feel into a sense of openness and clarity. Notice any blockages in the flow of openness. Then enjoy three or more clear breaths. Nothing outside the present moment, you and your body.

During the day: try it standing up, or in everyday situations. Notice what undermines your attempts to do the practice.

Quick fix: attempt one full body breath before you begin your next task. Do it as often as you can.

How do I fix myself with mindfulness

This appears to be a common pattern. We do our mindfulness course expecting to be transformed, we feel a bit better on the course, a week after the course we find that nothing has changed. There's also the case of people who have been doing meditation for ages and yet they still feel as depressed and angry as they did when they started.

So then, what is going on?

The mind is a tricky beast. It is used to taking action and seeing immediate results. Mindfulness is more subtle than this. It is about seeing the relationship between body, feelings, mind and thoughts and how they come and go. There is no explicit result to be found, just an on going relationship with the thing that is us. However, the longer we observe ourselves the more likely we are to see wisdom arising. That is to say, we begin to see what is beneficial and what is harmful to us. We begin to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness - we are no longer simply victims of circumstance. We know what we nee…

What is mindfulness?

I like to have a crack at this every now and again because my appreciation of it seems to change as the years go by. This time I'll do it through a series of questions.

How do I know I'm being mindful?
The simplest way to do this is to label your experience as it happens. Keep it casual. Pay attention to what is going on and give it a label - sitting, seeing, thinking, feet, pressure, breathing. If you are able to label what is happening then you know what is happening. This knowing is mindfulness.
Is that it?
That's the beginning. Once you know what is going on you can begin to explore experience and what your mind is doing. This gives you some space around experience and this gap is where the freedom happens. This space separates out the details of your life from what you really are.
Why does it come and go?
The mind is a complex instrument that is rapidly switching between different modes of operation (for want of a better phrase). Mindfulness is not a mission critical thi…