By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Vipassana meditation is something of a mental balancing act. You are going to be cultivating two separate qualities of the mind—mindfulness and concentration. Ideally these two work together as a team. They pull in tandem, so to speak. Therefore it is important to cultivate them side-by-side and in a balanced manner. If one of the factors is strengthened at the expense of the other, the balance of the mind is lost and meditation impossible.
Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point. Please note the word FORCE. Concentration is pretty much a forced type of activity. It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower. And once developed, it retains some of that forced flavor. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.
Concentration could be defined as that faculty of the mind which focuses single mindedly on one object without interruption. It must be emphasized that true concentration is a wholesome one-pointedness of mind. That is, the state is free from greed, hatred and delusion. Unwholesome one-pointedness is also possible, but it will not lead to liberation. You can be very single-minded in a state of lust. But that gets you nowhere. Uninterrupted focus on something that you hate does not help yo at all. In fact, such unwholesome concentration is fairly short-lived even when it is achieved—especially when it is used to harm others. True concentration itself is free from such contaminants. It is a state in which the mind is gathered together and thus gains power and intensity. We might use the analogy of a lens. Parallel waves of sunlight falling on a piece of paper will do no more than warm the surface. But the same amount of light, when focused through a lens, falls on a single point and the paper bursts into flames. Concentration is the lens. It produces the burning intensity necessary to see into the deeper reaches of the mind. Mindfulness selects the object that the lens will focus on and looks through the lens to see what is there.
Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. A sharp knife can be used to create a beautiful carving or to harm someone. It is all up to the one who uses the knife. Concentration is similar. Properly used, it can assist you towards liberation. But it can also be used in the service of the ego. It can operate in the framework of achievement and competition. You can use concentration to dominate others. You can use it to be selfish. The real problem is that concentration alone will not give you a perspective on yourself. It won’t throw light on the basic problems of selfishness and the nature of suffering. It can be used to dig down into deep psychological states. But even then, the forces of egotism won’t be understood. Only mindfulness can do that. If mindfulness is not there to look into the lens and see what has been uncovered, then it is all for nothing. Only mindfulness understands. Only mindfulness brings wisdom. Concentration has other limitations, too.
Really deep concentration can only take place under certain specific conditions. Buddhists go to a lot of trouble to build meditation halls and monasteries. Their main purpose is to create a physical environment free of distractions in which to learn this skill. No noise, no interruptions. Just as important, however, is the creation of a distraction-free emotional environment. The development of concentration will be blocked by the presence of certain mental states which we call the five hindrances. They are greed for sensual pleasure, hatred, mental lethargy, restlessness, and mental vacillation. We have examined these mental states more fully in Chapter 12.
A monastery is a controlled environment where this sort of emotional noise is kept to a minimum. No members of the opposite sex are allowed to live together there. Therefore, there is less opportunity for lust. No possessions are allowed. Therefore, no ownership squabbles and less chance for greed and coveting. Another hurdle for concentration should also be mentioned. In really deep concentration, you get so absorbed in the object of concentration that you forget all about trifles. Like your body, for instance, and your identity and everything around you. Here again the monastery is a useful convenience. It is nice to know that there is somebody to take care of you by watching over all the mundane matters of food and physical security. Without such assurance, one hesitates to go as deeply into concentration as one might.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is free from all these drawbacks. Mindfulness is not dependent on any such particular circumstance, physical or otherwise. It is a pure noticing factor. Thus it is free to notice whatever comes up—lust, hatred, or noise. Mindfulness is not limited by any condition. It exists to some extent in every moment, in every circumstance that arises. Also, mindfulness has no fixed object of focus. It observes change. Thus it has an unlimited number of objects of attention. It just looks at whatever is passing through the mind and it does not categorize. Distractions and interruptions are noticed with the same amount of attention as the formal objects of meditation. In a state of pure mindfulness your attention just flows along with whatever changes are taking place in the mind. “Shift, shift, shift. Now this, now this, and now this.”
You can’t develop mindfulness by force. Active teeth gritting willpower won’t do you any good at all. As a matter of fact, it will hinder progress. Mindfulness cannot be cultivated by struggle. It grows by realizing, by letting go, by just settling down in the moment and letting yourself get comfortable with whatever you are experiencing. This does not mean that mindfulness happens all by itself. Far from it. Energy is required. Effort is required. But this effort is different from force. Mindfulness is cultivated by a gentle effort, by effortless effort. The meditator cultivates mindfulness by constantly reminding himself in a gentle way to maintain his awareness of whatever is happening right now. Persistence and a light touch are the secrets. Mindfulness is cultivated by constantly pulling oneself back to a state of awareness, gently, gently, gently.
Mindfulness can’t be used in any selfish way, either. It is nonegoistic alertness. There is no ‘me’ in a state of pure mindfulness. So there is no self to be selfish. On the contrary, it is mindfulness which gives you the real perspective on yourself. It allows you to take that crucial mental step backward from your own desires and aversions so that you can then look and say, “Ah ha, so that’s how I really am.”
In a state of mindfulness, you see yourself exactly as you are. You see your own selfish behavior. You see your own suffering. And you see how you create that suffering. You see how you hurt others. You pierce right through the layer of lies that you normally tell yourself and you see what is really there. Mindfulness leads to wisdom.
Mindfulness is not trying to achieve anything. It is just looking. Therefore, desire and aversion are not involved. Competition and struggle for achievement have no place in the process. Mindfulness does not aim at anything. It just sees whatever is already there.
Mindfulness is a broader and larger function than concentration. it is an all-encompassing function. Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quick to notice any change that occurs. If you have focused the mind on a stone, concentration will see only the stone. Mindfulness stands back from this process, aware of the stone, aware of the concentration focusing on the stone, aware of the intensity of that focus and instantly aware of the shift of attention when concentration is distracted. It is mindfulness which notices the distraction which has occurred, and it is mindfulness which redirects the attention to the stone. Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration because it is a deeper-reaching function. Concentration is merely focusing of the mind, rather like a laser beam. It has the power to burn its way deep into the mind and illuminate what is there. But it does not understand what it sees. Mindfulness can examine the mechanics of selfishness and understand what it sees. Mindfulness can pierce the mystery of suffering and the mechanism of discomfort. Mindfulness can make you free.
There is, however, another Catch-22. Mindfulness does not react to what it sees. It just sees and understands. Mindfulness is the essence of patience. Therefore, whatever you see must be simply accepted, acknowledged and dispassionately observed. This is not easy, but it is utterly necessary. We are ignorant. We are selfish and greedy and boastful. We lust and we lie. These are facts. Mindfulness means seeing these facts and being patient with ourselves, accepting ourselves as we are. That goes against the grain. We don’t want to accept. We want to deny it. Or change it, or justify it. But acceptance is the essence of mindfulness. If we want to grow in mindfulness we must accept what mindfulness finds. It may be boredom, irritation, or fear. It may be weakness, inadequacy, or faults. Whatever it is, that is the way we are. That is what is real.
Mindfulness simply accepts whatever is there. If you want to grow in mindfulness, patient acceptance is the only route. Mindfulness grows only one way: by continuous practice of mindfulness, by simply trying to be mindful, and that means being patient. The process cannot be forced and it cannot be rushed. It proceeds at its own pace.
Concentration and mindfulness go hand-in-hand in the job of meditation. Mindfulness directs the power of concentration. Mindfulness is the manager of the operation. Concentration furnishes the power by which mindfulness can penetrate into the deepest level of the mind. Their cooperation results in insight and understanding. These must be cultivated together in a balanced ratio. Just a bit more emphasis is given to mindfulness because mindfulness is the center of meditation. The deepest levels of concentration are not really needed to do the job of liberation. Still, a balance is essential. Too much awareness without calm to balance it will result in a wildly over sensitized state similar to abusing LSD. Too much concentration without a balancing ratio of awareness will result in the ‘Stone Buddha’ syndrome. The meditator gets so tranquilized that he sits there like a rock. Both of these are to be avoided.
The initial stages of mental cultivation are especially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will actually retard the development of concentration. When getting started in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how incredibly active the mind really is. The Theravada tradition calls this phenomenon ‘monkey mind’. The Tibetan tradition likens it to a waterfall of thought. If you emphasize the awareness function at this point, there will be so much to be aware of that concentration will be impossible. Don’t get discouraged. This happens to everybody. And there is a simple solution. Put most of your effort into one-pointedness at the beginning. Just keep calling the attention from wandering over and over again. Tough it out. Full instructions on how to do this are in Chapters 7 and 8. A couple of months down the track and you will have developed concentration power. Then you can start pumping you energy into mindfulness. Do not, however, go so far with concentration that you find yourself going into a stupor.
Mindfulness still is the more important of the two components. It should be built as soon as you comfortably can do so. Mindfulness provides the needed foundation for the subsequent development of deeper concentration. Most blunders in this area of balance will correct themselves in time. Right concentration develops naturally in the wake of strong mindfulness. The more you develop the noticing factor, the quicker you will notice the distraction and the quicker you will pull out of it and return to the formal object of attention. The natural result is increased concentration. And as concentration develops, it assists the development of mindfulness. The more concentration power you have, the less chance there is of launching off on a long chain of analysis about the distraction. You simply note the distraction and return your attention to where it is supposed to be.
Thus the two factors tend to balance and support each other’s growth quite naturally. Just about the only rule you need to follow at this point is to put your effort on concentration at the beginning, until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness. Overall, mindfulness is the one to emphasize.
Mindfulness guides your development in meditation because mindfulness has the ability to be aware of itself. It is mindfulness which will give you a perspective on your practice. Mindfulness will let you know how you are doing. But don’t worry too much about that. This is not a race. You are not in competition with anybody, and there is no schedule.
One of the most difficult things to learn is that mindfulness is not dependent on any emotional or mental state. We have certain images of meditation. Meditation is something done in quiet caves by tranquil people who move slowly. Those are training conditions. They are set up to foster concentration and to learn the skill of mindfulness. Once you have learned that skill, however, you can dispense with the training restrictions, and you should. You don’t need to move at a snail’s pace to be mindful. You don’t even need to be calm. You can be mindful while solving problems in intensive calculus. You can be mindful in the middle of a football scrimmage. You can even be mindful in the midst of a raging fury. Mental and physical activities are no bar to mindfulness. If you find your mind extremely active, then simply observe the nature and degree of that activity. It is just a part of the passing show within.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (b. 1927) is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk. He is abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, US.
By Henepola Gunaratana
M. Smith, an Amazon reviewer, writes:
“Mindfulness in Plain English is one the very best books written as an introduction to mindfulness and Buddhist meditation. It is far more than simply in introduction to meditation. It is a masterfully explained ‘how to’ handbook, a nuts and bolts kind of map, that walks you through how to meditate and deal with the many typical obstacles which virtually all people deal with as they begin and progress. What sets this book apart from other leading books in this category, is that Bhante Gunaratana is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, classicly trained and ordained in the form of practice he calls Vipassana, which places great emphasis on mindfulness. He explains, ‘Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself.’
“Bhante Gunaratana writes with a very engaging and relaxed style, which makes the book easy to follow and even humorous at times. He speaks with candor and right from the beginning he emphasizes that, ‘Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline.’ But, then he goes on to emphasize that meditation should be rejuvenating and liberating, and in fact, that most seasoned practitioners have a good sense of humor, because the practice creates a calmness and relaxed perspective about life. The author’s explanations about key concepts is stated in a fresh manner, for instance explaining that the word ‘suffering’ in Buddhism needs to be thoroughly understood to realize that in the original Pali language it does not just mean agony of the body, but that it also means a sense of dissatisfaction that is typical of what all people deal with on a daily basis. He also emphasizes that Vipassana, unlike some other Buddhist traditions, ranks mindfulness and awareness right up beside concentration as a means to liberation. Thus a great part of the focus of meditation is a combination of concentration and mindfulness.”
This page was published on April 14, 2001 and last revised on June 10, 2017.