Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of May 10, 2010

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Right Concentration

(Aspect 8 of the Eightfold Path)

Mindfulness and concentration form the two wings that make our spiritual practice fly. Mindfulness brings freedom, wisdom, and compassion, while concentration develops stability and depth. We need them both. Without concentration, mindfulness evaporates all too easily. Without mindfulness, concentration remains sterile.

Concentration refers first to the practice of focusing and holding the spotlight of attention on a single object of perception, most commonly on the sensations associated with breathing or on the repetition of some phrase. We train ourselves to direct and hold our attention, while staying relaxed. This affects both our will and our energies. Attention is one of the powers of our will. Through attention we will our awareness toward a particular direction. Energies are the medium of awareness. So our will, as attention, entrains our energies, as awareness. The net effect is that the longer we are able to hold our attention, the more our inner energies collect and stabilize. A session of concentrating on awareness of our breathing, of our body, or on a sacred phrase, leaves us centered and at peace.

There are stages or levels of depth in our practice of concentration. We begin at the stage of momentary concentration, where we can stay on target only for a brief time, measured in seconds, before our attention wanders off. The continuing effort of refocusing our attention whenever it lapses gradually opens us to the conscious energy, which offers a timeless stability leading to the next stage of concentration. That second stage brings the power to stay focused, while staying relaxed, for longer periods, measured in minutes. The second stage is the crucial one for mindfulness to be effective; it enables us to see what’s going on in us over more than a few seconds, to watch the unfolding and changing of our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. So in any session of meditation, we begin with some type of concentration practice, focusing our mind, our attention. Once we establish the relatively stable attention of the second stage, we can leave the concentration practice and proceed with the other parts of the meditation.

A good example of a concentration practice, this one from Zen, consists of paying attention to the physical sensations associated with breathing, while counting our breaths one to ten, and then starting again at one. The primary focus of attention is on the sensations, while the counting goes on in the background of our mind. At the start, we notice where our perception of breathing is strongest: at our upper lip and nostrils, in our chest, or in our abdomen. Then we choose to focus all our attention at that place for the duration of this part of the meditation. We do not intentionally change our manner of breathing. We just let our body breathe itself normally, while we sense the process. The counting follows the breath, not the other way around. When our attention strays off our breath, even for a moment, we begin the counting again at one. If we find ourselves counting eleven, twelve, thirteen, we know we have lost the exercise and again begin at one. When we can get through several sets of ten breaths without a break in our attention, we have reached the beginning of the second stage of concentration. At that point we can either continue the breath counting to increase our concentration further or we can shift to other parts of the meditation practice, such as the wide awareness of mindfulness.

Further stages of concentration practice can open us to the ocean of peace and stillness, the pure experience of the conscious energy. Beyond that we may find the cascading energies of the Sacred Light. And beyond that we may rest in complete equanimity and unity. These deep states of concentration profoundly affect our soul, nourishing us with a very high food. One difficulty is that these states are so blissful that we can easily become attached to them. And then our inner work becomes a chase after high states rather than the search for freedom, completion, and the ability to serve. So while there is great value in working toward the deeper states of concentration, we also work toward the full and liberating mindfulness in daily life. And for the latter, we need only the second stage of concentration: stabilized attention.

Concentration practice strengthens our will-to-be and mindfulness practice opens us to the whole of experience. Together they give us a more stable presence. Concentration practice also sharpens our major tool for spiritual inner work, our attention. And by sharpening our attention the practice sharpens us, for in a very real sense we are our attention. Strong attention enables us to practice energy breathing effectively to nourish our soul. If we so choose, a strong attention along with its stable energies can carry us into the subtleties of prayer, particularly contemplative prayer in which we focus our entire being on the Divine. The more we focus on the Divine, the more the Divine focuses on us.

This completes our survey of the Eightfold Path, which culminates in mindfulness and concentration. For this week, practice focusing your attention, focusing yourself.


     

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