From concentration comes peace.
This even applies to concentrating on relatively neutral objects. Whenever we allow ourselves to concentrate on anything, let’s say playing an instrument or running or gardening, we can get into “the zone.” You know that feeling — when we get so caught up in our craft or our talent that we start to feel great, to feel really alive? Wild horses can’t tear us away. We feel peaceful. And that’s because we are concentrating.
Carrying on from this article, Want to really relax?
Nowadays concentrating even on mundane activities is becoming a lost art – us modern human beings are totally and massively distracted. Just one example — on the United flight right now from La Guardia, flying home from a blissful 3-day retreat in a Buddhist temple for world peace, a screen takes up the back of every seat. I don’t know how to turn mine off, I have instead resorted to an ingenious method of covering it up. (This is of course after checking if there was anything worth watching (there wasn’t) and nonetheless squandering 30 minutes on the tail-end of a surprisingly inane movie).
Almost everyone around me, if they’re not dozing, is flipping from one set of images to another on one screen or another. I have observed and heard that teenagers cannot even watch a movie from beginning to end anymore; movies are, like, sooooo long. Didn’t uninterrupted movies used to be one of life’s pleasures?! Now apparently they are too much like hard work.
I noticed in South Africa how planeloads of people would chat and laugh and even sing, barely a gadget in sight – and how alive it felt. The whole energy on that visit kept evoking this visceral feeling of freedom in me; and at some point I realized that it was reminding me not just of the old days of my youth in Ghana, but of the “old days” everywhere. Those days when we used to actually look at and talk to each other for more than a few seconds, or even get absorbed in just one book – free from the addictive scrolling from one distraction to the next. A good friend of mine just returned from a month in a Malawi village and, for not dissimilar reasons, it was one of the happiest periods of his life.
I am totally aware, by the way, that I am sounding like an old fogey. However, in my defense, not only am I not saying that I am immune to modern distractions myself (I’m not); but when it comes to mental peace I feel that the world is in dangerous and increasingly short supply. I also believe that if people want to concentrate, it is not nearly as hard as it seems; and the results are dramatic. Even a short and simple breathing meditation, such as this one, can bring space and ease into our whole day.
And far from being escapist, meditation also makes us more sane and into a decent civilian. I got off the plane to the news of the insane murders of children in Texas by someone who is not much older than a child himself. That is what I mean about dangerous. We have to get control over our minds or the nightmares cannot end. We cannot tame the minds of others, as Atisha said, without first taming our own. Concentration on positive objects, such as love, leads to mental control. It makes us reliable. It makes us safe to be around.
You obviously don’t have to be a Buddhist to improve your mindfulness and concentration, but we can learn a lot from what Buddha had to say on the subject. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, for example, there’s a chapter called “Training in Tranquil Abiding,” which is training in perfect concentration, training to be a very good meditator. In it, Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:
The Tibetan term for tranquil abiding is ‘zhi nay’, in which ‘zhi’ means tranquil or pacified, and ‘nay,’ means abiding or remaining.
As we train in Buddhism, or Dharma, we train in different levels of concentration, gradually improving it until we attain tranquil abiding. Every level is going to bring us a deeper peace. When we get to actual tranquil abiding we’ll have perfect concentration and our mind will be completely undisturbed by anything life throws at it. That’s a pretty significant goal.
So tranquil abiding is a mind that has pacified distractions and remains single-pointedly on one object. Its definition is:
A concentration that possesses the special bliss of physical and mental suppleness that is attained in dependence upon completing the nine mental abidings.
If you think of the nine mental abidings as rungs on a ladder, tranquil abiding is what you get at the top. To begin with we only need to reach the first rung — being able to focus on one virtuous object for a minute — which is an entirely realistic aim.
As mentioned in this article:
The definition of concentration is a mental factor that makes its primary mind remain on its object single-pointedly.
Single-pointedness means that our mind is not all over the place — it is placed on one object, and it can stay on that object. Instead of juggling loads of different things in the mind, we are very peacefully resting on one object — whether that is a virtuous determination or a feeling of love and so on. That way we are becoming more and more deeply acquainted with it until one day it sticks, becomes effortless for us.
There is also a huge amount of extra space opening up in the mind. Normally our mind is full of thoughts. It never stops – there’s just so much going on all the time: “Did I do that?”, “What if I do this?” It’s just endless, isn’t it? And there’s no space. Especially when we have problems and worries, they fill our mind. This lack of space is far from restful, it’s not peaceful at all.
Our mind is empty like space, formless awareness. We could be forgiven for thinking it’s completely packed and crowded and dark and overpopulated; but with single-pointedness from not forgetting our object, this huge space starts to open up in what turns out to be our enormous, vast, limitless mind. Concentration clears all the junk away, bringing about a tremendous clarity, lucidity, and lightness. It’s very beautiful, you know — just a beautiful state of mind.
Then when that concentration is single-pointedly focused on something powerful or positive in itself, like love, compassion, or Mahamudra, we also receive the benefits of that object on top of the benefits of the concentration. It’s a win-win—a peaceful mind and an amazing object mixed together. That’s when we start discovering in our first-hand experience that depth we all have, that potential for limitless change.
A well trained horse
Geshe Kelsang says that if we train our mind in concentration, it can become like a well-trained horse, doing our bidding, responding to our every direction, and carrying us on our spiritual journey. We start by focusing the mind on one object without distraction. That’s an important beginning, but it’s just the start. Geshe-la says:
With effort it is not difficult to attain a mind that can remain for a short time on one object single-pointedly without distraction, but this is not tranquil abiding. Actual tranquil abiding is attained only by improving this mind until it induces the special bliss of suppleness.
With tranquil abiding we feel like we can count all the atoms in a wall. Our mind becomes so supple and flexible that we can do whatever we want with it. We can steer our mind wherever we want it to go, and whenever.
That’s an amazing superpower, isn’t it? Imagine saying to your mind,
I want you to develop love and think about it all day long.
Right now our mind may obey for a few seconds, and then off it goes again like a bucking bronco that insists on doing its thing, regardless of its hapless rider (us). With the blissful mental suppleness of tranquil abiding, however, our mind is flexible, controlled, and malleable, and we can do whatever we want with it. It will take us wherever we want to go, including to the supreme lasting peace of liberation and enlightenment.
The bliss of suppleness
Before we develop concentration we feel some kind of mental and physical discomfort more or less all the time. Our state of mind quickly changes. For a short while we’re happy, but then we are sad. Our physical condition also changes quickly. In the morning, we may feel well, but by the evening we may be feeling sick. ~ Joyful Path
Have you ever noticed this? Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable we are so much of the time — maybe a little uncomfortable or maybe a lot? It’s too cold. Or it’s too warm. We’ve been sitting too long. Or we need to sit down. We’re restless. Or we’re listless. We can’t wait for something to happen. Or we can’t wait for something to be over. It’s often the case that something is just not right with us.
With concentration we also get a special physical suppleness, where our body feels completely comfortable and relaxed. If you’ve ever seen Geshe-la in person or in videos, well into his 80’s he would still practically skip up the stairs to his teaching throne. Relaxed and fluid, he can sit still and absorbed for hours and hours – unlike me, who is currently itching to get off this crowded plane. He is talking from his own experience:
When we attain tranquil abiding, we do not experience any mental or physical discomfort. Our mind becomes peaceful, and we are always able to generate virtuous thoughts and feelings and create the causes for happiness.
Concentration is the way out of our discomfort. I tell the story here of an ex who traveled with Geshe Kelsang years ago on a plane, the first trip to establish modern Buddhism in the United States. In short, the flight lasted 8 hours and in all that time Geshe-la didn’t move.
Don’t you think it’d be nice to have that physical suppleness, to always be completely relaxed and comfortable, even when squished in a plane? That’s what we get with tranquil abiding. And it’s good to know that reaching each successive rung of that ladder brings about increasing mental and physical suppleness, comfort, peace, and flexibility. Our inner winds flow so smoothly, restoring our body, that we don’t even need to exercise anymore! We can, but we don’t need to.
Out of time for now. If you’re new to all this and want to improve your concentration, a good place to start is with the chapter “What is meditation?” in this free e-book, How to Transform Your Life. I hope you fall in love with meditation.
By the way, I don’t know if you have noticed, but the style and functionality of this Kadampa Life website has been completely updated! Please click here to check it out and let me know if you like it 🙂 With thanks to Jason Bryant.