Another major benefit of getting good at concentrating is that we can make serious spiritual progress. This is important.
Carrying on from this article, From concentration comes peace.
A lot of people I love are suffering badly at the moment from illnesses. I have been spending some time again with my beautiful mother, who is still slowly falling into herself, spending much of her day staring into space, sometimes peaceful, sometimes hallucinating anxiously (though aren’t we all).
I know this may seem ironic only one minute into an article on concentration, but now we are on the subject of my mother I have a digression because, in a rare chatty moment, she just said: “What the hell is this book all about?” This was as I was trying to remind her of her sons’ names. The conversation continued as follows:
Me: Do you know who I am?
Her (off-handedly): No idea.
Me: “Do you know who you are?”
Me: That may be just as well because we can be anyone.
Her (acknowledging): It is all a mystery. (Pause). It is ridiculous. (Another pause). It is an absolute farce.
Although this previously devoted mother will probably remember her children a few more times (at least a bit), I am witnessing the dissolution of (to me at least) a significant life story. When I relayed some of this to a friend, he replied:
“Yes exactly that … I had a near death experience when I was young and was so blown away by the complete disappearance of the illusion of this life. Gone forever. Only to return briefly due to karma. Your kind mother continues to teach you everything she can.”
Quite a few of you have told me you are praying for my mother, Sally, and I am very grateful for that. When I tell her about this, she also says, “Oh, that’s good!” Sometimes she even manages a smile.
Back to this article
An old friend has just had to move into a Medicaid nursing home due to late-stage Parkinsons, though he is not much over 60. He is now fully dependent on others for everything and, although the carers are doing their best to cherish him (and vice versa), the place is seriously short-staffed. He told me yesterday:
“My main practice remains patience, emptiness of the I, and taking with compassion and renunciation. It requires tremendous faith to believe these are helping you in these moments of intense pain day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, where your whole reality seems to be a 4 x 4 container called a wheelchair.”
I am trying to imagine the challenges he is currently forced to overcome, and concluding that I would just be begging for help and blessings. Luckily this incredible person has many decades of Dharma practice under his belt. He used to be a very good meditator. I have saved many of our text messages for, despite the apparent impossibility of his situation, he has hung in there and manages often to be inspiring. I think this familiarity that comes from years of concentration will be the saving of him now.
When I was on my way to the International Kadampa Spring Festival in Malaga last week, this friend texted me:
Enjoy your freedom and your festival. While you can.
And I did enjoy it, thank you very much! I felt lucky to be there, not least when I remembered how much this friend would so clearly love to have the freedom to hang out in the Spanish sunshine with thousands of international Sangha, listening to a cosmic Dharma transmission and new retreat practice from Venerable Geshe Kelsang via Gen-la Dekyong. I kind of wished everyone could have been there. It felt like being flung out from the vortex of Covid, landing in the company of long-lost friends who have now, like me, flown back to wherever they came from. Hopefully it’ll be a good kind of super spreader event, bringing back blessings all over the world.
At any rate, while I am still relatively able-bodied, I need to gain deep familiarity with all the peaceful states of mind and reliable refuge that I am surely going to need in a crisis one day. As are you. For this, we need some ability to focus.
Getting out of samsara
If we want to get rid of ALL our suffering once and for all, including all this tragic birth, aging, sickness, and death in a meat-body, we need to eliminate its root cause = self-grasping ignorance. To do this, we need to realize the true nature of reality, emptiness or selflessness, directly or non-conceptually. But we cannot do this, slicing through the web of delusion and hallucination, without developing the ability to concentrate on emptiness for as long as we want whenever we want.
The main benefit of concentration in general, and tranquil abiding in particular, then, is that we can realize emptiness directly.
Of course we need concentration not just to realize emptiness but to develop acquaintance and familiarity with any virtuous object. Let’s say we attend a teaching on love. Inspired to hear that it will solve all our problems and make us feel happy, we conclude:
“I would love to have that mind of cherishing others, not always having to think about myself. This is the best advice! From now on I’m just going to cherish others because it makes so much sense. I’m going to stop worrying about myself all day long and care about other people instead. Yes! Finally!”
Fantastic idea, in theory. But how long does it last? Five minutes later and, “I really need this to happen or I’ll be very sad” or “I can’t believe these idiots.”
In other words, we cannot stay there, with these incredible minds.
I sometimes think that if we had mindfulness and concentration, we wouldn’t need so many teachings. We’d need to hear something only once and we’d get it: “Makes sense. I’m just going to go and do that now. Bye. See you later.”
But no, we keep forgetting. So we have to keep coming back and getting more and more teachings on the same subjects. If we had really strong concentration, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) would just go in and stay in. Every time we listened to a teaching it would not be like starting from scratch and instead we’d be going deeper and deeper.
The Leaky Pot
Our mind is like a leaky pot, as it says in the scriptures. We let Dharma pour into the vessel of our mind, but we can’t retain anything because of the gaping holes in our concentration and mindfulnesss. While the Dharma is entering our mind, this delicious nectar, we think: “That makes sense! That really is good!” — but it is pouring out almost as quickly as it is pouring in. Therefore, although we want to remember, “I heard an amazing teaching. Let me think about that for a while”, we are off thinking about something completely different.
Geshe Kelsang said that as soon we close the book or the “small computer”, we forget. Therefore, however inspired we were while listening to Dharma:
“We cannot use it to solve our daily problems”.
This is due to a lack of familiarity that comes from concentration, and also from a lack of virtuous potentialities or merit (subject for another day).
During the lockdown, I started listening to some of Geshe-la’s Festival teachings again. I was there when he gave those teachings, and they’re such rich, deep, nectar-like instructions, completely life-changing – why on earth have I not been thinking about them non-stop since he gave them!? When I’m listening to these, I’m thinking: “Whoah! My life has changed!” But then half an hour later, it’s, “Wait a minute! What?” Because we forget.
It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s not that we can’t understand these ideas. I think we understand Dharma pretty well a lot of the time. Of course, we continue to need teachings to go deeper and deeper in our understanding. But I think we understand a lot more than we’re able to concentrate on and remember.
“Memory,” “remembering,” and “mindfulness” are all the same word in Tibetan, if I recall correctly — “dren” or “drenpa.” Mindfulness is the ability to remember. It’s not something that we either have or don’t have. It’s something to work on. As explained here, concentration and mindfulness go hand in hand. Concentration is single-pointedness and mindfulness allows us to remain on the object without forgetting it.
You CAN remember
If you’ve got this far into this article, you are probably not that terrible at remembering things. (Not yet, anyway.) Give me a dollar for every time someone has said “I am terrible at concentration!” – make me rich. However, I don’t think it’s true. If something is important to us, we can focus on it and remember it. If we’re driving through traffic, it’s quite easy for us not to forget that we’re driving – we remember because it’s kind of important that we don’t forget.
I remember Gen-la Dekyong once saying something along the lines that there isn’t any magic trick to concentration — we just have to want to do it. Being driven by a friend up the mountains behind Malaga last week, an alarmingly steep drop on one side of us, us passengers were AW-ing and AH-ing at the view, “Hey, would you look at that! No, not you Steph! Keep your eyes on the road!” If she had forgotten she was driving, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Learning to concentrate on positive states of mind is a bit like learning to concentrate while driving. When we first learn to drive we have to exert a fair bit of effort to remember to signal here, press the pedal there, use the mirrors, stop at STOP signs, avoid pedestrians/cars/bollards/cliffs, etc – but after a while this becomes natural. This doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten we’re driving – in a way, it’s the opposite. We are now just so familiar with driving that it has become effortless. We’ve still got the mindfulness and the concentration but now it feels easy and even enjoyable because we are so used to it.
I think we sometimes make meditation out to be more difficult than it actually is. We simply need to decide to remember the object, not to forget it; and then we do remember it through the force of our decision—because it’s important to us. Because it’s valuable. Because we really like the benefits of remembering and concentrating on our object. This is actually faith. Gen-la Dekyong said this week that believing, admiring, and wishing faith help us to concentrate easily. It’s so true.
This goes for any object that we’re meditating or concentrating on, even just the breath. Although our monkey mind has a tendency to wander off to do other things, we decide: “No, I want to do this. I’m just going to not forget the breath.” We stay with that. Not forget the breath, not forget the breath, not forget the breath …. Then the mind starts to settle on the breath through the force of our decision. It can take effort and feel a little awkward to start with, but over time our concentration becomes easier and easier until eventually it’s totally effortless – once we place our mind on an object, we can leave it there for as long as we want.
It’s a bit like deciding to put our glass of water down somewhere – once we have put it down, it stays there, it doesn’t go anywhere. This can be our mind on a virtuous object. We put it there and it stays put until we want to put it somewhere else. This is very relaxing. Our mind is single-pointedly focused, yet totally relaxed. This is the experience we want to access.
Two quick tips
- A quick and helpful way into a good meditation session is by using the technique called the absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts, or colloquially “turning the mind to wood,” which I describe here. About this meditation, Venerable Geshe-la said at the Fall Festival in 2006:
If we really want to solve our own problems we should do this, we should take this job on, and then teach other people, help other people.
2. One reason we put ourselves off concentrating is by thinking it is too hard, when it isn’t. Do you ever sit down to meditate and almost automatically assume, “I can’t really do this”? If so, it’s a really good idea to examine that assumption and where it is coming from. On that subject, I had a long chat last week with the friend who some years ago inspired this article on how NOT to meditate. She is now receiving chemo for supposedly incurable cancer — the doctors are trying to slow things down. And in the years since she finally, by her own admission, accepted that she could in fact meditate and started to meditate properly, she has become a powerhouse of fearlessness, happiness, and faith.
What is more powerful than concentration?
Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in the universe than a fully concentrated mind. That’s what we’re talking about! Tranquil abiding is the ability to put our mind anywhere and keep it there — basically our mind just stays on its object for as long as we want it to with zero distraction, zero mental excitement, and zero mental sinking. We train gradually in staying single-pointedly focused for longer and longer periods of time with the nine mental abidings, without forgetting the object until eventually that experience or realization of it becomes spontaneous.
Whenever I meet anyone, I’m going to think “You’re important. Your happiness matters.” I’m going to use everyone I meet as a reminder of my meditation.
That way, when we go back to the meditation on love again, our mind hasn’t strayed too far. We can go straight back into it, spend longer with it, become more and more familiar with it until, one day, maybe before we know it, we find we are never separated from love.
That’s cool, isn’t it? Compare it to those snatches of brief insight we get into love that we immediately lose when our concentration packs up. Losing these Dharma objects is not, as I said, because we are stupid or incapable – it is because we don’t have concentration and mindfulness. And the reason we don’t have them is simply because we haven’t trained in them.
To conclude, training in mindfulness and concentration is not some enormously complicated thing. Once we have found the object we want to focus on, it really does come down to deciding to remember that object minute by minute rather than forgetting it.
Bye for now. If you’re new to all this, a good way to get started is with the chapter “What is meditation?” in this free e-book, How to Transform Your Life. And there are some beginner meditations here: How to meditate.
By the way, I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but the style and functionality of this Kadampa Life website has been completely updated! Do me a favor — let me know how you like it and pass it along to anyone who might find it helpful. (Especially, check out that Search button!)