Concentration: A Way to Stabilize Your Agitated Mind
“Concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. Your mindfulness will only be as robust as the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable. Without calmness, the mirror of mindfulness will have an agitated and choppy surface and will not be able to reflect things with any accuracy.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
As human beings, our minds are naturally vulnerable to agitated thoughts. This is because we tend to be dominated by the ancient, reptilian part of our brain which is constantly on alert scanning the environment for potential threats. Whenever our brain perceives a potential danger is present, thoughts of alarm are triggered in order to stimulate our fight or flight arousal system. Left unchecked, our brain’s natural prioritizing of survival will leave our thoughts scattered, in a state of distraction, often with a corresponding heightened state of physical and emotional arousal.
This untrained state of mind “the Buddha compares to the flapping about of a fish taken from the water and thrown onto dry land. It cannot stay fixed but rushes from idea to idea, from thought to thought, without inner control.”1 Such a distracted mind is easily overwhelmed by worries and concerns, and the thoughts, being fragmented, are subject to distortion.
Cultivating a state of concentration is an alternative to allowing your agitated mind to run amok, thus, causing you unnecessary wear and tear. Concentration is a “single-pointedness of mind.”2 Establishing concentration requires deliberate effort to fix your mind upon a single object to the exclusion of others. To be effective, the object you select to focus your attention upon must be a healthful or beneficial one.
Once developed, concentration has a unifying impact on the mind; the more fragmented, scattered thoughts are collected into a single stream. “Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.”3 Ultimately, concentration results in a freedom from distraction and induces a growing tranquility, from which greater insight can be attained. From this state of increased stability of awareness, rather than being driven into reactivity by distorted thoughts, you may instead be able to notice your experience, whatever is true, from a place of greater balance, and respond with choice. In the words of Lao Tzu, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
When your mind is distracted or agitated, you can use these methods to promote greater concentration or steadiness of awareness:
- Ask yourself to maintain your focus on one object, anchoring your attention there, without letting your mind waiver. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back gently but deliberately to that object and continue this process no matter how frequently your mind wanders. The commonly recommended object to attend to is your breath; no matter where you are, your breath is always accessible, and it is always occurring in the present moment.
- Maintain your awareness with the full duration of each breath, rather than merely the inhalation and/or the exhalation. It is in the gaps that your attention is most vulnerable to being pulled by thoughts. Notice not only the inhalation and exhalation but also the transitions from the inhalation to the exhalation and the transitions from the exhalation to the next inhalation.
- Use counting as a way of anchoring your awareness with your breath. Start by counting your first complete breath as “one.” Then count each subsequent breath until you arrive at a count of 10. If you lose count, without judging yourself or analyzing why, return your attention to your breath and start counting at “one” again. If you exceed a count of “ten,” without judging yourself or analyzing why, start counting at “one” again with your next breath.
“We apply our effort to be mindful, to be aware in this very moment, right here and now, and we bring a very wholehearted effort to it. This brings concentration. It is this power of concentration that we use to cut through of surface appearance to get to a much deeper reality.”
~ Sharon Salzberg