Fittingly, we start this year at CEC exploring concentration. Concentration blooms in these conditions of energized commitment. While our resolve is still strong, we’ll practice the discipline of starting, again and again, to notice the present moment. Dedication to this practice illuminates a great gift of concentration: that we have a choice in what we pay attention to. And that our minds can get freer when we exercise that choice.
It doesn’t take much time on the cushion to figure out that there is nothing passive about meditation. Knowing the present moment, and ourselves, is full of effort. It’s hard work to recognize and acknowledge the realities we’re faced with, to see them clearly and sit with the discomfort they bring. But this clear-eyed acceptance is the groundwork for meaningful change. Its opposite is denial; that’s what keeps us stuck.
I sat. I learned some stuff. How to turn towards those feelings I’d been pushing away, that my emotions were only an aspect of a larger experience, and that nothing, even the hardest feels, lasted forever. These new ways of noticing gave me space where once there was none. It went on like this for years, incremental bits of breathing room that kept me alive. Then something strange happened.
Embracing this new story, imagining I could believe it and hold it as tightly as the previous one, I tasted a new freedom emerging, exciting and inspiring. Coming out of that retreat, the barrier of fear I’d long held between me and my loved ones began to melt away.
Because stories can be generative too. Healing. There’a whole school of therapy dedicated to reclaiming and rewriting one’s narrative. My inner narrator has always been busy, constantly describing what I’m doing, making sense of what I’m seeing, telling tales (mostly cautionary!) about my past and my future. One of the great gifts that insight meditation has given me is the ability to turn my attention towards this narrative voice, recognize when it’s offering a limiting perspective based on fear and trauma, and then gently guide it in a more generous direction.
In practice we have the opportunity to explore what works for each of us as individuals to build and stabilize concentration in practice and in life. Do you get fascinated by the whole forest of experience, or absorbed by the minutia of a single tree? Do you prefer to focus on the deep places inside yourself, or fix your gaze on a flickering flame, tune your ear to the birdsong outside? What are you interested in, pleased by, served by? Follow that. It’s hard to get any kind of traction in meditation without concentration of some kind, so let’s focus, people!