“It’s tough trying to keep your feet on the ground, your head above the clouds, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, your finger on the pulse, your eye on the ball and your ear to the ground.” – Proverb
I kinda suck at concentration practice. Or so I thought when I started meditating. This idea of honing concentration through a narrow pinpoint of focus, of days spent paying attention to the tip of the nose, the promises of calm and bliss that lay on the other side…try as I might, I couldn’t get it. It was frustrating, hearing teachers say over and over again that concentration is the basic foundation of not just meditation, but stability and happiness itself. I’d turned to meditation to catch a break from constant self-recrimination of feeling not good enough, and here I was finding another ideal that I couldn’t live up to. Talk about ironic.
I took a course in Concentration Practices, led by CEC’s own Avi Craimer, to try to learn more. Because who doesn’t want to be stable and happy? After many classes of feeling like a terrible meditator, we tried a different technique, opening up our focus widely to let everything in. Suddenly, I got very absorbed, concentrating on everything and noticing each sensation arising and passing through my experience. Wait! This was concentration too? Apparently, yes. There was even a fancy Buddhist name for it. “Khanikasamadhi” or momentary concentration, a type of Samadhi that didn’t get as much play in the tiny world of meditation nerds I’d found myself ensconced in.
Here was a kind of concentration that actually made sense in my daily life. I spend my work days running programs for children and youth, encouraging their freedom and creative expression. Which they tend to do very LOUDLY. In a space that is always filled with competing musical choices and video games bleeping and blorping and eighteen different conversations happening at once, I’m best served by paying attention to the whole field, hearing and seeing as much as possible in order to parse the squeals of joy from the cries for help, to notice when trouble is brewing or someone needs attention. A wide and vigilant focus is necessary to keep the young people in my care safe and happy.
But I also began to notice there were times when the single-pointed concentration I found so elusive in practice would naturally emerge in my life. Whenever another person opened up to me – a youth in crisis, a friend in need – I could feel that concentration field narrowing and all my attention getting poured in one direction to listen to them. The rest of the world would seem to melt away, leaving only the person and their words to occupy the entirety of my concentrated presence. Finally, I got it! Concentration comes in many fruit flavours, and part of the practice is discovering what works for you. For me, human connection is the thing – it’s where my attention wants to go, and it motivates me to practice weeding out distractions to make my ability to connect stronger and more available when I need it. While it’s still hard to give all my attention in meditation to one tiny thing, I’m getting better at it. Choosing something pleasurable to focus on helps – the sounds of nature, a beautiful sight. The breath, a way into meditation and concentration for so many, has always been challenging for me to work with, too associated with anxiety and fear in my body. But counting breaths works for me, the safety of numbers a stabilizing force.
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!