Meditation—ahhhh—it looks so serene in all those ads for cereal, cosmetics, and insurance. (Really… insurance?)
Okay, but how do you get to that state of meditation?
You get to meditation by developing concentration.
Even though concentration isn’t meditation—it’s the prerequisite.
Concentration takes effort. It’s the intentional re-focusing of attention. It takes effort. When the mind wanders, you refocus. You apply the effort of concentration again and again and again—until… what?
Until the mind learns to stay focused without effort.
These two words—without effort—are what distinguishes concentration from meditation. Meditation is effortless focus.
Athletes call it being ‘in-the-zone.’
Having trained, struggled and pushed their bodies to new levels of performance, athletes sometimes experience ‘being in the zone’: a state of heightened performance that requires no effort. It’s as though their amazing performance is just happening, without them doing it.
Being-in-the-zone doesn’t happen without training. Why? Because for the body/mind to function at that level of performance without effort, a well-developed neural network is required. And a well-developed neural network doesn’t arise on its own.
It is the result of effort.
Yes, it takes intentional practice—effort—to build those streamlined neural networks. There’s the paradox: effort, properly applied, leads to effortlessness. It’s the same with meditation. As you practice with effort, you create the inner conditions for effortless-ness to arise.
Concentration is the effort. The effortless state of meditation grows from the conditions that have been created through concentration practice.
So, how do you practice the kind of concentration that leads to meditation?
Concentration practice is grounded in two attitudes:
1) Compassionate Alertness
As you practice, be alert to the mind’s tendency to drift, become drowsy and get distracted. The practice of alertness allows you to catch the mind in the act of wandering before it has wandered too far.
This is called compassionate alertness because this expresses the inner feeling of your concentration. It isn’t the hyper-tense alertness of a soldier keeping watch for any signs of the enemy. It’s more, much more, loving than that.
It’s more like the attitude of a benevolent vocal coach who gently interrupts the student whose singing has drifted off key. The teacher lovingly redirects the student back to the music and invites her to begin again.
2) Gentle Precision
Bringing attention back to the object of meditation is accomplished with gentle precision. It’s a swift readjustment that is accomplished without any sense of disappointment, failure or judgment.
The returning is very matter-of-fact, very direct, and supremely gentle.
These two attitudes rapidly train the mind.
Because there’s nothing for the mind to resist or push against. Your concentration is infused with equal parts compassion and precision. You notice the wandering immediately, and with loving, non-reactive precision, re-focus on the object of meditation.
Then what happens?
Meditation arises naturally.
Under the auspicious of compassion and precision, the mind simply opens and rests without effort. A quality of stability and balance arises; a feeling of stillness surrounds and interpenetrates the body/mind.
Concentration dissolves into meditation.
Thoughts do not disturb this meditative stillness because it is not based on absence of thought. You’re not pushing thoughts away or straining to still the mind. Your practice of skillful concentration has trained the mind to enjoy the effortless state of meditation more than the entertainment of distractions.
Through practice you’ve entered the zone (within) where new depths of stillness are revealed with each breath.
How does concentration fit with meditation in your experience?
Share your wisdom in the comments below.
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Ed: Sara Crolick