Concentrating on the basic levels of sensation brings deep awareness and insight
When mindfulness touches something beautiful it reveals its beauty. When it touches something painful it transforms and heals it.
To take time to stop and to be aware is a wonderful practice, but it is just the beginning. Mindfulness invites us to go further, to move deeper, to be present in a way that changes how we experience things. Mindfulness can reveal what is beautiful in our lives and transform what is broken. This sounds like a big promise, until we taste it first hand.
To achieve what Thich Nhat Hahn describes so eloquently, we need to know how to ground ourselves first. We do this by concentrating our attention on one object or in one place. Concentration focuses and strengthens our practice, so that whatever we encounter, we can face it with stability and confidence.
Learning to concentrate takes time. Even now, after three months of sitting every morning in practice, I notice it takes me a good 20 minutes before my attention settles and I can concentrate. For that initial stretch of my practice, I move between awareness and agitation. I work hard at befriending my monkey mind and trying to tame it, by holding on to some presence of mind, rather than controlling the content of my awareness. I am like an innocent bystander who watches as the drama of my inner life unfurls.
I’ve been sensing lately that this is not enough. While I know that we are not meant to approach the practice with any special agenda, I suspect that serious meditators remain faithful to their practice because it changes how they experience life. I’m hungry to go deeper. I would like to feel that I can move beyond agitation to stillness, beyond being pushed around by my needs and wants to that point where I can be present to what is real, in the here and now.
This week I paid closer attention to what allows my awareness to settle and my attention to become more focused. I noticed that after about 20 minutes my mind goes quiet and the tension in my body, which I often don’t even know I’m carrying, begins to dissipate.
I deepen my concentration by focusing attention on the flow of my breath. I move my attention between this and the sensations I feel where my body is in contact with the cushion and the floor beneath me. I feel the softness of my clothes against my skin. My mind wanders but I take a firmer hold of my attention and bring it back to the breath or to these points of contact. And I repeat this over and over again. I have to, because without that anchor that my breath and body provide, I get lost.
Deep concentration has the effect of slowing down my mind. Concentration is the lens through which I look at what is happening inside. As my attention steadies, my dissipated energies become focused and I become present.
Awareness, Concentration and Insight are three phases of meditation. Insight is some creative intuition that doesn’t come from the busy application of our conscious intelligence. It arises from being able to sit with experience and hold it in awareness.
In my practice, concentration moves me towards the final phase of meditation, where insights percolate.
Whisper of unconscious
I become silent enough to hear the soft whisper of my unconscious, to connect with the wisdom I have gathered through the hard graft of living and surviving. I dip into levels of the mind where poetry and creativity are born. On a good day, I discover new ways of imagining and understanding my life. And all this happens through the meticulous contemplation of ordinary accessible experience. I forgo mental excitement to concentrate my attention on the most basic sensations that are happening right now: breathing, touching, sensing and feeling. And I do this over and over again, no matter how tedious or boring it may be.
As I grow stronger in this practice, I believe that it will become easier for me to hold in awareness, experiences that make me happy as well as those that throw me.
Tony Bates is Founding Director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health