Concentration: the stages and process of development
Concentration: Calm Abiding meditation
We need to improve our capacity for clear concentration and like everything it gets better with practise. This article aims to explain the stages of developing concentration and the methods used to accomplish each stage. On the basis of concentration we can develop calm abiding and by combining that with analytical meditation we can further refine our level of meditative absorption. Here is how to do it as discussed in our recent Buddhist meditation classes.
The place to practise in retreat
We need a suitable place to to make our meditation retreats. Retreats are best in peaceful, pleasant environments. Make it not too remote. You need convenient access to food, water, clothing and other necessities. Find a safe, peaceful place where you are secure and relaxed, a location blessed by your teacher.
Find a pleasant environment. You need clean food, water, fresh air, good views and a moderate climate as they are conducive to good health.
Have a helper to look after you.
To practice, cultivate little want. Be content and moderate with food, clothing, accommodation.
Have modest needs. Avoid trying to improve your conditions or other distractions.
Abandon many activities. Avoid being busy and involved in projects, meetings and tiring things.
Commit to an ethical life.
Start with shorter periods of meditation. This will allow an intensity of concentration for the shorter duration. You can lengthen the sessions in time.
Regular daily meditation
Most of us will develop our meditation through a daily practice integrated with our normal lifestyle rather than in a full retreat environment as set out above. If possible it is nice to have at least some of the features of a retreat setting, but mainly we need a place where we feel safe and comfortable and are able to secure the physical necessities of life. We should have access to a meditation teacher who can guide our practice as part of our lifestyle.
The obstacles to calm abiding and their antidotes.
There are five main obstacles to calm abiding and eight antidotes to them. They are:
Laziness, the first obstacle to concentration
The first obstacle is laziness, a lack of interest in cultivating calm abiding. Laziness will manifest as sluggishness, boredom, disinterest and dullness. It is present before and during your practice. Laziness can be procrastination, an attraction to meaningless schemes, or delusions of incapacity. We overcome laziness with four antidotes.
First develop confidence in calm abiding. This arises through recollecting the benefits of calm abiding. Calm abiding meditation brings bliss, clarity and stability. These enable psychic abilities and transform sleep into meditation. Calming meditation decreases the influence of delusion and negative karma.
The second antidote is developing interest in the practice by reflecting on the benefits of meditating. You compare this to the disadvantages of not meditating. A plus of calm abiding is to increase your ability to cut non-virtues. They are the source of your suffering. Calm abiding increases virtuous states. These are the source of ever greater happiness and enlightenment. Meditation practice decreases suffering, sickness, grief, sadness, and depression. Meditation overcomes addiction, anger, attachment, jealousy, tension, agitation, mental distortion and emotional distress. At the same time meditating increases peace, happiness, contentment, clarity and relaxation. It enhances health, emotional balance, mental wellbeing, enlightenment, love, compassion and wisdom. To practise meditation is an easy decision!
The third antidote to laziness is joyous effort. This is an enthusiasm for the practice. Joyous effort arises from taking the time to appreciate the joy, or bliss, and the peace of meditation.
The fourth antidote to laziness is pliancy. Pliancy is an increased serviceability of both body and mind. Serviceability is the ability to direct our mind toward virtue at will. We are no longer held back by patterns of non-virtue and suffering
Forgetfulness, the second obstacle to concentration
Forgetfulness is failing to remember the meditation object.
The antidote to forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a non-forgetfulness of a familiar phenomenon. It is the antidote to forgetting the instructions of the meditation practice. With mindfulness we become familiar with the object of meditation. We stay with the object avoiding distraction.
Interruptions, the third obstacle to concentration
Dullness and excitement are interruptions to your concentration. They each have gross and subtle levels.
Gross dullness is present when the object of meditation is stable but unclear. You are mindful of your meditation object, but unclear. Gross dullness is thus different to sleepiness. Here you lose the object of concentration altogether.
Subtle dullness is where you are mindful of your meditation object. You have stability and clarity, but that clarity is not intense. Your concentration is strong, your mind holds the object with clarity, but the fine focus is not present. Subtle dullness arises because the mind has lost its vitality. It has relaxed the strength of focus on the object and becomes loose. When we overcome subtle dullness, the mind adheres to its object. It remains fresh, sharp and energetic. It keeps the fine focus which gives intense clarity.
Excitement is an unsubdued mindset, an attachment led astray by tempting objects. Excitement is the most insidious form of distraction and is difficult to control.
Gross excitement is where your mind loses its object of concentration.
Subtle excitement is where you keep your focus on the object of concentration. But a subtle part of the mind, below the level of conceptual thought moves toward an interesting object. An illustration is water moving beneath a layer of ice. The ice is stable on the surface but underneath the water moves. This subtle movement of the mind will lead to gross excitement and losing the object.
The antidote for the interruptions of dullness and excitement is awareness. Be alert. Awareness acts as a spy looking for interruptions. You focus on the object of meditation. But part of your attention watches for dullness or excitement.
Failure to apply antidotes, the fourth obstacle to concentration
The antidotes act to overcome excitement and dullness.
Make a small change when you are able. If you see a lack of clarity, lift your attention and energise your mind. Tighten your concentration somewhat.
If you detect attention drifting, settle your mind. Emphasise relaxing and loosening your awareness. Sense your mind settle with ease. Let it be a bundle of straw that flops when you loosen the rope holding it together.
You may discern that too much effort to overcome dullness causes agitation. Likewise too much loosening to overcome excitement will produce dullness. So avoid too much or too little. Balance clarity with stability, and vividness with relaxation. Aim for a relaxed alertness, or for just resting the mind on its object. Consider tuning a guitar string. You aim for not too tight and not too loose. But with a balance of correct tuning, the sound is perfect. Tune the mind the same way.
If tuning concentration is not enough, we need to spend time on specific opponents. We then focus on the following opponents.
To oppose dullness you might meditate for a time on a brilliant light. You could focus on an uplifting and energising theme such as the mind of enlightenment. Meditate on the inspiring.
To oppose excitement you can sober the mind. Contemplate suffering and impermanence. Generate compassion for beings caught in the cycle of samsara.
Then come back to your meditation object.
Over-application, the fifth obstacle to concentration
The problem here is continuing to apply opponents when no longer needed. In time your concentration is free of dullness and excitement. Then the opponents become an obstacle to an effortless concentration.
The opponent to over-application of the antidotes is equanimity. We hold an effortless concentration. This comes through familiarity with single pointedness. An experienced car driver drives effortlessly. He need not focus on when to change gears, or when to turn the wheel. It is effortless and natural.
The nine levels of improving concentration
We overcome the five obstacles using the eight antidotes. With this your concentration will improve through nine stages.
1. Setting the mind
You orient your mind to the object. When you can hold it for a minute, you have set the mind on the object.
2. Settling with continuity
This involves lengthening the period of holding the object to five minutes at a time.
3. Patching concentration
You can patch up a tear in your robe. No need for a new robe. When distracted you patch up your concentration. You reset the object straight away. No need to begin again.
4. Close placement
With a strong effort the mind remains on the object. Because of the power of mindfulness you do not lose the object. Dullness and excitement still occur. So you must continue to practise the opponents.
Now you can control dullness and excitement. During the earlier stage your mind became withdrawn. This withdrawal carries the danger of subtle dullness. But gross dullness and excitement no longer occur.
The effort used to subdue subtle dullness over invigorates the mind. Now subtle excitement becomes the main danger.
7. Complete pacification
It becomes difficult for dullness and excitement to arise. You overcome them with a slight effort. The distinction between this and the sixth stage is that at the sixth you remain wary of dullness and excitement. At this seventh stage they no longer concern you.
8. Single-pointed concentration
You can concentrate on the object with no interruption of dullness or excitement. With a slight effort you hold your concentration for as long as you wish.
9. Concentration with equanimity
Here you have an effortless concentration. It results from practice and familiarity through the eighth stage.
How you progress
There are interruptions during stages one and two. You have an abundance of dullness and excitement. You hold the object of concentration for only short periods. At the first stage you notice how uncontrolled your mind is. At the second stage you gain a slight sense of how your mind takes rest.
From the third to the seventh stage the interruptions are present. They become weaker stage by stage. You manage them much better.
Dullness and excitement cease at stage eight and nine. You still need effort to concentrate at the eighth stage, but no longer at the ninth.
Once you have gained the ninth mental stage you can concentrate for as long as you wish. Decide the period for which you want to meditate and then begin the session. You have no obstacles to pure concentration. It is a perfect focus
Calm Abiding meditation
Calm abiding comes after the ninth stage. It is when you gain pliancy, or a blissful serviceability of body and mind. The special bliss of pliancy comes from familiarity with the ninth stage. This bliss is greater than any pleasure of the desire realm of cyclic existence.
A person will generate agitation and thus delusions in relation to ten objects. The ten are the five sense objects plus the objects of attachment, anger and ignorance and the opposite sex—male or female. With calm abiding you experience tranquillity in relation to these objects, not the delusion.
Calm abiding is the foundation for the higher meditative absorptions. These form the basis of real psychic powers and clairvoyance. But the main boon of calm abiding is that you have the mental power to penetrate the nature of reality. With that you end suffering, you finish with samsara forever. It is the basis of enlightenment.
Signs of attainment
The mind can purify afflictions.
When in meditation, pliancy is quickly generated. Pliancy is a serviceability of body and mind such that they are easily turned to virtue
Even after meditation, features of pliancy remain. In daily activity, coming and going, the body and mind are at ease, comfortable and capable.
During meditation all gross objects disappear. It is as though the mind is mixed with space.
On finishing a meditation you have the sense of spontaneously gaining a body.
Fewer delusions are developed. Those that occur are weak and can be easily overcome.
Grasping at the objects of the desire realm no longer occurs
One is free of harmful intent.
Lethargy and a lack of energy for meditation cease.
Mental agitation and confusion no longer occur and doubt is overcome
Your felt-experience is as though your mind has the stability of a great mountain.
Mental clarity in such that it appears you could count the individual atoms in a wall.
Having developed calm abiding we can further develop our concentration through eight levels of concentration: the eight meditative absorptions.
We use a combination of analytical meditation and single-pointed meditation to attain each of the eight levels of meditative absorption. This involves the following five contemplations.
The mental contemplation of individual knowledge of the character
Mental contemplation arisen from belief
The mental contemplation of thorough isolation
Mental contemplation of analysis
The mental contemplation of final training
We use these five mental contemplations to move progressively through each of the eight meditative absorptions.
The eight meditative absorptions
From the first level to the highest and most refined level of meditative absorption the eight are as follows.
1. First meditative absorption
2. Second meditative absorption
3. Third meditative absorption
4. Fourth meditative absorption
5. Infinite Space meditative absorption
6. Infinite Consciousness meditative absorption
7. Nothingness meditative absorption
8. Peak of Cyclic Existence meditative absorption
The first four correlate to the four levels of the form realm while the second four correlate to the four levels of the formless realm.
The Form and Formless realms in relation to the desire realm
The structure of the realms of samsara from highest to lowest is:
These are as follows (again from highest to lowest):
Peak of cyclic existence (thus still within samsara)
Fourth meditative absorption (eight levels)
Born from merit
Third meditative absorption (three levels)
Second meditative absorption (three levels)
First meditative absorption (three levels)
In front of Brahma
God (deva) realms (six levels)
Controlling others’ emanations
The thirty-three gods (Indra etc.)
Four great kings
Titan (asura) realm
Ideally we use the good fortune of rebirth in the human realm to practice dharma and free ourselves from cycling up and down these realms of samsara. To reach enlightenment and be forever free from these realms of samsara we engage in practice of the five Mahayana paths. These are:
Path of merit
The path of preparation
Path of insight
The path of meditation
Path of no-more-learning
Hungry ghost (preta) realm
Hell (Naraka) realms (two lots of eight levels)
Most torture (avichi)
Split like a blue lotus
Split like a lotus
Split like a great lotus