There are so many ways that people practice meditation, and so many purposes to which it is put. But what is it, actually? Is it just about concentration? What is “mindfulness?” Isn’t that just “paying attention to the present moment?” And what are these things called “insights?” How do they bring about “realization(s)?”
Let’s start with concentration. This means paying close attention to something, such as what you might be doing at any particular moment of your day. It means that you are not being distracted, moving your attention around to different things. Nowadays, we call leaping from one thing to another, “multitasking,” but in reality it’s more often, than not, the case, that we are just being distracted.
Concentration is a very good thing, because we all know what happens when we aren’t paying attention — we break things, spill things, bump into people, have car accidents, slips, falls, get run over by buses… The list of bad things that can arise when we are not concentrating on what we are doing is infinite, waiting only for whatever the next moment of inattention brings, in order to add another misery to the list.
But is that meditation? If it were, then playing video games would be meditation (some people think it is), watching a movie would be meditation, and watching a sporting event would be too.
Concentration is important in most things you do, and it is important in meditation too because meditation is something that you do, just like showering, cooking, etc. It deserves concentration. Why? Because what you are concentrating on is “where” your mind goes — and by this, I mean where your mental effort is. If you want to solve a problem, you better have your mind at it.
If you are trying to meditate and aren’t concentrating, at least initially, then your mind is going to be elsewhere. It’s not going to be focused on meditating, and it may just end up focused on where our minds spend most of the time — on our worries, fears, doubts, assumed insults, endless goals, sometimes a nice memory; but always the 101 things we need to get done today! — and not on what is happening right now.
The downside to learning to concentrate is that it is often a difficult thing to control. Why? Because our mind has habitual tendencies to be doing certain things and meditative concentration is the act of placing our mind’s awareness on something that is not one of the habitual things it is familiar with, nor has the tendency to be focused on doing — at least until you develop a steady and dedicated meditation practice!
For example, most people’s minds are always busily engaged in something called “monkey mind,” which is a very apt image for what is being referred to here. Invoking the image of monkeys chattering away up in the treetops, making a cacophony of noise, is exactly the state of most people’s minds. Our minds are filled with an unending cacophony of thoughts going this way and that way, around in circles and loops, and never (or very rarely) arriving anywhere useful.
And we shouldn’t forget that from the moment we wake up, we are literally strafed with advertisements (named that because they advert your attention), phone calls, texts, social media posts, click-bait headlines, lies, misleading “news,” stock market manipulations, and outright propaganda — all attempting to change the course of our day, from what we want to do, to what “they” want us to do.
When you become absorbed in these repetitive, unending vortexes of worries, doubts, fearfulness, hopes, and dreams, and external attempts to manipulate, you are directly creating the conditions for their continuation. When you turn your attention away from them, they slow, becoming less intense, and can even stop for a period of time.
Developing concentration enables you to turn away from these endless worries and attempted manipulations — and the stronger your concentration, the less intrusive these become. In the process of doing this, your mind relaxes and so does your body. These are not questionable claims, as repeated scientific studies of meditation are agreed about these results.
Meditation can also be used for pain management in therapeutic settings by teaching patients how to turn their attention away from their pain, which results in a lessening of their suffering. Similarly, it has been found to be effective in the treatment of some forms of PTSD, a severe response to traumatic events, which are unfortunately so common today. I don’t even have to define for you what those letters stand for, as you most likely already know their meaning, so prevalent is this suffering today.
The technique used is the same regardless of the targeted result — whether stress reduction, pain management, or therapeutic improvement.
Though concentrating is often difficult, there are activities which some of us, after much practice and training, become so proficient in performing that we can do it very well with little mental oversight — in fact in some cases, concentrating on what we are doing after gaining proficiency sometimes leads to an undermining of our proficiency.
Take dancing for example. When we are first learning to dance we really have to concentrate on what we are doing so that we don’t miss a step. After a lot of practice we get pretty good at it and no longer need to concentrate quite as much, although we may still tend to “watch ourselves” as we’re doing it, in case we do make an error. After still more practice, we reach a stage where our dancing is so fluid and natural that we don’t need to concentrate, and in fact, doing so can lead to the introduction of mistakes, as our mind intervenes in what has now become an inculcated repertoire of movement in our body’s “muscle memory,” and we trip ourselves up in some way, or we become “unnatural” or “stiff” in our dancing.
I’m not really saying your muscles have memories; it’s just a kind of learned competence that does not continually require our conscious intervention. It’s what I called scificiental knowledge in the section on Knowledge. This is what should happen as we practice, no matter what it is we are practicing — including meditating.
Initially it is very difficult to overcome our mind’s habitual tendencies, especially that of engaging in “mindless chatter.” After diligent practice in meditation, our minds learn to remain concentrated on our meditating. And after still more diligent practice, the mind becomes so habituated to it, it just slides easily into that mode of concentrating. In fact, a goal of your meditation can be to have your mind always in that mode — to remain focused in every waking moment of your life.
So that is concentration. What about this “mindfulness?”
This is a new term that is filling social media, and news reports, as this practice filters out into widely differing human activities and fields of human endeavor. In the past when we did something deliberately and in full awareness of what we were doing, it was referred to as being done “wittingly,” and its opposite, when we did things inadvertently and unawares, was referred to as something that we “unwittingly” did.
This adverb, “wittingly” means exactly the same as today’s “mindfully,” except that — and this is not widely understood — rather than our full concentration being on what we are doing, we are instead focused on our awareness of what we are doing.
That may confuse you, and it does confuse many people. An allegorical scenario would be the difference between sitting in a theatre engrossed in a movie watching the action, versus what happens to your attention when somebody’s portable goes off and they take the call, coughs loudly, or laughs loudly. You’re still watching the movie, but now you are more aware that you are watching a movie, than you are of watching the movie. It’s as if you have taken a step back from yourself and you are now focused on watching yourself watch the movie. This is strongly connected to something called metacognition, because it is the grounding possibility of having the ability to metacognize.
The word, “mindfulness,” isn’t a translation of the Sanskrit word: “shamatha,” which is the original name of the practice that is widely used within spiritual traditions, with which the modern popular practice is confused.
“Mindfulness meditation” is the modern name for the secularized practice of concentration meditation, and it has more the meaning of “calming” or “quieting,” and even “pacifying,” our overactive brains.
And in this modern secular version of meditating, any use of the word “mind” does not imply its traditional meaning within those spiritual traditions. Instead, today, it is more a shorthand notation for the activity or operations of the brain — to the extent that the meant sense of the word “mind” has now become a great dividing factor between secular and spiritual meditation practices.
Shamatha meditation arose millennia ago in the “East” especially in India, and spread out from there. It happened so long ago, no one really knows where it started, or how it spread.
In truth, “shamatha” is probably just a name given to a basic human activity, like breathing, that was never “introduced,” but only “systematized” over time into techniques with differing goals, as practitioners learned the most effective ways to do it.
Different shamatha techniques vary mostly in regard to what they use as a “support” for the meditation. The support is what you turn your attention to in order to develop concentration. The most widely used, although it suffers from a particular defect that is shared by all but one meditative support, is the breath. This means focusing on your respiration. The defect, and the support that doesn’t suffer from it — the one I am discussing in this book — will be explained later.
There is also a category of shamatha that uses no support, but this is a misnomer because what is focused on in this type of technique is the mind’s “awareness” instead. This requires a type of concentration that is not “single-pointed.” Instead it is a state of intense mindfulness that is diffuse, taking in as much as possible, while not allowing the mind to wander from one thing to another without aim.
We each have the ability to control our attention, and like our muscles, using that ability improves it. This is why meditation is rightfully called “mind-training.”
Today, most people start with shamatha meditation, as that is the most basic type of meditation. It’s purpose is to train our minds so that we can advance our meditation into even more fruitful techniques. Unfortunately, secular meditation practice ends here — at “mindfulness.”
It is unfortunate because meditation can and does bring about fundamental changes in our very being. There is even some scientific evidence that meditation safeguards our genes, protecting us from age-related maladies.
But the changes that meditation can bring about are even more important than just health-related improvements. We’ll get into what they are later because they are complex and would just confuse this dialog.
Stopping at mindfulness can also be dangerous. It’s really an arbitrary sectioning off of the preliminary stages of meditation from the more advanced stages. These are called “vipassana” in Sanskrit, or, in English, “insight meditation.” The danger comes about because there is no real separation between “mindfulness” and “insight meditation,” just as there is no real separation between learning to dance and dancing.
In fact, in many forms of insight meditation, the technique that you started with to develop mindfulness is only slightly altered. So what can happen in a secular context as you become proficient in meditating by having trained your mind to easily slip into a meditative state, is that insights can come along, arising spontaneously as you try to understand the experiences you had as you were meditating. Some of these insights, which are based upon your meditative imperiences, which are visceral in nature because they are imperienced, can destabilize your understanding of yourself and the world around you, potentially causing real psychological issues to arise in your life.
In a spiritual context, such as Buddhism, meditation teachers know, are trained in handling, and are there to help you get through, such issues. In a secular context, you’re pretty much on your own, past a certain point.
There is a saying in Buddhism about meditation: “Better not to start… having started, it’s better to finish.” Don’t take that as a reason not to proceed… you’ll be passing up too many invaluable opportunities to make yourself a better person and a more authentic and content human being. Instead, see it as a kind of “pep talk” for going the distance — or a warning about not doing so.
So, again, what is mindfulness? Many people confuse it with concentration.
When beginning to practice meditation, people apply themselves to overcoming the mind’s habitual tendencies and train it to be able to concentrate on something else. Most people start with focusing on their breathing as it is something we can all do. That’s not the support we will be using in the techniques used in this book, however; but let’s go with it as an example.
Concentrating their minds, new practitioners learn to pay attention to their breathing — in, pause, out, pause, in, pause, out, pause — and over time they become good at it because their minds become familiar with doing that. But that’s not mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you suddenly realize that your mind has drifted off into some fantasy, or has begun reflecting on what happened this morning, or what needs to be done before the end of the day, etc.
It’s that moment of “realization” that your mind “is elsewhere” that is mindfulness. Notice how your mind just drifted off into doing something else. That noticing is mindfulness. Concentrating on the present moment is just concentration. Every time a thought appears in your mind and you don’t notice that you are suddenly thinking about something rather than watching your breathing, you are being distracted. On the other hand, you may still be concentrating on breathing, but “zoning out,” not being fully aware that you are concentrating on your breathing, as if you were counting your breaths and you lose count, or just forget to keep counting — because you are focused on your breathing.
The practice of mindfulness then is to train yourself to be cognizant that you are doing what you are doing at all times, as if you are watching someone else doing it. It’s not about interceding in what is happening — other than to bring your attention back to what you’re supposed to be doing if it wanders. It’s a kind of stance you take toward your activities: rather than being lost in doing something, you remain fully aware of what you are doing at all times. And you start to accomplish this by noticing when your attention wanders, developing your ability to hold your awareness of what you are doing for longer and longer periods of time — that is mindfulness training.
And this is where mindfulness meditation easily slips into insight meditation… once you have developed your ability to remain mindful at all, or most, moments of your day, you start to notice things that never came to your attention before — like how most of our worries and fears are groundless, not having any true basis because they are dependent on things that haven’t happened yet. Or how we misread things that are said or done by others — and how the things we say and do are misread too! How thoughts just rise up “out of nowhere,” and if you don’t immediately engage with a thought, it just evaporates like the ephemeral cloud of nothing it actually is. These insights are important and they begin to lay a groundwork for a greater understanding of ourselves, our world, and how things work.
It may be interesting to you to know that these insights, spontaneous and intuitive as they are, are also very regular in their appearance, following a well-defined sequence that has been documented by many spiritual traditions over millennia. That should comfort you in your practice because it means that the experience of these insights are verifiable, or at least reproducible in others. Today, with our emphasis on doing things “scientifically,” this is our standard for what is true.
Actually, it has always been the human standard of truth outside of religion and politics. Buddhism, for example, is not a religion because it is not dogmatic in its tenets as most religions are, and one of the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism is that you should always verify for yourself what you are told by a teacher.
Finally, after many, many years of meditating, gaining insights along the way, you may suddenly find yourself with a realization about the ultimate nature of reality. This doesn’t mean you know everything about how reality works, as you might about a clock if you were a clockmaker; nor does it mean you can dance on the end of an opponent’s sword and magically jump over their heads, twenty feet in the air… that’s Hollywood.
What it does mean, is that you have direct insights into the nature of “life, the Universe, and Everything;” but unlike as in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the answer isn’t “42.”