Right concentration sits in the last position on the Buddha’s 8-fold path and works in partnership with right mindfulness and right effort.
Concentration, as it is meant here, supports our investigation of direct experience. Through some helpful exercises, we can train the mind to be content with quiet moments, to calm its agitation and come fully into the present.
Traditional ways of developing concentration start with calming the body and then letting the mind settle; but rather than going to sleep, the mind remains sensitive and alert. We can train by sitting upright and still, and silently experiencing the breath moving in and out of our bodies. Another common method is to repeat a mantra (word or phrase, such as “budd-ho”), bringing the mind back to the mantra whenever it wanders, for a fixed period of time. A third popular method is to sit upright and still and sweep the awareness slowly through the body.
Ajahn Sumedho offers this description, in a talk called Body Contemplation:
I remember going on some of these retreats where you do the body sweeping, which I found quite useful. You contemplate the sensations, starting with ānāpānasati [in and out breath awareness] at the nostrils and then sweeping from the top of the head, the face, and back of the neck on down to the shoulders, arms, hands, trunk, legs, and feet and then back up again. What you’re doing is really allowing the body to be received in consciousness, which it seems to appreciate.
Then there is the breath, here and now, the inhalation and exhalation. … When the mind wanders away in thought, just gently bring it back to the breath or the body, to that which is here and now, which isn’t a thought or an idea or anything. This is a way of grounding yourself in the present, and being with what is, the body, the posture, sitting like this, with the breath.
Some people think that concentration practice has to do with squeezing our attention into a tiny focal point by force. But this can never work, although sometimes the attention may narrow as a result, not a cause, of practice. The type of effort required is, paradoxically, the intention to relax, to let go of whatever clinging is holding us back from being calmly and receptively aware in the present. It’s as if we stop stirring up a body of water and eventually the surface becomes smooth and still.
Concentration practices can produce blissful states in some people, but the reason it’s included in the Buddha’s 8-fold path is that, even at the early stages of practice, it is an important skill that supports the cultivation of wisdom.
The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)