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Stage Two: Concentration


In Chan training, we begin by developing concentration (dharana). This is different from non-directive techniques discussed in the first part of this series, because concentration requires the mind to learn to focus intently on something; it can be a thought, a feeling, a bodily process (like breathing), an idea, a concept, a visual image, etc. Concentration improves our ability to reflect, to observe, and, in general, to be aware: when the mind is not scattered in all directions and can focus, a great deal of clarity arises.
This is the phase in which we learn to reign-in the “monkey mind,” and to tame the emotions. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between an agitated mind and repressed emotions. I speculate that repressed emotions create the agitated, chaotic mind in the first place; but regardless of which begets which, working with Chan concentration methods has the direct effect of tapping into those repressed emotions and “unrepressing” them. As the mind opens itself up, we may feel all or any of the “negative” emotions common to being human: fear, anger, grief, embarrassment, sadness, etc. “Positive” emotions are typically not suppressed. As emotions arise, we simply observe them and let them go. The practitioner may, during this stage, respond to the emotions when they are strong enough; crying, for example, is not uncommon. The reward is that once these repressed emotions have bubbled into consciousness and been released, they are no longer there in the psyche to create problems. As they depart, the mind becomes stronger, clearer, and sharper. A sense of profound relief, of having a burden lifted from us, replaces an emotionally tortured psyche.
There are three general (and broad) approaches to concentration practices which I’ll refer to as external, internal, and cross-over. External practices have us focusing our attention on exterior “things” like a point on the wall in front of us, a burning stick of incense, the sound from the street, or memorizing something. Exterior subjects for concentration can also include various fields of study, like mathematics, physics, music, computer programming, various sports, etc. Internal concentration practices have us direct our attention toward internal “things” like ideas or concepts, feelings, or mental images. Cross-over practices have us concentrate on things that overlap the two: examples include the breath, the pulse, and physical sensations and certain disciplines like the martial arts and some forms of yoga. The easiest practices to begin with use external subjects, and the hardest practices use internal subjects. Cross-over subjects can be thought of as bridges to move the concentration away from the external world to the internal world.
From ancient times, Buddhist clergy were required to memorize long sutras and put them to oral chants and, at least during the first few centuries of Buddhism, were required to recite sutras in a variety of complex and convoluted ways (for example, jata-patha, or “mesh recitation” and the ghana-patha, or “dense recitation” methods) as a method of maintaining their integrity. These methods required immense concentration and new monks who didn’t have it, simply learned it. In addition, the many ceremonial activities engaged in throughout the day by clergy also fosters concentration, as each requires full, unwavering, attention. Lay practitioners need to apply other means of developing concentration. Here are some examples of external concentration methods:
  • Math: Count down from 100 by 3’s.
  • Music: Play a descending scale in all keys moving up each time by a minor third (without looking at music).
  • Physics: Using only Newtonian mechanics, devise a formula that describes the motion of a planet about a star in a two-body system.
  • Programming: create a recursive algorithm that calculates the factorial of any number using the fewest lines of code possible.
  • Sports: Free-climb El Capitan.
While the last four examples obviously require some prior knowledge/skill of the subject, they illustrate the point that concentration can be cultivated through a wide range of disciplines. If there is a certain area of interest we have, we can use it to work on developing concentration.
Some examples of cross-over concentration methods:
  • Counting the breath: take the seated position described in Part I, breath normally and count the breaths from one to ten. If you lose count, start over again from one.
  • Practicing the “Healing Breath:" (described in the The Healing Breath on this website).
  • Doing the Pulse Meditation: Take the seated position described in Part I and place your hands, palms up, on your knees (without crossing your arms). Lightly touch the thumb to the middle finger. Focus your concentration on the sensation of the two fingers touching until you are able to feel the pulse there.
Some examples of internal concentration methods:
  • Create a mental image. Visualize the house you lived in when you were ten years old. Resurrect the house from memory in your mind, remembering every detail: the color and texture of the floor and what it was made of, the windows and how they opened, the front door and back door, how the rooms flowed from one to another. Do this until you have a full picture of it in your mind. (Some people prefer to use a church or temple or other religious building they were very familiar with when young, or some other structure more relevant to their lives at that time.)
  • Explore a concept. Choose a concept, such as hate or love, right or wrong, good or evil, etc. Look at the concept from every direction, unravel it in as much detail as you can. Come up with different ways in which the word is used and different meanings it takes in different contexts. Observe the emotional response you have as you invoke its various qualities. Become best friends with the concept. Understand it from every possible perspective.
  • Invoke a feeling/emotion. Choose a feeling and explore it. What is the nature of this feeling? What are its affects? From where does it originate? What does the emotion evoke? Memories? Other emotions? Follow it where it takes you. Alternate with both “positive” and “negative” feelings.
Concentration methods prepare us for the next step, contemplation, which I will describe in Part III of this four-part series.