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Stage Two: Concentration

Focus and Concentration

Chan training, begins with developing concentration (dharana). This is different from non-directive techniques discussed previously because concentration requires the mind 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.  Enhanced clarity arises when the mind is not scattered in many directions and can focus. This is the phase in which we learn to tame the “monkey mind,” and take control of emotions.
Repressed emotions are the genesis of an agitated, chaotic mind.  Working with Chan concentration methods has the direct effect of tapping into those repressed emotions and “unrepressing” them. As the mind opens itself, we may feel all or any of the “negative” emotions common to human experience: fear, anger, grief, embarrassment, sadness, etc. “Positive” emotions are typically not suppressed.  During stage two practice, as these untoward emotions arise, we observe them and let them go.  If the emotions are strong enough, we may experience extreme outbursts.   Crying is not uncommon.  The reward is that once these repressed emotions have bubbled into consciousness and been released, they are no longer present in the psyche to create problems. As they depart, the mind becomes stronger, clearer, and sharper and we become more at-ease.  If we had neurotic tendencies, they too diminish, or vanish entirely. 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.  With external practices we focus attention on exterior “things” like a point on the wall in front of us, a burning stick of incense or sound from the street. Exterior subjects for concentration can also include various fields of study, like mathematics, physics, music, computer programming, and various sports. With internal concentration practices we direct attention toward internal “things” like ideas or concepts, feelings, or mental images. With cross-over practices we concentrate on things that overlap the two: examples include the breath, the pulse, physical sensations, and certain disciplines like the martial arts and some forms of yoga. The easiest practices to begin with use external 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 have been 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 (using, for example, the jata-patha, or “mesh recitation” and the ghana-patha, or “dense recitation” methods). These methods required immense concentration and new monks who hadn't yet mastered the ability, were required to learn it.  The many ceremonial activities that monks and nuns engaged in throughout the day, requiring full, unwavering attention, further developed concentration ability.  In liu of the natural supports provided by a monastic setting, lay practitioners can choose from a wide range of alternate disciplines to develop external concentration skills, including:
  • Math: Count down from 100 by 3’s.
  • Music: Play a descending scale in all keys moving up each time by a minor third.
  • 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 most of these 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.
Once we have mastered external and cross-over concentration skills, we can direct our focus inward, applying internal practices:
  • 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).
  • Performing 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. If you can't remember all the details, invent them.  (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, illuminating it in as much detail as you can. Explore 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 as you come to 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 effects? 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.
All of the concentration practices I have outlined here require prolonged and dedicated practice.  Spending five minutes with a practice before moving on to the something else would be like going to a movie and walking out after five minutes.  We will not only never know what the movie was about, or enjoy it, but will have wasted our time.  Chan discipline means we are eager to stay with a practice for weeks or months or years, if necessary, before moving on to the next step--practice is not a matter of how long we work with an exercise, but whether we have mastered it, whether it has revealed new insights and prepared us for the next step.  The more effort we put into practice, the faster we progress.
Once we are able to concentrate for prolonged periods, we are ready for the next step, contemplation, which I describe in Part 3 of this four-part series.