Mindfulness and Concentration

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • August 2012

Yesterday at teatime, we were talking about right concentration, sammā samādhi. One of the guests staying here had a question about sati versus samādhi—mindfulness versus concentration. It’s a good subject to reflect on because we can sometimes be hard on ourselves when we are trying to concentrate our minds and the practice doesn’t feel like it’s going so well. This can happen when we have some fixed ideas about the nature of concentration. As Luang Por Pasanno says, even the word concentration taken by itself has a connotation of a narrow focus that’s exclusive of other experience. He used an analogy between this tray here and samādhi. The tray is a good example of samādhi in that we need a firm foundation. The glass on the tray doesn’t form a strong base like the tray does. In samādhi we are looking for a tray rather than a glass. After he explained this—a few minutes later—the glass spontaneously burst in front of us. I don’t know if it was merely by chance, but it was a well-timed example of the instability of that glass samādhi.

It’s good to keep in mind that sammā samādhi is dependent on and supported by the right application of the other path factors, specifically right mindfulness and right effort, but also all of the other factors: right view, right intention, right action, right speech, and right livelihood. All of those factors have to be in play for samādhi to be right concentration. It is not independent of those other factors and when we don’t have significant amounts of time for intense, long periods of formal sitting meditation, the work we do with the other factors of the Eightfold Path forms that firm foundation, making it a broad base of practice. To begin with, we have to have right view, which starts with the knowledge that the actions we take in body, speech, and mind all have an effect in firming up that foundation and establishing peace within the mind. How we act throughout the day—the mindfulness we have when walking, doing dishes, working outside, working in the office and the attention we bring to what we’re doing, even though it is quite active and engaged—helps to form that firm foundation.

When we skillfully practice the Dhamma, all of those factors work closely together and act as a base for that type of collectedness of mind. It’s not a forced activity. We engage throughout the day with all the other aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, so we have a greater ability to enter into a quiet, collected, enjoyable, peaceful state of mind. This concentration is not a result of having to go into sensory deprivation or exclusion of all experiences so we have a few moments of peace. That’s not the kind of samādhi that is going to be stable, long-lasting, or even enjoyable. When we go through periods of practice that don’t seem very fruitful or when we feel our minds will never settle down, we can bring to mind that the sitting practice and development of concentration is an important part of practice, but it’s only one part of the practice. It needs to be supported by and firmly grounded in the other factors of the path as well.