Concentration

There are many forms of meditation. But they all have a common foundation: Concentration. Concentration is the steadiness of attention and it is fundamental in meditation.

Before we talk about anything else we must clear something up. The word concentration can have connotations of effort and strain in daily use. It couldn’t be more false in the context of meditation. Concentration is a state of resting your awareness on an object such as the breath in an effortless way.

Being concentrated (or absorbed) on your breath is very much like being absorbed in a movie or a piece of music, both in terms of quality and how you get there. In both cases you only need to keep paying attention and at one point you find yourself focused. And it is not something you can force. It happens by itself.

In the case of a movie or music there are two conditions that make absorption possible:

1- We are interested in the content and our mind is easily drawn into it.

2- We consistently pay attention.

We can take the same attitude and apply it to the breath. In concentration meditation we observe the breath with all the curiosity that we have. We become aware of its qualities and we stay on it. The mind wanders, and we gently (without making a big deal) bring it back. That’s all. The rest is practice. And it means bringing your attention back to the breath over and over and over again. It requires great patience, perseverance and acceptance.

It is very much like training a puppy to stay in one place. Getting mad and forcing the puppy is not going to work. The only thing you can do is gently and lovingly bring it back no matter how many times it wanders off.

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BASICS 2 – ATTENTION

Let’s do another exercise. Remember we aren’t formally into meditation yet. We are still getting to know the building blocks. This is also something you are familiar with: Your attention. “Pay attention” is the most basic and fundamental meditation instruction. Here we will try to gain an experiential understanding of how attention works.

1 – Sit down comfortably and close your eyes.

2 – Direct your attention to your right hand and allow it to be felt (See Basics-1 for more). If you don’t feel anything immediately, wait for some time while directing your attention to your hand.

3 – Notice whatever sensations there may be, such as touching, heat, cold, tingling, pulsing, pressure, lightness etc. You don’t have to name them. Just notice them and stay with them. Rest your attention there for 4-5 breaths.

4- Now direct your attention to your left foot in the same way. Again, stay there for 4-5 breaths and allow the sensations to be felt. 

5- Go back to your hand and repeat this process a few times or more by moving your attention back and forth between your hand and foot .

As you do this investigate the process of paying attention to an object. Like we said above, the goal is to gain experiential understanding. So it is something you have to see for yourself.

First of all, notice what it means to move your attention. Do the exercise until you familiarize yourself with what it is that you are moving and how you are moving it. Notice what “muscles” in your brain you are flexing in order to move your attention from one object to the other. This is important and may take some time and practice.

Secondly, notice the effortlessness of the feeling of the sensations. Notice what it means to “rest” your attention on an object without “doing” anything. And notice the way one object fades from your consciousness and another one appears as you change the focus of your attention.

Finally, notice how your attention doesn’t want to stay on one object and tends to pull away. That brings us to the topic of concentration and we will talk about it in the next posts.

For now here is some more we can do with this exercise. Playing around with these things with an attitude of curiosity is extremely helpful. So here are some interesting questions you can try to answer:

-Can you feel both your hand and your foot at the same time?
-Can you feel your fingers separately one by one?
-How about segments of fingers?
-How much smaller can you go?

BASICS 1 – A simple exercise that demonstrates the gist of mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation is many things. But it is not something you do. In this respect it is a mental attitude that is very different from what we are used to in everyday life. It is non-doing. It is to be aware of what already is.

The actual experience will tell you a lot more than any number of words. So let’s do an exercise and see what we mean. Credit to the great teacher Joseph Goldstein for this exercise.

Close your eyes. Rest your right elbow on the armrest or your desk and lift your hand with the palm facing left. Very slowly move it from left to right a few times.

Stop reading and do the exercise.

Did you feel your hand move?

Congratulations! You were mindful of your hand.

Believe it or not, it really is just that. And you are right, it is not something special. It’s something you’ve always had. You could start meditating right now if you closed your eyes and just felt your hand move from side to side.

It turns out it takes practice to be mindful of our experience continuously. It also turns out there is tremendous power in doing that. That is mindfulness meditation in a nutshell.


We’ll go more into how to actually meditate in the following posts. But let’s continue with the basic concepts. As you read them try to connect them to the experience of our little exercise above.

There are two important qualities of your mind as you are mindful.

  1. You are attentive to your experience.
  2. You simply witness its unfolding without attachment or pushing away.

It is impossible to overemphasize these two points as they are core elements of the practice.

Another important point is the non-doing aspect. Doing things is our everyday mode of operation. So a lot of us understandably get caught in trying to do meditation. But ask yourself the following question. Did you have to do anything to feel the movement of your hand? Or did the knowing of the experience happen by itself?

Go back and do it again. Allow your hand to be felt. Try to notice what we mean by non-doing. Pay attention to the fact that your hand just is.

So let’s summarize:

Mindfulness meditation is not about doing something, but about being aware of what already is. You direct your attention to an experience, the experience unfolds and it is known by itself.

When in doubt, close your eyes and allow your hand to be felt. That’s mindfulness.