The Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

Right Concentration is the final practice of Mental Discipline on the Eightfold Path and is about disciplining the mind to see reality as it is. It’s also known as Right Meditation or Samadhi, and is the practice of focusing your mind on one thing until you’ve reached meditative absorption or jhana.

Samadhi means concentration, and it’s called absorption because when the mind is intensely focused like this you become one with the present moment. It’s a non-dual state of oneness with reality where the self is gone, or absorbed in unity consciousness. When you meditate in samadhi there’s no effort involved – the meditation does itself. There’s no one breathing – the universe breathes.

Traditionally, Right Concentration is taught before Right Mindfulness because it helps to bring your mind to a one-pointed focus. This is done by focusing your attention on an object, such as a word, sound, sensation, image, or idea. Common objects used include:

  • A picture of the Buddha
  • The repetition of a mantra, such as Om
  • Following the breath

When practising Right Mindfulness you’re open to whatever arises, allowing events to simply be as they are. With Right Concentration your attention is focused and everything else is excluded. This is achieved using Right Thought, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness, and it takes a lot of practise.

Over time, your mind will calm down and become more peaceful and stop chattering away to itself. Once you’ve achieved that, your mind can be used to explore reality without getting caught up in endless thoughts and distractions.

It’s important not to use this kind of highly focused meditation as an escape from problems in your life or difficult emotions in yourself. The idea is to train your mind to be more focused so you can live more completely and be more present, not to run away from reality. Absorption states can be very seductive and it’s easy to get caught up in them, but at some point you’ll have to come back to your body and re-enter your ordinary day-to-day life.

There are 8 levels of concentration, or jhanas, to explore in meditation, plus the final jhana of cessation. The first four jhanas involve concentration on the form realm, while the rest move through the formless realms. As you move through the levels, the experience, or attachment, of the previous level is surrendered or renounced. It’s like slowly peeling away the layers of experience until you finally come to see reality as it is.

You begin with the four form realm jhanas:

parthama-jhana – concentration on noticing and experiencing the object, plus rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness

dutiya-jhanaexperience of the object is surrendered, concentration on rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness

tatiya-jhanarapture is surrendered, concentration on bliss and one-pointedness

catuttha-jhanabliss is surrendered, concentration on one-pointedness and equanimity

To enter the formless levels of concentration you have to surrender equanimity, and then you move into the formless jhanas:

5th jhana – equanimity is surrendered, you realise the object doesn’t inherently exist, concentration on limitless space

6th jhana – realise space has no inherent existence, concentration on limitless consciousness

7th jhana – realise consciousness is empty of existence, concentration on emptiness

8th jhana – realise emptiness is empty of itself, concentration on neither perception nor non-perception

9th jhanacessation

It’s only with the final level of cessation that suffering falls away because the ignorance of the self is seen through. The apparent split between subject and object, self and other, collapses into the wisdom of Buddha mind. This doesn’t mean you’re aware of nothing – perception and feeling are still there, but they’re now functioning without ignorance.

Please remember, this isn’t an intellectual process where you sit and think about this stuff. Only the first jhana includes any thought; after that the intellect falls away and you’re into a whole new level of experience.


Free Your Mind

To begin with you may have some difficulty concentrating, what with all your thoughts leaping about and your untrained emotions running rampant. It can be a good idea to structure your practice so you begin with mindfulness of the breath and ease into the concentration as your mind settles down.

Or you can take one of the things causing problems, such as anger, and make that the focus of your concentration. Dig into the anger, pull it apart, figure out where it’s coming from and why.

Used together, mindfulness and concentration provide a powerful tool for developing insight, compassion and wisdom. It might seem that the higher levels of concentration are out of reach and that you’ll never achieve that kind of mastery. But remember, deep down, underneath all the noise and confusion of the self and its stories, you are Buddha. The realisation of the final jhana is your birthright and you are already enlightened. You just have to wake up.

“According to the Lotus Sutra, we have to live in the historical and ultimate dimensions of reality at the same time. We have to live deeply our life as a wave so we can touch the substance of water in us. We walk, look, breathe, and eat in a way that we touch the absolute dimension of reality. We transcend birth and death and the fears of being and nonbeing, one and many. …

“When you can touch the ultimate dimension, you walk with the Buddha. The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water. This is the Concentration of the Lotus Sutra. Live every moment of your life deeply, and while walking, eating, drinking, and looking at the morning star, you touch the ultimate dimension.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Right Concentration is a highly advanced practice and it will probably take many years to stabilise your mind at even the first level. However, it is possible to catch glimpses of the higher levels in peak experiences and sudden unexpected satoris – but that’s another story…

Read the whole series here
If you enjoyed this, you might like my series on the Zen Ox Herding Pictures

Image: Meditation



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