What is Concentration?

This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the human hardware.

In meditation terms, concentration is an action of mind applied to an object.

But those are just words. Here is a specific exercise to demonstrate, in real time, what concentration “is”, so you can see it directly for yourself (and never forget it).

Actually do this exercise, now.

  • Take the forefinger of your dominant hand. Press it gently against a hard surface such as a wall or table. You should be able to see the flesh under the fingernail change colour as blood is pushed into it.
  • Now, do the same thing, except use half the power, so you are still pushing the finger into the surface, but it no longer changes colour.
  • Now, do the same thing at one-tenth power again. So, this is now at just five percent of the original force you used. Keep applying this tiny, insignificant force to your finger.

At this level, the finger will not move at all. However, the action of mind upon the finger will continue. You will continue the action of mind by willing the finger to push into the table – but at a force incapable of actually moving it. This is concentration.

“Mental thought” to “physical action” is a spectrum. Thoughts cross a point on the spectrum and become physical actions. Most people usually leap from thought to physical action in a binary step. However, as the exercise just now showed, you can in fact approach the point where a thought becomes a physical action, and stay just beneath it – creating a continuing action of mind which is “sub-threshold” for creating an actual physical action. You can continue to create this action of mind for long periods. This is concentration.

This action of mind will still cause nerves to fire in the finger, despite its not moving. These nerve impulses can be perceived as a tingling sensation in the chest and neck where the nerves supplying the finger join into the spine. By continuing this action of mind while becoming aware of the tingling, the tingling can spread along the spine and become warm and pleasurable. In fact, performing this mental action of applying minimal force to the finger is capable of producing jhana. (This is in fact one of the ways in which mudras work.)

To create a jhana, you would simply need to continue to perform the mental action of applying minimal force to the finger until that became your dominant thought and you were able to continue doing it for longer and longer uninterrupted stretches of time (e.g. 5 seconds thinking only about the finger, which is longer than it sounds when it comes to pure concentration practice). We might call this phase “initial access concentration”.

While doing this, over time, the warm tingles would spread and build up and become noticeable as their own object. This “pleasure object” would then join with the primary object (the finger) and we would now have a situation where concentrating on the finger also created pleasant warm tingles in a single unified process. We might call this “high access concentration” or “late-stage access concentration”. At this point, you now must simply continue to think about the finger while letting the warm tingles build until they reach a threshold, at which point they “flare” and become a jhana (usually with light erupting in the visual field).

This is pretty special considering you’re just pushing your finger into a table. (I am also not suggesting this is “easy”, but it is nevertheless straightforward.) By actually trying this, you might notice that concentration is both fragile and paper-thin. It is fragile because other thoughts will attempt to steal your attention away from your finger. It is paper-thin because it takes a lot of mental effort to “move the finger without moving the finger”. This tiny little point on the spectrum between thought and physical action is paper-thin. But staying on that point is concentration.

Eventually, you would also hopefully notice that concentration itself, when applied over time, becomes stable and organized. It becomes something like a steady “stream” of attention. Once you are getting to this point, you have made some serious progress in cultivating concentration.

Now, you would rightfully ask how pressing a finger into a table is the same “action” as putting awareness on the sensations of breath at the nose. To join the two, think of it like this. You have a columella, the piece of cartilage in the end of the nose which separates the two nostrils. Can you, right now, push that columella forward (so that your face moves forward, with the columella “leading” it)? Now do it at half power. Now one tenth of that power. At this point, your mind is pushing forward on your columella, but no physical movement is occurring. At this point you could say you are “resting attention on the end of your nose”, just like the Buddhists demand! Now, continue doing this while letting yourself breathe. You will find that this is in fact the same action as “resting awareness on the sensations of breath at the columella”. Your mind is now in those nerves in the end of your nose, right where they need to be for breath jhana. Continue this mental action for as much time as you can allow yourself and you have a serious chance of attaining breath jhana.

So, that is concentration. It is a mental action upon an object, below the threshold of creating a physical action. Concentration alone causes jhana. What is interesting however is that your choice of object “flavours” the jhana significantly. So, a breath jhana has a very different flavour to a finger jhana (which is done properly via mudras), or a kasina jhana, or a metta jhana, despite all of these being born from concentration. The main reason, I believe, is that all of these have different points of focus on the body. Breath jhana is done at the nose, mudras at the hands, kasinas tend to be third eye, and metta is at the heart. A mental action is applied at these points causing different nerves in those vicinities to activate, since attention tends to “bleed” into nearby nerves.

For example, when you rest attention on the end of the nose, the tingles in the nerves in the nose appear to “bleed” into the vagus and phrenic nerves (which join into the brainstem “behind” the nose), giving strange and wonderful body effects. I have been implicating the vagus nerves in breath jhana for some time now, for the following reason: The vagus nerves innervate the ears, heart, lungs and digestive system. Respectively, this accounts for the following jhana effects: ringing in the ears (the “jhana sound”); warmth in chest and lowered heart rate; feedback loop with the lungs (meaning breathing “creates” the jhana alongside concentration); cool bodily bliss. Breath jhana tends to be sedating and euphoric due to this action on the vagus nerves.

Resting attention on the third eye however – which is where kasina afterimages tend to be placed, although third-eye gazing is a meditation in itself – appears to activate the pineal gland and optic nerves. Concentration here will be “flavoured” with visuals and have a dreamlike quality. Mudra concentration on the other hand tends to “bleed” up the spine creating an elated, energized state. It therefore tends to be associated with kriya yoga/ energy work.

So, we now have a working model of what concentration “is” and how applying it at different points creates different altered states. Pushing a finger into a table is not an ideal set-up for meditation so, if you wish to continue with this kind of “finger concentration”, I would instead recommend you sit properly and adopt dhyana mudra, and develop concentration on the two thumbs lightly touching each other. The principle is the same as with the table: touch the thumbs together with a force below the threshold of creating a physical action. You can also think about the two thumbs simply “resting” on each other, which will have the same effect. An alternative is gyan mudra: on each hand, push the tip of the forefinger into the thumb as gently as you can. Stay with that mental action, and this is concentration. Concentrate for long enough, and a pleasurable altered state will arise. It is no more complicated than that.

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17 Responses

  1. Aldous says:

    Superb piece. Best beginners guide to concentration I’ve seen. Clear as crystal. Well done!

  2. James says:

    Great work on this one! Simple, straight forward, and incredibly clear.

  3. James says:

    I have a question for you –

    Lets say you’re doing a third eye meditation, and you feel the “pull” of attention to the gut because of energy trying to move, it’s a feeling of strain and force, and once you put your attention there, the energy “cleans out” moves and there is no longer tension.

    Do you move your attention to you gut, and then back to the third eye, or do you ignore it and stay on the third eye?

    For me, if I ignore, the energy keeps growing in agitation and force, so I normally give it my attention so it can clear up and then go back to the meditation object..

    • Illuminatus says:

      I will answer the “general” rule first.

      Concentration is like a thermometer with a threshold at the top that says “jhana”. Applying attention to an object fills up the thermometer. So, you will be sitting there for a long time, applying attention to the object, slowly filling up the thermometer. When it hits “jhana”, your perception will change in an extreme way and your mind will be filled with bliss.

      When you are distracted by thoughts not to do with your object, the thermometer will slowly start to fall away while you are with those other thoughts. However, the thermometer does not fall very fast. This means you can pick up almost where you left off when you return to the object.

      Now, here is one of the “secrets” of attaining jhana. IF you can can conquer a distraction — meaning ignore it, even though it claws at you for your attention — the mind will spontaneously let that distraction go AND YOUR THERMOMETER WILL TAKE A SHARP UPWARD RISE TOWARDS JHANA.

      Conquering distractions is the quickest way to get these SURGES that fill up your thermometer.

      In this respect, if you ignore your gut regardless of what it is doing, smile a little bit, and keep attention on your third eye, the gut noise will, at some point, spontaneously fall away, and you will get a massive surge of bliss and your progress in that session will shoot right up.

      That is the general rule for distractions. On a practical level though sometimes you may need to attend to something to get it out of the way. However I recommend you split-test this gut issue by doing a session where you ignore it entirely and see what happens. If it spontaneously falls away, then you could gain a lot. Remember that the gut is serviced by the vagus nerve which also appears to be the source of bliss and equanimity.

      Ideally you want the body dealing with as many things on autopilot as possible. Your checklist should have as few items as possible on it.

      • James says:

        I see, thanks.

      • Jason says:

        When you say conquer the distraction, do you mean remove the distraction completely, or is having the distraction in the background of your mind while still having focus on the meditation object still work? I can recognize when I’m getting distracted pretty easily and can return to my meditation object, but removing the distraction completely is difficult for me. I hope what I’m saying makes sense.

        • Illuminatus says:

          @Jason:

          What you wrote is based on a misunderstanding that you can somehow hold two things in mind. In reality it is more like a fork in the road: will you go down the path of distraction, or stay on the path of concentration on the object?

          So let’s say you are concentrating on your object and a distracting thought arises, which is the image of a pair of woman’s tits. The fork in the road is, you can either think about the tits, or think about your object. Good concentration means you recognize the distraction within 1 millisecond and course-correct back to your object. If you do that, you have conquered the distraction.

          The more compelling the distraction (I chose a woman’s tits intentionally as a highly compelling distraction), the more “jhana points” you earn if you course-correct back to the object.

          See, your question about “removing the distraction completely” makes no sense. It is just a series of forks in the road: distraction vs. object.

          The more you stay with your object however, the fewer distractions will arise, eventually. They get tired and give up. This is part of the process of concentration becoming stable and organized (which I mentioned in the post but didn’t go into).

          If your distraction keeps arising, it is because you are allowing your mind to go towards it too much. If your mind is a dog, you have it on a very long leash so it can go and explore. Instead make that leash very short (more like a choke-chain, actually). The dog sniffs at a distraction, you yank it back. It will not be long before it no longer tries to sniff distractions.

  4. Anon Regular says:

    Wow, that’s a great exercise! Instantly creates a state change and a direct understanding of what to do.

  5. Tommy says:

    Do you control your inhales, pauses, and exhaled in your breath?

    • Illuminatus says:

      I used to, but they run on autopilot now.

      It turns out it is not the “quality” of the breath itself, but rather the consistent attention applied to it, whatever it is doing, that constitutes good concentration.

      • Illuminatus says:

        I should also add that good concentration tends to cause the breath to become regular as the meditation progresses, as the mind and the breath become “the same thing”.

  6. Sean says:

    When I try this on the bridge of the nose, it doesn’t feel like a continuous push. It feels more like a series of pushes, like I’m constantly reapplying that “force” for a fraction of a second at a time. Is this effective, or should I be trying to make it continuous and unbroken?

    Also, I can get so into the idea of pushing without actually moving the body that it feels like noticing the breath sensations is a distraction from the pushing. Should I just keep my whole being focused on that mental action? Or should I allow the breath sensations to “come in”?

    • Illuminatus says:

      Hi Sean,

      >When I try this on the bridge of the nose, it doesn’t feel like a continuous push. It feels more like a series of pushes, like I’m constantly reapplying that “force” for a fraction of a second at a time. Is this effective, or should I be trying to make it continuous and unbroken?

      That is because you are only just beginning to learn concentration. When first starting out, concentration is always experienced in these little “bits” because it is new. It takes a while to become constant.

      >Also, I can get so into the idea of pushing without actually moving the body that it feels like noticing the breath sensations is a distraction from the pushing. Should I just keep my whole being focused on that mental action? Or should I allow the breath sensations to “come in”?

      I suggest you learn to walk before you run. You need to practise the “mental action” of pushing on an object until it becomes divorced from the “physical action”. It is far easier to learn this at the thumbs. So for the next several sessions, forget the breath entirely. Sit with eyes closed in dhyana mudra:

      Push the thumbs into each other “without pushing”. The aim of the next several sessions is to find out what the absolute gentlest amount of force you can apply it. This will eventually be realized as a MENTAL FORCE not a physical one, but you must practise in order to hone that skill. This practice will also create steady concentration on the thumbs.

      Once you have learned what the MENTAL FORCE feels like, you can then apply it to ANY object without actually moving the body. So when you come to practising actual breath meditation at the top lip / columella, it will just be this downward mental force you will apply to the sensations of the breath. The breath should be allowed to come and go as it pleases.

      This mental force, once learned, can be applied to visual objects like kasina, too. One of the end results of this training is that you learn the mind has several mental actions it can apply to objects. So, you can “gently wrap the mind around” objects, or “push on them”, or “pull them towards you” or “hold them gently”. But there’s no point trying any of this till you have done the initial training.

  7. Sean says:

    Thanks! That makes a lot of sense. So the trick is to master the “mental action” first, then figure out how to use it to get in to the jhanas, etc.

    I have one more question. It seems that recently you’ve been less interested in concentration and more interested in AWA and so on. I don’t want to get too specific, because that’s not really what the comments are for. But I’m in a life situation now that makes spiritual work very difficult. For a lot of complicated reasons, magick is basically the best way to get out of it. So that makes me think that getting great concentration is the easiest way to change my life. But really, my ultimate goal is not siddhis or whatever but realisation. So for a situation like this would you suggest work my arse off at concentration, use it to change my life, and then focus on realisation? Or just keep at the nondirective meditation and trust that the situation in my life will take care of itself?

    For context, I’ve been doing the Abandon Release every day for a half hour to an hour for the last few months, and I can’t tell if it’s produced “progress” or not.

    • Illuminatus says:

      >Thanks! That makes a lot of sense. So the trick is to master the “mental action” first, then figure out how to use it to get in to the jhanas, etc.

      Yes. The mental action IS concentration. When it has been developed, you can apply it to any object to create jhana.

      >But I’m in a life situation now that makes spiritual work very difficult. For a lot of complicated reasons, magick is basically the best way to get out of it.

      Magick born from desperation tends to either achieve nothing or make things worse.

      You have to shift temporarily to a better state. Examples:

      – Humour
      – Curiosity
      – Playfulness
      – Visualizing the reward till you state-shift

      Steve Pavlina has lots of good articles on rookie/pre-jhana magick: https://www.stevepavlina.com/?s=intention

      You could try the “find money on the floor” exercise first. I found £80 the week I tried that — two five pound notes on the ground near my house, a tenner in the back of a taxi, and a jackpot left in the tray of a pub fruit machine, not to mention many pound coins found on the ground wherever I went. This was one of the exercises that got me to take magick seriously.

      >So for a situation like this would you suggest work my arse off at concentration, use it to change my life, and then focus on realisation?

      I think you should set the intention to become happier and experience good luck and excitement then let that intention unfold over a period of weeks or months, and don’t try to rush it. It is the intention — the “story-writing” aspect — that carries the real power in life. Concentration is just a vehicle for realizing intent.

      >For context, I’ve been doing the Abandon Release every day for a half hour to an hour for the last few months, and I can’t tell if it’s produced “progress” or not.

      Awareness Watching Awareness is a lot more potent than Abandon Release; it’s also a lot more difficult, since “awareness” is not always obvious to watch (like a fish not knowing what water is).

      I don’t really know what else to tell you because I sense the urgency in your desire to change your situation. However, that urgency will sabotage your efforts and must be let go of.

      From personal experience, the best way to experience a “magickal” life is as follows. Read lots of stories about siddhis and become curious. I used to read all of Steve Pavlina’s; he is what got me into this stuff, really. Simultaneously learn a concentration practice (the thumbs one is fine for now) with the assumption it will have some effect of revealing some aspect of reality that was previously hidden from you. Finally, combine it with formal resolutions (a statement made prior to or immediately following meditation) to experience great luck and synchronicities that could not be mere coincidence. Then they will soon start manifesting.

      I only give this advice to you because of your interest in magick. It is not for everyone.

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