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.