Concentration and mindfulness are two separate functions of the mind that we cultivate together in the practice of meditation. Concentration or one-pointedness of mind consists on keeping the mind focused on one point. Mindfulness, on the other hand, does not necessarily have a fixed object of focus, it just notices what is happening. Ideally, both practices should go hand in hand: holding our attention on the object of meditation and noticing whatever is passing through the mind including distractions and interruptions in the flow of concentration.
You can’t develop mindfulness by force or struggle but at the same time it doesn’t happen by itself and requires gentle effort. You cultivate mindfulness by constantly pulling your mind back to a state of awareness: in formal meditation to the object of concentration and in daily activities to the task at hand. Mindfulness grows by noticing, acknowledging, accepting and letting go.
Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. If properly used it can assist us towards liberation but it can also be used in service of the ego. Concentration alone will not give us a perspective on ourselves. It won’t lighten suffering. Only mindfulness is free to notice whatever comes up, our deepest secrets – hatred, lust, jealousy, egoism. Mindfulness has no fixed object of focus. It observes change without judging or categorizing. In a state of pure mindfulness our attention just flows along with whatever changes are taking place.”Now this, now this, now this”. In a state of mindfulness we see ourselves exactly the way we are. We see our selfish behaviour, our sadness, our suffering and how we hurt others. We pierce right through the layer that blames and justifies. Mindfulness leads to wisdom.
Concentration is exclusive. It concentrates on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive and notices everything. Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration. Concentration is merely focusing the mind. Mindfulness can see and understand the mechanics of the mind. Mindfulness requires a great deal of patience, the patience to see and accept ourselves as we are. No change is possible if we do not accept first what is.
In meditation mindfulness directs the power of concentration and concentration furnishes the power for insight. They should go hand in hand in a balanced manner. The initial stages of meditation are specially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will slow down the development of concentration. When you start in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how active the mind is. In yoga we call it “the monkey mind”. Don’t get discouraged, this happens to everybody. There is a simple solution: put most of your effort into concentration at the beginning (the breath, the mantra, the chakra). In a couple of months you will have developed concentration power. Then you can turn your energy into mindfulness without getting lost with inner or outer distractions.
Seated meditation is the practice where we develop our concentration and mindfulness skills but the place where we apply those skills is our everyday life. Even if we are beginners in meditation we must not stop trying to maintain mindfulness in every activity and perception through the day. As our concentration becomes shaper we will notice that being present and aware all the time also improves. This is very demanding and rigorous but it allows our mind to be open and alert, a state necessary for liberation. It is said that one may attain enlightenment at any moment if we are in a state of readiness. The most ordinary perception can be the stimulus: the cry of a bird, a sound in the street, the reading of these words on the computer screen. It could happen right here and now because there is no need to go somewhere else or be somebody else as “the earth where we stand is the pure lotus land, and this very body the body of Budha”. (Budhist prayer)