Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Mindfulness and Concentration
While mindfulness and concentration work closely together in our meditation practice, they are two different mind states, perform different functions, and are cultivated in different ways. Knowing how they come about, what their function is, and how they operate will help with one's meditation practice.
Mindfulness is remembering what it is that we want to keep in mind. You could also say it’s remembering where it is that we want our attention to be. When you wake up from being lost in thought about the future or the past and remember that your intention is to be present with the sensations of the breath, that’s a moment of mindfulness. When you are aware of the breath for a moment, that’s also a moment of mindfulness. So, we can cultivate mindfulness by being connected to our chosen object, and we can cultivate mindfulness when we realize that we haven’t been connected to our chosen object. The function of mindfulness is to remember to keep our chosen object in mind and keep us engaged with the meditation.
Concentration is when the mind is collected around an object in the present moment and is not being thrown off course by its relationship to other objects. Concentration is the undistracted mind. The attention is lightly, yet persistently connected to what the mind is knowing. It could be with a single object like the breath in Shamatha (Tranquility) meditation, or with changing objects as in undirected Vipassana meditation. The common denominator is that the mind is settled and stable in the present moment. Concentration can range from very nascent and weak, as in being aware of a few breaths in a row, to an extremely steady and single-pointed awareness that is deeply relaxed and firmly stable in the present moment. The function of concentration is to keep the mind steady so that it can see reality clearly, free from the likes and dislikes that normally cloud our view. The other function, or perhaps consequence, of concentration is it gives the mind a pleasant experience to connect with, having let go (temporarily) of its incessant wanderings. Sometimes the prospect of letting go of all the things that we like to have, dream about and chase after can feel like a barren desert. The calm and pleasant aspect of concentration gives the mind something agreeable to land on.
Mindfulness is cultivated by the intention to be mindful and by past moments of mindfulness. Concentration is cultivated by stringing individual moments of mindfulness together. Furthermore, as concentration begins to arise, the time spent lost in thought decreases. There are more moments of mindfulness, which deepen mindfulness, and which then allow one to string more moments of mindfulness together. In this way mindfulness and concentration work together to help cultivate the mind so that it is more and more present and undisturbed.
It all starts with mindfulness though. One doesn’t sit down and just try to concentrate. That would just tie one up in knots. Through remembering where it is that one wants the attention to be, moments of mindfulness are fostered and very naturally begin to happen in increasing succession--which is how concentration comes into being. So, keep it simple and just keep what it is you want to be aware of in mind as best you can, and the rest will unfold from there.