When I first started meditating seriously, I exclusively practiced Vipassana, also known as insight meditation, as taught by S. N. Goenka at the Vipassana retreat centers around the world.
My first foray into the world of Buddhist spirituality had been a 10-day retreat at the Dhamma Neru center in Catalonia in November 2013, so I wanted to give the technique its due. And there’s a lot to be said for Vipassana. It has multiple subtle and not-so-subtle effects and benefits, as I listed in a previous post. However, at some point I decided that I wanted to focus on honing my attention in order to better practice Vipassana and other techniques I would discover in the future.
So while looking for resources to help me do just that, I stumbled upon the book The Attention Revolution by B. Alan Wallace. It’s a book that outlines the Vajrayana Buddhist approach to attention training and calming of the mind through single-pointed meditation, known as Samatha.
To be honest I didn’t really like the way the book was set up, in eight steps or grades of focus of attention. I also felt a bit discouraged a few times throughout the book, as the author often implied that true progress in Samatha couldn’t be attained without prolonged silent retreat, and I mean more than a year at a time. Even practicing two hours a day, he said, wouldn’t really do much for you, or at least that’s how I interpreted it. I don’t mean to question his understanding of these techniques, but surely everybody needs to start somewhere, and a little bit of meditation is vastly better than none at all.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s full of wonderful insights and helpful information for those looking to improve their concentration and attention spans.
I’ve now been practicing the techniques outlined in the book for about three months, the first two months I sat for about 30 minutes up to an hour a day, and for the last month or so I’ve kept up an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, or two hours daily.
I want to share what I’ve learned, how I’ve improved, and some important aspects to practicing Samatha that became more obvious the more diligently I practiced.
What I instantly noticed was that single-pointed meditation, such as following the breath, can lead to some incredibly peaceful and focused states of mind, more so, or at least in a different capacity, than I’ve experienced with Vipassana meditation. For those unfamiliar with Vipassana, it normally consists of some sort of body scan or body awareness element, along with observation of sensations in a mindful, non-judgmental way. By and large, attention is diffuse, spread out throughout the body. Not so with single-pointed awareness.
A good way to understand the difference between the two approaches is through analogy to a light-source. Vipassana meditation is like candle flame or a lantern, flickering, shining light almost equally in all directions, while single-pointed meditation is more like a flashlight, or even (preferably) a laser beam, that can be directed to wherever the meditator wants it to go.
You can experience some very calm, peaceful states through body scanning techniques, but in my experience not the same intense focus, at least not as readily. I should point out that while single-pointed meditation focuses on developing attention, there is a mindfulness element to it, just as there is an attentive element to Vipassana, so both techniques will develop multiple facets of awareness and ultimately they complement each other in important ways.
“Meditation is a balancing act between attention and relaxation.”
– B. Alan Wallace, The Attention Revolution
Something that became increasingly apparent to me while practicing single-pointed meditation, and which Wallace points out in the book, was the importance of full body relaxation.
Any tension anywhere in the body will dramatically reduce your ability to focus. It’s so important that nowadays during a session, if I feel that I’m having a hard time concentrating on my breath, I will immediately do a quick body scan to see if I’ve tensed up somewhere. More often than not, I will discover a tightened muscle somewhere, usually around my eyes or in the jaw area, and take half a minute to relax once more.
Funnily enough, I started to connect different thought patterns to tension in different body parts. For example, when worrying about daily affairs or past and future events, I would tense up around the eyes and forehead. When remembering events that caused me anxiety or stress in the past, I would feel a tightness in the abdomen. And if I found myself thinking aggressive or even violent thoughts, which happens more often than I care to admit, I would hunch up my shoulders and tense my jaw.
These tensions are very much tied to their correlating thought patterns, but it goes both ways. So in the same way that specific thoughts seem to cause specific tension, mindfully releasing the tension in the body will result in a calming of the mind and releasing of the thought patterns. Interesting stuff.
A few times in my practice, I experienced a state that I later found out to be named access concentration. It’s a state of intense, unwavering focus and deep calm and serenity. For myself, each time I experienced it I felt mildly ecstatic. It only lasts at most for a minute or two at a time for me as of yet, but the first time I attained this state was a real boost for my practice, and gave me a lot of clarity as to where my meditation habit is leading me. The possibilities are magnificent, unspeakable.
“I suggest that if you were able to focus your attention at will, you could actually choose the universe you appear to inhabit.”
– B. Alan Wallace, The Attention Revolution
As Jack Cornfield says in the article I linked to, I felt the state of access concentration to be very shaky and unstable, in the sense that it was difficult to maintain and I couldn’t readily find it again once it had passed. I expect that with further practice and perseverance I’ll become more familiar with it and be able to settle further into calm attentiveness.
So what now?
I just started an 8 week mindfulness course, and I intend to focus on the techniques I learn there in my own practice at home for the duration of the course. I’m confident that my work on my concentration will serve me well with various other techniques. I see concentration as a sort of keystone meditative factor, in that it will complement all other spiritual practices. After the 8 week course is finished I’ll make a decision on whether I want to continue further with the mindfulness practice I learn there, or if I want to focus on Samatha again.
At this time in my spiritual development I feel the need to get to know many different techniques and practices and learn what I can from each tradition. Maybe at some point I’ll want to really center in on a particular approach, but until then I’m content to dabble around.
I sincerely hope these insights have inspired you in your own practice or helped in some way. All the best on your own path.