When you think of Buddhist meditation, what do you think of? For many, especially those new to the practice, the word meditation brings up the idea of focusing on the breath. When our minds wander (as they so often do), we bring out attention back to our breathing. However, this is but one type of meditation. In Buddhism, there is a distinct difference between concentration and mindfulness.
What is Concentration?
Concentration, or samadhi in Pali, is the quality of single-pointedness of mind. In order to gain the quality of concentration, we must practice repeatedly turning our mind back to whatever we are focusing on. In concentration, we do not entertain thoughts, other stimulus, or anything else that draws our attention away. In this sense, concentration can be a bit forceful. This does NOT mean that concentration is unkind or harmful; it simply means that sometimes we must force ourselves back to the object of our focus.
What Does Concentration Practice Look Like?
The most common way that concentration is practiced is by focusing on the breath. In concentration practice, we turn our attention to our breath and let our thoughts go. We may focus on one point in the body, such as the tip of the nose or the abdomen. We also may focus on the breath’s path through our bodies.
When a thought arises, we let it go. We may see our thoughts as cars on a train. If we cling onto a thought, it often takes us quite far before we are able to get off. We practice not hooking into the thoughts, and returning to our breath. When we do get carried away, we try to come back. We must come back in a gentle way. We must be careful not to judge ourselves or be harsh when our minds wander. The practice is simply to come back to our breath.
What is the Point of Concentration Practice?
Different traditions may have different opinions about samadhi. In Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are commonly spoken about. Jhanas are states of extreme concentration, and lead to nibbana. As verse 372 of the Dhammapada says:
There’s no jhana for one with no discernment,
no discernment for one with no jhana.
But one with both jhana & discernment:
he’s on the verge of Unbinding.
Concentration practice has other benefits as well. Any meditation practice benefits from a concentration practice. Whether we are practicing metta, compassion, or mindfulness, a concentration practice helps us to stay focused. Furthermore, concentration practice helps us in our daily lives. When practicing concentration, we are often able to focus and stay attentive more naturally.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or sati in Pali, is a quality that is broader than concentration. Theravada monk and scholar Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) stresses frequently that the Pali word sati that we often translate as “mindfulness” is more appropriately defined as “wise remembering.” When we think of mindfulness meditation, we may think of focusing on our breath, often more of a concentration practice.
Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment. The “remembering” part that Than Geoff speaks about is remembering what is useful and skillful, and what is not. If a thought or impulse arises that has caused harm in the past, we must remember, or be mindful, of its nature. Mindfulness is an open awareness of what is happening right now, and exhibiting wise judgement, or discernment.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a wisdom practice like concentration. However, we don’t focus on one object in mindfulness meditation. We may start with a concentration practice to center ourselves, but a mindfulness practice includes more than just our breath. In mindfulness meditation, we open up to other stimulus.
We may have thoughts arise, hear a sound, smell something, or have a physical sensation in our bodies. When these draw our attention, we investigate. This doesn’t mean we need to bounce around like crazy. When our attention is grabbed by a sound or thought, we stick with it for a moment. In mindfulness practice, we take the time to notice how it feels, what the cause is, and what it creates within us.
For example, if our attention is drawn to a thought about becoming very successful in our business, making great amounts of money, and finding happiness, we turn towards it. We may notice that it is a fantasy, and probably feels a bit pleasant. We may also investigate more deeply and see that it created a relaxing feeling in our bodies. Furthermore, we may discover that the root of this thought is a discontentment with the way our lives are in this moment.
Mindfulness practice is not as forced as concentration practice. In mindfulness practice, we don’t need to continually return our focus to one thing. If our minds wander and we get lost in thought, we do need to bring it back. For this, the breath is often a great anchor. On a final note about general mindfulness meditation, it can be useful to be present for your breath, so that you may identify what kind of breath your body needs next.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Again, the benefits of mindfulness meditation can be found both on and off the cushion. On the cushion, mindfulness is an essential quality. The Buddha spoke extensively about sati, specifically with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps bring us into contact with the three marks of existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self). The Buddha taught that full understanding of these leads to liberation from suffering (nibbana). Similar to concentration, mindfulness is a quality that helps in all of our practices. When we are practicing forgiveness and our mind wanders to other thoughts, our mindfulness practice may help us to understand why we are having these thoughts or what the wise response is.
Off the cushion, mindfulness simply helps us stay present. Mindfulness is about present time awareness and investigation. In our daily lives, mindfulness helps us be present for what is happening. With strong mindfulness practice, our minds don’t wander quite as much, and when they do we are able to investigate more easily. Mindfulness practice also helps us recognize what we are doing, and often helps us not cause suffering in the world about us.
So What’s the Big Difference?
There are a few major points to consider: