On Training the Puppy: The Process of Building Concentration

Concentration means single-pointed awareness.  One consciously collects and steadies attention on an object.  The natural effect of concentrating the mind is tranquility and stillness.  It brings you to the present moment.  As you sustain concentration for a longer period of time, you can no longer find any trace of thoughts.  You see things clearly as all the layers of fog melt away.

In the speed of our society, we forget the value of slowing down.  Do you know that feeling that you get when you see something beautiful in nature?  Or when you’re in awe of something?  When a child is born?  The reason why these experiences are so pleasant and memorable is because we are fiercely in the moment.  All traces of thought drop away.  And you are completely and entirely attuned to the moment.  This same process is at play when we cultivate concentration in meditation. 

One main vehicle to achieve high levels of concentration is the breath.  It’s always happening in the present moment.  It’s always available to us.  For that reason, it is frequently used as the object to still the mind.  So how do we do this?  Sitting in meditation, we collect our attention and place it where we feel our breath the most.  It could be the rising and falling of the belly or chest, or the air at the tip of the nostrils.  Some strategies are counting the breath, or labeling, “inhale, exhale,” or, “in, out.”  Each time you get distracted, just return your attention to the breath.  This process is called a microrecovery.  Doing this over and over creates concentration. 

It begins with a process quite like training a puppy.  If you’ve ever trained a puppy, you know it requires a great deal of patience and perseverance.  You tell the puppy to stay, and what does it do?  Does it stay?  Usually no.  The puppy wanders away frequently and sometimes will even urinate or defecate on the carpet a little bit.  Then what do you do?  Well, if you get mad and scream at the puppy, the puppy doesn’t like that and actually neither do you.  The more you struggle, the harder it gets.  But if you’re patient and gentle, and you keep bringing the puppy back, over and over, eventually it stays. 

It is the same with the breath and concentration.  You tell yourself, “Okay, I’m going to sit and concentrate on my breath intensely for 20 minutes.  And what happens?  Well, for most of us, the mind will kick up any and every reason for why you shouldn’t be doing it, how it probably won’t work, how you’re doing it wrong and where the quickest exit is.  This is akin to the puppy defecating on the carpet.  It’s okay!  Don’t get angry and scold the puppy!  Simply remind it to come back, over and over, without judgement. 

It’s also like riding a bike.  To ride a bike, you don’t just stay straight and balanced.  You fall to right, and correct to the left, and then fall to the left, and correct to the right.  Over and over, until you achieve the felt sense of balance; of going straight.  It is the same with concentration and the breath.  Each microrecovery of attention is simply correcting it back to the center.  Eventually, achieving the felt sense of balance.

In meditation, once you achieve that sense of balance and concentration, you get extremely calm.  It is very pleasant.  You come to rest.  From there, all thoughts drop away.  You are in awe of the breath.  Quite literally.  You see things clearly.  In a brand new way.  All the layers of fog melt away.  Oh, how refreshing it is to see things this way. 

But soon, you’ll have to leave your cushion or chair.  And slowly, or quickly, the fog begins to accumulate.  This begins an entirely new practice of learning how to let go and be with things as they change.  But more on that later.  For now, just focus on training the puppy.  Then, the possibilities are endless. 

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