Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.04.37 AMAt “The Art of Suffering” retreat led by Thay just this week at Blue Cliff Monastery, the first talk (given on August 26th 2013) went right to the heart of the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (see p. 4 of this issue of the Mindfulness Bell as well as Thay’s commentary “Breathe You Are Alive” available from Parallax Press).

In this first talk Thay draws a Venn diagram to show that Concentration is inside Mindfulness and Insight is inside Concentration. Part of what was intended by Thay is to convey the importance of Mindfulness – without mindfulness there can be no concentration and without concentration there can be no insight (understanding).

I find it helpful to add a few elements to that picture.  First, there is the element of time. I picture this diagram deployed in 3 dimensions.  Concentration, for me, is Mindfulness sustained over time. Concentration is Mindfulness of this moment, sustained to the next and the next. It is the continuity of attention on the object of attention that is Concentration.

To sustain Mindfulness there needs to be another element – something like “effort”, although Thay prefers the word “diligence”.  Personally, I find it is “interest” in the object of mindfulness that leads to concentration, be it interest in the breath, interest in the walking, interest in the experience of eating.

Behind “interest” is a kind of receptive desire to understand – a kind of receptive curiosity perhaps – out of which understanding arises. I don’t think Insight simply arises from Concentration by itself.  The ground for understanding must also be fertile. I think there has to be the capacity to absorb the insight and understanding for it to come about.

For example, the Insight of “no self” or “impermanence” is never merely the cognitive assent to the fact that these propositions are true.  It is more like a non-cognitive, direct realization that arises from seeing clearly what a concentrated mind displays as evidence: the moment to moment changes in all phenomena. Understanding or Insight is then a certain kind of transformation of what is seen in the field of attention.

I like to illustrate this difference between cognitive assent to a belief and the kind of insightful understanding with a small experience I have had with seat-belts.  At country fairs, police safety officers used to educate visitors to the value of seat belts by putting them in a small car that rolls down an inclined plane and suddenly comes to a halt.  Do that once without a seatbelt (it hurts!) and do that again with a seatbelt and you really feel the difference.  Your understanding of what a seatbelt does is not cognitive and theoretical, it’s experiential and direct.

That’s what understanding and insight that arises from meditation is like: direct and unmediated by thought. It is born from a concentrated mind that sees the way things are, without imposing ones views or preconceptions.  But for that, you also have to be willing and open to receive the understanding that arises.  Just being concentrated is not enough.


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