I am often asked by students if concentration is the same as mindfulness. The answer? Yes and no. The two are related but there are important differences. Understanding each and how they differ offers insight into the practice of mindfulness.
As Jon Kabat Zinn explains in Wherever You Go There You Are, concentration and mindfulness do go hand in hand. As we learn to meditate, we are instructed to focus on the breath. This breath coming in, this one going out. That one-pointed attention allows us to build our ability to focus and to, eventually, broaden the scope of our awareness so that we can hold everything in our light awareness.
The more we practice mindfulness, the more we increase the Gamma Wave activity in our brains. These are the brain waves associated with cognition, attention information processing and memory.
Studies comparing meditators who practiced at least three years to those who were not meditators showed that the meditators had decreased activity in the ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). This is the region associated with wandering thoughts and spontaneous thoughts (you know, the ones you become painfully aware of as soon as you close your eyes and try to settle into meditation.) People who claim that they are not able to meditate can have particularly active vPMCs.
So, the more we practice, the more our mind settles and the more we are able to experience a stable, calm awareness – a quality we might associate with the word “concentration.”
But consider this: concentration is defined as focusing one’s attention.
A singular, one-pointed concentration can certainly be experienced in fits of anger or obsessive thoughts (pleasant or unpleasant) about anything or person.
Try this: Hold your palm open and concentrate. Really focus all your energy and attention on the palm of your hand. Can you feel the intensity of your focus? It begins to make sense that the phrase “frowning in concentration” is so familiar.
Now…. Apply mindfulness. That is, look at your palm, being present and aware to all the sensations without judgement. Can you note how the skin looks, its variations, the folds at the base of your fingers? Can you sense air on your palm? Is it warm or cool? Is your palm dry? What else can you note?
Now broaden your awareness to note the quality of your mind.
Can you see how with highly focused attention there is a sort of hardness to the quality of your attention? Whereas with the mindfulness there is a feeling of spaciousness?
You have just held the difference between concentration and mindfulness in the palm of your hand.
This is not to say that concentration is not important. I definitely want my heart surgeon to be fully concentrated! Even as I write, I am concentrating on my choice of words, the structure of my sentences.
“You can only look deeply into something if you can sustain your looking without being constantly thrown off by the agitation of your own mind. The deeper your concentration, the deeper the potential for mindfulness.” Jon Kabat Zinn
That sense of stillness that Kabat Zinn expresses is powerful and very attractive. After listening to students describe what they hope for in meditation, a still mind is generally the goal. But, as with everything, we can be attached to that deep calm pool of quiet. And we can chase after it. The chase creates its own suffering.
When, in fact, it may be that the dog is scratching at the blanket you have placed on your lap, or a blue jay is calling outside. A car passes on the road.
This is not quiet. This is life. And you can let it all in with a gentle and open curiousity.
When we concentrate, we narrow our focus. With mindfulness, we are letting everything in. The beautiful, the stressful, the things we might rather not pay attention to or acknowledge. We are open and apply a gentle effort to our observations.
Welcome to you. Welcome to your life.