Focus & breadth


It is always a delight for me to explore how my own experience in meditation corresponds to traditional Buddhist teaching. What I sometimes find, though, is that a particular term in English does not quite point me in the right direction. For example, the terms “concentration” or “one-pointedness” do not correspond exactly to my experience.

Living and practicing meditation at Vajraloka Meditation Centre, I occasionally found new phrases that give me a better sense of what I am experiencing. I particularly favor terms that give a practical entrance into an experience, as well as describing the experience itself What follows is an explanation of how to practice what I have come to call “breadth” and “focus,” and thereby arrive at what I think is traditionally meant by “a one-pointed and concentrated state.” The example I will use here is the awareness of the breath meditation, but the principle can be applied to any meditation.

Often the level of awareness you have just before you meditate and in the first few minutes of meditation determines where the meditation will take you and how deep it will go. You don’t need much experience of meditation to know that there is often a lot going on within your mind and body of which you are completely unaware. So when you sit down to meditate the first thing to do is to become more sensitive to what is actually going on.

This might mean becoming more sensitive to pleasant and unpleasant sensations in your body, or aware of a previously unnoticed mood. Like moving out of a room and exploring the rest of a house, you can extend the scope of your perception. Awareness in this context is not a cool observing eye, and it does not mean thinking “about” what is happening. It is the tangible experience of the qualities and tones of your body, emotions, feelings, and mental states.

On the basis of experiencing a sense of yourself as a whole, you can intensify that awareness by paying more attention to particular areas. First, gently focus on the sensations and qualities of your body. Make the transition from thinking about what is happening to a more direct, in-the-body perception. What are its qualities? Be open to a word or image that describes a specific experience in a part of the body Is it hard, soft, warm, cool? While you scan through the body become aware of the subtleties of bodily sensations and maintain a peripheral sense of yourself as a whole.

Then pay some attention to your feelings and emotions. As well as being generally receptive, you can seek out qualities, such as faith, kindness or contentment, which may already be present to some degree. Then bring to mind a general intention for the meditation practice, which is to be aware of yourself in the context of the breath.

Next come back to a broad awareness of yourself as a whole. As well as being useful in preparing for meditation, establishing breadth of awareness also stimulates a tangible awareness that changes and grows throughout the practice.

Having established this broad awareness, you can now allow the main object of meditation to come into the forefront of your attention. While staying aware let your awareness gently take in more and more of the breath, notice if you have a tendency to jump on the breath, or be too forcibly fixed on it and soften it. There is a relationship between persistent attention and sensitivity to the breath. The skill is in finding the appropriate relationship between these two at any given time.

At this point you might notice a tendency to stay in a rather undifferentiated awareness, or an opposite tendency to have too hard and exclusive a focus. You have to do a balancing act, to maintain the focus on the breath alongside an open awareness of yourself as a whole. In the Mindfulness of Breathing it can help to think in terms of letting your whole body be the breadth of awareness, while keeping the particular sensations of the breath as your focus. This helps to counter the feeling that there is too much going on at once. Gradually you can extend the breadth to include feelings, emotions and mental activity.

As you move further into the meditation practice, the aim is to bring that whole sense of yourself (breadth) and the main meditation object (focus) together into a unified whole. Every now and then, check whether you have slipped into being too vague and have lost clarity or if you have become too rigid and lost the sense of breadth. Gently come back to awareness of your body, establishing breadth from there, and then regain your focus.

As breadth and focus come closer together, you feel increasingly present and receptive. You become more deeply concentrated, and gradually make a transition into a realm of inspiration and clarity. The unique significance and potential of the moment comes alive. You can experience clear perceptions without distraction and it is easier to apply yourself wholeheartedly. The mind can be both expansive and one-pointed. Experience can grow simultaneously broader and deeper, and it can continue to broaden and deepen without any limit to how far this process can go.

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VAJRADAKA / Ian Currie