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Insight vs Concentration

One occasionally hears today, from a variety of different sources, that the Buddha taught two different forms of meditation: one is referred to as concentration, the other as insight. Concentration is a practice wherein the mind learns to settle and maintain awareness on a single, reoccurring event, such focusing on the breath or by repeating metta phrases; this practice is regarded as the most efficient route of developing states of tranquility and single minded focus, known as jhana. Insight is the process of developing enough bare attention—i.e. freedom from distracting thoughts and perceptions—to allow the mind to observe any internal experienced from an unbiased, neutral perspective. The mind is free to move from object to object—it doesn’t stay pinned as in concentration—noting the impermanence and lack of lasting, underlying identity inherent to each event that arises in life. The detached view this observational state entails ultimately results equanimity, which we’re informed is the way to liberation from suffering.

Yet the Buddha never taught insight without concentration; in fact he presented the two as complimentary companions. If we want to end suffering then, in addition to cultivating harmless behavior, we should develop both: “When a practitioner develops tranquility together with insight the path is born. Peace comes from following that path and developing it.” (Yuganaddha Sutta).

If we single-mindedly practice concentration without insight, we may find ourselves blissed out, but we’ll also find that bliss framed by dark shadows of repressed, challenging underlying energies, such as sadness, fear, loneliness and depression that we’re avoiding while staying with the breath. Psychological healing from early woundings requires open awareness. In other words, concentration can be a kind of spiritual bypass.

On the other hand, if we single-mindedly practice insight without equal measures of concentration, our spiritual practice will turn needlessly dark and dry; for in observing our lives in terms of impermanence, we’ll find ourselves feeling groundless and lost, until the breakthrough comes when we attain full equanimity; insight alone leaves us stuck amidst a lot of phenomena that arises and passes. That’s not a lot of joy there to say the least. Mixing both concentration and insight, however, allows us to grow spiritually while experiencing the bliss of focused attention.

Now, let’s finally examine why a day at the beach feels so good: we sit in a folding chair, feeling the warmth, relaxing the body, hearing the sounds of the waves arising and passing, our thoughts of work and life’s dramas miles away, back in the city so to speak. But while the beach, sand, sunshine and ocean are conditional, and subject to specific conditions—ability to take a day off from work when its sunny and warm—the real underlying states that create the bliss of the beach can actually be recreated virtually anywhere on any day. We can sit in a chair, feel the outline of the body, relax the body and note the arising and passing sensations of the breath, while putting aside life’s dramas for awhile.

If we use insight to investigate what makes the impermanent experiences of life—an afternoon on the beach, a new relationship, relaxing into the couch after a long day, etc—feel so good, we can then use concentration to recreate the inner states and bring joy into the rest of life, when the external conditions are less pleasing. And so, when it comes to practice, when it comes to concentration or insight, my question is: Why not both?

Josh Korda, april 15, 2014

Comments

  1. I think that the English translation of "samadhi" into "concentration" may be part of the confusion since the original terms has probably different connotations than what our notion of concentration. However, some Theravada Schools have long taught that its is important to develop insight before moving to the jhana states. Hence "mindfulness" is the seventh and "concerntration" the eighth of aspect of the path. It makes sense to me. I can enjoy relaxation, a focused mind, have some kind of extatic experience through meditation without much personal and social development in my life.

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