Concentration goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness. In order to be mindful of everything that happens, you need some degree of concentration. Otherwise, you’ll become distracted and lose your mindfulness.
Imagine you’re eating mindfully. You’re mindful of the sight, smell, texture, and taste of the food, as well as the movements of your arm, hand, eyes, tongue, salivary gland, jaw, and throat as you eat. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on when you eat; I’m sure I’ve even missed some things.
If you don’t have solid base of concentration as you watch all this phenomena occur, you’ll certainly be distracted by a pleasant smell, an unpleasant texture, or even just the monotony of chewing. Concentration is the glue that allows mindfulness to continue, moment-to-moment.
Every time I meditate, I always begin with establishing concentration. Instead of immediately being aware of everything that occurs, I concentrate first on the physical sensations of my abdomen as I breathe. Any time I become distracted by a sound from the house, or some stray thought, I note it and go back to the breath.
The distinction between establishing concentration and being “choicelessly aware” of phenomena as they arise is a bit subtle.
Choiceless awareness is being aware of everything that arises in your “sense-doors”. That is, you’re aware of anything you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and think. You watch the phenomena at your sense-doors as they arise and pass away. That’s mindfulness.
Establishing concentration, though, is maintaining a single object for your awareness, such as the breath. Your goal is to focus on your breath continually, and when your attention is distracted, to bring it back to the breath.
You’ll only be able to maintain mindfulness and ward off distraction when your mind is focused with concentration.
When I meditate, I establish my concentration for the first 5-10 minutes of my sit. The rest of the time I am mindful of all phenomena as they arise and pass away.
That’s why I always try to sit for at least 5 minutes in the morning. I might be running late to work, but if I get 5 minutes to sit, I’ll have established some concentration that I can bring with me, which helps with mindfulness as the day unfolds. It won’t be much, but any is better than none.
I sometimes will even recharge my concentration throughout the day. Just bringing your attention on a single object for even a minute is beneficial. It doesn’t even have to be your breath.
While sitting at a red stoplight, I’ll watch it until it turns green; if my mind is distracted, I note it and continue watching the stoplight. As I fill up my water at work, I’ll either count or focus on the coolness of the water in the bottle; if my mind is distracted, I note it and bring it back to the count or coolness.
The breath is probably still the best, because it is always with you. Sometimes I’ll turn away from my computer screen, close my eyes, and concentrate on my breath for a minute or two. Compilation is a great time to practice!
In order to maintain mindfulness, you need some baseline of concentration. While concentrated, your mind isn’t as easily distracted, which allows for better moment-to-moment awareness.