Many people I speak to say that they can’t practice meditation because they’re not good at focusing. This is a very common misconception about Vipassana or insight meditation practice, the notion that we have to focus on one thing in order to succeed. Vipassana practice is not about focus or strong concentration on a single object. It is about learning to be aware of what is happening now.
I have been working on a definition of concentration to help students understand what it is and how it differs from mindfulness. One working definition I have is that concentration is the quality of the mind that does something without much effort as if it’s automatic, whereas mindfulness, for which we already have a good definition, is the quality of the mind that knows what is happening without trying to change it. I would define focus as concentration on one thing.
If we take these definitions a few steps further we can see that we can focus on anything whether it’s playing video games, sports, studying or playing music, etc. We can also focus on a single object like the breath or a candle but none of these things is the same as being mindful. When we are developing the kind of mindfulness that can penetrate through to the true nature of reality, we are not tying to change things so that the mind is focused on a single object. The nature of the mind is to jump around so if we force it to stay on one object we’re changing it rather than just observing it.
Vipassana is a mindfulness practice so its end result would be a mind that automatically is aware of what is happening all the time without much effort. In other words, when we practice insight meditation, we are building momentary concentration which means we are training the mind to follow the present moment as it changes. We are not trying to focus at all and in fact, focus is the opposite of what we want. The idea that we don’t need to focus is often counter intuitive to students when they arrive to study meditation with us but that is what Vipassana practice is all about, learning to let go of our preconceived ideas. If you find that you can’t focus well, you’re the kind of student we’re looking for as you will progress smoothly with insight meditation.