Obstacles to Developing Concentration


To actualize a stilled and settled state of mind (zhi-gnas, Skt. shamatha), the object of focus must remain the same: the guideline instructions clearly state that the object of focus should not change once we have chosen it. This not only means that we must not change our object of focus for developing shamatha from, for instance, our breath to a visualized Buddha. It also means that our object of focus should not change while we are focusing on it, for instance when the Buddha we are visualizing moves, gets larger or smaller, or changes during the session. Thus, although we could achieve an excellent state of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samadhi) focusing on a tantric recitation, we could not use that, nor the changing visualizations that accompany it, to achieve a stilled and settled mind of shamatha. But since achieving absorbed concentration is a step before a attaining a stilled and settled mind, it is relevant to discuss the faults of gross and subtle flightiness and mental dullness occurring during the process of focusing on a tantric recitation. We need to exert effort to rid ourselves of all these obstacles to concentration during whatever meditations we may be doing.

Faults in the Mental Hold on the Object of Focus

Mental Wandering and Flightiness of Mind

Distraction (’phro-ba) is a general term that covers both flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, mental agitation) and mental wandering (rnam-g.yeng). The difference between mental wandering and gross flightiness of mind (rgod-pa rags-pa) is not that mental wandering involves the mind going from object to object and gross flightiness is just about the mind leaving the object of focus in the first place. Rather, these two are differentiated according to the mental factor under which the mind leaves the object of focus. If the mind leaves under the influence of desire or attachment (chags-pa) toward another object, this is called “flightiness of mind.” If it leaves under the influence of anything else, it is called “mental wandering.” This distinction is made because desire and attachment cause the most distraction for beginners.

Mental wandering can occur under the influence of one of the other root or auxiliary disturbing emotions, such as anger, pride or jealousy. It might also not be under the influence of any disturbing emotion, such as when wandering to thoughts of compassion toward someone when focusing on his or her absence of existing in impossible ways.

Levels of Mental Wandering and Gross Flightiness of Mind

Both mental wandering and gross flightiness of mind have many degrees. The grossest level is when the mind leaves the object of focus (dmigs-pa shor, losing the object of focus) and goes on from one extraneous object or thought (rnam-rtog, discursive thought) to another. The length of time the mind wanders or the number of extraneous thoughts that occur can vary. The minimal level is the mind simply leaving the object. Included here is the fault of forgetting (brjed-pa) about the object of focus.

Another dimension of mental wandering and gross flightiness of mind can occur when we are trying to focus on two or more types of cognition simultaneously during meditation. We may experience different strengths of attention and mindfulness on each type of cognition.

  • Attention (yid-la byed-pa) engages our mental activity with an object of focus.
  • Mindfulness (dran-pa), like mental glue, keeps our attention from losing the object.

For instance, if we are doing a recitation type of tantra meditation out loud, then in order to voice the words of the recitation, we need to focus on the tactile cognition involved with moving our mouths and tongues. If we are simultaneously reading the recitation text while reciting it, we need also to focus on our visual cognition of the words. We may be reading the text silently while also focusing on voicing the words in our minds. We may even be able to speed read without mentally voicing the words at all. The objects of focus in such meditation, however, are not merely the objects of our sensory cognition and words. We need also to focus simultaneously with mental cognition both on the meanings of the words as well as on the accompanying visualizations.

Maintaining our focus on each of these component objects of this type of complex tantric meditation may require different amounts of effort, but all of them require equal attention and mindfulness. We can easily lose our focus on one or more of the components of the meditation. This may occur without any distraction to an extraneous object, for instance continuing the recitation but no longer focusing on the meaning of the words or on the visualization or on either of the two. Such a fault can also occur due to gross flightiness of mind or mental wandering thinking about something totally extraneous, such as our plans for the coming day. In this case, our recitation might even continue with no break in concentration on the tactile cognition involved with producing the sounds of the words of the text or on the visual cognition of reading the words. But when thinking about our plans during this recitation, we have lost our mental hold on the objects of focus for mental cognition during the meditation (the visualization and the meaning of the recitation words) due to gross flightiness of mind.

Subtle Flightiness of Mind

Subtle flightiness (rgod-pa phra-mo) is when we are focusing on an object and there is mental placement (gnas-pa) on it, but there is a fault in the strength of our mental hold (dzin-pa) on the object. For example, when the hold is too tight, there can be a subtle feeling of uptightness or tension, like an itchiness to leave the object of focus. This is described as being like the tension or pressure built up in the ice of a frozen river as its melting water is about to flow underneath.

Another example is when the force of our mental hold and mindfulness on the chosen object becomes weak enough so that another extraneous object can be held with placement of mindfulness at the same time. There can be many levels of differing strength of mindfulness on each object. An example is, when focusing on a visualized image of a Buddha, we maintain the visualization but, because of mental itchiness, we also focus on the thought: “What shall I eat for breakfast?” This form of subtle flightiness of mind can occur either when we are trying to focus on both the visualized figure and the sound of an accompanying mantra, or when trying to focus simply on the visualization.

An even more subtle example is when we are meditating with our eyes closed and our attention is divided or slightly distracted by the distorted visual cognition of the flashing dots of light than can appear. The biggest danger of meditating with our eyes closed, however, is that when we open our eyes after a period of meditating with them closed, we experience a strong force of distraction due to the sudden visual cognition of our surroundings. Consequently, we completely lose all mindfulness of the object of focus of our meditation – in other words, we completely forget about it.

Faults in the Clarity of the Meditation

Mental Dullness, Foggy-Mindedness, and Sleepiness

Mental dullness (bying-ba, sinking) is a mental factor faulting the appearance-making (gsal-ba, clarity) of mindfulness’s mental hold on an object of focus. In other words, mental dullness is a fault of the mind; it does not refer to a fault in the appearance of the object of focus itself.

We need to differentiate mental dullness from foggy-mindedness (rmugs-pa). With gross mental dullness (bying-ba rags-pa), the mental hold on an object of focus is weak, so that the appearance-making of the object is unclear. Foggy-mindedness, on the other hand, is a feeling of weightiness of both body and mind.

Foggy-mindedness and gross mental dullness can both occur within one moment of mental activity. They are not necessarily consecutive: Gross mental dullness does not necessarily degenerate into foggy-mindedness. Foggy-mindedness, however, can degenerate into sleep (gnyid).

Foggy-mindedness can occur either with or without maintaining a mental hold on the object of focus. If it is accompanied by gross mental wandering toward a state of darkness, we would lose the object of focus completely. If there is gross mental dullness, however, there is always a mental hold on the object of focus, but the mind is not clear with respect to the object. Focusing on an object without clarity, then, can be either with or without foggy-mindedness.

Sleep does not mean sleepiness, but is simply the state of being withdrawn from all sensory cognition – not just from one type of sensory cognition, like when listening to a sound and being withdrawn from seeing sights. Sleep can be either light or heavy, depending on how withdrawn we are from sensory cognition. Sleepiness, although not specifically discussed in the texts, is undoubtedly a form of foggy-mindedness.

Subtle Mental Dullness

Subtle mental dullness (bying-ba phra-mo) is when there is both mental placement on and clarity with respect to an object of focus, but the mental hold on the object is too loose, Because of that, there is a danger that the clarity will be lost. It is a state of not being fresh (gsar), of being a bit too relaxed, off-guard, or blasé. Although we can seemingly have good concentration with subtle mental dullness, if our state of mind is too loose we can never gain the freshness, vividness, and intensity of mind necessary for gaining deep insight.

Non-determining Cognition

Non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive cognition) occurs with non-conceptual straightforward cognition (mngon-sum) within one sense field, such as seeing a picture on the wall behind a person when we are focusing on the visual sight of him or her. There is no certainty (nges-pa) regarding our visual cognition of the picture on the wall, although we see it non-conceptually. Consequently, we cannot remember seeing the picture, although we may remember seeing the person.

Non-determining cognition can easily occur when silently reading the words of a prayer or a tantric meditation text. Although we have non-conceptual visual cognition of the page, we have only minimal attention on the words we see and so we skip over many of them. We may not even remember that we read them at all. This fault of non-determining cognition can also occur while reciting the text out loud.

Something similar to non-determining cognition may also occur during conceptual mental cognition, such as when visualizing a Buddha and being “spaced out” or in a daze. Just as the picture on the wall behind a person may be clearly seen, but hardly any attention is paid to it during non-determining cognition; similarly, the mind can be clear with respect to a Buddha that it is visualizing, but with only minimal attention on it. This is a fault in mindfulness and attention; it can also indicate a lack of interest and motivation.

Although non-determining cognition is not strictly a form of mental dullness, it is a great obstacle to concentration. The main task in concentrating, after all, is to maintain mindfulness on an object of focus and to do this with full attention and interest in it. When we are “spaced out,” we have lost mindfulness and are not paying attention to an object of focus, whether or not there is mental placement on the object and whether or not there is clarity of mind.