Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration

Overview

We are looking at the three trainings and how they can help us in daily life, through practicing the eightfold path. The three trainings are in:

  • Ethical self-discipline
  • Concentration
  • Discriminating awareness.

We implement right speech, action, behavior and livelihood in order to develop ethical self-discipline. Now we can look at training in concentration, which entails right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Right effort is getting rid of destructive trains of thought and developing states of mind that are conducive to meditation.

Mindfulness is like the mental glue to hold on and not let go of something, so it prevents us from forgetting something:

  • Not forgetting the actual nature of our body, feelings, mind and mental factors, so they don’t distract us
  • Not losing hold of our various ethical guidelines, precepts, or if we’ve taken them, vows
  • Not letting go or forgetting an object of focus.

So if we’re meditating, we obviously need mindfulness so as not to lose the object we’re focusing on. If we’re having a conversation with someone, we need it to keep attention on the person and what they’re saying.

Concentration itself is mental placement upon an object of focus. So when we listen to someone, it means our concentration is placed on what they’re saying, how they’re looking, how they’re acting and so forth. Mindfulness helps to maintain concentration, being the mental glue that keeps us there, so we don’t become dull or distracted.

Effort

This is the first factor of the eightfold path that we use to help us develop concentration. We put effort into getting rid of distracting thoughts and emotional states that are not conducive to concentration, as well as try to develop good qualities. In general, if we want to accomplish anything in our lives, we need to put in effort. Things don’t come from absolutely nothing, and nobody said it was easy. But, if we’ve developed a bit of strength from working with ethical self-discipline in terms of how we act, speak and deal with others, it gives us the strength to put effort into working on our mental and emotional states.

Wrong Effort

Wrong effort is directing our energy into harmful, destructive trains of thought that distract us and make it difficult if not impossible to concentrate. There are three major types of destructive ways of thinking:

  • Thinking covetously
  • Thinking with malice
  • Thinking distortedly with antagonism.

Thinking Covetously

Thinking covetously entails thinking with jealousy about what others have achieved or the pleasures and material things they enjoy. You think, “How can I get it for myself?” This arises from attachment. We can’t stand that somebody else has things we don’t have, whether it be success, a beautiful partner, a new car – actually it could be anything. We constantly think about it, and it’s a very disturbing state of mind. This totally prevents out concentration, doesn’t it?

Perfectionism can fall under this heading – we’re always seeing how we can outdo ourselves. It’s almost jealousy of oneself!

Thinking with Malice

Thinking with malice is about how to harm someone, as in, “If this person says or does something I don’t like, I will get even.” We might think about what we’ll do or say the next time we see that person, and we regret that we didn’t say something back to them when they said something to us. We can’t get this out of our heads, we think about it so much.

Thinking Distortedly with Antagonism

Distorted, antagonistic thinking is where, for instance, if someone is striving to improve themselves or help others, we think, “They’re stupid – what they’re doing is useless. It’s ridiculous to try to help anyone.”

Some people don’t like sports and think that other people who do and watch football on television or go to see a team play are completely stupid. But there’s nothing harmful about liking sports. Thinking that it’s stupid or a waste of time is a very antagonistic state of mind.

Or, someone else tries to help a beggar by giving them money, and you think, “Oh, you’re really stupid for doing that.” If we constantly think about how stupid other people are and how whatever they’re doing is irrational, we’ll never be able to concentrate. These are thoughts that we want to get rid of.

Right Effort

Right effort is directing our energy away from harmful, destructive trains of thought and toward the development of beneficial qualities. For this, we speak in terms of what are called the “four right strivings” in Pali. In Sanskrit and Tibetan literature, they’re called the “four factors for attaining correct riddances,” – in other words, for getting rid of our shortcomings – the so-called “four pure abandonments”:

  1. First we put effort into preventing the arising of negative qualities that we haven’t yet developed. For instance, if we have a very addictive type of personality, we might want to avoid joining an online movie streaming service, where you’ll end up spending all day watching series after series. It would be quite detrimental and lead to loss of concentration.
  2. Then, we have to put effort into ridding ourselves of the negative qualities that we already have. So if we are addicted to something, then its good for us to try to limit it. For instance, we all know some people who are so addicted to their iPod, that they can’t go anywhere without listening to music. It's almost as if they’re afraid to have silence, afraid to think about anything, so they have to constantly have music. Of course, loud music might be useful to keep you awake when driving a long distance or to keep pace when exercising, and soft music may help you to calm down when working, but music certainly doesn’t help you to focus on someone in a conversation. Inevitably, it's distracting.
  3. After this, we need to cultivate new positive qualities.
  4. Then, we put effort into maintaining and enhancing the positive qualities that are already present.

It’s very interesting to look at these and try to find practical applications. One example from myself is that I have had a very bad habit when it comes to my website. I have about 110 people working on it, sending me emails all the time with their translations and edited files – I get so, so many every day. My bad habit was that I downloaded everything into a one folder, rather than filing them away into proper folders where my assistant and I could find them easily. It was really a bad habit, because my inefficiency prevented us from concentrating on our work with these files through lots of wasted time trying to find and sort them. So what would the positive quality here be? To set up a system so that as soon as something comes in, it goes immediately into the right folder. This builds up a habit to always put things into their proper place to start with, instead of being lazy and just letting everything go everywhere.

In this example, we’ve found a negative quality, a very unproductive habit, and also a positive quality. So we put in effort to avoid the negative quality and create a proper file system so we can prevent it from continuing. This is what we’re talking about on a very simple level of practice.

Overcoming the Five Obstacles to Concentration

Right effort also involves working to overcome the five obstacles to concentration, which are:

Intentions to Pursue Any of the Five Types of Desirable Sensory Objects

The five desirable sensory objects are beautiful sights, sounds, fragrances, tastes and physical sensations. This obstacle that we put effort into overcoming is where we are trying to concentrate on something, for instance our work, but our concentration gets distracted by thoughts, such as, “I want to watch a movie” or “I want to go the fridge.” So here we’re looking at sensory pleasures or desires, like wanting to eat, listen to music, and so on. We need to put effort into not pursuing things when such feelings arise, so that we stay focused.

Thoughts of Ill-Will

This is thinking about hurting somebody. If we always think in a spiteful way, “This person hurt me, I don’t like them, how can I get revenge?” – this is a big obstacle to concentration. We need to put effort into avoiding thinking nasty harmful thoughts about not only others but about ourselves as well.

Foggy-Mindedness and Drowsiness

This is where our mind is in a fog, we’re spaced out and can’t think clearly. Drowsiness is, obviously, where we’re sleepy. We have to try and fight this. Whether you do this with coffee or getting some fresh air, we need to put in effort into not giving in to it. But, if it really becomes too difficult to concentrate, we need to set a boundary, a limit. If you’re working at home, “I’ll take a nap or break for twenty minutes.” If you're at your office, “I’ll take a coffee break for ten minutes.” Set a limit and then go back to your work.

Flightiness of Mind and Regrets

Flightiness of mind is where our mind flies off to Facebook, or YouTube, or something else. Feeling regret is where the mind flies off to feelings of guilt, “I feel so bad that I did this or that.” These things are very distracting and really keep us from concentrating.

Indecisive Wavering and Doubts

The last thing we need to try to put effort into overcoming is indecisive wavering and doubts. “What should I do?” “What should I have for lunch? Maybe I should have this. Or should I have that?” Not being able to make up your mind wastes a tremendous amount of time. We can’t concentrate and get on with things if we’re always filled with doubts and indecision, so we need to put effort into resolving this.

In short, right effort is to put effort into:

  • Avoiding disturbing and destructive ways of thinking
  • Ridding ourselves of bad habits and shortcomings we may have
  • Developing good qualities that we already have, and those we’re deficient in
  • Ridding ourselves of obstacles to concentration.

Mindfulness

The next aspect of the eightfold path that is involved with concentration is right mindfulness:

  • Mindfulness is basically mental glue. When you’re concentrating, your mind holds onto an object. This holding on, mindfulness, prevents you from letting go.
  • This is accompanied by alertness, which detects if your attention is wandering, or if you become sleepy or dull.
  • Then we use our attention, which is how we consider or regard the object of focus.

Here we pay attention to how we regard our body, feelings, mind and various mental factors. We want to avoid holding on and not letting go of incorrect ways of considering our body and feelings, because when we don’t let go, we become distracted and unable to concentrate. So here, let's look at the wrong and right forms of mindfulness alternately.

Regarding Our Body

When we talk of the body, in general this means our actual body and the various physical sensations or aspects of our body. An incorrect consideration of the body would be that by nature, our body is pleasurable, or clean and beautiful. We spend an enormous amount of time distracted or worried with the way we look – our hair and make-up, how we dress and so forth. Of course it’s good to keep clean and presentable, but when we go to the extreme of thinking that the way the body looks is a source of pleasure and that it always has to be perfect, so that we can attract others, it doesn’t allow much time to concentrate of anything more meaningful.

Let’s look at the body realistically. If you’re sitting for too long, you become uncomfortable and have to move. If you’re lying down, one position becomes uncomfortable, and so does the next one. We get sick; the body ages. It is important to take care of the body and make sure we’re in good health through exercise and eating well, but to be overly focused on this – this idea that the body is going to be a source of lasting pleasure – is a problem.

This incorrect mindfulness is what we need to get rid of. We have to let go of the idea that our hair is the most important thing ever, or that we always have to be completely color-coordinated, and this will bring us happiness. We stop holding on to this, and cultivate the correct mindfulness, which is “My hair and clothes are not really a source of happiness. Thinking too much about it just wastes my time and prevents me from concentrating on something more meaningful.”

Regarding Our Feelings

Here we are talking about the feelings of unhappiness or happiness, which are ultimately connected to the source of suffering. When we’re unhappy, we have what’s called a “thirst” – we’re thirsty for an ending to the source of unhappiness. Similarly, when we have a bit of happiness, you really have a thirst for more. This is basically the source of problems.

When we regard unhappiness as the worst thing in the word, it creates problems with concentration. How? “I’m a bit uncomfortable,” or “I’m not in a good mood,” or “I’m unhappy,” well, so what? You just continue with whatever you’re doing. If you really think that your bad mood is the worst thing in the world and hold on to that, it’s a serious obstacle to concentrating on whatever you’re doing.

When we’re happy, we shouldn’t be distracted, wishing the happiness to grow and stay forever. This can happen when meditating and you start to feel really good, and you become distracted by how wonderful it is. Or if you’re with someone you like, or eating something delicious, the wrong mindfulness is to hold onto “This is so fantastic,” and becoming distracted by it. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t make a huge deal out of it.

Regarding Our Mind

It will be difficult to concentrate if we regard our mind as being by its own nature filled with anger or stupidity or ignorance, thinking that there’s something inherently wrong or flawed with our mind. We often think of ourselves in terms of not being good enough: “I’m not this. I’m not that. I’m nothing.” Or “I can’t understand,” before we’ve even tried. If we hold onto these ideas then it’s pretty hopeless. Whereas with right mindfulness, which is where we think, “Well, temporarily I might not understand, temporarily I might be confused, but that doesn’t mean it’s the nature of my mind,” it gives us confidence to use concentration to work through it.

Regarding Our Mental Factors

The fourth one is in terms of our mental factors, like intelligence, kindness, patience and so forth. Wrong mindfulness is thinking that they are fixed and “It’s just the way I am and everybody has to accept it. There’s nothing I can do to change or cultivate them.” Right mindfulness is knowing that all of these factors are not just frozen at a certain level, but can be developed and cultivated, in this context, to further concentration.

Taking Control of Ourselves

It’s strange, when we analyze ourselves to see how we deal with being in a really bad mood, or when we feel guilty, we discover that we just hold onto the mood and get stuck with that. Or with guilt, we get stuck on the mistake we made. Well, we’re humans, and we all make mistakes. Wrong mindfulness is when we hold onto it and don’t let it go, and just beat ourselves up for how bad we think we are. Right mindfulness is to know that moods change, because they arise through causes and conditions which themselves are always changing; nothing stays the same forever.

One very helpful piece of advice that we find in the Buddhist teachings is to basically “take control of yourself.” It’s like getting up in the morning, when you’re lying in bed and really don’t want to get out because it’s so comfortable and you’re feeling sleepy. Well, you just take control and get up, don’t you? We have the ability to do that, otherwise half of us would never get up in the morning! It’s the same thing when we’re in a bad mood or we’re just feeling a bit low. We can take control of ourselves - “Come on, just do it!” – not giving in to it, but just getting on with what we need to do.

Other Aspects of Mindfulness

In general, mindfulness is actually very important. It prevents us from forgetting things. If there are things we need to do, correct mindfulness helps us to concentrate on it. Mindfulness has to do with remembering, so you might remember that your favorite television program is on tonight. But this is holding onto something that is not so important, which then makes you forget other stuff that is more important.

If we are following some sort of training, there is the correct mindfulness to hold on to it. If we’re doing exercise, we have to hold on to doing the exercises every day. If we’re on a diet, we need to keep mindfulness of this so we don’t grab that piece of cake when it’s offered to us.

Mindfulness is holding on to what we’re doing, and not getting distracted by all the peripheral, unimportant stuff.

Maintaining Mindfulness When with Our Families

Many people find it much harder to be mindful of ethics when with their families than when they’re with friends or strangers. If that’s the case with us, the general advice is to set a very strong intention at the beginning. If you’re about to meet your relatives, you can make the intention, “I will try to keep my temper. I will try to remember that they’ve been very kind to me. They’re close to me, and the way I treat them will affect their feelings.” This is very important at the start.

We also have to remind ourselves that they’re humans. We shouldn’t just identify them in the role of mother, father, sister, brother, or whatever kind of relationship you have with them. If you hold on to them in a certain role, then we tend to react to what they do with all of our projections of what is a mother or father, and all the history and expectations and disappointments we’ve had with them. It’s better to relate to them as one human being to another. If they aren’t mindful of this and still treat us like a kid, then we don’t fall into the pattern of then acting like one. We remember that they’re a human being, and don’t play the game; after all, it takes two to dance a tango.

My older sister visited me for a week recently. She would go to sleep fairly early at night and then, as if she were my mother, tell me “Go to sleep now.” But if I were to react like a kid and say, “No, it’s too early, I don’t want to sleep, I want to stay up, why are you telling me to go to sleep?” then it just plays the same game. And we both get upset. So I had to remind myself that she was giving me that advice because she cares for me, not because she wants to make me angry. She thinks it’s better for me to go to sleep early. So we have to try and have a much more realistic view of what’s going on, rather than just projecting our ideas.

So before we meet family members, we can stay mindful of our motivation, which means:

  • Our goal: the goal is to have a nice interaction with our family, whom I care for, and who care for me.
  • The accompanying emotion: caring about our family, as human beings.

Another way to look at it, instead of thinking that it’s a horrible ordeal, is to see it as a challenge and opportunity to grow: “Can I get through dinner with my family without losing my temper?”

And when your family starts to nag you, as parents will often do, “Why don’t you get married? Why don’t you get a better job? Why don’t you have children already?” (The first thing my sister said when she saw me was “You need a haircut!”) then we recognize that they’re asking that stuff because they’re concerned about us, and we can just say, “Thanks for being concerned!”

We can also think of the background they’re coming from, which is that many of their friends will be asking, “Well, what’s your son doing? What’s you daughter up to?” and they have to socially interact with their friends. They’re not asking why you aren’t yet married out of malevolence, but because they’re concerned about your happiness. The first step is to acknowledge this, and appreciate their concern. And if you want, you can also explain calmly about why you’re not married!

With inappropriate mindfulness, we’re often holding onto stuff that is not at all productive. It could be ancient history, like “Why did you do this ten years ago?” or “You said that thirty years ago.” We hold onto it and don’t give anyone a chance, preventing us from concentrating on how they are now. We hold on to the preconception that “This is going to be horrible. My parents are coming over,” where we’ve already decided it’s going to be terrible. That makes us very tense before the dinner! So we turn this around with correct mindfulness, thinking of it as an opportunity to see how they are, and a chance to respond in terms of the situation as it unfolds, without the preconceptions.

Practical Advice for Maintaining Mindfulness

How do we maintain our mindfulness in difficult situations? We need to cultivate:

  • Intention – the strong intention to try not to forget
  • Familiarity – going over and over the same process so that we remember it automatically
  • Alertness – the alarm system that detects when we’ve lost mindfulness.

All of this is based on a caring attitude, where you care about the effect of your behavior on yourself and others. If you really don’t care how you act, that’s not going to maintain mindfulness because there will be no discipline there. Why should we care? Because you’re a human being. Your mother and father are human beings. And we all want to be happy. No one wants to be unhappy. The way we behave and speak toward others affects their feelings, so we should care about how we act.

We need to examine ourselves and our motivation. If we just want to be good so others like us, that’s a bit childish. It’s a bit silly. The best reason for being mindful and maintaining mindfulness is that we care about others, based on a caring attitude.

Concentration

The third aspect from the eightfold path that we apply for concentration is called right concentration (yes, concentration itself). Concentration is the actual mental placement upon an object. Once we get a hold on whatever we want to concentrate on, mindfulness keeps it there so we don’t lose it. But to first get the hold on the object is what concentration is all about.

We use attention to bring concentration to something. What’s happening more and more nowadays, compared to the past, is that we have divided attention, so we’re never fully concentrated on anything fully. When you watch the news on TV, there’s the person in the middle of the screen relaying the day’s news, then underneath there’s a scrolling script of other news, and then in the corners there might be other stuff. We can’t pay attention or fully concentrate on any of them. Even if we think we can multitask, nobody is able – unless you’re a Buddha – to put 100% concentration on all the things that you’re multitasking.

Sometimes when we’re with someone and they’re talking to us, our mental placement is on our cell phone. This is wrong mental placement because they’re talking to us and we’re not even paying attention. Even if we do have mental placement on something, it’s very difficult to sustain it. We are now so used to things changing so quickly, and to looking at one thing after another, that we get bored very easily. Having that type of concentration – just a few moments on this, a few moments on that – is an obstacle. It’s wrong concentration. To be able to concentrate properly means being able to concentrate for as long as is necessary, without getting bored and moving on because we’re no longer interested.

One of the main obstacles is that we want to be entertained. This goes back to wrong mindfulness, thinking that temporary pleasure will satisfy us, instead of create further thirst. Social scientists have found that the more possibilities there are of what we can do and look at – and the Internet offers this, unlimited possibilities – the more bored, tense and stressed we actually get. When you’re looking at something, you’re thinking that there might be something even more entertaining and you’re afraid you’ll miss it. In this way, you go on and on and don’t stay focused on anything. Although it’s difficult, it really is a good idea to try and simplify your life, so there are not so many things going on at the same time. As your concentration develops, you’ll be able to increase the scope of what you can deal with.

If you do have good concentration, then you can concentrate on this, and then on that; but only one at a time, without being distracted. It’s like a doctor, who needs to deal with one patient at a time, and be fully concentrated on them, not thinking about the previous or next patient. Although a doctor can see many patients during the day, they’re always fully concentrated on one thing at a time. This is much better for concentration.

It is, however, very challenging. As for me, I deal with a huge amount of different tasks with the website and the different languages and so forth. It’s really hard to stay focused on one thing. So many things are coming at the same time. Anyone who works in a complex business has the same thing. But, concentration can be developed in stages.

Summary

Ridding ourselves of obstacles to concentration is quite wide ranging. A simple method would be turning our cell phone off when we’re working, or choosing a particular time once or twice a day to check emails, so that we’re able to fully concentrate on what we need to do. It’s like a doctor or professor having office hours; you can’t just come at any time, there are certain hours when they’re available. We can and should also do this with ourselves, as it will help us to develop our concentration.

It’s interesting to look at social development. In previous times, the main obstacles to concentration were our own mental states – mental wandering, daydreaming and so on. Now there is so much more, and most of these come from external sources like cell phones, Facebook and email. It actually takes effort not to be overwhelmed by it all, and to be able to do this we actually need to recognize the detrimental features of these media. The most obvious one that many people might have experience of is that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Twitter has a limited number of characters and the Facebook feed is constantly updating. It’s all so fast that it builds up a terrible habit that is detrimental to concentration, because you can’t keep your attention on anything; everything constantly has to change. This is something to watch out for.