Concentration and Insight Meditation

By: Jack Kornfield

It is useful in understanding the variety of spiritual practices to distinguish between concentration and insight meditation. Basically, concentration meditations are those which develop one-pointedness and tranquility. These are practiced by fixing the mind on any single object and developing the ability to hold it there. Insight meditation, also called process meditation, does not fix the mind on one object. Instead, it develops the quality of concentration on changing objects as tool for probing the nature of the mind-body process. Insight meditation is practiced by developing bare attention, a seeing-without-reacting to the whole process of our world of experience, to consciousness, and to all the objects of consciousness. Rather than fix the meditation on one object, the ongoing stream of the changing mind-body continuum becomes the meditations object, and through balanced, clear observation comes insight and wisdom into what we really are.

Concentration meditations are numerous. Traditionally, Buddha taught forty kinds; however, any single object of attention can be used for concentration meditation. This includes fixed concentration on a visual object such as a candle or mandala or inner light; concentration on a sound such as music, a mantra, the sound current; concentration on a feeling such as love, compassion, equanimity; or concentration on any part of the body, such as breath at the nose or the heart center or any other object where the mind is fixed and held steady.

Concentration develops high states of bliss and tranquility, and often certain powers. It can lead to experiences of cosmic consciousness and astral realms and the temporary elimination of greed and hatred from the mind. Much has been written in all the great spiritual traditions about the use of various pure concentration practices and the benefits of the mental states that result.

Concentration is also a necessary element in process or insight meditation, but for that it must be applied to changing objects, and mind objects as they are experienced in their moment-to-moment flow. As concentration and attention increase, the mind becomes clear and balanced. More and more sharply we see how all things are changing in each instant, how these are ultimately not a source of lasting happiness, and how the whole mind-body process flows according to certain laws (karma), empty of any permanent self or individual soul. These profound insights become clear simply from increasing mindfulness, penetrating awareness of our own process. With these insights wisdom arises, bringing equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion, for in experiencing the emptiness of self we see the unity of all beings. When the mind is completely balanced, tranquil, and keenly alert, one may experience the cessation of this whole moving process, the peace of nirvana. With this comes the deepest insight into the emptiness of all conditioned phenomena, and a subsequent detachment that is nevertheless peaceful and loving, the radiant natural state of the mind freed from defilements.

One may start practice with a pure concentration exercise and then change to awareness of process. Initially some teachers prefer using a concentration technique to enable the mediator to still his wandering, undisciplined mind. Later they direct this concentration to the mind-body process to develop wisdom. Other teachers attempt to start directly watching the process, by focusing on changing sensations, feelings, or thoughts. This approach must still concern itself with the development of mental qualities of tranquility and concentration before any insight will develop. Buddha taught both approaches at different times according to the needs of his students.

Although people disagree over the merits of various approaches, we must remember these are only tools to be used and then discarded. In fact almost all meditation practices are good when practiced with discipline, sincerity, and perseverance, and holding on to any method or comparing this to that is only another attachment that leads to further suffering.