Concentration is the secret ingredient of meditation, the backbone of the entire endeavor. It is the simplest, most elementary, most concrete, most practical, and most ancient therapeutic technique in the Buddhist repertoire. It is a means of temporarily dispelling the repetitive thoughts of the everyday mind, a way of opening the psyche to new and unscripted experiences. Although it follows mindfulness on the eightfold path, it is generally taught before mindfulness when one is learning to meditate. It is such an essential introduction to Buddhist practice that its closing place on the eightfold path does not make sense at first glance. But concentration needs to be understood in the context of the entire path if it is not to become a distraction in itself. Concentration is “right” when it connects with the other branches of the whole. It is “right” when it demonstrates the feasibility of training the mind, when it supports the investigation of impermanence, when it erodes selfish preoccupation, and when it reveals the benefits of surrender. It is not “right” when it is seen as an end in itself and when it is used to avoid painful truths. One can hide out in the peaceful states that meditative concentration makes possible, but in the context of the eightfold path, this is considered a mistake.

Concentration, from a Buddhist perspective, means keeping one’s attention steady on a single object such as the breath or a sound for extended periods of time. This is not something that we do ordinarily, and it is not something that comes easily. Those who try to fix their attention in this way for even five minutes will see this for themselves. Try to follow your breath and see what happens. Note the sensation of the in-breath and repeat the word “in” to yourself. Do the same with the out-breath and repeat the word “out.” Keep the mental label in the background and the bulk of your awareness on the direct physical sensation of the breath. If you are like most people, after successfully noting a breath or two, your usual subconscious inner world will reassert itself.  Thinking, planning, fantasizing, and worrying will rush to fill the void, noises from the outside world will pull you in, and five minutes will be over before you know it.  The mind does not become concentrated just because we tell it to.

But right concentration asks us to persevere. Beginning meditators struggle with this very simple task. Whenever they notice that their attention has strayed, they return it to the central object. Lapses in attention happen not once or twice but over and over and over again. Sometimes people notice right away, and sometimes not for a long while, but right concentration suggests that we do not judge ourselves for our failings. Ancient texts compare the process of concentration to the taming of a wild animal. It is a difficult endeavor, full of ups and downs, but one that yields reliable results if practiced diligently and with patience.

As concentration increases, the mind and body relax. Thoughts diminish, emotional pressures weaken, and a kind of calm takes over.  The mind gradually comes under some degree of control and settles down.  The Buddha compared this process to the smelting of gold. When its superficial contaminants are removed, gold becomes light, soft, malleable, and bright. Its brilliance comes forth, and it begins to shine.

The benefits of concentration for the management of stressful situations are now widely acknowledged. I spoke recently with a young man newly diagnosed with colon cancer who had to go through a number of tests, scans, and procedures in rapid succession. His wife was interested in meditation and had already begun to explore it, but he had other things to do when he was healthy. Upon receiving the diagnosis, however, he needed something to help him, and he quickly became proficient in using concentration to calm his anxiety.  This was incredibly useful. When inside the PET scan machine, for example, where he had to lie still for long periods of time in a close space, he was able to watch his breath or scan the sensations in his body while letting the machine do its thing. It was just like a long, enforced meditation, he told me cheerfully, and it was fine. It is good to have this ability, to know from experience that it is possible; it is incredibly useful in all kinds of uncomfortable situations.

Concentration is not just a method of managing stress, however; it is also an incubator of self-esteem.  This is less easily measured but just as important. I found this out for myself during one of my first extended explorations of meditation. Up until this first retreat, I had tried to watch my breath with varying degrees of success. I was taken with the challenge and interested in the underlying philosophy of Buddhism, but my immediate experience of meditation had mostly made me aware of the rather mundane nature of my own mind. The more I tried to watch my breath, the more I saw of the incessant, routine, repetitive, and self-serving thoughts running through the undercurrents of my psyche.

At this retreat, however, after about three or four days of practice, things started to shift. I remember sitting in the meditation hall and suddenly being able to focus. All the effort to locate the breath and stay steady with it no longer seemed necessary. It was just there. Although I was remarkably devoid of my usual litany of thoughts, I was wide awake and clearheaded. My eyes were closed in the darkened hall, but light started to pour into my consciousness. Literally. I was seeing light while resting the bulk of my attention in the breath.  The light lifted me in some way and I had that feeling I sometimes get, when very moved, of the hairs of my body standing on end. A strong feeling of love came next—not love for anyone or anything in particular, just a strong sense of loving.  This all lasted for a while. I could get up and walk around and then, when I sat back down, it would be there again. It was as if the curtains in my mind had parted and something more fundamental was shining through. It was tremendously reassuring. Many of my doubts about myself— as inadequate, unworthy, or insufficient—seemed, as a result, to be superfluous. I knew, from the inside, that they were stories I had been repeating to myself, but not necessarily the truth. The love pouring out of me seemed infinitely more real.

While this experience lasted for hours, it did not, of course, last forever. It was one of the more dramatic things to ever happen to me while meditating, and in fact I subsequently spent a fair amount of time trying to get it back. But its impact is as strong today as it was when it first happened. I know for a fact that behind my day-to-day preoccupations lies something more fundamental. While I have changed over the years, and while change (as we know from right view) is the nature of things, this underlying, almost invisible, feeling is there in the background. Concentration revealed it to me and sometimes allows it to reemerge. At times, with my family, with my patients, when listening to music or walking in the countryside, it peeks through of its own accord.

Clinging takes many forms, and the desire for inner peace can sometimes be just as neurotic as other, more obvious addictions.

A couple of years after this pivotal experience, when I was in medical school and doing one of my first monthlong rotations in psychiatry, I had an individual tutorial with an esteemed Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Nemiah, who was teaching me about a rare syndrome then called “conversion hysteria.” In this disorder, patients present with physical, often neurological, symptoms, like paralysis or shaking fits, for which no organic cause can be found. In many such cases, the theory goes, the actual problem is some kind of anxiety, but the anxiety is “converted” into physical symptoms because it is too overwhelming to experience in its raw psychological form. The diagnosis is rarely used today; it has been replaced in many instances by the term “dissociative disorder,” and some clinicians now believe that the symptoms can be traced back to episodes of sexual abuse. But the underlying theory about it remains essentially unchanged. Overwhelming feelings are somehow displaced onto, or into, the body. Physical symptoms emerge that have no direct and obvious cause. Post-traumatic stress might be thought of as a contemporary version of this. Traumatic events, never fully acknowledged, come back to haunt people in the form of seemingly inexplicable symptoms that arise as if out of the blue. Dr. Nemiah showed me some films of patients from the 1950s with conversion symptoms and then questioned me about them. He was trying to teach me not just about this particular syndrome but about the concept of the unconscious. If a patient’s symptoms are expressions of underlying anxiety, he wanted to know, how do they get “converted” into physical form? How does this happen?

“What is the unconscious?” Dr. Nemiah asked me. This was a central question for a young would-be psychiatrist in those days, and I sensed that his evaluation of me depended upon my answer.

I thought immediately of my retreat, of the curtains parting and the light shining through, of my understanding that the narrow world of my day-to-day preoccupations did not have to define me. In Dr. Nemiah’s world, the unconscious was mostly thought of as the dark and lurking place from which dreams emerge, but, as much as I would come to respect that point of view, this was not how I was thinking at the time.

“The unconscious is the repository of mystery,” I responded.

I remember how much Dr. Nemiah liked my answer despite being unaware of what I was actually thinking about. I was not about to tip my hand to him about my Buddhist leanings despite my admiration for his clinical acumen. Buddhism, at that time in my life, was not something I was talking about to my superiors, especially those who were going to give me an evaluation. But my answer worked just as well in his world as it did in my own. Mystery encompasses the dark as well as the light.

As an experienced and erudite psychiatrist, Dr. Nemiah was trying to give me a feel for how little we, as supposed experts, understand the recesses of the mind. The unconscious is a mystery, and it remains one all these years later. In bringing Buddhism to a Western audience, I am in a similar situation. As much as I may talk to my friends and patients about how concentration opens doors into unexpected areas of the psyche, nothing beats experiencing it for oneself. Concentration is a channel into something we do not have exact words for. The unconscious? Mystery? The imagination? Love and light? It is tempting to turn whatever it is into something more concrete than we can actually apprehend.

Right concentration argues against doing this. I think that is why it is saved for the last step instead of being talked about at the beginning. Right concentration does not want us to get attached to it. It does not want us to turn it into an object of worship. Use it to free yourself, but don’t turn it into another thing. Allow it to remain unpredictable.

My Buddhist teachers, in making this point, chuckle at a story they often repeat. A man who successfully completed a three-month silent retreat came running down the street in its immediate aftermath screaming, “It didn’t work! It didn’t work!” Under the spell of developed concentration and enveloped within the silence of the retreat, this man had discovered a profound sense of inner peace. Mistakenly assuming that this achievement was permanent and that his mind had been transformed (and laboring under the conviction that absorption was the goal he was aiming for), he was naturally distressed to find this golden state evaporating as soon as conditions changed. He thought his mind would stay quiet forever and assumed he was finally rid of his neurotic tendencies. But his assumptions were unfounded, and his attachment to a particular state of mind was revealed.

In a certain light, realizing his mistake was the real point of this man’s retreat. The desire to conquer impermanence by uniting the self with an idealized and unchanging “other” is very understandable. It manifests in love as well as in religion and is a persistent theme warned about in Buddhist psychology. Concentration meditations, deployed in the extreme, tend to take people away, akin to what happens when one is lost in music or transported during sex. The mind becomes focused, physical sensations are heightened, and feelings of serenity become strong. With diligent one-pointed practice, these feelings of absorption can be extended for prolonged periods of time, giving people the impression that all their problems have disappeared forever. The Buddha himself was careful not to urge his followers too far in this direction, however. Clinging takes many forms, and the desire for inner peace can sometimes be just as neurotic as other, more obvious addictions. The wish to lose oneself, however well-intentioned, masks a mind-set dominated by self-judgment and self-deprecation. It is often just another way of trying to find a safe place to hide, replacing a troubled self with something perfect and unassailable. Right concentration steers in a different direction. It offers stillness, not just as respite, but as a way of entertaining uncertainty. In a world where impermanence and change are basic facts of life, the willingness to be surprised gives one a big advantage.

From Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, by Mark Epstein. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Press.

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