The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

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Come here for a moment, let me tell you a secret. The knowledge I’m about to share has been passed down from one generation of Buddhist masters to the next in an unbroken chain dating back to the Buddha. We are the heirs to this secret from a great lineage. The secret is…


Basically, that’s it; that’s the secret. Our minds are easily distracted. We chase after shiny things — thoughts, feelings, and impulses — like a dog chasing a squirrel. Ok, it’s not an incredibly well-kept secret. We know it well. And yet, we perhaps rarely acknowledge this fact.

We live in an age of perfected distraction. Modern capitalist society is built on our inability to control urges to click, buy, eat, drink, watch, listen, or otherwise consume something. We have more stimuli thrust into our consciousness every hour than our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely experienced in a year. Digital technology exacerbates this: we tend to pick up our phones every 12 minutes or otherwise experience some kind of interruption every eight minutes. There’s no wonder that we might feel a bit overwhelmed these days.

In the last post, we looked at our distractability through the lens of right mindfulness. The next part of the Eightfold Path, right concentration, offers another critical practice for developing our capacity to counter distraction. These two parts work with right effort to complete the trifecta of mental discipline: an intentional process of training the mind to eliminate the sources of suffering in our lives and promote a state of flourishing. 

What is right concentration?

We don’t use our concentration to run away from suffering. We concentrate to make ourselves deeply present.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

On the surface, it might look like mindfulness and concentration are the same. While these concepts are closely related, they serve different roles.

Right mindfulness pertains to recognizing our awareness — knowing what our mind is doing at any given moment. Right concentration, in turn, relates to our ability to maintain a “one-pointed” focus on an object of awareness. 

With mindfulness, we recognize that we’re distracted. With concentration, we intentionally fix our awareness on a particular object.

As Thich Nhat Hanh describes in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, there are two approaches we can take to practicing right concentration: active and selective.

With active concentration, we remain in a state of mental openness to whatever is happening in the present moment. We see our awareness as a field that invites any form of perception or experience to naturally unfold — all the while using mindfulness to recognize that we are aware of these perceptions and experiences. As they arise, we observe them; as they dissipate, we watch the dissipation. If sounds occur, we listen to the sound. If we see physical forms in front of us, we observe their colors, textures, and shapes. If thoughts arise, we observe the thoughts. If we feel pain in our backs, we notice the pain. This active approach means maintaining our concentration on this “open field” of awareness.

With selective concentration, we select an object and maintain awareness on that one object. We might choose to focus on the breath, watching the in-breath, the out-breath, and the slight gap in between. Or we could focus on sounds or visual objects or do a scan of sensations in our body. The practice is ultimately the same: recognize that you are aware of whatever is happening and concentrate on that awareness.

One crucial point about this practice is that we’re not escaping into some private mental state. 

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “We don’t use our concentration to run away from suffering. We concentrate to make ourselves deeply present.” This statement might at first seem contrary to a central aim of Buddhism: to eliminate the sources of suffering in our lives. But we don’t achieve freedom from suffering by running away; we do so by acknowledging what is happening in our minds, every moment of the day. In this way, we are not controlled by our impulses and the chaotic pendulum swings of external events. 

As Mingyur Rinpoche describes, we should seek to be like the flagpole rather than the flag as turbulent winds blow all around us.

Right concentration and the SDGs

It’s hard to argue the benefits of better concentration. Whether we buy into any other teachings in the Buddhist path, the intertwined practices of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration can enhance our well-being.

From the perspective of tackling complex problems like those at the heart of sustainable development, keen concentration is undoubtedly an asset.

After all, chasing after shiny things isn’t constrained to consumer culture. We all get occasionally distracted from essential priorities or lose sight of our mission following spontaneous whims of the day. We might read an article about machine learning and suddenly decide to shift precious team resources to researching the merits of AI in our field. We could read a tweet from a stakeholder complaining about some aspect of our work and spend days thinking of how to adapt — perhaps not even questioning whether this is a widespread issue or a one-off. The ever-changing moods we (or often our bosses) experience can take us in vastly different directions on the spot.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t respond to changing events or new opportunities. But instead, we should do so in a focused manner. We can carve out time for “active” concentration, where we explore trends and brainstorm possibilities for capitalizing on them. But we typically will benefit from long periods of “selective” concentration on the work at hand, resisting the temptation to chase the latest buzzword. Squirrel! 

This is the realm of Essentialism and Deep Work, focusing on the right things at the right time and reducing distractions. The practice of right concentration is worth adding to our toolboxes.As we progress down this path of mindfulness and concentration, we also open our minds to insight and wisdom. The next two posts in this series will delve into this area, looking first at right view and then wrapping up the Eightfold Path with right understanding.