When we go on a residential retreat, we often hope that our meditation will result in a deepening of concentration: a quality of composure, collectedness, of settled attention.
But unfortunately, we can’t force concentration to happen! We can, however, support the conditions that allow it to arise. This simple fact has been really helpful for me to remember. In our meditation practice, we often bring along the cultural baggage of an “I’m going to do this” mentality, and sometimes that attitude can get in our way.
Concentration arises when awareness becomes continuous, whether continuous on a single experience like the breathing, or continuous on a flow of changing experience. We can’t force this continuity. We can, for short periods of time, forcefully hold our attention to experience, but this kind of attention usually results in brittle concentration that’s easily broken.
So a useful support for our practice is learning how to create a container that allows concentration to develop without being forced. This tends to result in a more stable concentration.
Relaxation is one of the important aspects of that container. Relaxation is actually one of the main supports for concentration! When I first started meditating, I thought that you had to force the mind to focus. The idea that one could relax to facilitate concentration did not penetrate my mind for quite a while. But relaxation is quite important.
Relaxation in meditation does not mean spacing out! The mind can be both relaxed and alert. Relaxation can take time. Different people need different amounts of time to allow the body and mind to relax in meditation. Relaxation of the body and relaxation of the mind are mutually supportive; when the body is relaxed, it’s much easier for the mind to relax.
We all need to find our own way to relax in meditation. For some people, starting with a relaxing body scan can be very helpful: consciously relaxing the muscles of the body in a systematic way. Once the body is relaxed, we see if we can relax the thinking mind. For others, meditating on ambient sounds can be helpful. Since we don’t control these sounds, turning our attention to them can sometimes allow the body and mind to relax very naturally.
Setting up a container of relaxed attention is an important framework for the meditation. Once you find a balance of relaxation and alertness, you can learn how to open this relaxed attention to experience: Either directing attention to a particular experience like the breathing, or becoming aware of a flow of experience: of seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching, and emotions and thoughts.
When we can learn how to attend to our experience and not lose the relaxation, the mind becomes malleable, and we can skillfully choose to direct the attention to support a deepening of concentration. At other times, we can get out of our own way, and allow the meditation to take its own course very naturally.
I encourage you to take the time to explore what it means for you to have a relaxed attention: first of all to learn simply how to relax the body and mind, and then to learn what it means to apply this relaxation to an alert attending to your experience.