In this article, I describe a path for calming and clarifying your mind. I provide instructions for traversing a series of eleven milestones that can guide you from complete distraction through beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of concentration. You can do these practices both in formal meditation sessions and in informal practice (interspersed in daily life).
I’ve been working with this path for a number of years in my own spiritual practice routine, and I’ve found it quite effective. It’s informed by B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution and Shaila Catherine’s book Wisdom Wide and Deep; for details, see the Sources section below.
I use the term concentration to refer to a spectrum of states of mind that are increasingly stable and clear. (Stable meaning that you don’t get distracted, and clear meaning that you experience what you’re attending to vividly and without interruption.) Stability and clarity are two aspects of attention that support mindfulness—so concentration practices are an excellent way to cultivate mindfulness. (As I will describe, you can also integrate practices for increasing the expansiveness and range of your attention into your concentration practice routine; doing so can help you cultivate mindfulness even more effectively.)
I’m ambivalent about the term concentration. To me, concentration sounds like it must require a lot of effort. It does—at first. However, the effort that’s required is a relaxed effort—and surprisingly, as you progress to increasingly advanced stages of concentration, less and less effort is involved, and the practice becomes increasingly pleasant. Think about it like this: at first, the practice of concentration requires you to concentrate as you build the strength of your attention; through this effort, your attention becomes more concentrated (like a concentrated beam of light) and less effort is required to practice.
The other issue I have with the term concentration is that it makes me think of focusing on something very small. The term single-pointed attention, which has been used to characterize advanced stages of concentration, shares this same issue. Concentration is characterized by stable, clear attention—not limited expansiveness of attention. It’s possible to cultivate concentration using very expansive objects of attention—and, in fact, doing so can support mindfulness more effectively.
Despite the above reservations, I choose to use the term concentration because it’s commonly used in the Buddhist community to refer to similar states of mind. (For more information on Buddhist definitions of concentration, see the section In Other Frameworks at the end of this article.)
Beginning Milestones: Mastering Complete Distraction
- 1st milestone: you can attend to your chosen object for a few seconds at a time. After that, you get completely distracted.
- 2nd milestone: you can attend to your chosen object for a minute at a time. After that, you get completely distracted.
- 3rd milestone: your attention is on your chosen object most of the time. However, you still have occasional, brief periods of complete distraction.
- 4th milestone: you avoid complete distraction. However, you still get partially distracted, and your attention completely fades out occasionally.
The eleven milestones in this article define a measure of concentration. Starting with the third milestone, there’s an important aspect of this measure that I’ve intentionally left unspecified and implicit: the duration over which the milestone’s criteria are to be met. For instance, consider the fourth milestone’s criteria: “you avoid complete distraction.” You should read this as “you avoid complete distraction for x seconds/minutes/hours.”
I haven’t specified the duration criteria (x) for these milestones because I believe that for the most part, these criteria are arbitrary. That’s not to say they’re not important; obviously, the longer you can maintain a state, the more robust it is. (There’s a big difference between avoiding complete distraction for five seconds versus five hours!)
I suggest you choose your own duration criteria and tune these criteria to the type of practice you’re doing. For a 30 to 60 minute daily meditation session (outside of a retreat context), you might choose duration criteria of about 5 or 10 minutes for each milestone. In a retreat context, you might raise the bar by choosing longer duration criteria—anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours.
Traditionally, these duration criteria have been specified on the long end of the scale (30 minutes to several hours). As I see it, measuring concentration this way isn’t useful or appropriate outside of a retreat context. I view daily practice sessions as more like sprinting than like running a marathon. You wouldn’t want to measure your sprinting speed by tracking the distance you can run in two hours, would you?
With practice, you can learn to estimate which milestone you’re at without having to actually wait out the duration (x). Of course, actually waiting out the duration and observing what happens will give you a more accurate measure of your current state of concentration; however, I believe there’s also value in tracking a moment-to-moment estimate of which milestone you’re currently at, as part of your introspective quality control process. In my experience, a graph of this moment-to-moment measure of concentration over the course of a meditation session tends to look more like a roller coaster and less like a steady progression.
Building Attentional Stability
The first four milestones focus on building your attentional stability. As you traverse them, you gradually address the problem of complete distraction (in which your attention gets drawn away from your chosen object to something else—usually, thinking—and you completely forget your chosen object for a while). Complete distraction is a big problem, because when you’re completely distracted, you lose the ability to practice (consciously, anyway); that’s why complete distraction is the most important problem to address first.
The way to start addressing complete distraction is to choose an object of attention and attempt to rest your attention on that object. Eventually, you’ll notice that you’re completely distracted—probably lost in thought—and your attention is no longer on your chosen object. At this point, return your attention to your chosen object and—once again—attempt to rest it there. Each time you notice that you’re distracted and return your attention to your chosen object, you get a bit better at noticing distraction, and your attention becomes a bit more stable.
Some objects of attention are easier to focus on than others. Unvarying, narrowly defined objects tend to be easier to work with than those that are more subtle, variable, or expansive. The key to making progress in traversing these first four milestones is to choose an object that’s challenging enough but not too challenging, so you’re constantly working your edges.
Traversing the Beginning Milestones
I recommend the breath as an object of attention for traversing the beginning milestones—if it works for you. However, for many beginners, the breath may be too subtle and variable to focus on easily. If that’s the case for you, try placing a small physical item in front of you—something you enjoy looking at—and use the visual image of that item as your chosen object. (When I was first getting started with concentration meditation, I used this type of visual object for quite a while, and it worked great for me.) Notice that your eyes make subtle jerky movements; try to relax your eyes, and let your gaze be as stable as possible.
The only problem with this type of visual object is that it’s so unvarying that it doesn’t exercise the clarity of your attention much—so, once you’ve mastered the first four milestones using a visual object, try switching to the breath and traversing them again.
As soon as you have enough attentional stability and clarity to focus on the breath, start using it as your chosen object. Taking a few deep breaths when you start a session of meditation can help you loosen up your breathing—but after that, don’t force your breath to do anything special; just let it do its thing, and rest your attention on it in a relaxed way. Notice the wave-like nature of your breathing. Imagine you are sitting by the ocean, watching the waves roll in. Your eyes can be open, closed, or half open; it’s up to you. (I usually just let my eyes do what they want to do.)
To get to the first milestone, use the sensations of breathing throughout your body; then, to get to the second milestone, use the sensations of breathing in your abdomen. You can experiment with counting your breaths at the start of each inhalation, to see if that helps. Make each count brief, so that most of your attention stays on the sensations of breathing; the counting is just a reminder to keep your attention on the breath. Start your count at “one;” after you get to “ten,” start over again at “one.”
If you want, you can experiment with using a stopwatch to track how long you can keep your attention on your chosen object before you get completely distracted. Start the stopwatch, then rest your attention on your chosen object. Stop the stopwatch when you notice that you’re completely distracted, and use the elapsed time to estimate how long you were able to rest your attention on the object before you got distracted. (When you reach the second milestone, stop using a stopwatch, because manipulating the stopwatch itself will become too much of a distraction.)
To get to the third and fourth milestones, use the sensations of breathing around your upper lip and nostrils. Notice the sensations there, even between breaths, and even when the breath is shallow or when it has stopped. Experiment with switching to the energetic component of the breath as your object of attention, when you notice it. If you’ve been counting breaths, start weaning yourself off of counting when you get to the third milestone. By the time you reach the fourth milestone, you shouldn’t be counting breaths anymore.
You’ll notice that as you traverse these milestones, your breathing tends to slow down and become more subtle. As it does, the sensations associated with breathing become more subtle and more challenging to attend to. This is actually a good thing, because attending to these subtle sensations helps build attentional stability and clarity.
To avoid getting distracted as you work with more subtle objects of attention, you will need to make your chosen object more engaging by intentionally experiencing it more vividly. This becomes important as you attempt to reach the third and fourth milestones. Intentionally raise the level of energy going into your attention—but not so much that you lose relaxation or attentional stability. As the object becomes more vivid and engaging, it gets easier to rest your attention on the object without getting distracted. This is a first step in addressing attentional dullness (the opposite of attentional clarity).
For me, getting to the fourth milestone (and beyond) requires steadfast introspection and noting of both distraction and dullness. Without sufficient introspection, it’s easy for me to hang out around the second and third milestones indefinitely, fooling myself into thinking I’m further along than I actually am. What helps me be more honest with myself is to do an “introspection spot check,” asking myself how much thinking I’ve been doing in the last 15 seconds. If I notice that I was lost in thought at all during that time, I can be sure I’m not at the fourth milestone yet.
Reaching the Last of the Beginning Milestones
By the time you reach the fourth milestone, you no longer get completely distracted (for an arbitrary time duration of your choosing; let’s say ten minutes). Around this milestone, many people (but not all) start noticing the sign, an unusual visual phenomenon that starts showing up in the visual field during meditation.
The sign is a sign that you are making good progress in cultivating concentration! Not only that, but it makes a great object of attention; it’s quite subtle and somewhat diffuse, so attending to it is a good exercise for developing attentional clarity and expansiveness. When it shows up, I’ll often take it as my object of attention. (The sign may appear and disappear, so switch back to the breath if the sign goes away, and don’t worry about it too much.) Closing your eyes may help you see the sign more clearly, but it may also make you drowsy; open your eyes if you find that you need to be more awake.
The sign is one of many meditative experiences that may arise in concentration meditation. Some, like the sign, are quite pleasant; others can be less pleasant.
When you get to the fourth milestone, you’ve mastered complete distraction. However, problems still remain. For one thing, you still get partially distracted. Partial distraction occurs when something distracts you from your chosen object and most of your attention shifts to what’s distracting you—but your attention never completely leaves your chosen object. (So you end up with most of your attention on what’s distracting you and some of your attention on your chosen object.)
At the fourth milestone, your mastery of complete distraction makes another issue more evident: when you’re attending to your chosen object, if you look closely, you’ll notice that your attention isn’t continuous; every once in a while, it fades out completely. As your attention fades out, your experience of the object becomes duller (less vivid). The fade-out may last anywhere from a fraction of a second to several seconds or more.
Attentional fade-outs are due to dullness (lack of attentional clarity); when there’s insufficient energy in your attention, your chosen object simply fades out of awareness. If your attention were a beam of light, dullness would be a condition where the light source has insufficient power and periodically grows dimmer. (This is different from distraction, in which the beam shifts direction to illuminate something other than your chosen object.)
Intermediate Milestones: Mastering Partial Distraction and Dullness
- 5th milestone: your attention no longer completely fades out. However, you still get partially distracted, and your attention still partially fades out.
- 6th milestone: you no longer get partially distracted. However, you still get subtly distracted, and your attention still partially fades out.
- 7th milestone: your attention no longer partially fades out. However, you still get subtly distracted, and your attention still subtly fades out.
Reaching the Intermediate Milestones
At the fifth milestone, for the first time, you have enough attentional stability and clarity to gain a continuous view of your chosen object (that persists for some duration of your choosing)—though your view is still subject to partial distraction and partial dullness. This is a significant accomplishment! (As a side note, the fifth milestone is the first point at which I recommend trying insight practices.) To test whether you have reached the fifth milestone, the relevant question to ask is, “Has my experience of my chosen object been completely interrupted (by distraction or dullness) recently?” If so, you’re not at the fifth milestone yet.
In my daily meditation sessions (outside of a retreat context), I consider it a good session when I can make it to the fifth milestone. Traversing from the fourth to the fifth milestone usually requires an extra push of focus, commitment, and interest in my chosen object.
There’s often a noticeable transition in my state when I get the fifth milestone. Suddenly, my body seems to spontaneously let go of areas of muscular tension, I start noticing my heartbeat, I feel somewhat blissful, and a smile is likely to break out on my face. It’s a pleasant experience. It seems to me that hanging out around the intermediate milestones can be quite a restful, healing experience. This seems like a good reason to consider doing longer meditation sessions and occasional retreats.
Traversing the Intermediate Milestones
The path from the fifth to the seventh milestone involves mastering partial distraction and partial dullness (partial fade-outs of your attention). I find it helps to continue introspection and noting of distraction and dullness. This requires some effort, though the amount of effort that’s needed is a lot less in the intermediate milestones (versus the beginning milestones). At this level of concentration, meditation becomes increasingly easy and enjoyable.
To traverse the intermediate milestones, there are at least two ways to go in terms of choosing an object of attention. You can keep working with the breath (or the sign, if it has appeared), or you can gently expand your field of view and take your current field of subjective experience as your chosen object. Each route has its advantages.
The breath (and the sign) are a lot less expansive than your current field of experience, so it can be easier to attend to them as you develop the increased stability and clarity that’s required to traverse the intermediate milestones; however, working with the breath (or the sign) won’t do much to help you develop attentional expansiveness. For developing expansiveness, your current field of experience is an excellent object to work with. I suggest you do what I’ve done: experiment with each object at different times, to get some experience working with both of them.
Once you grow accustomed to gently expanding your field of view and taking your current field of experience as your object of attention, you can also use this as your chosen object at the beginning of a session (as you traverse the beginning milestones). However, there is a risk in doing that. When you’re taking your current field of experience as an object of attention, it can be easy to fool yourself into believing you’ve been mindfully attending to your thinking process when your attention has actually just collapsed into thinking. For this reason, I usually choose a simpler object for traversing the beginning milestones (unless I’m feeling especially confident).
Reaching the Last Intermediate Milestone
By the time you get to the seventh milestone, your perception of your chosen object is almost completely stable and clear—but not quite. Subtle distraction (in which most of your attention on your chosen object and some of your attention is on what’s distracting you) and subtle dullness (that is, barely perceptible fade-outs of your attention) still persist.
Advanced Milestones: Mastering Single-Pointed Attention
- 8th milestone: your attention is single-pointed (completely stable and clear). However, it requires some effort to maintain this state.
- 9th milestone: you can effortlessly maintain single-pointed attention. The experience of meditation is rapturous.
- 10th milestone: you can effortlessly maintain single-pointed attention without rapture. What remains is a content happiness.
- 11th milestone: you can effortlessly maintain single-pointed attention without rapture or happiness. What remains is a peaceful equanimity.
Reaching the Advanced Milestones
From the seventh milestone, you reach the eighth by resolving subtle distraction and subtle dullness. At that point, you experience single-pointed attention—that is, attention that’s completely stable and clear.
The term single-pointed refers not to the expansiveness of your attention, but to it’s stability and clarity. For instance, if you take your entire current field of subjective experience as your object of attention, the single “point” that you attend to as you traverse these advanced milestones is quite expansive.
To test whether you’ve reached the eighth milestone, the relevant question to ask is, “Is my mind completely calm and clear?” Use introspection to find out. If it’s not, you haven’t reached the eighth milestone yet. Equivalently, you can ask, “Am I experiencing any distraction or dullness whatsoever?” If you are, you haven’t reached the eighth milestone yet.
To reach the eighth milestone, you don’t have to stop thinking, but you do have to stop being distracted by your thinking. That is, your attention needs to stop collapsing onto the things you’re thinking about. As you attend to thinking without distraction, your thinking will spontaneously dissipate. As you notice dullness, your attention will spontaneously clarify.
Traversing the Advanced Milestones
From the eighth milestone, you can reach the ninth, tenth, and eleventh milestones by successively letting go of effort, rapture, and happiness. At that point, all that remains is single-pointed attention and a peaceful equanimity.
After you reach the eighth milestone, the next thing to direct your attention toward is effort. Ask yourself, “Where is effort happening?” Use introspection to find out. For me, effort almost always correlates with tension in my body. Notice any tension and effort and attend to them. There’s also the effort to release effort—notice that, too.
Just as with thinking, as you attend to effort, it dissipates. As it dissipates, energy is released. For me, this doesn’t happen all at once—there’s a cycle of noticing effort, effort being released, then noticing another layer of effort. The experience of the energy that’s released could be described as “rapturous.” For me, the released energy shows up as blissful feelings, a smile on my face, and spontaneously shaking arms. (Note that these experiences show up around the intermediate milestones as well—it’s just a much more efficient process around the advanced milestones, since there’s no distraction or dullness to get in the way.)
As you successfully let go of effort, the next things to attend to are the blissful side-effects of the energy that’s been released. As you attend to these feelings without distraction, they dissipate as well—first into happiness, then into a calm equanimity.
As of this writing, on a good day, I find I’m usually able to reach the advanced milestones (using a brief duration criteria of a few minutes) within an hour of formal sitting meditation practice outside of a retreat context—provided that I’m also doing some mindfulness practice interspersed in daily life. If I neglect mindfulness in my daily life, I generally don’t have enough momentum to reach the advanced milestones in my formal practice sessions.
For more detailed practice instructions for traversing the advanced milestones, please see my sources (listed in the Sources section, below).
Beyond Formal Concentration Meditation
This article is focused on formal meditation. Regular formal meditation practice is essential for cultivating concentration; however, with formal meditation practice as a foundation, you can enhance your concentration practice routine through informal concentration practice (integrated into your daily life). Informal practice is especially helpful if you do most of your spiritual practice outside of a retreat context (as I do); informal practice can help you avoid losing concentration between your formal practice sessions.
In my opinion, concentration practice can (and should) be mixed with insight practice. I’ve found that the shift in perception that comes with insight helps me let go of my certainty that I understand what I’m experiencing. That reduction in certainty raises my curiosity about my experience; and that curiosity helps me avoid distraction and raise the level of energy with which I attend to my chosen object.
In Other Frameworks
The concept of concentration in this framework is closely related to the Buddhist concepts of samadhi (concentration), samatha (calming the mind), dhyana or jhana (meditation), and anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing).
The path described in this article is informed by B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind and Shaila Catherine’s book Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana. The beginning and intermediate milestones in this article are congruent with the beginning and intermediate stages described in The Attention Revolution, and the advanced milestones in this article are congruent with the four jhanas described in Section 1 of Wisdom Wide and Deep.
There’s plenty of useful material in both The Attention Revolution and Section 1 of Wisdom Wide and Deep that goes beyond what I’ve described in this article. I’ve found both these resources helpful in my practice of concentration, and I highly recommend them. (Be aware that Shaila Catherine’s approach to vipassana seems quite different than my approach to insight; I don’t have experience with the practices she describes in sections two through four of Wisdom Wide and Deep.)
- January 1, 2016: Initial publication
- January 14, 2016: Added additional material to the sections “Reaching the Advanced Milestones” and “Traversing the Advanced Milestones.”