The Feedback Loop of Concentration
Directing -> Sustaining -> Wandering -> Remembering
The practice of concentration is actually quite simple. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, it takes sustained effort to improve one’s concentration skills, but it’s pretty straightforward in terms of how it works.
The model we’d like to share with you, to help explain how concentration practice functions, involves a simple 4-point feedback loop. You can visualize this as 4 points around a simple circle. The 4-points of the loop are:
Before we get into each point of the loop, it’s useful to know that this basic model holds true regardless of what you’re paying attention to. You can be working with the breath, a visualization, a mantra, even a quality like space. And not just classical meditation objects like these but also on any activity that you’re engaged in, like e-mailing or doing the dishes or walking. In each case it’s the same basic process.
The first point of the feedback loop is to direct attention to the object of meditation. By doing this we make initial contact with the object. Once we’ve directed attention then the next point is to sustain attention with the object, for as long as we’re able. Directing and sustaining. Making contact and then sticking with it.
Then at some point, no matter how awesome our powers of concentration are, something will come along, a loud sound, a thought or feeling, some pain in our body, whatever it is, and it will grab our attention. This is the next point of the feedback loop, where the mind wanders from our intended object of focus.
One thing worth mentioning about mind wandering is that it isn’t always the case that attention totally leaves the meditation object (though often it does). Mind wandering exists on a spectrum, from totally losing the object to just barely losing touch with it. It can be that some part of our attention wanders from the object, but we’re still partially with it at the same time. This is still mind wandering, it’s just a more subtle version of it.
Now, when the mind has wandered, at some point, we can remember our intention to come back, again and again, to our object of focus. This remembering is a simple noticing of what is happening in our experience and how we lost touch with our concentration object. Once we’ve noticed that we’ve wandered, and remember to return, we complete the loop, by going back to the first point, of directing attention back to the object.
The feedback loop of concentration continues as we then sustain our attention for as long as we’re able, eventually losing track of it in some way, wandering off into some other experience. Then again we notice that we’ve wandered and remember to return to the object: Directing, Sustaining, Wandering, Remembering, re-cycling through the loop again and again as we train attention.