Concentration, paying attention & peace of mind

According to the American Buddhist teacher and scholar, Gil Fronsdal, ‘if the goal is to become peaceful, the way there is to be peaceful.’ In other words, the only way to practice peace, is to be peaceful. In a similar way, the only way to practice mindfulness is to be mindful. The only way to be awakened is to be awake. Now, it may be that the discipline required to be mindful can be cultivated and strengthened by concentrating on the breath, or another narrow focus of attention. This is a way of honing the skill of paying attention, but it is the paying attention that matters – not the concentration.

In my view the various step-by-step exercises that develop concentration, by narrowing the field of attention on to one object or another – be it the breath, or the body, or feelings and so on – are a preparation for the act of attending to the whole field of consciousness. Inevitably, when we focus entirely on one small aspect of our experience, we are excluding or marginalising, the rest of our experience – we are, by definition, only being mindful of one small aspect of our consciousness. At some point we need to open to the whole field of consciousness if we are to be mindful in any holistic sense. The development of these focussed concentration exercises may have been part of the systematisation of Buddhist practice that occurred over centuries after the Buddha’s death.

To be mindful of what we are doing from moment-to-moment requires concentration and will-power – being decisive at each moment to be present and attentive. Casting off the lure of mind-wandering, or attachment to any particular thought, feeling or sensation, is another requirement. It is important to recognise that there is something attractive and magnetic about mind-wandering. It is something we enjoy, and it can become addictive. Our attention span can become shorter and shorter as we shift from one diversion, train of thought or daydream to another. The only way to be present is to keep paying attention, to come back to the here and now, to notice what we are doing and what is happening.

Noticing we are daydreaming or being dragged along by a sequence of thoughts is no longer to be attached to those daydreams or thoughts. There is no easy formula for doing this. In some ways it is a very tedious process. Paying attention – mind wanders – we notice it is wandering – we once more pay attention – then there is more wandering, noticing, paying attention, and so on. This is the practice of mindful meditation. Every daydream is an opportunity to notice, be attentive and be present – rather than inattentive and absent. Snipping away at each daydream or wandering stream of thoughts, recognising what is happening and paying attention once more, is all we can do. But we need determination to do it. We are either aware or not, either present or absent.

It seems to me, (and this is a personal opinion based on reading texts and commentaries, and my own intuition) that the Satipatthana and Anapanasati Sutras, which both contain detailed information about mindful meditation, are probably the product of the process whereby the students of the Buddha and later doctrinal scholars and practitioners, systematised the Buddha’s teachings into increasingly structured and formulaic texts. This is a process of institutionalisation that occurs in most religions and schools of philosophy. It is understandable and it can be very beneficial. But, it can also lead us to being unable to see the wood for the trees – to become attached to the doctrinal detail and forget the purpose of the particular practice or doctrine. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutra, become the much more complex sixteen aspects of Mindfulness described in the Anapanasati Sutra. This process of systematisation is a well-known tendency that human beings have to break down and codify an idea or practice into more and more parts. This is particularly true in the fields of education, philosophy and religious instruction, where competing schools of interpretation set out their stalls in the marketplace of ideas and theories.

In his book, The Buddha before Buddhism, Gil Fronsdal translates, and comments on, what is considered to be one of the earliest Buddhist texts – the Atthakavagga or ‘Book of Eights.’ Fronsdal makes the point that in this early text, ‘no mention is made of the familiar numbered lists such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path – teachings that are often considered to be the essence of Buddhism.’ He goes on to say, ‘nowhere in the text does one find the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the four jhanas (states of concentration), the Five Aggregates, the Three Characteristics, the Seven Factors of Awakening, or the Three Refuges.’ What is found in the Book of Eights is a much simpler and more holistic articulation of ideas and practices. Maybe this is closer to what the Buddha himself may have taught. We cannot know for sure. But, to me, this seems likely, given the tendency we have to break down into parts and enumerate, even the simplest of statements and suggestions.

It is worth bearing in mind that, as Fronsdal reminds us, in the Book of Eights the Buddha is reported as having said that ‘he does not proclaim a doctrine (dhamma). Instead, through not clinging to any doctrines or views, he has experienced inner peace (ajjhatta santi).’ Fronsdal continues, ‘the emphasis on letting go and not relying on anything makes it clear that the peace the Buddha teaches is not dependent on views, learning, knowledge, virtue, or religious practices.’ Perhaps this is because all these things take us away from direct experience, from an immediate apprehension of what it is to sit or stand or be here, now, in this fleeting moment within a stream of fleeting moments. To me, this is the existential heart of the Buddha’s advice and guidance.

If we are to experience what it is to be, rather than to know, or to have, or to imagine we might be, then we have to set aside beliefs, doctrines and theories, and be at peace with our impermanence and interdependence right here, right now. It is a peace that comes from letting go of attachments, strivings and abstractions. A peace that comes with the clarity of vision we have when the mist of opinions, beliefs and attachment to past and future evaporates. Peace of mind and clarity of mind come together in the act of paying attention, and this may be why the Buddha placed so much emphasis on letting go and being present. To be at peace in the present moment – not to be disturbed – may enable us to think and act wisely, for the good of all.


Fronsdal, Gil. 2016. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.