For the past several months, I have been working at the eighth step of the Eightfold Path, samma samadhi, or Right Concentration. It's not that I've mastered the other seven steps, far from it, but then it's not that kind of path. Many people develop concentration in tandem with vipassana, so why do concentration practice at all?
There are several reasons for this, and one of them involves me being somewhat of a pussy. First off, as I understand it, without a well-developed concentration practice, doing insight meditation is much much harder. Because I'm not in a position to do full retreats where I can develop insight along with concentration, and my daily allotted meditation time is limited, I've decided to first focus on developing concentration as a launching pad from which to do insight practices at a later date.
There is another reason for postponing doing hardcore insight meditation (and this is where my pussiness comes in). Frankly, the progress of insight as a path scares me. After gaining some initial insights, it is said that an insight meditator is bound to encounter the dukkha nanas. These are states of mind that can be categorized as unpleasant and negative, although they apparently can go by very quickly as well. In short order, dissolution of the body and mind, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance and perhaps a few other negative states are encountered. That this might occur should not surprise anyone; when you're practicing insight you are deconstructing everything you know to be your current reality. This can be quite destabilising.
This scares me because I have lived long enough to know that adversity affects me and my way of interpreting events. In other words, confrontation with negativity changes the way I look at everything. It destabilises my emotional life, and would almost certainly lead to my giving up the path. That's not what I started walking on the path for. There have also been reports of people spending multiple years in unstable emotional conditions because they didn't realise that these states were induced by their spiritual practices. So, until I have some more confidence that I can weather these states, I'm going to steer clear from doing insight meditation.
Looking on the bright side, my expectation is that strengthening my concentration abilities can go some way towards this goal. There are definite signs that things could work out that way, which brings me to the third reason for doing concentration meditation. For one thing, you can get into some very nice states by practicing concentration. These states are oftentimes called jhanas - which is often translated as meditative absorptions - and they can range from mildly pleasant to perfectly equanimous. The ancient texts describe these states as regenerative and healing.
Before you get to reach them, though, you must conquer what is known as "the hindrances". There are five of them, a top-level one: doubt, and four (aversion, desire, sloth and restlessness) that can be plotted on a continuum, as below.
The idea is to stay as close to the dead center of the graph as possible. Contrary to the current vein of thinking in Western civilisation, conquering the hindrances to get concentrated does not mean subduing them with brute force. It means working with the five jhana factors to render them harmless. This is where a meditation retreat really helps, as there you have relieved yourself of all responsibilities other than to work at slowly subduing the hindrances. The world is further and further away as you gradually fall deeper into your meditative state.
The five jhana factors neatly work with these five hindrances. Aiming the attention on your meditation object helps with sloth. Sustaining the attention works with doubt. Rapture is a proper antidote against aversion. Tranquillity rescues you from restlessnes. One-pointedness leads to equanimity and helps with desire. From these five, only aiming and sustaining the attention is really somewhat within the meditator's control. The others surface and develop with growing concentration.
Aiming the attention on the breath (my meditation object of choice) entails saying "no, not now" to other mind objects. This is reinforced by any previous experience with the pleasantness that watching the breath can bring. The sustaining, in my experience, is above all more of an allowing your attention to rest with the breath, of softening towards and around the breath. Of allowing the breath to show itself and allowing other mind objects to be in the background.
So really what is needed is an alert and relaxed attitude that is focused on getting to know (in my case) the breath.
Practicing dilligently, you will attain longer and longer stretches of unbroken attention. This unbroken attention is known as access concentration. From here you can enter the first jhana, in which "rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal" predominate. This is about the level that I'm currently at; I may have inadvertently wandered further but not by much. My next goal is to get into jhana at will instead of by accident, to make it solid and to venture deeper into jhana territory.