Learning to concentrate, though initially difficult, works. Gradually, through repeated focus on our subject over hours and days, the mind’s wandering diminishes. It settles down and steadies itself on the subject of meditation. This process of developing concentration is described by Buddhist texts as “purification.” The term is not a religious or moral one, but an experience of release in body and mind. One practitioner I knew said it was as if he had been “inwardly put through the wash.” Because the process of purification is not understood in western psychology, it is worth explaining more carefully.
Purification means the release of tension, conflict, distraction, sorrow, and anxiety. The easiest way to understand it is to try to hold your concentration unwavering for just ten minutes. Suppose you direct your attention to concentrate absolutely steadily on the breath or an inspiring image. Within the first minute most people will find their attention has wandered many times. By the second and third minute, more distractions and feelings will interrupt, then the body will become restless or ache, and at the end of ten minutes, they will be lucky if they stayed with their subject for 10% of the time.
As we try to concentrate in meditation, our thoughts, our conflicts and plans, our unfinished emotional business will get in the way. Physical tension and restlessness, memories and fears, instincts and drives will repeatedly interrupt us. Purification comes from the deliberate release of each of these distractions until the mind settles down and becomes still, contented and unwavering. As we repeatedly release the succession of tensions and thoughts, the body and mind gradually feel clearer. The process of purification can go on for days and months. Success in concentration does not come through suppression, but by acknowledging each distraction and each conflict mindfully – with attention but without attachment – and letting it go until it subsides or loses its sway over us. By repeatedly releasing the interruptions and returning to the subject of concentration many thousands of times, the mind and heart begin to feel purified, released from the grip of these distractions. Gradually the distractions diminish and our concentration stabilizes.
Eventually, after thousands of repetitions, the mind becomes quite steady, almost unwavering on the meditation subject. With further concentration, the mind becomes so filled with the subject, so absorbed, that nothing can distract it. Once this happens, the inner experience becomes one of wholeness and steadiness, and an inner luminosity arises. Every contemplative tradition, from Christian to Taoist, describes the experience of this inner light. It is quite literal. When we have been through a process of purification and can concentrate steadily, the body, the mind, and the whole of space can appear as being filled with light. Buddhist psychology outlines twenty-five categories of inner light, from luminous clouds and fireflies, to dazzling light like the noonday sun. When this inner light arises there also comes rapture, happiness, expansion and the ability to enter into the profound states of silence called jhana. These simple, dry, methodical practices are, paradoxically, a path to oceanic rapture and expansiveness. In this meditative way, we systematically open to the mystical dimensions of the mind.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield