All the instructions in meditative stability (samādhi) depend on the settling of well-worn patterns of obsessive thought and reactive emotionality. The word “concentration” is what’s usually used for these practices, and I get why folks don’t like the word. It smacks of internal effort applied in a forceful way, and that’s unpopular nowadays. Because stability is attained through calming the impulses toward distraction, not willful constraint of the mind, words that feel softer and more relaxing seem to express this subtle discipline better. But do they? If the goal is to calm impulses, what kind of effort is most appropriate, and how should we talk about it?
A few distinct activities and supportive conditions come together to create the range of states we call samādhi, which are characterized by attention staying consistently with a chosen object, free from distracting thought or engagement with other sensory objects. It helps for the body to be relaxed, and for the immediate physical and social environment to feel safe and supportive. To have these conditions, we have to meet the body’s physical (food, clothing, shelter, medicine) and social (connection, trust, encouragement, respect) needs.
The people around us need to be acting ethically enough for us to not have to be vigilant during practice, and we need to be able to devote time to training every day. In terms of difficulty, meditation is akin to playing a difficult instrument like the violin, learning a language, or learning to dance well. It takes years of daily practice to really get good, and it takes supportive external conditions. I’m using the broad term “meditation” here to emphasize that all forms of meditation depend on some amount of samādhi—generally more than you think—and to push back on common ideas that meditation requires minimal skill, has no goals, and is more about acceptance than effort. Meditation is a skilled discipline, and like any skill, takes training to do well.
Now we come to the calm and concentration piece. It helps to be relaxed and not frantic when practicing an instrument or language. But we also need to be interested, present, engaged, and attentive to detail consistently over the whole time we’re engaged in the practice. That’s basically the definition of concentration. But there’s a strange loop built into the training. Calm is both the method and the result. The thing we’re practicing is not staying with an object—that’s just a supportive training wheel—but nervous system deactivation, and most of our efforts in practice are to find the combination of conditions that encourages the nervous system to deactivate.
We aren’t calm because our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is running self-protective programs of fight, flight, fawn, and freeze, activating musculature and circulation, spatial and social vigilance, and other physiological and cognitive processes in support of survival under threat (occasionally real, mostly imagined, i.e.: “trauma”). Without real deactivation, meditation will never deepen. This is why meditation is not a great intervention when you’re anxious, shut down, or otherwise freaking out.
If you’re activated in a moment when you don’t need to be, and need an intervention to help you calm down, movement, social connection, and orientation all will tend to help the ANS come down more easily than sitting still and directing attention inward. Come down from the activation to the point where you’re not freaking out and can be present in the room and with your body and feelings. Then meditate.
So for most of our practice, calm is a verb. Calm the anxious heart, the angry ego, the shut down body by giving them the nourishment they need to return to baseline well-being. Then invite attention to stop scanning the horizon (or phone) for signs that everything is ok. Until you believe in your heart that everything is ok enough that you can look away for a few moments, you’ll always be half in and half out when you meditate, like a warrior in the field sleeping with one eye open, always ready for the next attack. What a way to live. The world may be on fire in some ways, but if you’re sitting down to meditate, then your house isn’t, at this moment. Figure out how to really take in the safety you’re so privileged to enjoy, and the path to stability begins to open.