Full Moon Day: The Five Factors of Concentration

October 16, 2008

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The Five Factors of Concentration

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In order to progress in our meditation we must be clear in our minds what exactly it is we are trying to develop. The Buddha taught that full concentration comprises five factors. It is therefore these five factors that we need to develop.

By understanding these factors and their functions we are able to see where our meditation is lacking and where it is progressing. Understanding our own practice in terms of these factors will serve to give us a definite direction; a clear path with recognisable markers along the way.

The five factors are: applied attention; investigation or impingement*; joy or rapture; happiness; and one-pointedness of mind. When these five factors become established then one’s mind becomes absorbed in the object of concentration.

The first two factors are those we initially strive to develop when practising meditation. The remaining factors will thus follow. Quite often, the Pali terms ‘vitakka’ (pronounced witakka) and ‘vicara’ (pronounced wichara) are translated as ‘applied’ and ‘sustained thought’, respectively. But these translations are misleading, for there should be no thought involved in our development of concentration. Thought is to be abandoned and a pure and direct knowing established instead. Right from the word go we have been trained to think; we don’t want our minds ranting in our meditation as well!

So we train the mind to abandon thinking and to develop the two factors of vitakka and vicara. Thinking will naturally slow down and eventually cease when they become dominant.

Vitakka: Applied Attention – Aim; Direct

This first factor refers to the act of applying the mind to the object of meditation – for instance the breath, or the footsteps whilst doing walking meditation. Here, for convenience’s sake, we’ll say that the object of concentration is the stream of sensations at the nose tip, caused by the breath. When we apply our attention to the object we direct our mind to that place. We aim our attention at those sensations. This quality of aiming is an important one. We must be precise when we apply our mind to the object of concentration. We must hit the red circle smack-bang in the middle of the target. 

Vitakka also has the function of holding the object in mind. It keeps the sensation of the breath at the forefront of your awareness. It ensures that the sensation remains the prime object in your field of awareness. If you think of the breath (the object) as being like a brass cup in need of polishing, then the factor of applied attention is that faculty of concentration that holds the brass cup firmly, ready for it to be polished.

Vicara: Investigation / Impingement – Penetrating; Fully Knowing

Vicara can be likened to the other hand, the one that polishes the brass cup and makes it shine.

It is that element of concentration that examines and penetrates and makes clear the object of concentration. So in terms of focusing on the sensations caused by the breath at the nose tip vicara sees the sensations fully, clearly and totally. Vicara will open up the object so that the mind can see it fully and completely. The mind becomes immersed in the object; it doesn’t miss a thing. 

Vitakka and vicara clearly function as a pair. The renowned Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Pandita (to whom I am grateful for the previous simile, originally from the Canon, and for helping me clarify my understanding of the five factors) described them working together in the following ways: 

Say you are walking along and you see an object in the mud. You take a sharp implement and stick it in the object. This sharp implement can be likened to vitakka. You then pull the object out of the mud and carefully examine it, consequently understanding it fully and completely, instead of just having a vague idea of what it is, as when it was still in the mud. That element of examining can be likened to vicara.

The two must balance each other. Going back to the simile of the tarnished brass cup: vitakka is like the hand that holds the cup firmly, ready for it to be polished; vicara is like the hand that rubs and polishes the tarnished cup – it makes it shine; it makes it clear.

If, however, vitakka is weak and vicara dominant, then the breath will not be held firmly in the forefront of your mind. You will not be able to examine it properly; it will come and go from your attention, just as if you don’t hold the brass cup firmly enough – it will wobble about as you rub against it.

If vicara is weak, though, then you may hold the breath firmly in mind but you won’t make it clear; it won’t shine. Just as when we hold the brass cup firmly but don’t polish it; it still remains tarnished.

And so vitakka and vicara function as an inseparable pair. Their development is essential if we are to cultivate concentration, mindfulness and wisdom.

Seclusion

As these two factors gain strength the mind becomes more and more immersed in the object. As the mind becomes more involved then the other objects of the senses become less dominant. Thoughts begin to wane and other sense impressions fall into the background.

When vitakka and vicara are well established then a third ‘v’ (or ‘w’) will make a very velcome appearance. This is ‘viveka’ (pronounced wi-way-ka) – seclusion. It is not one of the five factors; it is a description of the mental seclusion that arises when the first two factors become strong. So what, exactly, is secluded from what? The mind is secluded from the five hindrances of sensual desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. As a result of this mental seclusion the mind experiences deep interest and joy; it don’t wanna do anything else! It becomes progressively purer and delights in the absence of the hindrances. So we have the three ‘v’s’, or ‘w’s’ (www.meditation!).

And so as we concentrate more intently on the object then vitakka and vicara delve deeper and deeper into the object – here the breath. As this seclusion comes about the mind experiences a unique joy – piti – that arises due to the absence of the hindrances and the interference from the other senses. The mind takes delight in maintaining this simple and pure awareness of just one thing – not two things, not three, just one. It’s like the mind has put down all its baggage, for instance those two heavy bags we carry around with us everywhere – past and future.

This joy or rapture propels the mind to develop the concentration further. Negative states that may have been present before the meditation are eliminated. 

Piti can be experienced in a number of ways: a deep rapturous interest in the breath; goose-bumps; feeling of floating or sinking etc. 

On the heels of piti comes a more stable happiness – sukha, the happiness born of seclusion.

The first two factors enable the mind to become secluded from the hindrances. Due to this seclusion the mind experiences joy, happiness and comfort. The mind remains unwaveringly fixed on the object. It is unscattered and totally focused, hence one-pointed (ekaggata), this being the fifth factor of concentration.

When the mind is truly one-pointed the meditator cannot be disturbed even by loud noises. The Buddha was once meditating in or near to a barn when a great thunderstorm passed over head. When it had passed and he had emerged from his concentration he was asked whether the thunderstorm had disturbed him. The Buddha replied that he had not been aware of the storm. There is also the account of a monk sitting by the side of the road, firmly engaged in concentration, when five-hundred carts led by horses passed (quite a noise!). He did not notice. (Long way to go then!)

Those are just examples of the imperturbable nature of a concentrated and secluded mind.

Now, whether we get there or not we can see the need to really make an effort to establish those first two factors. Remember to aim your mind precisely; to hit the spot accurately (vitakka), and to achieve a thorough and total experience of the object (vicara). These two factors require persistence and effort in order to become strong. I find that these two factors can be exercised very well during walking meditation. 

These two factors will follow through into your experiences after you have finished the meditation. The mind will be naturally focused. Vitakka and vicara will still be functioning. As you open the door, or use the phone, or whatever, you will be naturally more absorbed in what you are doing. Insignificant tasks and movements are now transformed; and they become opportunities for you to examine the nature of things. Vitakka holds the sensation of holding the door handle in mind, and vicara establishes a full, all encompassing and penetrative knowing of that sensation. 

We can also train vitakka and vicara at all ther times. This pair are fundamental characteritics of mindfulness. When you are typing the keyboard, for example, be mindful: aim your attention (vitakka) to the sensations at your fingertips as they strike the keys. Be very precise with that aim. Direct your awareness to that which you are experiencing – the feeling of the cup, the pressure experienced as your feet touch the floor. And bring vicara into play: see the sensations fully and completely; investigate them; become absorbed in them. Train the mind to be aware in this way. It is wonderful.

Shade of a Tree

We can see that great pleasure can arise when the mind is concentrated. But this pleasure that arises through the temporary absence of the hindrances is of an inferior kind. Why? Because it is impermanent. We may also become attached to the pleasure – therefore increasing our suffering. Concentration is a means to an end.

Ajahn Chah said that entering the peace of concentration is like entering the shade of a great tree on a hot day – it’s blissful, you feel at ease and relieved. But, he said – you’ve still got to come out, and outside it’s still hot. 

The superior happiness is that which arises though wisdom – seeing and deeply knowing the nature of mind and matter, thereby dropping all attachment and liberating the mind. 

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*I have used Sayadaw U Pandita’s terminology here.

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The next teaching will be on:

The New Moon Day, Tuesday, 28th October

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