Five Phases of Concentration

Concentration means different things to different people. I'll first explain what I mean by concentration, then talk about current western Buddhist ideas and misconceptions about it, misconceptions that I believe have contributed greatly to the glass ceiling effect.

By concentration, I mean the focusing of the mind. This can be a very tight focus or a very diffuse focus, but in either case, the mind is gathered together in one place or direction. One way to illustrate this idea is to think of herding chickens. Chickens are interesting creatures in that, although they naturally tend to move together as a flock, they will not hesitate to scatter when they are agitated or startled. I will describe the five phases of herding chickens. Maybe someday I'll draw the five chicken-herding pictures, ha, ha.

Phase one: With great effort and determination, you thrust yourself into the middle of the flock with the intention of focusing on just one chicken. The chickens, however, are much quicker than you, and scatter in all directions. You chase them, but the minute you get one of them in your sights, it veers off and scurries away. You turn your attention to the next nearest bird and continue the chase. You are not able to follow any one bird for more than a moment. The very act of singling out an individual chicken causes it to flee. You feel anxious and frustrated. This tendency of a chicken to flee when pursued, however, is built into the dynamics of chicken herding. It doesn't mean you are doing it wrong, it's all part of the natural unfolding of the process. Although you may be tempted to abandon chicken herding as futile, do not despair. With perseverance, phase two will eventually arise.

Phase two: You are able, through continuous focus and the application of just the right amount of effort (learned through trial and error) to single out one bird and stick to it like glue. Your eyes do not waver from the target. Wherever it goes, you are sure to follow. If it speeds up, you speed up. If it slows down, you slow down. When it turns left or right, you are right on its tail, at just the proper following distance. A subtle exhilaration arises and you feel happy and alert.

Phase three: Chickens are, after all, flock animals, and they like nothing better than to run together as a group. If you relax your gaze just slightly from the chicken in front of you, you will notice that you are now in the midst of an entire flock of chickens that are moving as one. You are part of the flock now. You let yourself sink into this experience, absorbing into and becoming one with the flock. There is much less effort required here than at stage two, which, in turn, required less than stage one. You feel a deep joy, a sense of unity with the world.

Phase four: Your attention becomes even more diffuse and you become aware of the edges of the flock. The bird in front of you almost disappears. You are now noticing the entire flock, all at once. Any effort to tighten the focus of awareness, or single out an individual bird would pull you back to the earlier stages. You surrender to the diffuse, almost effortless experience of the fourth stage of chicken herding. You feel a profound bliss. Having accomplished your end, you are now free to relish the fruits of your labor. It is good to be alive, surrendered to the flock.

Phase five: You are fully integrated with the flock, and have become just another chicken. You are effortlessly aware of not only the chickens, but of the entire barnyard. Whether standing or sitting, running uphill or down, happily grubbing for worms or painfully tripping over chicken wire, you have no preference. Everything is fine with you. This is the final phase of chicken herding.

The five phases of chicken herding correspond to the five phases of concentration. My wife pointed out to me the other day that if I wanted to talk about concentration I should carefully explain what I mean by the word, as many people think that concentration only refers to the very tight focus that I refer to as phase two. She is right that this must be very explicitly taught, because if a yogi believes that only a very tight focus qualifies as true concentration he or she will never relax enough to let the higher phases develop.

Kenneth Folk