The Dark Side of Concentration

Insight emerging today about the way concentration works: It feels like concentration is more-or-less the ability to keep running the neural circuit that’s running.

That circuit might be an intense meditative process, or your work on a term-paper. But it could just as easily be an unwanted pattern of thinking, self-loathing, judgement, or an unskillful coping strategy like overeating or substance use. We can potentially whip ourselves into very high concentration doing or thinking things we don’t actually want to do/think!

Perhaps even more insidious, we can have a very “deep” meditation where a lot of concentration is built up, and then step into our day-to-day, and funnel all that power into some unskillful habit (which is exactly what I was doing when I had this realization).

All this is to say: with great concentration power comes great responsibility! Take note of what your beautiful mind is spinning. If you want to change your conditioning, it requires effort, relentlessly switching the track when the one that’s playing is some old, familiar suffering.

We are building different muscles in meditation, and concentration is just one of them. We honor our strength by making skillful use of it.

Photo credit: Haadesm, DeviantArt

Posted in Technique.


  1. That’s some advance level insight broseph! To be able to see the polarity of what is typically viewed as just a good thing, rather brilliant. In reality, it seems concentration on its face is rather neutral then, yea? A scalpel can save a life or cut someone’s throat, a very powerful tool, but also just innocent on its own. I like Buddihsm a lot for many reasons, but one of favs is the experienced understanding that Truth (loaded word I know) is often found as we get closer to the middle. Good stuff always brojangles!!

  2. isn’t concentration the same as forgetting everything except the object of focus?
    if that skill is developed wouldn’t you reach your goal of not feeding the unwanted thoughts, or whatever you consider negative for you at the moment, by focusing on something productive? by that the unwanted thought would be “forgotten”, i suppose.

  3. Hi fellas, wanted to chime in here.

    Joe—I like what you’re saying about the middle. We’re looking objectively at these skills and tools, honoring the advantages AND the potential risks. For concentration, it’s certainly useful and in that sense “good” for the mindfulness endeavor (and therefore, for the happiness endeavor), it’s just not enough, in itself. And that get’s to a longer response to Guizo’s question…

    Guizo—Sounds like you’re asking two questions:

    First, what exactly is concentration? I like to define concentration as the ability to attend to whatever a person deems relevant. So yes, in a sense, you could say that concentration would be akin to being able to selectively “forget” about anything that is deemed irrelevant or unsupportive.

    The second question: is concentration enough to stop feeding unwanted patterns of thinking? Here I would say, one needs more than just concentration to unwind that stuff. Negative thinking patterns tend to be pretty deep-rooted. They are habitual and automatic, so any time the right conditions are present, that sort of thinking will just start up all on it’s own (lots more on that here, if you’re curious). In order to stop those habits, a few more pieces need to be in place:

    1. Some kind of framework for good character and self-compassion, which would help a person identify which kinds of thinking are helpful and unhelpful for them.

    2. A broader mindfulness practice (including training in the other two skills: sensory clarity and equanimity…more on that here). With that well-rounded toolkit, you’d be more likely to notice the thoughts when they came up, and less likely to buy into them.

    In a sense, you wind up using all 3 mindfulness skills to get the job done. You leverage your sensory clarity to notice thoughts clearly and tell them apart. You leverage your concentration power to turn attention away from negative thoughts and toward more constructive ones. And you leverage your equanimity to hold negative thoughts in a non-resistant way, allowing them to come and go in the background, not turning them into a problem, but also not buying into them. This is as opposed to some sort of suppression, which is quite draining and, you may already know, not where this mindfulness thing is heading).

    Hope that helps! Happy to continue the conversation. —Jason

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