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I am new to buddhism and meditation (I have been practising it for one month now), and despite finishing my fourth book on the matter, I am still very unclear about what a meditation session should look like when practicing either concentration or mindfulness.

From what I understood, each of these practices are clearly differents and even have different pali names (Samatha and Vipassana if I am right ?).

I can already tell that I can't differenciate concentration and mindfulness.

When I focus on my breath, I am naturally distracted by all kind of things which I have to be mindfull of (the way my body feels, the sounds I ear, what I smell from the kitchen, my thoughts and emotions).

And when I try to practice mindfulness, I can't help but focusing on my breath, because it is often the first thing that I can notice in that state, and it is always present.

When I start my meditation I focus on my breath, then if something happens I try to be mindfull of it, and then I focus on my breath again until something else happens, switching maybe every 2 to 10 seconds.

I am wondering why concentration and mindfulness are referred to as disctinct practices in the books I read, as it doesn't make much sense to me. At this point I am afraid that I may be missing something important.

  • See also related question; "What are the differences between vipassana and mindfulness meditation?". – Lanka Jun 13 '17 at 13:47
  • @Lanka In what aspect is this not an exact duplicate of that? – ChrisW Jun 13 '17 at 14:22
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    @ChrisW My question is about the difference between Samatha and Vipassana, not about the difference between vipassana and mindfulness. But the second answer to the linked question brings a possible answer to this question, so thank you Lanka – abernard Jun 13 '17 at 15:12
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    @ChrisW. Both questions are very similar in nature, although I think this question is a lot more "meaty". Also it contains a description of OP's meditation practice, which might give another perspective on the question. – Lanka Jun 13 '17 at 15:12
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From what I understood, each of these practices are clearly different

Calm meditation deals with developing the Jhana factors which are:

  1. Movement of the mind onto the object (vitakka)
  2. Retention of the mind on the object (vicāra)
  3. Joy (pīti)
  4. Happiness (sukha)
  5. One-pointedness (ekaggatā)

The object of calm can be conceptual object or one relating to ultimate realities (rupa, citta, cetasika and nirvana). If it is relating to ultimate realities then insight also develops.

Insight is based on meditation on the ultimate realities. The practice to understand the nature of the realities is through Satipatthana which are:

  1. mindfulness of the body (kāya)
  2. mindfulness of feelings or sensations (vedanā)
  3. mindfulness of mind or consciousness (citta)
  4. mindfulness of dhammās

Here you bring your mind in tune with the universal characteristics which results in wise attention. This helps you understand causality (Four Noble Truths, Dependent Arising, Conditional Relations):

As such, bhikshus, the instructed noble disciple closely and wisely attends to dependent arising itself, thus:

Imasmiṁ sati, idaṁ hoti; „When this is, that is;

imass’uppādā, idam uppajjati. with the arising of this, that arises.

Imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti; When this is not, that is not;

imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati. with the ending of this, that ends.‟

Bhikshus, dependent on pleasant contact, a pleasant feeling arises. With the ending of the pleasant contact, the pleasant feeling that arose in dependent on that pleasant contact, ceases, is stilled.

Bhikshus, dependent on painful contact, a painful feeling arises. With the ending of the painful contact, the painful feeling that arose in dependent on that painful contact, ceases, is stilled.

Bhikshus, dependent on neutral contact, a neutral feeling arises. With the ending of the neutral contact, the neutral feeling that arose in dependent on that neutral contact, ceases, is stilled.

Assutava Sutta 2

Also wise attention is forerunner of cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to insight. Also it is one of the most essential ingredient in developing insight and insight meditation.

Dawn, bhikshus, is the forerunner, the harbinger of sun-rise. Even so, bhikshus, for a monk this is the forerunner, the harbinger of the arising of the noble eightfold path, that is, accomplishment in wise attention.

Bhikshus, when a monk is accomplished in this wise attention, it is to be expected that he will cultivate the noble eightfold path, develop the noble eightfold path.

Yoniso Manasikāra Sampadā Sutta

Insight practice can be combined with calmness practice as in Saṅkhitta Dhamma Sutta:

When, bhikshu, this samadhi has been cultivated, well cultivated by you, then you should train yourself thus:

"I will dwell exertive, clearly aware, mindful, observing [contemplating] ________ the in the _________ [body | feeling | mind | dhamma], removing covetousness and displeasure [discontent] in regard to the world."

Thus, bhikshu, you should train yourself.

When, bhikshu, this samadhi has been cultivated, well cultivated by you, then, you, bhikshu,

THE 1ST DHYANA:

should cultivate this samadhi with initial application, with sustained application;

should cultivate this samadhi without initial application, with only sustained application;

THE 2ND DHYANA:

should cultivate this samadhi without initial application, without sustained application;

should cultivate this samadhi with zest;

THE 3RD DHYANA:

should cultivate this samadhi zest-free;

should cultivate this samadhi attended by comfort;

THE 4TH DHYANA:

should cultivate this samadhi attended by equanimity

Both are needed for liberation.

And what, bhikshus, is the path leading to the unconditioned?

Calm and insight [Samatha and vipassana]—this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

(Mūla) Samatha Vipassanā Sutta

Both calm and insight is needed to get to the final goal. They may not develop at the same space or level at the same time.

(1) “insight preceded by calm” samatha,pubb’angama vipassanā

(2) “calm preceded by insight” vipassana,pubb’angama samatha

(3) “calm coupled with insight” samatha,vipassana,yuga.naddha

(4) “a mind seized by dharma-restlessness” dhamm’uddhacca,viggahita manasa

(Yuga,naddha) Paṭipadā Sutta

Also the development of both gives arise to psychic powers as in

In that case, Vaccha, cultivate two higher teachings: calm and insight. Vaccha, when these two teachings—calm and insight—are cultivated further, they bring about a penetration of the many elements (dhātu).

...

Mahā Vaccha,gotta Sutta

When one develops without the other then the following advice is given in finding a suitable teacher / technique:

(1) A meditator who is able to attain only calm should consult an insight-attainer.

(2) A meditator who is able to attain only insight should consult a calm-attainer.

(3) A meditator who is unable to attain both should consult one skilled in both.

(4) A meditator who is able to attain both should work for awakening.

(Samatha Vipassanā) Samādhi Sutta 3

When I focus on my breath, I am naturally distracted by all kind of things

To get over distraction you have to practice

  1. Movement of the mind onto the object (vitakka)
  2. Retention of the mind on the object (vicāra)

More effort and energy you put into it lesser distraction you will get from external distraction going forward.

Being mightful about the breath should be inline with the techniques in Anapanasati Sutta to get the benefits.

Also if your mind gets distracted then you have to:

  • know where you mind wanders away
  • each new object or through has a sensation of pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutral sensation associated with it. Get to know this sensation and wait for it to subside otherwise this itself and memories it trigger means the distractions will continue.
  • Bring back to the object of meditation

And when I try to practice mindfulness, I can't help but focusing on my breath

Mindfulness of the breath is also insight and Satipatthana meditation.

  1. First Tetrad: Contemplation of the Body (kāya)
    1. Discerning the in and out breathing
    2. Discerning long or short breaths
    3. Experiencing the whole body (sabbakāaya)
    4. Calming bodily formations
  2. Second Tetrad: Contemplation of the Feeling (vedanā)
    1. Being sensitive to rapture (pīti)
    2. Being sensitive to pleasure (sukha)
    3. Being sensitive to mental fabrication (citta-saṃskāra)
    4. Calming mental fabrication
  3. Third Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mind (citta)
    1. Being sensitive to the mind
    2. Satisfying the mind
    3. Steadying the mind
    4. Releasing the mind
  4. Fourth Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mental Objects (dhammā)
    1. Dwelling on impermanence
    2. Dwelling on dispassion
    3. Dwelling on cessation
    4. Dwelling on relinquishment

Source: Anapanasati Sutta

But having said this ...

  1. Movement of the mind onto the object (vitakka)
  2. Retention of the mind on the object (vicāra)

... will help you keep your focus on a chosen object, may it be the breath or one of the Satipatthana.

I am wondering why concentration and mindfulness are referred to as distinct practices

The techniques are different but should be practiced together as highlighted above.

Also see: Samatha and Vipassanā by Piya Tan.

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@Suminda's answer is quite thorough, so I'll just give some few extra pointers.

"I am new to buddhism and meditation (I have been practising it for one month now), and despite finishing my fourth book on the matter, I am still very unclear about what a meditation session should look like when practicing either concentration or mindfulness."

One popular way to start your meditation practice is to follow the instructions found in the Ānāpānasati sutta. One thing one can do is dedicate meditation sessions to the first practices described, just to start. For example:

“Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body of breath’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body of breath.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.’

Alternatively, one can dedicate meditation sessions to, say, the observation of body and feeling as described in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta.

These practices, as it turns out, help with the weakening of the five hindrances (restlessness, sloth/torpor, sensual desire, aversion and doubt). These hindrances are critical obstacles to overcome. So weakening them should probably be the focus of the practice until one is able to be free from them for some reasonable period of time.

So, at this point, all the effort should go into understanding and suppressing the five hindrances. Part of this practice is done in the day to day, part by the practices above, and part by developing concentration (which is also helped by the mindfulness meditation).

Much of the practice of meditation at this stage is popularly taught as simply calming and "letting go", but they benefit significantly from the "mindfulness" practices.

"From what I understood, each of these practices are clearly differents and even have different pali names (Samatha and Vipassana if I am right ?)."

Some traditions and teachers draw a clear distinction between them. Some ignore "concentration" altogether (likely as a shortcut, but sacrificing one branch of the eightfold path; this is a polemical subject), and others teach concentration in a very deep and "absorbed" way and do "vipassana" once they emerge from absorption.

A lot of these interpretations come from the exegetical texts, in particular, from the classic book Visuddhimagga -- "Path of Purification".

The suttas, however, allow for other readings. For example, in many discourses, right mindfulness is said to precede right concentration:

[...] In a person of right mindfulness, right concentration [comes into being].

-- AN 10.103

Also, there are some interesting parallels between the jhanas (meditation states that correspond to the "right concentration" of the eightfold path) and the Satipaṭṭhāna ("mindfulness"). So, it's possible to read the suttas and understand these practices going hand in hand and deeper, together.

For example, we know that being free from the five hindrances are pre-requisite to the entering the first jhana. Moreover, being secluded from the hindrances creates conditions for some special experiences of happiness and rapture, which are jhana factors.

Now, if we look at the second part of Ānāpānasati, we see that the meditation objects are these experiences of rapture and happiness and it's about further tranquilizing certain activities (possibly vicara/vitaka, to attain second jhana):

“He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing rapture’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing rapture.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing pleasure’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing pleasure.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the mental formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the mental formation. ’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the mental formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the mental formation.’

So, likely this part of the practice is better performed once the meditator is free from hindrances and can get to a certain tender and gentle state where these factors are present.

Moreover, these factors themselves contribute to the unification ("concentration") of mind. They also "retroactively" make the five hindrances weaker in our lives.

I am wondering why concentration and mindfulness are referred to as disctinct practices in the books I read, as it doesn't make much sense to me. At this point I am afraid that I may be missing something important.

As I understand it, this stems from how certain traditions came to understand and do these practices.

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