In any committed practice – whether a person is playing music, moving in martial arts, or sitting in meditation – very particular mind-body skills are being trained, again and again. I consider the following four skills to be part of the common language of practice: concentration, clarity, care, and equanimity.
If a practice is important to us, if it’s deepening our engagement with the world, if it’s teaching us about who we are and helping us feel connected to others, then you can be sure at least two or three of these skills are spinning away in the background. These skills are often easier to notice and train in seated meditation, where there are relatively few distractions. But seated meditation is not for everyone.
Learning to recognize and develop these skills allows us to turn any life activity into a deep and transformative practice. They spiritualize the secular, and thus are central to being our own life teacher.
Here’s my breakdown:
Concentration is the skill of choosing what to pay attention to, and then staying with it as long as we want. With commitment, concentration leads to stability, calm and satisfying experiences of merging with the action. Examples of concentration are getting absorbed in playing a sport or an instrument, getting absorbed in the sensation of breathing, or maybe in the experience of making love. We tap into concentration anytime we deliberately choose to commit our attention in some way. It also allows us to focus on something besides our worries!
Clarity is the skill of noticing what’s really there. It leads to sharper discernment and increased wisdom. It gets trained in many practices, from insight meditation to psychotherapy, from nature observation to journaling to conscious communication. Any practice or activity that teaches self-awareness increases clarity. As does anything that teaches us to be curious about the patterns in the world around us.
Care is the skill of saturating both our actions and our perceptions with love and respect. It leads to doing things well and to treating people well, including ourselves. We exercise this in so many activities: Anytime we craft something with love, anytime we notice the humanity of the people around us, anytime we write a letter of appreciation. The way we care for ourselves and each other may look different at different times, but it is part of a single dynamic process.
Equanimity is the skill of non-interference, of allowing self and world to be exactly what they are in a given moment. It is the basis of honesty and openness and trust. When we’re vulnerable in a conversation, when we trust the creative work that’s coming through us, when we pause and exhale and are actually present for what’s going on (pleasant or unpleasant) … all of these train equanimity. Equanimity is everything.
The more we exercise these skills – in any practice – the stronger they get. Eventually, they start to overflow into other parts of our life. That’s when a practice goes supernova.
Now it’s no longer just some thing we do in a narrow context. The skills have become habits of mind and heart that are available everywhere.
Sometimes I call these four skills the “four medicines” – here is a video of me talking about them, followed by a guided meditation.
Thanks to my teacher and mentor Shinzen Young, whose understanding of the core “attentional skills” of mindfulness continues to inform my own. He’s written a lot on this subject, but to get a real sense of Shinzen’s precision nerdiness, video is the way to go. Here is Shinzen on concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity.
The skill of “care” is my own addition. There are many many ways to organize human experience. What skills would you add?