What’s the Difference Between Concentration Meditation and Insight (Mindfulness)?

concentration vs mindfulness (insight)

When I first started meditation, I simply followed whatever the guided meditation, book, or instruction I had in front of me.

I had no idea there were different types and categories of meditation, and that they differ significantly in their approach.

If you are working within a tradition – these distinctions and categories may be irrelevant. Learn from a legitimate teaching source completely, and just do it.

But many in the West are cobbling together and learning on their own, and may be conflating two common meditation techniques: concentration (or Samatha) and mindfulness (or insight).

Concentration Meditation vs Insight Meditation

If you were taught meditation as a beginner, it was likely concentration meditation. In concentration meditation you are instructed to return your attention on a single object – often the breath. As a beginner, this is a simple instruction, but often difficult to execute. You may feel you’re being whipped around in a storm.

Insight meditation, on the other hand (also known as Vipassana or mindfulness meditation), often does not ask you focus your attention on a single object. Instructions for insight meditation can vary significantly between tradition and technique, but they range from outright investigation of whatever it is you are noticing, to simply being aware of what is happening right now.

Here’s one example of a difference: If a sound or a thought arises, one insight meditation instructs you notice (and closely examine) the sound or thought. As your attention is pulled to another object, the instruction may ask you to notice the pulling – the flow of attention itself.

Meanwhile, concentration meditation (most techniques at least) instruct you to gently return your attention to your meditation object upon noticing this distraction (usually the breath).

This distinction seems small – seemingly pedantic. But in practice, the difference can be profound.

So, what’s the difference?

A common quick analogy is to think of concentration meditation as sharping your sword, and insight meditation as the using of the sword. In many Buddhist traditions, concentration is taught as sort of a primer, so that a mind can build the clarity and strength of concentration to do insight (or non-dual techniques) effectively.

However, if you’re totally confused, below I’m going to try to illustrate the difference with a more modern analogy.

If things are running slow on your phone, tablet, or computer, you pull up the task manager (control+alt+delete), and you see a number of applications and background processes running. Our minds – just like a computer – always have programs and processes running (both in the foreground and in the background).

task manager concentration meditation

Think of concentration meditation like your ability to bring up this task manager and close down programs hogging your computer’s resources. With this one simple exercise, you free up RAM, and everything starts to run better.

Our mind is bogged down in thoughts always going going going, just like our computers can become bogged down with applications, programs, and processes. Have enough things running, and simple tasks become a challenge. This is what Buddhists (and now psychologists) often refer to as the “monkey mind.” If you live in the 21st century, you likely know what they’re talking about: a mind always “working,” opening browser tabs, sending emails, checking texts, watching YouTube videos, worrying about your friends and family, and always looking for the next thing to go go go…

Through concentration meditation, it’s almost as if you you can boost your “system resources” by building up the skill of concentration. You ability to direct and sustain attention may grow, and your overall discursive thinking may quiet. You may not notice many big “changes” in your personality or outlook – but likely will find yourself more concentrated, thinking more clearly, and more able to focus on what’s happening right now.

But, what do you do once you have a mind/computer that isn’t completely cluttered? Welcome to insight meditation.

With insight meditation, perhaps for the first time ever, you now have the ability to poke around your computer – learn how things work and and through understanding things better, you begin to change.

It turns out, simply by poking around the computer and learning how thinks work, we discover tremendous truths about ourselves/the world (called insights).

control panel insight mindfulness

When beginners talk about quieting their mind and improving their focus, they’re likely talking about the benefits of concentration meditation. But when you hear a long-time meditator discuss the impacts of meditation on rethinking their values, finding “real” happiness for the first time, or noticing that their personality has changed in some big way, they may be talking about insight meditation. Tara Brach famously used insight meditation to investigate and unpack her deep feelings of shame so that she was no longer unconsciously driven by them.

control panel insight mindfulness

But just because these two styles are different , doesn’t mean they aren’t related.

In fact, the nature of their relationship is complex enough that it’s a bit beyond the scope of this simple post.

Many techniques teach that it is nearly impossible to practice insight meditation without a basic level of concentration (frequently called “access concentration”). If your mind can’t focus for three seconds, how can you be expected to discern/notice a thought, or follow a sound, let alone deeper insights? Just like with our analogy, if your computer is frozen because of all the unnecessary programs, you certainly can’t start exploring.

So, what should I practice?

It’s up to you to find a meditation technique and commit yourself to it.

Many western techniques instruct beginners to start with concentration meditation. But it’s crucial that you find a proper teaching source and learn it completely. A meditation technique is more than just “return your attention to the breath.” A lot more (ethical action, community, balanced and healthy living, etc).

In fact, some traditions may not explicitly make this distinction, whereas many of the mindfulness traditions do.

-Taylor

photo: control panel/eyeliam, rocks/ William Grootonk

11 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Concentration Meditation and Insight (Mindfulness)?

  1. I find that ill start doing comcentration and then that turns into an open awareness spontaneously, it’s like once my mind is focused and quiet, suddenly I’m not concentrating on anything I’m just aware of what’s happening. Sometimes
    Ill naturally start doing insight at the start of the practice and do it everyday with no onject of focus. or sometimes ill go a few weeks months even doing comcentration becuase my mind is busy. The open awareness came spontaneously to me after meditating for a few months i didn’t really know the difference then – nice article 🙂

  2. I am not a western meditator. Being from India, I am not particularly aware of the fact as to how these two things are perceived there – separately or as part of the same thing. For me, the concentration and insight are part of the same process. Concentration is the initial step. You need it to build the foundation for your practice. However, it remains in integral part of the practice when it deepens (the stage of ‘insight’ as pointed by you). From gross to subtle, it only changes the focus from beginning to advanced stage. IMHO, the division of meditation into concentration and Insight is proper only to the extent of explaining the concept to absolute beginners. Other than that, it should not be used as it may confuse the seekers.

    1. Thanks for sharing this perspective! These days I tend to shy away more and more from talking about these two things as separate.

      That said, I have been learning about techniques which do seem to consider them separate in the sense that they place an emphasis on one over the other. For example, some practitioners put a heavy focus on concentration practice and only allow insight to come naturally later on. Others practice “dry insight” where there is no concentration foundation and where the meditator seeks only “momentary concentration” in order to dive into insight. Others seek “access concentration” and then move into insight. Understanding these differences when I first started meditating was incredibly difficult.

  3. I started out with the concentration meditation. Did this for many years. Never felt totally comfortable with it. Then I moved to a new town and started the practice of the local zendo, mental noting (mainly labelling thoughts). Resistant to it at first and seemed counterintuitive to a clear mind, but it worked for me. Teaching me to just observe thoughts and to not judge them, and then opened me up to the positive realm that is hidden beneath all those negatives. Calm breath, compassion, love, amusement at myself, the feelings that attach to thoughts and wonderfully realizing the one feeling that isn’t (fear) which I think is an intstinctual wheel we just get stuck on. Then we can let it go. Now I need to know how to integrate because I go back to the concentration breath when the thoughts are too much to handle sometimes. But don’t want to give up the mental noting. Was pretty great when I could actually hear my subconscious thoughts also, but this takes alot of practice and patience. So may not be practical.

    1. TM is a concentration meditation which uses a mantra as its object. It just happens to be proprietary, but many with experience with it and other meditative styles say there isn’t much “special” to it.

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