In the Buddhist tradition, concentration is considered both the path to power and the path to healing. Power comes from having energy available, rather than lost to us by being habitually scattered. Healing comes from the wholeness we experience when our energy is gathered rather than fragmented. Concentration means steadiness of mind.

If you think back to the last time you sat down to meditate or contemplate something, chances are you were only able to concentrate for a few moments before you were lost in thought. Even when we center our attention on the feeling of the breath or some other object of concentration, within just a few moments the mind jumps up and is off into the future, elaborating an entire scenario. As Mark Twain said, "some of the worst things in my life never happened." Or we get stuck in regret about the past, and our minds leaping into judgment and speculation.

You can feel how much energy is dispersed when the mind is off and running.

If you remember that state, you can feel how much energy is dispersed when the mind is off and running. When we're concentrating, however, all that energy is sheperded back into ourselves. The irony is that it's our own energy we're normally wasting, and it's we who waste it. Concentration helps us reclaim it. Different schools of meditation place different emphasis on the importance of concentration, but all agree that some amount is crucial to both empower the mind and develop that quality of unification or wholeness.

In meditation, concentration may be somewhat different than what we normally think of as developing concentration, like focusing tensely on something. Say we're sitting in meditation and trying to place our awareness on the in-and-out breath, or phrases of lovingkindness, and we think, "If I get a death-grip on this object, then I can concentrate more. But what happens in that situation is we actually concentrate less. Too much tightness hinders concentration.

The big challenge to understanding concentration is seeing that it really comes from recognizing that we're distracted and gently letting go. And then beginning again. It's the art of continually letting go. A tremendous amount happens in that moment of letting go--rather than judge ourselves, we can practice forgiving ourselves. It's a graceful act. And the act of being able to begin again is very liberating.

When I first started practicing meditation, I thought that if I grabbed on to the breath tightly enough, really focused on it, then I could keep my mind from wandering. But of course, my mind wandered all the time. I remember a funny story about the first time I ever met Joseph Goldstein, the co-founder of the Insight Mediation Society and my longtime friend. It was in Bodh Gaya, India, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, and I was there for my first 10-day meditation retreat.

By the third day, I was so completely frustrated with my inability to tightly control my mind and keep it fastened to the object of concentration that I said to myself, "the next time my concentration wanders, I'm going to bang my head on the wall." But the bell rang, and it was time for lunch. I was listening to two people in the lunch line talking and one asked the other how his morning had been. He answered that he couldn't concentrate strongly, but the afternoon would be better, that it was another beginning. I couldn't believe my ears. I thought, "Why doesn't this guy understand meditation?"

The difference between us was that Joseph had been there for four years, and I'd been there for four days! He had a real understanding of how concentration happens. As our practice evolves, what is needed is something very far from that tormented self-struggle I was engaged in and, instead, a willingness to let go and start again. One of the things I love about meditation practice is that lessons come in small packets, like "let go, begin again," but they have huge implications. It sounds like no big deal, but it reverberates through your life.

There are forms of "wrong concentration," which usually depend on the motivation with which we're practicing. There's a danger of getting hooked on concentration's side effects, and some people practice for the hit of it. As the mind unifies, it can become a vehicle for extraordinary altered states of consciousness. If you get attached to that, then you're lost in the same cycle of grasping and attachment that takes place when your mind is jumping all over the place.